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[History] The Sten Gun: From WWII to Now

Perhaps no other weapon signifies the role of resistance fighters throughout World War II better than the unmistakable Sten gun

A modern Sten reproduction (GSL Technology)
A modern Sten reproduction (GSL Technology)

Its crude metal appearance gives it a made in someone’s garage vibe…and with good reason. It very well might have been.

Thanks to its few working parts, and the easy-to-make design, the Sten gun was made in partisan workshops throughout World War II.

Had it not been so, the outcome of the war may have been very different indeed.

Man in the High Castle Times Square
Alternative history is fun to explore, but I’m glad that we’re not living in the Man in the High Castle timeline…(Photo: Amazon)

So what is it that makes the Sten gun so special?

Well, let’s take a deeper look to show you just why the Sten gun was one of the most indispensable weapons of war for the heart of Europe.

Table of Contents

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Where It All Began

The British were toast.

Dunkirk failed spectacularly, and though a hastily put together ad hoc fleet of civilian vessels was able to evacuate over 330,000 British troops ver 10 days, there wasn’t enough room for a lot of the weapons.

Soldiers lined up to evacuate in the film Dunkirk (2017) (Photo Warner Bros.)
Soldiers lined up to evacuate in the film Dunkirk (2017). (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The result? 

While the men were saved, roughly 11,000 machine guns and tens of thousands of rifles, pistols, and submachine guns were left behind in the sand. 

Consequentially, that left England unarmed.

Though the soldiers’ rescue was admirable, should the Germans decide to attack English soil, the Brits now had no way to repel them.

Ambulances abandoned in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunkirk
Ambulances abandoned in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunkirk

Britain’s Home Guard (their version of our National Guard) comprised roughly 1.5 million men; but, so starved for weapons, they began to run drills with broomsticks.

I know bringing a knife to a gunfight is bad, but a broomstick? You may as well just stay at home.

The Battle of Dunkirk
Dunkirk, France: c. June 1, 1940. The Evacuation of Dunkirk as painted by Charles Cundall. The British evacuated over 350,000 British, Belgian, French, and Polish troops from the path of the overwhelming numbers of the German Army. Photo: Underwood Archives/UIG/REX/Shutterstock (3837770a)

To further complicate the issue, the few weapons the British did have weren’t as effective as the German arms for close combat.

The British relied on bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield No.4 rifles with 10-round magazines, while the Germans used 9mm automatic MP38 and MP40 submachine guns.

A Colourised Shot of an Indian Rifleman Shooting a Lee-Enfield Rifle During World War II
A Colorized shot of an Indian Rifleman Shooting a Lee-Enfield Rifle During World War II

While the Lee-Enfield would prove superior over longer distances, much of World War II was fought in urban environments. This meant a slower rate of fire could easily end with the rifle laying in a bloody patch of dirt.

Something needed to be done, and it needed to be done fast. The fate of Great Britain, and perhaps the war, depended on it.

The MP 40
The MP 40

Birth of the Sten

Major Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin worked together for years – both small arms and engineering experts at the Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield after the failure of Dunkirk.

They knew if someone didn’t churn out some type of inexpensive, easy to make, submachine type weapon to compete with the MP38 and MP40, their country was doomed.

British Soldier with a Sten in Northwest Europe, near Elst, 1945
Corporal Bennett of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, armed with a Sten gun and about to go on a fighting patrol, Elst, 2 March 1945. Photo: Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit

Working mainly after hours, the pair began designing a suitable gun in December 1940.

Parts of the prototype were created in Turin’s home workshop, and 36 days after the first idea, the T40 was born.

Sten Machine Gun Variants
Sten Machine Gun Variants

By March 7, 1941, the T40 was approved for military use, and 100,000 guns were ordered.

The only change the gun saw during this time was its name. Out went the T40, and in came the Sten gun.

Its name served as an acronym — ‘S’ for Shepherd, ‘T’ for Turpin, and ‘EN’ for either Enfield or England (there’s a bit of debate as to which).

Sten Variants

Mark I

With British military approval, both Great Britain and Canada began cranking out large volumes of the first version of the Sten gun – the Mark I.

Due to its design, this proved relatively easy to do.

