Gun Review: Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter

 There’s a reason George Lucas equipped his Storm Troopers with Sterling-based blasters and not MAT 49’s, Jati-matics or Owens. The Sterling is one sexy-looking submachine gun (SMG). It’s also got some serious pedigree. Fighting forces have deployed the Sterling SMG in many important conflicts to excellent effect. During the 1952-56 “Mau Mau Uprising” white Kenyan farmers and British counter-insurgency irregular units used the Sterling SMG to hold off determined, numerically superior forces. The Sterling also saw service in the 1948-60 Malayan Emergency, the 1969-1994 “troubles” in Northern Ireland and the 1982 Falklands War. You can purchase a Sterling for around $10k. Or you can buy the Century Arms Sterling Sporter . . .

I know, I know: just saying the word “Century Arms International” (“CAI”) is enough to make some buyers run in the opposite direction. After CAI’s well-documented recent debacle with their Tantal / AK-74 builds, considering their questionable warranty practices, one can be forgiven for initial skepticism.

But with a street price of around $450, the Sterling Sporter is not a huge investment for a uniquely cool if ersatz piece of history. And if it’s any consolation, these Sterlings were built by Wise Lite Arms, a small shop out of Boyd, Texas with a pretty good reputation for quality.

The Sterling’s design harkens back to WW1′s German Bergmann-Schmeisser MP-18 SMG [above]. Improvements on that weapon led to the Erma MP-28 and the Austrian Steyr – Solothurn S1-100 / MP-34. The British developed the Sten gun in 1940, largely to replace the huge stockpile of weapons it involuntarily donated to the Wehrmacht at Dunkirk.

George W. Patchett of the Sterling Armament Company of Dagenham, Essex, England was tasked with the job. The early versions were named the “Patchett” in his honor—until someone in Sterling’s marketing department came to their senses. In any event, the Sterling/ Patchett is an updated version of the Sten that incorporates many features of the Erma MP -28 and corrects some the reliability issues associated with the Sten.

The Sten was well-known for a variety of problems, many of which were caused by poor maintenance. Carbon buildup on the face of the breech or debris in the bolt raceway stopped many a Sten from firing. If the operator didn’t clean the chamber on a regular basis, a failure to feed was only a matter of time.

Others problems were peculiar to the Sten’s design. Firing the SMG by grasping the magazine with the supporting hand tended to wear the magazine catch, altering the angle of feed and causing a failure to feed. The Sten’s staggered two-column magazine—a direct copy of the German MP28 magazine—were prone to failures, especially in dirty conditions.

Patchett’s Sterling solved all of these problems. He created a highly reliable weapon that performed well under a wide range of battlefield conditions. The Sterling went on to stand the test of time, as witnessed by this photo from the Royal Navy’s Minerva frigate, dated 1970.

One of the first things you realize when you handle the semi-auto version of this carbine: it fires from the closed bolt. Most all SMGs of its era—including the original Sterling—fire from the “open bolt.” Depressing the trigger causes the bolt to ride forward to load a cartridge.

On an open bolt gun, the firing of a cartridge will propel the bolt rearward, where the sear will re-engage the bolt. The open bolt design is particularly useful for full-auto weapons because they tend to run cooler and prevent “cook-offs.” However, the BATF will not approve such designs for civilians (non-NFA); they’re too easy to convert to full auto. The Sterling Sporter’s bolt, though original, is heavily modified to allow operation in the closed bolt position.

Now, I’m not an engineer so I don’t completely understand what sort of magic it takes to convert an open bolt parts kit to a closed bolt semi-auto configuration. Judging from the extensive modifications to the bolt and firing pin of the Sterling Sporter, I get the distinct impression it’s no simple task.

The Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter’s magazine employs a complex roller system to ensure smooth feeding of ammunition. By today’s standards, the Sterling mags are a heavy, over-engineered affair.

While robust and reliable, the design is by its very nature expensive to manufacture, and therefore obsolete.

