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On Thursday, August 21, 2003, at 2:45pm, my wife of 34 years, Rebecca, died in my arms in an emergency room.
The last words we spoke were in perfect synchronization: "I love you with all my heart."
An Unusual Story
Maybe everyone gets involved in interesting, foolish, and sometimes expensive things: saltwater aquariums, hot rods, assorted obsessions that every extra dollar is spent on. Some people collect coins, Corvettes, or cue sticks. I guess everyone has some kind of "special interests", and they usually cost a LOT of money, and are fairly hard to obtain.
In the 1970s, in my early twenties, I became interested in collecting guns. Particularly Colts. My wife, Rebecca, was nearly as interested as me.
We started to research, read, and learn about Colt firearms, and found it all so interesting. We started spending money like it was water! We couldn't get enough: Colt revolvers, Colt automatics - we wanted the exact same models with different barrel lengths, we wanted them in blued and nickel finishes - we were hooked!
Then, one day in early 1974, I made a discovery, thanks to Roger Alan Cox, of Law Enforcement Ordnance Company, (then located) in Georgia. In about three seconds, I learned that an adult citizen could legally own fully automatic weapons. There were a lot of requirements, and the process was very involved - plus, the government required a $200.00 transfer tax to be paid on each automatic weapon transfer.
So .... a $100.00 weapon would actually cost at least $300.00, after applying for transfer and purchasing the transfer tax stamp.
If you decided to sell the weapon one day, you would have to charge at least $300.00 for it, but the buyer would actually be spending $500.00 for it - $300.00 to you, $200.00 for the tax stamp. Each transfer requires the $200.00 government tax.
I learned something really amazing:
There are submachineguns, and then there are submachineguns.
But there is NO submachinegun on earth like a 1921 Colt Thompson Submachinegun.
By now, Rebecca was just as compulsive as me. We had to have one. Or three. Or more. Life without an original 1921 Thompson was becoming impossible.
We were really hooked!
You have to understand - we did not want a military Thompson, which were made by the millions, by dozens of different factories. Compared to the quality of a Colt, they were made like tin cans.
We wanted a COLT Thompson. A 1921 - the A model. No Cutts compensator at the end of the barrel. And we wanted an early serial number, below 5000. And it had to be in excellent original condition. Consider the following:
Colt manufactured one production run of Thompsons. About 15,000 were made, and of these, about 10,000 went out of the U.S., never to return. Of the remaining approximately 5,000 original Colt Thompsons, it is estimated that less than 2,000 exist today in a legal, transferable state, and the number may really be a lot less than that.
In essence, we wanted to own a needle in a haystack. We didn't want to own a submachinegun. We wanted a particular submachinegun. We didn't want any automatic weapon - just a 1921 Colt Thompson. For all we cared, you could throw all the Colt M16s and any other automatic weapons in a dumpster - we just wanted that 1921 Thompson.
Why were we so completely fixated on a 1921 Colt Thompson? I'll never know.
My best and only reason is .... "because".
It took at least a year of searching and saving, and, at last, in November, 1975, Roger Cox finally found exactly what we wanted. A 1921 Thompson, excellent+ condition, no compensator, barely fired, from Oakland County Sheriff's Department, Pontiac, Michigan. The serial number was 4••• - below 5000, exactly as we requested. I first held this Thompson on November 15, 1975, at the Birmingham, Alabama Civic Center, at a gun show. I couldn't hand Roger Cox a cash deposit fast enough. I rushed to a pay phone to call Rebecca with the great news.
It was expensive. I'm talking about "you could buy a decent car" kind of expensive. We could have bought five military Thompsons, or ten brand new MAC 10s for the price of this Thompson. We didn't care - that Thompson was already whispering, and we were listening.
Then the paperwork started. I needed all the proper forms, the signature of the Chief of Police, official FBI fingerprint cards, and a dozen other details. It took until January, 1976, for all the forms to be finished and ready to send in to Washington.
We'd spent hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, and I had to sit back and wait. And wait.
At last, on February 4, 1976, the Director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approved my transfer. By then, I had also become a Federal Firearms License holder.
Within about two weeks, all my legal paperwork and our new 1921 Colt Thompson were in our hands. We were in heaven.
Collecting to Obsession
But let's make something clear: all we had was the Thompson, and one, original 20 round Type XX magazine. Nothing else.
