Throughout this series, I’ve been highlighting the usual stuff about World War II – the battles and the personalities – but also the political and social events,  many of which still affect us today.

I’m also highlighting, bit by bit, over the next few years, some of the industrial trends that affect us today.  Great example coming up in future months – the fact that the US was able to build, on top of their thousands of tanks, aircraft and combat warships, over 4,000 units of one class of 5,000 ton merchant ships.  That’d be one of nine or ten different classes of ships, all of which were built in the hundreds or thousands.

We also undertook some of the most immense research and development projects in the history of science and engineering; in four years of frenetic research, we not only took the atomic bomb from the stuff of fuzzy-headed academics to Hiroshima – we also developed from scratch and built the plane to carry it, the B29 Superfortress – a plane whose development cost nearly as much as The Bomb, and may have been the most troubled, overrun-prone weapons development program in history, at least among weapons that actually got into service, the kind of thing that would have given William Proxmire a stroke, had those sorts of figures been made public back during the war.

We couldn’t do that today if we had to.

But today’s installment is about the opposite extreme – and it’s not about the US.


Today, seventy years ago, the United Kingdom had just endured the worst year in its military history; driven from the Continent, the Brits had pulled off a miracle the previous June, evacuating most of its army at Dunkirk.  But that Army came home virtually without equipment; it had left all its tanks, artillery, machine guns – virtually everything heavier than the infantry’s rifles, and hundreds of thousands of them, too – lying in the sands and the approach roads to Dunkirk’s beaches.

And while they’d staved off Hitler’s first push to invade the island during the Battle of Britainthe previous summer, things were still dire. British industry, even though entirely harnessed to the war effort, was struggling to re-equip the British and Commonwealth militiaries for the invasion they still believed could come – as  well as for the war bubbling along in the Mediterranean, and which they also expected to erupt in the Pacific sooner than later.

They did have one advantage.  They’d captured thousands of tons of Italian ammunition in action the previous summer, as they’d swept aside the Italian , including a curiously large supply of 9mm ammunition.

That sparked a curious adaptation.


The gun maker’s art in the years up to World War II was indeed an art.

The typical military firearm before World War II, all the way down to the lowliest infantry rifle, was a work of, if not art, at least craftsmanship.

The British "SMLE" Rifle. First built in 1903, it served until the 1950s.

With wooden furniture varnished to a fine sheen, and metal parts laboriously machined from solid blanks of high-quality steel, military weapons were high-quality pieces of equipment that took lots of time, money and skilled effort to manufacture.

The same was true of the newest addition to the infantryman’s armory – the submachine gun.

An Italian Beretta M38. With its milled wooden parts and perfectly-machined metal components, the M38 was a high-quality - and expensive - piece.

Basically a tiny machine gun that fired low-power pistol ammunition to make it manageable when being held in a rifleman’s hands (machine guns firing full-powered rifle ammo required a bipod or tripod), the submachine gun had evolved during World War 1 to bring extra close-range firepower to the infantryman.

The British Army, one of the world’s most conservative, came late to idea of issuing the submachine gun.  But after the drubbing in France, where they’d seen the effect the Germans MP38/40’s devastating effect in close-range action, they got into the market.

The MP38/40 - not to be confused with the Italian M38.

Their first attempt was to buy the American Thompson.  Most famous today as the preferred weapon of a generation of rumrunners and gangsters, British agents glommed onto every one they could find.

A Model 1928 Thompson.

Which wasn’t many.  The Thompson was a very old-school weapon, machined to a very high standard of finish, slow and laborious to build – and the US military was buying them as fast as factories could turn them out.

The Brits needed more, and they needed them fast.

At the Enfield weapons works, two men – Major Reginald V. Shepherd and designer Harold Turpin – designed a simple, intentionally crude weapon, designed to be built quickly and cheaply and to use the mountains of Italian 9mm ammunition.  It looked like a couple of lengths of pipe with a crude wooden forearm.  The British military bureaucracy took the first initial of their last names, added “En” for “enfield”; and so the “Sten” was born.

The Sten Mark 1.

It was unbelievably crude by the standards of the weapon-makers craft.  It was designed to be built quickly, cheaply, mostly out of stampings and welded parts rather than machined metal, by less-skilled labor.  It cost a fraction of the time, money, skill and materiel of the Thompson.

And it was still too complex.  So after a few hundred Mark 1s were built, the factory simplified it even more, into the Mark II.

The Sten Mark 2

It looks crude and cheap.

It was crude and cheap. It was manufactured in the millions.  By the time production ramped up, it could be built with five man-hours of labor, for under $12 in 1940 money.

It was not a high-quality weapon.  The design of its 32 round magazine promoted jamming; some British paratroops joked that their Stens jammed every time they fired them. The safety mechanism tended to slip, allowing frequent accidental discharges after the locking pin wore down from heavy use.

But it was fast and cheap.

And as the war wore on, a cheap submachine gun that one had was worth more than a quality piece that was still being built.

In addition to (quickly) re-equipping the British and Commonwealth armies, the Sten was dropped by the thousands to resistance groups throughout Europe.

