SALISBURY — For nearly 50 years, Rowan County sheriffs have issued, cleaned and occasionally trained with a 1928 “Tommy” gun stashed in the department’s armory.
But over the past 15 years or so, deputies said, the gun became too valuable — and too expensive — to use in the field.
Now the pre-World War II relic looks geared to leave the department for good.
Deputies say the fully automatic 1928 Thompson submachine gun is in pristine condition and primed to go for top dollar.
Whatever it sells for, those funds are expected to pay for new tactical riot gear for deputies.
In April, county commissioners approved Sheriff Kevin Auten’s request to sell the weapon.
The gun — which is a rare find, deputies say, because of its history — is expected to be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
But some officers said they will miss the mystery surrounding it.
The “Tommy” gun first appeared at the Sheriff’s Office in 1966, according to minutes from an April commissioners’ meeting.
Though no officers then at the department are still employed, deputies have passed along a relatively synonymous history.
Officers like Capt. Jerry Davis, a 31-year officer at the department, said the weapon was one of many handed out to rural law enforcement agencies across the Southeast in the 1960s and ’70s as civil rights demonstrations brewed.
“Back then, they had, ya know, a lot of civil unrest,” Davis said. “Most of your sheriff’s offices didn’t have a lot of funding, so the federal government released, like, riot gear, equipment and firearms to local agencies.”
Along with the Thompson — which was originally a 1921 model until it was double stamped in ’28 — the department also got several stick magazines to go with the weapon. Those hold about 30 bullets apiece.
With the double stamp, Davis said, an actuator was placed into the weapon to slow the fire rate to 600 to 700 bullets a minute.
That allowed the military to accept it for combat issuance in World War II, he said.
“They take a 1921 Thompson and basically make it a 1928 model,” Davis said.
Safety Coordinator Ed Haupt, a former deputy who still assists the department, said he remembers the firearm from when he arrived in 1972.
“They were, I think they were originally purchased from the federal government,” Haupt said. “Stanly County has one — I think they ended up with two, neither of them are double stamped. A lot of agencies purchased them or received them.”
Former Sheriff George Wilhelm said the gun was one of the oldest in the armory when he arrived in 1980.
“It was probably the only full automatic gun we had,” Wilhelm said.
Until around 2000, the Tommy gun was issued to a member of the department’s Special Response Team — a SWAT-style tactical team that responds to high-risk incidents.
Auten has said before that he hopes to use the funds from selling the gun to buy new equipment for officers. He was not available for an interview, citing an illness in the family.
Capt. John Sifford, who has been with the department since ’88, said Auten thinks it’s time to part ways with the gun while there’s a chance to upgrade equipment.
“It’s bittersweet. It’s a fine weapon. It’s a nice piece of history, but at the same time, because of the value, it would be hard to issue it to an officer and possibly have it taken from the car or something of that nature,” Sifford said. “Even though we hate to see it possibly go, the benefit of having that equipment that we feel like would benefit the officers is certainly the reason we’re considering it.”
Specifically, Sifford said, the department is looking to buy new “tactical riot gear.”
“We have discussed several options — I think more than likely it would be for equipment for use by the officers, Sifford said. “We do need to update some of our equipment as far as gas masks, riot helmets, equipment that would allow us to handle an incident where there may involve a large demonstration.”
For what could have been the last time, Davis punctured the morning air Friday with the hum of a few short bursts.
In Vietnam, Davis first encountered the Thompson, then used by the South Vietnamese, he said. When he was hired at the department in the early ’80s he found the sheriff also had one.
That was when officers still carried it, he said. Now, he’s the only one at the department who still knows how to clean it.
Just before the last of his clip erupted from the barrel Friday morning, Davis pulled the walnut stock close to his shoulder, tightly gripping the wooden front grip.
“This is the proper way you utilize an automatic weapon,” he said. “In the movies, they don’t show you the proper way to use an automatic weapon.”
The “Tommy” gun essentially became it’s own celebrity in the ’20s and ’30s after the weapon became a staple of organized crime.
Another interesting historical note, Davis said, was the low serial number etched into the side of the chamber: 3694. Davis said the low serial number could help boost the price of the gun.
Davis said the gun is a U.S. Navy model, but with the condition, he said, it “probably sat in the arsenal most of it’s life.”
The county plans to advertise the weapon for sale, followed by an auction or direct sale. No date has been set for the sale.
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