The unconventional Owen stood up well to the hard conditions of jungle fighting.
Army ordnance officers at the Victoria Barracks in Sydney politely showed 24-year-old inventor Evelyn Owen the door in July 1939 when he came calling with the .22-caliber “machine carbine” he’d put together himself. The Australian army didn’t foresee any need for a small caliber automatic weapon at the time— especially one that was homemade. After war broke out, Owen promptly enlisted as an army private. But he eventually found himself transferred to the Army Inventions Board, where he continued tinkering with his gun design. The Owen, reconceived to use 9mm Parabellum-type rounds, went into production in 1941 and was the primary submachine gun used by the Australian army during World War II. Capable of both semi- and fully automatic fire, the Owen was lighter than the American Thompson submachine gun and easier to fire from the prone position because of its unique top-mounted magazine.
The Owen sported a tubular receiver with a separate bolt compartment that was isolated from the retracting handle by a small bulkhead through which the small diameter bolt entered. This prevented dirt from jamming the bolt, and added to the reliability of the gun during jungle fighting in the Pacific War. The 33-round box magazine jutted from the top of the receiver at a slightly forward raking angle, with an ejector in the magazine rather than the bolt compartment. The Owen’s barrel could be removed by pulling up on a spring-loaded plunger just ahead of the magazine housing, making it childishly simple to fieldstrip for cleaning or minor repairs. Sturdy and popular with the troops down under, the Owen remained the submachine gun of choice for the Australian army until the early 1960s and saw frontline service in Korea, the Malayan Emergency and Vietnam.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.