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$10 STEN: The Weapon That Saved the British

Ex Historiam: The Sten Gun

Necessity being the mother of invention, many fine weapons came out of World War II. That conflict ushered in the era of the “assault rifle” with the introduction of the German StG-44, while the German MG-42 would influence machinegun development for decades to come. The American M1 Garand, German G-43 and Soviet SVT-40 all highlighted the inadequacies of the bolt action rifles that had been used for over 60 years.The Sten Gun MkIII5

Yet, World War II was also about survival and in many cases the ability simply to produce sheer numbers of weapons. The American Sherman tank certainly wasn’t the best armored vehicle to hit the battlefield, but Detroit produced enough that it overwhelmed even the superior Tiger and Panther tanks.

Sherman-Tank

The British had their own “miracle weapons” – perhaps not of the scale of those promised by Germany later in the war, but unlike those mostly empty promises the British delivered, and in the process saved the day. These included the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes, but for the infantryman – it was the STEN; a $10 (roughly 2 pounds at the time) weapon that gave the infantry just a bit more punch.

Stens on Parade

Origin of the Sten Gun [STEN}

When World War II broke out in the late summer of 1939, most British leaders and even the soldiers heading over to France expected a replay of World War I, with static lines and little movement. At first they were right. Neither side advanced much in the fall of 1939. This resulted in it being called “The Phony War.”

All that changed when Germany burst through Denmark, defeating its small army in a matter of hours, before invading Norway, where it also quickly defeated a counter-invading force of British and French troops. Then in May the Germans launched the “Blitzkrieg” and in six weeks overran all the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Army was saved as a result of the “miracle of Dunkirk” but left most of its heavy equipment, and even huge caches of small arms behind.

With the threat of invasion the army was forced to replace the weapons it lost in France, but also expanded greatly. It needed more weapons, fast. The result was the Sten Gun.

Designed by Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin for Enfield, the weapon took the first letter of each mans’ last name, and the first two letters from Enfield – the result was STEN. It was a simple design based on blowback operation from an open bolt, and it fired 9 x 19mm Parabellum – meaning it could be used with captured German ammunition.

The stamped metal weapon, which required minimal welding, could fire eight rounds per second from its horizontally-loaded, 32 round magazine and it was effective to about 100 meters or 300 feet. It didn’t pack a lot of punch, but it was known for getting the job done.

More importantly for the British, it didn’t cost a lot to produce, but a lot were produced. By war’s end more than four million Sten Guns in various configurations were developed. Note that cost, only about £2 ($10), as compared to a contemporary American M1A1 Thompson that cost approximately $200!

Says British collector and WWII reenactor Adrian Stevenson,

“While crude and simply made, it certainly did the job it was intended for. It gave the British Army the full auto weapons it so lacked.Simplicity of design and stamped construction were its main assets. Any small machine shop with no gunsmithing experience could make a STEN.”

The weapon has become iconic too for its side-mounted magazine, which wasn’t actually revolutionary – far from it. The German MP18/28 and later the Model 1935 Erma also utilized side-mounted magazines.

Notes Stevenson,

“The only real advantage is being able to take a lower prone firing position.”

The magazine was a direct copy of the German MP-38 – with the idea that MP-38/40 magazines could be used in a pinch. Unfortunately this presented a number of problems as the 9mm cartridges needed to be in a staggered arrangement. In a side-loading weapon this could be a serious problem as dirt and other foreign matter could cause feed malfunctions.

Additionally, while many photos – and of course movies – show soldiers holding the magazine, this could actually wear the magazine catch, and also cause a failure to feed. The designers intended the STEN be held more like a rifle with the off-hand forward of the extractor. For this reason later versions of the Sten Guns, notably the Mark V version, featured a forward hand grip.

Variations on a Theme

Few modern firearms, at least those that were truly mass produced, had gone through as many changes and updates as the Sten Gun. In fact, the original design or Mk I version that Shepherd and Turpin produced was quite different from what most gun enthusiasts would now envision when thinking of the STEN.

British Paratroopers in Oosterbeek 9
A famous photo of British Paratroopers fighting in Oosterbeek near Arnhem in the Netherlands in late September 1944. These men are armed with Mk V versions of the famous Sten Gun (Photo: Imperial War Museum/Public Domain)

It featured a folding handle, conical flash hider, fine finish and wooden foregrip, while the barrel sleeve extended to the end of the flash hider. About 100,000 of these were made before the weapon was redesigned as a simplified Mk I, which removed the wooden furniture and flash hider as a way to expedite production.

It should be noted too that the very first Mk I was produced by hand by Turpin. Today it is in the collection of the British Army’s Infantry and Small Arms School Corps in Warminister, Wiltshire.

Even with the simplified Mk I, Enfield went a bit further with the Mk II. The latter remained the most common variant, with more than two million units produced. It had a rougher finish than the earlier model, no flash eliminator and no folding handle at the grip. The removable barrel extended about three inches past the barrel sleeve. As it was advised that the weapon be held not by the magazine, many Mk IIs were issued with an insulating lace-on leather sleeve guard to protect the shooters hand as the barrel and sleeve heated from rapid firing.

There was a Canadian version of the MkII produced at the Long Branch Arsenal in Long Branch, Ontario near Toronto; this variant was nearly identical to the British-made version apart from having a “skeleton” style rather than strut type stock. The overall quality of the Canadian weapon is considered superior by weapon collectors.

The Sten Gun MkIII was the next most commonly produced version, and was a further simplification of the weapon. Production reportedly began in 1942, with Lines Bros Ltd being the primary producer. It featured a unification of the receiver and ejection port, while a fixed barrel shroud that, unlike the Mk II, extended further up.