Sten Mk 1 serial 1
Sten Mk 1 serial 1

A blowback-operated submachine gun made from machined steel, it took roughly five man-hours to make just one gun.

Production cost equaled roughly $10 at the time. Today, that’s about $130 per weapon. Not bad.

broke meme
Handy, when your wartime budget looks like this.

All in all, it took only 47 different parts to craft a workable Sten. Out of these 47 parts, only two of them – the barrel and the bolt – needed machining.

Ironically, the Sten utilized 9mm Parabellum ammunition — a round specifically designed for the German military and their infamous pistol, the Luger

Winter Training Luger P08
Winter Training Luger P08

Yes, the 9mm round was a good one, but there was also an ingenious practicality about using this ammunition.

To successfully repel the Nazis, resistance fighters needed ammunition. What better way to get it than by harvesting it off dead soldiers and at conquered German supply stores?

As such, there would virtually never be a shortage of ammunition for the Sten.

9mm (115gr vs 124gr vs 147 HP)
9mm (115gr vs 124gr vs 147 HP)

The magazine for the Sten was a blatant copy of that used for the German MP40 as well. Unfortunately, this led to some problems.

The MP40 relied upon a dual-stacking, single-feed mechanism – a design prone to jamming.

Somewhat alleviated by not filling the 32-round magazine with any more than 30 rounds, it still occasionally caused issues.

Sten magazines
Sten magazines

Mark II

As with most weapons, the Sten went through a number of upgrades as time went on.

While the Mark I had a wooden foregrip and flash hider, production could be amplified by removing these accessories.

As a result, the Mark II quickly grew into the most famous of the Sten Mark variants.

It offered no barrel jacket. Adjustments were made to the safety slot, and the magazine housing now swung down to protect the feed ejection openings against dirt.

Sten Mk II
Sten Mk II

Production cost for the Mark II came in around 2.87 British pounds per gun.

Mark III & IV

The next iteration, the Mark III, decreased costs further. However, this came at the cost of concealability due to the fixed magazine housing and non-removeable barrel.

A final model, the Mark IV, was produced but never issued.

Sten Mk III
Sten Mk III

Mark V

By the time the Mark V came around, the British seemed to have a bit more leeway when it came to making more professional weapons.

As such, the Mark V featured a wooden grip and stock and could accept a bayonet.

A Thompson Submachine gun (bottom) and a Sten Mk V (top)
A Thompson Submachine gun (bottom) and a Sten Mk V (top)

It later played a significant role in the Battle of Arnhem.

A Few Flaws

Though an effective combat weapon, the Sten certainly had its flaws. Chief among these — its tendency to fire uncontrollably in full-auto.

If bumped with enough force, the recoil spring could chamber a round. That’s something that could easily turn into an issue.

Not an ideal thing to jump out of planes with…

Such an action wounded four parachutists on November 16, 1942. Others accidentally killed themselves with their own weapons when dropped.

However, creative troops soon found a use for such a malady…by using a loaded Sten as something of a grenade.

Modern Probs Modern Solutions
That’s using your noggin!

When Germans hid inside any form of structure with a window, Allied troops could throw a loaded Sten through the glass. Upon impact, it would go into an uncontrollable full-auto burst.

A Sten MK II or MK III
A Sten MK II or MK III

The other main problem the Sten gun faced was jamming. 

Aside from the magazine design, the incredibly long opening in the weapon where the cocking handle sat contributed to this problem.

Dirt and debris could easily enter the port, and the weapon would refuse to fire as a result.

A British Soldier with a Sten in a slit trench
A soldier of 3rd Division, armed with a Sten gun, occupies a slit trench at Helmond, 31 December 1944. Photo: Bert Hardy, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit

The most famous example of this issue came during Operation Anthropoid – a quest to kill the mastermind behind the Final Solution responsible for much of the Jewish genocide, Reinhard Heydrich.

Also known as The Butcher of Prague, Heydrich was traveling in an open-top Mercedes when a Czech agent fired at him with his Sten from point-blank range.

Reinhard Heydrich
Reinhard Heydrich

The gun jammed before letting out even one shot.

Thankfully, a compatriot of the agent had a grenade handy, which he deftly tossed into the Mercedes.

It filled Heydrich’s torso with shrapnel and leather upholstery, and The Butcher died from blood poisoning just a few short days later.

