Ohio Sheriff’s Department Sells Model 1921 Tommy Gun for $90,000

A sheriff’s department in an eastern Ohio county placed a Thompson Model 1921 “Tommy” submachine gun for sale on auction last month. The Tommy gun was the preferred weapon for law enforcement back in the 1930s. This particular gun was purchased in 1934 by Tuscarawas County’s sheriff of the time, Abe Laird.

The estimated value of the gun is $37,000 but the current sheriff of the county, Orvis Campbell, said he would be surprised if they didn’t receive $50,000 for it.

Everyone at the auction was surprised when the final total for the weapon was $90,000. The winning bid was placed by a local resident, Ryan Armstrong. It seems that Armstrong was acting as a proxy for the true bidder who wishes to remain anonymous.

Campbell believes that he knows who that anonymous bidder is. If he’s right, the bidder is a supporter of the sheriff’s office and was likely motivated to bid so high in order to support the sheriff and to keep this historical artifact in the county.

Several other weapons were also auctioned off at the same time. The total proceeds from the auction were $93,275. The money will be used to purchase equipment and weapons for the department.

The bidding for the Tommy gun lasted several minutes before arriving at the final $90,000 price tag.

County commissioners Chris Abbuhl and Joe Sciarretti attended the auction. They expressed their surprise at the final dollar amount while expressing their appreciation that someone would give that much money to help the sheriff’s department obtain some much-needed supplies.

John Thompson was born in 1860. He graduated from West Point and served in the Spanish-American War. He was in charge of weapons testing and was responsible for the US military adopting the Colt .45 M1911 automatic handgun.

He retired from the military in 1914 and joined the Remington Arms Company as Chief Engineer. He intended to perfect the automatic rifle. While with Remington, he helped establish two factories to produce English Enfield and Mosin-Nagant rifles for the Russian army.

He was recalled to active duty during World War I and promoted to brigadier general. He served with distinction, earning the Distinguished Service Medal. He retired again in 1918.

Free to work on his automatic rifle again, he developed a list of qualities he believed would be necessary for rifles in future wars. Having established an arms production company prior to being recalled to military duty, work on the new rifle continued while he was away. The new weapon was ready in 1919, too late for the military to need it in WWI. Undaunted, Thompson marketed the new weapon to police departments.

The Model 1921 was the first production model. This model set the style for all future Tommy guns. The entire run of the Model 1921 was made in a single 15,000 gun lot. This was due to the anticipated rapid sale of this new weapon. Unfortunately, this model was not adopted by any military and was never purchased in any great quantities by any organization.

Prior to World War II, the US Army had bought less than 400 of Thompson’s guns. With the rapid need to outfit an army for the battles in Europe and the Pacific came large orders. The Tommy gun was popular with specialized units like Rangers and parachute units. Some consider it the best gun in WWII while others complain about its lack of accuracy or penetrating power at distances over 50 yards.

But the Tommy gun is forever etched in the American mind as the gun of choice for gangsters in the 1920s and 30s. This is certainly a myth and a product of the American movie industry. The number of Tommy guns used by gangsters was very small compared to the number used by law enforcement. A few high-visibility cases where gangsters like John Dillinger or George “Machine Gun” Kelly used the weapon helped set the idea that Hollywood would go on to cement in the minds of the American public.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE