Ken Hackathorn on the Thompson and the MP5

Today I am speaking with Ken Hackathorn about submachine guns – specifically the Thompson and the MP5. Mr Hackathorn has an extensive resume that he is quite humble about, but I will point out that it includes being a US Army Special Forces Small Arms Instructor. He has a great deal of practical knowledge about military small arms, and an unusually insightful perspective. So if you want to know why the reality of the Thompson is not the same as it’s image and reputation, or why the MP5 is the best submachine gun that has been or ever will be, then settle down for a fun half hour!


  1. It seems like the MP5 has all the ergonomic deficiencies of the G3 so I have to wonder, does that Sphur stock fit an MP5? and if it makes 308 full auto controllable it would do wonders for 9mm.

    • The original HK 51 (MP5 was the Bundeswehr designation) had a straight magazine based on that of the Uzi (a Bundeswehr service weapon at the time). It only fed moderately well, even canted forward at a 16 degree angle to the vertical.

      The curved magazine was mainly based on that of the PPSh-41 and PPS-43. Intended to feed the tapered 7.62 x 25mm cartridge, a magazine of this type also feeds 9 x 19mm very reliably. The Sterling L2A1 magazine also influenced the design.

      The 9 x 19mm Madsen M1950 also began with a straight magazine (retained by the Brazilian INA 45 version in .45 ACP), but changed to a curved magazine in the early 1960s. I suspect there was some “cross-fertilization” there, too.



      • “only fed moderately well”
        I encountered following hypothesis: straight magazine of MP5 worked reasonably reliable with FMJ bulleted 9×19 cartridges, however not so with special (other) bullets which prompted development of curved magazine.

        • While there existed banana magazines for 9×19 cartridge, there were also several 9×19 straight magazines used with sub-machine gun which proved to be reliable, just to name few (capacity of magazine):
          Kpist M/45 (36)
          MAT-49 (32)
          Beretta M12 (32)
          Steyr MPi 69 (32)

        • The trouble is that fitting a curved magazine in an SMG with the mag well in the pistol grip tends to present problems in the shape of the outside of same, where you have to hold on to it.

          The Czech Vz24 and 26 could probably have accomplished it better than most, with their distinctive forward-canted grip/well needed for the 7.62 x 25mm round.

          Generally, any SMG chambered for 9 x 19mm or 7.62 x 25 will probably feed more reliably with a curved magazine. However, ones chambered for such rounds as .45 ACP, .38 ACP/Super ACP, or 9 x 23mm would be best fitted with straight magazines, as their essentially straight-walled cartridge cases would probably act oddly in a curved “box”.



  2. “want to know why the reality of the Thompson is not the same as it’s image and reputation,”
    I would say: in short: 1930s movies.
    Anyway, after activation of Lend-Lease Act some Thompson and Reising sub-machine guns were delivered to Soviet Union, obviously they were examined and conclusion (translated into English) can be found here:
    impression of Thompson was poor, quality control of ammunition delivered was dubious, moreover independently from quality .45 Auto cartridge is just heavy in comparison to other sub-machine guns cartridges (7,62×25 model 1930, 9×19 Parabellum) which limit number of ammunition you can carry, Thompson was found sensitive to low temperature and also itself heavy – loaded with 50 round magazine and ammunition, its weight was measured to be 7,12 kg and even without magazine it weight was 4,88 kg.

    • Prior to Lend-Lease, the two entities with the largest inventories of TSMGs other than Auto-Ordnance were the U.S. Marine Corps and Warner Brothers Studios.

      WB ended up buying about 40 M1921s to film their gangster epics. At a time when if gangsters in the U.S. had automatic weapons at all, they were more likely to be M1918 BARs stolen from National Guard armories.

      Warren Beatty to the contrary, Clyde Barrow of “Bonnie and…” infame never used a Thompson. He used BARS that he cut down in length to better fit his short stature.

      John Dillinger only had two TSMGs- the ones he stole from the sheriff’s department in his famous “gun made of soap” jailbreak.

      As for Al Capone’s mob, they had exactly two TSMGs as well, the ones used in the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”. Capone bought them from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, and kept them hidden in a closet- in his mother’s house in Cicero.

