The Sterling Submachine gun: The Cold War’s SMG

by Chris Eger,  |  published on March 31, 2013

The Cold War simmered for over 40 years and during this time the we saw the birth of many of the worlds most iconic arms, such as the AK47, FN FAL, and M16. However, the efficient and effective NATO caliber SMG of this era, the Sterling submachine gun, has been largely swept into the shop-bin of firearms history.

Why the Sterling
Submachine guns, essentially just compact, pistol-caliber select fire carbines, were born in the final months of the First World War as an answer to the madness of trench warfare. By the Second World War, these handy little guns were everywhere.

Submachine guns were used pervasively to equip tank crews, paratroopers, and squad leaders mostly due to their smaller profile and high rate of fire when compared to full size rifles. Great Britain had three sub machine guns during the War: the Lanchester, the Tommy gun, and the ubiquitous STEN. One of these designs was obsolete, the second was heavy and expensive, and the third was more of an emergency design, neither accurate nor desired. In 1944, with WWII raging, the British General Staff requested a replacement for these weapons that would address and correct all these flaws in one gun. That design was the Sterling.

Enter Mr. Patchett
George William Patchett, the chief designer at the Sterling Armaments Company, designed a compact sub gun that met every requirement the Army set forth. It was handy, at 6-pounds in weight and 18.9-inches overall with its stock folded. Its 7.7-inch barrel was fairly accurate for a room-broom, putting a five shot group into a notebook paper-sized target at 100-yards. It used a blow back action and fired from an open bolt at a controllable 500 rounds per minute cyclic rate. Plastic furniture kept it lighter than the Thompson and Lanchester while the use of steel stampings made it easy to mass-produce like the STEN. The weapon was chambered for the standard 9x19mm Parabellum round, and fed from either the straight box STEN magazine or a curved banana clip of Sterling’s design. The Army liked it and Sterling produced a small batch for field-testing before the end of the war in 1945.

The peacetime military always runs slower to adopt a new weapon and trials and testing delayed the final adoption of the Sterling for eight years. Full-scale production started in 1953 at both Sterling’s plant at Dagenham and the Royal Ordnance Factories at Fazakerley. Modifications included at least three progressively improved versions, including the L34A1 integrally-silenced version and one semi-auto closed-bolt variant for police use.

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