Articles

British Submachine Gun Overview: Lanchester, Sten, Sterling, and More!


Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another
video on ForgottenWeapons.com. I’m Ian McCollum, and today, courtesy of ARES, Armament Research Services, we are taking a look at an overview of British submachine guns. Now, Britain is a bit unusual in that they’re one of the very few countries that did not go into World War Two with a submachine gun. Most countries were developing one, the Germans of course, as well as the Italians, had recognised the value and the utility of submachine guns in World War One. The US sort of had. The US had slowly started adopting the Thompson submachine gun. The Germans of course were charging
ahead with what would become the MP38, a whole bunch of interwar guns that became the 38. The British kind of looked down on the concept of a submachine gun as what they referred to often as a “gangster gun.” A few too many, you know, 1920s depression era movies I think about gangsters or bandits
with Thompson submachine guns. But about 1939 they kind of looked up and went, “My
goodness. We need a submachine gun, immediately,” and didn’t have anything to work with. They
didn’t have the developmental background that most of the other countries militaries had. So there was a bit of frantic searching about, and what
they ended up doing was grabbing a couple of German MP-28s, Bergmann manufactured MP-28s out of Ethiopia, of
all places, brought them back, and by August of 1940 they had decided, “This is what we’re going to make.” And they sat
down and the MOD talked to the various branches of the service. The Army at that point actually still came … You know, they sat down with the MP-28 and said,
“We’re gonna make these, how many do you want?” The Army said, “Well, none. We’ve got Thompsons.”
Which was a little bit ridiculous at that point. The Thompson submachine gun was an incredibly
expensive gun. Auto-Ordnance and Colt were just making an insane amount of money on those
things, they were 200 dollars or a little bit more, a piece. To skip forward a bit to put it in context, a
Thompson gun cost 5 times what a Lanchester did, and a Thompson gun cost 15 times what a Sten gun did. And in order to get Thompsons Britain
had to pay with hard currency, gold bullion. Which, you know, with British rearmament after
Dunkirk, and of course the war effort in general, they were going to need that hard
currency all over the place desperately, so. … Using it to buy Thompsons was a desperate move,
and one that they needed to curtail as quickly as possible. At any rate, August 1940 the Army may
still have been in denial about needing these, but the Royal Air Force was interested in them
and the Royal Navy was interested in them as well. So they went ahead and
manufactured about 50,000 of them. And by the time these became available it was summer of
1941, and at that point the RAF actually came back and said, “Well, no, actually never mind.
We’re good, we’ve got other stuff.” So the Royal Navy ended up getting virtually all
of them. So this guy right here is a Lanchester. It is as, I said, it is basically a direct copy of the Bergmann MP-28 which was in German service. It is somewhat distinctive for having a 50 round magazine. That was at the Navy’s, the Royal Navy’s, idea and request. And it was one of the things that seemed like a good idea at the
time, although the reliability of these magazines is kind of questionable. These ended up … actually being used into the 1970s, primarily as a weapon … like chained to a ship’s
bulkheads as defence against boarding parties. They are very heavy. While this is a third of the cost of a Thompson,
it was still really expensive, relatively speaking. It’s got a lot of fine machined parts. This bronze magazine housing, … the cooling shroud. A lot of expensive stuff went into
this, and of course not to mention the wood buttstock. So it’s heavy, it’s expensive, it’s still pretty time
consuming to manufacture. And this would be a problem. The British needed something cheaper
and faster and in a lot higher quantity. So before … the Lanchesters were even finished being manufactured,
they were already looking for something cheaper and better. And this is where we get the Sten gun.
