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WWII Lanchester – The other Brit Subgun

We’ve talked before about the $10 weapon that helped save the western world, but the Sten was far from the only submachine gun produced during WWII. Another largely forgotten weapon also played its role.

Ex Historiam: WWII Lanchester – The other Brit Subgun

The weapon we’re talking about was the Lanchester; a 9mm, blowback submachine gun that fired from an open bolt and was, truth be told, far more rugged and reliable than the Sten Gun. It was rushed into service and by all accounts filled its role quite well, albeit at a cost much higher than that of the Sten Gun. Whereas the Sten cost around £2 (approximately $10US) per unit, the Lanchester cost around £14 at the time – but for a nation eager to arm as many men as possible that might have been a small price to pay.

Origins of the Forgotten Gun

Its origins begin after the so-called “miracle of Dunkirk.” There the British were able to successfully evacuate the majority of the British Expeditionary Force, as well as a large number of French troops, from the continent. Despite this success, however, military planners in the UK were presented with serious problems of matériel.

Much of the heavy equipment and vast quantities of small arms had been left behind. That was among a key  reason the British Army rushed the Sten Gun into production. At the same time the Royal Air Force (RAF) also determined that a submachine gun would be necessary for the defense of its airfields. For reasons lost to time they opted to create their own subgun; a direct copy of the German MP28/II submachine gun.

The project was led by George Herbert Lanchester, an English engineer formerly of the Lanchester Motor Company.With the outbreak of World War II Lanchester had gone to work for the Sterling Armaments Company, who produced the weapon. Thus it was named the Lanchester, though he did not himself design the firearm.

The MP28/II was an update of the MP18, arguably the world’s first submachine gun and one used with much success by German “storm troopers” at the end of the First World War. It is worth noting that the MP28 was produced by the German firm Haenel under the direct supervision of Hugo Schmeisser. That firearm was the inspiration for the Finnish Suomi Model 31, which itself served to influence the gun that saved Mother Russia. Thus it can be argued that the Lanchester and PPSh-41 are loosely related.

Lanchester didn’t really modify the design of the MP28/II.  In fact the latter’s magazine and bolt could be used in the Lanchester SMG. One notable improvement of the Lanchester was the use of brass for the magazine well, making for an even more rugged firearm. The Lanchester (like the Sten Mk V) also featured a bayonet mount, something that the MP28, Suomi and PPSh-41 submachine guns all lacked.

Lanchester 3
Brass magazine well. It was machined from a single block of brass, which was rugged but more importantly was almost impervious to corrosion from saltwater (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Rugged Weapon

This particular firearm was only produced from late 1940 until 1945. While it was originally the RAF that called for the new weapon, most of Lanchester SMGs produced were actually used by the Royal Navy. It was considered ideal for guarding prisoners and for naval landing and assault parties, and was, interestingly, built of far higher quality materials than the Sten.

Lanchester 2
The durable Lanchester submachine gun, Britain’s forgotten weapon of WWII. While sometimes compared to the StenGun, the two weapons have little in common apart from the same magazine. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Firearms collector and World War II reenactor Adrian Stevenson tells us,

“The Lanchester SMG was certainly a stop gap item. A throwback to earlier years when build quality and machine time was not an issue. A good solid and heavy gun. But just a copy of the German original with nothing original to it.”

What could be considered original was the hardware. The Lanchester featured a wooden butt and stock originally designed for the Lee-Enfield No. 1 MkIII rifle. This was cut and shaped to size, with the SMG version featuring the inclusion of a crafted brass butt plate. This, like the magazine well, was impervious to corrosion by saltwater.  The Lanchester could be fitted with the M1907 bayonet, unlike the Sten, which used the later spike bayonet.

The weapon was designed so that it was easy to service. For instance, the metal hardware connected to the wooden stock via a pivot that could be swung up for cleaning. This was, reportedly, important. Many Royal Navy sailors and RAF airmen were not generally as accustomed to servicing and cleaning their weapons. Certainly not to the extent as were their British Army counterparts. Like the MP28/II the Lanchester was easy to field-strip and did not require special tools.

