Sterling guns became the stars of wars

GLOBAL arms company Sterling produced nearly half a million submachine guns in exclusive Government contracts that gave British forces state-of-the-art weapons to fight in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Gulf War. The Dagenham company rose to the

GLOBAL arms company Sterling produced nearly half a million submachine guns in exclusive Government contracts that gave British forces state-of-the-art weapons to fight in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Gulf War.

The Dagenham company rose to the top of British arms-making to become the MoD's submachine gun supplier in 1953, after being ordered to make weapons by the Government in 1939, but collapsed and was sold off to British Aerospace in 1989.

In its heyday, 1,600 men and women toiled at the Rainham Road South plant - now the Gold Gym - making reliable hand-held killing machines firing 550 rounds a minute, used during the Suez Crisis, and later the Cold War.

The Sterling L2A3 Mark 4 submachine gun was also manufactured under licence by the Canadian Army and the Indian Army in Kampur. The latter used it to fight Pakistan in 1965.


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A highly effective, silenced version was made for covert operations. A semi-automatic model was issued to police forces and a "para pistol" to commandos and plain clothes intelligence units.

The Sterling Works empire handled contracts collectively worth millions and even stretched its deadly tentacles into another universe, apparently becoming an inspiration for the Stormtroopers' blasters in Star Wars.

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Sterling, which started off making telephones in 1909, expanded to make Shorrock air compressors known as "superchargers", used by racing driver Goldie Gardner, who broke the 200mph barrier and set more than 100 peacetime, land speed records.

The parent company also manufactured diesel engines, reportedly sold parts for Jaguar and made the classic hand-made Hobbs of Barbican racing bicycles when production moved to Dagenham during the Blitz.

According to Peter Laidler's book on Sterling, The Guns of Dagenham, the submachine guns were the subject of "shady dealings" done "through the back door" after India, licensed to make Sterling spares, supplied them to buyers who reused them to make arms.

The company was also embroiled in a court battle with the MoD over patent rights to its guns and won the case in 1966, according to the Eastside Community Heritage history charity mapping out Sterling's rise and fall.

But the Sterling empire began to crumble in the 1970s as parts of its parent company, then called the Sterling Electric Company, were sold off.

James Edmison bought Sterling Armament Co. in 1972, which according to Eastside Community Heritage, marked the start of more aggressive commercial exports including "non-army" sales for the US market.

The charity said the "guns of Dagenham" were also sold to Libya, Israel, Argentina and African states "at very sensitive times".

According to ECH, the sale of the company in the '80s was surrounded by "animosity" as it could no longer get MoD orders and export sales went down.

The Sterling factory site was originally old farming land bought by the Morris Aiming Tube and Ammunition Company in 1901, which first made SMLE rifle tubes.

The company went bust in 1909 and the four-acre site was taken over by the Sterling Telephone and Electric company making crystal radio receivers and phones.

In the 1920s, Sterling grew to become a beacon of light for staff welfare, according to author Mr Laidler, with facilities including a power station, printing shop, fire station, first-aid room, canteens, recreation hall and parking for 700 bicycles on an 18-acre site.

In 1932, the company became Sterling Works (Dagenham) Ltd, which made electric and oil lights before being steered towards arms production on the orders of Government at the start of World War Two.

TThe Sterling name lives on, with the industrial estate behind Gold Gym named after it, perhaps a fitting testament to the might of the company that saw more than 400,000 machine guns come off its production line.

The weapons, too, withstand the test of time, with the Indian-made SAF carbine modelled on the 1953 Sterling L2A1 machine carbine still issued to the country's armed forces.

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