The Short Life of the Sterling Arms Corporation

There have been several companies named Sterling that have sold guns over the years. There was the British maker of military arms and AR-180s, now defunct; an outfit in California; a company making cheap revolvers (perhaps the same); and a New York maker of auto pistols. It is Sterling Arms Corporation of several addresses in the Buffalo, New York area that we’ll focus on here — because their existence was short (1967-1984) and their guns can get fairly weird.

Sterling’s Dawn

Sterling Arms Husky

Sterling Arms “Husky” 285. Image: GunBroker

Sterling appears to have been created just before the Gun Control Act of 1968 devastated two aspects of the firearms industry: importation, and mail order. The market for US-made inexpensive handguns was wide open. The company started in 1967 in Buffalo, but some time around 1968 moved to nearby Lockport, NY. The first Sterling pistol that we know of is the Model 285, a High Standard knockoff. It was a thoroughly conventional .22 auto pistol in the mold of the early “Letter Hammer” High-Standard, with an external hammer. The Model 285 was available in a sport pistol version, the Husky; or with longer barrel and better sights as the Target T300. There was also a T300L or “Lightweight” Sterling, which was the T300 with an aluminum alloy frame. The magazine catch is at the base of the magazine in the rear, Euro-style.

High Standard H-D Military for comparison.

High Standard H-D Military for comparison.

At least some parts, including magazines, interchange between the Sterlings and the High Standards they’re based upon. Some design details are very redolent of High-Standard — the general look of the gun, the shape of the short slide, the grip angle, the hammer, and the sheet-metal covering the trigger mechanism on the left. But High Standard expert John J. Stimson, Jr., dismisses the cosmetic similarity.  “There is no relationship between Sterling and High Standard. Sterling did make a series of four ( I believe) .22 pistols that looked similar to the Model H-D Military but it was a clunkier heavier design.”

The magazine interchange is easily enough explained: copying. The original High Standard magazine was a copy of (and interchanges with) the Colt Woodsman; the early Ruger Mark I magazines were actually war surplus High Standard spares, modified to fit the Ruger’s more upright grip angle and with a plated investment-cast base and follower. The Sterling is a copy of the High Standard. This means that for these 10-shot .22s, unlike other Sterlings, magazines are easily found.

The cross-bolt trigger-block safety forward of the trigger on the receiver is highly unusual, if not unique. It would be practical enough and handy to manipulate, but like all trigger-blocks, it is not drop-safe and doesn’t positively lock the hammer or firing pin. This is probably alright in a target pistol, meant for range employment, and a rimfire one, with a low-inertia firing pin. And it was far from unusual back in its day. Bear in mind that the High Standard safety (a more conventional hammer block) was not part of the original design, but was added to later production guns. 

The barrel is retained in the receiver with a pin — it appears from photographs of assembled guns to be a taper pin, but without disassembling an exemplar, one can’t be certain. This would be the same method used by High Standard. These .22 pistols were made from approximately 1967 to 1972 or so in three barrel lengths and are found with several different roll marks, attributing them to Sterling in Buffalo and Lockport, NY, and to E&R Machining in Gasport, NY. We’ll explain that in a bit.

The Sterling PPL

The first weird Sterling, and the weirdest by far, is the PPL pocket pistol. The PPL is a pocket pistol with the general form, manual of arms, and design details much like the early external-hammer High-Standard .22 target pistols, just stricken in utero with dwarfism. It is a redesign of the .22 Sterling as a pocket pistol.  A sortie around the net revealed an interesting page on the PPL, with some history and some decent photos. We pulled some better photos of two examples from GunBroker.

Sterling Arms PPL 1102 rightThis is a fairly conventional example of the gun, although a minty boxed example (Serial Number 1102. Serial numbers known to us approach 4,000). These grips were the standard ones for the PPL, and can be seen to be specially molded for the compact gun, but otherwise resemble those on the Model 285.

The sights are a particularly strong feature of the PPL, compared to its 1970s pocket-pistol peers. They are prominent and square Patridge sights, with some thought given to reducing snags. Here’s a top view of 1102.

