By Frank Iannamico
Like the British Sten of World War II, the Lanchester Machine Carbine (British parlance for submachine gun) was conceived during a period of great national crisis. When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, there were no submachine guns in the country’s small arms inventory. The British had built their empire with an army of well-trained rifleman armed with accurate bolt-action Enfield rifles. Submachine guns, that simply sprayed rounds everywhere, were merely thought of as tools for common criminals.
When faced with an imminent attack by the German Wehrmacht on their island, the British began to change their opinion of the submachine gun and tried to purchase as many of the weapons as possible. A ready and willing supplier was the United States’ Auto-Ordnance Corporation, manufacturer of the Thompson submachine gun, ironically the same weapon that had gained notoriety by gangster use during the Prohibition era in the United States.
Many of the Thompsons that the British had purchased, and later many Lend Lease weapons, were lost at sea as German submarines wreaked havoc on the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic; sinking vessels carrying desperately needed goods to Great Britain from the United States.
By early 1940, the financially strapped British Government was unable to purchase anymore Thompsons from the United States. On 12 August 1940 the British held a meeting and it was decided that to fulfill the need for a submachine gun they would copy and manufacture the German 9mm Schmeisser Carbine. Those attending the meeting felt that the German carbine could be easily manufactured, simple to use, and accurate at ranges out to 200 yards.
The design of the British Lanchester was copied from the German MP28 II submachine gun, a 1920s design that was clearly dated by 1940. Part of the reason for choosing that particular weapon was the manufacturing drawings had been made earlier from two weapons that were in British hands. Interestingly, the two gentlemen that were enlisted to make the drawings were Major Reginald Shepard and Harold Turpin who would later become quite well known for designing the British Sten submachine gun.
Due to a pressing need for the weapons, there was little time for any radical design changes, other than those thought necessary to expedite the manufacturing process. A few notable differences were the location of the fire selector switch (Mk1 Model), the locking catch that secures the back of the receiver to the stock, and the bayonet lug designed for the 1907 rifle bayonet, which was 21.75 inches in length. Early models also had a rudimentary safety that blocked the cocking handle. The Lanchester was 1.5 inches longer and also outweighed the German MP28 II by nearly 1.4 pounds.
The Lanchesters were originally planned for issue to the Royal Navy and Air Force. The British Army made it clear that they were quite content with the .45 caliber Thompsons.
By November of 1940 a final prototype Lanchester was successfully tested and ready for production. Like the German MP28 II, the Lanchester was chambered for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge. Since the British lacked sufficient facilities to manufacture the needed quantities of 9mm ammunition, large orders were placed with several U.S. companies.
Sterling Engineering Company, Ltd. was the first company chosen to manufacture the Lanchester. On 13 June 1941 the first contract for 50,000 submachine guns was signed. The first deliveries were expected by September. Originally, production was to be split equality between the Royal Navy and Air Force. The Royal Air Force had recently taken delivery of a number of new U.S. made Smith and Wesson semiautomatic 9mm carbines, resulting in most of Lanchester production being directed to the Navy.
Mr. George H. Lanchester, formerly a design engineer at the Lanchester Motor Company, was working as a technical advisor at the Sterling factory during the war. Mr. Lanchester was placed in charge of submachine gun production after which the weapon took his name. (Note: the Lanchester submachine gun is often incorrectly referred to as the Lancaster. The British Avro Lancaster is a World War II aircraft, specifically a four-engine heavy bomber.)
As it turned out the Lanchester Machine Carbine was neither as cheap nor easy to manufacture as was originally thought. During production there were several changes implemented to reduce cost and increase production. An early change was to the magazine housing. The original steel magazine housing proved difficult to produce and was replaced by one made from a bronze casting.
As originally designed, the Lanchester submachine gun was capable of semiautomatic or full automatic select fire. The selector switch was located at the front of the trigger guard. This complicated the design and increased reliability problems. Soon the Lanchester Mk1* (Mark one star) was introduced. This variant lacked the semiautomatic feature. Discarding the select-fire feature also allowed the breech bolt and firing pin to be redesigned requiring fewer machine operations. The curved cocking handle of the early bolt was replaced by a straight one made of bar stock. The handles were semi-permanently threaded into the bolt requiring the slot in the receiver to be open at the end so that the bolt could be removed.
Nearly all select-fire Lanchester Mk1 weapons were eventually converted to the Mk1* full-automatic only version, making an original select-fire Lanchester quite rare today. The components used for the select fire feature were removed from the British spare parts catalogs, which helped insure the conversion process in the field.
The barrel was attached to the barrel jacket (an extension of the receiver tube) by a large threaded flange on the front of the barrel. The barrel was originally secured in place by a single locking screw that was located between the barrel flange and the receiver tube. This method had proven problematic, and was replaced by a new design where the breech end of the barrel was secured by a shoulder screw running through the magazine housing.
