Thompson Riot Ammo at James D Julia

Did you know that the Peters company made ammunition specifically for riot control for the Thompson submachine gun in the 1920s? And it wasn’t rubber bullets, either – it was paper-wrapped snakeshot. The cartridges were actually longer than a standard magazine would accept, necessitating the production of a special longer magazine to fit them. That magazine would hold 18 rounds, and was specially marked as such. I took a look at a lot of 200 rounds of this ammo and one of the special magazines at James D. Julia, and was curious how it would actually pattern.

Well, the Peters riot ammo is rare and expensive, but we also had some WWII-vintage .45ACP snakeshot on hand and I was able to try shooting some of that. At about 8 feet it made a pattern about 18 inches in diameter (from a rifled Tommy Gun barrel), and did not cycle the action. It was only after filming that I discovered the proper way to use this ammo for crowd control: fire it into the pavement in front of the crowd, allowing it to ricochet up into the crowd at a lower velocity. It would be less lethal that way, but still a great way to lose an eye!


  1. I recall seeing a mention in an old Popular Mechanic for a motorcycle sidecar mount for a Thompson, which was intended to be used along with this ammo for pursuing gangsters. The theory being that the shot would increase accuracy while reducing risk to by standers, how it reduced risk was never quite clear.

  2. Rubber baton rounds fired from riot guns (37mm) are also generally intended to be fired at the ground in front of the targets and then bounce up and hit them. This allows them to be fired at enough velocity to have an effective stand off range, but then lose enough of that velocity when bouncing from the ground that they are less likely to be lethal when hitting someone.

    Of course riot shot guns were not new. The Greener is a good example of well known purpose made one which was derived from the Martini Henry rifle. They were viewed as being less lethal than regular rifle rounds or a bayonet charge.

    By the way, did you know that police departments in Europe during the 19th century used to issue swords to their police for dealing with riots? They were used as a step between whacking people with a baton and shooting them with rifles.

    • And, of course, the threat of being run-through or slashed to ribbons would deter most people who had no experience in countering sharp implements with a blade length greater than 18 inches…

    • “By the way, did you know that police departments in Europe during the 19th century used to issue swords to their police for dealing with riots? They were used as a step between whacking people with a baton and shooting them with rifles.”

      The Japanese police issued swords right through the surrender in 1945.

    • The swords were used from horseback with the sides for hitting, not for slashing. The practice had such an effect that many European languages have specific words meaning to “hit someone with the side of the blade”.

      • @Tom – No, the swords weren’t only used from horseback with the flats. If you google for “police cutlass” you will find that police forces in places like England during the 19th century issued “cutlasses” to their foot patrol policemen for use in dangerous areas and at night instead of issuing them pistols. They were primarily for self defence in the case where the police were attacked by someone armed with a knife or other weapon. They had truncheons as well if the just wanted to give someone a good whack. Some of the impetus for this came from attacks on police by terrorists.

        They also were available for use in serious riots as a step down from shooting someone. They had a big advantage over infantry with muskets and bayonets (which were the alternative force for suppressing riots) in that a sword could be used with one hand while the other hand was used to grab the person they wanted to arrest. The infantry with bayonets had both hands occupied with their weapons and so weren’t as flexible in their tactics.

        Police “cutlasses” were actually copies of (or perhaps surplus) infantry “hangers” which were short infantry swords, not naval cutlasses. They would have been too short to be practical to use from horseback (mounted patrols had sabres for that).

        Google for “metropolitan police cutlass drill at wellington barracks” and you will get lots of examples of a well known illustration showing London Met police drilling on foot using standard infantry sabre methods using a short hanger. Here’s an example:

        In continental Europe police in many areas were more heavily armed, and they had sabre and pistol as standard weapons.

        As for why swords, well it should be remembered that armies were using swords as well at the time, and in that time and place swords were a very practical complement to a pistol.

    • Yeah, I recall they’re also marked “not for use against people” or “only for use on game,” because of concerns about international law, reprisals, and potential POWs being found with it.

      • No, they were intended for foraging. They could knock down birds and small animals like rabbits and squirrels at about 20 yards range. They also made less noise than a standard .45 ACP hardball firing.

        BTW, U.S. airmen were also taught to make slingshots for small game gathering. Survival kits included pieces of surgical rubber tubing that was officially for siphoning water, but was also entirely suitable for making a ‘catapult’ as the British called it. Most American boys back then knew how to make a slingshot from a forked stick anyway. As for ammunition, pebbles worked just fine.



        • And I thought only Dennis the Menace did that. Speaking of childish things, I think British Intelligence trolled the Nazis by means of super-strong itching powder, tampered ration tins laced with laxatives, and fake opera tickets…


            The best one was the “Who, Me?” used against the Japanese.