Heydrich's car after attack
Reinhard Heydrich’s car (a Mercedes-Benz 320 Convertible B) after the 1942 assassination attempt in Prague.

The Sten, British Troops, & Resistance Fighters

There was a lot of initial skepticism amongst the British troops in regards to the Sten.

It looked ugly and crude, lacking all of the sophistication of other weapons soldiers previously used.

A British Army soldier holding a Sten
A soldier demonstrates the new bayonet for the Sten gun, 3 August 1942. Photo: Lockeyear W T (Lt), War Office official photographer

And it didn’t help that the first true combat test, Operation Rutter, failed. (In part because the Stens issued prior to the raid came clogged with the packing grease they shipped in.)

A full 60% of Allied soldiers at Dieppe were killed, wounded, or captured as a result. 

British Paratrooper training with a Sten in October 1942
British Paratrooper training with a Sten in October 1942

Despite this, the Sten quickly grew to become a favorite of British airborne troops and glider forces.

Its rapid rate of fire – over 500 rounds/minute — simplicity and ability to fire in either semi- or full-auto made for an excellent close-quarters combat weapon.

Private Kay Elms with a Sten
Private Kay Elms of the ATS, a member of 281st Battery, 137th (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, carries a Sten gun at a camp in Belgium, 26 January 1944. Photo: O’Brien (Lt), War Office official photographer

“When you went into a village or went into a house, whatever it was, it was a reliable weapon. It wasn’t a reliable instrument for anything over 100 yards, but for anything close-quarters, it was very reliable,” Alan Lee, a member of the British Parachute Regiment during WW2, recalled.

Sten Mark II Submachine Gun (David Albert Collection)
Sten Mark II Submachine Gun (David Albert Collection)

Resistance Fighters

From the start, the Sten gun proved a favorite of resistance fighters throughout Europe.

The Allies dropped tens of thousands of them via parachute throughout Nazi-occupied regions as well as to the Chinese attempting to fight off Japan.

As a result, it easily became one of the most common weapons found amongst underground movements.

Palestinian Jews training with Stens in 1946
Palestinian Jews training with Stens in 1946

Due to the low cost and easy-to-make design, several partisan units throughout Europe ended up crafting their own in-basement workshops.

The Danish resistance made around 1,000 of their own Sten guns, while the Norwegians created roughly 800 and Polish resistance fighters manufactured around 1,300.

Woman worker poses with finished Sten submachinegun, Small Arms Plant, Long Branch, Ontario, Canada. May 1942 (Photo National Film Board of Canada)
Woman worker poses with finished Sten submachine gun, Small Arms Plant, Long Branch, Ontario, Canada. May 1942. (Photo: National Film Board of Canada)

Interestingly enough, the production of Polish Sten guns involved nearly everyone from metal workers to local blacksmiths, resulting in a true hand-crafted weapon.

Due to its simplicity, it took virtually no training to become proficient.

Once someone knew how to load and unload the weapon, you had a resistance fighter.

American officer and French partisan crouch behind an auto during a street fight in a French city. 1944
American officer and French partisan crouch behind an auto during a street fight in a French city. 1944

And due to the weapon’s removable stock and barrel disassembling in seconds, it was readily concealable as well.

This alone was of extreme importance to resistance fighters.

The Nazis were not known for their mercy. Anywhere Sten guns were found was viewed as proof that British-supported resistance fighters were in the region.

Yugoslav partisan with a Sten in 1945
Yugoslav partisan with a Sten in 1945

This was a threat to everything the Third Reich stood for, and it would not be tolerated.

In 1942, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven found a Sten gun hanging by parachute in a tree while in Norway and decreed that any members of the populace found in possession of such a weapon would be executed.

Italian Partisan with a Sten
The caption reads: “Rome, 6/16/45. Last Formation –This wounded Italian partisan was determined to let nothing stop him from attending the last parade at Pordenone when partisans of the Friuli District turned in their arms. British official photo approved by appropriate military authority. Serviced By Rome OWI full. 6759.”

Similar decrees sprang up throughout the rest of occupied Europe as well.

One single British-made 9mm round found under a farm’s haystack by Germans in France doomed the entire family living there to death.