Sterling Arms PPL 1102 topNot all guns had these sights, and not all were .380s. Here is a .22 PPL that the same vendor had on GB, in top then side view:

Sterling Arms PPL top

The rimfire version got comparatively notional sights, and was also rocking a square-sectioned barrel. But it’s hard to say whether the differences are due to this being the .22 version — which the seller claims was extremely rare, with some 285 made — or due to it being a little earlier in production (it’s Serial Number 786).

Sterling Arms PPL rightThe .22 gun also left the factory with rather homely walnut grips, and with the standard plastic grips also in the box (they’re still there).

While it looks like a sawn-off Model 285 or 300, if you look at the lower front area of the grip, you can see that the frames were purpose-built for the pocket pistols. The funny doesn’t end in the gun’s shape, or the strange aesthetic of grip at one acute angle the line of the bore, and slide serrations at a different acute angle. As a pocket pistol, it’s oversighted for its era, with large, snaggly Patridge rear and ramp front sights. It is made of machined steel, the default norm for mid-20th-Century firearms.

The PPL was only made briefly while the firm was going through some corporate teething problems in 1971 and 1972. These inexpensive pocket pistols seldom turn up for sale today. This rarity on the market is probably due to three things: low initial production, attrition over 40 years (both in terms of guns destroyed and guns forgotten in dusty closets), and lack of demand that would pry survivors out of those closets.

There are not many Sterling collectors, and while a Sterling is a curiosity to add to a High Standard collection, there are enough High Standard variations to entertain any collector for a lifetime, and HS collectors’ attitudes towards Sterling seem to be encapsulated in the quote by John Stimson Jr. above.

Corporate Drama & Lawsuits

The company needed increased production capacity, and relocated from Buffalo to Lockport. Soon additional manufacture was taking place at E&R Machining in Gasport. (These locations were not distant from one another. Lockport is about 35 miles northeast of Buffalo, and Gasport is about 6 miles due east of Lockport).  Circa 1972, the two companies merged, under the control of E&R’s owner, Eugene Sauls.

The corporate headquarters of the gun business remained at Lockport, but receivers that were made at the E&R facility were marked “Gasport, NY” and before the merger, “E&R Machining”. Sterling Arms was wound up in 1983-84, but not before delivering the gun that got us interested in the marque (when one turned up in the Staten Island buyback), the Model 400, and a very large quantity of undistinguished .22 and .25 auto pistols.

In the mid-1970s, according to the company’s 1975 catalog, it was also the importer for SIG 232 pocket pistols, and towards the end it tried to branch out into guns for metallic silhouette shooting, a popular 1980s sport.

The end of the company reportedly came about from a product-liability lawsuit. In the 2nd page of the 2nd part of a 2-part article on firearms case law, Massad Ayoob describes the case:

[A]n irresponsible baby-sitter was in an employer’s home with her equally irresponsible (and expressly unauthorized) boyfriend, when the latter went looking through the family’s things and found the head of the household’s Sterling .380 pistol, which was kept fully loaded. Seeing him remove the magazine, the eight-year-old boy who was being babysat said, “That’s my daddy’s gun.” The baby-sitter’s boyfriend said, “It’s unloaded – see?” He pointed the gun at the child and pulled the trigger. A .380 bullet struck the child in the neck, rendering him quadriplegic for life. The family sued Sterling Arms for negligent manufacture, and the costs of the lawsuit and the settlement helped to drive the company out of business.

Amazing case, but rather typical of the US’s third-world legal system, which runs on randomness, whim, and personalities whilst maintaining a veneer of law. The family sued Sterling rather than the idjit boyfriend for obvious reasons: the kid was certainly judgment-proof, and given his brain-stem level of cognitive functioning, he’s always going to be judgment-proof, unless he wins Powerball — in which case he’ll be back to judgment-proof in a year. But Sterling no more caused that child’s injury than Jesus Christ Himself did. The parents who left the loaded gun, the babysitter who brought her assclown boyfriend, and the assclown boyfriend himself all have great culpability, but the amazing tort lotto system found them not responsible, and Sterling responsible. The plaintiff attorney’s  rationale in this case was that, if the Sterling had had a magazine safety, it would have been sufficiently idiot proof that nothing would happen when the idiot pointed it at a chiled and pulled the trigger.

Sterling was already no stranger to the courts.

In 1971, it faced summary judgment on a case about an unpaid-for shipment of ammunition, but overturned the ruling on appeal.