            BTW, gadgets like the Peskett and the wire garotte were never carried by Jedburghs or SOE agents in occupied Europe. Getting caught with such an obvious covert killing weapon was a one-way ticket to a Gestapo interrogation room and a bullet in the back of the head.

            One ex-“Jed” I knew told me that the way he and others did it was to take the laces out of a boot, tie the ends to two pieces of wood, use it, then put the laces back in the boot and ditch the bits of wood.

            As for an “impact weapon” like the Peskett, he maintained that a ball-peen hammer was pretty hard to beat. Not to mention the proverbial piece of pipe.

            The stabbing bit at the other end? Icepick, either store-bought or made from a chunk of welding rod or even a big “spike” nail.

            SOE had “Churchill’s Toyshop”. OSS had access to all of that, but mainly operated on the KISS principle, which they rendered as “Keep It Simple, Sh!thead”.




  3. There was an old “Movie of the Week” called “The Challenge”. It starred Darren McGavin and Mako. A satellite came down in a remote area and the U.S. and a North Korea clone were about to go to war for possession of it, when somebody got the idea to drop a champion from each side into the area. The side whose fighter killed the other got to keep the satellite. Darren McGavin had two Madsen M-50 SMGs stuck together side by side, one loaded with ball, the other with birdshot. Ridiculously impractical, but impressive to me in gradeschool at the time.

    • I recall watching that episode as a boy, I also recall that the sneaky Asian got the better of the American GI by hiding a razor blade on a tree trunk that gave the GI and nasty infection.

      Now, if I could just remember where I left my car keys.

  4. CCI offers a .45 ACP shotshell, #9 shot, in its “Blazer” line. It uses a non-reloadable aluminum cartridge case. It will cycle typical pistols; I don’t know whether it will work a Tommy gun. As to what a load like this is good for, the answer is not much: pest control or emergency foraging, but there are better options.

  5. In past experience we were told that when armed with a shotgun and buckshot in a non-lethal crowd confrontation to shoot at the pavement just in front of a crowd so the buckshot would both bounce and disperse taking out legs and having a wider effective lateral dispersal. It also “flattened out” the shot as well as the pattern so that there would be fewer abdominal and thoracic wounds. The same tactic is still used by prison guards by both entry teams and tower guards. As for the “snake-shot” rounds in whatever caliber, they were and still are useful in taking small game at close range and usually are quieter than full-house rounds. The commercially available .22 “Rat Shot” is a prime example of this application. As for shooting someone armed with a military weapon in the eyes at close range, this would probably just make him extremely angry and result in your immediate demise as well as reinforce the idea that these survival assets were actually intended for human injury and get a lot of downed personnel shot upon discovery. I have seen and used these “shot-shells” on .22, .38, .357, .44 Mag, .45 Colt and .45 ACP calibers and found them handy for their intended purpose. The .22s are usually loaded with #12 shot or “dust” and as the caliber increases they can be loaded with progressively larger shot. In the .44/.45 calibers you can also load them with either flat plates-shot (a stack of round lead disks) or a stack of slugs (round flat pieces of lead with a separation material between the pieces to prevent compression welding upon firing). These last are effective against animals up to small deer or humans and often “flip” or tumble upon impact and during transit of the target. They are analogous to using “dime-loads” in a 12 ga. shotgun. These were made by reloading a spent shotshell case using silver dimes instead of shot. They tumble during transit but were not very accurate at extended ranges. It is said that the Earps were partial to these loads as were the Texas Rangers. The wounds are devastating!

    • Two tricks with 10-gauge that were popular back then were;

      1. Load the shell with 00 buck, then pour #7 or #8 birdshot in around the buck, tamping it down to fill the shell. It both reduced dispersion and added close-range wounding capability.

      2. Take eight or nine “split shot” fishing sinkers, a piece of wire (like baling wire) about a foot long, and squeeze the split shot shut around the wire, evenly spaced along its length. Then coil it up and put it in the shell. If even the end of the “string” hit the target, the “chain” would generally swing around and slash into the target like a whip.

      Anybody who thinks “assault weapons” are nasty has never seen what a shotgun can do at close range.