Most of the Wise Lite Sterling Sporter’s parts are military surplus. A few bits, such as the firing pin, were custom-made to convert the weapon to semi-auto-only operation. Likewise, the barrel is not a factory original. It’s held to the receiver via an odd-looking ratcheting retaining nut that is not endemic to the original Sterling.

The Sterling’s magazine well—welded to the receiver—is original. It reads “Sterling SMG 9 m/m MK4 (L2A3)” and lists the factory-issued serial number.

The manufacture’s information is etched into the receiver, along with the BATFE-required serial number.


And the good news is . . . this puppy loves to play. The Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter is a wicked little range plinker that looks super cool and fires relatively cheap 9×19 ammunition. As you might expect, the gun generates no perceptible recoil. The following video shows an obligatory mag dump. The fairly useless shooting technique demonstrates the Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter’s controllability and lack of recoil.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEkZdWYnz6Q

Anyone looking to reenact gun battle scenes from the 1978 movie The Wild Geese need apply. In the following video, we fired the Sterling at some water-filled balloons at about 25 yards to give a sense of the speed an average shooter might expect. The test gun’s sights were off; we had to aim high and to the left to hit the targets. This may have slowed us down.

Disassembling the Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter is fairly straight forward and simple. Once the butt cap is removed, all the gun’s guts fall out of the back of the carbine.

The barrel is a bit harder to remove. You start by removing the barrel retaining nut. Using a flat head screwdriver, you remove the magazine catch screw.  Using a small allen key, you take out the ejector retaining screw. Once the ejector is tapped out, the barrel slides through the back of the carbine. You can remove the trigger housing if corrosion is a concern.

The Wise Lite Sterling Sporter has a 16.125 inch, six-groove, U.S.-made barrel, featuring a 1 in 9.84 inch twist rate. You can pick-up a replacement barrels for around $110. The Sterling Sporter’s barrel is a good quality part; the gun exhibits decent accuracy (2-inches at 50 yards). The weapon’s crude sights are a limiting factor.

One of the lingering problems resulting from the open bolt to closed bolt conversion: the Sterling Sporter’s a bit difficult to load when the magazine’s full. On an open-bolt gun, you load the gun by first charging the bolt to the rear – where the sear locks it into a rearward position. The magazine can then be inserted with ease.

On the Sterling Sporter semi-auto carbine, there is no AR-15-style bolt hold-open device. So the Sterling’s bolt interferes with efforts to loading full magazine. Loading only 32 (or less) rounds in the magazine eases the problem.  In the following video, we demonstrate a somewhat awkward technique for loading a full 34-round magazine:

The carbine retains the markings of the original three-position safety: S = Safe, R = Repetition (British term for semi-automatic), A = Automatic. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the “A” setting does not work on the Wise Lite Sterling Sporter.

The rear sight is a simple non-adjustable L-Type, flip site, with apertures set for 100 and 200 yards.

The Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter’s front site is a simple blade set in a dovetail. In theory, it’s adjustable for windage. Anyone have a tool I can borrow? The test gun shoots a bit to the right and about two inches low at 50 yards. This is likely down to the fact that the Sterling was designed to shoot much hotter SMG loads than your typical plinking 9mm pistol ammo.

The test gun experienced one major malfunction: a broken firing pin. Internet research indicates that this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Whether the problem is caused by a bad batch of firing pins or open bolt to closed bolt conversion is unclear. Bottom line: don’t rely on a “converted” gun as a primary self-defense weapon.

Never mind. The 9mm semi-auto Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter is a range toy for nostalgia-minded shooters, or collectors who can’t afford the real thing and/or don’t want to be bothered with the paperwork ownership requires.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell will tell you that there ain’t nothing like the real thing. But they’re wrong. Anyone who fires this gun will get a taste of what it would have been like to face an enemy with one of the most important British guns ever designed.

