Local Boy Saves Nation: The Australian Owen SMG

The One submachine gun is one of the ugliest SMGs ever designed, and yet also one of the most beloved by its users. The original basis for the gun was a .22 rimfire submachine gun designed by 23-year-old Australian Evelyn Owen. That prototype was found by his neighbor Vincent Wardell after Owen left for military service. Wardell was the manager of Lysaght Works, an engineering firm, and thought that the gun might be the basis for a useful military SMG. As it turned out, he was right – it became the standard SMG of The Australian military through World War Two and the Korean War, and was one of the best such guns of that period. For more details on the history of the Owen, see my full article.

Thanks to Movie Armament Group in Toronto for giving me the opportunity to take this to the range! Check out MAG on Instagram

46 Comments

  1. “.22 rimfire submachine gun”
    If you are wondering how did it look: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RELAWM30622.001/?image=2
    Note, unlike later designer it does not have stick magazine, but it is revolver-like in area of feeding (has cylinder – much bigger and spring powered, but still cylinder). Capacity of this weapon is 44.
    I left to anyone interested judging whatever this prototype or serial production gun is uglier.

    “one of the ugliest SMGs ever designed”
    I want to note, that despite that, it looks that it was inspired by Thompson sub-machine in general layout, excluding magazine sticking to top – note that it has front grip AND has pistol grip (unlike numerous 1930s sub-machine gun) AND stock which could be detached in way allowing comfortable usage of gun without it.

  2. “In fact, the idea for my first name came from the Owen submachine gun that he had used to save his life in the backcountry of Cambodia during a war that never officially existed. He thought the name had a nice ring to it, and the actual gun had come in handy for mowing down communist insurgents after he was trapped deep in enemy territory with nothing but an obsolete Australian weapon older than he was.”

    He will come
    Son of a great warrior
    Taught in the skills of the world
    Yet drawn to the sword
    His very name taken from
    The weapon of his fathers
    Given a quest by the crown
    To defeat an impossible foe
    Possessor of visions
    Ally of dark forces
    Friend of monsters
    Leader of men
    Only he will have the will
    And the power
    Through his love of another
    To break time and the world

    On a serious note, I suspect the reason it doesn’t fire when dropped on the end is due to the balance it’s really hard to actually drop on its back.

    • My first guess is the half-compressed recoil spring keeps the bolt from moving sufficiently back past the magazine, and otherwise can’t pick up a cartridge unless 1) it is manually cocked over the sear, or 2) the explosion of a cartridge pushes it back.

      My second guess is that the safety-catch locks the sear up into the bolt notch when the gun is cocked and perhaps also does so when the bolt is forward.

      • Safety is connected to trigger, and with it activated both trig.and sear cannot move, so Id say in bolt forward it is locked also, as the end of the bolt is more to the front than the sear.
        Smart system.

      • The Cambodia quote is from “Monster Hunter International”, one of the best pulp novels ever written.
        It refers to the protagonist, Owen Zastava Pitt.
        Highly recommended.

        • Second name from a certain yugo/serbian manufacturer, I presume? The protags name alone screams cheesy. What I expect from a good pulp novel. Wmbrace the cheese and gonzo. 😉

          • Crvena Zastava means red flag, very post 45 ideological communist/stalinist name, but they dropped “red” after 1990s, so now the name is partially confusing, at least to those understanding it. Some of the factories with communist names that did not bankrupt, held old names (or slightly shortened) because international market and their old buyers, not going into process of rebranding (ar that was what they thought, its a good question who really cared about the name).
            In ussr common factory names were red october, red hammer etc.

            I just hope Steven King will not see this and make new evil character called Randall Zastava 😉

          • Perhaps my favorite quote from the book is this one: ““On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.” .

            Larry Correia is a gun guy; he’s an accountant who used to own/run a Class III dealership in Utah, started writing because a bunch of his posts on a gun-related bulletin board took off like crazy, and he’s actually pretty damn good. He’s successful enough that he’s building his own “remote compound” in Utah, and is now writing full-time. For a gun guy, he’s living the dream.

            About the only fiction where I don’t find really stupid gun-related mistakes.

