With a Nazi invasion of the United Kingdom all but certain in the summer of 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously vowed that Britons would fight the Axis on the beaches and landing grounds as well as in the fields, streets and hills of England. But to do so, the nation would need weapons… and lots of them — weapons like the sten gun.
First dreamed up in the opening months of the war and then rushed into production during the Battle of Britain, the sten was a bargain-basement sub-machine gun that could be produced quickly and in great numbers.
The three-kilogram, all-metal weapon fired eight rounds per second from a horizontally-loaded, 32-round magazine. Cleverly designed to use German 9 mm pistol ammunition, the sten was effective to about 100 meters (300 feet).
At the time, each sten gun cost as little as £2 ($10) to produce – roughly equal to about $130 or £80 today. By comparison, the American M1A1 Thompson went for a staggering $200 per unit in 1940!
And while by October of 1940, Hitler had postponed his plans for a cross-channel invasion, Allied factories continued to crank out stens by the thousands and would do so for the next five years. In fact, nearly 5 million stens were manufactured before the end of 1945. The weapon would serve in every theatre and go on to become the most recognizable British small arm of the war. Here are some other facts about the venerable Sten.
- What’s In a Name? — “Sten” is actually an acronym for its inventors: Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin of the Royal Small Arms Factory of Enfield (Shepherd, Turpin and Enfield = “sten”).
- The Simplest SMG — Made from cheap, stamped-metal parts and requiring only a bit of welding, a single sten could be produced at a workbench by a semi-skilled labourer in few hours — a fully outfitted factory could produce hundreds of the weapons in a shift. Early variants of the gun were built with fewer than 50 parts. What’s more, stens required almost no oiling, making them a snap to maintain in the field.
- Ugly, But it Works (…Sort Of) — Awkward and unsightly, the sten’s all metal construction, from the tip of its stubby barrel to end of its skeleton butt stock, was a clear departure from the more elegant looking American Thompson SMG or the Royal Navy’s Lanchester (which itself was a direct copy of Germany’s First World War era MP-18 ‘machine pistol’). Even Germany’s entirely utilitarian looking MP-40 was considerably more handsome than the ungainly sten. Despite this, the British public adored its homegrown submachine gun. Tommies on the other hand were less than enthusiastic about the weapon.
- Performance Issues – In addition to being hard on the eyes, stens were notoriously unreliable. Prone to jams, misfires and stoppages, the guns had an unfortunate tendency to blaze through an entire clip when dropped, jostled or even just set down carelessly. Surprisingly, British troops eventually used this shortcoming to their advantage in combat. A squad of infantrymen could clear a room by simply tossing one or two loaded and cocked stens through a door or window. The guns would discharge on impact and rattle ammo off in all directions until empty.
- Many Variants — Although originally rushed into production under the designation “Mk. II sten”, there were at least six different variants of the weapon produced during the war. These include a Canadian version of the Mk. II, an Australian edition known as the AuSten gun, as well as the more rugged and reliable Mk. V with an all-wooden stock and fore and aft pistol grips. Mk. Vs could also be fitted with a socket-style bayonet and featured a small angled mirror on the muzzle that enabled the user to peek around corners. A suppressed version was also manufactured as well as a super compact pistol-sized variant known as the Mk. IV.
- DIY Stens — While tens of thousands of stens were airdropped into Nazi-occupied Europe by the Allies, underground movements actually set up secret workshops to manufacture their own copies of the weapon. Danish, French and Norwegian partisans built hundreds of domestic stens, while the Polish engineered several improvised versions right under the Nazis’ noses.
- Hitler’s Sten Gun – It wasn’t just underground armies that built copies of the sten. The Nazis were so impressed with the weapon, they built their own. In addition to producing 28,000 Mk. IIs for infiltration and espionage purposes, by the war’s end, armaments factories throughout the shrinking Third Reich turned out modified copies of the dirt-cheap SMG for Volkssturm formations. The MP 3008, as it was known, was virtually identical to the Mk II, save for a vertical magazine configuration.
- Post War Stens – The British army continued to use the weapon into the 1960s, as did a number of other militaries the world over. Belgium, Israel, Jordan, India and Pakistan all either used British-built stens or produced their own knock-offs for decades after the Second World War, as did Argentina, South Vietnam, South Africa and Indonesia. During the 1991 break up of Yugoslavia, Croatian nationalists manufactured a domestic sten-inspired SMG known as the Pleter 91.
- American Sten Guns – While U.S. Special Forces carried suppressed stens in South East Asia. And during the 1980s, a Texas-based arms manufacturer known as International Ordnance based its ultra-cheap MP2 sub-machine gun on the old sten design. During the same decade, an American gun enthusiast and entrepreneur by the name of William York began selling trigger-less sten clones known as Sputter Guns. The weapons, which would fire off an entire magazine when the bolt was pulled back and released, were engineered to circumvent firearms laws that prevented civilians from owning automatic weapons. In 1985, Sputter Guns were outlawed.
THE STEN: THE GUN SOLDIERS LOVED TO HATE
As mentioned, the sten had something of a checkered reputation with the troops, as this 1994 Canadian Legion cartoon and World War Two-era poem illustrate.
Ode to a Sten Gun
By Gunner. S.N. Teed
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!
Each day I wipe you free of dirt.
Your dratted corners tear my shirt.
I cuss at you and call you names.
You’re much more trouble than my dames.
But boy, do I love to hear you yammer,
when you spit lead in a business manner.
You conceited pile of salvage junk,
I think this prowess talk is bunk.
Yet, if I want a wall of lead thrown at some Jerry’s head,
it is to you I raise my hat.
You’re a damn good pal,
you silly gat!