SPECIFICATIONS

Caliber: .9mm (9×19)
Action: Semi auto, blowback operated
Capacity: 15 & 34 round magazines
Overall Length: 27 inches folded, 35 inches extended
Barrel Length: 16.125″
Weight:  7.5 lbs unloaded; 9.2 lbs loaded with 34 round magazine
Sights: front sight is a vertical blade set in a dovetail, with protective ears, rear sight is simple aperture (non-adjustable)  L-type flip sight set to 100 and 200 yards (think WWII M1 Carbine type sights)
Finish: Black Crinkle paint
Price: $410 – $500

RATINGS (out of five)

Style  * * * *
Four out of five Imperial Stormtoopers agree: it’s hard to get more stylish than a Sterling! I suppose one might have to take a point away for that ridiculous government-mandated 16-inch barrel, however. SBR that and you get the full five stars!

Ergonomics (Shooting) * * * *
The Sterling’s low weight and perfect balance make it extremely comfortable to shoot. The safety and mag releases are in the right position. Point withheld by the closed bolt, which makes loading a full magazine a bit of a chore.

Ergonomics (Carrying) * *
This gun has stuff poking out in every direction, making it rather uncomfortable to sling over your back.

Reliability    * * 1/2
The test gun performed flawlessly—until the non-factory firing pin broke. A new firing pin and she was good to go. Nonetheless, the fact that other users have reported similar problems with the firing pin is a cause for serious concern, and relegates this gun to a plinker.

Customize This  *
It is theoretically possible to add picatinny rails and other doo-dads onto the Sterling. Doing so would be like pimping-out a perfectly serviceable Honda Civic. If tacticool is your thing, start with an HK SP-89, HK 94 or PS-90.

Accuracy * * *
You have to fiddle with the Sterling’s front site post to get it to shoot where you want it to hit. In truth, the Sterling Sporter is not in the same league as more modern designs (e.g. the H&K 94 / SP-89 or a FN PS90). Stacked up against SMGs in its price and/or age group (Uzis, Suomis, KP-44s, etc) it holds its own.

Overall* * ½
For the price, the semi-auto Sterling Sporter is quite an accomplishment. It’s a fun gun: a low-cost range plinker with sexy looks and historic provenance. That said, the Sterling is an obsolete and an evolutionary dead-end design, despite the fact that it’s still serving in military and police units throughout the world 66 years after its introduction. How great is that?

47 Responses to Gun Review: Century Arms International (Wise Lite Arms) Sterling Sporter

  1. avatarTTACer says:

    Cool gun and great review. According to Ballistics By The Inch the benefits for MV of 9mm of a bbl over 8″ are modest to non-existent, depending on the ammo.

  2. avatarMagoo says:

    TTACer says: “According to Ballistics By The Inch the benefits for MV of 9mm of a bbl over 8″ are modest to non-existent, depending on the ammo.”

    Exactly. It’s a selfloading pistol cartridge. The case capacity is .86 ml.

  3. avatarJames Felix says:

    I certainly hope it’s more accurate than the ones issued to those stormtroopers.

  4. avatarpro.0s says:

    Yeah, it was designed to run with mk 2Z ammo. Very hot. IIRC 1500fps with a 115 gr from an 8″ bbl. Known for cracking some of the older BHP pistols with extensive use. Once the Sterling was phased out some idiot stopped ordering 9mm from RG.

    Just wondering, does the bolt have twice the mass or a stronger spring since its a closed bolt system (to keep the chamber closed long enough) compared than the original API?

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      The bolt appears to be original, although there is one hole (seen in the photo above) that appears to have been filled in with a brass-like substance). I assumed that was intended to meet BATF requirements (i.e. to make it less easy to use full auto parts) but I am not certain. I’ll do some research and post what I find.

  5. avatarsdog says:

    excellent review Mr. Grimes. The historical analysis and the photos certainly set a standard. I have seen this weapon many times on the atlantic firearms website. its apperance is def cringeworthy but from the videos it seems to shoot fine. i did not realize that it was still actually used around the world.

