The Australian-designed Owen submachine gun is a weapon with quite a story behind it. The Owen is arguably the best subgun used during WWII, and also probably the ugliest. Its mere existence was a drawn out struggle between the inventor and manufacturer and the Australian Army bureaucracy, and yet it saw service through into the Vietnam War.
The Owen gun story begins with a young 23-year-old Evelyn Owen and his incessant tinkering with guns. In 1938 he perfected (well, sort of) a homemade full auto carbine firing .22LR from a drum-type magazine. It used a thumb trigger instead of the normal type, and was thoroughly unfit for military use. He showed the gun to a some Australian Army officers in 1939, and was (not surprisingly) turned away – the Army was not interested in new submachine guns in general nor Owen’s contraption in particular. By 1940 Owen had lost enthusiasm for the gun, and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force.
That would have been the end of the story if not for a happy accident. Shortly before deploying for military service, Owen haphazardly left his prototype gun in a burlap sack leaning against the house – where it was subsequently found be a neighbor (Vincent Wardell) who just happened to be manager of Lysaght Works, a metal fabrication firm. Wardell was curious, discussed the gun with Owen, and convinced him to demonstrate it to the newly formed Army Central Inventions Board. The Board commander , a Captain Cecil Dyer, was interested (the Battle of France having been recently lost, and Britain’s ability to prevent German invasion in serious doubt), and the result of the demonstration was Lysaght’s agreeing to develop an improved centerfire version. Owen left for his deployment, and development of the gun was undertaken by Vincent Wardell, his brother Gerard, and a gunsmith in their employ named Freddie Kunzler.
At this time, most of the Australian Army officialdom was anticipating adoption of the Sten gun, plans and models for which had been promised to them by the British government. The Sten was purported to be a much better gun than experience would eventually show, and the establishment didn’t want to muddy the waters with competing designs with no provenance. In an effort to scuttle the newcomer, the Army told Lysaght to provide a sample gun for testing, chambered in .38 S&W (and neither ammunition nor a barrel was to be provided for factory use). The specification of a rimmed cartridge was expected to stump the Wardells, and was indeed a challenge not undertaken by any previous successful SMG design. So they sidestepped it, and made the gun in .32ACP instead, using a section of an SMLE barrel. This prototype was delivered to the Army in January 30, 1940 – after just 3 weeks of development. It fired effectively and reliably, and the Army requested a 10,000-round endurance test. They would not supply the ammunition, and in wartime Australia that quantity was effectively impossible for the factory to acquire. Instead, Lysaght’s built another gun in .45 ACP, having been assured that plenty of ammunition would be available for this (they assumed it would be from stocks supplied for Australian Army Thompson guns). But when the ammunition arrived at the factory, it turned out to be .455 Webley ammunition instead – so they went back again and retrofitted the gun using a section of old Martini-Henry barrel.
Around this time Evelyn Owen was recalled from field duty and assigned to work with Lysaght on the gun development, although it is unclear when design elements were his contributions and which were brought by Wardell and Kunzler. The Army efforts at scuttling the Owen gun continued, and it was only through Vincent Wardell’s persistence and willingness to go directly to civilian politicians that the gun finally came to be accepted. It had passed mud and dust testing with exceptional results in both .455 Webley and .38 S&W (the first 100-gun order was again demanded to be in .38 S&W by the brass). Only in early September 1941 was a 9mm version authorized, and this by a civilian official tired of Army obstructions.
The turning point for the Owen was a competitive trial at the end of September 1941, in which it (in both 9mm Parabellum and .45ACP) was pitted against a newly-arrived Sten and a Thompson. The Thompsons did well when clean but not so well when dirty, and the Sten quickly failed in sand and mud tests. The Owen passed with flying colors, in both calibers. This led to an order for 2,000 9mm Owen guns for field trials, and the rather impertinent sending of Owen gun samples and drawings to England, with the suggestion that the Sten be discontinued in favor of it (and in a 1943 English test, the Owen beat all comers, including the Austen, Sten, and Sterling).
The Owen was a fairly simple open-bolt design, but it incorporated a number of creative elements that made it superior to other contemporary guns.
First of all, it utilized a top-mounted magazine, which gave several benefits. It allowed gravity to assist both feeding and ejection (although the Owen will function when held upside-down). Since the ejection port was on the bottom of the receiver tube, dirt which might enter form the magazine or through the magwell would often just fall right through, having no place to collect.
Second, the Owen used a two-chamber receiver. The bolt cycles in the front chamber (with a relatively short travel), and the charging handle is located in a separate chamber in the rear of the receiver. Only a small hole between the two allows the charging handle to connect to the recoil spring guide. As a result, and dirt entering through the charging handle slot is confined to the rear section, where it cannot do much to impede the gun’s function. There is no way for gunk to get behind the bolt, where it is most apt to cause problems.
