Humble origins of an iconic Australian weapon

“Fight, work or perish” – that was the slogan you saw all over Australia during WW2. Australia did a lot more than just providing the Allied nations with fine fighting men; she equipped her own troops and those of Britain and the USA with a great variety of weapons, supplies, tanks, some planes, torpedo bombers, gun carriers, shells, range finders as well as ships and food and clothing.

The Owen Tommy Gun, known as the Owen machine carbine, was an Australian submachine gun invented and designed in 1938 by 27-year-old Evelyn Ernest (Evo) Owen, a mortar-mixer from Wollongong. The Owen was the only entirely Australian-designed and constructed service submachine gun of World War II – particularly effective under tough conditions – and was used by the Australian Army from 1942 until 1971.

Seemingly born with an innate understanding of all things mechanical, Evelyn or ‘Evo’ as his mates called him, had a complete grasp of the combustion engine by the age of eight. Apparently, despite considerable efforts of his worried parents to garner interest in less dangerous hobbies, a young Evelyn continued to be enthralled with all aspects of firearms and experimented with them recklessly; including making them and firing them.

From a young age, he would be found tinkering with old broken shotguns and rifles turning out new parts to replace the broken ones. When older, on one occasion he shot himself in the stomach while trying out a new kind of bolt in an old rifle.

It was in his teens that his interests turned to sub-machine guns and having taken time to learn metal and lathe work, he began making his own prototypes. The weapon that would eventually
bear his name, the Owen sub-machine gun, came into being in 1931, but he did not perfect it until 1938. While he worked on the prototype for his famous Owen Gun at Brewster’s Garage at Albion Park, where he turned parts for the gun on the garage lathe, Evo Owen lived in a hut at the foot of Macquarie Pass.

The prototype combined the stock and barrel from a .22 calibre civilian rifle with a 44-round revolver-style magazine fashioned from car parts and gramophone bits with a crude trigger – a thumb press atop the stock.

Owen’s working .22″ calibre model, adaptable to a larger bore for military use, was eventually brought to the attention of the Australian Army in early 1939 with a view to the Army developing his ideas of a new machine gun – it could be manufactured for £12 compared to £50 for the British Thompson Gun.

The gun evolved through a number of designs of differing calibres – .38″, .32″, .45″, each with its own problems, until comparative performance testing of the Owen in its 9mm calibre variant alongside its British Sten and US Thompson SMGs was conducted by the Australian Army. After harsh trials in multiple environments involving sand, mud and water and endurance testing, the Owen was the only weapon that remained serviceable as a purpose built jungle fighting arm, perfect for close quarters combat in the tropical environment while its rate of fire and reliable 32-round magazine made it a formidable weapon.

Owen SMG production during the war rose to around 50,000, primarily for jungle use, at a price of $30 per gun; Serving with distinction to the end of World War II, it was taken out of production in 1945.

Having received only about £10,000 in royalties and proceeds from the sale of his patent rights, Evo Owen got little recognition and a large portion of the money he made for his invention was taxed.

A heavy drinker, he started a small sawmill at Tongarra, near Wollongong, and lived there unmarried and alone until his death in 1949 just short of his 34th birthday.

The Owen continued to prove its worth and remained in Australian service for many years – soldiers in New Guinea preferred them to similar weapons, and Australians later used them in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War – with the Australian infantry often referring to it as the “Digger’s Darling.”


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One comment

  • Kenneth Ronald December 10, 2022   Reply →

    Still is a Great Gun and should be still in service when compared to what they have today. Simple and it has to be blown up to stop it working.

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