The Sten emerged while Britain was engaged in the Battle of Britain, facing invasion by Germany. The army was forced to replace weapons lost during the evacuation from Dunkirk while expanding at the same time. Prior to 1941 (and even later) the British were purchasing all the Thompson submachine guns they could from the United States, but these did not begin to meet demand. The American entry into the war at the end of 1941 placed an even bigger demand on the facilities making Thompsons. In order to rapidly equip a sufficient fighting force to counter the Axis threat, the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, was commissioned to produce an alternative.
The Sten was a blowback-operated submachine gun firing from an open bolt with a fixed firing pin on the face of the bolt. This means the bolt remains to the rear when the weapon is cocked, and on pulling the trigger the bolt flies forward under spring pressure, stripping the round from the magazine, chambering it and firing the weapon all in the same movement. There is no breech locking mechanism, the rearward movement of the bolt caused by the recoil impulse is arrested only by the mainspring and the bolt's inertia. The basic operating principles were similar to those of the German MP40, Russian PPSh-41, US M3 submachine gun and numerous other designs. These shared similar attributes and faults; they were simple and cheap to manufacture, and put an automatic weapon into the hands of soldiers, greatly increasing the short-range firepower of the infantry, especially when the main infantry weapon was a bolt-action rifle capable of only around 15 rounds per minute and not suited for short-range combat. However, the open-bolt firing and use of pistol ammunition severely restricted accuracy, with an effective range of around 100m.