By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos by Sarah Dabbs
In 1977 when I was eleven years old rumors circulated around the playground at school about a new movie that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. There were descriptions of starships and lasers and weird space creatures.
The following week I finally got my chance. I actually sat in the front row alongside my cousin and craned my neck unnaturally to soak it all in. I nearly got airsick watching the final space battle. When the screen went black I knew I would never be the same. I had just seen Star Wars for the first time.
Folks who grew up with home video, cable TV, and VCRs or DVD players just cannot imagine what it was like to see a movie like Star Wars in a theater as a kid in the seventies. It rotated back through the theater again and again every six months or so. On the fourth iteration there was still a line to get in. We just couldn’t get enough of it.
We talked about it at recess, doodled about it in our school notebooks, and bought those little plastic action figures in whatever quantities our yard mowing money would tolerate. In quiet moments we imagined ourselves starring in this larger than life spectacle - climbing into our X-wing, saving the Princess, and taking out Imperial troops aboard the Death Star with a liberated Stormtrooper Blaster.
Fast forward nearly thirty-five years and a lifelong dream finally comes to fruition. I have finally built an operational BlasTech E-11 Stormtrooper Blaster. (Dweeb alert: No Yoda underpants were worn during the production of this article.)
A disclaimer is in order. I’m not as big a geek as it appears. I have a job and a family and a life replete with bills and responsibilities. Though I certainly do not disparage those who do, I have never once attended a science fiction convention. I also don’t wear underwear emblazoned with Yoda’s likeness. However, my wife can attest that I’ve never exactly shied away from an opportunity to nourish the inner child. In that spirit, I set out to build a facsimile of the classic weapon from the classic movie that defined my generation.
Star Wars really did break new ground cinematically. George Lucas drew from the Saturday afternoon action serials of generations gone by to depict the genre of the classic Western in an outer space setting. For all the clever and innovative story execution, however, the original Star Wars film was shot on a fairly tight budget. This is clearly in evidence with some of the personal weapons in the movie.
It is a challenge to find a gun guy who is not intimate with Star Wars weaponry. As the original movie was shot at Pinewood studios in England, the guns used in the film were built from weaponry readily available in the U.K. at the time. (Bapty Ltd was the prime armourer). Han Solo’s Blaster began life as a Mauser Bolo Broomhandle spruced up with a little window dressing. The heavy weapons used by the Stormtroopers were unmodified German MG-34 belt-fed machine guns. The ammo pouches on the Stormtroopers’ uniforms on Tattoine were stock MP-40 gear. The standard issue Stormtrooper Blaster, designated the BlasTech E-11 in the background story, was at its heart a Sterling submachine gun.
When I set out to build a Blaster of my own I had three goals in mind. First, I wanted something aesthetically close enough to the original that even the most jaded observer would have no trouble identifying it as a piece of issue Stormtrooper kit. Second, I wanted the final product to be fully functional as a live weapon. I mean, how cool would it be to show up at the local range packing a live Imperial Blaster? Lastly, I wanted the conversion executed in such a way that I could still get my Sterling back if the urge hit me. While my bride has given up all hope, there is still a remote possibility that I might yet grow up someday and want to settle down with some more conventional firearms.
Where to Start?
My particular Blaster began life as a Wiselite 9mm Sterling semiautomatic rifle from Century Arms as described in detail in Part I of this article. Century has carved out a handy niche in the gun community by taking demilled military firearms and rebuilding them on domestically produced semiautomatic receivers. The Century Sterling is a fairly crude execution of the original English design with some well-used parts and a heavy industrial crinkle finish but it makes for an ideal starting point for the Blaster project. It is relatively inexpensive and not rare enough to make me feel too guilty about modifying it. By the end of the project I found this to have been a baseless concern anyway.
The first step after obtaining the gun is to legally shorten the 16-inch aftermarket barrel. This process is described in detail in Part I of this article. For the truly ambitious basement tinker the gun could theoretically be scratch-built from a modified parts kit (currently dirt cheap from a variety of distributors for less than $150 sans barrel) on a virgin tube with the stock welded shut and transfer as a conventional handgun.
