Great Britain’s Lanchester submachine gun was a WWII firearm largely irrelevant to the outcome of the war, but which had a surprisingly long career afterwards.
The Lanchester (named after it’s designer, George Lanchester of Sterling Armaments Company) came about as a “crash” program in 1940. After the Dunkirk evacuation but before Lend-Lease deliveries picked up, the British military was critically short of small arms including submachine guns. At the same time, the Royal Air Force was concerned that, if Germany were to proceed with an invasion of England, that it’s airfields might come under ground attack. The Royal Navy was also looking for a new submachine gun to equip watchstanders and boarding parties.
As not to disturb allocations of the Sten, it was decided to proceed with a separate design. This would also have the side benefit of an alternate design available in case Sten production was interrupted by German bombing. As time was obviously critically short, the design team simply copied the action style of the German MP-28 II.
The Lanchester measured 2’10” long and weighed 12 lbs loaded. It fired the worldwide-common 9mm Parabellum round from a 50-round magazine; alternatively it was also compatible with the Sten’s 32-round magazine. The magazine was mounted horizontally on the left of the action, with the ejection port on the right side. The theoretical rate of fire was 600rpm, in full auto an entire magazine could be “dumped” in about five seconds.
Compared to the crude, cheap, easy-to-build Sten, the Lanchester was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It was made of high quality materials and full of features, and was thus also expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. The 8″ rifled barrel was inside a perforated steel housing, which had the bayonet boss of the SMLE Mk.II rifle. The Lanchester could be fitted with the P1907 bayonet, many of which were left over from World War One. While the Lanchester was not the only submachine gun ever to have a bayonet, it certainly is not a common accessory for a gun of this type.
The action and magazine well was machined out of a solid block of brass, and was extremely rugged and almost impervious to corrosion by saltwater.
The front sights were fixed and shielded. The rear sights were of the SMLE rifle’s flip style, adjustable in both elevation and windage, marked for 100 meters and 200 meters (219 yards) range. Realistically, the 200m range was only accurate with semi-auto single shots. The charging handle was handcrafted out of hardened steel and ergonomically shaped, as was the trigger guard. Just forward of the trigger guard was an easy-to-use button selector for semi-auto or full-auto fire.
To save design time the wooden furniture was the stock of the Enfield No.1 Mk.III rifle, cut and shaped to size. The buttplate was a piece of crafted brass. The firing portion of the Lanchester sat on a pivot so that it could be swung up for cleaning, for the benefit of sailors and airmen not as accustomed to gun care as ground soldiers. The whole weapon was easy to field-strip and required no special tools.
The Lanchester was a fine firearm, but for an emergency situation gun it was inordinately expensive (£14 at the time or about $505 in 2015 dollars), more than 5x the cost of a Sten. Beyond the financial cost, the Lanchester also used a high amount of brass and hardened steel (both in short supply in Great Britain at that point of the war) and finally, another “cost” was the man-hours spent making it. Not only did a Lanchester take longer to build than a Sten, it required craftsmen of some skill who themselves were a “critical commodity” in 1940 England.
The Lanchester Mk.I was the basic version described above.
(The brass receiver housing from a Lanchester Mk.I. The ∋∈ marking indicates the gun was released for export. The “A”: after the serial number indicates the gun had “non-interchangeable parts” with other Lanchesters, a problem with these highly-crafted firearms.)
After about 2,000 had been made, the British government instructed Enfield to rein both the materials consumption and production time of the Lanchester Mk.I. The result was the Lanchester Mk.I* (called ‘the star version’ by the British).
(The brass receiver housing from a Lanchester Mk.I*. The M/94 stamp indicates it was part of W.W.Greener’s subcontract, and the stamp on the rear flange is 1942. This particular gun has the ∋∈ cleared-for-export marking and a post-WWII “S” (sold) indicating it was actually exported.)
The Mk.I* deleted the selective-fire parts, making it a full-auto only weapon. The sights were made of a simplified design. The charging handle was changed to a simple piece of steel barstock, and the buttplate was changed from brass to a cheap alloy called Zamac.