      As for George “Machine Gun” Kelly, he never even touched one. And his nickname was dreamed up by his wife after he was in jail, to make her prospects for selling his story to Hollywood more lucrative. His one and only “major” crime attempt, the kidnapping of oil magnate Charles Urschel in July 1933 ended with his arrest, trial, and life imprisonment. Far from using a Thompson, he probably only ever saw one in the hands of a tower guard in prison, where he died in 1954.

      The reputation of the TSMG as “The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar” was a Hollywood fantasy. And after having Colt make about 25,000 parts sets for M1921 and M1928 Thompsons in 1921-22 and later in 1928-29 (just fore the stock market crashed), by 1939 Auto-Ordnance still had 22,000+ in inventory.

      If not for Lend-Lrase, Auto-Ordnance would have gone bankrupt by mid-1940, as it was already in receivership and reorganization in late 1938.

      Put simply, a weapon that weighed almost as much as a BAR but only fired pistol rounds didn’t have much appeal. Except to Hollywood, that is.



      • “weapon that weighed almost as much as a BAR but only fired pistol rounds didn’t have much appeal.”
        Interestingly Thompson 1921 was once advertised as Anti-Bandit Gun
        Sold Only to Those on the Side of Law and Order!
        To be honest, Thompson sub-machine gun should be considered as World War I-era weapon.
        So how it compare against MP.18,I? It is still heavier than it, but not outrageously heavier. Thompson provide better ergonomics, especially if we take into account drum magazines for both weapons (Trommelmagazine and L magazine) as German one was hard to load with cartridges,cause peculiar balance of whole weapon and hold 32 rounds, which is modest number for drum magazine. German weapon lacks fire selector entirely, while in Thompson selector might be comfortable operated by thumb.
        Anyway despite all this, European sub-machine gun designer were much more impressed by 18 than Thompson, these design might influence development of sub-machine gun in inter-war period two-fold:
        1) mechanically, which mean Blish system in case of Thompson
        2) form-wise, which mean pistol grip, detachable stock and front grip (optionally) for Thompson
        In case of inter-war European sub-machine gun I only known one example of influence from Thompson and only in method 1) namely BSA Thompsons:
        which used Blish principle, but has no typical pistol grip and stock is attached to rear not to bottom. BSA version drawn some attention from potential customers, but it never go beyond testing. Inter-war international sales of original Thompson would also remain far from impressive in terms of number sold and will go mainly to Central and South America (which is no surprise, taking in account .45 Auto cartridge chambering which was very exotic back then in Europe excluding Norway).
        As said before European designer will be more influenced by MP.18,I design, sometimes via method 1 and 2 (both mechanically and form wise) but very often via method 2) as they will use wooden rifle-like stock and no pistol grip and no front grip, though obviously they will use smaller or bigger number of solution different from MP.18,I for example magazine sticking downwards.
        Interestingly, Thompson ergonomics is emulated to some degree by OWEN machine gun. These weapon at first glance looks totally different – OWEN is crudely looking in comparison to Thompson 1921 and has magazine sticking upward, but they in fact have some common features, as both have:
        – pistol grip and front grip
        – thumb operated fire mode selector in form of lever
        – barrels without shroud
        – detachable stock (ability to be used without it)
        Thompson form was also inspiration for post-war design of Ingram Model 6 sub-machine gun, which was producing without (then trendy) method of stamping, but yet considerable cheaper than Thompson in manufacture. Although similar in form, it has significant differences in function, like no ability to be used in stock-less fashion and different method of fire mode choice. I think that if Ingram would have create this design some 10 years earlier, then it might replace Thompson in U.S. inventory.
        Anyway, summing all Thompson design offered some positive features, but they might be achieved much cheaper way with usage of late 1930s/early 1940s technology.

        • Reassigning the Thompson SMG as a WW1 weapon requires retroactively amending its service record to claim that it saw action with Allied troops deployed to Russia during the 4th-quarter-of-1918 phase of the civil war to assist in the evacuation of civilians escaping to the West.

          • I only said World War I-era, which does imply concurrence but not necessarily it was used in combat, c.f. Tank Mark VIII

      • “I consider 7.62 Tokarev about ideal round …” was meant to be:
        I consider 7.62 Tokarev about ideal round for SMG application.

