Ernest Hemingway’s Tommy Gun: Full Auto Shark Repellent

You likely suspected this already, but I’m not this guy.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much of a journalist. I’m just a gun nerd with a laptop. As a writer, I am more mechanic than artist. I just enjoy telling stories.

I’m just a gun guy who likes to type. Real writers, however, frequently have some intriguing eccentricities.

I have written professionally for more than half of my life. Along the way, it has been my privilege to meet a few real writers. They are indeed typically a fascinating lot.

Nobody’s really this awesome. If somebody seems perfect, they’re likely a closet pedophile or something. Not saying Superman is a pedophile, just making a point.

I have a theory that every normal person is born with about the same amount of raw material. It’s just typically distributed differently. If you know somebody who is handsome, charming, brilliant, and successful then watch out. That guy is likely a serial killer. In the case of truly extraordinary writers, however, they can also be lamentably self-destructive.

Ernest Hemingway—Professional Virile Paragon

Ernest Hemingway was a stud from the very outset. Not sure how old he was in this picture, but he’s gripping that air rifle like he means it.

The second of six children, Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Dad was a physician, and mom was a musician. Young Ernest excelled at sports and, not unsurprisingly, English. Hemingway had bad eyes and couldn’t pass the physical for enlistment into the US Army.

Rugged and handsome but rocking some seriously crappy eyesight, Ernest Hemingway shipped out for WW1 as an ambulance driver.

After six months as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star, he answered a Red Cross advert to become an ambulance driver during WW1.

Just like George Patton, King David, John Wayne, and my dad, Ernest Hemingway was 100% manly man.

Hemingway returned home in 1919 having exchanged his youthful idealism for severe shrapnel wounds to his legs. He ultimately married four times and became the poster child for toxic masculinity. His friends called him Papa.

Hemingway’s raucous lifestyle eventually took a toll.

After a hard-drinking lifetime spent chasing adventure around the globe he took his own life in Ketchum, Idaho. He was 61. From beginning to end, firearms played an outsized role in Hemingway’s amazing trek.

Sundry Adventures

In his youth Hemingway sought war.

His time in WW1 birthed A Farewell to Arms. The Spanish Civil War spawned For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway served as a war correspondent during WW2 and was popular with the troops. He purportedly blurred the lines between neutral member of the press and complicit conspirator with the French Resistance.

Hemingway served alongside Allied troops as a war correspondent through the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, eventually earning the Bronze Star for his trouble. Hemingway explored Europe, the American Rocky Mountains, and Africa. What we will occupy ourselves with today, however, is the nexus between Hemingway’s guns and fishing.

Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar was his personal treasure.

Ernest Hemingway was a compulsive angler. He lived for a time in Cuba and Key West, Florida, and owned a 38-foot fishing boat named Pilar after his second wife. He purchased the vessel new in 1934 for $7,495. His adventures on the Pilar strongly influenced such classics as The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream.

Here we see Ernest Hemingway prepped for a hard day of U-boat hunting in the Caribbean.

During World War 2 Hemingway had the Pilar outfitted with HF/DF direction-finding equipment and famously set out stalking Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean. His armament included a privately-owned Thompson submachinegun and a case of hand grenades he had scored someplace.

The WW2-era German U-boat was a formidable warship bristling with weapons.

The Type VII was the most-produced German U-Boat of the war. It displaced some 769 tons, was 220 feet long, and carried an 88mm deck gun along with sundry 20mm antiaircraft weapons and a couple of MG34’s.

Mr. Hemingway likely would not have been much of an inconvenience to the Kriegsmarine had he actually caught a German U-boat.

How exactly Mr. Hemingway planned to take on one of these monsters with a Tommy gun and a few hand grenades is anybody’s guess. Some allege that Hemingway’s antics were really a scheme to obtain extra fuel rations and immunity from the Cuban police for his several drunk driving charges.

Hemingway’s Peculiar Problem

It’s not hard to imagine what Hemingway saw in the Bimini Islands.

For a time Ernest Hemingway explored the great ocean currents surrounding Bimini, an island chain some fifty miles east of Miami. These islands sport brilliant white sand beaches and were once rumored to host Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth. Papa Hemingway gravitated toward them for the great leviathan fish that populated the surrounding depths.

It was the great fish like the giant marlin that drew Ernest Hemingway to the azure seas around Bimini.

