Imagine being the British in a post-Dunkirk world. Things didn’t look great for the island nation. It faced an invasion from the German Army and its small arms were hopelessly underwhelming. The Brits needed more, and they began purchasing all the Thompsons they could handle. They weren’t enough and they cost too much to outfit the Army. The Brits needed their own gun, a gun they could produce cheaply. So in 1940 Major Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin designed the Sten gun.
The SMG War
World War II was the submachine gun war. Before the assault rifle, the rifle squad was made up of full-sized battle rifles complemented by submachine guns. Every fighting force had submachine guns. The Sten gun would become the British entry in the SMG war.
The Sten gun — which is an acronym for Shepherd, Turpin, and Enfield — provided the Brits with a superbly simple submachine gun. It cost only 10 bucks a copy to produce. It could be made quickly due to the minimal welding and machining required as well as the heavy use of stamped steel parts. Modern wannabe Brits can build their own sten guns from 80% Lowers. The gun was hardly more than a trigger, tube, spring, and bolt. It sprayed 9mm like water from a hose. A cyclic rate of 550 rounds per minute made the gun quite controllable.
The Sten gun used a basic blowback operation, which wasn’t common for the time. Heck, it’s not that uncommon now. It also used an open bolt design with a fixed firing pin. I don’t think you can produce a simpler submachine gun than the Sten. The gun used a side-mounted magazine. The only reason I can find for that is that the first SMG, the MP18, used one as did the more expensive Lanchester SMG. It worked then, so it would work again and likely sped up the design process to steal from other gun designs.
While many a movie, TV show, and video game showed soldiers holding the magazine as they fired, this would eventually wear the magazine catch. Speaking of magazines, the Brits used the German MP40 magazine for the Sten. It allowed to speed up development by “borrowing” ideas and also made it easy to steal German SMG magazines for fighting purposes.
Different Versions of the Sten
Throughout the war, the Sten was improved and developed into a better and sometimes cheaper firearm. This resulted in different models serving during the war concurrently. They armed resistance fighters around the world and were even used after the war.
The first Sten utilized a forward grip, some extra wood furniture, and a slanted muzzle device. The Mk1 paved the way for the Mk1*. The Mk1* removed the wood, vertical grip, and slant muzzle brake.
The Sten gun became even simpler and cheaper with the Mk1*.
The Mk2 proved you could make the Sten even cheaper by making small external and internal changes. The stock was simplified and the barrel went from a six groove to a two groove version. The Mk2 became the most produced Sten gun, with over two million produced.
An Mk2S was produced with an integrally suppressed barrel. This gun was designed for Commandos and special ops in occupied territories. Commandos took out countless German sentries with these guns, and it became the most widely utilized suppressed weapon of the war.
Again the Sten got cheaper. A toy company produced the original Mk3 and utilized a single strut stock and a cheap sheet steel body. The barrel could not be removed, so when damaged, it had to be scrapped. It was lighter and had only 47 parts. However, it proved to be less reliable and its production ended in 1943.
The Mk4A and Mk4B models were an attempt to improve the ergonomics of the Sten series guns. A and B models attempted to add traditional pistol grip and stock. Neither Mk4 saw any adoption or use during the war.
Did the Brits perfect the Sten with the Mk5? Many people feel so. The Mk5 Sten moved away from the uber-cheap design of the initial Sten guns. The Mk5 came to be in 1944. It features a traditional pistol grip, wood stock, wood foregrip, and bayonet mount. Reportedly it was much more comfortable to fire than previous Sten guns.
The Mk6 model was the exact same as the Mk5 but featured a suppressor.
The Sten in Service
Early Sten guns had a number of reliability issues. Sten guns were notoriously picky and needed to be cleaned and well maintained to operate. This required soldiers to be disciplined to clean the guns. When the guns were well maintained and fed with quality magazines, they tended to function superbly. It took time for the armories to work out the kinks in the cheap little SMGs.
Yet, small issues plagued the cheap SMG throughout the war. It seemed that if you got a good variant of the gun, you had a good one and it would work. When the Sten Gun worked, it was a brutal weapon that spewed 9mm into Nazis without remorse. At close range, it could outgun the bolt action rifles that were popular at the time.
The compact Sten gun could be taken apart and hidden by resistance fighters, and when the time came, the gun would unleash hell.
However, it had a safety issue. The safety barely worked, and the gun could fire if it were dropped or something struck its rear with any amount of force. It’s one of the downsides of open bolt guns — especially open bolt guns made from stamped steel for 10 bucks a pop. Fighters had to be cautious with cocked firearms and handle them like live grenades.
The Sten went on to serve with many military forces. It saw use by the Czechs, Danish, French, and Canadians; even Nazi Germany used captured Sten guns. Brits used the Sten gun up until 1953 when it was finally allowed to retire with the Sterling taking its place.
Retiring a Legend
The Sten gun served its country well. It provided the Brits and Commonwealth forces with a cheap, effective, and easy-to-build submachine gun. It served for many, many years and through many wars. In fact, it was found in the hands of terrorists and insurgents in the Iraq and Libyan wars. You can’t keep a Sten gun down. The mighty Sten gun did what it could for King and country and deserves its rest.
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