Production and issue
The original contract was for 50,000 Lanchesters; later increased to 90,000 and then decreased to 80,000. A total of 79,790 were actually manufactured. Most were made by Sterling, smaller lots were subcontracted to the W.W. Greener and Boss companies. The production run was short, running from June 1941 to October 1943.
The original scheme was to split the issue (and budget) 50/50 between the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. However the RAF decided it could not wait and bought a private-design submachine gun from Smith & Wesson; of which most were rejected and returned. The RAF’s ground security simply used Stens or later, tommy guns, and only a tiny handful of Lanchesters ever made it to the RAF.
The Royal Navy received almost the whole order, some of which was immediately passed on to the Australian and Canadian navies. Some were diverted to the Royal Marines. The Royal Navy lost a number when it’s armory in Singapore was overrun by Japan in 1942. Otherwise they served well in their quiet, background roles throughout the war. The Royal Marines used Lanchesters during the Operation Overlord landings in Normandy and commented positively on them.
Many guns have a universal “consensus” either good or bad, but opinions about the Lanchester are sharply divided.
Both sides agree on two things: the Lanchester was rugged and well-built, but, it had a dangerous flaw in that a cocked gun would discharge if the butt was jarred or dropped.
Sailors who liked the Lanchester said that it was reliable, and (in the early semi-auto Mk.I version) surprisingly accurate with single shots. In full auto, it’s balance kept the muzzle on target even when firing a full burst. The weight made felt recoil almost nothing, and cleaning and care was very easy.
Those who disliked it said that in addition to the danger of dropping a live weapon, the extractor could fail during full-auto fire (a field modification was later developed for the Mk.I* to address that issue). There were many complaints that the gun pulled to the right side when firing in full auto. The magazine was frustrating to load and the quick-loading tool became almost a must. After repeated use, the magazine’s lips would spread apart preventing insertion (Sten magazines had the same problem). During it’s post-WWII years, spare Lanchester parts (especially replacement firing pins) became scarce but this was more to do with the Lanchester’s strange background and short production run than any issue with the design.
The Lanchester was in full use with the Royal Navy at the end of WWII. In the years 1945-1946, RN personnel were often used as garrison troops as Britain re-established control of overseas colonies, especially in the far east.
(Sailors of an ashore party from the cruiser HMS Cumberland in the immediate postwar period (September-November 1945) with freed European civilians. Most are armed with SMLE rifles, but the sailor standing in the center has a Lanchester with the bayonet fitted. The photo was most likely taken in the Dutch colony of Java, today in Indonesia.)
The Lanchester saw somewhat substantial use with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during the Malay Emergency of 1947-1960, an on-again, off-again insurgency in what is today Malaysia. Almost as soon as that conflict ended, Britain became involved in the Borneo Confrontation, supporting Malaysia and Brunei. The Royal Navy used WWII-vintage Lanchesters during small-boat boardings off the coast of Borneo, while the Royal Marines and (to a much lesser extent) used them ashore in the jungle.
(A Lanchester Mk.I*-armed British commando during the early 1960s clashes with Indonesia. The bayonets were rarely fitted by this time. This artwork is from the “Men-At-Arms” book series which was popular some years ago.)
During both the Malay and Confrontation conflicts, the Royal Navy maintained a workshop at Sembawang naval station in Singapore to refurbish and repair Lanchesters. This facility also serviced the Lanchesters of New Zealand and Australia. The facility was shut down in 1971 as most Lanchesters had left use by then.
In eastern Africa, British troops employed Lanchesters in small numbers during the 1952-1960 Mau-Mau uprising. Typically they were used alongside Sten and Sterling submachine guns, as all three weapons shared common ammunition and the Sten and Lanchester could share magazines as well.
