The Teenager who Designed the Owen Gun

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Medal Room at Bodmin keep
Medal Room at Bodmin keep

The armoury & medal room at Bodmin Keep always make quite an impact when you first walk in. Hundreds of medals adorn the walls, all donated to the museum in memorandum of ordinary men who have done extraordinary things for the sake of their country. 

The room opens with eight Victoria Crosses, won by members of the regiment over the course of its history, and then moves into an extensive collection of firearms from the Enfield rifle to the Browning pistol.

There is one firearm in the room that always gets strange looks from visitors; mainly because it looks like something a child would draw when asked to draw a gun. It looks like it was assembled from the off cuts of pipe left by a plumber, and has been twisted so the magazine is on top and spray painted in yellow and green paint in the hasty attempt to camouflage it.  The Owen Gun is perhaps, one of the strangest guns ever made.

The Owen Gun 

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Top: The Owen Gun

The designer of the Owen Gun was Australian Evelyn Owen, he was only a teenager when he came up with the initial design in his family workshop at the side of his parents’ home in Wollongong, Australia. Since the age of eight years old Evelyn had been fixated on guns, making his own shotguns to fire stones at piles of rubbish. Despite his parents’ best efforts to persuade him into safer pursuits, his love for firearms was unshakeable. This pursuit came at the high cost; Evelyn would injure himself when a new type of bomb he was designing detonated early and lodged a small piece of shrapnel in his side and his experiment into a new type of rifle bolt ended in failure when he accidentally shot himself in his stomach!

In 1938 Evelyn went to the Victoria Barracks in Sydney and asked to talk with an ordinance officer about his sub-machine gun concept.

During the meeting Owen demonstrated that his gun could fire continuously without jamming or interrupting and under repeated tests. But despite this  the ordinance officer pointed out that calibre was too small for  the Australian Army, the prototype was difficult to reload and more importantly, in their mind, that no army would even consider the concept as it was a sub-machine gun, and so Owen left the meeting disappointed.

It’s important to bear in mind that weapons such as the Thompson Machine Gun were seen as unimportant at the time, when bolt action rifles were the main armament of the average soldier, they were proven in combat and there wasn’t an overwhelming concern that a solider would run out of ammunition very quickly when using one.

Furthermore, sub machine guns had a very big image problem at the time, as they were seen as weapons only used by gangsters as opposed to that of a soldier. This reputation was hard to deny, as firearms such as the Thompson and the BAR were the weapon of choice for gangsters of the American Probation era. This alongside an image that sub-machine guns were a regular mainstay of newspaper headlines relating to gangsters and always in the hands of bad guys in the movies.

Later in May 1940 Owen would go on to sign up to the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF), along with many young men during this time who felt the call of duty. And before he went off to serve he put the prototype in a sugar sack in the family workshop, hoping to one day return to his passion of creating new firearms after the end of the war.

The Prototype Discovered 

In September 1940 Evelyn’s next door neighbour, Vincent Wardell, had asked Evelyn’s parents if it was possible to borrow a tool from their workshop. As Wardell searched the workshop he accidentally knocked over a sugar sack that landed to the floor with a clatter. Understandably concerned that he had broken something he picked up the sack and peered inside and saw Owen’s prototype sub machine gun.

For Owen, luck had shined on him, as Vincent Wardell was a manager at Lysaght Works (a metal fabrication firm) and instantly saw the genius in this crude prototype. He could see the potential in the weapon and could also see how it could be mass produced cheaply, only requiring basic machining. Wardell asked Owen’s father if Evelyn could meet with him to discuss his sub-machine gun. Thankfully Owen was due to be deployed in a few short days and soon raced over to meet Wardell.

Impressing the importance of the weapon he had designed, Wardell finally convinced Evelyn to demonstrate the gun to the newly formed Army Central Inventions Board. The board commander, Captain Cecil Dyer was very impressed with Evelyn’s creation and reached an agreement with Lysaght to work on developing the gun straight away.

Again, luck was on Owen’s side, as at this point in time the Battle of France had been lost and there were growing doubts if Britain would be able to stop German forces if (or when) the invasion came. There was now an interest in having sub machine guns, their potential acknowledged on the battlefield, after seeing how the German Army had used the MP40 in the Battle of France. It was also apparent that Australia needed to start producing arms as Britain would need their help defending the Empire.

British Sten V’s a New Design…

However, as much as this looked like Evelyn was on the cusp of making his dreams a reality there was to be a sting in the tail. It was at this time that the Australian Army had adopted the British Sten Gun and didn’t really want to over complicate matters by having competing designs, and the British had told the Australians that the Sten Gun was a fantastic and a low-cost weapon that they could have the designs of and build their own.

