Australia’s Owen sub-machine gun is one of the little-known weapons stories of the Second World War. But the more we look at this story, the more we are amazed by its details. It was produced solely in Australia, and used solely by the Australian military. It was probably the best sub-machine gun of its era, and stayed in use until the Vietnam War.
Even more incredibly, the weapon was designed by an unknown, self-taught 25-year old with no experience of any kind in weapons design. It is a story of brilliance, inspiration, and being at the right place at the right time.
Evelyn Owen was born in 1915 in Wollongong in New South Wales. There was nothing in his background that might indicate his future notoriety, except for his willingness to take risks and assert himself. An early business venture he started with his brother (cement-mixing) was not successful, but he was undeterred.
Despite having no background or experience with firearms, he began to tinker around with a design for a sub-machine gun. He had read about small arms use in the First World War, and was convinced that the traditional rifle would one day soon be replaced by a weapon that could deliver a higher volume of fire. But this view was not shared by military men in Britain and her English-speaking allies. Sub-machine guns still carried a stigma of criminality, something that was a legacy of the 1920s gangster era.
Working entirely on his own, he had by the late 1930s come up with a prototype of a military-style sub-machine gun. No one was very much interested in Owen’s ideas, and manufacturers did not quite know what to make of this young man in his early 20s.
Things changed with the outbreak of war 1939. It soon became clear that this would be a worldwide conflict. Australia had always relied on British suppliers for its arms and ammunition, and had expected to receive everything it needed from England. But the British were fighting for survival against Germany 1940, and could afford to spare not one bullet. The Sten guns that the Australians expected to get would not be available.
Owen had his opportunity. Perhaps in no other situation would anyone have given an unknown 24-year- old a hearing, but he eventually found a weapons manufacturer willing to listen to him. After some modifications, the gun entered mass production in 1941 and was adopted by the Australian army.
What made the gun so special? Simply put, it was tougher and more reliable than any of its competitors. In weapons tests, it could withstand being dropped in sand, mud, and water, and would fire reliably every time. No other weapon could do this. And for the Australian army, which would do its fighting in the corrosive tropical jungles of New Guinea and the rest of the Pacific, this reliability was critical. One the Australian infantryman got his hands on an Owen gun, he wanted no other.
The weapon employed several innovative design features. The overhead-mounted box magazine was the most obvious of these. This fact allowed the gun to take advantage of gravity in ammunition feeding, as rounds were pushed downward by the box spring. It also helped to keep out grit and dirt. The cleverly designed receiver prevented jamming under almost any condition. The sights had to be offset slightly to accommodate the magazine, but this was not a major problem in practice.
Another odd feature was the fact that the barrel could be changed on the weapon. No other sub-machine gun had this capability; it is not clear why Owen incorporated it into the gun, as it would have required a lot of firing to make a barrel change necessary. Some versions of the gun even had a lug for mounting a bayonet. Many models were painted with camouflage right at the factory.
One of the best things about the gun was the fact that it had well-placed pistol grips for both hands. This ensured a firm control of the weapon in action. Here are the full specifications:
Length: 813 mm (32 in.)
Length of barrel: 250 mm (9.84 in.)
Weight loaded: 4.8 kg (10.6 lb.)
Magazine: 33 rounds
Rate of fire: 700 rpm
All in all, the Owen gun was a tremendous success. About 45,000 of them were produced between 1942 and 1944. Production ceased at the end of the war, but many of the guns were brought back for service in Korea and Vietnam. The cost to produce each weapon was, incredibly, only about $30. This in itself was a testament to the power of Evelyn Owen’s visionary creativity.
He did not live a long life, unfortunately. He died in 1949 at the age of 33 from complications brought on by heart troubles.