The Sten Gun was the first purpose built submachine gun to be built by Canada and issued in large numbers, and was first used by Canadian units on the Dieppe Raid of 19 August 1942. It eventually came to be issued to all units going into North-west Europe from D-Day onwards.
Primarily the weapon of infantry section commanders, they were also commonly carried by other troops such as officers, vehicle crews, weapons crews, despatch riders, and anyone for whom the rifle was considered unwieldy and/or unnecessary. The weapon was not well liked, and constant criticisms from the field were met with the official response that the weapon was intended to be a "throwaway" given the inexpensive nature of the weapon. Concerns about accidental discharges (including the accidental firing of entire magazines of ammunition at once) were likewise met with the official response that these incidents were due to user error.
The British Army entered the Second World War without an adequate submachine gun of its own. During the battles on the Continent in 1940, the need for one was made apparent. At the time, only US Thompsons were available. A British copy of the German MP 28, called the Lanchester, was rushed into service, but it was complicated and not easily built in large numbers.
In early 1941, a prototype was put forth by the Royal Small Arms Factory in England, inspired by captured German MP40s. It was named by using the initials of its its designers, Major RV Shepherd and Mister HJ Turpin, and adding them to the first two letters of Enfield, the location of a small arms factory and arsenal. The Sten Gun was first used at Dieppe by Canadian troops. It completely replaced the Thompson in Northwest Europe by the time of the Normandy landings in June 1944.
The Sten was not used in Italy, possibly due to supply concerns (.45 calibre ammunition was already being shipped to that theatre in large quantities due to US use of the M1911 pistol and Thompson submachine gun, making the use of 9mm weapons by Commonwealth troops an additional burden to an already thinly stretched shipping service).
The Mark I Sten, which featured a flash hider, wooden furniture, and folding hand grip, was quickly replaced by the Sten Mark II, which saw widespread issue. Two million examples of this Mark were produced. The Sten was a very simply built weapon, manufactured from just 47 parts, mainly stamped from steel and welded, sweated, pressed or riveted together. The only machined parts were the bolt and barrel.
The Sten's compact size, simplicity of manufacture, and ease of dismantling (and hiding) made it a favourite among Resistance groups on the Continent. As well, it could use captured German 9mm ammunition. In fact, the magazine was a very close copy of the German MP40 magazine, which unfortunately meant that like the German version, it was prone to jamming. The Sten Mark II could even be fitted with a silencer, becoming the very first silenced SMG. Large numbers of the silenced version were made.
The weapon was light and easy to carry, though firing the weapon could sometimes be awkward due to the configuration of the magazine. A correct firing stance was with the forward hand grasping the barrel jacket, not the magazine or magazine housing. Due to its weight and compact size, the Sten was issued to vehicle crews, despatch riders, and those who had no need for a long range weapon. In the main, however, it was issued to infantry battalions, especially platoon sergeants and section commanders in infantry platoons.
By 1944, there were enough weapons in production that infantry battalions in northwest Europe found they could pool "extra" weapons and issue them out for special missions. Many officers also carried them; on the night of 8-9 June 1944, during confused fighting in the town of Bretteville, a German despatch rider, thinking the town had been secured by his unit, rode past the battalion headquarters of the Regina Rifles. No less a person than the Commanding Officer personally brought the despatch rider down with his Sten gun. Another Canadian battalion commander in Normandy is also noted to have personally hunted down a German sniper who grazed his nose, tracked him to a barn, and personally "gunned the bastard down" with his Sten.1
The production of Sten Guns ceased in Canada in 1944, with British manufacturers switching completely to the production of the Mark V.2 The Mark V was a precision made weapon, with factories taking 12 hours to complete a single gun, build to much higher standards than the previous marks.3
Sten Gun Mark II
The first combat use of the Sten occurred at Dieppe in Aug 1942. In the weeks prior to the raid, Canadian soldiers found that many parts had to be filed, adjusted, and tested in order for the Stens to work properly. A lot of time was spent getting their new weapons battle-worthy. When the raid was cancelled in Jul, the Sten Guns were withdrawn. A day before the remounting of the raid, brand new Sten Guns, crated and packed in grease, were issued out to some very disgusted soldiers.