Two Marks

The Lanchester was produced in two versions. This has confused some collectors and even a few gun experts over the years. This is due to nomenclature. The two versions were referred to as the “Mk 1” and the “Mk 1*. The latter was a simplified version of the former, and omitted the fire mode selector. It also had simplified rear sights. Thus only a true “Mk 1” was capable of semi-automatic and full-automatic fire. While most issued versions appear to be the modified Mk 1*, many Mk 1s (no asterisk) were modified as well. This could explain why it wasn’t referred to as the Mk 2. The simpler Lanchester has earned the moniker “the star version” by collectors and historians.

Less than 100,000 Lanchesters were apparently produced, with Sterling manufacturing 75,000 of them. Greener and Boss each also produced far lower numbers, with the former building around 17,000 and the latter under 4,000 total. Contrast this to the millions of Sten Guns produced; the disparity was likely due to the higher cost and the need for craftsmen of higher skill to build them.

The Lanchester not exactly advanced even when introduced, and there were proportionally few of the, but they were long-lived. Although production ceased with the end of the war, Lanchesters remained in service with the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and other Commonwealth navies at least into the late 1960s. It was finally withdrawn from Royal Navy service in the 1970s.

The weapon’s longevity isn’t surprising. It was well-liked by its users. Even when America entered the war and provided lend-lease items, the Royal Navy and RAF continued to use it. The rationale was explained by Jonathan Ferguson, curator of firearms at the British National Firearms Centre in Leeds:

“As I understand the situation, the Thompson was the first recourse, with quantities ordered for all services in February 1940. The Army decided that they wanted to stick with the Thompson, whereas the RAF and Royal Navy requested copies (August 1940) of German SMGs, which they apparently favoured. Hence the War Office finally commissioned Sterling to produce 50,000 (half each for the RN and RAF, though apparently all went to the Navy in the end) Lanchesters were a close copy of the MP 28/II, itself a minor improvement over the original MP 18/I introduced in the final year of the First World War. The Sten didn’t even appear until 1941, long after these efforts were made. The Sten became dominant, but the army – especially the Commando brigades – jealously hung on to their Tommy Guns alongside Stens until war’s end.”

Popular Culture and Its Legacy

Given that the Lanchester is largely forgotten, it’s no surprise that it has been seen if few movies or TV shows. The first appearance of a Lanchester in a film was likely the 1955 movie Above Us the Waves, which chronicled the Royal Navy’s attempts to sink the German Battleship Tirpitz. The weapon appears in several scenes where it doubled as the MP28/II, which was in fact used by German sailors. The Royal Navy assisted with that film production and likely provided real Lanchesters for a few sequences!

The Lanchester was also used in the 1984 adaptation of the book Nineteen Eight-Four, where it is seen in “newsreel” footage carried by Oceania soldiers. More recently a Lanchester (again) doubled for a MP28/II in the Korean “western” styled film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird – where various outlaws search for buried treasure in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s.

Original operational Lanchesters are extremely rare and to date no company has produced semi-auto versions. However, International Military Antiques (www.ima-usa.com) still offers deactivated versions that feature original parts with dummy receivers. This reportedly came from Royal Navy stocks, but the militaria dealer also offers a “Desert Rat” version, which features a khaki finish and Arabic inscriptions. These were reportedly used by British-supported forces including the Arab Legion and the Trans Jordan Frontier Force.

Lanchester Submachine Gun Specs

Type: Submachine gun
Caliber: 9x19mm
Weight: 9.57 pounds
Length: 33.5-inches
Barrel Length: 8-inches
Capacity: 32 round box magazine
Fire Modes: Full Auto/Safe (Mk 1* version)
Action: Blowback-operated, open bolt
Muzzle Velocity: 380 m/s (1,245 ft/s)
Effective Range: 150 meters
Sights: Front blade, rear adjustable


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