Sterling Meets Owen: The Australian F1 Submachine Gun

The Australian Owen submachine gun was once of the best overall SMG designs of the Second World War, and when Australia decided to replace them in the 1960s, the new F1 design have big shoes to fill. The basic configuration of the top-mounted magazine remained, but coupled with elements of the Sterling SMG. The F1 used a simple sheet metal tube receiver with elements welded on, and a typical open bolt, blowback operating system. The unique rear system of separating the recoil spring from the main receiver body in the Owen was not included, instead using a basic open tube and large diameter mainspring. The sights are curiously still mounted to the right side of the gun, with a thing folding rear sight and a front sight affixed to the magazine well. These simplifications did have the effect of lightening the F1 compared to the Owen, which is a nice improvement. The F1 was manufactured from 1962 until 1973, with a total of about 25,000 made. It served in Vietnam and through the 1990s, when replaced by a variant of the F88 Austeyr. All reports are that it was a perfectly adequate submachine gun, but it did not earn the affection of troops like the Owen had.


  1. My uncle served in Vietnam with 7RAR as a scout, he once told me the happiest day of his national service was when he handed in his F1 for a M16 just before going to Vietnam.

  2. it seems the offset sights being on the right side is that is because of the mag release. it seems they thought it a worse idea to put the mag release on the other side of the mag well. since its a smg, they probably never expected a whole lot of IS use.

  3. Why sights are on right? Sinks and toilette bowls spin left there. They could not have it on same side – it would destroy morale. They would think: here we go mate, down to the drain! Makes sense?

  4. My theory regarding sights on right…… If sights are offset on left, this creates a larger blind spot due to the magazine blocking the sight picture. By having the sights on the right side (if you are shooting right handed). your blind spot is lessened by being able to see from your left eye as well.

  5. Some users commented it is way inferior in handling compared to Owen, the weight balance is offset and some other bad features, in the end it was not an improvement over Owen.

    Wondered why are there 2 rivets on the top of the receiver, and concluded it has a riveted rail inside that enters the milled slot on top of the bolt, as with no cocking handle, bolt would rotate.
    Similar thing is with star z63 that also uses non reciprocating cocking mechanism.

    • Well, from a user-point of view perhaps… As far as the people who make the decisions on other criteria it IS an improvement: Cheaper to produce and manufacture. Uses same magazines as those of other Commonwealth SMGs. Has same grip as service rifle. Uses some of the same parts as the service rifle. Lighter weight than the older Owen it replaced.

      Also, whatever its other problems like a flimsy rear sight and so on, it field strips easily, uses an “in-line” layout to minimize muzzle rise, and the front of the muzzle is somewhat snag-free (as long as the silly bayonet is not mounted) in the design decision to omit/forego a raised front sight and instead use the side of the magazine well… The big problem, it would seem, is that the open-bolt blowback 9mm SMG’s days were mostly over since small-caliber, hyper velocity “assault rifles” had largely supplanted them, and a 9mm sub-rifle firing from an open bolt, like the HK MP5 SMG is much more accurate in any application that calls for use of pistol ammunition…

      • “(…) 9mm sub-rifle firing from an open bolt, like the HK MP5 SMG(…)”
        Is not MP5 firing from closed-bolt? Also is not MP5 SMG pleonasm (5th model sub-machine gun sub-machine gun)?
        Anyway, it is quite untypical for 1960s that when designing sub-machine gun they did not end with more compact weapon. It is longer and at least for me looks less suited as basis for folding-stock weapon than OWEN machine carbine.
        As side-note IMBEL was working on sub-machine gun using some parts from FAL, but what they created looks much different, not only due to magazine sticking downwards, see photos:

        • Yes, thanks for catching the “glitch.” meant to write closed bolt SMG MP5. delayed blowback or unlocked blowback SMGs, but still closed bolt.

          The IMBEL SMG is very interesting, particularly the MD2 variant that also used a closed-bolt and something like 60 percent parts commonality with the FAL rifle. Of course, it remained a prototype only, e.g. even fewer than the 25k examples of the F1 manufactured in Australia.

          The F1 SMG is lighter and shorter than the Owen machine carbine.