At least two cases were won on the allegation that it was possible for the Sterling vest-pocket pistol to “just go off,” Schaefer v. Sterling arms Corp., 22nd Judicial District Court, Parish of St. Tammany, Louisiana, and Field v. Sterling Arms, US District Court for the Western District of Texas. These cases caused the gun to feature at No. 7 on a “top 10″ list of “unsafe guns” in a litigation manual for ambulance chasers.

The .22 and .25 Sterling pocket pistols

1975 Sterling catalog featuring the pocket pistols and the then-new 400.

1975 Sterling catalog featuring the pocket pistols and the then-new 400.

These pistols are entirely conventional in design, and therefore almost entirely uninteresting. They were sold in vast numbers to people seeking a small, cheap, self-defense weapon, and they have turned up in great numbers in crimes, presumably because cheap weapons are preferred by marginal characters and the straw buyers who arm them, but possibly also because the sort of poor person in a bad neighborhood who arms himself with a cheap pistol, is just the sort of person whose apartment gets burglarized. There’s no real answer for this; although jurisdictions like Sterling’s native New York operate differently, in which more trust is given to those with wealth, it’s not reasonable to argue that poor people ought to have less right to self-defense than the wealthy who can buy a $500 gun.

This is by far the most commonly encountered Stirling in the wild. Numrich has extensive parts for these guns. They were available blued and stainless; the blued model had an alloy frame and was lighter, and they were available in .22LR and .25 ACP calibers. Some blued models have white plastic grips.

The Model 400

Sterling 400 initial model a

Sterling 400 initial model — this beaten, no-mag example went for $75 at gunauction.com.

The original gun was not labeled the Model 400 Mark I when it was introduced (by 1975 if not earlier), but has been sort of retconned into that name since. The Model 400 got a lot of press — some of it quite good — and was a departure from Sterling’s previous work. It was DA/SA with a decocking safety, held 7+1 rounds of .380 ACP, was styled a little like an early Walther PPK, and made of steel. There were also some stainless versions:

Sterling 400 initial model stainless

The Mark II version was introduced circa 1980, and addressed some of the complaints users and critics had of the first gun, especially its size. It was slimmed from 1.3 to 1.1″ in the grip, and was now primarily sold in stainless steel; it fully conformed to what the 1980s public expected of a single-stack auto pistol. Although the majority of Mark IIs found are stainless, a blued version has been sighted:

Sterling 400 Mk II

 

Some of the differences are very subtle. Look at the different cross-section of the safety, the relief behind the trigger guard on the Mark II, for instance (reminiscent of the M1911 versus the M1911A1) and the larger magazine release. They added up to a gun with better ergonomics.

 

Hogg's write-up on the Mark II

Hogg’s write-up on the Mark II, also copied to the left.

The Model 400 Mark II got a rather nice write-up in Ian V. Hogg’s 1983 Modern Small Arms, alphabetically sandwiched on page 56 between two other also-rans, the Sterling (British) revolver, and the dreadful Steyr GB which opened the field up for Glock (a firm, and weapon, unmentioned in Modern Small Arms, which skips from FN to Hammerli). Hogg first addresses the cartridge:

The .380 Auto, or 9mm Short as it is known in Europe, is a somewhat under-rated cartridge. It has served as a police cartridge throughout Europe for several decades and as a military cartridge too. The bullet will deliver something in the order of 165 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, which is sufficient to make most people stop and think, and it is also less likely to ricochet than higher powered cartridges such as the 9mm Parabellum. For many years it was just about the most powerful cartridge which could be managed in a blowback action without going to design extremes, another point which counted in its favor.

Now, where old Hogg gets that nonsense about “less likely to ricochet,” we have no idea. He then goes on to appraise the pistol. Bear in mind that this is a British expert, almost certainly working from documents rather than firing the pistol on the range:

The Sterling is one of the few .380 automatics made in the USA; it is an inexpensive pistol and the standard of finish reflects its price, but there is nothing wrong with its quality of construction and it is surprisingly accurate. The action is a straightforward blowback with an external hammer, and with double-action trigger. There is a slide-mounted safety which, when operated, moves a steel barrier behind the firing pin, so that should the hammer fall it cannot discharge a cartridge. Once the safety is on, the hammer may be lowered by controlling it with the thumb while pressing the trigger; there after the pistol can be fired by releasing the safety and pulling the trigger to cock and drop the hammer. Once the first shot has been fired, subsequent shots are in single-action mode, the recoiling slide cocking the hammer.

