A Lot To Feel Good About

I wrote last month about my first experience firing submachine guns.  Long time reader Fruitbat44 was kind enough to leave a comment.

“I have always wondered if the M3, especially the M3A1, was developed to make us Brits feel good about the Sten.”

What is this Sten of which Fruitbat44 speaks?  It is a submachine gun the the United Kingdom developed and fielded during WWII.

(Picture source.)

In the days leading up to the Second World War, the British Empire was not what it once was.  Not a big surprise, as the First World War had pretty much remade the globe so much that nothing was like it once was.  There was also that worldwide economic depression that made it tough to find the cash to modernize the armed forces.

Still, something had to be done.  Germany was doing a pretty good job of rearming, and they made no secret of the fact that they were going to break the Versailles Treaty.  Just about everyone realized that there was going to be a shooting war sooner or later.

The Sten was a marvel of technological simplicity and streamlined design.  Anything that wasn’t needed to make the gun go bang was left off, except for some rather rudimentary sights so the operator could hit the broad side of a barn.  The majority of the gun was assembled from stamped steel parts, with a minimum of welding, so some guy in his basement hobby workshop could make most of the parts in a few hours.  A properly equipped factory could churn them out at seemingly amazing speed.

Built for efficiency and economy, what did one cost?  £2 in 1941, or $10.00 USD.  This is the equivalent of £80 ($130.00 USD) in todays terms.  Consider that the Thompson submachine gun cost $200.00 USD in 1941, or about $3800.00 when adjusted for inflation.  Give me a Sten any day!

Oh, sure, there were some problems with the design, particularly in 1941 when it was first issued to the troops.  But improvements were made, problems were fixed, and the Sten became a reasonably effective weapon by 1942.

Fruitbat44 mentioned the American M3 submachine gun, which was developed precisely because of the success that the Sten enjoyed as a dirt cheap yet effective weapon of war.  But even with the advantage of building from success, the deployment of the M3 was delayed due to constantly changing design specs.  This was such a problem that the M3 was not issued in significant numbers until the last few months of the war.  Such is the desire by engineers to make what is good enough a whole lot better than it needs to be.

Another black mark for the M3 is that the gun never reached the same level of economy as the Sten, costing about $15.00 USD for each gun.  Keep in mind that the United States was the home of vast automotive factories, some of which produced the M3, yet it was still  more expensive than the British version of an expedient submachine gun.

There is nothing to feel bad about when it comes to the Sten.  It filed the role for which it was intended better than any other mass produced submachine gun during WWII.

16 Responses to “A Lot To Feel Good About”

  1. C-90 says:

    Yes, but the M3/M3a1 submachine gun soldiered on long after the Sten gun was consigned to the dustbins. US tankers were still using them up to and including Desert Storm 1. Thai Police had them (atleast I saw one with a policeman in 1972), And the Philippines were upgrading some in the past few years, iirc.

    • knirirr says:

      Our replacement for the Sten lasted quite a while in service:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterling_submachine_gun

      I remember seeing these in RAF use in the 1980s, though I wasn’t permitted to fire one myself. The galactic empire seemed to find them useful also.

      • James Rummel says:

        I was under the impression that the officer was firing a Sten while you held his coat. I stand corrected!

        • knirirr says:

          Indeed, I wasn’t allowed to enjoy myself with full-auto weapons (being a mere space cadet) and so found useful employment as a coat stand. It was the Sterling that was used for this purpose.
          I did try a blank firing Sten once, as used by WW2 reenactors. Nice, but it doesn’t really count.

  2. Fruitbat44 says:

    Glad I have inspired James post.

    The M3A1 got rid of the cocking handle crank, which I think is an example of James’ comment about Engineers wanting to make good better. (Best is the enemy of good.) It was replaced with an enlarged ejection port and a hole in the bolt which you cocked by sticking your finger in it. I don’t think the Sten went that crude.

    One comment about the Sten (allegedly) from a member of the Home Guard, ‘I knew we were going to win this war. “At last,” I thought. “We’ve ditched this fine British craftsmanship nonsense.”

    The Sterling is actually one of the few weapons I’ve trained on. A long while back now. It was much despised by the British Army at the time, but I rather liked it. I found it simple and easy to shoot. Although I never got to have a go on full auto . . .

    • knirirr says:

      If you don’t mind me asking, was full-auto prohibited or was it simply that there wasn’t time to get around to it?

      • Fruitbat44 says:

        It’s a long-time back now, but I think it was a case of my being in one of the Corps which was well, well back from the front line so the emphasis was on using the SMG defensively as a semi-auto carbine, rather than house-clearing etc. I also think that when it came to training supplies we were waaaay down on the totem pole, so I think there wasn’t really enough ammo for full-auto training.

        A couple of the instructors demonstrated full-auto, one magazine, and the two best shots on the range also got to have a go through a magazine on full auto as well.

        • knirirr says:

          Thanks!
          I suppose it could indeed get quite expensive with a lot of full-auto firing.

        • JonT says:

          High Fruitbat.
          I think I was in the same boat as you. I joined the TA Ordnance Corps for a year back in the late 70s. We did quite a lot of shooting with the SLR but I only got to shoot a Sterling once and the orders were strictly semi-auto only. Great little gun though. Only full auto I shot at the time was the Bren. They couldn’t really stop us using it full auto as the selector switches were so worn we could fire a burst on whatever it was set…(i’m assuming the safety worked but I wouldn’t have bet on it).

          • Fruitbat44 says:

            Quite possibly. The Bren/LMG is another one I’ve played with, never did any live firing on the 7.62mm version though, but when I was in the ACF I did get to fire the original .303″ Bren on full-auto. I recall it as being rather fun. And by the sound of it ours were in better nick than yours i.e. the selector worked the way it was supposed to.

  3. Sam L. says:

    I am reminded of an old science fiction story I read, oh, 30-40 years ago. A guy’s in prison, on death row (IIRC), because he was to build “the ultimate weapon”, and he hadn’t, so he was declared a traitor. The reason he didn’t was that he was prevented by the never-ending list of add-ons and updates required by the generals, admirals, and politicians…

  4. cxt217 says:

    Ah, the Sten. I am never sure exactly how bad it was – Max Hastings in his book Das Reich was not an admirer, and its’ replacement were far and away better weapons.

    But it was cheap…Which might have led to certain issues, namely being at the top of list of new weapons to supply the Maquis and other groups of individuals intent on setting Europe ablaze. Groups who did not have much resources (Like ammo.) or time to conduct live fire practice or marksmanship training.

    Regarding the price of the M3 versus Sten, a $15 versus $10 difference was actually pretty good at the time, given how US weapon systems tend to cost more than anyone else during WW2. The late David Brown mentioned in one of his book that Royal Navy constructors often had to divide the cost of a US ship by 2 before they could get a number to compare cost with British ships. You do have cases where US engineers completely redesigned the 40mm Bofor until it was cheaper and easier to manufacture – but those were the exceptions.

  5. Will says:

    I’ve put a few mags through a Sten. I was not impressed. It was not what you would call “left-handed friendly”. One had to be careful of moving parts. More accurate than the .45acp MAC10, which is probably the only good thing I could say about it. Room clearing activities would be contraindicated for lefties, and questionable for others, with that mag sticking out the left side.

    Certainly fits into Tam’s category of being able to build it at your local hardware store.

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