One of the more unique versions of the Sten Gun was the Mk V, which has commonly become known as the “paratrooper” version. It was widely supplied to British Paras prior to Operation Market Garden, the September 1944 airborne assault on Arnhem in the Netherlands. However, this version was not designed specifically for paratroopers and was actually heavier than the MkII or MkIII versions — and no more compact. It featured a wooden pistol grip, a vertical wooden fore grip, a wooden stock and a bayonet mount that could be fitted with a Number 4 Lee Enfield bayonet. It also had an Enfield foresight.

BritishParatrooperMkV 9
A display of a British Paratrooper with a Sten Gun Mk V at the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in Oosterbeek, The Netherlands – the location that served as the British HQ during Operation Market Garden (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The Mk V was introduced in 1944, when pressure on Great Britain had eased. This manifests in the overall quality of the weapon, which has a better finish as well. It is among the most sought after versions by collectors today.

There were several other variations of the Sten Gun that were produced during World War II, including suppressed models that were used by Special Operations Executive (SOE) and commando forces. Included in this list are the Mk IIS and Mk VI versions. Both of these are extremely rare today. Other variations included a Mk II with pistol grip, a feature that was to be seen again in the Mk IV version (itself further reduced in size with a light weight stock and shorter barrel). This particular version was meant for wide scale production but never progressed past the prototype stage.

Sten Resisitence Museum 1
A Sten Gun MkII with a Dutch Resistance helmet and armband at the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The Sten Gun was easy enough to produce that versions were made during World War II inside territory occupied by the Germans. French, Norwegian, Danish, Belgian and Polish Sten Guns were produced and used by local resistance forces. According to some reports, there were at least 23 underground workshops operating in Poland prior to the 1944 Warsaw uprising, and they were used side by side with the approximately 11,000 Sten Mk IIs that were provided to the Polish ArmiaKrajowa (Home Army) by the Allies.

It was simply an easy weapon to copy and produce said Stevenson, who added,

“The Polish Home Army copies and variants made in Warsaw in 1944 are a good example of this.”

StenGuns 3

A pair of Sten Guns in the collection of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum – including a Sten Mk III (top), a Sten Mk V (middle) along with the Australian Owen Gun (bottom) – a weapon noted for its similarity to the Sten Design.

One of the most infamous copies could be the German Gerät Potsdam versions, which were near exact copies. Some 28,000 of these were made, complete with British markings. It is believed these were for deception or sabotage purposes, but most were never actually used.

The other German version was the MP 3008, which was an attempt to produce a more affordable submachine gun than the MP-40. Designed for use by the Volkssturm and produced in the final days of the war, it was modified by Mauser with the magazine attaching below the weapon – like the MP-40. Some 10,000 pieces were produced during the war, and now replica copies are on the market, and Sten Gun parts kits can be easily modified to simulate the MP 3008. Collectors need to wary of any examples offered for sale.

MP3008Prauge 8
A rare German MP 3008 submachine gun in the Army Museum in Prague. It is featured with the equally rare Volkssturmgewehr and British Sten Gun. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Post War and Foreign Use

The conclusion of World War II could have signaled the end of Sten Gun;  it was, after all, designed to fill a wartime need. In fact however the weapon continued to find use around the world for years by insurgent and revolutionary forces. Caches of weapons later found their way to Malayan rebels, Mau Mau terrorists, the Viet Minh and even the IRA.

The simplistic design allowed it to be produced in shops around the world as well, just as it had during the war. Among the most prolific examples were those produced in the Palestine Mandate following World War II. These were produced on various kibbutzim – the Jewish collective communities that supplied weapons and material to the Haganah and other Jewish paramilitary groups.

According to some accounts the Jewish-made copies were of superior quality to the actual British-made versions.

Explains Israeli military historian Benny Morris,

“They’re just submachine guns – and simple enough so that the Haganah, starved for arms, was able to produce them in quantity, by themselves before and during 1948. Simple and useful for close combat.”

The Sten in Popular Culture

The Sten Gun has been a staple of World War II films and action films since the 1950s, although a Mk II version was seen in the 1946 French made movie ‘The Battle of the Rails’ (La bataille du rail). Interestingly, the Canadian model Mk II has been the more commonly used model, perhaps because many were produced and remained unissued by war’s end.

Interestingly, the Sten Gun even inspired a poem, written by Canadian Gunner S.N. Teed, who served on the Western Front in WWII:

You wicked piece of vicious tin!/Call you a gun? Don’t make me grin./You’re just a bloated piece of pipe./You couldn’t hit a hunk of tripe./But when you’re with me in the night,/I’ll tell you, pal, you’re just alright!

StenMKV 2
A Mk V StenGun at the Army Museum in Prague. This example features the front fore grip and is fitted with a bayonet. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

$10 STEN: The Weapon That Saved the British (Specs)

Type: Submachine gun
Caliber: 9x19mm
Weight: 7.1 pounds (Mk II version)
Length: 29.9-inches
Barrel Length: 7.7-inches
Capacity: 32 round box magazine
Fire Modes: Full Auto/Safe
Action: Blowback-operated, open bolt
Muzzle Velocity: 365 m/s (1,198 ft/s)
Effective Range: 300 meters
Sights: fixed peep rear, post front

Featured Image: PHOTO: Sten_factory_1942
Woman worker poses with finished Sten submachinegun, Small Arms Plant, Long Branch, Ontario, Canada (Photo: National Film Board of Canada/Public Domain)


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