Marlin, tuna, and swordfish were Hemingway’s perennial favorites, but catching these massive fish came with its own risks. The thrashing of these enormous creatures brought predators. Very frequently sharks would strip his catch before he could get the fish to his boat.

Hemingway initially tried using a .22-caliber Colt Woodsman like this one against hungry sharks. After accidentally shooting himself in the leg with it he decided he needed a different tool.

At first Hemingway tried to dissuade the sharks with a Colt Woodsman semiautomatic .22 pistol. He fired on one shark at close range as he attempted to land his catch only to have a round deflect off the boat’s rail and strike him in the shin. This wound just added to all the others. However, this experience convinced Hemingway that he needed a bit more gun.

Ernest Hemingway found in the M1921 Thompson submachine gun a better counter-shark weapon than his previous .22 pistol.

One version of the story has Hemingway buying his M1921A Thompson submachine gun from a local Bimini fisherman. Another posits that Hemingway won the Thompson in a card game with a millionaire named William Leeds. Regardless, there doesn’t appear to have been any paperwork involved.

Prior to 1934 there were essentially no rules governing ownership of automatic weapons in America. Guns like the Browning Automatic Rifle shown here, however, were just crazy expensive.

Hemingway seems to have acquired his Thompson in 1935, one year after the passage of the infamous National firearms Act of 1934. Prior to 1934 there were no controls over firearms in America. Automatic weapons like Thompsons and BARs were readily available but extremely expensive.

A Thompson submachine gun back in the early 1930’s would set you back as much as a decent used car.

Back then a Thompson cost $200, while a BAR would set you back $300. That’s the modern-day equivalent of $3,782, and $5,673 respectively. Additionally, coming on the heels of the Great Depression very few Americans actually had any money. Regardless, as Bimini was part of the Bahamas US law obviously didn’t apply anyway. At the time the Bahamas were part of the UK.

A Failed Mission

After weeks of effort Hemingway and his buddy could tell they had finally hooked a simply legendary fish.

In 1935 Hemingway and a friend named Mike Strater had fished the waters around Bimini for 86 days straight without hooking anything of consequence. Then as the Pilar rocked peacefully along in the current Strater’s line jumped. A mighty struggle later the two men saw that Strater had hooked a massive fourteen-foot giant marlin.

Sharks got to the epic fish before they could get it into the boat.

Strater fought the fish mightily, causing the animal to breach repeatedly. As the fish tired, however, the sharks began to circle. Before the two men could land the tremendous billfish the first shark zipped in and snatched a 20-pound chunk of flesh out of the creature’s flank. This precipitated a frenzy.

Papa Hemingway chewed into the massive predators with his Thompson to no avail.
Once the sharks got tooled up they were tough to stop.

Sharks swarmed the great fish as Hemingway chugged away with his Thompson at 850 rounds per minute. However, as he connected with the soulless grey predators their blood drew yet more sharks. By the time they got the once-majestic fish on board the back half had been stripped clean.

This is a photograph of the fish in question. The sharks made off with about half the animal’s body mass.

Once back at Bimini they hoisted the carcass up, measured it at more than fourteen feet from snout to tail, and weighed what remained at greater than 500 pounds. Had the sharks not had their fill the fish would have tipped the scales at more than half a ton and set a new Bimini record.

Hemingway’s books were inspired by his adventures.

Papa Hemingway was sufficiently imbittered to write a book about the experience. Most high school students have read it.

Hemingway’s Thompson

Hemingway’s Tommy lacked the Cutts compensator on the muzzle. The gun shown here sports a 100-round C-drum magazine.

Papa’s Tommy gun was an early Auto Ordnance version that he fed from 20-round stick magazines. His gun lacked the familiar Cutts compensator found on many period weapons.

The Cutts compensator certainly looks cool, but I’ve fired Thompsons both with and without it and didn’t feel like it made a great deal of difference.

The Cutts was a $25 add-on to those early Thompsons. As $25 back then was $472 in today’s money many private owners just did without.

The Thompson submachine gun was a collaborative effort, but BG Thompson’s force of personality made the project work.

The Thompson’s inspiration was one BG John Taliaferro Thompson. That middle name is inexplicably pronounced “Toliver.” General Thompson did not technically design the gun that bore his name, but he was indeed the driving force behind it.

The Lyman rear sight is more complicated than the space shuttle.