And that “Sten” is Shepherd, Turpin and Enfield. Shepherd and Turpin being two
British officers who developed the Sten, and Enfield of course the factory where they were … developed. The Sten is basically a Lanchester submachine gun with
as much stuff removed as possible while still being functional. So we actually have Sten gun number 1,
this is a Mark I Sten, the first trials Sten gun. And you’ll notice it doesn’t look … You can see the modern Sten
in it, or the later common Sten. But it’s got a lot of elements that are different, like the vertical
front grip (which by the way does fold up, that’s kind of fancy). It’s got a flash suppressor on it,
it’s got a nice long heat shield on it, got wood bits here on the buttstock, a wooden handguard. This is the root of the Sten design, but even this really
was still too time consuming and difficult to make. Now in total about 300,000 of these, the
Mark I and the Mark I* Stens, were manufactured. I don’t have a Mark 1* here to take a look at,
but the star was the first modification to the gun. And what they basically did was get rid of the
wood here, they replaced this handguard with a stamped sheet metal handguard. Got rid of the
flash hider and got rid of this folding forward grip. So they vastly simplified it. The Mark 1* looks very
similar to the traditional Sten that we’re used to seeing today. The production and development timelines of
the Sten gun were, if nothing else, extremely fast. That’s one of the defining characteristics of
the Sten. Everyone knew it was a crappy gun. It was as simple as it could possibly be, as
cheap as it could possibly be, and it made no accommodation for basically user
comfort or finesse or aesthetics. The British needed guns, and they needed them
right now, and in as large a quantity as possible. So with that in mind, the main
development was the Sten Mark II. Just to give you a context for the speed of this,
the Mark I was adopted in March of 1941. And by August of ’41, just a couple months
later, the Mark II was already in production. This was just insanely fast. I don’t know
how I can help best to get that across. In terms of production, the Mark II
Sten took 5.5 man-hours to produce. There were factories that were turning out literally
500 of these per shift, and multiple shifts per day. This gun was mostly safe, mostly accurate,
mostly reliable, it was good enough to get by. Now the fact that everybody knew this was a sub-par
gun we’ll come back to, but at this point during the war that didn’t matter. It was more important to have a
reasonably decent gun than to have a really good gun, because the reasonably decent gun
you could have a whole lot more of. So I should say, with the Mark II Sten the front has been
shortened. The flash hider is gone of course, that’s long gone. We have the … sheet metal cover. A simplified
stock. So instead of having two struts it’s got one strut and a little … kind of pistol
grip sort of wedge there to put your hand on. There never was really a good way to hold this. As a right-hander, if you hold it here you kind
of have your hand on the magazine release. Not good. You can sort of hold it here, but if you let your hand get too far
back, you’re going to get hit by brass and cause the gun to malfunction. You can sort of hold it here, but that’s not as
controllable. This is what guys tended to do. Holding the gun like this. Between when they started production
in August of ’41 and the end of the war (these were in production all
the way to the end of the war), they made right about 2,500,000 of these
guns, so a tremendous number on them. Now we do also have the Mark III Sten. Mark III is very similar, but there was one particular
production company that took a look at the Mark II and decided, “You know, we can make this cheaper and
simpler and produce a whole bunch of them ourselves.” And so they presented their alternative
design to the British government who said basically, “OK, fine. Go for it, make us half a million of them.” Which they proceeded to do, in fact
they got a second contract as well. In total 876,000 of the Mark IIIs were made.
And the difference here is that instead of having a single seamless tube, they have
a welded tube for a receiver here. Now that introduces a few other issues. Some of the parts on
this are not interchangeable the way that they are on a Mark II. Again, the guns worked and that was the priority. So we’ll go ahead and do a quick overview of
the Sten disassembly. We have our Mark II here. This is a very simple submachine gun.
So magazine catch is right here. Just pushes down, very simple, mag comes out. Next up the buttstock can be removed.
There is a captive plunger here, although it’s captive until you push it in and rotate it. so when
taking the stock off you always want to hold on to this, because there is a distinct chance that it will have
rotated and you will fling the mainspring across the room. There we go. So, there’s our buttstock.
Simple lug that holds it in place. Now we can take the mainspring out and it’s plugged
back here. The way to do that is you want to push in, rotate it counter-clockwise slightly, and
then allow it to come out, so like that. There is a two piece plug at the
back, the spring itself sits in this cup. And then this is the plunger that has
the little bayonet lugs to hold it in place. With that out the recoil spring comes out. Then pull the charging handle back to the
middle position, pull out the charging handle, Which you’ll note is completely symmetrical. So
this is a very quick and easy piece to manufacture. Then … the bolt then of course comes out. It’s a simple, simple bolt,
fixed firing pin on the front. Just open bolt submachine gun. Mostly this is there to provide enough weight to
delay opening and give you a reasonable rate of fire. Now we can take off the barrel. Our barrel
nut is actually the same piece as the handguard. And it is tensioned against the spring here
which locks the magazine housing in place. I should point out that this is designed
so that you can actually pull this outward, you can rotate the magazine housing down to the
bottom of the gun for transportation or storage. Because they of course lie much flatter
either on a sling or in box that way. Note that when this is done, the magazine
does not fit in far enough to lock. So you would snap that up into position before use. Anyway, we can unscrew the barrel [nut], and then the barrel nut and the barrel come out. There’s our barrel. And then you’re left with your receiver assembly.
