Owen Gun

The Owen Gun, which was known officially as the Owen Machine Carbine, was an Australian submachine gun designed by Evelyn Owen in 1939. The Owen was the only entirely Australian-designed and constructed service submachine gun of World War II and was used by the Australian Army from 1943 until the mid-1960s.

Owen Gun
The final design of the Owen machine carbine.
TypeSubmachine gun
Place of originAustralia
Service history
In service1942–1960s
Used bySee Users
Production history
DesignerLieutenant Evelyn Owen[1]
ManufacturerLysaght’s Works[1]
No. built45,000[1]
Mass4.23 kg (9.33 lb) without magazine[1]
4.86 kg (10.7 lb) loaded[1]
Length813 mm (32.0 in)[1]
Barrel length250 mm (9.84 in)[1]

Cartridge9×19mm Parabellum
Actionblowback, open bolt
Rate of fire700 rounds/min[1]
Muzzle velocity366 m/s (1,200 ft/s)[1]
Effective firing range123 metres (135 yd)
Maximum firing range200 metres (220 yd)[1]
Feed system33-round detachable magazine
SightsIron sights


Owen, an inventor from Wollongong, was 24 years old in July 1939 when he demonstrated his prototype .22 calibre "Machine Carbine" to Australian Army ordnance officers at Victoria Barracks in Sydney. The gun was rejected for two reasons. The first was because the Australian army, at the time, did not recognise the value of submachine guns. The second was the basic construction of the prototype was completely unsuited as a military weapon, especially as it lacked a proper trigger or any safety device, was of small calibre, and the "magazine" was effectively a giant revolver cylinder which could not be exchanged to reload. Following the outbreak of war, Owen joined the Australian Army as a private.

In September 1940, Owen's neighbour, Vincent Wardell, discovered Owen's prototype in a sugar bag. Wardell was manager of a large steel products factory at Port Kembla. He showed it to Owen's father who was distressed at his son’s carelessness, but explained the history of the weapon. Wardell was impressed by the simplicity of Owen's design. Wardell arranged to have Owen transferred to the Army Inventions Board, to re-commence work on the gun. The army continued to view the weapon in a negative light, but the government took an increasingly favourable view.

The prototype was equipped with a "magazine" consisting of a steel ring, drilled with holes for .22 cartridges, that was revolved through the action using the power of a gramophone spring. This arrangement later gave way to a top-mounted box magazine, which allowed shooting while prone.

The choice of calibre took some time to be settled. As large quantities of Colt .45 ACP cartridges were available; it was decided to adopt the Owen Gun for it. Official trials were organised, and the John Lysaght factory made three versions in 9×19mm, .38-200 and .45 ACP. Sten and Thompson submachine guns were used as benchmarks. As part of the testing, all of the guns were immersed in mud and covered with sand to simulate the harshest environments in which they would be used. The Owen was the only gun that still operated after the treatment. Although the test showed the Owen's capability, the army could not decide on a calibre, and it was only after intervention from the higher levels of government that the army ordered the 9×19mm variant.

During the gun's life, its reliability earned it the nickname "Digger's Darling" by Australian troops,[2] and it was rumoured to be highly favoured by US troops. General Douglas MacArthur proposed placing an order for some 45,000.

Production and use

The Owen went into production at the John Lysaght factories at Port Kembla and Newcastle. Between March 1942 and February 1943, Lysaght's produced 28,000 Owen Guns. However, the initial batch of ammunition turned out to be the wrong type and 10,000 guns could not be supplied with ammunition. Once again the government overrode military bureaucracy, and took the ammunition through the final production stages and into the hands of Australian troops, at that time fighting Japanese forces in New Guinea. Approximately 45,000 Owens were produced from 1942 to 1944.[3] During the war, the average cost to manufacture the Owen submachine gun was $30.[4]

Although it was somewhat bulky, the Owen became very popular with soldiers because of its reliability. New Zealanders fighting in the Guadacanal and Solomon Islands campaigns swapped their Thompson submachine guns for Owens, as they found the Australian weapons to be more reliable.[5]