Establishing a Pedigree
The original conversion for the movie was fairly straightforward. They used about twenty prop guns for the actual film and the essential modifications included cooling fins on the front of the receiver and a custom scope mount with optical sight. A small number of the props were built from live Sterling guns and were fired with blanks in the movie. The Star Wars purist who is sufficiently bored can note ejected shell casings in places in the original film. Some, but not all of the original props had a couple of trinkets affixed to the sides of the receiver for flair but as these were esoterica not included on all of the originals I forewent them on my conversion. The non-firing prop guns used in the original film began life as metal Japanese-built Sterling replicas from a company called Replica Models, the predecessor of today’s Collector’s Armory.
The original blasters came in two flavors according to my internet research. The most striking difference between the two variants is in the design of the cooling fins on the barrel shroud. The earliest version had cooling fins built from thin gauge U-channel sheet metal. The later variants sported fins that were made from plastic material that appears to be little more than household weather stripping. On at least some of the original props this material was affixed with double-sided tape. As I wanted my product to be functional and robust enough to shoot tactically, I opted to replicate the earlier version with the metal fins.
Let Us Retire to the Workshop
I started with some stock aluminum U-channel from Home Depot. This material runs about a buck a foot in 6-or 8-foot sticks and mimics the original stuff splendidly. I also picked up a bag full of number 6 wing nuts and bolts and retired to my workshop.
The wing nuts must be trimmed slightly to allow them to slip into the holes in the cooling shroud on the Sterling forend. I then notched each of the wings on the nuts so they would settle rigidly into the holes. After cutting the U-channel to length and rounding the ends I drilled holes in the appropriate locations on the channel stock to correspond to the cooling holes in the Sterling barrel shroud. Note that in order to accommodate the front sight and finger guard each of the fin assemblies ends up requiring a unique combination of length and hole location. Once these assemblies were complete (and, yes, it was a bit tedious manually modifying all those wing nuts) a little locktite and elbow grease set the cooling fin assemblies in place securely enough to last until I decide to remove them. To seat the abbreviated wingnuts one need only start them on the corresponding bolt and then slip them into the appropriate cooling hole on the barrel jacket at an angle before squaring them up in the hole for tightening. It’s easier than it sounds. While the resulting amalgam might not pass muster at a Star Wars convention, it does capital duty on the firing range. At least in this configuration there is no risk of the cooling fins melting to the barrel during extended firing sessions.
The original optical sight on the movie prop began as some type of a tank periscope. As these would be essentially unobtainable as well as being functionally useless on the range, I just substituted an inexpensive red dot sight that seemed about the right size. The scope mount was built from another piece of the same aluminum U-channel stock as was used for the cooling fins. In this case the U-channel is reversed such that it settles snugly to the top of the receiver, open side down. I secured the front half using the same wingnut arrangement as was used on the fins. The rear end required a small scratch-built adaptor. This piece bolts into the near end of the U-channel and then secures to the large aperture of the rear sight using a small machine screw. A short length of commercial scope mount secured to the top of the improvised mounting base completes this portion of the project.
That Magnificent Sterling Magazine
As discussed in the previous installment, the magazine designed for the Sterling submachine gun is high art. It represents the most user-friendly and smooth-feeding firearms magazine I have ever encountered. Though I own several, I simply could not bring myself to cut up one of these beautiful Sterling magazines for the Blaster project. Fortunately for me, there is an inexpensive alternative.
