Amateur turned Pro: The Amazing Owen Machine Carbine

One of the most remarkable weapons of World War II (and the two or three decades beyond) was the 9mm Owen Machine Carbine, an Australian weapon that bridged the gap between cottage industry and professional production rather neatly. Designed by an amateur, it remains to this day the first and most successful Australian-designed weapon to be standard in the Australian Forces. (The follow-on F1 was a modified British Patchett/Stirling, with the magazine placed as per Owen). It was also the only weapon to come from the factory in bands of green and yellow paint.

Owen SMG

The colorized picture below from New Britain shows two Owens in their native habitat: the artist who did the colorization missed the guns’ camouflage coats! The gun is simple, reliable, and almost ideal for jungle warfare: the lack of long-range targets eliminates the cartridge’s weakness at range, and the vertically-arrayed magazine, that you think would snag on everything, is actually much more easily maneuvered than a bottom-side magazine, let alone the left-side mag of the Sten or Lanchester.

wwii colourised owens

Owens were used as late as the Vietnam War, in which the Aussies were one of only two US allies that took combat missions (the other being South Korea).

“Machine Carbine” was the British term of art for any shoulder-fired, pistol-caliber weapon, what the Yanks called a “Submachine Gun.” (Many European languages use the equivalent of “machine pistol” and “machine rifle” for pistol- and rifle-caliber automatic weapons). But the Sten and Lanchester were both known by the then-standard term,”Machine Carbine.”

The designer of the Owen was one Evelyn Owen. In his early 20s, he designed an experimental .22LR submachine gun — and then put it away, and essentially forgot about it. It was a neighbor, Vincent Wardell, who was a manager for Lysaght Newcastle Works in Port Kembla, Australia who first figured out that Owen’s prewar .22 design had some potential for a military submachine gun.

owen-precursors

Owen Precursors, Prototypes and Trials Guns 1939-41. Australian War Museum, via Forgotten Weapons.

The story of the prototype evolution of the Owen is weird, wonderful, and well told already by Ian at Forgotten Weapons, but ultimately Wardell, his brother, Owen, and some other Lysaght workers overcame obstacles from the Army (they wanted prototypes in .32 ACP, .38/200 (.38 S&W), and .45 ACP as well as 9mm) and developed a simple and highly reliable submachine gun. In fact, it was more reliable than the weapon the British urged their Australian cousins to make, the Sten.

The secret to this reliability isn’t just simplicity — a Sten is just about as simple as an Owen is, really. But the vertical arrangement of the magazine provided two great benefits: the magazine didn’t have to fight gravity, and, with the ejection port on the bottom, gravity tended to clear the chamber area out of any malejected casing or debris. You would think that the bottom-facing ejection port would be inimical to reliability, but if it had any tendency to collect jungle goop, such a tendency was offset by the breech area’s self-cleaning nature.

The magazines were made of heavier-gauge steel than Sten or MP40 magazines, in part because the ejector is simply a raised part of the rear of the magazine. But this also helps reliability.  There were two distinct Marks (Mark I and Mark I*) and many small running changes during the gun’s production run of about 45,000.

By 1942, Australia was still waiting for a Sten data package, but the Owen was crushing the Sten in trials. About this time, someone decided that each one would be painted in a disruptive green and yellow camouflage, and the first gun off the line was squirreled away for the Australian War Memorial:

owen job one

Yes, that’s the paint job they came with. On the ones that didn’t go direct to a cushy museum, the paint gets scarred and scraped very easily (as you can see starting to show in places, even on this museum queen). Note that the grips are a hard, Bakelite-like plastic, and are not painted; the buttstock is made of wood, and it is painted.

Evelyn Owen did not have the long career of his submachine gun. Sources seem unanimous that, mustered out of Australian service at war’s end, he drank himself to death in 1949. The Owen would soon after that be called on to address human-wave attacks in Korea, where it acquitted itself well.

A uniquely Australian firearm, and a rare example of an amateur-designed weapon that outperformed its professionally-designed peers.

22 thoughts on “Amateur turned Pro: The Amazing Owen Machine Carbine

  1. Matt

    And, for those of us who read Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series, the inspiration for the name of the lead character.

    Still one of my favorite weapons of WWII. Wonder if a change to the Sten to feed from the top would have made it better?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Funny you should mention that. Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Correia and John Ringo (which I’d forgotten pre-ordering) came two days ago. It was ready for the Blogbro last night but his work exploded (in his job, explosions are fortunately metaphorical only, or maybe verbal on a real bad day) so maybe he’ll get it tonight if he can come for plane building.

      Owen Z. Pitt is not a character in Grunge, which is set in approximately 1982-99 or so. There are plenty of guns (.45 Uzis, 1911s and 700 BDLs) and mayhem. There’s another Memoirs volume coming out RSN because Ringo had two books written before he asked Larry, I think!