In theory we could take the housing off, and there’s a spring in there for the trigger,
but I’m going to go ahead and leave that in place. There is a fire selector here. We have
“A” for automatic right there on this side, and on the other side is “R” for repetition. Just like that. There is no safety on the fire
control group. The safety is this slot up at the top. You lock the charging handle
into that, and it safes the gun. Sights are a rear aperture and a
very large triangular front post thing. This would of course change with the Mark V, when
they replaced this with an Enfield rifle front sight. Sight picture is pretty simplistic there, just like
that. This is not a precision fire sort of weapon. Now the magazine in the Sten
gun is one of its main flaws actually. It’s a 32 round magazine, it is of course 9x19mm. It is a double stack, but a single feed magazine. Which means
you have two columns of cartridges coming up the magazine. And they compress into a single column that presents
a single spot for feeding at the top of the magazine. This causes a lot of geometry issues
and friction issues. It’s difficult to load. It makes it a little bit simpler to design the gun
because … every cartridge will appear at the same place. On a double feed magazine, sometimes cartridges appear on the
left, and then alternatively on the right. Like an AR-15 magazine. This single feed design is what
the Germans had used in the MP-28, the British were copying that, and so this
single feed is what they used in the Sten. When they replaced the Sten they would also get rid of the
single feed magazine, but we’ll get to that in a few minutes. Now by February of 1944 things
had calmed down a little bit, and they were finally able to add a little bit of refinement
to the Sten gun, and that resulted in the Mark V. You may ask what about the Mark IV? Because
we have the I, the II, the III, nothing, and then the V. Well … there were some … experimental
trials for a paratroop Sten gun that was potentially to have been called the Mark IV.
… No Mark IV was ever adopted, but to avoid confusion, when they were working on this gun they
went ahead and named it the Mark V. Leaving open the IV for possibilities. So there never was a Mark IV, went straight to
the Mark V. And this has a couple of refinements. It finally has a legitimate buttstock
to it, and it has a real pistol grip. This is a much nicer gun to handle and shoot because you can
actually kind of get a grip on it, at least with your firing hand. You’re still kind of stuck with nothing good to do
with your front hand out here, but it is still a Sten gun. The front sight is no longer just
a big brazed on triangle chunk. The front sight is now a
Lee-Enfield rifle front sight. It also has lugs on the barrel and it will
take a Lee-Enfield Number 4 Mark I bayonet, little spike bayonet, or blade bayonet,
so that’s an improvement there. And these were manufactured from February of ’44 until
the very end of the war. Total 527,000 of these being made. Let’s move on now to what the British
were developing after World War Two. Now this story – actually much of it
takes place during World War Two. Everyone at the time recognised that the Sten
gun was not an ideal weapon, far, far from it. But the Sten gun was what they had and what
they could make in large numbers and at low cost. And it did the job. However, as the war is ending, or after the war ends, it’s realised
that, “OK, now we can finally get rid of this thing. It served its purpose, let’s get rid of it
and let’s get a good submachine gun.” However trials were a bit lacklustre, because
after World War Two the British military was anticipating moving to a bullpup assault
rifle instead of having a submachine gun. The idea was to replace the bolt action …
infantry rifle and the submachine gun with a single assault rifle. And that was going to be the EM-2.
It was in a technically intermediate cartridge, less powerful than the .303. It was a bullpup
rifle. So it was kind of the same overhead size (a little longer than), but effectively
the same as a submachine gun. It can be held here in normal use,
it can easily be tucked under the arm. Very handy. The idea was it would replace everything. So adopting a new submachine gun was not
a particularly essential or immediate concern. Until Renée Studler and the US Ordnance
Department nixed the idea of the EM-2 and forced NATO to go with a 7.62 NATO cartridge. A much more powerful cartridge than the British
and the Belgians had originally planned on. At that point the submachine gun
becomes a little bit more important. Now the British adopt the SLR, the FN FAL, which is a quite long
and heavy rifle, and now they really do need a submachine gun. So let’s take a look at what they
had during World War Two, because during the war there were a bunch of people who are
experimenting with new guns, designing new guns. Some of them trying to get them adopted right
away, some of them just knowing that the Sten couldn’t possibly stay in service forever.
It was going to need to be replaced. So a couple examples here.
We have a Vesely, this is a V42. This was an example of one of the guns designed by
one of the many Czech and Polish arms designers who fled from Nazi-occupied Europe into Britain,
who would also be responsible for the EM-2 rifle. The Vesely is a very interesting and unusual firearm
in that it is a 9mm Parabellum submachine gun, but it actually has a magazine that
holds two columns of cartridges. So instead of just one, it has a column here and
a column in front here, for a total of 60 rounds. These were trialled, never adopted. This didn’t
really go anywhere, but it’s a really cool gun. We then also have the three main guns that the British looked at. One of them is the MCEM series, and that
stands for Machine Carbine Experimental Model. This particular one was designed by a Czech engineer
and designer. It is basically a machine pistol. You can take the stock off and … it’s a very
large pistol, but it is functionally a pistol. The stock in fact acts as a holster.
