Lanchester MkI: Britain’s First (But Not Last) Emergency SMG

The Lanchester MkI was the first British effort to produce a domestic submachine gun during World War II. The British military had rejected these types of arms as “gangster guns” prior to the war, and did not see them as useful in a military context. Well, that opinion changed rather quickly as they watched the German blitzkrieg sail through continental Europe.

The very first solution was to purchase Thompson SMGs from the United States, but these were extremely expensive weapons, and not a suitable long term plan. The next solution was to reverse engineer a pair of German MP28 SMGs captured in Ethiopia. This was done by a Sterling company engineer named George Lanchester, and it was a successful project. Both the Navy and Air Force purchased the guns (although the air force would cancel its order later, and the guns would pretty much all go to the Royal Navy).

Mechanically, the Lanchester is a very close copy of the MP28, with a few stylistic changes. These include the use of an SMLE pattern stock, the addition of a bayonet lug for a 1907 pattern bayonet, and the use of brass or bronze for the magazine housing instead of steel. The original MkI Lanchesters were select-fire, with a lever to allow semi or full-auto fire. This was removed with the simplified MkI* pattern, however.

The Lanchester would be quickly followed by the Sten gun, which offered much cheaper and faster manufacture, and the British Army would use huge numbers of Stens. The Lanchester would stay in service for decades after the war, though, serving on many naval vessels in British service and with other nations when British ships were sold as surplus.



  1. I love my Lanchester! Whenever I set up a display, it’s the first gun where people have to ask “What’s that one?”

    • Given the quality of finish, any sane person would get a Lanchester if possible. The Sten was considered a poor replacement especially when reliable functioning and safety are criteria for acceptance. Dropping a loaded Sten with the bolt handle on fire position may result in one very angry commander minus his trousers. And at least the Lanchester is much handier to use for bayoneting a random sentry in the back. I could be wrong…

  2. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for all those informative details on Lanchester SMGs. We especially enjoyed the way you explained how Lanchesters fit into the bigger picture of WW2.

    That bayonet may look awkward, but it makes sense when fighting in someone’s house or onboard their ship. If an RN boarding party arrives with 50 round magazines, but there are 51 bad guys onboard, they (RN) could stab the 51st bad guy instead of bludgeoning him to death.

    Re: Smith & Wesson or Riesing carbines …. how does the muzzle velocity of .45 ACP – fired from an 18″ barrel compare with the same ammo fired from a 1911 pistol?

    • I’m not convinced on the bayonet — for similar weight, I think an additional 32-round magazine would be more practical.

      Bayonets were still useful on bolt action rifles (aside from dealing with cavalry) because they were faster than reloading; that is, if you’re already up close, a bayonet lets you stick the other fellow while he’s cycling his bolt. With a SMG (or even a semi-auto rifle), this isn’t an issue — you can shoot just as fast as you can stab. Instead of being potentially useful _every_ time you get up close, it’s useful only if you’re up close _and_ your magazine is empty (which with a 50-round mag, and any kind of burst discipline, shouldn’t be often); if you run dry at any distance from the enemy, I think you’d be better off changing magazines, than trying to close to stabbing distance under fire.

      As for ballistics, with short pistol cartridges like .45 ACP, 9×19, and the like, you usually see some significant boost going from pistol barrels to the 8″ to 12″ barrels of typical SMGs, but little additional gain from going all the way to a 18″ rifle length barrel.

      Of course it varies by individual loading; see tests here:
      But since all the loads tested are modern ammo, even the 230-grain loads may not be representative of WW2-era propellants.

      • Although, now that I think about it, I was mentally hefting a 30-round mag of 9×19, and calling it about the same weight as a bayonet. But in .45 ACP, the mag is gonna be quite a bit heavier, so my “comparable weight” isn’t. Still not sold on the bayonet thing, but that was an unfair comparison on my part.

        • Except that I was right the first time, ugh.

          The bayonet discussion was about the Lanchester, which was in 9×19, so my comparison was somewhat reasonable after all. I guess I got confused talking about Lanchester bayonets and Reising ballistics all in the same post.

      • Not so sure about combat usefullness of bayonets on rifles. Even American Civil war veterans was writing about it as absolete equipment (reason of rod bayonet of first M1903 Springfield rifles). But sure bayonet looks intimidating and exeptionaly usefull when it counts – riot control, guarding prisoners etc.

  3. So, the British gave these relatively well made and high quality SMGs to the Navy, whereas the Army got the Sten? At least one would think that the Army would have taken the ones the RAF suddenly didn’t want any more, but apparently no. Of course the number was insignificant compared to the eventual production of the Sten, but it goes to show that despite finally adopting the “gangster gun”, the British Army wasn’t yet really aware or sure of their usefulness at that stage of the war.

    By the way, does anyone know what the RAF received to replace the ill-fated S&W Light rifles. Stens?

    • The RAF received first the Sten MK V, and then what became the RAF Regiment (paratroops) were the first to be issued the Patchett Machine Carbine, the original version of the Sterling. While most people think it was solely a postwar item, in fact the Patchett made its combat debut with the Paras at Arnhem, during Operation Market Garden.

      If you look closely at the Patchett/Sterling, you quickly realize that it is basically a slightly “product improved” Lanchester modified to make extensive use of stampings and castings instead of machined-from-solid parts. Plus of course having a folding metal stock and a pistol grip instead of the Lanchester’s fixed wooden stock.

      So in other words, it’s a developed Mp-28, and by extension a development of the original Mp-18.