      • A better way to make up “string-shot” is to crimp the sinkers onto stranded down-rigger wire or a comparable type of trolling wire, preferably stainless steel wire, because it is very pliable. It cuts a hole through a man-sized target about 1-1.5 inches in diameter and makes the wound channel that looks like raspberry jelly. It is absolutely devastating! It was inspired by the old muzzle-loading cannon “chain-shot” or “bar-shot” of the days of sailing ships. As for the damage a shotgun, loaded with the most appropriate rounds befitting the occasion can do,envision a miniature Tasmanian Devil character on steroids! As for z”dime shot,” the dimes flip as they traverse the target, distort into convoluted shapes thta promote unstable pathways and etc. They will, if placed into the abdominal cavity, literally tear a man half in two. The third way to “doctor” a shotgun round is to load it with thin sections of lead wire stood on end in the shot section of the round. They distort upon firing wrapping themselves around each other into a mass of almost razor-blade elements that will tear flesh and visceral into a “slush” that is irreparable by medical methods. Fletchlets are yet another element of this type round but not available to the “casual reloader” of modern or more historical characters. It is an almost certain lingering death from infection. These and just regular shotgun shells loaded with either lead balls or steel balls engendered our orders to kill the shotgunner first and smg second because the shotgun is the more dangerous of the two at close range. As a case in point, my Great-Grandfather killed six men in one day with shotguns loaded with “silver dimes” after they way-laid him and left him for dead in San Angelo, Texas. None of them stood a chance in their final reckoning. His wife drove the wagon he was lying in on a mattress, backed it upon in front of their doors and called them outside. He raised up and gave them each both barrels at once and then headed for the next one’s cabin. Then he he and his family left for Arkansas.

    • And let’s not forget the great scene in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (starring Bob Dylan) of the shotgun loaded with dimes. Keep the change!

    • Back when I was a Coast Guard boarding officer in the 1980’s, we carried Remington 870 pump riot guns with the 18″ barrel. We were specifically instructed to fire at the pavement in front of the crowd if in danger from rioters; the deformed shot was supposed to inflict painful but not mortal wounds to the lower extremities.

  6. Most Honorable Master Cherndog:
    “And I thought only Dennis the Menace did that.”
    When I was but a wee tot back in East Texas we had a neighbor who used a slingshot as described but he carved his “stocks” from pine or oak boards and used hand-cut strips of rubber from truck inner tubes for power. Inner tubes were made of true rubber back in such ancient time don’t you see? Shoe or boot leather “tongues” made very good “pockets” and he was very particular with his choice of rocks… the more rounded the more accurate. We lived near an oilwell drilling company and the head mechanic saved ball bearings for Charley to hunt with. He kept score of his kills with rabbits, squirrels, pigeons and dove numbering in the hundreds each. (Post-Depression, these were valuable additions to the family diet.) He often took birds in flight and used his largest slingshot that had double rubber bands to take a small deer at least once that I personally know of. He also took fox, coyotes, opossum, raccoon, feral housecats, stray dogs and etc in protection of their chickens, goats, sheep and other small livestock. If he had been so inclined, I sincerely believe that he could have killed a human with the hunting versions of this “child’s toy” as many consider them now. My father was an expert with a “David’s Sling” and just as deadly. In his youth on a shep ranch in western Texas he routinely killed animals as large as Javelina or Peccary with one. Remember that in early-historic times “slingers” were an essential part of the military sush as the Egyptian period often numbering in the hundreds or even thousands and just as valued as archers or lancers.

    • Ouch. Slings and slingshots definitely hurt where needed, and at least one was used in a fictional murder (British “catapult” with an improvised projectile to the victim’s head, victim tumbles down stairwell while carrying a huge book–Looks like an accident until one realizes that the victim would have dropped the book had he really tripped so that he could grab the bannister and keep his head from being bashed by the fall). And of course one knows that Goliath brought a sword to a sling fight, or rather David brought the “gun” to a sword fight (no wonder God chose the so-called “wimp” who knew how to take down a giant without being a giant himself). As for my original question, I had to think of some way to get rid of the pistol caliber shot-shells without getting caught red handed with them and tortured, so I thought “let’s ambush the first nincompoop who thinks he can get me with my pants down and hopefully my pistol is loaded with a regular slug after the rat-shot is expended so that he can’t report me for a Geneva-convention violation.” Getting shot in the eye isn’t pretty, and perhaps the two seconds the other guy is spending on nursing his torn-up eye will allow me to relieve him of his weapon, preferably by stabbing him in the neck with a survival knife (or perhaps I should just neck-snap him and avoid alerting any other enemies all together). My sincere apologies to any veterans who may have nearly been executed over this.

      • “British ‘catapult’ with an improvised projectile to the victim’s head, victim tumbles down stairwell while carrying a huge book–Looks like an accident until one realizes that the victim would have dropped the book had he really tripped so that he could grab the bannister and keep his head from being bashed by the fall.”

        Murder Must Advertise– Dorothy L. Sayers. Instantaneous rigor mortis; very rare, BTW. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve seen a few PMs in my time.)

        She based it on a man who was killed when a hawk, trying to “open up” a small turtle it had caught, dropped it on a “rock” -that turned out to be the head of a very bald man. His skull was fractured and he died at the scene.

        The turtle survived, very offended. And no doubt not kindly disposed toward hawks.



      • Cherndog the gun writer Ed Harris mentioned a murder he was aware of that involved a catapult/shangeye/shanghai/slingshot (American usage). Some hapless fellow who came across a cannabis crop. Initially it was thought he’d been shot with a firearm but eventually it was realized what the actual murder weapon was.