By the mid-1960s the Lanchester was in declining Royal Navy service. For weapons which had not already been transferred abroad or scrapped, a collection point was established at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in England. By 1972 the Lanchester was almost completely gone from Royal Navy use, and in 1978 the Royal Navy announced it had fully withdrawn all remaining Lanchesters. In 1979, the British Ministry of Defense declared it officially obsoleted and the whole collected stockpile was melted to scrap. Contrary to some rumors, the Lanchester did not see any use during the 1982 Falklands war.
The Argentine navy received a very small number of Lanchesters after WWII. These were delivered aboard ex-Royal Navy ships. Unlike the US Navy, postwar transfers of Royal Navy warships were often “complete package” which is to say, the warship came with everything aboard included in the sale price, including small arms in the ship’s firearms locker. Argentina considered the Lanchester a second-line weapon and as they wore out, the few in use were not replaced. None were still in use at the time of the 1982 Falklands war.
The Royal Australian Navy was the first export recipient of the Lanchester, receiving some as early as 1942. Additional examples were added in 1945 and it was a somewhat common firearm aboard RAN warships in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Australian army had no interest in it as the home-grown Owen submachine gun was considered superior. Australia gradually phased the Lanchester out during the 1960s and by 1971 it was gone from service.
The Lanchester was used by both Royal Canadian Navy sailors and commando teams during WWII. The weapon was not really popular and did not remain in service long after the war ended.
Chile obtained it’s Lanchesters the same way as Argentina, via inclusion in warship purchases from Great Britain after WWII. Chile retired the Lanchester in the mid-1970s.
The Dominican Republic was the only country to select the Lanchester on the open market, buying a number for it’s army during the 1950s. These guns were used in the 1963-1964 political instability in the country, and then during the April-May 1965 American invasion of the country (Operation “Power Pack”).
(Dominican Republic fighters during Operation “Power Pack”. The uniformed soldier with the cigarette has a WWII-era Lanchester. The two large weapons in the back of the jeep are a Lewis Mk.I (with it’s drum magazine) and the somewhat uncommon M2 WCF water-cooled version of the M2 Browning .50cal , both also WWII-era firearms. The man in civilian clothes has a San Cristobal carbine, a post-WWII weapon designed and manufactured by the Dominican Republic. This little-known gun is actually one of the best Cold War firearms in it’s class, and was greatly respected by American troops during the 1965 American invasion. It remained in D.R. service until the early 1990s.)
When the US military reformed the Dominican Republic army after the invasion, no mention was made of Lanchesters so they had probably been taken out of service.
Egypt received Lanchesters in three batches. During WWII, the British had raised a small force of desert soldiers from it’s Transjordan colony to operate in Libya. One of the weapons they were equipped with was Lanchester submachine guns. After the fighting in north Africa ended, these were passed to the nominally-independent Egyptian government. The largest portion came during a 1946-1947 arms buying spree of surplus WWII British weapons that the Egyptian king undertook, which ranged from mess kits to strategic bombers. It’s likely the Lanchester wasn’t selected for any specific reason, but rather just lumped in with a larger order of other weaponry. Finally, a third tier came in the late 1940s and 1950s via transferred ex-Royal Navy warships, same as with Chile and Argentina.
Some Lanchetsers were reportedly used by Egyptian troops during the 1956 Suez conflict, but not to any appreciable extent. By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Lanchester was gone from frontline Egyptian army units. In 1969, the remaining inventory was transferred to the Central Security Forces, a para-military national police.
The Egyptian police used Lanchesters as late as 1980s. Because the British had already melted down their entire stored inventory, most deactivated Lanchesters in the world today are ex-Egyptian.
The Netherlands received a shipment of Lanchesters in 1945 as part of the post-WWII emergency effort to rebuild the Dutch army. Almost all of them were assigned to KNIL, the Netherlands forces in the Dutch East Indies. They were used in combat against Indonesian insurgents between 1945-1949.
Little was said of the Lanchester in Dutch use and it was retired in the 1950s.
The Royal New Zealand Navy received Lanchesters the same was as Australia during WWII. After the war, they were retained in limited use into the 1960s.