We needed more. We needed an early, original, 50 round Type L drum magazine, more original 20 round Type XX magazines, and, especially, a black leather, blue velvet interior, FBI carrying case. We needed an original brass cleaning rod, and an original nickel oiler that fit into a special compartment in the buttstock.
It took over a year, and a lot of searching and money, and we found these parts and pieces. The black leather carrying case cost more than the Type L 50 round drum, which cost almost as much as the Thompson itself. I'd think nothing of trading off two or three brand new Colt Pythons for an early, serial numbered, 50 round Type L drum .....
We were TOTALLY HOOKED!
If we could have found the drums with the matching serial number to our Thompson, we probably would have sold the house, boat, and cars, too. Besides buying the normal production Type XX magazines, we also bought four blank (no identifying stamping at all) Colt Type XX magazines. These four were really rare, and definitely from the Colt factory, according to the seller, who had never seen them before. I won't publicly admit what we paid for those magazines. Neither will I admit what we paid for the 100 round Type C drum or the other Type L drums. What I will admit publicly, is that by the time our Thompson collection was complete, we'd invested far more than I ever thought possible. Far more.
I think without question, the finest book ever written about Thompsons is "The Gun That Made The 20s Roar", by William J. Helmer. I understand it has been reprinted, but my copy is an original from the first printing - naturally.
The mechanics of taking the Thompson apart are remarkably simple. The gun comes apart in about 2 seconds: remove any magazines, drop the bolt, press a spring loaded frame latch button below the rear sight, and slide off the entire trigger group assembly, which needs no further disassembly. Reach inside and compress the recoil spring via the buffer and buffer pilot, and remove them. Slide the bolt, blish lock, and actuator back, and remove. The firing pin, spring, and hammer are retained by the hammer pin, pushed through the bolt. That's it. After doing it once or twice, anyone could do it blindfolded.
I disassembled my Thompson in Judge's chambers in a courtroom in California one day, but that's another story altogether. It's a combination of horror, horror, and more horror. Maybe someday I'll write the whole story, meanwhile, you can read a little bit about it right here. <<<< READ THIS! Read it now - and read it carefully. If this could happen to me, why can't it happen to you, too?
The Federal Labs Gun Case
This is amazing!
The Federal Labs Gun Case contains:
One 1921 Thompson submachinegun with 3 Type XX (20 round) magazines, 1 Type L (50 round) drum magazine
Two Federal Labs gas riot guns with gas cartridges
Two Federal Labs gas riot billy clubs with gas cartridges
Probably, the bottom of the box also hinged open and contained more ammunition and supplies
The Fame and The Mystery
Closely aligned with early Thompsons were the historical criminals who made them famous.
The 1921 Thompson shown in the pictures below was purchased with documented proof that it was the same Thompson that was in the possession of Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Initially, I thought he was in possession of it when he was killed by Federal agents, including Melvin Purvis, in a gun battle outside of East Liverpool, Ohio, on October 22, 1934, but I've been corrected regarding that point. Nonetheless, it definitely was in his possession one day beforehand, according to the FBI and police documents, which specified the serial number.
Can you imagine owning this Thompson? The same Thompson that Pretty Boy Floyd once owned? (Or stole?) It's very likely the only one in the entire world.
(A military (crossbolt) type buttstock is shown in the pictures below - the original buttstock is in the case.)
Names like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and the Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson, and even Al Capone, take a back seat to the most famous names of all:
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde - Chronology and Pictures
Bonnie and Clyde are, in their own infamous way, an integral part of American history. Although Clyde's weapon of choice was a BAR (Colt Browning Automatic Rifle - .30-06 caliber), it's almost certain they also had Thompsons, although I've been corrected about this point.
This brings me to the most unusual part of this story .........
While moving to California, I was driving a 24' UHaul truck, towing our car, and Rebecca was driving our van, right behind me. Driving through Louisiana on Interstate 20, we stopped for gas. I'm pretty sure it was at the Arcadia exit. I recall it being pretty close to midnight.
It Was A "One In A Million" Gas Stop
We could have gotten gas one exit after, or one exit before. But somehow, we went to this gas station. I filled the tanks, and went inside to pay. My world changed on the spot. I ran outside to get Rebecca.
