The STEN Gun: Britain's Love-Hate Submachine Gun

The STEN gun was a 9mm Parabellum submachine gun developed by Britain for use in WWII and this damnably straightforward piece of kit today still elicits conflicting emotions from machine gunners and history buffs alike.

The STEN, its name is derived from the chief designers initials (S for Shepherd, T for Turpin) and EN for Enfield or The Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, was described in one unflattering early account as, “resembling a roughly machined collection of scrap metal that was quite exciting to be around as it tended to go off when knocked” and it is more than likely this love hate relationship with the gun (courtesy of the role it played in history) that best epitomizes this classic small arm.

Though the gun received very little praise in its heyday, by modern standards the rawness of the design deserves respect, particularly when you place the weapons initial manufacture squarely during the Battle of Britain (i.e. Germany’s attempted invasion of the United Kingdom). 

Losing a substantial number of men and weapons at the battle of Dunkirk, a shaken British military realized demand for submachine guns could not be filled by the US, who would be entering the War in 1941 and up until that point had been supplying the Brits with US made Thompsons

Seeking a domestically produced solution, an already resource hungry Great Britain turned to the Royal Arsenal to design a user friendly, threadbare weapon that even a country on rations could afford to produce.

sten gun

With only 47 parts (and with only two of those parts machined) the simple STEN gun was made of stamped steel, welded together so that production could be done in small shops, rather than in large factories.  As the war progressed, the design became more Spartan—the Mark III, which replaced a wood stock with essentially just a length of pipe, could be made in a matter of five man hours.

Ironically, this third iteration, the STEN Mark III, was manufactured by Lines Brothers in England, a firm of toy makers, and surprisingly these guns are considered to be the best quality weapons of all the models produced.

At time when any type of weapon was in short supply, an unpredictable, sewn together submachine gun was better than nothing and with production cost so low the Brits weren’t anxious about handing them out to resistance fighters, who loved because they could be dismantled and components hidden with ease. 

The STEN also quite crucially could fire captured German 9 mm ammunition though STEN ammo magazines of inferior quality which further reduced trust and reliability.  This fickleness could also be attributed to the belief that, because of the minimalist design, the weapon could be fired without lubrication (it can and it can’t).

woman holding sten submachine gun

The nutty part is this however: despite all of the guns’ well understood, cash strapped driven design flaws, more than 4 million STEN guns produced for Commonwealth troops through WWII. 

And England didn’t keep this ugly secret to themselves; they exported the design and the methods to the rest of the British Commonwealth and her allies, cementing the STENs open bolt design, curious horizontal magazine and even inspiring copycat (and by most accounts superior) designs like Australia’s Owen submachine gun.  Argentina, France, Norway, Denmark, Poland and even the United States of America (we called it the Sputter gun) all toyed around with STEN designs.

First used by Canadians (who produced Mark II’s in Long Branch Ontario) at Dieppe, the STEN completely replaced the Thompson in Northwest Europe by the time of the Normandy landings in 1944. The STEN was initially issued to vehicle crews and dispatch riders assuming a limited need for a long range weapon. 

As production grew it was preferred by platoon commanders, platoon sergeants and officers as it was small and light.  In 1944 Brit Official Dispatches noted that a Canadian Battalion Commander in Normandy personally hunted down a German sniper, tracked him to a barn, and “gunned the bastard down” with his STEN.

post war sten gun picture

After the War, the STEN was replaced by the Sterling, but not after leaving a whole family of variants behind.  Notably the Mark II can be fitted with a silencer, making it the very first silenced sub machinegun ever produced.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the STEN was created because crude times often necessitate a crude solution.  A gun that was an easy to make, surprisingly simple to operate, offered very little recoil and, when fired in close, was effective as anything else out there, ultimately won the hearts of the soldiers who lived and died by it’s performance, regardless of how ugly it looked. 

Today, complete WWII STEN guns can fetch upwards of $15,000, though more modest examples can go for as little as $3,000.

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