Hot Gear Friday: The Sten

It was 1940.  Britain had been tossed from the continent, leaving most of its equipment behind in France.  It was facing an imminent invasion, and was being choked off from supplies from the outside world by the German submarine offensive.

Britain needed weapons.  It needed ’em fast. And it needed ’em cheap.

And so the “Sten” gun – the Saturday Night Special of submachine guns – was designed.

The Sten – named after its designers, Shepard and Turpin, and its factory, the Enfield works – must have been kicked off by Scots.  It was not only designed to be ruthlessly cheap to build (the Mark 2 shown above, similar to the one I shot many many years ago, cost $11 in 1944 dollars to manufacture), but designed to be fed by captured ammunition that no other Brit firearm used (the Brits had captured immense stockpiles of 9mm ammunition from the Italians in North Africa; British pistols of the day used a .38 caliber round).

It was a cheap expedient that jammed constantly. And it was light enough that the recoil of the 9mm round and the bucking of the bolt back and forth in the receiver made it extremely difficult to control when firing full automatic (which was,with the Mark II, the only option).

And yet it was a symbol; that the ingenuity of Democracies would find a way to muddle through in the face of fascism.

And it’s a hoot to shoot, too.  Not especially because of any redeeming qualities of its own; I believe the old saying is “the worst full-auto shooting is more fun than the best semi-auto”.

Or something like that.

30 thoughts on “Hot Gear Friday: The Sten

  1. When I rented a full-auto in Florida last year, I could have and probably should have rented a Sten they had hanging on the wall because of my appreciation for its history. I went with an H&K MP5k with folding stock instead. Maybe I’ll have to go back to try out the Sten this year.

    Valkyrie Arms was making a semi-auto Sten a few years ago, and although I only handled one and didn’t fire it, something about a semi-auto Sten with a 16″ long barrel doesn’t feel quite right.

  2. Speaking od Enfield, you should do a bit about the history of The Enfield and how it replaced muzzle loaders as the British standard rifle. It’s kinda like the advaent of the Winchester repeating rifle.

  3. Dang it, now I want to play Return to Castle Wolfenstein but I can’t find the game CD.

  4. Kerm,

    I did a bit on the SMLE last year. And HGF has largely been confined to things I’ve actually shot and/or played.

    Question: Which Enfield are you referrring to? Enfield built the Brits’ muzzle loading rifles, but I think the Martini-Henry was the first standard breechloader, which was in turn replaced by the Lee-Metford, built by Enfield and broadly similiar to the later Enfields, but longer, and used black powder propellant. Interesting, but I’ve never shot any. I’d be afraid to try a Martini, frankly; it’s .60-odd caliber and reportedly kicks like a Boys rifle…

  5. Not sure. I’ve been reading a history of the Indian Mutiny. The fuse for that little episode was the cartridge for the new rifle, which the seopys believed had either pig or cow fat in it (depending on Hindu or Muslim). Since the paper had to be bit, I assume it was muzzle loading.
    I confess to very minimal knowledge of guns, but the Enfield was apparently a quantum leap forward. Perhaps it had more to do with rifling? Is rifling a word?

  6. Quick and dirty history of the Sepoy Mutiny:

    In 1857, the sepoys in the three Presidency Armies in India were to be issued the new .577 caliber Enfield rifled musket (later imported, incidentally, by both sides in our own fratricidal contretemps a few years later), and the paper cartridges were greased for easier loading. By sheer bureaucratic idiocy, the War Office in Britain had shipped some cartridges that were greased with either tallow or lard rather than sheep grease as the officers in India had pleaded for for *all* their troops.

    The offending cartridges were intercepted and removed and a new drill that did not involve tearing the cartridge with teeth instituted, but a large number of the Bengal sepoy units revolted anyway.

    Incidentally, the Martini-Henry is “only” a .45 caliber, but it’s a black powder .45, and yes, it *does* kick like a mule. Also, the cartridges have a tendency to strip after prolonged firing and jam the rifle.

  7. Ok – part of the time clearly my role is to play Devil’s Advocate – so pardon me in advance.

    First, in 1940, the Brits weren’t on the verge of being, or even being particularly, choked by the Kriegsmarine.

    Second, The M-3 ‘Grease Gun’ was pretty similar to, though not as widely used, as the Sten – it was a cost-effective expedient. In truth, the US (and Britain) weren’t particularly any more ingenious than the fascists, especially if we just say Germany. What’s more accurate to me is that the Allies found an expedient solution, and then produced the HELL out of it. The Sherman wasn’t particularly a good tank (other than being reasonably fast) – but we used them like bullets. Much like Grant in the Civil War, the US (and to a lesser extent, Britain) won through attrition. Just sayin that we didn’t really come up with a lot of ‘democratically inspired’ elegant solutions – we more often just came up with that which would do the job, and then did the job a thousand times over with it. I just felt your presentation created an incorrect charicature – we were more like the Soviets (for example the PPsh 41).

