Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Patience is a Virtue: Thompson Submachine Gun was Worth the Wait

Appearing in American cinema films from The Devil’s Brigade to Bonnie & Clyde, a Thompson submachine gun with a drum magazine has joined the mythos of America. Sold primarily to the military and law enforcement, “Tommy guns” were also purchased by private citizens. With the fictionalized and serialized tales of the “mob vs. G-men,” it became part of our collective conscience.

Tommy gun

In the first part of March 1990, I joined the staff of the Museum Division of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Within days, our senior curator, Norman C. Paulson, told me of a Thompson submachine gun at the North Dakota State Penitentiary that had been "promised" to the State Historical Society by the former and current warden when they decided to surplus or transfer the gun.

Paulson and James E. Sperry, State Historical Society superintendent, had been informed about the Thompson as early as 1968. Former prison guards had sporadically kept Paulson informed about the gun from 1973 into the 1980s. Since Norman was on the verge of retiring, it now fell to me to “keep my ears open” about that gun. The torch had been passed, and I continued to “keep my ears open” and wait. After 50 years, on Sept. 11, 2018, the submachine gun was transferred to the State Historical Society by the Penitentiary. Truly, good things had come to those who wait.


  • 1928–Purchased by the Barnes County Sheriff’s Department, Valley City, North Dakota
  • Feb. 24, 1958–Transferred to North Dakota State Penitentiary by Theodore Hedstorm, sheriff of Barnes County, Valley City, North Dakota
  • Sept. 11, 2018–Transferred to State Historical Society by the Penitentiary

The “dope” on the gun
US Navy, Model 1928 Thompson submachine gun, .45 caliber, made by Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company for Auto-Ordnance Company. It was designed by John T. Thompson, a former US Army officer. This gun is fully automatic and uses either a 20-round stick magazine or a 50-round drum magazine.

This weapon uses .45 caliber, 230 grain, .45 ACP Ball ammunition (11.43 x 23 mm). The rate of fire is approximately 830 rounds per minute, with a muzzle velocity of 935 feet/second (285 meters/second).

  • Weight (empty): 10 pounds (4.5 kg)
  • Length: 33.7 (860 mm)
  • Barrel Length: 10.5"

It has three magazines:

Stick magazine

Two XX-Type 20-shot stick magazines. These were preferred by law enforcement because they do not jam.

Drum Magazine

One L-Type 50-round Thompson drum magazine. Popular in American fiction, this magazine can jam the action, rendering the gun useless.

Q: Was the gun used by criminals?
A: No, it was used by the Barnes County Sheriff’s Department from 1928–1958 and by State Penitentiary staff from 1958–2018.

Q: Was anyone shot by this gun?
A: Not to our knowledge.

Q: Can I buy a gun like this?
A: Not likely. The National Firearms Act of 1934 required that owners of this type of weapon must register them with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms and follow the law regarding possession, transfer, and transport of this weapon.

Digitizing Newspapers In-House

My October 2018 blog discussed our plan to digitize newspapers beyond what we have done with Chronicling America. We began by sending microfilm to our vendor, Advantage Preservation, who digitizes and processes newspapers from the microfilm. In 2019, we were able to purchase a microfilm scanner so we could do the scanning and processing in-house.

Mekel Mach12 microfilm scanner

The Mekel MACH12 microfilm scanner

The MACH12 scanner is amazing! It scans a roll of microfilm with about 1,000 images in about six minutes. For some weekly newspapers, that is a whole year of issues.

The MACH12 in action

After scanning, we use the Quantum Process software to make any necessary adjustments to the pages, making sure the scans are clear and easily readable. This is necessary for a successful optical character recognition (OCR) process, which makes the text searchable. After adjusting the scans, we create two digital files for each page–a TIFF and a PDF. The TIFF serves as our preservation copy. This copy of the scan ends up in our digital repository for preservation. The PDF is our presentation copy. This copy is transferred to Advantage Preservation to upload to the North Dakota newspaper site for searching by the public. You can either select a title to search or simply search across all the titles by entering your keyword or a person’s name in the search box.

Screenshot of OCR program

Running optical character recognition (OCR) from home

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing orders have many of us working from home. Finding work to do from home could have been a challenge, but working on scanned newspapers from home became a reality with the help of Zoho Assist software that allows me to access the PC connected to the microfilm scanner. The Beulah newspapers (1914-2017) are my focus at the moment. Look for them to be up on the site in the next few months.

Mekel scanner and PC

Scanning with the Mekel and PC

The Sanish and New Town newspapers will be next. Both the Beulah and New Town public libraries applied for and received grants from the State Library to have this done, with the permission of the newspaper publishers. For more information on costs and funding opportunities for your community newspapers to be digitized, please contact me at