The Sten is one of Britain’s iconic Second World War Small arms. Two men are principally responsible for its development Colonel Reginal Vernon Shepherd and Mr. Harold John Turpin a pair of small arms and engineering experts with considerable experience.
Turpin was born in Kent in 1893, served his apprenticeship as a draughtsman in Erith and in 1922, he joined the drawing office at the Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield – Britain’s principal state small arms centre.
Reginald Shepherd was born in 1892, received an Bachelor of Science Degree from Leeds University in 1912. In October 1914, he joined the West Yorkshire Regiment as a second lieutenant, serving in Gallipoli and Egypt. After the war, with his engineering background, he assigned as 2nd Assistant Superintendent at the Design Department at RSAF Enfield in December 1922, and promoted to captain.
The two men found themselves joining Enfield at around the same time. In November 1933, Shepherd, now a major, was appointed Inspector of Small-Arms (Class 2) at Enfield and assisted in getting the Bren light machine gun into service. He remained at Enfield until 1936, when he retired from the army and spent a short spell at BSA before being recalled. In late 1939, Major Shepherd returned to active service and once again took up the position of Inspector of Armaments, this time at the Ministry of Supply Design Department at Woolwich Arsenal.
By the outbreak of the Second World War Turpin had become the senior draughtsman at Enfield and when the development of the Lanchester Machine Carbine began he was paired with Major Shepherd to draw up technical drawings for the gun’s production.
The two men decided that a simpler, cheaper submachine gun could be produced and in December 1940 set about designing it, with Turpin in the lead. During the Winter of 1940-41 the first prototypes were built. Development of the first Sten – the T40, was completed on 8th January 1941, taking just 36 days.
14 pilot models were ordered but only two were completed by engineers at the Philco Radio Works in Middlesex: T-40/1 and T-40/2. The gun was initially designated the ‘T-40’ or Turpin, 1940. By the end of January 1941, it had become known as the ‘ST Machine Carbine’. The ‘Carbine, Machine, STEN, MkI’ was approved for issue on 7th March, 1941, with 100,000 guns ordered.
How did the gun become known as the ‘STEN’ and what did Sten stand for?
We know that the ‘S’ stands for Shepherd and the ‘T’ for Turpin, but what about the ‘EN’ – it is generally accepted to represent ‘Enfield’. Why? Because RSAF Enfield is synonymous with British military firearms. Additionally the Bren light machine gun’s name is a portmanteau of ‘BR’ from Brno, the location of the Czech factory the zb.26/30 originated from, and ‘EN’ for Enfield, the British factory that anglicised the design for British manufacture and service.
Enfield, however, wasn’t where the Sten was designed. Turpin and Shepherd claimed that most of the work on the design had been done out of hours. Additionally, during the winter of 1940, the Armament Design Department was relocated, from Enfield to a former Drill Hall in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire to escape the bombing of London.
While the Sten may not have been designed at Enfield, the first prototype was partially assembled there with work also done at Turpin’s own home workshop. A further 46 pre-production pilot models were later ordered from RSAF Enfield, in February 1941.
Intriguingly, early accounts suggest that ‘EN’ may have stood for ‘England’ – not ‘Enfield’. In October 1942, the fifth instalment of ‘Know Your Weapons’, a semi-official series of weapons manuals printed by the publisher Nicholson & Watson, explains that ‘EN’ did in fact stand for ‘England’.
In June 1943, Turpin penned a semi-anonymous article for ‘The Model Engineer’, about the design and development of the gun, which repeated this claim. An October 1943, article in the US Popular Mechanics magazine, entitled ‘Machine Guns from Backyard’, includes a supposed quote from the inventors explaining that the “E and N stood for England.”
A more official account came in June 1949, at a hearing of the Board of the Royal Commission Awards to Inventors (a board set up to reward inventors who had done important war work). One of the board members Lord Justice Sir Lionel Cohen asked Shepherd: “Why was it called the Sten?” The colonel replied: “It was called the Sten by the then Director General of Artillery. The ‘S’ was from my name, the ‘T’ from Mr. Turpin, who was my draughtsman and who did a very large amount of the design, and the ‘EN’ was for England. That is the origin of the name, for which I accept no responsibility.” This suggests that the ‘EN’ standing for ‘England’ may have originated from the upper echelons.
Sadly, there was no officially published explanation of the name as official manuals rarely go into superfluous detail. In 1948, however, Ian Hay published R.O.F. The story of the Royal Ordnance Factories, 1939-1948 in which he stated the ‘EN’ was a reference to the Enfield factory. Similarly, another early published account, D.M. Ward’s 1946 The Other Battle, a history of BSA, also suggested it represented the factory name.
In truth it is difficult to know exactly what the ‘EN’ stood for. It may be that both Enfield and England were discussed and used by various individuals and offices. There may have been an element of propaganda to including ‘England’ in a weapon’s name which led senior officers to push this in the press and direct the gun’s inventors to suggest this was the case too. Of course the authors of those earlier books may have mistakenly believed ‘EN’ stood for Enfield, as it does in Bren. Personally, I’m inclined to follow the primary sources attributed to the two men responsible for the design, and believe it initially stood for England.
Shepherd was awarded an OBE in January 1942, and became the Assistant Chief Engineer Armament Design (A/CEAD), he was promoted to Lt. Colonel in August 1943. He retired from active duty at the age of 55, in January 1947, and was removed from the reserve list. He was granted the honourary rank of colonel. He died in April 1950, aged 58. Turpin retired from RSAF Enfield in 1953, and died in April 1967, aged 74.
Beyond a pair of discretionary payments, £1,500 to Shepherd and a small payment of £200 to Turpin, neither man was officially rewarded as they were deemed to have essentially done what they were paid for, designing small arms. Scant reward and recognition for a weapon which became one of the key wartime small arms of the British and Commonwealth forces.
Our thanks also to Jonathan Ferguson, of the Royal Armouries, for sharing his thoughts on the ‘Enfield’ vs ‘England’ debate.
The Sten Machine Carbine, P. Laidler, (2000)
R.O.F. – The Story of the Royal Ordnance Factories, 1939-1948, I. Hay, (1949)
The Other Battle, D.M. Ward, (1946)
The Sterling Submachine Gun, M.J. Moss, (2018)
The Sten Gun, L. Thompson, (2012)
‘Sten & Bren Guns’, Know Your Weapon #5, (Oct. 1942)
‘The Sten Carbine’, Model Engineer, 3 Jun. 1943, H.J. Turpin
Board of the Royal Commission Awards to Inventors – 1946-49
‘Machine Guns From Backyard’, Popular Mechanics, Oct. 1943