Who was the man behind the Owen Gun? Pte Evelyn Owen – I Was Only Doing My Job: Australia's Military History
25-MAY-1940. While only serving in the 2/17th Infantry Battalion Second Australian Imperial Force for a little over a month, Pte Evelyn Ernest Owen would contribute to the Australian War effort in the Second World War by inventing one of the weirdest, but most reliable machine carbines built during the Second World War, a weapon that would serve as part of the arsenal of the Australian Army for over twenty years, it would sadly outlive its creator, but cement itself in the pantheon of Australian small arms.
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Evelyn Ernest Owen was born 15 May 1915 in Wollongong New South Wales, he was the fourth of five children born to Ernest William Owen and Constance E MacMillian. While he was educated in Wollongong, he didn’t appear to have much interest in scholarly pursuits, or a desire to follow his family’s traditional vocations, with his father being a law clerk, and having close family members in both careers in politics and the military. He was however, like most boys fascinated with all things mechanical, and in particular, firearms.
From a young age, he was regularly found tinkering with broken shotguns or rifles, often his experiments were reckless, and he was injured several times, especially when he dabbled into making homemade explosives, resulting in him having numerous scars.
Not to be deterred, as Owen grew older, he started to focus more on the theory associated with weapon-smithing and became well versed in the study of ballistics and taught himself draughtsmanship so that he could draw blueprints. In his teens, probably inspired by the Thompson Submachine Gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle, both weapons designed and built for the First World War, but were too late to see active use, but gained notoriety as weapons made famous by gangsters and moonshiners in the 1920’s. He moved on from single shot weapons and focused his attention on machine guns. Even at this young age he was able to build a number of his designs, but none where up to his own standards. While his family was reportedly very supportive of Owen’s tinkering, they on occasion did attempt to steer his passions to other pursuits.
In 1931, Owen started the design and construction of what would become the Owen submachine gun, He was looking for a weapon that had a high rate of fire, was simple to make, did not jam and was accurate. It would take him until 1938 to finally have a weapon that he was confident to present to the Australian Army for evaluation. In July 1939, Owen travelled to Victoria Barracks in Sydney and demonstrated it to Australian Army Ordinance Officers, who promptly rejected it. The main reasons given were that the Australian Army saw no value in submachine guns, and its basic construction was unsuited for military applications. In fact, when he was asked by the assessing officer what he had, Owen replied with “It’s a Tommy Gun” with the officer snaping back. “That is an American gangsters’ gun; the army has no use for those.”
Sadly, the Australian Army had atrophied in the interwar period, primarily due to a chronic lack of funding, inadequate training, and poor equipment. It would seem that a lot of the innovation and practices that had been developed in the Great War had either been ignored or forgotten, and while they acknowledged the threat of war with Japan was a possibility, at the time Australia’s defence policy was dominated by the already defunct Singapore Strategy, where the defence of Australia would be fought away from Australia’s shore.
It should be noted that prior to the establishment of the Australian Regular Army in September 1947, the defence of Australia fell primarily to part time citizen soldiers organised into the Citizens Military Force, or Militia, and a small professional cadre of staff officers and technical trades, and the effects of the Great Depression and a the overriding war weariness following the Great War saw a steady retrenchment of the Permanent Forces, as well a reduction in the quotas of militiamen were required to be trained. It became so bad that in 1929, the Australian Government suspended the Universal Training Clauses of the 1903 Defence Act, which was what instituted the National Service for all eligible men from 12 to 29, this act left Australia grossly underdefended in the unlikely event of enemy attack.
With the rejection of the Owen Gun, Evelyn Owen, who was working as a motor mechanic, packed his invention in grease and put it into a sugar bag, leaving it in the garage owned by one of his father’s tenants and on 28 May 1940 followed in his brothers David, Julian and Peter and enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force. He was posted to the 2/17th Infantry Battalion on 8 June 1940.
It would be at this time that serendipity would present itself, as the tenant who rented the property from his father, would be Vincent A Wardell, the General Manager of Lysaght’s Port Kembla, an iron, and steel plant. Wardell would find the Owen Gun, still submerged in grease, and was amazed that the action still functioned. After determining the inventor from a thoroughly embarrassed Ernest Owen, Wardell sent a telegram to the General Director of Munitions, stating that he had discovered a marvellous firearm that was simple in construction and worth taking a look at.
So, what changed?
Aside from the obvious commencement of the Second World War, it needs to be said that at this point, Australia was still very heavily dependent on Britain when it came to weapons production and development, and while in the 1930’s Australia did start a modernisation campaign, most of the Second Australian Imperial Force was being deployed with rifles and equipment that was used by their fathers and uncles in the First World War. So, following the evacuation of Dunkirk in May-June 1940, with so much war materiel left on the beaches of France meant that a lot of the military equipment destined for Australia and the Dominions had been reallocated to the defence of the Home Islands, which necessitated the Australian government to seek out alternatives. And it was the effectiveness of the German built MP40 forced the British Empire and Australia to revaluate their stance on the concept of the machine carbine.
On 25 June 1941 just as Evelyn Owen was preparing to go to North Africa with the 2/17th Battalion, he received orders that immediately transferred him to the Central Inventions Board in Melbourne, much to his annoyance, as he had wanted to serve alongside his brothers. He would be formally discharged five days later, as being required for employment in a reserved occupation, and received a promotion to Lieutenant.
In September 1941, after a number of revisions to the Owen Gun design, including a number of versions with differing gun calibres, it was finally ready for field testing, and it was put against the American Thompson Submachine gun, the British Sten gun and the German MP18. In those stress tests, the Owen gun was reportedly more accurate, with a better grouping of shots than the other weapons. It also proved itself almost impossible to jam even when immersed in water, mud, or sand.
Even with some initial criticisms, it was eventually decided that a 9mm version of the Owen Gun would enter into production.
John Lysaght’s was awarded the contract to produce 100 initial units, and eventually produced 45,477 Owen Guns for the Australian Army. It was considered extremely popular while in the jungles of New Guinea and the Pacific, to the point where it gained the nickname the “Digger’s Darling”. New Zealand troops participating in the Guadalcanal and Solomon Island campaigns reportedly swapped their Thompsons for Owen guns. So popular was it that it is rumoured that General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all Allied Forces in the South Pacific, considered requisitioning it for American forces in the Pacific.
Owen didn’t initially bother applying for a patent for his invention in 1942, but he did receive £10,000 in royalties before selling the rights to the weapon to the Australian Government. With the money he received from the government, he purchased a small sawmill in Tongarra, on the outskirts of Wollongong, and he would continue to tinker with firearms but never achieved the same success he did with the Owen Gun. Sadly, he would never marry, and April 1, 1949, Evelyn Ernest Owen would pass away at the age of 34 at the Wollongong District Hospital, though the manner of his death is disputed, with sources stating either a ruptured gastric ulcer or heart failure was responsible. He would be buried in a local cemetery.
His legacy would not end with his passing, as the Owen Gun would continue to serve the Australian Army as a standard personal defence weapon (PDW), especially favoured by helicopter search and rescue crews, and was still used by Section leaders and junior officers in the Korean War, in addition it was used by infantry scouts and commando units in the Vietnam War, though by that point, it had started to show its age, and it was retired from mainline service in 1971, though it had already been rotated out by the mid-60’s.
Sadly, Evelyn Owen would receive little recognition for his invention, one that anecdotally saved countless Australian lives, and while his direct military service may have been short, his contribution to the war effort cannot be understated, he definitely did more than just his job, and for that we are eternally grateful.