Sten Mark III
The Mark III was an even simpler version introduced by Lines Brothers, a firm of toy makers, and was issued out by the time of the Normandy landings. While possibly the best version of the Sten, it was not produced in large numbers. It's main feature was a fixed barrel and all-in-one body and casing.
Sten Mark V
The Sten Mark V was introduced for airborne troops, though no real improvements were made. Cosmetically, a wooden butt, a pistol grip, and a fore grip were added, along with a bayonet lug (to accept the spike bayonet of the No. 4 rifle).4
Sten Guns were not used by Canadians in Italy, as the British Eighth Army to which they were attached continued to use the .45 calibre Thompson SMG instead.
The guns were again issued for the Korean War, but were again not well liked and often replaced with American weapons were possible. The gun remained in service until replaced with the C1 Submachine Gun (a Canadian version of the Stirling) which was similar in many respects.
Sten Gun Action and Performance
When the trigger was pulled, the sear disengaged from the breach block and the return spring drove the firing pin against a round in the chamber. Gas pressure from the firing of the round forced the breach block to the rear, compressing the return spring. The extractor, already engaged into the groove at the base of the cartridge case, extracted the case as the breach block began its travel to the rear. The round was ejected out the right side of the gun. (Later versions of the Sten had a case deflector mounted behind the ejection port to deflect the expended brass away from the firer). The breach block bent forced the sear down, holding the breach block to the rear and readying the gun to fire again.
The Sten could fire automatic or single shots up to of 200 yards. The fixed aperture sight was set to 100 yards.
The Sten could be fired from the waist while standing or from the shoulder; these were the two officially sanctioned firing positions. The weapon had an extremely short effective range. Standard practice was also not to overwork the springs in the magazine by filling them to full capacity. The images at right come from a 1942 manual on the Sten Gun, showing the correct method of holding the weapon in the two approved firing positions, with the left hand cradled under the cooling jacket instead of clutching the magazine housing. The weapon had a crude battle sight though they were probably used little owing to the weapon's rate of fire and short range.
The Sten Gun was not popular among troops, who called it the "Plumber's Nightmare" or "Plumber's Abortion" (in reference to its' ungainly appearance and resembling to a piece of tubing). In addition to jamming, it was also very prone to accidentally discharging, especially if dropped. Many Canadians were injured by Sten Guns in training and in battle.
In the spring of 1944, an attempt to redress the problem of reliability came about via an official modification to the Sten Gun. All cocking handles on all models were to be replaced by the cocking handle of the Mk V Sten, and the bodies of Sten Guns were to have a 9/32" hole drilled, allowing the end of the cocking handle to be snapped into this hole as an additional safety precaution, preventing the bolt from moving.5
Thirty Rounds Later by Norm Carlson
This article, originally appearing in the April 1994 issue of Legion Magazine, described well how the Sten came to earn its reputation.
Our unit had moved back into the lines occupying yet another hilltop...in the area known as the Jamestown Line...It was April 1953, early spring and the nights were still long and black. The stress of occupying a new position was upon the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. We had moved in during the night, the relief had gone off without too many hitches, and the day had been spent...trying to figure out where the heck we were.
Just prior to dark, the company commander called his first O - for orders - group. ...we were all briefed on each platoon's position, special weapons, and other concerns - such as a big gap between our left flank and...our neighbouring company. This unoccupied ground was part of a wide valley with a shallow creek running down the middle; anyone could use it for a walkway. The remainder of the valley was covered with last year's tall rice grass, giving cover to a possible enemy approach.
I was to make a recce of the near end of the valley and establish a gun-pit that could be used as a listening post, as well as a fire-pit should we intercept any enemy...Upon establishing the position, I was to report to the commanding officer...We met at the cook's bunker at the rear of the hill...
We told the corporal of our intentions, then the four of us set out - hoping to find a spot of ground high enough to observe from, yet low enough to keep out of sight. The night was black as pitch...With the help of some far-off flares we found a suitable position and after a half-hour of digging had a hole to get down into - just in case. I left a phone at the position and, on my way back to the company position, unwound a roll of phone wire.