Good idea in principle however, the British had neglected say that in practice the Sten Gun jammed easily, malfunctioned and was prone to manufacturing defects. More worryingly, the decision had been made without physically handling the weapon at all, the judgement was made in the blind belief that everything they were told was accurate.

In some ways the Army Central Inventions Board approved development to try and deter others from sending weapon designs, if potential new designs found it so difficult to meet army demands then others wouldn’t bother. This, alongside the fact that as far as the Army was concerned the Sten Gun was the only gun they were interested in, and if all went well, then it would be in their hands in early 1941, all they had to do was run the clock out.

They set Lysaght and Owen the task of producing a sample gun, to be chambered to .38 Smith and Western ammunition, but no ammunition or a barrel would be provided for factory use. The task made even harder as the ammunition type was something that had never been successfully pulled off in a sub machine gun design. Despite these hurdles being placed in their way, the team managed to produce a sample in time for testing, albeit in the .32 ACP ammunition, managing to salvage a barrel from a SMLE rifle and cutting it to size to finish the task.

Initial results were very promising for the Owen Gun, preforming very well in terms of how reliably it fired and how effective its firepower was. The Army then requested another sample to be built, this time to be tested by firing 10,000 rounds to test the endurance of weapon and to really stress test its reliability. As much as this was a sign that the Army was starting to seriously consider the Owen gun, this was just another attempt to stall progress until the arrival of the Sten Gun, mainly as the Army weren’t going to supply the ammunition or barrel for this test, so for Lysaght Works it was going to be near impossible to locate and acquire 10,000 rounds of .32 ACP ammunition in wartime Australia, so another design change was needed.

The logical step for Lysaght Works was to produce a new version in a ammunition size that was readily available, the army would assure them that going with the .45 ACP was a sensible choice as there would be an abundance of ammunition since it was used in the Thompson Sub Machine gun which was being issued to Australian troops. With this assurance in mind Lysaght Works placed an order for 10,000 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition.

A few days later the boxes of ammunition would arrive at the factory, however there was a very big problem, inside the boxes was .445 Webley ammunition. Faced with this new problem and against the clock to meet the deadline, the team re-engineered the gun to fit this ammunition by salvaging a barrel from an old Martini-Henry rifle.

I have yet to discover if this was a genuine mistake or if this was another attempt by the army to scuttle the project for good. I feel that the argument for the Army trying to stop development is somewhat plausible; they wanted one sub machine gun which meant that resources could be poured into the manufacture of the Sten Gun without worrying about producing other competing weaponry. Bare in mind, the Australian Army had yet to physically use the Sten Gun, yet its oversold reputation by the British had made it hard to resist.

Great Design

Again, at testing the Owen Gun preformed well and had passed with flying colours in the dust and mud tests. In these tests a weapon would be covered in either dust or mud and then retried and tested to see if it could still fire. The Owen Gun had two main features that allowed it to work even in these harsh conditions, firstly the top mounted magazine alongside the ejection port on the bottom of the receiver ensured that any dirt wouldn’t stay lodged there, it would simply fall through the bottom when cocked or fired. Secondly, was that the receiver had two chambers, designed to minimise the transfer of dirt into either compartment. For dirt to enter the bolt in the front chamber it would have to travel from the gap for the charging handle and through a small hole that connected to the recoil spring. This was the genius in Evelyn’s design, it was impossible for the gun to be stopped or jammed by dirt, making it ideal for combat in in the worst of environments.

During the whole process Wardell could see the Army’s efforts to scuttle the project and was becoming concerned with the fact Lysaght Works were funding development and production on the prototypes themselves. There was no funding from the military or government for the Owen Gun at this point but undeterred by the constant hurdles and hoops being placed in the war by the Army, Wardell started to approach politicians and the press.

For the press it was a perfect story to boost the morale of a nation now at war, the story of a local boy building a new gun to help Australian troops fit in well with a population feeling proud to be Australian. Factor in how young Evelyn was when he first developed the idea, and then it was impossible for people to not be instantly captivated by the story. Politicians who might have been on the fence about the Owen Gun were swayed by that of public opinion, and could see how effective the weapon really was. Now the government was closely watching the next stage of testing for the Owen Gun, as in late September 1941 the Sten Gun finally arrived in Australia.

The Tests

This was the test that could make or break any future development on the weapon, now the Owen Gun (in both its .32 ACP & .445 Webley calibre versions) was to compete against the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun and the Sten Gun. At this point the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun had proven its effectiveness, however it was rather heavy and had a large price tag, in 1941 it is reported that they were costing approximately £1500 per unit in today’s money!