The foresight is a fixed blade, the rear sight a square notch adjustable for elevation and windage. The Sterling is comfortable to fire and can deliver consistent 3 to 4 inch groups at 25 yards range.

–Hogg, Ian V.

The good writeups in books like Hoggs and magazines couldn’t save the company, and E&R Machining cut the gun subsidiary loose in 1983-84. Some NIB inventory has turned up from time to time, and earlier this year someone claimed to have the tooling for magazine production and a quantity of magazines. Magazine availability is problematical for most Stirlings, although the 10-shot .22s, as noted, can use High-Standard magazines.

Rarely Seen Sterlings

Two “Sterlings” that are relatively rarely seen are the X Caliber single-shot Hunting & Target pistol (as it is called on the box), and the SIG 232, which was imported by Sterling and can be found with Sterling import marks, at least, according to the company’s 1975 full-line catalog, which is available as a reprint. The product line at the time was:

  • Double Action Model 400
  • Model 320 Steel Sterling
  • Sterling Model 300
  • Sig Sauer P232
  • Sig 232 Two Tone, Stainless, Blue

The X Caliber is believed to date from closer to the end of Sterling’s days. This was meant to be a pistol with interchangeable barrels in the Thompson/Center mold. We’ve never seen a spare barrel or a gun with a multiple barrel set, but we have seen several barrel lengths and calibers. The most common caliber appears to be .357 Magnum.

Sterling Arms X Caliber 1104

It’s unknown how close a copy the X Caliber was, and whether it would interchange with TC parts.

And that’s the essence of the story of the Sterling Arms Corporation, born in Buffalo and strangled in a courtroom, a thoroughly American story. There are large gaps — no online article, researched in a day, can tell the whole story. Who designed these guns? We don’t know. Who called the business shots? We have one name, but other than that, we don’t know. How did they go in a few years from aping an old High Standard to a conceptual, but larger, copy of the much more complex Walther double-action system of the PP and PPK? We don’t know. Perhaps the initial, oddball pocket pistol was called the PPL in admiration of Walther — or perhaps there was some other reason. We just don’t know.

And that’s where we have to leave it. For now.

5 thoughts on “The Short Life of the Sterling Arms Corporation

  1. Dan

    Thanks for the article, this is not a brand that gets mentioned a lot. I would be interested in why you think the Steyr GB is so dreadful.

  2. Daniel E. Watters

    Are you absolutely certain that it is the SIG-Sauer P232, and not the P230? Even the year 1975 seems too early for the P230, and the P232 wasn’t introduced until the mid-1990s. Hawes was the primary US importer of the P220 and P230 during the 1970s, and they didn’t start bringing in the P230 until 1977.

    You missed the Model 450 in .45 ACP.

    If I remember correctly, Ithaca picked up the X-Caliber after Sterling folded, but then they went through one of their own business downturns.

    1. Daniel E. Watters

      Actually, it looks like the Model 450 was vaporware.

      The SIG P232 reference still baffles me. I presume that you picked it up from the Cornell Publications reprint of the 1975 SAC catalog. However, I suspect that its inclusion is Cornell’s attempt at a copyright trap, where demonstrably fake information is included in a reference. Nobody can copy it completely without including the fake gouge that will prove their publishing perfidy.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I can’t figure out where I picked it up from. I can, however, state that it’s definitely wrong, as Sterling was on the dustbin of corporate history before the first 232 was produced. As you noted in your previous comment, it was probably the 230. A look at the last few to cross GB shows that none of them had the Sterling import stamp (they’re all stamped SIGARMS or SIG SAUER, Exeter NH, on the right side).

  3. Jason Dubois

    Thompson/ Center Arms had at least one X Caliber in their engineering reference library. While obviously styled after the Contender, the X Caliber is entirely different in mechanism. Instead of the familiar hinged trigger guard, the Sterling used a spring loaded cross bolt that stuck out the side of the frame. The checkered button you press to unlock the barrel is visible in the picture above.

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