The "gas station" was a decrepit, ramshackle old wooden building, almost ready to collapse. Inside, one wall of the building was partially covered in plexiglass, with ancient, yellowed newspaper pages behind it. They were headlines and stories about Bonnie and Clyde. On shelves were dozens of items and relics: many empty bullet cases, some pieces of clothing, several old pieces of stained cloth, a shoe, pieces of broken glass, small pieces of metal, and some odd metal things that looked like maybe they were once on, or part of, a car. Several dozen old black and white pictures were framed on display, and there were many items we just couldn't recognize at all. It was like a small museum inside an old, old country store, and everything on display had to do with Bonnie and Clyde.
The old man running the gas station saw how interested we were. He appeared to be in his mid-seventies, and said he was the owner. I asked him about this collection, and he explained he knew Bonnie and Clyde when he was a young man, back in the 1930s. They came around that area of Louisiana regularly back then.
We stayed there and listened to this man talk for almost two hours, while we all drank several beers and more than a few sips of his moonshine from a Mason jar. He talked about and described every single item he had on display. I was totally astounded. The man and his wife had been there, near Arcadia, Louisiana, their entire lives. They began collecting Bonnie and Clyde artifacts before they were killed, and he said everybody in town heard about the ambush before it happened, but nobody really believed it would actually happen.
My heart was racing like a rock drummer, I was just absolutely amazed by all this.
The man refused to sell any of those relics at any price, and told us that most people didn't really care anything about them, but once in awhile, somebody came along, offering a lot of money for his whole collection.
Then he told us Bonnie and Clyde were killed right up the road from where we stood and that there was a big stone monument there.
By then, it was almost 2:00am, but we had to see this - no matter what.
He gave me directions to the place where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. His "directions" kind of resembled:
"Go up this road here till you see a real big oak tree down on the left side, then you turn right. Go on down past the place where all the trees are cut down short on the left, and then, a little further on down, when the road forks, you go left till you get to the second crossroad ......."
Well, I'm sure he gave me the right directions, and I'm sure I didn't understand or remember them. Maybe it was that beer and the moonshine from the Mason jar. It probably was.
Rebecca and I were driving out in the middle of nowhere, completely lost, the roads were narrow, barely even paved, and there was no moon. I mean NO moon.
Let me tell you how dark it was: it was so dark, it made black seem bright. Not a house, not another vehicle, not even a light, for miles.
With that huge UHaul, trailing the car, and my wife in the van, this whole episode was really becoming pretty insane, driving up and down those back country roads for hours, stopping about fifteen times to try and figure out where we were, where we'd been, or where we were going.
Consider this: the roads were so narrow, it was almost impossible to turn the van around without going into a ditch - never mind that gigantic UHaul and the car! We were so lost, it was ridiculous, and all we could do was keep on driving.
Sometime around 4:00am, we found it.
I swear .... my Thompson started whispering to me from inside its case, and that Canon camera did, too ......
Maybe part of having something really special is having fun when you use it, take dumb pictures with it, (while looking like a real idiot, which I freely admit), and showing it off to your friends. I vividly remember the reactions of many people when we opened up that "black box". Conversations tend to stop very abruptly when you nonchalantly walk into a room with a Thompson on your hip or in your hands.
Out of curiosity, I went searching around the internet to get some idea of what people had to say about 1921 Colt Thompsons today.
It took about 20 minutes to suddenly realize: this 1921 Thompson, with all original parts and case, is worth a small fortune today. From what I could tell, $70,000.00 wouldn't even touch it.
You can click right here to see how easy it is
to burn up about $500.00 worth of ammunition in less than 3 minutes.
Back then, I was crazy - I let many people fire my guns - I paid for the ammo.
We were very serious about reloading: I bought CCI primers 5,000 at a time, and 8 pound barrels of Hercules Bullseye powder.
Then we spent a pile of money on a progressive reloader and accessories.
Once set up properly, every pull of the handle ejected a completely loaded round of ammo,
but we had to keep it "fed" - tube after tube of fired cases, bullets, primers, and powder.
We spent thousands on dies, parts and pieces, and never fired factory, jacketed ammo.
We bought everything needed for bullet casting, lubing, and resizing.
All our reloads were bullets which we cast ourselves from discarded wheel weights.
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