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The L2, ubiquitously known as the "Sterling" after its place of manufacture, was a British submachine gun formerly in service with the British Army from 1953 to 1994. Originally developed by George William Patchett during World War II as a replacement for the Sten gun, the Sterling submachine gun enjoyed post-war success both domestically and internationally. It continues to be used by some police and military forces around the world.


Evolution of the Sterling SMG, from the MP28 to the L2A1.

The Sterling submachine gun was first conceived in the early 1940s by George William Patchett, a designer at the Sterling Armaments Company. Patchett demonstrated his initial prototype, which featured no buttstock or iron sights, to the British Ordnance Board on the 25th of September 1942. The Ordnance Board recommended improvements for the design and expressed interest in seeing the weapon developed further.

The improved model, produced by Sterling as the Patchett Mk.I, was submitted for testing in February 1943. It was tested against a range of other designs, including the Sten, the Lanchester, the Owen, the Veselý V-42, and the Welgun. In January 1944, the Patchett was further modified to meet new Army specifications and tested at Pendine. The Patchett performed well enough in these tests that the Ordnance Board ordered 20 Patchett Mk.Is for further tests. Once the 20 guns had been delivered in April of that year and tested, the Ordnance Board increased their order to a further 100 units. Troop trials were carried out at Pendine and the verdict was that the Patchett Mk.I was a suitable service weapon. It was subsequently issued in very limited numbers to troops of the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, serving in Arnhem and Normandy respectively.

Feedback from troop trials saw the Patchett Mk.I improved as the Patchett Mk.II at the end of 1944. No action was taken until 1947, when the Ordnance Board arranged preliminary trials to find a replacement for the Sten gun in Army service. The Patchett Mk.II was submitted to these trials and competed against the BSA machine carbine, the MCEM-3, the Australian MCEM-1, and the Madsen M/50. The BSA gun came out the best in these trials and further tests were arranged in 1951.

The Mk.VI, adopted in 1955 as the L2A3.

In the 1951 trials, the Patchett competed against the BSA, the Australian MCEM-2, and the Madsen. In these trials, the Patchett was favored, which ordinarily would have meant its immediate adoption by the Army. However, the adoption of the EM-2 rifle the same year proved problematic, since the EM-2 was designed as a multi-purpose rifle that would fill the role of a submachine gun, rendering the Patchett's adoption unnecessary. Instead, the Army proposed the purchase of Madsen submachine guns for second-line troops, while the EM-2 would fill the role of general service weapon. However, the EM-2 was scrapped later the same year, so the adoption of the Patchett went ahead as originally planned.

The Patchett Mk.II was officially adopted as the L2A1 on the 18th of September 1953. On the 12th of April 1955, the L2A1 was taken out of service and replaced by an improved model, the Patchett Mk.III or L2A2. Less than a month later, the L2A2 itself was replaced by a final improvement, the Mk.IV, officially adopted on the 10th of May 1955 as the L2A3.

Once adopted, production of the L2A3 was handled by the British state-owned ordnance factory at Fazakerley, Liverpool. In 1955, George Patchett sued the Ministry of Defense for refusing to pay for his patent, and the legal case was fought until the court finally decided in Patchett's favor over a decade later, in June 1966. Patchett was granted £116,975 compensation.

The silenced L34A1.

In 1967, Patchett designed a silenced version of the Mk.IV. The weapon attracted the interest of the Army and it was tested in the mid-1960s at Woolwich. The initial prototypes were rejected on account of the suppressor's mechanical complexity and the Ordnance Board recommended that Patchett simplify the weapon. He obliged and the final version utilized a similar design to the Sten Mk.IIS. It became known as the Mk.V and was adopted by the British Army on the 20th of January 1967 as the L34A1.

The L2A3 was in service with the British Army until 1988, when the SA80 assault rifle was introduced. The SA80's adoption rendered the L2A3 obsolete and thus it was phased out of service over the next few years. By the early 1990s the L2A3 was completely retracted from general issue. In its long service lifetime, the L2A3 saw use in Malaya, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands.

