Owen Gun: Down Under’s Upside Down SMG

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Owen Gun: Down Under’s Upside Down SMG

February 21st, 2023

6 minute read

Things are just different in Australia. Many of their mammals are unique to the continent and sport weird pouches they use to raise their young. Additionally, their snakes seem all to be just super deadly. And then there’s the platypus. What’s that all about?

australian soldiers armed with own guns
Pvt Leon Ravet of Parramatta, NSW (left), and Pvt Bernard Kentwell of Cronulla, NSW, on the alert with their Owen submachine guns on New Britain on April 4, 1945. Image: Australian War Memorial

Apparently, all that intrinsic “Down Under” strangeness extends to their small arms as well. Back during WWII when gun designers were crafting such conventional weapons as the German MP-40, America’s M-3 Grease Gun, the Russian PPSh, and the British Sten, an Aussie named Evelyn Owen crafted an upside-down SMG that ultimately took his name. The Australian Owen was unique among the pantheon of wartime SMGs, as it fed 9mm rounds from the top — among other quirky features.

Origin Story

Evelyn Ernest Owen was born in 1915 in Wollongong, New South Wales. He finished high school, but did not otherwise much take to formal education. He did, however, have certain natural mechanical proclivities. By 1938 he had developed a submachine gun design that fired .22 LR. He approached the ordnance officers at Victoria Barracks in Sidney, but they showed little interest. The Australian Army at the time was operating on the British model and had scant use for submachine guns. Their combat tactics orbited around massed rifle fire and heavy machineguns.

disassembled owen gun
The Owen gun was modular and fit together with bayonet catches. A damaged section could quickly be replaced, returning the gun to immediate service. Image: Australian War Memorial

Disappointed, the young Mr. Owen enlisted in the Australian Army. Just before he was to deploy to the Middle East, Owen met Vincent Wardell, the plant manager for a manufacturing concern in Port Kembla called Lysaght’s. Though they had no experience building weapons, Wardell discussed the project with Essington Lewis, the owner of the company. Intrigued, Lewis used his influence to have Owen temporarily exempted from his military service and seconded to the plant for development of the weapon.

australian woman builds an owen smg
A woman employed by the Munitions Supply Laboratories fits a pistol grip to an Owen submachine gun, c. 1944. Image: Australian War Memorial

Owen adapted his rimfire design to fire .32 ACP and then .45 ACP before settling on the 9mm. By 1941 with war clouds looming on the horizon, the Australians were warming to the idea of SMGs. However, they were already in the pipeline to receive British Stens. Percy Spender, the Minister for the Australian Army, nonetheless ordered 100 copies of the Owen as a speculative venture.

soldier demonstrating aimed fire from owen gun
The Owen Gun was designed to be fired from either the shoulder or the hip. This Australian soldier demonstrates the former. Image: Australian War Memorial

By the summer of 1941, Owen was formally released from his military obligation so he could work on his gun full-time. The weapon was field-tested alongside the American Thompson, the British Sten and the German Bergmann. In water, mud and sand tests, the Owen was found to be the most reliable of the lot. As a result, that first order was increased from 100 copies to 2,000. Australian industry tooled up to mass produce the weapon soon thereafter.

malayans train with owen smg
A Malayan receives instruction in the Owen submachine gun from WOR Daryl Howells, right, while Australian cadets watch. Image: Cliff Bottomley/National Archives of Australia


The Owen was a conventional submachine gun quite unconventionally executed. As Evelyn Owen had little formal schooling and no experience designing weapons, he approached the project without preconceptions. This fresh unspoiled take resulted in a shockingly reliable design.

australian soldier on new guinea armed with owen smg
Pvt R. F. Gaudry is in a forward observation post on New Guinea during April 1945. He is armed with an Owen submachine gun. Image: Australian War Memorial

The most radical aspect of the Owen’s design was that it fed from the top. The gun’s detachable box magazine carried 33 rounds of 9mm ammunition. This unusual orientation allowed for gravity to assist in feeding rounds into the weapon. It also facilitated easier firing from the prone. As a result of the top-mounted magazine, the gun’s sights were offset to the left for access by right-handed shooters. Left-handed people were just screwed, but we should be used to that by now.

The Owen fired from the open bolt by means of a fixed firing pin milled into the bolt face. The drawn tubular steel receiver incorporated a smaller internal tube that helped keep crud away from the bolt and improved reliability. Oddly, the ejector was built into the magazine rather than the weapon itself. This facilitated easy removal of the barrel for disassembly or maintenance. The simple wire buttstock was removable but did not fold or collapse.

Practical Tactical

The Owen gun developed a well-deserved reputation for reliability that made it popular with Allied troops operating in the fetid jungles of the South Pacific. The Aussies affectionately referred to the gun as the “Digger’s Darling,” with “digger” being a slang term for soldiers in Australia. New Zealand troops fighting in Guadalcanal and the Solomons binned their Thompsons in favor of Owens for their improved reliability. General Douglas MacArthur was so impressed with the weapon that he investigated the possibility of sourcing the gun for use by American troops in theater.

vdc members armed with owen smg
Volunteer Defence Corps, a military organization similar to the British Home Guard, marches in Melbourne. They are armed with rifles and the Owen SMG. Image: National Archives of Australia

The Owen gun required a unique manual of arms, and it was heavy at 9.33 lbs. empty. With a fully-charged 33-round magazine, the gun tipped the scales at a whopping 10.7 pounds. However, this impressive weight combined with the weapon’s 700 rpm rate of fire and modest 9mm chambering made it exceptionally controllable. For the sorts of desperate close range engagements that defined the Pacific theater, the Owen gun was superb.

The Rest of the Story

By war’s end, the Australians had produced some 45,000 Owen guns. The price at the time ranged from $24 to $30 apiece. That would be about $516 today. Production of the Owen wrapped up in 1944.

australian soldier with owen smg in the korean war
Pvt Frank Cooper of the Australian Army prepares to move into “no man’s land” to do battle with the Chinese Communists in Korea on May 17, 1953. Image: Australian War Memorial

The Owen remained in service with Australian troops through both the Korea and Vietnam Wars. The weapon was not retired until 1971 when it was supplanted by the Australian F-1 SMG, a subsequent more advanced top-feed 9mm design.

australian soldier in korea with owen gun
Cpl Frank Rowlings, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, is armed with an Owen gun at a forward listening post near Pakchon, North Korea on November 7, 1950. Image: Australian War Memorial

The Owen gun design was patented in 1943, and Evelyn Owen received a small royalty for each gun produced. He eventually sold the patent rights for the weapon to the Australian government. All totaled he made about £10,000 off of the Owen gun design.

australian troops in vietnam armed with owen smgs
Near Vung Tau, Vietnam, Australian troops move through an overgrown banana plantation on the first day of Operation Hardihood. The soldier on the right is carrying a 9mm Owen submachine gun. Image: Australian War Memorial

Evelyn Owen took the money he made from his eponymous subgun and opened a sawmill near his hometown of Wollogong. With the war over he continued experimenting with firearms, most commonly sporting rifles. However, there was not a happy ending to be found here.

australian soldiers with owen guns in korean war
Weary soldiers of the Royal Australian Regiment drink pineapple juice after returning from a night-time combat patrol in Korea during August 1952. All are armed with Owen guns. Image: Australian War Memorial

Evelyn Owen liked to drink and is said to have done so in excess. He eventually developed a gastric ulcer that hemorrhaged in April of 1949. Owen subsequently bled out and died at the young age of 33. The gun he designed, however, would be his legacy, helping save his nation from tyranny.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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