Military Wiki
Sterling submachine gun
Sterling SMG.JPG
Sterling L2A3 (Mark 4) submachine gun
Type Submachine gun
Place of origin  United Kingdom
Service history
Used by See Users
Wars World War II
Suez Crisis
Aden Emergency
Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation
Cold War
Vietnam War
Falklands War
Northern Ireland
Gulf War (final batch)
Production history
Designer George William Patchett
Designed 1944
Manufacturer Sterling Armaments Company
Number built 400,000+
Variants See Variants
Weight 2.7 kilograms (6.0 lb)
Length 686 millimetres (27.0 in)
Folded stock: 481 millimetres (18.9 in)
Barrel length 196 millimetres (7.7 in)

Cartridge 9×19mm Parabellum
7.62×51mm NATO (Battle Rifle variant)
Action Blowback and Lever-delayed blowback (Battle Rifle variant)
Rate of fire 550 round/min
Effective range 200 metres (220 yd)
Suppressed: 50–100 metres (55–109 yd)
Feed system 34 round box magazine
30 round L4 BREN magazine (Battle Rifle variant)
Sights Iron sights

The Sterling submachine gun is a British submachine gun which was in service with the British Army from 1944 until 1994, when it was phased out with the introduction of the L85A1 assault rifle.


In 1944 the British General Staff issued a specification for a new submachine gun. It stated that the weapon should not weigh more than six pounds (2.7 kg), should fire 9×19mm Parabellum calibre ammunition, have a rate of fire of no more than 500 rounds per minute and be sufficiently accurate to allow five single shots to be fired into a one foot square target at 100 yards (91 m).

To meet the new requirement, George William Patchett, the chief designer at the Sterling Armaments Company of Dagenham submitted a sample weapon of new design in early 1944. The army quickly recognised its potential (i.e. significantly increased accuracy and reliability when compared to the Sten) and ordered 120 examples for trials. Towards the end of the Second World War, some of these trial samples were used in combat by airborne troops at Arnhem and elsewhere, where it was known as the Patchett submachine gun. Given that the Patchett/Sterling can use straight Sten submachine gun magazines as well as the curved Sterling design, there were no interoperability problems.

After the war, with large numbers of Sten guns in the inventory there was little interest in replacing them with a superior design. However, in 1947 a competitive trial between the Patchett, an Enfield design, a new BSA design and an experimental Australian design was held, with the Sten for comparison. The trial was inconclusive but was followed by further development and more trials. Eventually the Patchett design won and the decision was made in 1951 for the British Army to adopt it. It started to replace the Sten in 1953 as the Sub-Machine Gun L2A1. Its last non-suppressed variation was the L2A3, but the model changes were minimal throughout its development life.

Sterling submachine guns with minor cosmetic alterations were used in the production of the Star Wars movies as blaster rifle props.

Design details

A Sterling submachine gun in the Imperial War Museum

The Sterling submachine gun is constructed entirely of steel and plastic and has a shoulder stock which folds underneath the weapon. Although of conventional blowback design firing from an open bolt, there are some unusual features: for example, the bolt has helical grooves cut into the surface to remove dirt and fouling from the inside of the receiver to increase reliability. The Sterling uses a much-improved (over the Sten) 34-round curved double-column feed box magazine which is inserted into the left side of the receiver. The magazine follower, which pushes the cartridges into the feed port, is equipped with rollers to reduce friction and the firing pin is designed so that it does not line up with the primer in the cartridge until the cartridge has entered the chamber.[1]

An example of the L34A1 suppressed variant

The suppressed version of the Sterling (L34A1/Mk.5) was developed for covert operations. This version uses a ported barrel surrounded by a cylinder with expansion chambers to reduce the velocity of the bullet to prevent it from breaking the sound barrier and causing a sonic boom, along with decreasing muzzle blast and flash. This is so effective that the only sounds during firing are from the bolt reciprocating and the barely-audible explosive discharge.[2] The Australian and New Zealand SAS regiments used the suppressed version of the Sterling during the Vietnam War.[3] It is notable for having been used by both Argentinian and British Special Forces during the Falklands War. It was also the weapon used by Libyan agents to kill WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London which sparked the 1984 siege of the building. The Sterling has a reputation for excellent reliability under adverse conditions and, even though it fires from an open bolt, good accuracy. With some practice, it was very accurate when fired in short bursts. While it has been reported that the weapon poses no problems for left-handed users to operate,[4] it is not recommended without the wearing of ballistic eye protection. The path of the ejected cartridge cases is slightly down and backward, so mild burns can occasionally be incurred by left-handed shooters.

Side view showing ejection port and cocking handle

A bayonet of a similar design as that for the L1A1 SLR was produced and issued in British Army service, but was rarely employed except for ceremonial duties. Both bayonets were derived from the version issued with the Rifle No. 5 Mk I "Jungle Carbine", the main difference being a smaller ring on the SLR bayonet to fit the rifle's muzzle. When mounted, the Sterling bayonet was offset to the left of the weapon's vertical line which gave a more natural balance when used for bayonet-fighting.

For a right-handed shooter, the correct position for the left hand while firing is on the ventilated barrel-casing but not on the magazine, as the pressure from holding the magazine can increase the risk of stoppages, and a loose magazine can lead to dropping the weapon. The barrel-casing hold provides greater control of the weapon, so the right-hand can intermittently be used for other tasks. A semi-circular protrusion on the right hand side of the weapon, approximately two inches from the muzzle, serves to prevent the supporting hand from moving too far forward and over the muzzle.

The primary user complaint with the Sterling series is that there are projections in all directions, and carrying it on a sling frequently results in the weapon catching on clothing, load-bearing equipment, foliage, and doorways/hatches, as well as annoying (sometimes painful) poking of the user.


British paratroopers with Sterling submachine guns, June 1982

A total of over 400,000 were manufactured. Sterling built them for the British armed forces and for overseas sales, whilst the Royal Ordnance Factories at Fazakerley near Liverpool constructed them exclusively for the British military. ROF no longer makes full weapons but still manufactures spare parts for certified end users.

A Chilean variant was made by FAMAE as the PAF submachine gun but was different externally as it had a shorter receiver lacking the barrel shroud.[5]

Canada also manufactured a variant under licence, called the Submachine Gun 9 mm C1 made by Canadian Arsenals Limited.[6] It replaced the later versions of the Sten submachine gun from 1953 onwards.

A similar weapon, the Sub-Machine Gun Carbine 9 mm 1A1 is manufactured under license by the Indian Ordnance Factory at Kanpur, along with a Sub-Machine Gun Carbine 9 mm 2A1 which is a copy of the L34A1 integrally-silenced version. At the beginning of the 21st century, these two weapons were still being manufactured by Ordnance Factories Board and used by the Indian Armed Forces.


  • British Army
    • Unassigned: Patchett Machine Carbine Mark 1 (trials commenced in 1944)
    • Unassigned: Patchett Machine Carbine Mark 1 & Folding Bayonet (same as above but with folding bayonet, never accepted)
    • L2A1: (Patchett Machine Carbine Mark 2) Adopted in 1953.
    • L2A2: (Sterling Mark 3) Adopted in 1955.
    • L2A3: (Sterling Mark 4) Adopted in 1956. Last regular version in service with the British Army.
    • L34A1: Suppressed version (Sterling-Patchett Mark 5). Held in reserve by the British Army.
  • Sterling Mark 6 "Police": a semi-automatic-only closed-bolt version for police forces and private sales. A US export version had a longer barrel (16 inches) to comply with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) regulations. Beginning in 2009, Century Arms International (CAI) began marketing a similar semi-auto only carbine manufactured by Wiselite Arms. These too have a 16" barrel. They are assembled using a mix of newly-made US parts, and parts from demilitarized Sterling Mark 4 parts kits. This is often marketed as the "Sterling Sporter".[7]
  • Sterling Mark 7 "Para-pistol": Special machine pistol variant issued to commando and plainclothes intelligence units. It had a shortened 4" / 108mm barrel, fixed vertical foregrip, and weighed 4.84 lb (2.20 kg). If used with a short 10- or 15-round magazine, it could be stowed in a special holster. It also could be used as a Close Quarters Battle weapon with the addition of an optional solid stock.
  • Canadian Army
    • C1 Submachine Gun: Adopted in 1958, replacing the STEN gun in general service.[8] It is different from the British L2 in that it made extensive use of stamped metal rather the more expensive castings used by British production SMGs.[8] It also had a removable trigger guard (for use with gloves in Arctic operations) as a standard option and used a new 30-round magazine.
  • Indian Army
    • SAF Carbine 1A: Indian made Sterling L2A1.
    • SAF Carbine 2A1: Sterling Mark V silenced carbine.

7.62 NATO variant

A variant of the Sterling submachine gun was manufactured in the 7.62×51mm NATO calibre. It used lever-delayed blowback to handle the more powerful rounds and was fed from 30 round Bren magazines.[9] A bipod and detachable fixed stock could be added as well as a Single Point IR/Trilux nightsight. To prevent ammunition cookoff, the weapon fired from an open bolt. Acting as the Besal LMG of World War II, the 7.62 NATO calibre Sterling was intended as an emergency standby weapon in case of attack during the Cold War.


Royal Malaysian Police officer with Sterling L2A3 (Mk 4) submachine gun

Indian sailor simulating a hostage scenario, 2009

See also


  1. Fowler, Will (2009). Royal Marine Commando 1950-82: From Korea to the Falklands. Osprey. pp. 17–20. ISBN 978-1-84603-372-8. 
  2. Firing the L34A1 on YouTube
  3. Lyles, Kevin (2004). Vietnam ANZACs: Australian & New Zealand troops in Vietnam 1962-72. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-702-4.  p. 62
  4. Sterling 9mm MK4 SMG Sub Machine Gun on YouTube
  6. Kitsune (2001). "Sterling L2A3 Submachinegun". Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 "C1 Submachine Gun". Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 10.17 10.18 10.19 10.20 10.21 10.22 10.23 10.24 10.25 10.26 10.27 10.28 10.29 10.30 10.31 10.32 10.33 10.34 10.35 10.36 10.37 Jones, Richard D. Jane's Infantry Weapons 2009/2010. Jane's Information Group; 35 edition (January 27, 2009). ISBN 978-0-7106-2869-5.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Miller, David (2001). The Illustrated Directory of 20th Century Guns. Salamander Books Ltd. ISBN 1-84065-245-4.
  12. "SUB MACHINE GUN CARBINE 9 mm 1A1". Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  13. "Sub Machine Gun Carbine 9 mm 2A1 (Silent Version)". Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  15. Gordon L. Rottman, Ron Volstad Armies of the Gulf War. ISBN 1-85532-277-3
  16. Ezell, Eward. Small Arms Today (Stackpole, 1988)
  17. "M3 Grease Guns Re-issued". 2005-02-22. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  18. Diez, Octavio (2000). Armament and Technology. Lema Publications, S.L. ISBN 84-8463-013-7.
  • Hogg, Ian V., and John H. Batchelor. The Complete Machine-Gun, 1885 to the Present. London: Phoebus, 1979. ISBN 0-7026-0052-0.
  • Gordon Rottman: Armies of the Gulf War (Osprey Military, London UK, 1993) p 31 ISBN 1-85532-277-3

External links

External images
Sterling submachine gun
L2A3 (Mark 4), stock collapsed
L2A3 (Mark 4), stock extended
L2A3 (Mark 4), partially disassembled

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