Because of this design, disassembly is done from the front – unlike most open bolt subguns. The barrel is easily removed by pulling up on the barrel pin at the front of the receiver. The rear end of the barrel and the front of the receiver tube are machined with tapers, so the barrel is easily seated in place. Once the barrel is removed, the bolt and recoil spring slide out the front of the tube. In most guns, this would be obstructed by the ejector, but in the Owen the ejector is made part of the magazine rather than integral to the gun itself. As the bolt extracts a fired case, it holds the ammunition in the magazine down (well, up, given the top-feed arrangement). After enough rearward travel, the rim of the empty case hits the ejector tab at the rear of the magazine, which tips it out of the extractor to drop free of the gun. Pressure from the next round in the magazine, now pushing directly on the empty case, provides additional ejection force.
The Owen is a very clumsy looking gun, but handles better than you might expect. The grips are well placed, the weight (9.5-10.5 pounds, depending on the version) and built-in compensator at the muzzle help to keep the gun controllable. The safety and magazine catch are both simple and effective (although the original fire selector apparently had a tendency to allow bursts when in semiauto mode). To allow for the top-mounted magazine, the sights are offset to the left side of the gun – not a problem for a right-handed shooter, but a bit of a handicap for lefties.
The stock design is not particularly ideal, and is somewhat reminiscent of the Thompson (I have no evidence to prove it, but I would suspect this was deliberate, since the Thompson was the SMG in official Australian service when the Owen was being designed). Combining the Owen’s positive features with a stock design more in line with the bore could have made for a very interesting gun (in fact, the Australian F1 SMG that eventually replaced the Owen did this to some degree).
The Owen went through several changes, although the basic mechanism remained the same throughout production. The main goal of the changes was to reduce the weight of the gun, and they were able to take more than a full pound off of it this way. Guns made during WWII were painted with a camo scheme of green and yellow for jungle use, which is often seen on guns today. After the war, guns that were arsenal refurbished had the paint stripped off and were parkerized.
The two main versions are the Mk1 (roughly 12,000 made) and Mk1* (roughly 33,000 made). A MkII version was designed, but only a few hundred made. In theory, parts between all the Mk1 and Mk1* guns are interchangeable, although factory QC was not always tight enough to make this true in closely fitted parts like barrels. Over the course of war use and several decades of official adoption, many existing Owen guns will have a mixture of parts from different official types.
The main parts that were changed were the trigger housings, barrels, and buttstocks.
The early barrels were quite heavy, and finned to aid cooling. Over the course of production they were lightened and the fins discarded. The slotted muzzle compensator remained a feature of all versions, though.
Trigger housings began as solid units, and were later lightened with cutouts to remove unnecessary material.
The original buttstock design was made of bent strip steel, and a later version was made with a clip to hold an oil bottle. Wooden stocks were also made, both solid and with lightening cuts and both with and without traps to hold cleaning equipment.
The Owen was taken out of production in 1944, with 45,433 guns built. They would remain in Australian service until replaced by the F1 submachine gun (which we will cover in another article) in the late 1960s. Owens saw use in Korea and Vietnam, and were generally well liked by troops who carried them. The gun may have been heavy, but it was rugged and dependable.
Evelyn Owen, unfortunately, did not lead a happy life after the war. He became addicted to alcohol, and died a bachelor in April 1949. Aside from employment and salary, he received payment of about £10,000 pounds for his part in the Owen gun production (royalties and patent rights sales), which he used to set up a lumber mill. He did continue to tinker with firearms until his death.
The Lysaght Works began the Owen gun project as a patriotic endeavor to help ensure Australia’s survival through the war. Until the first major order for 100 guns in April 1941, the company funded all the development and prototype construction itself, not asking for reimbursement. When mass production was contracted, payment was agreed at cost plus 4%…but government payments were perpetually late, and Lysaght was not paid in full until 1947, three years after production ended. After making additional interest payments on loans that could not be paid on time because of Army delays in payment, the company ended up making approximately a mere 1.5% profit on the project.
Caliber: 9×19 Parabellum
Mechanism: Unlocked (blowback)
Overall length: 32in (813mm)
Barrel length: 9.7in (247mm)
Weight (late): 9.3lb (4.2kg)
Magazine capacity: 32 (some sources say 33) rounds
Rate of fire: 700-800 rpm
I had the chance to shoot an Owen, but only briefly – and I did not have a chance to get any video of the internal mechanism. But you can see it firing:
We have a copy of a 1943 Australian submachine gun manual, which covers the Owen as well as the Austen and the Thompson. It is short, but includes quite a bit of good information (note how doctrine at the time included shooting from the hip). You can down load it in PDF format here: