By Jon Diamond
A casual observer of World War II photographs after 1943 will often notice slouch hat- or beret-wearing Australian “diggers,” or armed Melanesian natives in the Australian Constabulary battalions, slogging through the muck and jungle of New Guinea, Bougainville, New Britain, and Borneo carrying a rather odd-looking weapon with a vertical top-mounting magazine.
It was the Owen submachine gun (SMG) or Owen machine carbine, and the Australian infantry often favorably referred to it as the “Digger’s Darling.” According to historian Michael Haskew, the “blowback-operated Owen was the only weapon of its type developed in Australia and used in World War II…. It reached service with the Australian Army in 1943 and fired the 9mm (.35in) Parabellum cartridge fed by a 32-round detachable magazine.”
Eventually, about 50,000 Owen SMGs were produced, primarily for jungle use. The firearm’s developmental history, however, had some political hurdles and obstacles, which delayed its implementation to frontline Australian infantrymen combating the tenacious Japanese, who were on the defensive by the time the Owen gun appeared in combat. Prior to the Owen gun’s introduction, each Australian infantry section commander carried a Thompson 1928A1 SMG. The very expensive Thompson was extremely effective at close quarters but could not withstand the punishment of a jungle environment and was prone to jamming, necessitating almost constant field stripping and cleaning.
The history of the Owen gun’s development aptly begins with Evelyn Ernest Owen, who was born on May 15, 1915, and hailed from Wollongong, a seaside city located in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia, just over 50 miles south of Sydney. From a young age, Owen enjoyed tinkering, which gradually progressed to designing his own guns and home-made bombs. As he grew up, Owen, without any formal engineering or firearms training, concentrated on the theory of ballistics and matured from working on single-shot firearms to machine guns. His goal was to design a machine gun with a high rate of fire possessing inherent simplicity in design and with the bolt being the only working part. It also had to be accurate and capable of sustained fire without jamming.
Owen started working on this project in 1931 from the bottom up. His gun’s simple construction comprised a barrel, bolt, spring, pistol grip, and a solitary piece of bent steel for a stock. The principle of the Owen SMG was that it operated by the recoil of each shot or “blowback.”
After working on this compact automatic weapon throughout the 1930s, Owen offered the original design for his SMG to the Australian Army at Victoria Barracks in Sydney in 1939. He was 24 years old at the time. Owen’s original prototype for a SMG chambered a .22LR cartridge from a drum-type magazine made from a revolver cylinder. It also used a thumb trigger instead of the normal type. For these design reasons, as well as the gun firing only the light .22 caliber round, the Australian Ordnance Officers in Sydney informed Owen that his weapon would not be suitable for the Army, although it fired accurately and did not jam.
Also, the prototype did not have an effective magazine that could be reloaded or exchanged since the gun essentially used a giant revolver cylinder or steel ring with holes to house the cartridges. Finally, an Australian Army colonel rejected Owen’s gun because Australian Imperial Force (AIF) commanders saw no value in SMGs, stating, “That is an American gangsters’ gun; the army has no use for those.” A prevailing belief among the Australian senior officers was that if a SMG was desired, then it would have to be on British advice and British made.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Owen joined the Australian Army as a private in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as his two older brothers had done. By 1940, Owen had lost enthusiasm for his gun and its unique features. During leave back home before his deployment, he had taken his gun to the beach to fire a few last shots before returning to his unit. Then, a moment of serendipity entered Owen’s SMG saga. After shooting his gun at the beach, Owen joined his friends for some libations, leaving his self-designed weapon in a Hessian bag leaning against a wall that separated his parents’ home from some neighbors.
One of the Owens’ neighbors was Vincent Wardell, the general manager of Lysaght Newcastle Steelworks, a metal fabrication firm located at Port Kembla. Finding a gun barrel protruding from the sack outside his abode, Wardell was intrigued by the firearm’s appearance and started searching for its rightful owner. Per Wardell’s own account, “When I came home from Lysaght’s works late one afternoon in September 1940, Evelyn Owen’s .22 calibre wheel gun was in a sugar bag by a low garden wall at the garage of my flat…. I took the gun into my flat intending to hand it in to the police station. Seeing Mr. Owen [the father] outside I asked him in for a drink and showed him the weapon. He rather ‘exploded’ about his son’s carelessness and told me something of his background.”
