The Semi-Auto Sterling Short-Barreled Rifle: Hot Gun at a Cool Price- Part I
By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos by Sarah Dabbs

It seems that every week somebody is coming up with some cool new surplus (an oxymoron?) military firearm. Though the political winds have certainly not run in the direction most conservative gun aficionados might have wished in recent years, American ingenuity combined with good old-fashioned capitalism have brought us some mighty interesting firearms here lately. One of these is the Wiselite Sterling sporter rifle from Century Arms.

The Sterling submachine gun that gave rise to the Wiselite sporter had an interesting parentage. In 1941 Great Britain stood geographically alone against the specter of Nazi domination. Mainland Europe having fallen to Guderian’s Lightning War and the British Expeditionary Force having only miraculously survived slaughter at Dunkirk, the U.K. found itself in a perilous position. Woefully underequipped to wage a global conflict, England needed a new weapon that was both effective and cheap. MAJ R.V. Sheppard and H.J. Turpin answered the call with the Sten gun.

The Sten is so named because of an odd union of the first letters of its designers’ names combined with En for either Enfield or England dependent upon what you read. The resulting gun was arguably the crudest military small arm ever widely fielded by a major power in modern times. For all of its simplicity and utilitarian ambience, however, the Sten did possess some luxury features such as selective fire capability and, on the Mk II at least, the capacity to rotate the magazine housing around as a dust cover. As soon as the pressure on British industry relented sufficiently to allow for a more leisurely design and manufacturing process English designers set to work building a subgun with a little more elegance.

The Patchett machine carbine can be thought of as the Sten’s more sophisticated big-city cousin. Actually employed briefly in combat in the final months of WWII, the Patchett was found to be reliable and effective. With the close of WWII, however, the perceived need for an upgraded submachine gun diminished markedly. As such it was not until 1953 that the British Army formally adopted the product-improved Patchett submachine gun as the L-2A1 Sterling.

The Sterling was one of the greatest British arms successes of the 20th century. Produced in a variety of Marks and sold to more than 90 countries, the Sterling has been used by tin-pot dictators and respectable standing armies as well as everything in between for more than half a century. Back in the good old days before the black gun import bans of the first President Bush, a long-barreled semi-auto version of the British-made Sterling was available commercially in the U.S. Now twenty-plus years later Century Arms is distributing a bodged-together clone of the Sterling produced by Wiselite Arms.

What Does It Look Like?

The Wiselite Sterling is a relative bargain these days but prospective buyers should have reasonable expectations. These guns are built on demilled military surplus parts kits and have a great deal of mileage. The plastic pistol grips are nicked and faded and some of the parts are fairly tired. The entire gun is finished in a heavy industrial crinkle finish that is nicely robust but frankly pretty ugly.

The original British-built Sterlings came from the English factory with a crinkle finish while the export commercial versions were typically nicely blued. Special-order Sterlings were produced for any number of egomaniacal customers. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq liberated at least one gold-plated example of the suppressed L-34 variant.

With the functional demise of cheap machine gun ownership for the common man in America sealed in 1986, the rise in popularity of short-barreled rifles and shotguns has soared along with suppressor ownership. These last three categories of firearms can still be had for sums that do not require winning the lottery or selling a superfluous bodily organ on eBay. In the case of the Wiselite Sterling, an approved BATF Form 1 allows the recreational shooter to produce a facsimile of the original military Sterling used in the Falklands War as well as a variety of classic James Bond movies without breaking the bank or going to jail. In this Short-Barreled Rifle configuration the Sterling captures the Mil-Spec mystique while still adhering to a reasonable budget. The Form 1 along with instructions for its execution are available on the BATF website. The process costs $200 and requires a bit of patience but is fairly straightforward. The required shop work includes the barrel shortening process as well as engraving the new manufacturer’s name and address on the side of the gun.

What Makes It Tick?

There are several important changes incorporated into the design to make it a palatable offering in today’s civilian gun market. The receiver itself is modified from the original full auto version in that it sports a steel blocking bar inside the bolt track welded flush against the barrel trunnion that precludes adoption of an original full auto bolt assembly. There is also a small steel block welded to the outside of the receiver tube that prevents addition of a full auto trigger pack. The 16-inch barrel is threaded at the front of the receiver and incorporates a heavy thread protector with a spring-loaded detent. As such, the sporterized Sterling will not accept an original bayonet. The bayonet lug has been deleted anyway so those wishing to conduct bayonet drills with a semiauto 9mm carbine are simply out of luck. The semiauto trigger pack is modified from the original military model and retains the full auto position. The pack is mechanically blocked, however, to prevent the selector from rotating to that point.