          Clearly the Aussies were not concerned with a folding stock. Neither were the Brits what with four “Marks” (not including prototypes) of Sten guns in WWII, although admittedly the Patchett and post-war Sterling both did have collapsible rather than merely removable stocks.

          Apologies for the Maschine Pistol Submachine Gun “pleonasm.” One of my pet peeves is the use of the word “rifle” after “carbine” such that there is an “M1 carbine rifle” or “SKS rifle” and so on… Or, for that matter, the use of “rifle” when the weapon so described is a smooth-bore musket!

          • “(…)The F1 SMG is lighter and shorter than the Owen machine carbine.(…)”
            Yes, but in that time other nations already have or were introducing folding-stock (or similar) sub-machine guns. Mentioned MP5 was available with retractable stock, Sweden had Kpist m/45 (always folding stock), Czechoslovakia Sa vz. 48b with folding stock and fixed stock sibling Sa vz. 48a, Italy Beretta PM12 and so on.

            Maybe Australians avoided this due to bad experiences with AUSTEN?

          • There were certainly very, very many MP5s with fixed stocks. FN and the Israelis offered the Uzi/MP2 with a fixed wood stock, the Holecek-designed Czechoslovak sa23/vz48a and sa24/48a/52 had fixed stocks, etc. etc. The Czechoslovak guns have the same variable triggers for semi-auto/full auto as the Australian F1, or, for that matter, the AUG or Austeyr

            The Vietnamese communist/nationalists made the K50 from Soviet Shpagin or Chinese Type 50 copies of the Shpagin with extendable wire stocks such that the stock furniture resembled the French MAT49.

          • “(…)Uzi(…)fixed(…)stock(…)vz48a(…)”
            Yes, but these have folding-stocking variants, while F1 has not.

  6. The sights on the Owen SMG are similarly off-set to the right side of the weapon rather on the left. The Italian top-loading SMG, the “Moschetto Automatico Revelli” which is mis-named the “OVP” in many English-language publications has its sights off-set to the left. In fact, the rear sight is by the magazine well, unlike the F1 where the front sight juts out from the magazine well on the right side while the aperture sight is closer to the eye on a folding mount.

    The Japanese Type/Model 11 (1922) 6.5x50SR “Gensho” LMG has that odd hopper-feed and as a result also has the sights offset on the right side, plus the odd stock that is bent so the user or operator is situated properly to use the sights.

    The magazines on the F1 are interchangeable with those of the Sterling SMG, yes?

    • Ah, on second viewing I have it. I think the bit about the Canadian Sterling magazines not having the rollers confused me.
      Great video on a thoroughly ‘Forgotten Weapon!’

  7. Perhaps the right-had offset was established for the Owen, for reasons unknown, and simply carried over for consistency.

    Was Owen a south-paw?

    • No, it might be the issue of right-handed people subconsciously leaning to the right whenever they line up the sights on shoulder-fired long arms. This does not include light machine guns fired from bipods, mind you.

    • I’ve figured the sights out.

      Try this experiment at home.
      Australian jungle fighting doctrine emphasised keeping as low as possible profile to the ground in contact (note that most Vietnam era photos of diggers, you’ll notice their webbing is free of any pouches fwd of their hips, this is to facilitate this low profile firing position)

      Lay as flat on the floor as possible and pretend to change a top mounted magazine with your non-master hand. The natural tendency will be to tilt the weapon to the left, Now, with this low profile and firing position, which side of your imaginary Top feed Sub-Gun would you be looking down and which side of the gun would your sights be of more use from that position?

      Counter intuitive from a standing, kneeling postion, but the right hand offset sight placement was born out of hard fought operational lessions in jungle warfare and tied in perfectly with training doctrine at an individual level.

  8. RE: Just an observation.. Maybe the sights were offset to the right side because if they were on the left side of the mag well, they would interfere with a right handed person’s access to the magazine release?

  9. I should have elaborated a little more. Most right handed persons are used to doing magazine changes with their left hands. With the sight on the right side of the mag well, a right handed person, reaching up with his left hand to change magazines, would find the magazine release falling under his left thumb. The sight was placed on the other side to not get in the way. Just a thought…

  10. Once again, I have to wonder why top-mounted mags just HAVE to be vertical? Tilting them, say, 30 degrees to one side* would clear the sight line. Pedersen did that with his famous device, and I don’t think anybody complained. (Yes, there was plenty else to complain about.) Ejection doesn’t have to be directly opposite the mag; you could tilt the mag and still eject straight down.

