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.
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.
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, 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:
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.