      • “never seen a picture of soviet soldier with Thompson SMG”
        Then see 21st image from top here:
        showing naval infantry with Thompson from Lend-Lease, though this photo is clearly staged and is no evidence that it was used by them in actual combat.
        If you examine other photos, PPSh was clearly most popular sub-machine gun in naval infantry, while others models were also sometime used, like captured MP40 and Soviet PPD.
        Also notice naval infantry often used Maxim machine gun belts in lieu of bandoliers

  3. “(…)why the MP5 is the best submachine gun that has been or ever will be(…)”
    Such statement is of no value, without defining what best mean, that is how to point better sub-machine out of 2 different patterns? It is obvious to point lighter one or shorter one, but better? How to measure?
    Anyway independently from that definition, this statement seems to mutually exclusive with fact that H&K (that is manufacturer of MP5) designed later another sub-machine gun namely UMP. So if MP5 would be best why would they dare to create other sub-machine gun?
    If I found has been part as arguable, then will be unsubstantial, as future is unknown to us, additionally, while this is only trace, fact new sub-machine gun are developed suggest that there exist space for improvements.

    • And to not remain with potentially better sub-machine gun, lets say for example Kepplinger MP-80
      history of it shortly is that Herr Kepplinger decided to design and produce own sub-machine gun after some time of working for Steyr, so it is not surprise it has some similarity to Steyr design, general layout is somewhat reminiscent of MPi 69 (although without that it-is-not-sling-swivel-IT-IS-BOLT-HANDLE lark) and trigger guard similar to AUG, yet it have own features like patented muzzle brake (see photos), it provide easy field strip (see photo – no small parts to lose) and interface which consist of grip safety (placed similarly to Schwarzlose 1908 automatic pistol) and trigger – nothing more. Yet it could fire single or burst, first one with shallow squeeze of trigger, second with full squeeze. Folding stock, in closed position, could be used in lieu of front grip.

    • I wouldn’t arm the “zombie” Nazi army with Mp5’s in wartime, it’s degrading ze hard pressed state of vital equipment; needed to re-activate the S.S Army of the “undead” those roller producing machines could pump out artificial knuckles for the somewhat degraded skeletons of our previously shot troops.

      They’d be armed with Walther Mpls, crossed with the horn rifle, in a carbine 7.92 Kurz format instead.

      More blowback… Cheap, und simple. It’s important this, we can’t re-activate them again, reheat once like chicken; and they are a bit stale as it is, Hans! “Wuuurr” snap out of it man “Wuuuuur” here’s a banana “wurr” see.

  4. I could listen to Ken Hackathorn elaborate on gun history every day. IMHO, he’s one of the top three gun historians I’ve seen on TV. The other two are Gary James and some young whippersnapper with a ponytail.

  5. Just after the end of WWII the SMG was already seen as obsolete in military applications as the role could be filled by a weapon firing an intermediate rifle round. The reason that submachine guns were so popular with NATO armies after WWII was that the 7.62mm round was made the NATO standard at the insistence of the US instead of an intermediate round that other NATO members wanted.

    However, normal military applications for firearms are quite different from police and security applications. In security and counter-terrorism applications I believe the reduced penetration and lower muzzle blast in confined areas of the 9mm round versus 5.56mm rifle rounds are seen as positive benefits.

    The US has historically had very little domestic terrorism compared to Europe which is why the Europeans have had a greater emphasis on specialised weapons for dealing with them. The nature of terrorism and tactics used by them have evolved in recent years but the original reasons for using SMGs are probably still valid.

    So while SMGs may be obsolete from a normal military perspective, there is probably still a police and security need for them. Carbines are also used by police today, but there is also a long history of their use by police in many places so that isn’t really new.

    • In the U.S., the standard substitute for the SMG in CTW is the 12-gauge repeating shotgun, either pump-action or semi-auto. It has both the requisite killing power for CQB and the desirable feature that its penetration in urban environments can be controlled by selection of ammunition, something an SMG or AR has problems with.

      When all is said and done, hitting a tango in the kill zone with a load of No. 4 buckshot is likely to bring him down just like a three-shot burst from a 9 x 19mm or 5.56 x 45mm weapon. And the shot load is significantly less likely to result in a projectile or two going right through him and injuring or killing a hostage behind him. Or even in another room behind him.



  6. In his memoir of the Burma Campaign (‘Quartered Safe Out Here’) George MacDonald Fraser wrote about being promoted to corporal, and being laden with a Thompson. He didn’t specify whether it was a ’28 or M1. But he arranged to ‘lose’ it because of the weight, its tendency to rust in the jungle, and his discomfort carrying a ‘shoot me’ token for enemy observers.