  8. Well, Peev isn’t wrong on this, necessarily. Just goes into the subject in vastly greater depth than I’d intended.

  9. Of course, Yoss goes after Peeve for his comment, but no complaints about the completely off-topic mutiny comments.

    Count on the Scots to create a invent something cheap. And useful. But always cheap.

  10. Disco, I long ago wrote Yoss off as nothing more or less than an asshat troll.

    Mitch – perhaps in greater detail, but as I said, it was my point to identify that our ‘democracy’ wasn’t so much the engine of genius, as it was really that our arsenal of democracy produced a lot of ‘fully adequate but not sexy’ gear.

    And I’m not just not wrong, necessarily, I’m right, and ya’ know it :).

  11. And Mitch, I went into depth (apparently greater) in one paragraph, than you went into in four?? That’s a little mixed up logic, unless you’re saying I went into greater depth on the ‘democracy’ angle.. to which I’d reply, “Them’s the breaks, you started it ;)”

  12. You wanted to know about Enfield muzzle-loading rifled muskets, I told you about Enfield muzzle-loading rifled muskets and where they came from with regard to the Sepoy Mutiny AND the lineage that led to the M-H .45 caliber breech-loader (look up Snider conversion sometime).

    Incidentally, I can go OT about the M4 as well, if you like, which was a perfectly suitable tank as designed for its purpose…in 1942-3, and according to Army armor doctrine.

    Furthermore, if you all believe Grant won his battles through attrition, we’ll have to start an off-board throwdown.

  13. perhaps in greater detail, but as I said, it was my point to identify that our ‘democracy’ wasn’t so much the engine of genius, as it was really that our arsenal of democracy produced a lot of ‘fully adequate but not sexy’ gear.

    You’re right. Democracy sucks.

    And Mitch, I went into depth (apparently greater) in one paragraph, than you went into in four??

    Not that that’s hard; I was covering history, design and my personal recollections, a broader approach. Meantime, the “depth” of your coverage utterly neglected to note that the Sten’s bolt was not nearly heavy enough in relation to the power of the 9mm round and the high friction of the double-row magazine, making it frightfully jam-prone.

    That’s a little mixed up logic, unless you’re saying I went into greater depth on the ‘democracy’ angle.. to which I’d reply, “Them’s the breaks, you started it ”

    Well, other than the “started it” bit, sure.

    As to the U-Boot Paukenschlag; no, the campaign hadn’t reached its peak – that came in ’41-42. But it was having an effect in ’40, as the Germans mass-production of U-boats got into full gear.

    The Sherman was OK for speed – the Cromwell, Pzkw V and T34 were all faster (quick, tank geeks; what did the latter three designs all have in common?), but it was most notably reliable. A company of 17 Shermans would go into action with all, or nearly all, its vehicles (until casualties set in); a typical German company, especially with Pzkw VG or VI, would be at 1/2-2/3 strength from breakdowns even before losses from air attacks set in; a typical Pzkw VI (Tiger I) company of with a nominal strenth of 14 tanks would frequently go into action in Normandy and France with 4-5 serviceable vehicles between the two.

    The Sherman suffered not from a shortcoming of democracy so much as a shortcoming in doctrine; US tanks (as you are well aware, but I’m going to write it before you write it and say I forgot it) were supposed to avoid enemy tanks, leaving them to the Tank Destroyer branch (with its M10, M18 and later M36es) while the tanks themselves sought and exploited breakthroughs and beat up on infantry that got in the way, a doctrine that relied on an unrealistically compliant and slow-footed enemy. The doctrine, as you are well aware, was a complete failure (leading to horrific losses among US tankers who had to face superior German tanks who were not obliging enough to get picked off by the TDs), and led to the US’ adoption of the Pershing and later Patton series of tanks between 1944 and the sixties. 

    However, when American troops could effect a real breakthrough (as in Operation Cobra), the Sherman was adequate, combining speed and reliability that enabled it to dash across France in record time.  And American tankers that survived long enough to learn useful tactics could dish out worse than they got, especially as losses sapped German crews’ experience; the 8th Tank Bn of the 4th Armored Division had a few celebrated engagements where they were able to give worse than they got against MkV “Panther” units.

  14. DiscoStoo,

    I refer you to the history of the “Edinborough Renaissance”.

  15. Mitch, I thought the Sherman was the result of a bureaucrat determining the value of a model of tank by how many could fit on a transport ship.
    It was inevitable that the army would try to use tanks against other tanks. It was like sending destroyers against battleships. What was the plan, anyhow? For the anti-tank crews to creep up on the panzers behind bushes & let ’em have it while the Shermans hung out in the rear? Lol.

