After the heroic evacuation of the Dunkirk survivors and the subsequent Fall of France in 1940, the British future was an unnerving one. Hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, small arms and personnel had fallen to capture or destruction by the advancing Axis army. At this point in the war, the British soldier was primarily armed with his trusty service rifle and bayonet while the German military made effective use of portable automatic weapons in the form of the submachine gun - principally the early-war MP38 series (later refined as the MP40). For the British, there proved a lack of a primary frontline submachine gun and this led to several hasty indigenous initiatives to be undertaken - one produced the war-winning and storied STEN series while the other gave rise to the short-lived, limited-quantity "Lanchester".
While the former mention earns its own history on this site, the latter came to be as a British local production version of the German MP28 submachine gun chambered to fire the 9x19mm Parabellum pistol cartridge. The type had its own origins in the MP18 of World War 1 and itself evolved into a more refined form as the MP28 of 1928.
The loss of France as a territorial buffer between England and Europe proved disastrous for the British Empire and this forced critical thinking into how best defend the British Isles from the impending German invasion - to come first by air then by land/sea. Key targets would inevitably be the valuable airfields fielding cover over land units through Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricane fighters as well as the various heavy fighters and bombers then in service with the Royal Air Force. To help protect the airfields, the RAF took interest in a personal defense weapon that could prove voluminous fire within short range, intending to repel - or at the very least, make costly - a German infantry advance. Additionally, the weapon could serve in the security role. As time was limited, it was decided by authorities to simply adopt the German MP28 plan from a few existing examples though with British changes to suit local taste. The Royal Navy then committed to such a weapon as well, believing the gun could prove useful in boarding actions and the like. Interestingly, the Royal Navy would become the exclusive operator of the new firearm during World War 2 within time.
Production of the new gun was managed under the Sterling Armament Company brand label and headed by director George H. Lanchester. As such, the revised MP28 was renamed the "Lanchester" to signify her new British heritage. There were slight variations in the Lanchester design over the original German offering, principally through a refined breechblock, specific rifling for the available stock of British 9x19mm cartridges and quality construction materials for a more reliable, professional finish. The end-product proved a very serviceable weapon though it was not aided by its heavy use of important materials needed elsewhere in the war effort. Nonetheless, the need was dire and the solution seemingly forthcoming.
Outwardly, the Lanchester certainly appeared as a copy of the MP28 before it. There was a long wooden body incorporating the shoulder stock, pistol grip and forend while seating the metal receiver containing the critical internal working components. The buttstock was similar to the one as found on the SMLE Rifle No. 1. The trigger unit featured an oblong ring with curved trigger assembly and this was attached as a unit to the bottom of the metal frame. The magazine feed was offset to the left side of the body with the ejection port to the right. The detachable box magazines inserted horizontally into the side of the gun in a rather unconventional fashion. The magazine fitted 50 x 9x19mm cartridges which made the magazine a long and slender shape - somewhat a cumbersome appendage in terms of compactness. Magazines were fed into a housing composed of solid brass. The barrel was short and shrouded in a perforated heat shield, the muzzle end capped by a nine-hole flash suppressor. Sights were fitted above the muzzle and ahead of the rear of the receiver. The entire metal section of the gun was hinged at the end of the forend (under the heat shield) which allowed the operator to "break" the weapon open and expose the internals for cleaning and maintenance. In a rather novel move, Lanchesters were also completed with bayonet mountings for extreme close-quarters fighting (Pattern 1907 or Bayonet No. 1), the Royal Navy believing this to be of some value during boarding actions. All told, the weapon certainly looked the part of a 1930s submachine gun - perhaps more in common with Soviet offerings of the time.
The Lanchester appeared in its initial Mk I production version. This mark offered selection of single- or full-automatic fire to suit the situation while, at the same time, proving more complicated to produce in number. Selection was through a switch held at the forward portion of the trigger guard. Additionally, the rear sights were borrowed from the SMLE Rifle No. 1. The upcoming simplified Mk I* did away with the single-shot function, relying solely on full-automatic fire and thusly was destined to lose its selector switch. The sights were refined to a more simpler form for quick aiming. Such were the improvements to the Mk I* that it served as the new standard for existing Mk I production models, these later being upgraded when possible and conversions being handled by the Royal Navy itself (the Royal Air Force had abandoned interest in the Lanchester project some time earlier). It is noteworthy that Lanchester submachine guns could accept the shorter 32-round count magazines of the STEN series which made for a logistically-friendly weapon in a time of war.
The Lanchester was produced in these two variants, on the whole bowing to the STEN series which proved cheap to produce and were simple in their operation and construction - though arriving in an ugly, utilitarian metal frame which left much to be desired by any firearms connoisseur. The Lanchester did, however, manage an existence beyond World War 2 (as did the STEN) and saw service into the 1960s until - like the STEN - it was replaced by the Sterling SMG. Some Lanchesters existed in foreign hands after World War 2 - ex-Royal Navy stock - principally with forces in the Netherlands (seeing action in the Dutch East Indies) and Egypt while being specially marked.
The few RN operators who managed a Lanchester found the type to be sturdy, reliable and every bit the part of submachine gun - no doubt, ironically, owing much to the original German engineering of 1918. Due to its metal-and-solid-wood design, it was heavy in respect to more modern submachine gun alternatives and the lack of a useful safety meant that a chambered 9mm round could be accidentally discharged if the weapon were dropped on its butt. All of this was offset however, to a certain extent, in the desperation of the British government of 1940 and the fact that the Lanchester could fire off 50 rounds of ammunition at a 600 rounds-per-minute rate-of-fire.
In a twist of fate, the Germans copied the British STEN gun in 1944 and, in 1945, developed a cheaper derivative as the "MP3008" for the ultimate defense of Germany amidst the failing war effort.
Approximately 95,469 Lanchesters were produced between Sterling (74,579), Greener (16,990) and Boss (3,900).