Made In Australia: The Owen Submachine Gun

The Owen Gun

A vacation to Australia is something I would highly recommend; The people are nice, the beaches are beautiful, and fun seems to just ooze from the cracks between the sidewalks. Amidst all the glamor and excitement one may feel by hitting the bars and the white sandy shores that the country has to offer however is one of the mot spectacular War Memorials I have ever had the chance to visit. My Grandpa served in the Pacific during World War II, and whenever I visit a country that was involved in the conflict I try and learn as much as possible from the perspective of that country. Located in Canberra, the Australian capital city, my curiosity was not only satisfied, but I had the chance to learn about a gun I have always been fascinated with. That gun is none other than the famous Owen submachine gun.

owen

The Owen Gun was designed and produced wholly in Australia. Designed by Evelyn Owen, the gun was initially rejected in favor of the British Sten (as the bureaucrats were reluctant to believe that a private invention could be superior to a design favored by the Empire). Fate however intervened, as Owen’s neighbor was good friends with the Director-General of Munitions and presented him with Owen’s new design. Testing of the Owen occurred alongside the iconic Thompson and Sten SMGs. After harsh trials in multiple environments, the Owen was the only one still chugging along. The functionality of the Owen allowed it to serve the Australian Army until the 1960s when it was replaced by the Sterling inspired F1.

owenmags

At a glance the Owen looks extremely unconventional. Few guns have been designed to feed from the top, as it would seem to impede the sight plane. However the Owen solves this predicament by offsetting the sights a bit to the right of the magazine. The 9mm submachine gun is fed by a 28 round magazine and weighs in at 9 pounds 2 ounces. The gun was produced by Lysaght’s of Port Kembla and went on to serve in the jungle environments of the Pacific during World War II, on the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s, and saw limited use in Vietnam. All in all, about 50,000 of the guns were produced and the unit cost was kept low by the use of stamped components and affordable materials. This cutaway should provide an insight into the workings of the Owen:

owen cutaway

Unfortunately the curators of the Museum were not letting the public play with the Owens that day or take them out to the local range (I noticed a pistol club just a few klicks from the Museum by the way), but a few of them have in fact made it into the hands of the public. In the Australian Island State of Tasmania it was perfectly legal to own and use submachine guns like the Owen until gun laws were tightened in 1996 due to the Port Arthur Massacre. As for availability in the United States, I had to do some research.

owenuh1

My local NFA dealer Nick Tilotta, proprietor of The Western Firearms Company who has been in the business of buying and selling machine guns, suppressors, and whatever else your heart desires in the way of ordnance for 25 years said that in his tenure as an NFA enthusiast and dealer, he has seen only ONE transferable Owen Gun, which can be seen on his webpage as a sold item under Selective Fire Weapons. The gun was registered during the ’68 amnesty. I asked what he thought of the Owen as far as ergonomics and handling, and his response was that he simply never fired it (I assume due to the gun’s rarity and value). Nick sold his Owen back in 2005 for over $20,000 which is incredible, as that is even more than an MP5 will cost a buyer today! So take comfort in the fact that there is at least one person in the States who plays with a legal Owen gun every now and then. I for one am jealous, and pray that I run into that guy at the range.


Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog who was born and raised in Texas with years of experience in hunting, shooting competitions, and general collecting. A degree in History from Baylor University has contributed to his love of both early and modern firearms technology, but Alex is most fond of machine guns and other NFA toys. Alex also owns a firearm manufacturing business licensed to produce title I and II weapons.
You can reach Alex at [email protected].


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  • Luc

    The SAS were also fond of the Owen in their Jungle escapades.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.mew.3 Nicholas Mew

    Just becareful about Australia’s Secret Army. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy_TB6onHVE

  • Frosty_The_White_Man

    A semi-auto version with a welded flash-hider would be wonderful. Will it happen? Sadly never. Something about Commonwealth military aesthetics screams class.

  • noob

    The Owen. Leader arms. Metal storm. If only aussie firearms innovation got the market success it deserved

    • noob

      Sorry, I meant to cite the Leader Dynamics T2 carbine. Leader arms is a different company

  • gallan

    It was famed for it’s reliability under extreme conditions.
    But this super reliability seems overkill now.

  • Lance

    Awesome museum Steve which one was it again? It shows the limited use of FALs in Vietnam before deployed solders got M-16A1s from the US during the war. Shows aspect of Vietnam most Americans didn’t know. Good post.

    • Alex C.

      Hey Lance. I took all photos and gathered all information at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It is a spectacular museum and does a good job of both informing the public and paying respect for the men and women of the armed forces.