    * But which side? Aha! The Very Special Subcommittee on Magazine Tilting will study the question and report to the Assistant Minister for Special Subcommittees some time in the next 18 months, conditions permitting. Harrumph!

    • The John Cantius Garand top-feed prototype “light rifle” for Springfield Armory’s initial entrant in the René Studler U.S. Ordnance M1 sweepstakes was a tribute to Isaac N Lewis’ machine gun in terms of its operating system, with a nod to John Pedersen’s “U.S. Pistol, cal. 30 Model of 1918” in having a top-mounted magazine canted to 45 degrees. Nevertheless, the sights were offset to the left. Probably because the reciprocating bolt handle stood straight up on the right side of the carbine.

      The ejection was downward to the left such that the empties could hit the support arm, which some in Ordnance found objectionable.

  11. I qualified on the F1 in the late seventies.

    The right-hand sight offset looked odd, but was forgotten after firing just a few rounds. It saved getting it caught in personal webbing when slung, it kept it out of the dirt (a right-hander naturally lays a pistol-grip weapon left-side down), and promoted better peripheral vision while aiming.
    Pleasant (almost innocuous) to shoot, it “shook” around a neutral axis.
    Ridiculously easy to clean and reliable.

    It just lacked punch.
    50 yards effective, maybe 150 for covering fire.
    5.56 three times better for same weight.

  12. I used the F1 in training in 1969, not all that long after they were issued. Shortly after that I had one for a brief period in Viet Nam, but never used it. In my opinion the F1 was light and very easy to use and clean, could be fired one-handed under good control. I did have magazine stoppages when loaded to 34 rounds. I always felt that it was too long, should have had a folding/telescoping/removable butt. Along with the top-mounted magazine, the length makes it fairly bulky, but not as bulky (& heavy) as the Owen. It did not give me the same confidence as the M16 or SLR. Generally it was not popular with infantry in Viet Nam, but neither was the Owen.

    I believe it would be just as reliable as the Owen, because the receiver is well sealed from entry of stuff, and the gun was subjected to the same tests as the Owen during development. As for the right-side sights, they seem to be fine to me, having them on the left would not work as well. Being right-handed my right eye fell naturally to the right of the receiver when at my shoulder. The F1 does not handle like a Bren gun (which has sights on the left).

    I have seen reports that the magazine rollers cause abnormal wear in the F1 chamber due to rounds rotating during feeding, leading to malfunctions. I guess this is why the Canadians don’t use them. I have never heard that the Owen magazine will work in the F1, and the magazines are quite different, including the position of the magazine catch. So I doubt it. The F1 catch was usually operated by the heel of the left hand, in my experience, not the thumb. I have also heard that troops were surveyed about the design of the F1 back in the day, and a majority expressed a preference for a bottom-mounted magazine.

  13. On a related topic, would be well worth an urgent research/filming trip out here to Australia asap, I.e. Lithgow small arms factory museum, singleton infantry museum etc, because there is legislation likely to pass into law, that would see any semi, select fire, or automatic firearm in the museums collections permanently deactivated.

    Remembering in the case of Lithgow, their production included the SMLE, Bren, vickers SLR & L2, F1, Austeyr & Minimi all of which would have had a number of v/rare prototype/pre-production (when proving out the technical packages) & the variant examples associated with them. Regardless of what we think about the proposed legislation, would be well worth checking these out, before they have their internal machinations irreversibly “messed with” & a large chunk of our history is castrated

  14. Agree with many of the comments. Once you had trained and done your tests on any weapon the position of the sights etc just became instinctive.
    The lightness of the F1 compared with the SLR or the M60 gave you no benefit as your sgt or cpl would just load you up with extra M60 ammo belts, grenades, claymores or radio batteries and even the occasional 66mm LAW
    The 9mm round was a compromise that led to a weak smg round and an overly powerful pistol round.
    By the late 70s the ammo being allocated was getting a bit old, I swear I could see the round on the way to the target for my last qualification shoot (didn’t qualify so thats my excuse)

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