Last year I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the Cody Firearms Museum’s Arsenals of History Symposium. I’ve been working with my friend Jonathan Ferguson of the Royal Armouries on a research paper looking at British use of the AR-15 platform. My focus for the project has been the user experience, I’ve spoken to over 25 veterans from across the British military who have experience using the AR-15/M16 platform on operations. Chronologically their experiences span nearly 60 years and this somewhat informal presentation gives a brief overview of some of the operations where the rifles have been used from the Indonesian Confrontation right through to the present day.
If you’re a member or former member of the British armed forces with experience with the AR-15/M16 platform I would love to hear from you, please reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org. Your help and insights would be invaluable.
Once the project is completed I’ll put together a more in-depth video discussing the history of the UK’s use of AR-15/M16-pattern rifles.
From the late 1960s into the 1990s, Northern Ireland suffered a long period of sectarian violence, commonly known as The Troubles. Without going into too much detail about the conflict, other sources do a much better job than I can today, the violence saw Irish Republican paramilitary groups, Ulster Loyalist paramilitary groups and British security forces involved in a protracted low-level conflict with a Republican insurgency fighting not just British forces but Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). This article/video has no intention to comment on the conflict itself, merely examine a weapon produced during the period.
This copy or clone of a Sterling Mk4 / L2A3 submachine gun is believed to have been assembled by Loyalist paramilitaries although which group and its origins are unclear. Loyalist groups during the 60s and 70s tended to be less well armed and relied more heavily on improvised small arms and weapons stolen from military and police armouries and personnel than Republican groups. When tensions rose in the late 1960s, the Loyalists were largely equipped with obsolete and outdated weapons.
Sammy Duddy, a member of an early Loyalist group, the Westland Defence Association, and later a press officer for the Ulster Defence Association, recalled the dire state of their arsenal at that time:
“[…] we had no guns. The IRA had automatics [machine-guns], high-velocity sniper rifles, powerful pistols, the lot, but we had fuck all. There were virtually no guns on the Loyalist side. The only weapons we had were baseball bats and I just thought to myself, ‘what the fuck are we going to do when they [the IRA] come in with their machine-guns? Throw bats at them?’”
The Ulster Volunteer Force (or UVF) took to stealing what weapons and spare parts they could from the British military and Royal Ulster Constabulary. Weapons assembled from damaged captured Sterlings and Sterling spare parts kits became common. In this case, this weapon has a number of cannibalised original Sterling parts which have been paired with a craft-made receiver tube. From examination we can see that the weapon’s end cap has a Sterling part number stamp ‘CR110’ inside. Similarly the weapon has a factory-made plastic grip. Other factory made parts include the helically grooved bolt, the two recoil springs and the charging handle. There is also seemingly a factory-made trigger group and magazine release button. The magazine is well sized and utilises various parts from a Sterling’s magazine release including the button, an set screw and catch piece.
The trigger assembly housing is welded and ground smooth where it joins with the tube receiver. On factory-made guns there is a visible seam. The poorer quality tube steel of the receiver also appears to have drooped or bent a little around the middle of the weapon. The holes in the barrel shroud are of uniform size but they are roughly drilled and not equally spaced. At the front of the receiver we can see they have retained the barrel with a pair of large bolts, suggesting that the barrel may have been factory made too. There is now end cap catch at the rear nor provision for a folding stock either. While whoever made the receiver tube went to the trouble of added hand stops found on the actual Sterling they are clearly only lightly welded on.
Another difference is the absence of a bayonet lug on the left side of the barrel shroud, and a much cruder fixed sight sat within a U-shaped piece of metal welded to the tube receiver – to act as a front sight protector. The factory-made Sterling’s front sight is adjustable and the sight protectors are folded forward and aligned across the tube receiver. The rear sight and its protectors appears to have sheared off at some point. The only marking on the weapon, ‘29992’, is crudely electro pencilled on the top of the magazine housing, where you’d normally see markings saying ‘Sterling Mk4’ or ‘L2A3’. When that crude serial number was added is unclear. The black paint on the receiver is wearing thin and we can clearly see some file marks in places.
Hundreds of craft-made submachine guns were built to feed from Sterling and Sten magazines and there are numerous surviving examples of guns made from box tubing – often parts were clandestinely made in Northern Ireland’s factories and at shipyards like Harland & Wolf in Belfast – giving rise to the name ‘shipyard special’. Other nicknames included ‘rattlers’ and table leg guns.
The origins and story behind this particular weapon remain unknown, it is today part of a UK Ministry of Defence collection and said to have been found in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Regardless it’s a very interesting piece of clandestine engineering which shows considerable skill in its assembly. Which is unsurprising as there are numerous accounts of skilled machinists working on illegal firearms parts during the period.