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.

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.


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?