  3. The Owen’s layout, funny as it looks, served well in thick cover, not tangling in brush or vines as badly as a side- or bottom-mounted mag. Question: Why do designers almost always put a top-mounted mag dead-center vertical, directly in the way of a normal sight line? Why not angle it ~20 or 30 degrees to right or left? Pedersen angled the mag of his famous Device about that much to the right, and nobody complained about it.

    • “nobody complained about it”
      I must note that Pedersen Device was kept as secret weapon and so far I know was never used in combat. Certainly it was tested, however some particular problems or advantages of weapon are discovered in real combat or tests possibly closest* to such condition. I do not want to imply that Pedersen Device would be disliked by its users, but just to say we have too little information to judge if it would become liked or disliked in case of it wide-spread usage in field.

      * such test require possibly big “test sample” of soldiers, which is undesirable from point-of-view of keeping it secret (general rule: more people know about “secret” higher chance it would… cease to be secret)

      • The main problem with the Pedersen Device was that the soldier was expected to switch the rifle back-and-forth between .30-06 bolt -action and .30 semiautomatic in the field. Keep in mind that this was trench warfare. The potential for losing vital pieces while going from one “mode” to the other in a trench in Flanders was more-or-less infinite.

        I’ve never understood why they simply didn’t get out the 20,000 or so single-heat-treatment early M1903s that were deemed unsafe with the pressures of the .30-06 cartridge, and which were in storage Stateside throughout the war, and convert them to Pedersen auto carbines permanently. They would certainly have been safe with the .30 Pedersen cartridge’s much lower chamber pressures, and this would also have eliminated the whole parts-switching problem.

        The Pedersen Devices, some 40,000 manufactured, were ordered destroyed in 1919, because the government was afraid they would fall into the hands of criminals (!).

        Well, that was the official reason. I suspect the real reason was that they wanted everyone to forget that they’d spent that much money on a weapon system which they had no idea how to use correctly.

        cheers

        eon

        • Not only not know how to use. the Pedersen device was just bad. Basically a .32 ACP pocket blowback pistol squeezed into a M1903 rifle. And unreliable as can be.

          I agree that they should have recycled the unsafe M1903 early production with the bad heat treat and convert them permantly into pistol calibre carbines. If no easy change was required, they could have built a much better gun. shorten the barrel a bit and have a nice little gun for squeezing into trenches and make something useful out of the bad production lot.

  4. Surprising that the fore-grip stayed through into production. I’d have thought it would be too likely to catch on foliage or gear at the worst possible moment.

    How does production and use compare to the almost simultaneously developed Austen?

    • The Austen was a very short-lived project. While it looks like a Sten MK II outside,internally it’s almost a straight copy of the German Mp38, complete to the telescoping dust-cover tube enclosing the recoil spring behind the bolt.

      It also has a distinctive Mp38-type under-folding stock, except with an even more complicated latch assembly. Note the twin vertical grips, like the Thompson but (again) shaped like the Mp38 pistol grip.

      The Austen proved to be just too complicated to produce in needed numbers with Australia’s industrial base. The Owen, by comparison, had half as many moving parts and its major sections were much easier to fabricate.

      It wasn’t really “better” than the Austen, but it was faster and easier to make with the resources they had.

      cheers

      eon

      • In one article, writer claims Owen is, by its (expensive) production methods, actually a first gen submachinegun, compareable much more to Bergmann, Thompson etc. than plumbers wonder called Sten.

        QC is certainly better, but dual feed magazine also !

        • “dual feed magazine”
          I did not noticed earlier than Owen machine carbine used such kind of magazine, but that is coherent with theory of inspiration taken from Thompson sub-machine gun (which also used such kind of magazines).

      • “(…)distinctive Mp38-type under-folding stock, except with an even more complicated latch assembly(…)”
        Also, looking at photos of both weapon, for me it looks that in Australian weapon stock is longer, as when closed it extends beyond front grip (in MP 38 it do not reach magazine well). This might some influence on ergonomics when firing with stock deployed, though I do not know how which is better option from comfort of shooter.

      • The Austen was manufactured using diecast pieces made in factories in Melbourne and Sydney, rather than the welded construction of the Sten.It certainly was not beyond the manufacturing capabilities of Australia at the time.
        As Ian hinted there were machinations behind the scenes which had the Military pushing the Austen over the Owen.There have been several books written about the scandal over the years.