Standard Sten magazines both fit and function in the Sterling submachine gun with a caveat. As an aside, the converse is not true. Though the Sterling mag will snap solidly in place on my Mk II Sten, the single feed bolt on the Sten precludes utilization of the more modern Sterling magazine in the Sten gun. I have read anecdotally that Sten mags are not safe in a full auto Sterling because of the altered feed geometry and the resulting possibility of an out of battery ignition. In my testing this has not been a problem. As Sten mags are both cheap and ugly, I cut one of these down without guilt. A little careful teasing with a Dremel tool to recreate the floorplate mounting geometry combined with carefully shortening the magazine spring one coil at a time resulted in a nice little five-round magazine that juts out of the Blaster’s magazine well just the right distance. The original movie magazines on the actual firing props for the movie only held three rounds.
Once the scope mount and cooling fins were in place a new treatment with bake-on gun finish completed the effect and made the additions look more natural on the weapon. Just to add icing on the cake I tried the conversion on a registered full-auto Sterling as well. While this is entirely unnecessary from the perspective of a Star Wars buff—all the Blasters in the movie were fired semiautomatically - I wanted to be able to shoot this thing in a subgun match if I got the itch. What category would it fall into? Classic? Contemporary? Future? The mind boggles. Considering that there are no permanent modifications required of the host gun this conversion can be safely undertaken even with a transferable Sterling. Interestingly, this entire project can be executed on a registered Sterling without molesting a transferable receiver one whit.
How Does She Handle?
On the range the Blaster replica is a hoot. It is heavy and bulky but the pistol grip is nicely configured at the center of gravity so as to facilitate a two-handed Weaver stance. Semi-auto performance in this mode (used to great effect by Luke Skywalker to suppress incoming blaster fire long enough to swing across the chasm in the Death Star with the Princess in tow) is not too shabby. The red dot optic and heavy weight make it a simple undertaking to keep all rounds in a tactical silhouette at typical handgun engagement ranges. Be forewarned, however, that the folded stock on the Sterling, while robust and rigid in operation, has sharp edges that will cost the shooter some skin off of his hands if he is not careful. With the stock extended and switching over to a longer magazine and full auto fire makes the Blaster replica a competitive tool on the range. In the case of the optics and the cooling fins, the resulting gun is actually more effective and comfortable than the stock unmodified Sterling. The optics make for quicker target acquisition and the added bulk of the cooling assembly makes for a more comfortable, hand-filling forward handhold. The smooth action and sedate rate of fire of the Sterling platform makes tactical full auto drills fun, effective, and satisfying.
While the original semiauto Sterling rifle did give us a single light firing pin hit that caused a failure to fire, the converted blaster ran 100% at the range. The weight of the weapon combined with its pleasant rate of fire yielded superb tactical performance. When fully loaded the side-mounted magazine does make the gun seem trivially awkward but the completed Blaster is both comfortable and effective at all reasonable subgun ranges.
An evening at the sewing machine configured a low-ride left-sided holster allowing comfortable carry in the manner of the movie. Now on long strolls around my Mississippi farm I can feel confident with a good Blaster by my side.
You Get What You Pay For
The red dot sight for this project was chosen specifically for its external similarity to the sights in the movie without consideration for function or quality. It was fairly inexpensive. In practice it has been effective and appears to be adequately robust. Interestingly however, the adjustment turrets, while functional, are marked in reverse. Moving the adjustment wheel left moves the bullet strike right. Moving the wheel in the up direction moves bullet strikes down. That revelation cost me about ten rounds on the range before I realized it. It is really not a problem in the grand scheme. It was simply a curious finding.
What’s the Point?
Who are we kidding? Do we really need a point? Adding a unique design to the collection that stirs emotions that have smoldered since childhood is more than enough justification to build a functional Star Wars blaster.
The unbridled envy that the Blaster induces in observers at the range is sufficient to goose the shooter’s ego. The fact that I can now compete in subgun matches armed with a weapon originally designed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is simply gravy. The bottom line is that a drill, a Dremel tool, a trip to Home Depot, and a little paperwork will put a semiauto Star Wars Blaster in just about any American gun enthusiast’s safe at a relatively reasonable cost. Now if I could just whip up an operational lightsaber I would really be on to something. I’ll keep you posted.
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Very enjoyable article. Well done conversion.
Nice photos too.
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