Owen wanted to leave for deployment with his battalion and brothers, so further development of the gun was to be undertaken by Wardell and his associates at Lysaght. Now the politics and control of weapons development in wartime Australia would become apparent to Wardell and Owen.
Wardell brought the gun to the attention of Director-General of Munitions Essington Lewis, and as a result of their discussion Owen would eventually be transferred to Melbourne to continue work on his gun. On September 24, 1940, the .22-caliber version was first presented by Owen to a Colonel Meredith, who was a local director of artillery. In a subsequent demonstration on November 14, 1940, it was exhibited to the Central Inventions Board of the Department of Defense Coordination. Captain Cecil Dyer, secretary of this government body, immediately saw the potential for Owen’s gun since Britain faced imminent invasion and Australia’s reliance on arms shipments from the beleaguered British Isles was wholly unrealistic.
With some foresight, Dyer recognized Australia’s need for an inexpensive “home-made” SMG that would be durable in tropical climates, as Japan was becoming even more bellicose in its attempt to gain hegemony in the Pacific. Also, the war in the West was looking bleak for the Allies, who still maintained control of colonial possessions that Imperial Japan was eyeing for conquest. Thus, Dyer commissioned engineering drawings of a gun utilizing Owen’s “blowback action” mechanism and presented them to the inventions board and the principal ordnance engineer.
It seemed that enthusiasm for Owen’s SMG or machine carbine was not meant to be. Due to the “requisite time, effort and monetary costs,” the Australian military leaders decided not to manufacture a prototype. However, there were even more reasons for the delay in production of an Owen SMG. First among them was that senior Australian Army officers, like their British counterparts, had little enthusiasm for SMGs. These officers fostered a bias for true bolt-action rifles and support machine guns like the venerable .303 Vickers Mk I. Their rationale was based erroneously on terrain, which for Europe meant that firepower could be easily transported; however, on Pacific islands like New Guinea, an infantryman’s firepower would have to be carried through dense, humid jungle, across streams, and up and down mountains on rudimentary, narrow trails.
A second reason for not supporting an Owen SMG prototype centered on the Australian Army’s disinterest in a locally manufactured gun. After Australia formally declared war on the Axis in September 1939, the country was required to modernize much of its heavy industry. However, as the Australian military lacked much in the way of producing its own weapons at the outset, a rigid mind-set developed based on taking deliveries of foreign-made guns, tanks, and aircraft. The military leaders were anticipating a large shipment of the British Sten gun that used a 9mm cartridge to arrive from Britain.
Australia’s senior Army staff was anticipating adoption of the Sten gun, and the plans and models for this weapon had been promised to them by the British government. The Australian military apparatus simply did not want to complicate SMG weaponry with competing designs.
In an uncharacteristic move to overcome these bureaucratic hurdles, Dyer personally urged Wardell’s firm, Lysaght Works, to forge ahead and produce prototypes of Owen’s gun design in a variety of different calibers and with different barrels. Ultimately, a design prototype utilizing .32-caliber bullets and part of a .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) barrel enabled Wardell and Owen to resubmit the design to the Inventions Board on January 30, 1941, after just three weeks of retooling. This prototype looked more conventional than Owen’s initial 1939 offering in that it had a traditional trigger, dual pistol grips, and a detachable top-mounted box magazine, which was more easily exchangeable as well as allowing the shooter to fire effectively from the prone position.
According to Wardell, the “ease of manufacture, simplicity, rapidity of dismantling, no sliding features … and reliability” were the gun’s attributes. When the Australian Army would not supply 10,000 rounds of .32-caliber ammunition for a test range firing demonstration, both Wardell and Owen rightfully suspected an element of resistance on the part of the army.