  7. Most Illustrious and Noble Grand Master Cherndog:
    Perhaps you could be interested in a Chinese Repeater Crossbow small enough the be hidden in the sleeve of your Royal Cloak so that there will be no noticeable noise in the demise of the adversary. On a few occasions I have found the crossbow, judiciously applied to the neck or spine area, to be very effective in the silent removal of a “problem” without disturbing the slumber of the “problem’s” companions. It also gives them something to contemplate when Morpheus overtakes them on succeeding evenings.{:>)

    • I’ve seen such a device before, and it’s perfectly concealable even under an ordinary tunic worn by a 13-year old girl assassin (got this from a Chinese web comic). At point blank, assuming your “problem” is dumb enough to think you don’t have the arrow, a shot to the chest should puncture his heart-instant death?

      • Actually, the real thing, like its big brother the infantry repeating crossbow, relied on poison on the tip of the bolt for killing power. Cantharides beetle poison being the usual “prescription”.

        All it took was a scratch. Kinetic energy wasn’t an issue as long as the bolt penetrated clothing, although a shot at bare skin was preferred for obvious reasons.

        BTW, those hand-whittled “throwing darts” you saw in Kung Fu movies worked the same way in real life. Lin kuei (“forest devils”, the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese ninja) were very fond of poison for any and all occasions.

        Bruce Lee’s movies tended to gloss over this little detail.



  8. I liked the reference to the United Fruit Company. I wonder what happened to all those company machine guns after the !934 National Firearms Act?

  9. Re: Crossbows. There is a movement among Bow Hunters in the state of Missouri to allow Crossbow hunting for those members unable to pull their bow due to age or infirmary.

  10. Reminds me of the Guardia Civile of Spain, which is equiped with “riot control” HK G3.

    These are equiped with a special muzzle attachment in the form of a cup loaded with a projectile ressembling a golf ball (in size and shape). They are legally forbiden from shooting it directly to rioters, so they are trained to shooton ground and walls to make the ball ricochet on it.
    The impact is even then reported to be quite impleasant…

  11. I read about those Thompson shot cartridges in several books including “the Gun That Made the Twenties Roar.”

    My impression was that the “bullet” acted much like a Glaser Safety Slug–the “specially trained riot squad officer” fired at the ground just in front of the rioters and skipped the shot into the mob. The “bullet” might have possibly held together when fired and probably was intact when it hit the ground, which would have given it more range than the standard riot gun loaded with bird shot.

    As late as the Sixties light trap loads (generally #9 and #8 shot) were regarded as “non-lethal” munitions when used as directed. Rex Applegate’s 1969 classic “Riot Control–Material and Techniques” mentions using #4 buckshot in riot control skip shooting (page 266).

    I could be wrong about the shot cartridges for the Thompson Submachine Gun–perhaps they did disintegrate in the barrel. I haven’t been able to find any reference to their use.

  12. I have to disagree that the M15 and the Thompson riot control cartridges were the same thing. For one, the amount of powder in the M15 may have been reduced because driving a larger load of #7-1/2 shot would simply have opened up the patterns more when fired through a rifled barrel. The M15 couldn’t cycle the slide of the .45 M1911A1 service pistol.

    Modern CCI snake loads for the .45 ACP are still around–though CCI loads #9 shot and #4.
    Several years ago I patterned .22LR, .38 Special, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP shot loads through pistols. I determined that the .22 LR had a very small payload and that ten feet may have been a bit too far for #12–certainly with the small .22 LR payload it’s not all that effective. The 9mm Luger #12 shot (the #4 wasn’t available back then) had more utility but if I remember correctly the limit was about 15 feet due to pattern thinning out. The #9 shot in .38 Special and .45 ACP had pattern density issues at 15 feet but the #9 shot at around 1000 fps muzzle velocity did penetrate my test media acceptably–for snakes and rats and possibly even small game at that distance. A 25 foot range with #7-1/2 sounds optimistic to me. At least these rounds are quieter and lower recoil than ball ammo.

    The Thompson Submachine Gun riot shot cartridge appeared to be aimed at stupid police chiefs who had faith that all shotguns were the same. I’m often wrong, so do your own research.

    On another note modern “less lethal” rubber buckshot can be lethal at close range. Just like firing bird shot or buckshot at rioters, the police are supposed to skip rubber buckshot into the lower limbs of their targets. Direct fire of rubber buckshot, even though it seems to have a muzzle velocity of 800 feet per second, can be lethal. Most American courts regard shooting someone with rubber pellets to be deadly force–except when police do it.

    The Thompson riot cartridges had to have more punch than the M15 shot cartridge or they couldn’t operate the Thompson’s autoloading mechanism. Or perhaps these were single shot.

    Looks like that knowledge is lost to the present generation.

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