I got back to (the) cook's bunker to be met by the corporal, who had...organized a relief party which he had standing by. We were talking just outside a marquee tent being used as a kitchen...Suddenly we were interrupted by a short swishing sound, followed by a sharp bang from the kitchen area. We hit the dirt, sure the enemy hordes had overrun our new position and followed me in...
It had sounded like a rifle shot, the corporal and I agreed. Probably it was a lone sharpshooter firing out of the creek bed. Anyway, he had to be stopped - and the sooner the better. I told the corporal to follow me and we headed out, I with my rifle and he with his Sten gun. We moved to the creek bank and peered over the edge. Naturally we couldn't see a thing so we moved off, following the top of the bank. About this time, some of my high-quality training started to kick in, reminding me not to skyline myself. I stopped abruptly, intending to pass this tidbit on to the corporal and suggest we change our tactics. But, in the darkness, he bumped into me and momentarily lost his footing. While jostling about, there was a heck of a bang as his Sten gun fired...
The shock of having his weapon fire without warning probably caused my comrade's next problem. He dropped his gun. After the initial shot the weapon must have re-cocked itself, because when it hit the ground it recommenced firing. We could see by the muzzle flashes which way the weapon was pointing. Each time it fired, the recoil would spin the gun in a circle, faster and faster. It seemed that each round was headed directly at my feet; no doubt my partner thought the same.
At first we did some shy polka steps to avoid getting hit, but as the rotation speed increased so did our dance. With about 10 rounds to go the muzzle of the weapon started flipping up, as if looking for a larger target. It was then that the first primitive steps of what would later become known as break-dancing came into being...
The firing stopped as abruptly as it had started, leaving us both gasping for air. The corporal picked up his weapon and ripped off the magazine, no doubt to ensure that it couldn't start firing again. We confirmed that the magazine was indeed empty; all 30 rounds had fired without a stoppage.
With great relief we found that neither of us had been hit. Just at that moment, one of the other kitchen helpers arrived to tell us the big bang we'd heard earlier had been caused by an artillery round. A fragment had fallen off in its way north and had torn through the tent, slamming into the steel flour barrel....
We both must have felt like the prisoner who had just been reprieved from the gallows...We started to snicker and, before we knew it, were both rolling on the ground and howling with laughter. I tried to stop; this wasn't normal procedure. Nowhere in the book does it say a patrol can take time out for hilarity, let alone make unnecessary sounds in the night. But the harder we tried to stop, the more we carried on - much to the bewilderment of the others...
Our gaiety was brought to a halt when the company runner appeared, stating: "The OC wants to know what the hell is going on down there. Report to him at once."
...Just as I was moving off, I heard my partner...distinctly say "This stupid weapon is a hazard and I'll never carry it again."
I've heard the same sentiments about the Sten gun many times since - but usually in reference to its nasty habit of jamming.
Illustrations by Barbara Spurll originally appeared in Legion Magazine, April 1994 issue.
The Sten Gun did not have a lot of kit directly associated with the weapon; in particular, ammunition carriage was problematic during the Second World War for this reason.
Sling, Machine Carbine, Sten, 9mm, Mark I
A special web sling was created for the Sten; these were manufactured in Canada and the UK. A 43-1/2" web strap 1/2-inch wide was used with a metal ring at one end and a curved hook at the other. The curved hook at the leading end passed through one of the cooling holes on the barrel jacket of the Mk II Sten.
Post war slings were similar, with 1-inch wide webbing, and larger buckles and hooks.6
Different style of loading tools were also issued to Canadian soldiers, to assist in loading the magazines (though they could be loaded by hand without mechanical assistance also). While the Germans had a special pocket for their 9mm loading tools fitted to the MP40 magazine pouches, no such special pouch seems to have been adopted by Canadians or Commonwealth troops.
And finally, courtesy Terry Hunter of PEI, a copy of a poem written during World War Two and published in "The Maple Leaf Scrapbook", a souvenir book printed in Belgium at cost price to forces overseas by No. 3 Cdn. P.R. Group in 1945.
Ode to a Sten Gun
By Gunner. S.N. Teed
You wicked piece of vicious tin!
You conceited pile of salvage junk.
You silly gat!
At least one entrepreneur has reprinted the Second World War era parts manual for the Sten Gun.