    • Marlon

      Just to clarify, CW, the FAL was the Australian Army’s primary rifle all the way through the Vietnam War. Forward scouts were often armed with the M16, but the rest of the section carried the what we called the ‘SLR’. (And the one poor bugger had to lug around the M60)

  • CW

    I remember an article in the late 80’s in an issue of “Firepower” that had a registered Owen put through it’s paces. I’ve also seen a couple of spare parts for sale, so there must have been more than one floating around the States at some point. Ugly as sin, but it got the job done!

  • jamezb

    SGN machine gun expert Peter Kokalis may own one, or if not, likely knows who does.

  • Someone Else

    The design and history of he gun really is remarkable. I had the chance to visit the Mitchell Library recently and read G. S. Wardell’s “The Development and Manufacture of the Owen Gun”, as well as Wayen Wardman’s “The Owen Gun”. After reading them, I’ve quite honestly amazed that the Owen survived at all. If they hadn’t managed to get the successive Ministers of Army on board, the Army would have buried the project, or at least developed a version with over 70 flaws. The .45 ACP versions even had to be modified to use the .455 SR ammunition initially provided by the army, and the .38 version was developed with access to only 8 (!) rounds. Despite two Ministers of Army from two different parties pushing for it to be adopted, the Sten gun blowing up twice in trials and Canada giving it rave reviews (which were buried by the Army because it would cause the public to loose faith in the weapons being used by the army), it took n exceedingly long time for the army to release enough equipment for production to begin.

    Just a couple of nitpicks, though: magazine capacity was 33 rounds, and the weight of the Mark I* Owen was 9.8 lbs (4.45 kg), while the Mk II was 8.1 lbs (3.69 kg) (Wardell, pg 20).

  • Gusto

    My old Battalion the 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment was famous for its fighting in Korea where it was awarded the US Presidential Citation which the Battalion still wears with pride today.Speaking to some veterans of the conflict they complained that the Owen gun had trouble with penetration as they’d shoot a Chinese who wore think padded jackets and “the b$%^*&d would just get up and keep coming at you”.
    I also read that during WW2 the Diggers who fought the Nazis in Nth Africa preferred the Tommy Gun and did not want to give them up for the Owen when returning to fight in the jungle.The blokes already fighting in the jungle loved the Owen.
    I’m pretty sure the Brit SAS used Owens in the 50’s fighting in Malaya.
    The M16 replaced the SMG concept for infantry units in Vietnam.
    The war museum in Canberra I found to be better than the one in London.You could spend all day there and want to go back the next.

  • WFM

    Good to see the Owen SMG on the blog.

    Next time you are in Oz get across to Lithgow Small Arms Factory museum, about 2 hrs west of Sydney NSW. http://www.lithgowsafmuseum.org.au/

    Out there you can at least pick up and play with an Owen SMG and have a look at many other Australian firearm designs.

    The Owen are traded every now and then in Australia from about $5-8K (if you have the correct licence)

  • jc

    Article about the Owen Gun from The Argus, 1941, via The Australian National Library:
    http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/8207802

    Owen joined the 2/17 Battalion at the start of World War II. Although he was transferred out of the battalion before it departed for the Middle East, the 2/17 along with other Australian and British units went on to repulse Rommel’s siege of Tobruk in 1941, giving German forces their first significant land defeat of the war. Corporal John Edmondson of the 2/17 also won Australia’s first Victoria Cross of the war in Tobruk.

  • milo

    help me out here, can you actually be able to aim down the sight or is this a hip fire gun

    • Someone Else

      You can do both. The sights are offset to the left and accuracy is pretty good for what it is, but it was also quite often fired from the hip.

      • milo

        much obliged for the information. gotta hand it to the aussies on this.

        • Someone Else

          No problem.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    The Owen was designed and manufactured specifically with the Australians’ experience in jungle warfare in the Pacific and South-East Asian theaters in mind. Every aspect of the weapon was tailored towards a practical application of a reliable SMG in close combat in tightly-confined environmental conditions, right down to the top-loading magazine, which reduced snagging from surrounding brush vis-a-vis a side-mounted magazine ( a la Sten ) while still enabling deployent in a very tight prone postion under cover without interference ( from a bottom-mounted magazine ).
    Since thickly-padded battle dress is never worn in tropical jungle warfare conditions for obvious reasons, the problem of sufficient penetration was not an issue. The problems associated with that same topic that arose in Korea was a case of an otherwise perfectly good weapon being used in a situation it was not really designed for, but it was what was available at the time and so it had to do.