  2. 10x25mm

    Owens are uniquely left hander friendly. Only SMG I have ever shot which didn’t cause me a single problem. Brass goes down, cocking handle very handy, and the magazine & barrel catches properly placed. Offset sights work for a lefty because the buttstock is short and low. Nicely balanced, very little rise, great accuracy. Vertical down feed allows a lower force magazine spring which facilitates loading without a tool. Cleaning a breeze.

    Sorry to hear about Mr. Owen’s untimely demise. The world needs more lefty firearms designers.

  3. Alan Ward

    I always pictured a quirky little garage rat of a weapon when I read about them in the early seventies. Then I saw some pics of Aussie SAS from Nam that showed how right and how wrong my pre-teen musings had been.
    Amazing what a person can come up with in their spare time with some tool skills and a very inventive mind.
    Here’s to all the ghost gunner mill owners who will keep the tradition alive after QHRC wins in November.

  4. SPEMack

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who though of Owen Z Pitt along the Aussie Contingent in Vietnam.

    I joke with Pops that I really should be named Ithaca.

  5. Brad

    Ah, the Awesome Aussie Owen.

    Thinking about the Owen and various developments in SMG got my brain buzzing. I’m imagining a top feed AR upper in 5.7x28mm which used 30 round Five-Seven magazines and ejects down through the unused lower receiver mag well, preferably with a stubby 10 inch barrel. Or if that sounds too much like an AR-57, how about a top feed AR upper which uses Glock magazines in the appropriate calibers for those mags.

  6. John Campbell

    Reliability was helped by a couple of factors not mentioned so far:

    Magazine was double column, double feed not a double column single feed like the Sten. This also made the mag much easier to fill.

    The bolt had a spring guide rod at the rear which went though a hole at the back. The cocking handle fitted on this. Stripping involved – remove barrel (spring loaded pin in front of mag well) – release cocking handle – remove bolt from front of receiver. This increased costs and didn’t help accuracy but meant mud etc didn’t get behind the bolt.

  7. 6pounder

    Great article and a great story. Australia thought an invasion was imminent at that time. Was it Mr. Owen or someone else that modified the Enfield rifle and turned it into an automatic rifle? Ugly and crude but functional. I think it used a Bren magazine.

    1. James In Australia

      There was an NZ designed conversion that was made in Australia by (I Think) Electrolux a vacuum cleaner company. The was also a Canadian designed conversion.

      1. Hognose Post author

        James and 6, are you talking about the Charlton? I think Ian has some stuff about it at Forgotten Weapons.

        1. James In Australia

          Yes, it was the Charlton. There was also a Canadian conversion along the same lines developed independently.

  8. James In Australia

    The Owen Gun story is so convoluted and complex there is at least one book about it. What should have been seen as a gift was fought against at every turn.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Do you know the name of the book, James? I presume it was Australian.

      I’m not surprised that it was resisted. Every military organization trains to fight, but it never fights anything the way it fights a good idea (as opposed to a Good Idea® as provided by the Good Idea Fairy® which is quite another thing!)

      ETA: I suppose you mean Wayne Wardman’s The Owen Gun. Published in 1991, it’s out of print. Amazon, ABEBooks and Alibris all come up empty.

      Here’s an Owen bibliography that I’ll have in a follow up post this week:
      http://www.machinegunboards.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=12765

      1. James In Australia

        I have the Skennerton book and he touches on some of the problems encountered. I think he refers to another work for more detail, I’ll dig it out and check.
        I have somewhat vague memories of reading this -The Owen Gun Files: An Australian Wartime Controversy, by Kevin Smith, ISBN 0908031548 borrowed from the state library.

  9. LSWCHP

    You learn something new every day. I put thousands of rounds through the F1 SMG, and carried it up and down more hills than I care to remember. Due to the similar placement of the magazine I always assumed that it was an Owen derivative, but I’m happy to be educated a few decades too late.

    SMG’s may be in decline these days, but for sheer fun at the range there’s nothing to beat them. And for the sort of jungle fighting at arms distance that the Owen was designed for, their handiness and pointability is pretty hard to beat.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The F1 used some L1 parts and some Stirling ideas. ISTR that Australian testing found it almost as reliable as the Owen!

      It is a lot lighter, though. We had Owens in weapons school, but I don’t remember the F1. The Australians neither exported it nor lost quantities in combat. (Because of combat losses, Owens occasionally turn up in various places around the pacific, like in PNG).

    2. Brad

      I guess fighting at arms distance explains the bayonet mount on the F1!

      As (unfairly) obscure as the Owen SMG is, the F1 really drops off the map. The tiny number of people I have heard from with direct experience using the F1 seem to like it and had nothing bad to say about it.

  10. Red

    Fascinating stuff!
    What was the reasoning to paint this gun, and only this gun from factory?

  11. Sean

    One minor note sir, in that New Zealand also provided combat troops to assist in the Vietnam efforts, under the auspices of the ANZAC agreements.

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