Gen. John T. Thompson and a prototype of the first "Tommy Gun." (Photo: Wikipedia)

The problem was Thompson had no steady stream of customers, even when Thompson's company Auto-Ordnance Corp. released the M1928 – considered by many the definitive Tommy gun model.

True, the U.S. Marine Corps purchased Thompsons and used them effectively in China and during the Latin American "banana wars" of the 1920s. The Postal Service armed its security personnel with Thompsons as well.

But the weapon was expensive – very expensive. Adjusted for inflation, its $200 price tag is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today.

To put things in perspective, consider the contemporary cost of prime, high-end arms like the Fabrique Nationale d'Herstal SCAR 17S 7.62x51 millimeter NATO – it costs about the same as a Tommy Gun did during the Roaring '20s.

Besides, for better or worse the Thompson gained a "bad boy" reputation. A handful of criminals such as John Dillinger and George "Machine Gun" Kelly gave the weapon a bad name.

At first, potential customers such as the British government considered the Thompson "gangster weapons" and refused to purchase the submachine gun.

But by 1939, all that changed. Great Britain entered World War II starved for armaments.

The War Office eagerly purchased every M1928 it could, and the weapon was a hit with the Tommies – particularly the Commandos.

The weapon's reliability and ability to bring devastating automatic fire to close quarters combat made the Thompson a favorite of the Commandos.

They even honored the weapon in the design of their unit recognition flash: A stylized Thompson superimposed on an anchor headed by an eagle.

There were also many American G.I.s who even relished the gangster panache of the Tommy Gun. Images of actors like James Cagney in "The Public Enemy" – easily one of the most violent movies of its time – ducking around a corner as a gangster fired on him with a Thompson were unforgettable.

"It was often seen in gangster films that were watched by impressionable young men who came of age during World War II," Archambault said.  "So, even before its use in World War II, it was an iconic weapon."

Sure, the M-1 Garand was the basic weapon for the American infantryman. But the Thompson found its way into the hands of officers, squad leaders, paratroopers, U.S. Marines and any soldier lucky enough to grab one.

Also, G.I.s and Marines were fighting all across the globe in battlefield environments that included deserts, jungles and snow. The sheer reliability of the Thompson, particularly in its less-expensive but equally deadly M1A1 model, made it the perfect weapon to endure the lousiest battlefield conditions.

Eventually, the cost of the Thompson prompted development of the M-3 "Grease Gun," which could be produced in greater quantities for far less money than even the M1A1.

But by the Korean War, the Army relegated the Thompson to a secondary role. By Vietnam, the first M-16s were in the hands of GIs and the military considered the Thompson obsolete.

Today, Thompson submachine guns are in high demand among collectors legally authorized to own full-auto weapons. On average, the price for a clean Tommy Gun is about $25,000.