Britain's armed forces entered the Second World War
with an odd mix of equipment and ideologies; the RAF
had some superb fighters, but was used as an offensive bomber force, the Royal Navy ruled the waves, but not the submarine
depths, whilst the British army was poorly-equipped, with substandard tanks, old-fashioned anti-tank guns and bolt-action rifles which were eventually abandoned on the beaches at Dunkirk
The horrors of the great war haunted the generation of politicians then in power, many of whom had fought in the mud and blood of France. In Britain, trench warfare was seen as an abberation, a one-off, obsolete in the age of the tank and the dive-bomber. Thus, until the late 1930s, the British infantryman was still equipped with a bolt-action Lee Enfield, an accurate weapon, with great punch over long range, but not much use up close - unless one counted the bayonet, a device in which the higher ranks still placed great faith. The German army, however, had learned from the Spanish Civil War that 'FIBUA', fighting in built-up areas, required lightweight, automatic weapons - sub-machineguns, such as the classic MP38/MP40 'Schmeisser' beloved of war films. Germany had invented the class of weapon during the Great War, with select-fire versions of the Luger P9 pistol, and later with the purpose-built MP18. The Treary of Versailles forbade Germany from producing further sub-machineguns, but not pistols, which led to the Army calling the MP38 a 'machine-pistol', a name still used today in Germany for such weapons.
The British initially copied the MP28 (a modernised MP18), calling it the 'Lanchester', but by the mid-30s the design was obsolete; too large and heavy for general use, the entire order went to the Royal Navy and RAF for use in base defence and ship-board security, a task it performed with great anonymity until the 1960s. Of similar vintage and available in large quantities, the American Thompson was drafted as a replacement, but it was expensive and, with U-Boat attack disrupting shipping, many were sure to end up at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The War Ministry was greatly impressed with the German MP40, and thus, when Harold Turpin and Reginald Shepherd of the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, came up with a cheap, simple sub-machinegun design in 1941 it was given the nod. Their weapon - named 'STEN' after 'Shepherd', 'Turpin' and 'ENfield' - could be mass-produced as quickly and cheaply as possible by semi-skilled workers. It was small and light, which was handy as, apart from North Africa, the British Army's only way to strike the Nazis was with commando raids on the continent, and it could be easily dismantled and hidden by resistance groups. Indeed, its most memorable action was the 1941 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal head of SS operations in occupied Prague. Heydrich's car was ambushed on the way to his headquarters by a team of Czech guerillas who had been trained in England; as the lead guerilla prepared to rake Heydrich's car with bullets, his Sten jammed. Heydrich was killed by grenade shrapnel, dying slowly his of his wounds. His death resulted in extensive Nazi reprisals, including the destruction of Lidice, a nearby village. It was not a good advertisement for the Sten.
The MP38/MP40 had been the first military weapon designed to be mass-produced entirely from metal, with stamping machines; created not by gunsmiths, but by civilian workers sitting at an assembly line. The Sten took this a step further; it had only six moving parts, and by the end of the war cost £9 per unit in 2002 prices (not including bullets). The functional brutality of its design - a thick metal tube, with a box projecting from the side, welded to a thinner tube at a 10 degree angle, with no padding, no 'furniture', not even a pistol grip - did nothing to make Britain look like a war-winning nation, whilst the clarity of the design was a reflection of modern war itself - mass-produced total war of mass-produced armies, with no thought for comfort and humanity, and no distinction between soldier and civilian; an entire population mobilised into a machine for eating metal and spitting bullets. Just as society turned back from the abyss, so too did the designers of the Sten; by the end of the war wooden handgrips and a proper stock had been grafted onto the weapon.
Mechanically, the Sten was a full-auto-only 9mm sub-machinegun firing from an open bolt, fed from 32-round box magazines. Operation was straight blowback; the recoil of one round sent the bolt, charging handle, firing pin and extractor sailing backwards, and during their travels these chunks of metal would cock the hammer, throw out the spent shell case, and grab a new round from the magazine for as long as the trigger was held. The magazine - copied from the MP40 - had a single stack of 9mm cartridges and, in most models, attached to the side of the Sten. It was as cheaply made as the rest of the gun and served double duty as a handgrip, although soldiers could easily squash the sides inwards, causing the ammunition to jam. On the other hand, placing the magazine on the Sten's side made for swift changes, and allowed for the gun to rest prone on the ground.