  16. Mahan, I enjoyed your comment about the Sepoy Mutiny.

    Mitch and Penigma – I thoroughly enjoyed the posts from both of you, on both the larger history and the weapons history. Something I rather miss from the ‘old days’ of our shared interest.

  17. I actually agree (mostly) with the peevster re this topic. Fighter command (or whatever the US equivalent of fighter command was called) took some very interesting actions in the European theater. They awarded kills, for example, for shooting down unarmed German training planes. It is clear that we knew that the German supply of pilots was less than ours. Part of this was due to the Prussian mentality of the Luftwaffe, of course. They wanted aristocrats to fly their planes; we were happy to give farm boys a few weeks training and stuff them into a cockpit.
    FYI, to the German pilots, the Americans had a reputation for shooting pilots as they hung from parachutes. I never read any first-hand descriptions of this, but the Germans were very aware that the allied strategy was to kill pilots as much as it was to destroy aircraft.

  18. I”m dog sitting a friend’s pack of Borzoi this evening. Watching the classic James Bond movie, the old Sean Connery flick, Goldfinger.

    I had forgotten that in the teaser beore the titles, asked by one of the more disposable femm fatales why he always wore his shoulder holstered automatic. The Connery / Bond response: “I have a slight inferiority complex.” Presumably that also explains the Aston Martin he drove…

    Couldn’t help but laugh and think of the exchange here about sten guns and tanks.

    And yes Kermit, of course rifling is a word. It is the proper term for the curved spiral indentation on the inside of the barrel of a rifle, or for the act of cutting it into the barrel.

  19. FYI, to the German pilots, the Americans had a reputation for shooting pilots as they hung from parachutes. I never read any first-hand descriptions of this, but the Germans were very aware that the allied strategy was to kill pilots as much as it was to destroy aircraft.

    Actually, this became an issue in the Battle of Britain. According to the rules of war at the time, a pilot shot down over enemy territory was considered likely to be captured, so it was illegal to shoot them. On the other hand, pilots bailing out over friendly territory were considered to be combatants (they could land, get a ride back to their airfield and be back in action later that same day), so they were legitimate targets. The Germans shot Brit pilots in their chutes; Fighter Command had to tell pilots to delay opening their chutes until they’d fallen safely out of range.

    Over Germany, the same thing would apply under the rules of war at the time. Although there were known cases of German pilots shooting bailed-out American airmen over Germany, and in some cases ripping their ‘chutes with their wingtips as they flew past.

  20. Back on the topic of wimpy shermans . . . are you saying that if the allies lost tactical air superiority along a relatively small length of the European front — let’s say because the weather was bad, and ground attack aircraft couldn’t fly — then a German mass attack with panzers could punch through the allied lines, or maybe make some kind of ‘bulge’ in it? That’s crazy talk!

  21. Since I’m Master Tactician today . . .
    I just saw a documentary about Russian fighting tactics during WW2. Sometimes the Russians were short on equipment and would only have enough rifles & ammo to supply the first lines that would attack. The lines to the rear were expected to pick up rifles and ammo from the fallen when it was their turn to charge. Seems chintzy and depressing, but what else can you do when you want to attack and you have plenty of rifles but are short on rifles & ammo?
    A German officer interviewed in the documentary explained why that Russian tactic was really, really bad.
    When the Germans realized that the men in the rear had no arms they concentrated their effort on making a breakthrough. Even if it was small, they could pour infantrymen into the breach and slaughter the unarmed enemy soldiers in the rear like rabbits. Those were the words the German officer used. “Like rabbits”.

  22. Terry Says:

    May 9th, 2009 at 12:05 am
    If you are not afraid of getting wingnut cooties, Dog Gone, check out Mark Steyn on Ian Fleming:

    I enjoyed the link, Terry. I’m not afraid of ‘wingnut cooties’ in the slightest. I think the presenters at Turner got it correctly when they indicated the Bond movies, at least the early ones, thrive on charm as much as on adventure.

    Not only am I not afraid of cooties, I am one of the few women of my acquaintance who enjoys a lively discussion of tank tactics. I’ve always felt that it is not possible to understand history generally, without an appreciation for military history. I particularly enjoy the challenges of tactics and strategy; the characteristics of different weapons is interesting, but I must admit it doesn’t excite me quite as much as it does some of you.

    I had read or perhaps seen a documentary somewhere previous to your post to the effect that the Russian forces had more men than weapons or ammo, that they had to share both, usually in the course of being expendable. “Like rabbits” sounds about right as a description.

  23. “Ok – part of the time clearly my role is to play Devil’s Advocate..”

    Yeah, when he’s not playing Satan’s hemorrhoid.

  24. “clearly my role is to play Devil’s Advocate”

    Peev has yet to criticize Obama.

    Nuff said.

  25. Pingback: Keep Those Lines Blurry | Shot in the Dark

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