The Lanchester was originally designed with its trigger housing and rear sight attached to the receiver tube with machine screws. This arrangement caused two problems. The trigger group screws would often work themselves loose from vibration and cause functioning problems, and the process added a lot of machine and labor time to the gun’s manufacture. The simple solution was to permanently weld the rear sight and trigger housing to the receiver tube. The serial numbers of these weapons had a letter “A” suffix added to denote “non-interchangeable parts.”
The rear sight was changed from the original tangent style that was adjustable from 100 to 600 yards to a much simpler two-leaf flip sight calibrated for 100 and 200 yard ranges. The front sight was the same as that used on the No. I Mk III Enfield rifle.
The stock of the Lanchester was made of beechwood, both with and without finger grooves in the forearm area. The shape of the stock was similar to that of the No. 1 Mk III Enfield. Early in production a brass buttplate was fitted. A critical material, the brass plate was replaced by steel and eventually one of a gray cast alloy called Zamac.
During the Lanchester’s service life a few problems surfaced. One was the extractor. As originally designed, the spring-steel extractors were quite prone to breakage. After a study it was determined that cutting a slot in the locating boss of the extractor would relieve stress on the leaf and reduce breakage. Existing stocks of extractors were sent to the firm of Holland and Holland to be modified. The modified extractors were marked with a letter M.
To keep up with the wartime demand two additional companies were contracted to produce Lanchesters; W.W. Greener and The Boss Company. The manufacturer of any particular Lanchester can be identified by its wartime code. The Sterling Engineering plant in Dagenham was assigned code S109, Sterling Armaments, North Hampton, code M619, W.W. Greener code M94 and Boss guns were marked S156. In addition to the prime contractors a number of companies were subcontracted to make parts.
The Lanchester’s double-stack, single-feed box magazine was also copied from a German design. There were two variations of the magazine. One had a 32-round capacity, the other a 50-round capacity. Both shared the same problems; they were extremely difficult to load by hand and unreliable due to the spreading of the feed lips when loaded. This was the same magazine used for the Sten guns.
When production had ceased in October 1943, approximately 79,790 Lanchester Machine Carbines had been manufactured. After the war ended a number of Lanchesters were sold to foreign governments. Although certainly eclipsed by the Sten MkII during World War II, many Lanchesters remained in the Royal Navy inventory until 1978. After serving honorably for nearly 37 years most of the remaining Lanchesters were unceremoniously destroyed.
The well-built Lanchester, with an overall length of 33.5-inches, is more the size of a carbine than a submachine gun. Upon shouldering a Lanchester for the first time most will comment on its hefty 11.95-pound loaded weight. The Lanchester’s weight, along with a cyclic of 550-600 rounds per minute, proves its value when firing the subgun, as holding it on a target during a long full-auto burst is no problem.
There are a small number of original Curio and Relic Lanchesters in the registry as well as a few new receiver “tube guns.” Back in the mid 1980s there was a small company called Cottage Arms Ltd. run by a fellow by the name of Bill Whitford. Mr. Whitford was quite fond of the Lanchester and was assembling restored surplus part sets on new pre 1986 receiver tubes.
More recently, Don Quinell, a Florida Class 2 manufacturer, has assembled a number of Lancaster submachine gun clones using registered Sten receiver tubes. (See Small Arms Review Volume 11, issue 5.)
Modern Maintenance of the British Lanchester
Those fortunate enough to have a Lanchester submachine gun in their collection are no doubt aware of the lack of replacement parts. The two weakest areas in the Lanchester design are the firing pin and (still) the extractor. Lanchester spare part sets were at one time readily available. Currently however, Lanchester parts have become quite scarce, disappearing into the spare part caches of collectors.
While original Lanchester firing pins can be difficult to find there is a solution. A standard firing pin from a U.S. M1 carbine can be used with a Lanchester bolt. To secure the carbine pin in the bolt, a simple cylinder that approximated the dimensions of the original firing pin base needs to be fabricated by a machinist. To contain the tail of the carbine firing pin a small notch needs to be ground into the fabricated base.
A solution to both the extractor and firing pin problem can be addressed by using a relatively inexpensive, and readily available, bolt assembly from a Sten submachine gun. The outside bearing diameter of a Sten bolt is the same as a Lanchester bolt. The Sten bolt uses a fixed firing pin and has an excellent extractor design. The only problem (there always is one) is that the Sten cocking handle is located in a different position than a Lanchester. Sten bolts are quite hard, but a skilled machinist could fabricate a new cocking handle and weld it in place at a correct orientation on the bolt.
The Lanchester uses the same inexpensive, but problematic, Sten 32-round magazines. The best Sten magazines are the Mk 2 design. These can be easily recognized by their lack of holes in the rear of the magazine body. The followers designed for these magazines have a bracing strut between the legs of the followers. This feature seems to aid in proper functioning of the magazines. One critical dimension with both the Sten/Lanchester 32 and 50-round magazines is the angle of the top cartridge protruding from the feed lips, which should be at 8-degrees. This measurement can easily change if the magazine lips spread apart. A few taps with a brass or plastic hammer (on each side) will usually bring them back to spec. A magazine loader is a must for these double-stack, single feed magazines.
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