(The inventory tag on this is stopping it …) So you can actually wear this on the belt,
and then for submachine gun type use snap the stock on the back. This is interesting
in that it has a bolt that is opened by the finger. So don’t burn yourself on the barrel there. This has a massively high rate of fire of about 1,000 rounds
per minute, although it can also be set to semi-automatic mode. And this is the MCEM-2, there
was a whole series of them. This is the only one that got as far
as trials, and this was trialled in 1947. Along with it there was also a whole series of
guns from BSA, that’s Birmingham Small Arms, and they produced a side
magazine fed submachine gun. It has a folding shoulder stock and what is the
… most interesting unique feature about all of the BSA entries into this … submachine gun
competition [was] the method of charging. So on this, in order to charge it, you
are actually going to grab the fore end, rotate it just slightly counter-clockwise, pull
forward, and now this acts as your charging handle. Drop the bolt there, rotate, pull out, charge the weapon,
and then you’re ready to shoot. This design went through a number of iterations. This
was actually one of the very last prototype designs. The submachine gun trials were in ’47, there was
another one in ’49, and there was a final one in 1951. So for several years they were
tinkering with these designs, And I think that’s largely because
this wasn’t a super-important thing. This wasn’t going to be of all that much significance given the bullpup
assault rifle that was going to be the main weapon for the infantry. Until that whole plan died. By the way, rate of fire on this was about 600 rounds per
minute. So much slower, much more practical than the MCEM. Lastly, we have the Patchett Machine-Carbine. This
is the one that would actually go on to be adopted, although it would be a little bit
of a long road for it to get there. This was developed by a guy named George
Patchett, he worked at the Sterling company. Interestingly, George Lanchester, designer of
the Lanchester gun, also worked at Sterling and apparently the two really didn’t get
along, but that’s neither here nor there. What Patchett did was basically refine the Sten gun a bit,
he gave it a proper pistol grip, a more compact folding stock. This is actually one of the very first prototypes, if not the very
first prototype in fact. And it still uses a Sten gun magazine. This gun would go into trials … during the middle of World War
Two. I believe ’42 was the production date of this first prototype. And the Patchett, which would become known as the Sterling
submachine gun, was a much better gun than than the Sten. … While it was in British service
it was actually quite well liked. Now a small number of these did see use
during troop trials during World War Two. There’s in particular a famous photograph from
Arnhem of a British paratrooper with one of these. … However, they didn’t get formally
adopted until [1953] as the L2A3. I should say, the L2A1 submachine gun was adopted earlier, the final version that was actually put
into substantive production was the L2A3, commonly known as the Sterling
submachine gun, which is this guy. Now the main difference between the
Sterling and the Sten is the magazine. Patchett was able to come up with
a much improved magazine design. It is a double feed double stack design, so the
cartridges present on the left and the right alternating instead of just in the centre.
It has a series of rollers on the follower. … This is arguably one of the best
submachine gun magazines ever developed. And especially in a submachine gun, the
magazine is really the most important part. The part that is going to be most likely to cause malfunctions,
or lend itself to a reliable and effective gun design. It is still a side feed, the magazine is now slightly
curved to better accommodate the cartridges. The magazine release is still on top, the bolt handle’s in
a similar place, but the gun is overall far handier to carry. Overall a couple hundred thousand of these were manufactured,
and they were actually in production at Sterling all the way until 1988. And they were not declared obsolete in
British military service until 1994. So the L2A3, colloquially the Sterling submachine gun,
saw use all the way into Desert Storm. So the Sterling would be the last submachine gun
actually adopted and used by the British military. … This would overlap a bit with the SA80, which was Small
Arms of the 1980s, primarily the L85 individual … weapon. There was a carbine version of the L85 planned that
never went into production, the Sterling stayed in usage. Although finally now with the HK A2 upgrade, the L85A2,
there is now a carbine version of the L85 that is in service issued to people like helicopter crews, armoured vehicle crews,
the sorts of folks who would use a submachine gun. The difference is now it is of course a very short .223 calibre
bullpup instead of being a 9mm blowback submachine gun. So the Stirling here really rounds out
our legacy of British submachine guns. As time allows, and as travel allows, we will be taking a closer look
at all of the guns in this video, and perhaps a few others as well. But I thought it would be cool to take a look first at the
general overview of all of these guns and their development. Hopefully you enjoyed the video. If you did, make sure to
check out the ARES blog post that accompanies this video, you’ll find a link to that in the description
below. Stay tuned to ForgottenWeapons.com. Thanks for watching.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *