One of the best-loved lines in Jim Carrey’s The Mask (and there are many…) is uttered when the Mask is faced with a group of hoodlums and proceeds to dazzle them by transforming balloons into balloon animals. Then, for his last trick, he turns a shiny black balloon into his favorite – a Tommy Gun! The gang’s pupils dilate like mad, and they all scramble for cover while the Mask gleefully and indiscriminately fires at all directions. Good times. So, let’s into the meat and potatoes of this unique, iconic, and controversial weapon.

John Thompson

In 1915, retired US Army officer John Thompson learned of the friction delayed blowback mechanism which was a relatively new invention. World War I was raging at the time – though the U.S. was not in it yet – and Thompson wanted to incorporate that mechanism into a more effective close-quarter weapon. He designed a weapon better built for the famed trenches, but by the time he got around to completing his prototype, The Great War was already over.

Because of this, plans to purchase the weapon for military use (Army and Marines Corp) were put on hold. However, Thompson went along with his idea, and his weapon – nicknamed Tommy Gun – was manufactured for civilian use.

During the Age of the Prohibition in the U.S.  (1920-1933), the gun was infamous for being used for gangsters, law-breakers, and bootleggers. It wasn’t until 1928 that the gun was picked up by the U.S. Army. It was produced with the .45 ACP cartridge in mind, and from 1921 to 1945 approximately 1.7 million units were produced, and other models were produced during the 1950’s and up to the 1970’s. Those later models were full-auto and semi-auto, and there was even a .22 LR caliber model, manufactured more for collectors and enthusiasts.

Tommy Gun Specs

Model: Thompson Submachine Gun
Caliber: .45 ACP
Overall Length: 31.9-33.7″ (depending on model)
Barrel Length: 10.52-12″ (depending on model)
Weight: 10-10.8 lbs. (Empty)
Action: Blowback, Blish Lock
Magazine: 20-100 rounds (Mags & Drums)

Blish Lock

In 1915, John Bell Blish patented his Blish Lock delayed-blowback mechanism, and its first practical application was put to the test of mass-production as part of the design of the Tommy Gun.

The Blish Lock allows for higher levels of static friction to be used without compromising the integrity of the infantry weapon, but because the locking mechanism could be tainted fairly easily, the mechanism saw limited use. If the lock was exposed to any moisture or lube of some kind, the system would break down. The Blish Lock was, therefore, a fine invention, and it served as the mechanism for the first Thompson Submachine Gun prototypes, but ultimately it saw very little use in the real world, relatively speaking.

Auto Ordnance Company

Thompson retired from the Army in 1914 and in 1916, Thompson went to work and founded the US Army’s Auto-Ordnance Company, a weapons development firm which remains a part of the US military to this day. It was through the Auto-Ordnance Company that the Tommy Gun was first manufactured. In 1917, when the US entered the First World War, Thompson came out of retirement, re-joined the military, and was in service until the war was won. In 1918, he re-retired and went back to working on his Tommy Gun prototype.

Nowadays, the Auto-Ordnance Company of the US Army is still going strong,  developing weapons of all kinds, and making sure that the weapons of the future are that much more effective. Many of its prototypes in the 1920’s and onward (till WWII) were not used, but when the War broke out, things rapidly changed, and the Ordnance Company played a significant role in the Allied Forces’ victory over their enemies.

Churchill Inspecting Tommy Gun
Churchill Inspecting Tommy Gun

Owen Gun

The Owen Machine Carbine was designed in Australia by Evelyn Owen throughout the 1930’s. In 1939, Owen was told that the gun was of no real interest to the Australian Army, but in 1942 – following several tweaks and the outbreak of WWII – the gun was put into service of the Australian Armed Forces. It was unique and is highly recognizable due to its up-top magazine, and it was produced from that type until 1944.

It was used in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts. The Owen Gun was used by the fighters of the Land Down Under until the 1960’s when it was replaced with the F1 submachine gun, and later on, the M16. There were approximately 45,000 units produced during the time of its manufacturing. This weapon was used by the Aussies, New Zealand, the U.S., Malaysia, the Netherlands, and even Indonesia.

Despite seeing limited action, and not too many years in service, it is remembered as being a favorite of many fighters, and more particularly in the Vietnam War. The arrival of the M16 saw to it that the Owen Gun was phased out, but there are still those who remember it as being a fine service weapon.

During its trials, the Owen Gun was compared to the Tommy Gun quite a lot, despite having a different mechanism. Some say it is a wildly underrated piece of weaponry,  and that it is a submachine gun which deserves more credit and which merits remembrance. It was an overall reliable and sturdy weapon, in spite of its unconventional appearance and somewhat bulky weight.

Owen Gun Specs

Model: Owen Machine Carbine
Caliber: 9X19 Parabellum
Overall Length: 32″
Barrel Length: 9.84″
Weight: 9.33 lb (Empty)
Action: Blowback, Open Bolt
Magazine: 33 Rounds


Submachine guns are still used all over the world. It is thanks to weapons designers such as Thompson, Owen, and Blish that the U.S. and its allies were able to beat back the shadows that threatened to overtake the world. Weapons of war are not a particularly fun or cheerful element of life, but there is no doubt at all that having them (and their designers) around, did a lot for those who handled those weapons, and who would eventually emerge victorious from the battlefields.

Stay tuned for more reviews of classic firearms, such as the Mosin Nagant, M1 Garand, & Lee Enfield Rifle here at Gunivore!

Sam M

Sam is an avid firearms enthusiast who loves sharing his knowledge and experience with fellow gunivores.

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