The weapon was a popular submachine with Commonwealth nations, such as Canada and India, who produced their own licensed versions known as the C1 and 1A1 respectively. Sterling made sales of the Mk.IV and Mk.V versions to Argentina, Spain, Portugal, and several countries in Asia and Africa; sales to Argentina resulted in the Mk.IV being used by both sides in the Falklands War. A copy was also made by FAMAE in Chile, known as the PAF machine pistol.

Sterling's attempts to produce further variants of the gun proved largely unsuccessful. In the early 1970s they marketed a long-barreled, semi-automatic variant known as the Mk.VI to police forces in the US; there were few sales and existing examples are now sought after in the civilian market. Sterling also produced a pistol variant called the Mk.VII, which was similarly met with no success. Frank Waters, the chief designer at Sterling, developed a cheaper alternative to the Mk.IV known as the S11, of which only one prototype was made.

British production of the submachine gun ceased in 1988, when Sterling Armaments officially closed. Production of the 1A1 variant by OFB Kanpur lasted as late as 2010, and it is still being issued to Indian police forces today. The Mk.IV remains in service in Jamaica, Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and several other countries, primarily issued to second-line troops.


The Sterling L2 was a blowback-operated submachine gun designed to a higher standard than the Sten it replaced, while still maintaining a degree of cost-efficiency. The body of the weapon was constructed from a single piece of perforated steel tubing produced by Accles & Pollock. The magazine housing, ejection slot, trigger guard and sights were brazed onto the body during production.

The L2's trigger mechanism was located in the middle of the gun rather than in the rear end, and its placement gave the weapon good balance. It featured a fire selector that locked the breech forward when the safety was activated. The bolt of the weapon was ribbed with a fixed striker, and a secondary recoil spring was used to compensate for the weight of the bolt.


Patchett Mk.I[]

Patchett Mk.I, No.1. The first prototype.

Patchett Mk.I, No.62. Note the design changes.

The Patchett Mk.I was the first iteration of the Sterling submachine gun. A batch of five experimental Mk.Is were produced for trials in 1943, and then a further run of 120 were produced from January to September 1944 at the request of the British Army. They were not all exactly the same; as the production run went on, various modifications were made to the design and thus later model Patchett Mk.Is incorporated certain design changes such as canted cocking slots and protruding muzzles, whereas the first Patchett Mk.Is had flat-nosed barrels and straight cocking slots. The Patchett Mk.I underwent testing throughout 1944, both in controlled tests at Pendine and combat trials in Normandy and Arnhem, where it was issued in very limited numbers to the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions. Unlike later models, the Patchett Mk.I used a loose firing pin.

Patchett Carbinette[]

The "Carbinette".

The "Carbinette" variant was a short-barreled version of the Patchett Mk.I, designed specifically for paratroopers. Other changes to the design include a canted cocking slot and a spring-loaded bayonet. It was designed around January 1944 and tested at Pendine in September. The regular Patchett Mk.I was deemed suitable enough for paratroopers and no orders were made for the Carbinette model.

Patchett Pioneer[]

The commercial "Pioneer" model.

The "Pioneer" was designed as a commercial export variant of the Patchett gun. It was designed in 1944 and featured a canted cocking slot, a cheek plate on the buttstock, shrouded sights and a redesigned trigger; overall it was basically a higher quality Patchett Mk.I. While the Pioneer never reached production as planned, the improved design elements it introduced were re-used on subsequent models of the Patchett gun.

L2A1 (Mk.II)[]

The first Mk.II prototype.

The Mk.II was an improvement on the Patchett Mk.I, using a fixed striker attached to the bolt. Much like the Mk.I, the Mk.II's design changed at various points in its production run. Initial Mk.IIs used straight magazines but later Mk.IIs introduced a curved magazine to remedy feeding problems. Externally, the Mk.II retained the protruding muzzle and canted cocking slot seen on later Mk.Is. After extensive trials lasting over six years, the Patchett Mk.II was officially adopted by the British Army as the L2A1 in 1953 and remained in service for less than two years.