    • Oh, and as for the vertical foregrip on the Owen, you really didn’t want to try to hold on to the front end without it, as that barrel got pretty hot pretty quick.

      The foregrip also acted as a handle when removing the barrel during field-stripping.

      The shape of the grips does seem a bit weird, though.

      cheers

      eon

      • “The shape of the grips does seem a bit weird, though.”
        Owen .32 ACP prototype, see 1st photo from top:
        https://modernfirearms.net/en/submachine-guns/australia-submachine-guns/owen-machine-carbine-owen-gun-eng/
        had different front grip, apparently front grip as found on production guns appeared on Owen .45 ACP prototype (2nd photo from top). Taking in account that whole sub-machine gun was foremost function-not-form I would bet that Evelyn Owen could explain that choice if someone would ask him. First though which I have is that grip with finger grooves helped in exerting downward force /counter muzzle climb/.

        Anecdotal story is that Ed Heinemann, while designing Douglas A-4 Scooter aeroplane for U.S.Navy has big lettered KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID in his workplace, after closer look at Owen Machine Carbine I would say that Evelyn Owen had big lettered KEEP IT USER FRIENDLY either on wall or in his mind, while working on machine carbine – one of it manifestations its that front-grip, as it is obvious thing to place hand (I would bet that almost anybody with some experience with fire-arms, would grip it as intended, even if do not have prior awareness of existence of Owen machine carbine) – note that in some other sub-machine guns of its era it was not so obvious – for example STEN Mk II (do NOT use magazine for that) or PPSh-41 with drum magazine.
        Field-strip is also simple and do not result in loose small parts, which could be lost easily. Magazine release is arranged so it could be easily activated even without seeing it (for example in poor lightning conditions). Selector placement seems to be Thompson-inspired (thumb operated), however unlike that there is one lever for safe-single-auto rather than separate safe-fire and single-auto.
        Summing up I would call OWEN Machine Carbine remarkably user-friendly taking in account that its designer have no chance to personally examine earlier sub-machine gun designs and its era of production (1940s).

        • Simplicity and user-friendliness definitely made things good for Owen. No way anyone can be stupid enough to grab a piping-hot barrel on this gun unless he’s on the other team and therefore attempting to disarm the user! I could be wrong…

  5. I saw your previous video on the Owen, and knew there was so much more. I knew of it from my youth (Purnell’s History of the World Wars – Submachine Guns). This video fills the one gun gap I’ve always thought your archive was missing. Thanks.

  6. Ian mentioned it was good, but Ive read serious comment about F1 that claims it being a complete letdown compared to Owen, especially ergonomics wise.

    Hope he will do a shooting video of that one, one day in the future, and compare it.

  7. Thanks Ian for a very nice presentation on the Owen Machine Carbine (its official title, also referred to as OMC). My father used both Owen and Thompson during WW2 in the Pacific, and said that the Owen was more reliable than the Thompson but did not have the stopping power of the latter.

    Some points re the description – firstly the Owen was notorious for slam-fire accidents (as my old man also found when he dropped his on its butt at the end of a patrol, resulting in a full magazine dump past his head and through the tent roof – resulting in a charge and field punishment). All in-service Owens were subjected to factory refurbishment in the 1950s, at which time a ‘safety sleeve’ was added to the receiver which obstructed the charging handle as an extra safety feature. This gun does not have it.

    The Owen was used for a couple of years in Viet Nam Before it was replaced by the F1 and the M16. Neither the Owen nor the F1 were all that popular in VN. The F1 itself was quite OK in my experience but again was not all that popular with troops.

    The F1 looks like a Sterling but only shares the magazine and barrel assembly. In other respects is has more in common with the Owen.

    This barrel of this particular gun is not standard issue, so must be an improvised replacement.

    To fire an Owen might mean coming to Australia, there are some legally in private hands that I know of – not at all common with our firearm laws as they are. Also there is a YouTube video on the web starring the late R Lee Ermey and a young woman in the US firing a what they say are the only two Owens in the US.

    • I meant to add that the sights on the right hand side of the gun work quite well in my own experience. One’s head tends to place the right eye to the right of the magazine when firing from the right shoulder. The F1 also has its sights on the right.

      The Owen is quite a bulky gun (like a Thompson) and rather heavy, the F1 much lighter but also a bit bulky and I think should have a folding or telescopic butt.