    Of course, the Japanese in Burma, and just about everywhere else, weren’t carrying any equivalent weapon, so his SMLE wasn’t a bad downgrade for squad firepower.

    Also good to hear it said that full auto isn’t really sensible for police, even in the most heavy-duty, scary, situations.

    I believe that the ambush in which Barrow/Parker were slain did not involve any Thompsons either. A BAR, Remington semi-autos and automatic shotguns of some sort.

    • If I recall correctly, a Louisiana trooper had a Tommy Gun. But mainly the law enforcement officers had multiple long guns–Remington model 8s and shotguns, etc. And as one went dry they picked up the next one until everything was empty. The outcome would have been no different if the Tommy Gun had not been there. 35 Remington cartridges were doubtlessly more effective in the days of heavy gauge steel car bodies anyway.

    • The legendary ambush was actually over before it really got started. The PM on Barrow and Parker showed that each had died from a single gunshot wound to the head, from a .44-40 WCF caliber weapon. All other wounds were post-mortem.

      The only such weapon in the group was in the hands of one deputy, a Model 1892 Winchester lever-action. He was in front of the car, and when the two began to move, he shot Barrow through the windshield (because he was the driver) and repeated the procedure with Parker. These were the only two shots he fired.

      The rest, not noticing that their quarry were already dead, proceeded to shoot up the car.

      As Bill Jordan would later say, “speed is fine, but accuracy is final”.



  7. I only have one quibble with Ken on his training technique with the MP-5. He states he trained people to shoot 3 shots in semi-auto. Perhaps it was due to a broad range of abilities in his students?
    In the various versions of the MP-5 I’ve shot, I had no problem in producing 2 and 3 round bursts in the full-auto setting. Actually, 1 shot was do-able, but seemed silly for the most part. It was done just to show that you had full control of the trigger. 3 rnds was considered optimum for effect, and by the time you got near 6 rounds, you were in danger of getting peripheral hits that might end up looking for a backstop. 2 rounds was for ammo conservation purposes.
    I didn’t much care for those sliding buttstocks. Yuck. Compact was it’s only virtue. Much preferred the Choate PDW side folding stock. That, mounted on the MP-5K, made a nice package. Conversely, the “K” was worthless without that stock. It works well on most all the HK versions, including the rifles.

    • Just what the world needs, a tacticooled Tommy Gun.

      I’m guessing that with a scope on top, it might be somewhat more accurate out to 200 meters than my old M1928 with the Lyman rear sight on single-shot.




  8. Okay let’s get it straight. The Thompson guns weren’t as great as they were thought to be but they represent a concept that was fulfilled by later pistol caliber long arms. The concept in question was the answer to trench fights: high rate of fire, large magazine capacity, easy to control during a snap-burst, and relatively easy to maneuver and fire from the hip in the confines of a trench. Rifle caliber light machine guns weren’t good options for in-the-trench brawls back in 1918. The Chauchat was tolerable for suppressing enemy machine gun crews but not great for close-quarters round the corner bursts. And shotguns had issues with getting wet (cardboard shot shells and muddy trench water do not mix). Did I mess up?

    • WWI shotguns were, supposedly, supplied with all-brass shells. I’ve no idea if they were sealed well enough to eliminate trouble with dampness.

      • Apparently not, as I have yet to see evidence of an entire assault platoon armed solely with pump-action shotguns and revolvers. Even if the shot-shell casing was brass, how about the wadding keeping the shot and powder in place? That’s definitely not brass!

    • The Bergmann Muskete predated the Thompson “Trench Broom” and actually got into combat in the last year of WW1. My great uncle who was a Captain in the AEF in 1917-18 (transportation) saw them in the hands of both German Stosstruppen and after they were captured (the guns, not the Stosstruppen- mostly, they ended up dead).

      He thought they were an interesting idea, but tactically inferior to his Winchester M1897 12-gauge “trench gun”. After all, he came back alive, and the German with the Bergmann who jumped him one time didn’t.

      Anybody who thinks Vietnam was a war with “no front lines” would not have liked being in Flanders in 1918.



  9. I do not want to take debate beyond reasonable frame, but wondering if weapons based on 5.7 x 28mm did nor supplant previous generations of 9mm/ .45 ACP SMGs nicely.
    They are capable, with proper bullet to penetrate personal armour up to 200m (FNH source). I’d say they even reach to point, where they make average use of rifles obsolete. The 200m meters is historically quoted as a typical/ maximum rifle use range.