To overcome the “lack” of sufficient .32-caliber rounds, Lysaght Works persisted and built another Owen gun prototype in March 1941 that was chambered for .45-caliber Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) bullets. The .45 ACP round had made the Thompson 1928A1 a formidable, short-range submachine gun with incredible stopping power. Lysaght had been assured that plenty of ammunition would be available this time. However, after a successful test firing, the Australian Army would only supply .455-caliber ammunition, suitable only for the Webley Revolver, rather than the necessary .45 ACP rounds.
Army officials cited a shortage of .45 ACP ammunition for this new SMG since stocks of the round were used for the Thompson SMG. Wardell’s comments on the Army’s obstructionism were quite vitriolic. It was only through his tenacity and direct approach to civilian authorities that the project had not been completely derailed. Some individuals with connections in the War Cabinet in Canberra, who had been present when Owen and Wardell had exhibited their .32- and .45-caliber prototypes, concurred with Wardell’s observation that the Owen gun would have already been manufactured and distributed to Australian troops if the Army had cooperated.
The Army bureaucrats continued their obstructionism, telling Lysaght to provide a sample gun that chambered a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson (S&W) round. The demand was disingenuous since neither ammunition nor a barrel was to be provided for factory use. Wardell made dutiful attempts at an Owen Gun Annex at the Lysaght Works to produce an Owen gun prototype utilizing the .38 S&W rimmed revolver round. Predictably, the prototype failed in testing in July 1941 because the .38-caliber cartridge was underpowered for use with a SMG.
By September 1941, Wardell was convinced that any acceptable Owen gun prototype would require a 9mm round. Privately, he seethed to Essington Lewis, Director-General of Munitions, “Almost to the day it is 12 months since your prompt action caused Owen to be transferred from the Infantry at Bathurst to the Inventions Board at Melbourne, and it is two years since the war began. The Army’s answer to the submachine gun problem has been … to delay in every way possible the production of an Owen gun for [lack of] suitable ammunition.”
Finally, within days of Wardell’s outburst, the Army Ministry surprisingly commented, “There appears to be marked hostility, verging on deliberate obstruction … concerning the Owen gun.” The manufacture of Owen guns in 9mm was approved on September 7, 1941, with the performance trials at the end of that month, albeit an incredibly short interval for Lysaght Works to rechamber the gun.
Despite this plan of action, some senior Army officers still were of the belief that the Owen gun would fail and that an Australian-manufactured Sten gun would stop production of the expensive Thompson SMG and curtail production of the Owen gun. The Australian need for 100,000 SMGs would have been satisfied by the Sten gun if it had been left to the discretion of certain high-ranking Australian Army officers. In September 1941, Maj. Gen. Milford, who was Captain Dyer’s senior officer, had approved of the production of an Australian Sten gun. Additionally, General Sir Thomas Blamey’s initial preference for an SMG was the Australian Austen weapon, which was soon overshadowed by the superior Owen with the former rarely being used. Blamey was to become the Allied Land Forces commander in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) under MacArthur.
Rigorous testing of accuracy and mechanical functionality, using battle condition impediments such as sand being poured over the weapons and water and mud immersion, was conducted at Long Bay on September 29, 1941, comparing the Sten Mk 1 (9mm), the .45 ACP Thompson 1928A1, and both the 9mm and .45 ACP Owen versions. Dirt proved to be the nemesis of both the Thompson and Sten SMGs during the tests, and even Milford recognized that the Owen gun “continued to function satisfactorily when subjected to severe conditions … and had distinct possibilities as a suitable and efficient weapon.”
Endurance testing over several days, involving the continuous firing of almost 3,000 rounds of ammunition, showed the Owen and Thompson SMGs to be reliable; however, the Sten Mk I broke down several times. In tests conducted by the Lysaght Works, the American Winchester 9mm round seemed to feed the best and was more accurate than either British or Australian-manufactured bullets, much to the dismay of Australian Army officers.
After the Long Bay testing, an order for 2,000 Owen guns was placed by the Department of Munitions on October 3, 1941. It had become apparent to many that the Army had procrastinated unnecessarily due to bias, and this opinion eventually made it to many Australian newspapers and other periodicals.
Once accepted into service, production of the Owen SMG began initially in the Lysaght facilities. The production was augmented by the Lithgow Small Arms Factory. The full production rate was limited to 2,000 guns per month due to the constraints of a nascent Australian military-industrial infrastructure.
