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‘Star Wars’ blasters

In October 2019 we opened our Make: Believe display of popular culture arms and armour. Two of the star exhibits are a pair of “blasters” created by film armourers from 1950s vintage Sterling submachine guns for the original Star Wars film franchise; the ‘E-11’ as issued to Imperial Stormtroopers and captured by our heroes in A New Hope, and the Rebel equivalent, the ‘DH-17’.

two blasters from the Star Wars movies

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster (left) and ‘EH-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster (right)

The E-11 in particular is an iconic sci-fi/fantasy weapon yet is little more than a British Mark 4 ‘Sterling’ submachine gun of the 1950s (L2A2 in military service). This was produced by Sterling Armaments, based in Dagenham in Essex, from a 1944 design by George Patchett. Initially it was dubbed the ‘Patchett Machine Carbine’.

Sterling machine gun and magazine

Centrefire automatic submachine gun – Sterling Mk.4 (L2A3) commercial model (made 1956). PR.9153

On the face of it this was an odd choice; the Sterling was still in military service in 1977 (it was used in the Falklands War five years later), and anyone with a military background would have spotted it immediately. But Star Wars was a low-budget production, and director George Lucas and production designer Roger Christian were shooting for a grittier, more ‘lived-in’ aesthetic. The movie may have been inspired by Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon, but dressed-up real-world firearms fit the Star Wars universe better than shiny ray guns. They would have heft and would jolt when fired, thanks to firing blank ammunition. Still, the blasters had to look different. The production turned to UK film armourers Bapty & Co, who showed them various options. The Sterling was selected and modified with ‘found object’ additions including a Second World War American tank sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q!) and a counter box from industrial machinery. The distinctive curved magazine of the Sterling was also cut down to hold only a few rounds. This successfully altered the silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

E11 blaster with stock extended

Submachine gun – Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper E-11 blaster (1976). XII.11981. Stock is extended for camparison with Sterling MK.4 shown above.

Our DH-17 is a more mysterious piece, as it does not match any screen-used configuration. The DH-17 started life as a pistol, used by Rebel forces in the opening scenes of Star Wars (1977). This took inspiration from the Sterling, but was a much more compact weapon, doing away with the magazine housing and replacing the vented heat-shield with a silver-coloured nozzle. In place of the stubby tank optic of the E-11, a Singlepoint reflex sight was fitted. Only the rear end of a Sterling was used, along with the trigger group, which was moved to create the proportions of a large, scoped pistol. The prototype was then moulded in rubber to create the final, non-firing prop. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the design was modified to allow for a more dramatic blank firing version, retaining more of the Sterling’s receiver and creating essentially a Rebel version of the E-11. Our DH-17 was most likely made for use in Return of the Jedi before production moved to North America. Our blasters would both have been used as E-11s in Star Wars (1977) before being stripped of their extra parts for use as normal Sterlings in other productions, used again in The Empire Strikes Back, and then stripped once again. These two were restored in the late 1990s to the configuration seen here and were loaned back to LucasFilm in 2014 (at which point the resin counter box was added to the E-11).

close up of the star wars Imperial Stormtrooper blaster pistol

Submachine gun – Star Wars DH-17 rebel trooper blaster (1976) XII.11982.

They were used as design reference for the creation of the new F-11D First Order Stormtrooper blaster introduced in The Force Awakens (2015) and, to a lesser extent, the EL-16 used by the Resistance. The F-11D takes a lot of design cues from the E-11 and is intended to be a more modern derivative of the same weapon. The EL-16 is somewhat more removed from its inspiration but is nonetheless a further beefed-up take on DH-17, this time based upon an Heckler and Koch G36 .

automatic rifle

Centrefire automatic rifle – Heckler and Koch G36 (made 1998) PR.13207

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