There were five distinct models of Sten, one of which remained a prototype. The Mk2 and Mk3 were very similar and are the type most often encountered in war films; they are the bleakest, most minimal Stens, distinguished by the fact that the MK3 has a full-length barrel shroud, whilst the MK2 does not. The MK2's magazine housing could be rotated to allow the magazines to feed from the bottom of the weapon. The MK3 was available with an integral suppressor - a first - but the infant stage of suppressor design meant that only a couple of magazines could be fired before the baffles were worn out. It produced more firepower than a Welrod silenced pistol, though.
The MK1 was the very first Sten but never saw combat; it had a prominent flash-hider on the end of the barrel, and a fold-down front pistol grip. The MK2 was cheaper to make and thus the MK1 was mostly used for training, or as a reserve weapon. In all the above cases the stock was either a wire skeleton or an even simpler 'potato masher' rod with an 8-shaped butt-pad welded onto the end.
The Mk4 was an abortive attempt to create a shorter, pistol-sized variant, and was never issued. The Mk5, on the other hand, was the most conventional Sten, and saw out the war from 1944 onwards, serving most famously at Arnhem; it had a proper wooden butt, could use Lee-Enfield bayonets, and initially had a wooden front pistol grip, which was deleted as it broke off easily and snagged on clothing. Mechanically it was the same as the previous models.
As a general infantry weapon the Sten did what it was supposed to and no more; it was fragile and prone to accidental discharge when knocked or dropped, something which did not inspire confidence in nervous sentries. As a commando weapon, however, the Sten was superb. It could be stripped down into a pair of metal tubes and some springs, somewhat resembling a bicycle pump, and hundreds were stashed in occupied France for use by the resistance. Being chambered for 9mm, the Sten could fire the same ammunition and the German MP40, and indeed could use the same magazines.
The Sten was a great success; around five million were made, and it appealed to the British sense of heroic failure, of amateurism in the sporting sense. Compared to the MP40 it looked home-made, but it killed and wounded just as many people and eventually had the ultimate compliment paid to it as, by early 1945, Mauser had started production of the MP3008, a copy of the Sten which never reached the front line. During the turbulent period after World War Two the Sten continued as a terrorist weapon in Algeria and the Middle East.
The Sten was also an influential design, mostly for its philosophy of relentless functionality. Although the US Army continued to use the Tommy Gun throughout the war, the success of the Sten prompted development of what would become the M3 'Grease Gun', a similarly back-to-basics design. Slightly larger and heavier than the Sten, with a pistol grip, and firing .45 ammunition, the M3 was used extensively in Korea and remained the US Army's standard sub-machinegun for tank crews until the late 1980s, having been replaced elsewhere by carbine versions of the M16 and the MP5K. After the war both the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45 and the Danish Madsen, whilst physically dissimilar, clearly hailed from the same cloud. Although derived from a Czechoslovakian design, the Uzi - chosen by Israel to replace the surplus Stens and Sterlings with which it had once been equipped - is perhaps the Sten's most popular spiritual heir.
The Sten was replaced in 1945 by the similar, higher-quality Sterling SMG, which was the British Army's second and final general-issue sub-machinegun, continued until the 1990s. It was a great commercial success and sold well throughout the commonwealth during its life; it has attained a certain lasting fame as the blaster issued to Stormtroopers in the 'Star Wars' films (on account of them being filmed in England, see).
The Sten remains popular nowadays as a deactivated ornament, although as an actual firearm it was never sold to the commercial market and was not built to last. Quite how many live examples remain is a mystery, although some are no doubt still buried under trees in rural France, wrapped up in oilskins, waiting to be unearthed by bulldozers or the natural churn of the soil.