Those earliest M1921A Thompsons included the superfluous bronze Blish lock, fired from the open bolt, and featured a ludicrously overdesigned Lyman adjustable rear sight. They came standard with a vertical foregrip and easily-removable buttstock.

20-round stick magazines cost $3 ($58 today), while 50-round L-drums cost $5 ($97).
The human engineering of the Thompson was actually fairly atrocious. However, the gun was undeniably effective.

Everything about the Thompson’s ergonomics is wrong. The line of recoil is markedly higher than the interface between the buttstock and the firer’s shoulder. This equates out to muzzle climb. However, the gun’s all-up 10.8-pound empty weight combined with its .45ACP pistol cartridge conspired to make the gun controllable anyway.

The early civilian model Thompson is shown on the right. The later M1A1 military gun is on the left. The location of the actuator is the easiest way to tell the guns apart at a glance.

The Thompson was produced in two major variants. The early M1921/M1928 versions sported top-mounted actuators. The later military M1 and M1A1 versions had their actuators on the right side of the receiver. Total production was around 1.75 million copies between 1921 and 1945.

Ruminations

Ernest Hemingway was truly The World’s Most Interesting Man.   

Ernest Hemingway survived five car wrecks and two plane crashes. He wrote seven novels, six collections of short stories, and two non-fiction works, winning both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. He was a living legend respected the world over. However, throughout it all the man seemed somehow cursed.

This is a piece of lockwork left over from the gun Papa Hemingway used to kill himself.

Hemingway’s father fell on hard financial times and took his own life when his son was 39. Ernest shot himself to death with his favorite side-by-side 12-bore 22 years later. That gun was subsequently intentionally destroyed at a local machine shop.

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux had a promising career in Hollywood before she took her own life.

Alcoholism, depression, and suicide ran rampant throughout the Hemingway clan. Seven members of the immediate family took their own lives, to include Papa’s granddaughter Margaux Hemingway. Margaux was a successful film actress who killed herself in 1996.

Ernest Hemingway was a legendary outdoorsman.

Ernest Hemingway was an extraordinarily gifted writer. Sadly, his personal demons eventually got the better of him. Regardless, whether it was fighting alongside the French Resistance, hunting dangerous game in Africa, or battling hungry sharks with a Tommy gun, Papa Hemingway lived life to the full. He was indeed the archetypal Renaissance Man.

Men such as Hemingway do not thrive these days. Our world is insufficiently rugged to suit them.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Jimboecv January 11, 2021, 6:36 pm

    Nice work, Dabbs.

  • Leigh January 11, 2021, 6:32 pm

    Didn’t Castro have a front row chair for Papa to watch executions down in Cuba?

    • Al Gudenschwager January 11, 2021, 7:39 pm

      NO.

    • Kane January 12, 2021, 11:11 am

      People often think that because EH used firearms that he was a great guy. He was supporter of the internationalist communists in Spain in both word and deed. FDR and Elenore both shot pistols at their vacation cottage but would surely been inline with the anti-2A Demsheviks of today. As a matter of fact FDR was war criminal and a Soviet pawn and his Admin was infested with communists and/or war criminals. EH would probably want the ‘common’ American disarmed today but show a picture of someone with a cool firearm and watch the myopia set in.

  • IPDAILY January 11, 2021, 5:38 pm

    This is a man that would not be able to exist in America today. The panty waist soul sucking leftists would have him canceled in no time. The American men have become a collection of whining pajama boys. Who’s only interests include youtube viewing and video games.

  • Kane January 11, 2021, 5:20 pm

    ****In one of his letters, Hemingway talks about how he shot a German prisoner of war after unsuccessfully interrogating him:

    “One time I killed a very snotty SS kraut who, when I told him I would kill him unless he revealed what his escape route signs were said: You will not kill me, the kraut stated. Because you are afraid to and because you are a race of mongrel degenerates. Besides it is against the Geneva Convention.

    What a mistake you made, brother, I told him and shot him three times in the belly fast and then, when he went down on his knees, shot him on the topisde so his brains came out of his mouth or I guess it was his nose.

    The next SS I interrogated talked wonderfully.”)

    “[Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker, New York 1981; p. 672.]

    In another one of his letters to Arthur Miezner from 1950 he says that he killed about 122 “krauts” (“and have killed 122 sures besides the possibles” [Sel. letters, p. 697]).”****

    the above was taken from Reddit

    So you have EH as a war correspondent and claiming in private letters that he engaged in killing hundreds of “krauts” and “sures” ??? I’m sure EH lied about the dialog with the German soldier and maybe even about the details of the crimes but any way you slice it EH was dirt bag and was surely in thick with war criminals.