    • The war memorial in Canberra had the prototypes (along with production versions) on display last time I was there. That first .22 one was pretty rough and ready.
      Worth a visit if you are in the country.

    • When firing from the right shoulder in the standing or kneeling position, muscle tension tends to make you tilt your head to the right. It takes a conscious effort to hold the head more-or-less upright, as is necessary to line up a sight on the left side (as on the Bren) with the right eye.

      Putting the sights on the left makes sense on the Bren, as it was generally intended to be fired with the gunner prone or from a tripod or pedestal mount.

      The Owen, mainly intended to be fired from the shoulder, and often “on the move” logically puts the sights to the right where as you mount the gun to the shoulder, your right eye lines up behind the sights more-or-less automatically.

      cheers

      eon

      • Interestingly according to https://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=2935
        Another advantage of the top mounted magazine is that at close range while firing instinctively it can be used as a rough sight.
        It surely technically possible, but I am wondering if it really helps – imagine comparing OWEN fired in this way and other 9×19 sub-machine gun with magazine sticking downwards and similar Rate-of-Fire and sights removed or obstructed fired at same distance. Do you think Owen would produce smaller spread?

        • They should have put a set of tiny little iron sights on the mag floorplate, for snap hip-shooting, lol

  8. I’ll bet the professional arms designers & committees at the national arsenal just *loved* being shown-up by some kid’s garage-build, especially after all their ‘valuable’ work on the Charlton contraption.

    Probably had something to do with the low profit margin on the contract.

    • Ian mentions these two guys being true designers of Owen, never heard of them but I could believe in that, it is possible “real” Owen was more of MT Kalashnikov posterboy type person,
      as there are archieve videos of him personally shooting it in the military trials while they pour loads of sand on the gun (search it on net), and it just works.Like he was used for presentation and show.

      On the other hand, “wonderboy” wise (Owen being 25 in 1940!),
      people in their 20s, 50,60 years ago were more mature,aged sooner and often looked older than most of the people in late 30s today,
      but I would never go and call a 25 y.o. even with today social standards, a “boy”.

        • Daweo,

          And anyone else interested enough to comment. Why do full auto only open bolt msg’s have both triggers, and sears? It would seem a trigger with integral sear would be the simpler solution. It would seem that the only justification is location of the trigger relative to the bolt locking position. One cannot always position the trigger as desired without the expedient of a separate sear to engage the bolt. Id this all there is to it?
          Thanks to all

          • Making the trigger and the sear one solid piece also makes for a not-so-idiot-proof design, especially if the resultant part is complicated to craft. We also have to consider what happens when the gun gets used a lot and the parts wear down. Would you like to shoot your friend in the posterior by mistake?

          • How does an independent sear and trigger make for a more idiot proof design? Sear wear would lead to the same types of AD’s you suggest possible for the integral trigger/sear as well. I see no obvious advantage aside from possibly trigger feel (which for an open bolt SMG seems of negligible utility) and the previously mentioned advantage that the multi link arrangement of a separate sear and trigger can position the components in favorable way.

  9. My father was an infantry platoon medic in 1RAR and served in Vietnam 1965. He told me that he was given a choice of weapons. He chose the Owen gun for its reliability. The lieutenant, sergeant and medic could choose their weapon in a rifle platoon. He said that on patrol that they always had 3 magazines taped together – two down, one up- for quick reloading. He was apparently a pretty good shot and got a marksmanship award with the Owen Gun.
    Reading the excellent Secret War of Signaller Johnstone by Peter Pinney, he writes about the Australian use of the Owen in New Guinea during WWII. The top mounted magazine was a benefit when ambushing as the user could lie flatter on the ground than with the Thompson. This made for a more concealed body position.

    Anyway, thanks for the video!

  10. Fired the Owen while an Officer of Cadets in the 70s. Fired the F1 in National service and in Army Reserve.
    Never really noticed any inconvenience in the mounting of the sights. At that time in annual qualification you fired instinctive from the hip and the shoulder and aimed from the shoulder, score equally dived between firing positions. All firing done on a 25m range. Over five qualifications on the F1 only managed marksman on two occasions.
    Preference would be the F1 as you could really abuse it, mud was a favourite but also dust. It just kept on firing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*