Thomas B. Nelson
The name Thomas B. Nelson is synonymous with the small arms community of the last 60 years. Since Tom’s first book, The World’s Submachine Guns Vol. 1: Developments from 1915-1963, hit the small arms community in the early 1960s, his influence has been immeasurable. But where did this book come from, and is that the extent of Tom Nelson’s contributions?
A contemporary of Lt. Colonel George M. Chinn as well as one of his friends, Tom Nelson was brought into the small arms community due to his pre-existing fascination with the mechanisms and history by another small arms great, Col. George Burling Jarrett. Col. Jarrett had his Ordnance Museum on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, NJ, in the post-World War I era and was instrumental in throwing Rommel’s armies back across North Africa by re-purposing hundreds of thousands of rifles, handguns and cannons to use other calibers, thus re-arming the weary fighters against the Nazis. In the post-World War II era, Col. Jarrett ran and advanced the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum. The museum was a magnet for students of small arms, and in the mid-1950s when Col. Jarrett met a young soldier named Tom Nelson who was headed for the 82nd Airborne, he shanghaied Tom over to the museum.
Tom Nelson’s time at Aberdeen was a crucible that forged him into one of the most influential small arms people of the last half century. His unrestricted access to the thousands of firearms and accessories at the Ordnance Museum fed the curiosity he had since his youth. Trips to Europe to study the firearms prototypes and oddities in the factories and museums just tossed more kindling on the fire. At Aberdeen, Tom’s contributions to the Foreign Weapons Intelligence knowledge are legendary.
That is where the first book came from, leading to similar tomes on machine pistols and assault rifles. Tom’s publishing company, Ironside International, searched the world for small arms books to publish in the U.S.. Few readers of this magazine have not felt his influence.
However, like most Chinn Awardees, that’s just the beginning of Tom’s contributions. He worked on international arms deals with Sam Cummings, eventually doing some of the most important work in that field in the 1960s to 1980s. He was close friends with Eugene Stoner and chronicled the M16 and Stoner 63 designs from the genesis forward; he was friends with General Kalashnikov; with Gordon Ingram; with Uzi Gal; and many other famous designers. Tom was a confidant and worked with many U.S. Government and military groups. Captain William “Shep” Shepherd, U.S. Navy SEAL, astronaut and Commander of the First International Space Station supplied a recommendation for this award, reminiscing about Tom’s help with the SEAL Team weapons and many other small-arms-related services to U.S. forces.
From importing amazing piles of surplus arms and ammunition for the American shooting public, to Foreign Weapons Intelligence; from chronicling the historical and modern small arms designers and their work to supporting the designers, Tom Nelson’s influence is extraordinary.
One short story to illustrate Tom’s influence in the modern world—in 1963 Tom Nelson brought an Uzi submachine gun to the U.S. and gave it to General Decker, who though impressed, didn’t continue with purchases because “It’s not made in the U.S.” The U.S. Secret Service did, however, adopt the Uzi. That’s one story of many.
A testimonial from another Chinn Awardee (1996), none other than C. Reed Knight, Jr., puts it all in perspective:
“I could not agree more with your nomination of Tom Nelson. I have known him for over 40 years and have known Tom to be one of the best brain trusts of firearms knowledge in the world. He has written many books and papers that have educated many of our firearm designers. His relentless searching for innovative designs has helped to proliferate firearms technology.”
A polling of the 16 past recipients of the Chinn Award we could locate resulted in unanimous votes of confidence for Thomas B. Nelson to become the 2019 Lt. Colonel George M. Chinn Awardee. Combined with letters of recommendation from numerous industry icons and military personnel, it was a unanimous decision by the Small Arms Committee to elect Thomas B. Nelson as the 2019 Chinn Awardee.