L2A2 (Mk.III)[]

The Mk.III, or L2A2.

The Mk.III was a detail improvement of the Patchett Mk.II, differing mainly in that it had a modified buttstock with a cheek plate. Sterling cancelled production of the Patchett Mk.II in favor of this improved weapon and thus the British Army adopted the Mk.III as the L2A2, although it would remain in service less than a month.

L2A3 (Mk.IV)[]

The Mk.IV, or L2A3.

The Mk.IV was yet another improvement of the design, utilizing an improved trigger. Production of the new Mk.III was shelved in favor of the Mk.IV, and the British Army adopted the Mk.IV as the L2A3 in 1955, and it would remain the standard British submachine gun until it was taken out of service in 1994. Production ran from 1955 to 1988. Although never officially named as such, the L2A3 became quickly known as simply the "Sterling" after its place of manufacture.

L2A4 (prototype)[]

The L2A4 prototype.

The L2A4 was a variant of the standard L2A3 that featured a spike bayonet. It was tested by the British Army, but ended up never being issued.

L34A1 (Mk.V)[]

The L34A1.

The Mk.V was designed in 1964 on behalf of the British Army, who requested a suppressed version of the L2A3 for use on special operations. It was adopted as the L34A1 in 1967. The L34A1 remained in service until the 1990s and saw sales in other countries.


The Police Mk.VI.

The Mk.VI, also known as the "Police" or "Sporter" model, was a semi-automatic, long-barreled version of the Mk.IV offered for commercial sale in the US. It was marketed primarily for law enforcement purposes but failed to attract many buyers. Only the first 9 inches of the 16-inch barrel were rifled, so the accuracy was not actually any better than the standard Mk.IV.


The Mk.VII, also known as the "Para Pistol", was an ultra-short variant of the Mk.IV. The barrel was reduced to a mere 4 inches and the return spring was shortened significantly. It also came with a detachable foregrip and polymer stock. It was marketed to both military and civilian customers. The Mk.VII was not a commercial success and not many were made.


The Canadian C1.

The C1 was a licensed Canadian copy of the L2A3, produced at Long Branch Arsenal. It featured an enlarged trigger guard that could open up on a swivel to facilitate for thick winter gloves, but was other than slight manufacturing changes, it was largely the same gun as the weapon it was based on.


The CETME CB-64.

The CB-64, sometimes known as the C2, was externally patterned on the Sterling Mk.IV and is sometimes assumed to be a clone based on the visual similarities. Internally the bolt was of a completely different design and special safety device was also implemented in the gun. The CB-64 was produced in Spain by CETME and only saw limited sales before being discontinued. It was offered in 9×23mm Largo and 9×19mm Parabellum.



The PAF was a Chilean copy of the Sterling Mk.IV, produced by FAMAE in the mid-1970s. It was designed as a compact machine pistol-type weapon with a shortened receiver and retracting buttstock. Only small sample batches were made and it was never put into full production.

7.62 NATO variant[]

The 7.62×51mm NATO variant.

A light machine gun variant of the Mk.IV in the 7.62×51mm NATO caliber was built as a prototype by Sterling. It used a lever-delayed blowback operation to handle the more powerful cartridge and was fed from 30 round Bren magazines as well as 20 round magazines from the L1A1 SLR. The weapon was intended as an emergency standby weapon in case of attack during the Cold War.

In popular culture[]

The Sterling Mk.IV was used as the basis for the E11 blaster rifle, a prop gun featured in the popular 1977 science fiction epic Star Wars. The E11 continued to feature in the movie's sequels and has become an iconic weapon within the franchise.


  1. Number applies to the official production figures from the Royal Ordnance Factory at Fazakerley and does not account for the number of licensed or unlicensed copies made internationally.


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