  4. As always, I have to wonder what kind of accuracy you can coax out of a subgun, esp. one as heavy and nicely made as the Lanchester. Without semiauto fire, it would be tedious to bench-test it — but still, I’d like to try.

  5. Just imagine: you’re boarding an enemy vessel, moving down narrow corridors….with that damn 50 round magazine sticking out at 90 degrees. How hard would it have been to do a redesign with the magazine well vertical? Call it the Lanchester Mk 2, Navy Pattern.

    • OBJECTION!! [Ace Attorney styled speech balloon]

      Redesigning the magazine well to become vertical would present the need to make it much more massive as someone would undoubtedly use it as a fore grip (one shudders at the thought of strangling the magazine to death while fighting for one’s life)! This would also necessitate a redesigned stock to include a proper pistol grip! Or one would be required to redesign the entire Lanchester so that it resembled a Thompson in general layout (but let’s keep the shroud and bayonet lug), thus eliminating your complaint while destroying the original material!

      Does the prosecution wish to object to this claim?

      • In-the-FPS-game-Uncharted-4-A-Thief’s-End, the series hero Nathan Drake can obtain a Steyr Solothurn MP-1934 modified like the Evil Within Nambu Type-100 with the horizontal magazine well turned vertically and relocated to directly in front of the trigger guard, the original 9x19mm-Parabellum-caliber stick magazine replaced with a post-Vietnam 5.45mm-caliber AK casket magazine, and the wooden shoulder stock completely sliced off to leave only the pistol grip for tight-quarter handling but-a-modification-patch-could-replace-the-original-stock-with-an-MP-1940-style-underfolding-piece. If-fitted-with-the-MP-1940-stock, Drake can unfold it back for use out in the open or fold it up when he needs a shorter weapon for tight-quarter combat.

  6. Does Ian say what caliber this Lanchester fires? I could watch the fine video again from the beginning, but I will not be doing that tonight due to an excess of fluid related issues.

    If the gun shoots any British pistol caliber, or .45, .38 or any American round then that would have guaranteed it would be replaced.

    The British Army captured many hundreds of thousands of 9mm Parabellum rounds when they defeated Mussolini’s Italian army in East Africa.

    Those millions of rounds is the reason the British made the Sten in 9mm. They called it .38, but that’s because your average Englishman could never cope with fancy foreign measures and stuff.

    So if this Lanchester fires Parabellum, the designed was finalised in the year after Dunkirk. The last Allied unit fighting at Dunkirk surrendered around the 4th June 1940; the East African campaign started the same week and finished just over a year later.

  7. Interestingly, the RAF initially ordered 10,000 British-made copies of the MP-38, but settled for the Lanchester instead.

    I wrote about the development of the Lanchester here:

    George Lanchester also developed some very minimalist variants in the early 40s, which were not fielded because of the Sten.

    • Thanks for these photos, it feels like the Brits (when not copying like Lanchester) were seriously in the business of designing the ugliest sub-machine gun possible.
      There were also some other less known mostly horrible looking designs,
      imho the only one that resembles something is so called “Welgun” (eagerly waiting Ians video on it, one day I hope).

      But after the war, I gotta admit Sterling striked some happy balance between looks, quality and functionality.

  8. Regarding good ol’ Thompson, was there ever an wartime effort to make it out of sheet steel or square tubing ? (compared to pricey milled receiver)

  9. I suspect the utility of a bayonet for a naval boarding action is more in its deterrent effect than actual use. As in to deter people from grabbing the weapon or to give the appearance that it might be used more readily than live fire.

    Most boarding are not of opposition vessels but of merchantmen for blockade inspections etc.

    The Sten Mk V (as in the one produced from 1944 onwards after the need for extreme design efficiency passed and also the most common one deployed by 1st Airborne Division) had a bayonet mount as did the Sterling that replaced it so there must have been some utility in it.

  10. Oh yes, I carried one of these when boarding Cuban fishing vessels in the Caribbean circa 1970. its solidly made, rather heavy, but quite accurate (due to the foregoing I would think). Naval small arms tend to soldier on in service for decades because they are so seldom actually used or fired !

  11. Regarding the Phoenix Wright homage comment, the Evil Within game, which is also made by Capcom Resident Evil franchise maestro Shinji Mikami, and inspired the Danganronpa visual novel series, I have a few rebuttals to make on why the vertical magazine wins against the sideways magazine with respect to ergonomics.
    In Melvin Johnson’s M1941 rifle series, the LMG has a 20-round sideways magazine, the carbine uses a 10-round bottom-mounted rotary magazine. The Israeli Dror initially copied the M1941’s sideways magazine but later changed to a vertical M1918 BAR layout.
    In the British Special Operations Executive’s Sten SMG, a large part of the lineup used 32-round-capacity sideways magazines, and only a handful of copies like the Polish Blyskawica, German MP3008, Fazakerly Sten, Belgian Vigneron, and Croatian Pleter-Zagi-1991 make use of a vertical magazine layout for ease of handling.

  12. My father was in the RAF and as a Machine Gun Instructor was detailed to deal with the delivery of 6 Lanchester SMGs. He was quite surprised when a large Bedford lorry arrived which had 6 VERY large boxes to deliver. Each Lanchester arrived, direct from the factory in large wooden transit boxes. These boxes were, in my Dad’s words, “lavishly padded with a sort of velvet material”. The box also contained 6 (he believes) magazines, loading tools, cleaning kits and so forth thus ramping up the cost of each item. Conversely with the Sten they were shipped in bulk in a box of 10 with shipping paper wrapped around them.

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