These actions were commonplace and meant to send an unmistakable message: defy the Nazis, and such a fate awaits you.

Georges Blind, a member of the French resistance, smiling at a German firing squad, 1944
Georges Blind, a member of the French resistance, smiling at a German firing squad, 1944

As a result, resistance fighters hid Stens and other weapons in obscure places. So obscure, in fact, that some of them are still found today.

In 2017, a French couple renovating their home in Burgundy found a cache of three Sten guns, 15 magazines, over a thousand rounds of ammunition, three pistols, and over a dozen grenades positively tied to a French Marquis resistance fighter that had lived at the house decades prior.

Cache of Stens and other armament found in a French home. Photo L'Yonne Republicaine
Cache of Stens and other armament found in a French home. Photo: L’Yonne Republicaine

Stens in the Modern Era

“The Stench Gun,” as it was affectionately called, remained in service until the 1950s. But, its usefulness led to infamy, even in modern times.

During Ireland’s “Troubles,” the IRA raided a Northern Ireland British Army barracks, making off with 50 Stens.

ARAB ISRAELI WAR 1948 WOMEN ARMY
A female officer in charge of the range at the Hen women’s corps camp near Tel Aviv, Palestine, gives a demonstration in the handling of a Sten gun on June 15, 1948 in the Arab-Israeli War. Although non-combatants, members the new women’s Army in Israel are taught to use guns for defense. (AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda weapons caches have been found containing Stens.

Not to mention, copies of the Mark 2 popped up amongst the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Though it served its time in WWII, it remains relevant today as an iconic piece of history.

Due to its full-auto capabilities, it does fall under the National Firearms Act, meaning that owning one can be tricky.

But for those die-hard fans who want a Sten gun of their own, parts kits are available to DIY one yourself – a non-full auto version, of course, lest the ATF come knocking.

ATF Inspections Meme

Conclusion

The Sten gun earned its place in history as one of the most easily identifiable and useful weapons of all time.

Members of the French Resistance in Corsica during World War II, circa 1942. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Members of the French Resistance in Corsica during World War II, circa 1942. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though it had its flaws, had it not been for the Sten, the Europe of today would look like a very different place.

Are there other aspects of the Sten that we didn’t cover? Have you ever had the opportunity to use one? Let us know in the comments below! Want another historical perspective of two very popular guns? Check out our look at the Galil and HK MP5.

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7 Leave a Reply

  • Howard Tanenbaum,MD

    Th you for your articles regarding the Holocaust and antisemitism. All too often the plight and heroism of the Jewish people during WW2 is allowed to fade from history.The terrifying rise of white nationalism in our country, threatens our Democracy.Articles like yours serve as reminders where bigotry and hate can lead us. Prey they do not prevail. Phanks again.

    July 26, 2021 6:27 pm
  • DW

    There's a story that Winston Churchill had to approve the manufacture of special large condoms by the manufacturer, Durex, to protect Sten guns parachuted into German occupied Norway and Denmark, given the shortage of rubber supplies during the war. He gave his approval on the condition that the enormous condoms were stamped "Made in Britain" and "Standard Size". True or not it's a good story.

    June 21, 2021 6:34 am
  • TXP

    Last time I saw one was in Hyderabad, India in 2008. There was an airport police/military/security guy patrolling around with one. He was holding it by the magazine, casually swinging it around as he strolled through his patrol area. If he needed to shoot it, he'd have to change hands and figure out how to orient it in a shooting grip. This was a stark contrast to the professional looking police with MP5 in the Frankfort, Germany airport.

    June 19, 2021 7:35 am
  • Will

    The part about "uncontrollable automatic fire on impact" leading to soldiers repurposing them as grenades made me smile.

    June 17, 2021 4:58 pm
  • Brian West

    I joined the RAF in 1970, years later as a SNCO, we were still taught to shoot the Sten Gun. They were issued also on exercises. Mostly only used on single shot due to them having a wicked pull up to the right when fired in auto. This was experienced when shooting them on the range for annual qualification. Can't remember when they stopped using them.

    June 17, 2021 4:58 pm
  • Paul

    Didn't know what a sten gun is until now. Interesting article!

    June 17, 2021 7:42 am
  • John

    Nice article. Thank you

    June 17, 2021 3:51 am
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