  6. avatarRalph says:

    Teriffic report, Joe. The Sterling is a dead sexy bit of kit. As an amateur historian, I’d love to have one. It is an important artifact of British colonialism.

  7. avatarjay says:

    is this gun and mags considered pre-ban?

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      Assuming I understand your question, the Sterling Sporter does have two or more features that would have made it fall within the former Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) (aka Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act). Obviously, that federal law has now sunsetted (expired) and carries no legal weight – as a matter of federal law. I believe some states incorporated some of the langauge of the federal AWB into their own state versions of the “Scary Looking Gun Ban.” If you live in one of these lib states that has a state AWB, than my guess would be that this gun would require further modifications to be legal in your state.

  8. avatarDavid says:

    Joe, Thanks for the well done review. The detailed photos and videos are great and are a big help in getting to know this weapon. I was able to shoot one of these and as mentioned due to the mass of the weapon there is very little, if any recoil. It’s a fun shooting piece of history.

  9. avatarRichard says:

    Did company just come out UZI copy. I wonder how that review on that goes.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      Yes, CAI has released an UZI build that fires from the closed bolt. I have not fired one yet. I have fired many full-auto UZI’s and while I find them to be durable and reliable, I always thought they were too heavy and cumbersome. The Sterling certainly feels a lot lighter, even though it really isn’t..

  10. avatarChris Dumm says:

    I shot the crap ou of, I mean, ‘assisted in the testing of’ the Sterling, and I can field the mainspring/bolt question. It’s a straight blowback design with a massive, heavy bolt and a not-very-stiff mainspring behind it. The bolt itself weighs more than a loaded subcompact 9mm, and it’s got so much inertia that by the time the case backpressure forces the breech fully open, the bullet is long gone from the barrel.

    BTW: Joe took the good pictures. He takes good pictures. I took the jiggly video.

  11. avatarChris Dumm says:

    That would necessitate using an actual camera, while my phone is so easy to use! And jiggle.

  12. avatarRyan Finn says:

    Good review Joe. Always been interested in getting my hands on one of these, but a small part of me really wants to mount a mini red dot and defy those who would decree such an act as sacrilege.

  13. avatarChris Dumm says:

    Ryan:

    Go for it! Just be sure to mount it with a rubber-padded hose clamp so you don’t have to permanently modify the gun.

  14. avatarRichard Wendel says:

    I am a big fan of the sten 9mm. My step-dad had a class 3 and one of these wireframe full-autos and it is a blast. I will always have a soft spot for the only true full-auto I have fired. I look longingly at them on gunbroker.com all the time.

    -Richard

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      If you want to get into full auto but don’t want to spend 18-20K for an H&K Mp5, the Sten would be my first choice. It fetches somewhat of a premium over a Mac-10, but is way more useful.

  15. avatarJmeck says:

    Good evaluation, just shot one last weekend at the range. Thanks for the tips on the barrel removal, that will come in handy as my friend wants me to mount a rail out on the heat shield so he can use a reddot sight. His Sterling is in 7.62×25 and shoots very well, but the 7.62 mags have some feeding issues. The bullets fit very tight in the mags and one mag will not hold more than 14 rounds, the other works fine. Century is sending him a mag replacement.

  16. avatarJohn Wiley says:

    Joe,
    Great review on a gun that wasn’t on my radar before reading this. I really appreciate the high-rez close-up shots of various gun features and the historic background or the gun and it’s ancestry. The videos are kind of icing on the cake. Next time, you might think about taking a video tour of the gun or demonstrate the take-down & cleaning of the weapon to show relative ease or complexity.

  17. avatarscott says:

    I have one and love it! My firing pin also broke where can i get a few back ups?