The Owen was later used by Australian troops in the Korean and Vietnam Wars,[6] particularly the scouts in infantry sections. It remained a standard weapon of the Australian Army until the mid-1960s, when it was replaced by the F1 submachine gun and, later, the M16.[2]


The Owen has a simple blowback design, firing from an open bolt. It was designed to be fired either from the shoulder or the hip. It is easily recognisable, owing to its unconventional appearance, including the top-mounted magazine, and the side-mounted sight required to allow the firer to aim past it. The placement of the magazine allows gravity to assist the magazine spring in pushing cartridges down to the breech, which improves feeding reliability. Another unusual feature is the separate compartment inside the receiver, which isolates the small-diameter bolt from its retracting handle by means of a small bulkhead. This prevents dirt and mud from jamming the bolt, and makes the Owen a highly reliable weapon. Foreign dirt entering the gun would collect at the back of the receiver, where it would drain out or be expelled through a small opening. When tested, the Owen gun was able to continue firing despite being dipped in mud and drenched with sand, while a Sten gun and a Thompson also tested stopped functioning at once.[7] In jungle warfare, where both mud and sand were frequent problems, the Owen gun was highly regarded by the soldiers.[8]

To facilitate cleaning, the ejector was built into the magazine, rather than the body of the gun. This allowed the barrel to be removed rapidly, by pulling up a spring-loaded plunger in front of the magazine housing. After removing the barrel, the bolt and return spring are removed in a forward direction, completely dismantling the gun. Like the Sten, the Owen had a non-folding wire buttstock, but also had pistol grips like the Austen.[9]

Two horseshoe magazines were constructed in the field, of 60 and 72 rounds. Little information exists as to the success of these experiments.[10]

In 2004, an underground weapons factory was seized in Melbourne, Australia, yielding, among other things, a number of silenced copies of the Owen submachine gun. These had magazines inserted underneath rather than overhead, and were suspected of having been built for sale to local gangs involved in the illegal drug trade.[11]



  1. Archer, Dennis (1977). Jane's Infantry Weapons 1977. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-354-00549-4.
  2. "The 'Digger's Darling'". Queensland Government. Retrieved 9 September 2018.
  3. Bardwell, James O. (1995). "The Owen Gun". Machine Guns News (4).
  4. "Submachine Gun Becomes Pistol by Detaching Butt." Popular Mechanics, November 1945, p. 75.
  5. Larsen, Colin R. (1946). "Chapter XII — Guadalcanal". Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A History of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas. Wellington: Reed Publishing. pp. 93–103.
  6. "Kokoda Track Tours – Home". Kokoda Historical. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  7. "Owen Machine Carbine vs MP 40 and Sten submachine Gun (1943)" on YouTube
  8. Barber, Graeme. "Owen and Austen – The WW 2 'Aussie' Machine Carbine Story". Mainland Arms. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf6XALbTnik
  10. "History of the Owen Machine Carbine (OMC)". diggerhistory.info. Archived from the original on 13 March 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  11. Brendan Nicholson, Daniel Ziffer (23 July 2004). "Submachine-guns found in weapons factory". The Age. Melbourne.
  12. McNab, Chris (2002). 20th Century Military Uniforms (2nd ed.). Kent: Grange Books. ISBN 978-1-84013-476-6.
  13. "Australia's adversaries: Relations with Indonesia during the confrontation". anzacportal.dva.gov.au. Department of Veterans' Affairs. Archived from the original on 4 August 2017.
  14. Scarlata, Paul (20 April 2009). "Small Arms of the Koninlijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger, Part 2". Shotgun News.
  15. "Owen submachine gun". collections.tepapa.govt.nz. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
  16. Small Arms (Museum exhibit), Saxonwold, Johannesburg: South African National Museum of Military History, 2012
  17. "The Malyan Emergency 1948-1960". iwm.org.uk.

Further reading

  • The Owen gun, 1991, Wayne Wardman ISBN 978-0731603657
  • The Owen gun files: An Australian wartime controversy, 1994, Kevin Smith ISBN 978-0908031542
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