A few weeks ago while doing some research in the UK’s Imperial War Museum online archive I came across a couple of intriguing photos that sent me down a rabbit hole. The STEN gun is undeniably one of the iconic weapons of World War Two but most of its variants were severely lacking in the ergonomics department. The supremely utilitarian STEN didn’t really have a dedicated place to hold the front of the weapon. Some soldiers held the barrel nut, some held the trigger mechanism housing and some held the magazine itself. It wasn’t until the STEN MkV that a front pistol grip was added.
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But even before the improved MkV entered service in Spring 1944, ordinary soldiers had been tinkering and photographic evidence shows a plethora of ad hoc, homemade front grips were fabricated and used by soldiers. The photograph that sent me down this unexpected research rabbit hole was of Britain’s wartime Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee handling a STEN MkII submachine gun while visiting Polish troops.
The MkII, introduced in August 1941, did not have a folding front grip as standard. The earlier MkI had had a front folding grip, but the MkI*, introduced in October 1942, had eliminated this to speed up production. The original caption of this photo reads: “Mr Attlee tries the weight and feel of the Sten Sub-machine gun used by the Paratroops.”
Attlee was visiting the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade during a visit to the 1st Polish Corps at Cupar in Scotland. In the photos, he’s accompanied by Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski, the commander of the brigade. In this second photograph, Attlee is holding the STEN by its trigger mechanism cover and we can see the folding grip more clearly.
It appears to be made up of a band of steel which slid onto the barrel nut housing – much like the later MkV foregrip. The grip appears to possibly pivot on a rivet and the grip itself seems to be tubular metal. Sadly the photos are fairly low resolution so we can’t see too much more detail. There were only two photos of this grip and I haven’t yet been able to find any documentary references to them. It may be that the grip was experimental and provided to the Polish paratroops for testing or it was an adaptation unique to the unit – perhaps something the unit’s armourer made.
These photos of Attlee’s STEN led to further digging and a number of other ad hoc, DIY foregrips surfaced. A few people very kindly sent me some other contemporary photos showing other ad hoc STEN front grips and I also found a group of photographs taken in June 1943, at the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit, in Egypt. The photos show groups of Commandos and the Royal Navy’s Naval Beach Parties armed with STENs with a pretty standardised style of front grip.
In these photos, taken by Royal Navy photographer Lieutenant L.C. Priest, we can see the men training with the STENs and the front grips are quite clear. It’s especially interesting in that it isn’t just the Commandos who have the front grips but also men of the Naval Shore Parties. It’s also relatively rare to see STENs in North Africa.
The plethora of photos from Kabrit show a fairly standardised design for the grip. A metal ring, seemingly tightened by a wingnut on the left side and a generous wooden grip that was long enough to fit all four fingers on. The grip appears to have some finger grooves and a fairly standard shape. A photo of Naval Commandos on parade shows the men with the STENs tucked under their arms, holding the front grips. This is identical to how the STEN MkI with its front grip was paraded with. The photo also gives us a good look at the uniformity of the grips.
While the photos from the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit represent the largest number of STEN front grips seen in one place and several units there are a few other photos which are really interesting. Firstly a photograph of a corporal from the RAF Regiment taken in Libya sometime in 1943. The Regiment had been formed just a year earlier. The corporal is sat cleaning his STEN MkII with the butt removed but the bolt still in the weapon. On the barrel nut of his weapon, he has a wooden front grip. Again seemingly attached to a metal band around the barrel nut. The wooden grip appears to have some rudimentary finger grooves. Sadly, I couldn’t find any other photos of this Corporal and his STEN. But the design of his front grip is very similar to those seen in the Kabrit training photos and could well be of the same origin.
Finally, we have a photograph from a completely different theatre – Burma. The caption for this photograph reads: “Men of the 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment searching the ruins of a railway station for Japanese snipers, during the advance of 14th Army to Rangoon along the railway corridor, 13 April 1945.” This soldier’s STEN MkII has a grip just in front of the trigger mechanism cover and behind the magazine housing and ejection port. It is actually in a position close to that of the original STEN MkI’s integral folding pistol grip.
At the end of the day, the adaptation is a good idea, a front grip provides a means of pulling the weapon into the shoulder and a more natural place to grasp other than the barrel nut, the trigger mechanism housing or the magazine – which was discouraged. With the subsequent introduction of the MkV, with its front grip in 1944, it seems that the idea was sound enough. In field adaptations aren’t uncommon but these rare photos of British troops with DIY front grips for their STEN guns gives us insight into how they used their weapons.