The bolt is the most heavily-modified component of the original military surplus gun. The center core of the bolt is milled away along with the fixed firing pin and a sleeved floating firing pin substituted. A slot has been milled along the underside of the bolt to allow clearance for the sear and an in-line hammer device has been incorporated into the back of the bolt assembly. The entire affair is quite an elegant solution to the problem of converting military open-bolt full auto submachine guns into legal closed-bolt semiauto sporters.

The bolt incorporates helical cuts in its exterior designed to channel dirt and crud away from the critical pieces of the action. As the semiauto bolt began life as the military spec variant these cuts are retained.

That Magnificent Magazine

The Sterling magazine is literally inspired. It is the most optimized 9mm magazine this author has encountered in forty years of immersion in the gun culture. It sports a gentle curve that accommodates the geometry of Georg Luger’s Parabellum cartridge perfectly and carries 34 rounds when fully loaded. The most extraordinary component of the device, however, is the follower. Magazine followers are typically formed from plastic, steel, or aluminum and serve like a piston to force the stack of cartridges toward the feed mechanism of the firearm. The Sterling mag incorporates a pair of roller bearings instead to feed the rounds with a fluid smoothness that is simply incomparable. It is a joy to load requiring nothing more than a standard set of fingers and can be readily disassembled using a punch or ballpoint pen. The leading portion of the magazine is also formed into a sort of pseudo-feed ramp that starts the rounds off in the right direction when it is time to begin feeding them. All in all, while there are some sharp edges on the front edge of the mag that can nip at your fingers a bit when you are in a hurry, the Sterling magazine is literally as good as it gets.

How Does It Run?

At the range the Sterling clone is a pussycat. Muzzle velocity ranged from 1,295-1,320 fps out of the 16-inch barrel while the 8-inch tube yielded 1,175-1,250 fps with identical ammunition. As such, performance was not meaningfully degraded by cutting the barrel to the Mil-Spec length. With the exception of a single light primer strike that failed to fire a cartridge with a stiff military primer, the Wiselite Sterling performed flawlessly throughout our fairly extensive testing. Groups were about what was expected for a seven-pound semiautomatic 9mm carbine. Out to one hundred meters consistent hits on a man-sized target were not particularly challenging. With the barrel shortened and the stock folded the Sterling can ride comfortably in some surprisingly tight quarters so long as the magazine is removed. So configured, the Sterling SBR fits nicely into a briefcase or bugout bag.

While the side-mounted magazine is at best unconventional compared to other subgun designs, the mag even fully loaded rests comfortably on the left forearm without any significant deleterious effects on performance. The horizontal magazine geometry also allows a much lower profile when firing from the prone should the need arise.

The sights are robust and well guarded with heavy sheet metal protective ears. The rear sight is a two-position flip up design with a large and small aperture. The design also incorporates a guard on the right side of the barrel shroud to remind the shooter to keep his fingers away from the muzzle.

The one negative attribute that does warrant serious discussion is that the original Sterling is simply awash in sharp edges. The pressed steel stock cuts rather vigorously into the firing hand while folded and the magazine, though itself high art in its execution, sports sharp edges along its front aspect. While certainly tolerable, as all of my weapons evaluations include a day wherein I basically tote the piece in question around the house and throughout my daily activities, the sharp edges do become onerous eventually. The solution the British Army came up with was simply to require that the Sterling be carried at all times with the stock extended. In this configuration the stock’s sharp edges are effectively neutralized. Grasp the weapon by the barrel shroud rather than the magazine and the magazine’s edges are rendered harmless as well.

The Final Analysis

So, what is the bottom line? The new Sterling clone will never replace your tricked out M4 as the go-to tool for when the zombies come. However, with a little initiative and some moderately expensive paperwork from BATF, the Wiselite Sterling clone can certainly add a compact, hard-hitting, and just flat cool example of a historically significant military firearm to your stable.

Practically-speaking, the Sterling Sporter is a seven-pound 9mm carbine. There are literally dozens of lighter, handier platforms out there that will launch 9mm projectiles. That having been said, with the barrel legally shortened the resulting gun and a half dozen magazines will readily fit into a briefcase or drop behind the seat in a pickup truck. In this condition it makes for a stable and accurate utility gun that would do yeoman’s duty at business or homestead defense. It is visually intimidating and as robust as a pipe wrench. As such, the Sterling SBR warrants consideration for the advanced collector or rural citizen/urban shop owner who wants to be prepared in perilous times.

However, if that’s not enough, tune in for the next installment wherein we take the Sterling SBR Sporter to the Next Level. Trust me, it’ll be cool.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (April 2012)
and was posted online on February 10, 2012


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