And, needing guns, they quickly reverse-engineered  the crude, simple Mark 2 and started building it in clandestine machine shops throughout Europe.  Sten Mark 2s were build in secret plants, or underground chains of machining and stamping and sheet metal fab shops, in Norway, Denmark, Poland and Yugoslavia.  And not in inconsiderable numbers, either; resistance guerillas build them in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

A Polski Sten, with a custom-made short 10 round magazine, designed for easy concealment, perhaps for an assassin stalking German officers.

The Sten was fired for the first time seventy years ago today.  And while it’s a footnote in many ways, it showed the extent to which the heat of war caused western ingenuity to push western business and industry into behaviors it’d never considered before.

Across Britain and the US, the stresses of war- from imminent invasion to the more mundane issues of having to produce with rationed, scarce material and with unskilled labor as the skilled workforce got drafted – were causing industry to adapt in ways it’d be hard to imagine today.

A British "Mosquito", the most successful light bomber of the war. Built of a mostly plywood airframe, it was assembled from parts built by...Britain's furniture makers.

And locations.  As the US war effort ate up available shipyards along the US coasts, the booming submarine program prompted US industry to build a submarine construction yard…

…in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

It is hard to imagine that sort of dislocation today, when it takes decades for the US military to pick a new pistol, where the Army has been noodling with replacing the venerable M16 for nearly four decades (and still issues fifty-year-old M14s to troops that need a reliable rifle in the sand) and US industry takes a decade to build a factory, if they build one at all.

More in coming months.

13 thoughts on “Improvisation

  1. The Sten gun was so inexpensive and easy to use that the US designed their own version, the M3. They were still being used as a personal weapon for tank crews as late as the Gulf War in 1990, and my Guard unit still had them in inventory as late as 1995.

    Today’s military does a good job with smaller improvisations, like the CROW system and better cold weather gear that they get out to the troops within 6 months of a need being identified.

    Ironically today’s liberals would love to have the command and control over the US economy that FDR did during the war.

  2. I’m with you Dave, the M3 “grease gun” in .45ACP had plenty of punch in CQB and was extremely effective.

    Well done Mitch!

  3. Speaking of shipbuilding during WWII, maybe someone else pointed this out on Mitch’s blog earlier this year, but Cargill built 18 auxiliary gas/oil carriers and four tow boats at their port in Savage on the MN River.

    In addition, Nisei soldiers were trained to speak, read and write Japanese at Camp Savage. The military found that only about 6% of these soldiers could were fluent in the language. This is probably due to the fact that after Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans stopped all communications in their native tonue, lest they be branded a spy.

  4. Boss – my post on the immense merchant shipbuilding program is coming soon.

  5. The author of a recent book on the Hoover Dam said quite bluntly on an NPR interview that between the NIMBYs, the enviros, the BANANAs and OSHA, you literally could not do the project today. I think Americans were made of sterner stuff seventy-odd years ago.

  6. Mitch;

    I am looking forward to reading it!

    Sadly, one of the few remaining airworthy B-17 bombers was lost in Chicago today. An engine fire was reported by the pilot shortly after take off and he had to make an emergency landing in a muddy cornfield. There was excellent news though – everyone got out OK.

  7. @ bosshoss:

    So once again, a 17 got everyone home safe.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah I know machines don’t have souls.

    So why am I crying?

  8. Dave Thul wrote:
    “Ironically today’s liberals would love to have the command and control over the US economy that FDR did during the war.”

    Roosevelt and his crew got their start on this during WWI, when FDR was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. One of the stupid things the Federal gov’t did back in 1917 was to seize control of the railroads and the coal fields for use in fueling transport ships & naval warcraft. The winter of 1917-1918 was very cold in the NE, but not many troops had left for Europe yet (more supply problems), and there were mountains of coal unused in shipyards while people in the NE suffered from a government induced coal shortage. When the government decided to release some of the coal for public use the trains couldn’t run because the railroads didn’t have coal either.
    Good ol’ command and control!
    Liberals and socialists are intellectually bankrupt in part because they follow every argument until some collective action, led by the Enlightened (whom they identify with themselves), has had a happy outcome, and then they stop thinking.
    So centralized command and control was one factor that led to the victory by the Allies over the Axis in 1945, therefore centralized command and control is a good way to deal with high energy prices in 1977 2011.

  9. All the more important to join and support organizations that preserve our heritage. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s B-17 “Aluminum Overcast” will be at Oshkosh for the fly-in this July. Once you hear the thunder of those radial engines, you’ll never forget them.

    Nate, EAA #xxx3585

  10. nate;

    I agree. While I lived in Houston, TX, I befriended a man whose uncle had a restored B-25 Mitchell that was set up as a corporate airplane, but yet it had all of the combat pieces still in place. This included all of the machine guns, sans guts to make them fire. I was fortunate enough to ride in it twice. Awesome!

    I also went to a Confederate Air Force show down in Harlingen and stood by as they cranked up their B-29, Fifi. The ground shook when all four of them were idling. I didn’t get to ride in it, but got to poke around inside. So cool!

  11. My parents took my brothers and I to the Airforce Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio when we were young kids. All kinds of missles, rockets, and vintage war aircraft too see, and much of it you climb around in. Absolute fantasy land for a kid (the WWII planes were the coolest)!

  12. Pingback: Hot Gear Friday: The Energizer Machine Gun | Shot in the Dark

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.