  18. avatargeorge says:

    I just bought the Sterling Colefire pistol chambered in the 7.62x25mm Tokarev round, new in box. It is a can of worms. I had problems loading the 25-rd magazines. I have four mags, and only two would load to capacity, even though I had disassembled and thoroughly cleaned them. The pistol refused to chamber hollow-point rounds; it mangled them by stuffing the bullet down into the cartridge casing. It chambered the FMJ rounds, but jammed after every shot, refusing to eject the spent casing. I used new Sellier & Bellot, and Privi Partisan ammo. I don’t think the bolt even moved upon firing, let alone “blow back.” If the real Sterling had malfunctioned this completely, we would have lost World War 2. I’ve tried talking to Wise Lite arms in the past concerning a badly malfunctioning PPSh-41 they manufactured, and they won’t even answer my email. I’m stumped, folks. Does anyone here have any suggestions or information that could point me in some right directions? Thanks.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      Wise Lite used to have their phone number posted on their website, and they were very friendly when I called to get a replacement firing pin. When I just checked their website a few minutes ago, however, it seems that they have removed their phone number, which is not a good sign. You may have to resort to a gunsmith, if the warranty period is over. Please post the results of how things turn out.

  19. avatarMark says:

    You spoke of SBRing the sterling sporter. Is that illegal? I love my sterling. I have had no issues yet. It did should way low. That was easily fixed by adjusting the front site. Why does no one talk about that. I did not have any difficulty loading a full magazine.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      It is legal to own a “short barrelled rifle” so long as you have filed out the required paperwork (BATF Form 4, etc) and sent it all in to the ATF for approval. There is a $200 tax that you must pay as well. There are plenty of internet sites that discuss the process in detail.

      On the issue of the front site, I noticed that there was a small allen screw located on the side of the front sight post, but when I tried to loosen it – nothing happened. I didn’t want to force it since the front sight blade seems rather delicate. I assumed I needed a sight tool of some sort. Can you explain what you did to adjust the front sight blade for elevation?

      • avatarMark says:

        Loosening the small allen releases the foresight. It can then be turned clockwise to shorten the post. I found a copy of the original Sterling SMG manual. It talked about sighting. Thanks for the great review.

      • avatarMark says:

        How did the foresight adjustment work out? With mine it helped but I think I’ll still file down the post a bit. I still love my sterling. Please feel free to email me. I you wish I can send you a copy of the sterling manual.

  20. avatarMichael says:

    Great review but I’m a little confused, Century Arms and Wiselite are two different companies, right? So is the one you’re reviewing Century or Wiselite? From what I have read on the Internet, Century seems to have more problems than the Wiselite version. So, I was leaning towards getting a Wiselite, but now I’m totally confused. Thanks for your reply.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      Century Arms contracted with Wise Lite to make these guns. The box and the manual are from Century Arms. My understanding is that Wiselite is not teh only contractor, however. For example, the owner of Wise Lite does not make the version with the long barrel shroud covering teh enture elength of teh 16 inch barrel. I hope that helps clarify things.

  21. avatartyler says:

    i was wondering with the firing ping problem would you still sugjest this gin to a freind looking to get his first smg with a lower income as i have been in love with this gun since the first time i seen it online

    • avatarDamion says:

      How can I compete switch to full auto on sporter sterling??

      • avatarJoe Grine says:

        You can’t, unless you want to go to jail.

      • avatarJohn says:

        Well, first you must pay $10000 and you get a paid 10 year vacation to prison, where you will be touched inappropriately. Then they seize the gun and you never see it again. Also, you won’t be able to buy more guns, since you now have a criminal record.

  22. avatarJim Smyth says:

    This is not an smg. I had the firing pin problem. I contacted Wiselite and shipped the gun back to them. It’s working well ever since. This should only be used for plinking at the range. It is not entirely dependable.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      I never said that the Wise Lite Sterling Sporter is an “SMG.” The full auto version most obviously IS an SMG, however. And your obversation about the Wise Lite semi-auto version being limited to a plinker is correct, as discussed above.