The Owen SMG was a simply designed weapon with basic construction, allowing for mass production that the developing Australian industrial infrastructure could deliver. Lysaghts’ 9mm Owen gun was adopted in 1942 and manufactured in three basic versions, Mk I-42 (with bent steel wire butt), Mk I-43 (or Mk I with a wooden butt); and a Mk II. The Mk II version was a simplified production version of the Mk I-43 but only appeared in prototype form by war’s end.
The Owen SMG had a rate of fire of 7,000 rounds per minute and weighed just under 9.3 pounds unloaded and 10.6 pounds loaded. Its overall length was 32.5 inches with a barrel length of just under 10 inches. The gun had a muzzle velocity of almost 1,400 feet per second and an effective range up to 220 yards. There were also rear and forward pistol grips, both made of wood, for a firm two-point hold that incorporated finger grooves to improve stabilization of the gun platform. Additionally, the barrel was designed to be changed quickly, which would prove useful under rare circumstances when the gun was fired in a sustained fashion.
The only downside to the Owen SMG was its somewhat heavy weight; however, a sure two-hand hold on the pistol grips and use of the shoulder stock helped to balance this shortcoming. During the war, the average cost to manufacture the Owen SMG was approximately $30.
From a gun design standpoint, the Owen was essentially a typical “blowback” system utilizing a tubular, featureless receiver with an open bolt capped by a removable barrel assembly. Initially, the stock was skeletal to keep the weight down. The lower portion of the two-chamber receiver was hollowed out and a simple wooden pistol grip and trigger were affixed. The magazine feed was set across the forward upper end of the tubular receiver and vertically springloaded in a detachable, 32-round box magazine.
The top-mounted magazine required the iron sights to be offset to the side slightly, but it made no major impact on shooting since the Owen SMG was often fired from the hip. The magazine design also made for a reliable feed aided by both the magazine spring mechanism and gravity. Since the cartridge ejection port was on the bottom of the receiver tube, dirt that might enter from the magazine would often fall straight through, having no place to collect, which made it ideal for jungle fighting. Also, the top-loading box magazine and catch design allowed for a faster magazine change.
The Owen gun was resistant to fouling from dirt and mud. Its front-loading bolt and return spring, which was on a round piston, moved forward and backward in a separate compartment inside the receiver by means of a small bulkhead that isolated the small diameter bolt from its retracting cocking handle, effectively sealing the chamber, bolt, and spring area from the elements. Any dirt or mud that did get in was captured in areas machined on both ends of the bolt or was blown out through the bottom ejection port. Also, the gun had no sliding surfaces under heavy load. This design prevented dirt and mud from jamming the bolt.
Once deployed to the “diggers” fighting the Japanese, the weapon aptly proved its intrinsic value by withstanding the unforgiving nature of the jungle environment. The Owen SMG also sported various camouflage paint schemes to blend in with dense foliage. Some guns were fitted with short bayonets alongside the barrels since patrol action was often at close quarters and stealth was frequently required. The Owen’s rate of fire and reliable 32-round magazine made it formidable against fanatical Japanese banzai charges. The Owen SMG was further modified to take two magazines, a feature that would become quite common by 1945.
Within the Australian Army, soldiers preferred nothing less than their Owen SMG. New Zealand’s infantry also used the weapon. General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area Command also contracted for 60,000 Owen SMGs, but the request could not be fulfilled due to a lack of raw materials and available machinery for such a large undertaking.
The Owen SMG was taken out of production in 1945; however, it remained in Australian service until the late 1960s and saw action in Korea, the Malayan Crisis, Vietnam, and the Rhodesian Bush War, where its ruggedness and durability were appreciated in harsh climates. Unfortunately, Evelyn Owen became an alcoholic and died on April 1, 1949, from cardiac arrest caused by a bleeding gastric ulcer. He tinkered with firearms until the end.
Jon Diamond is a frequent contributor to WWII History. His Stackpole Military Photo Series book, New Guinea, was released in June 2015, and a subsequent volume in this series, Guadalcanal, was released in January 2016.