  • Kane January 11, 2021, 4:43 pm

    I will gladly play the bad guy here and offer an alternative view point. I was born and raised in the Oak Park IL and those lefty village snobs are so proud of EH. I had to read many his books in OPRF HS , the same school EH went to and I would take F. Scott Fitzgerald over that POS and day. EH was an lefty elite at OPRF HS where sub peon kids south of the tracks at lunch in the coal room and EH and the upper society ate in a private room with a fireplace and nice furniture. EH was an extreme leftist and I would have a hard directing a reader to the all the sources of my disgust but I give at least one good lead. In some of his writings EH bragged about killing captured and disarmed German that should have been protected by the GC. Under Eisenhower hundreds of thousands of Germans were stripped of GC protection and reclassified as Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF) and EH wrote how he would interrogate a German and if he did NOT reply in a manner EH wanted he would shoot the German on the spot.

    EH was NOT a hero, he was a was criminal and a pig just like Eisenhower and the best shot EH ever took was the last one with his shotgun. George Patton was disgusted by the treatment of German soldiers and civilians under Ike and dirt bags like EH.

  • Ought Six January 11, 2021, 3:42 pm

    If I may add:
    Hemingway’s central protagonist in For Whom the Bell Tolls was a gypsy woman named Pilar, a driving force among the guerrilleros fighting their war. The fishing yacht owned by Papa was named after the Pilar in the book rather than named after Papa’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Pauline’s nickname was ‘Fife.’ Pilar means “pillar” in Spanish. Supposedly, the Virgin Mary was seen on a pillar when Saint James the Greater was in Spain. Hemingway felt tortured by Mayo Clinic electroshock treatments for depression, was terrorized by Internal Revenue Service audits, and pitied himself as an injured animal after all his personal trials. As a hunter he wanted to stop being maimed himself and took his cranium out in the hall of his Idaho home with 12 gauge medicine.

  • Shanz January 11, 2021, 2:41 pm

    Great article thx. Boy America used to be so bad ass, now look at us. We need more men like Hemingway today. Shooting a machine gun at sharks, hunting U boats. Dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery any day.

  • Gary January 11, 2021, 2:29 pm

    Yep, he lived a full-on life, timidity wasn’t in his character. Demons got him, you say? Nope, it was psychiatrists that killed him. Car crashes, plane crashes, wives, alcohol, non of that killed him. But strap him down and run electricity through his brain until he flops around on the table like a tuna on a trawler…..? That did him in. All his emotion and feeling and creative thought was blasted away – gone – he remained a wooden doll, numb to the world, and he knew it. He killed that body because the psychs had taken his life – there was no reason to go on. Ever hear of a psych asking for shock treatment? Right.

  • Alan S. January 11, 2021, 12:53 pm

    Doc this is one of your best writings. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Would love to see you write more in-depth about Hemingway.

    Thanks for the great piece.

  • Steve in Detroit January 11, 2021, 12:13 pm

    Been awhile for a Story from Mr. Dabbs. Another enjoyable one today, Thank You Mr. Dabbs.

  • Mike in a Truck January 11, 2021, 10:00 am

    I met Margaux ( Margot) in the late 70’s right after she made that movie where she used a Remington 760 to kill her rapist.Forget the name. I was on leave and visiting Hollywood and managed to get her autograph which I still have somewhere in the attic. Of course I did my duty as a red blooded American soldier and proposed marriage on the spot! She laughed and kissed me on the cheek- didnt wash my face for a week! Stunningly beautiful it was heartbreaking when hearing she died.

  • Paul January 11, 2021, 9:52 am

    Got a feeling the insufficiently rugged world is going to be changing soon. We need more real people who do not fear what others may think. Live your life to the fullest always Knowing your limits. Testing those limits are what make it worth the ride.

  • Brian January 11, 2021, 9:02 am

    I really enjoyed that! I had not heard about “that” Hemingway before.

  • TC Trible January 11, 2021, 8:30 am

    What a great story about Hemingway. He was a man among men. Would Hemingway laugh or cry about today’s political climate? For sure he would not be looking for a safe place.

  • Bob C. January 11, 2021, 8:21 am

    This is a great article! It adds much background to “The Old Man And The Sea.”

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