  23. avatarJim Taylor says:

    I bought my Sterling the summer of 2011 and took it to my favorite gravel pit for a test firing. The gun came with two 34rnd magazines, and would shoot low so that if I covered my target with the base of the front sight and end of the barrel, I could hit where I needed to. After cleaning at home, I tweaked the front sight. Next trip to the range, about two weeks later, I would put the front sight center mass on the Canadian Bullseye target, and could get a grouping the size of an apple at 75yrds. I would have liked to see a 100yrd grouping, but I didn’t have that much room. The gravel pit was only 75yrds deep or long. I have only put about 500 rounds downrange with this gun, and I have to say that the weight of this gun makes recoil so light that it does not pull or push me off target. The last hundred rounds or so I began to get tired ( i’m a Cancer patient) so I wanted to have some fun. I had the wife spot with the binoculars as I put round after round on a boulder the size of a man at the far end of the range. I wanted to see if rapid firing would pull me off target. It did to a small extent. Proper breathing technique and heart rythem went out the window. Most were dead on. (95%) I don’t know which firing pin this rifle has, but I pounded on it as much as my M16 and the M60′s I was assigned to during my days on active duty. The protruding magazine was not an issue for me as I am left handed with rifles. Kinda handy when working/clearing buildings with a right handed partner. All things considered, this is a sweet little gun. I had zero misfires, no failures of anykind concerning the weapon. My only regret was not getting enough range time. As far as reliability goes, I would not hesitate to grab this rifle out of my gun cabinet for home defense. Right after I shove my sidearm in my pants…jim

  24. avatarSteve M. says:

    I just bought a Century Sterling sporter with the full barrel shroud and no markings of Wiselite on the receiver. I also own a Wiselite PPSh-41 and have seen their PPS-43 conversions, so I know how they mark their receivers.

    The seller told me that the one I bought was made in Germany, so if true I look forward to a quality job, much like the recent PPS-43 pistols to come out of Poland.

    Either way, I learned years ago from my horrid experience with the Anal-Orifice (Inter-Ordnance) SR-41; both the rifle and the customer service!!
    What did I learn??? Either copy or procure spare firing pins, and I’m glad to see Wiselite still selling them for around thirty bucks.

    Just bought some extra Sterling mags from Numrich for $26.50; seems pretty reasonable to me and can’t wait to try it out.

    • avatarJoe Grine says:

      My understanding is that Wise-Lite does not manufacture the Sterling clones that feature the full barrel shroud. Hence, no Wise-lite markings on your gun.

  25. avatarMartin woodhead says:

    Having been issued the small metal gun.
    It was mostly considered the comedy option. Fine if you had something more important to do than shoot otherwise if things looked remotely serious it was time to grab an SLR ( fn fal).
    once as platoon signaller accidently took one home by mistake!
    you can fold them up and sling them out of the way and forget your carrying it.
    Red faces all round when returned monday morning. Army lore had that a wet blanket could stop the rounds at 100 metres never knew anyone try it though :)
    Even with the seriously rubbish indian/pakistani training ammo

  26. avatarTyler says:

    I picked one of these up a couple of years ago after reading this review. I wanted to comment here as I have not found many people talking about this little gun, I love mine and everyone who shoots it does as well. Mine is quite accurate with everything i’ve put through it. Once I adjust the front sight as described above it hits where I point it. Yes it is a range plinker…quite obvious at first glance…. as is the fact that it’s a semi auto conversion. There’s always a “its not the real thing” type comment about these semi conversions… thompson..uzi..suomi..sten. So what…they’re a hoot to shoot.

    My firing pin also broke at about 50 rounds, Wiselite requested I send the bolt and firing pin to them which I did, I got back the same bolt with a fresh firing pin and have put 3-400 rounds through it since with no issues with the firing pin.

    I have however just noticed the sleeve that the main (large) spring fits over has started to deform, it looks like it has slammed into the end cap too hard. I have not shot what I would call hot ammo through it… no +P…just standard factory ammo. So that is a little discouraging, I hope its just a one off with some ammo, or possibly the main spring has fatigued. I am going to ask Wiselite for their opinion.

  27. avatarIbrahim says:

    I would like to know more about the safety of this machine gun, and as I have been told by a friend that the gun fall down from him and started to shoot!!!!

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