    Their weight is low, their maintenance requirement is low and so it potentially their production cost (absence of gas system).

    • “They are capable, with proper bullet to penetrate personal armour up to 200m (FNH source)”
      But there is little problem: you need two types of cartridge armour-piercing and one against unprotected targets. Second should do not go through targets and this could be achieved with hollow-points or similar bullets. But these are banned in military application.
      Russian approach is much different, see 9×21 cartridge:×21-sp-10-sp-11-sp-12/
      which is suitable against both protected and unprotected targets and conforms to international laws.

    • The major problem with 5.7 x 28mm other than needing two types of ammunition is that power-wise, it’s not much more powerful than a .22 WMRF. In fact, you could probably get the same results as the FN Five-Seven pistol loaded with non-AP rounds with the Kel-Tec PMR-30 .22 WMRF semi-auto pistol, for a lot less investment in the pistol or the ammunition;

      It sells for around $450. Most places you’d pay almost that much for just the magazine of the Five-Seven, or a box of 100 rounds of 5.7 x 28mm.

      I file the 5.7 x28mm, and its associated weapons, the P-90 and Five-Seven, in the “vastly overrated” category. For the size and weight of the P-90, an FN2000 in 5.56 x 45mm would be a more intelligent choice. One several armies and CTW units have already made.

      For a PDW, the H&K MP7 probably makes more sense than the P-90 or the Five-Seven either one;

      Even without all the gadgetry bolted to it. At least it an be handled and fired reasonably, more or less like an Uzi, which is more than can be said for the P-90.



  10. Some police departments had a fascination with them. My small home town bought one after learning by that Bonnie and Clyde had visited a relative there. I have a book, a law enforcement gun digest from 1980, that has a picture of a Thompson and the caption mentioned how useful they still were!

    It turns out, the old Thompsons in police inventory were useful–some departments have put them up for sale for a small fortune on the collector market. One dusty old Tommy Gun sold can buy a lot of M4s.

  11. Interesting moves with MP5.
    I would be interested to see the full drill at maximum speed.
    At current speed, they look like slowed down unusual moves, but fluid.

  12. Let’s compare Apples to Apples: Would you prefer a HK53 over an MP5? Or an Steyr AUG over an AUG-9mm?

    If so why do you think the MP5 or the Steyr AUG 9mm even exist up to this day?

    • The major problem with the HK53 in 5.56 x 45mm is that it’s even more prone to cook-off after a couple of magazines than either the MP5 or the TSMG; it just heats up faster, and the Laws of Thermodynamics will not give you a pass.

      As for the AUG, like almost all bullpups other than the caseless H&K G-11 and the forward-ejecting FN2000, it’s a right-hand only proposition. In Belfast, the British Army found out the hard way with the SA80 that that’s a problem in MOBUA. Statistically, 50% of corners do not allow you to fire off the right shoulder without exposing yourself to enemy fire. And the AUG, like the SA80, will stick hot brass up your nose if you try it the other way, even with a case deflector.

      The bullpup is largely an ingenious answer to a fairly stupid question; namely, “How do we get an effective infantry rifle into an IFV which is too small inside to begin with?”

      The answer isn’t a bullpup rifle. It’s “Get the designers to work on a better-designed IFV”.



  13. Lighter smg is not due to the closed bolt as Ian mistakenly remarks, but using retarded roller lock blowback, the bolt is around 350 grams I think.

    Germans were most likely forced to obtain Uzi in their arsenals, maybe as some kind of bizzare penance, but of course said “bitch, please, now you will see what kind of state of the art smg we can design”, and mp5 emerged as probably the best ever.

    As for the “ka-chunk” in open bolt that slams the gun downward, maybe with this lighter bolt it would not be so apparent in open bolt config.?

    One thing is certain, in slower rpm auto fire, open bolt is more controllable!
    Its since this pushing of the gun forward mitigates the felt recoil by some degree.

    As L.R. Sullivan, who has extensive knowledge on the subject, says in his light machinegun patent; if you were to push the gun forward by some artificial magical outside force exactly in the moment of firing, there would be no recoil.
    Open bolt partially adheres to that principle.

    But of course, mp5 is designed (for expert trained users, like special police forces) not with sustained balanced 450-500 rpm auto fire in mind (which is ideal for a conscript),
    but with short max. 3-4 round bursts, just like in ppsh41.

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