The Sten Gun was a lot lighter, however it had functional issues; its reliability was questionable as it was a swiftly built weapon, and machining could vary from weapon to weapon. These issues could cause it to jam constantly or, more worryingly, could continue to fire even after the user had removed their finger from the trigger! 

In this showdown between the Thompson and the Sten, the Owen would go to lead the pack in four out of the five tests. In the mud and dirt test the Owen was peerless, every time it was retrieved from the grime it would fire reliably without being cleaned. At the far end of the scale every time the Sten was retrieved it required it to be disassembled and cleaned as the weapon would be so full of dirt that it couldn’t operate. At this point it was obvious to everyone that the Sten didn’t live up to its reported reputation and the Owen was the only sensible choice going forwards.

Yet again, the Army started to debate what calibre they wanted the weapon and leaving Lysaght Works in limbo. In my research I have yet to find an answer of why the Army, when faced with the overwhelming amount of evidence, would not fully commit to the Owen after this test. I can only assume that they had prepared for the Sten Gun being introduced into service so much so that it was a somewhat difficult task to stop the process. Just when it seemed that the Army was about to stall the project, the team had a welcome surprise.

The First Order is Placed 

The Australian Government was so enthused with the performance of the Owen Gun that they ordered a 100 unit run of guns in 9mm for a final round of testing before a full production order would be placed. The work of Wardell contacting politicians and the press had worked, and they had finally bypassed the bureaucracy of the Army, which had thrown nothing but hurdles in their way from conception. In 1942, now strong-armed by the Government, the Army would place an order for 45,000 Owen Guns.

Lysaght Works was awarded the production contract, only they would be producing the weapon, and as an added incentive the Government allowed them to make approximately 4% profit on each weapon produced. There would be a wait for payment which would come after the war had ended which was the standard practice for the time. The good news didn’t end there; the Government was so impressed with Evelyn Owen that they awarded him $10,000 Australian Dollars for his work and in lieu of royalties.

The Diggers Darling

The Owen Gun would go on to be received well by Australian troops in the jungle, soon earning the nickname “the Diggers Darling”. The weapon would also be used by the Australian Army from 1942 to the mid-1960s before being replaced by the F1 (a design that incorporated elements of the Sterling and Owen together) and the American M-16 in the early years of the Vietnam War. Amazingly American troops were also impressed with the reliability and the stability of the gun, some even going as far to ditch their Thompsons in favour of it. Reportedly General Douglas McArthur was so impressed with the weapon that he advocated the idea of purchasing 45,000 units for use by US forces in Vietnam.

The story makes for a perfect biographical film; a teenager invents a weapon to defend the nation and is reviled as a hero. Where I would love to say that this would have made a fantastic end to the tale, history is never as clear cut and my research shows that there is a final twist to the story.

After production of the Owen ended in 1945 Lysaght Works eagerly awaited their payment for fulfilling their contract from the Army. In almost typical fashion the Army delayed payment again and again. Lysaght Works was required to take huge loans out to keep the company going when waiting for payment. When the Army finally paid in 1947, two whole years after production had ended, it was tallied that after paying off loan repayments and the interest to keep the company going that effectively they had produced the weapons for near cost price. This was a devastating blow to the company that had sunk so much of their own time, money and resources on the project. However, despite this setback the organisation is still trading today, renamed to Lysaght.

A Sad End

During my research for this I really came to admire Evelyn Owen, a remarkable young man similar to my own age that chased an unlikely dream and succeeded, and I was desperate to find out what other great things he went on to accomplish or where his life would take him.

I discovered that after the end of the war he continued to design weapons, although sadly none of his designs would go any further that the confines of his drawing board. And then his career took a different turn when he bought a saw mill using his reward from the Government. However, this venture too seemed fated, as his saw mill business go bancrupt, which pushed Evelyn towards the drink, which lead to his untimely death on the 1st April 1949, aged only 33. A very sad end to what was an obviously inspired young man. 

 

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The Owen Gun on Display in the museum at Bodmin Keep

The Owen Gun on Display in the museum at Bodmin Keep

Amazingly our example on display is still in the original factory painted camouflage that it left the factory in during the height of the Second World War, making it such a rare sight to see a complete example in such a configuration as many were returned the factory after the war and painted in a traditional black.

Located at the very top of the sub-machine gun display in the armour there is something poetic about its placement above the Thompson and Sten. I think that this is a great tribute to Evelyn Owen, the teenager that designed one of the best sub-machine guns of the Second World War.

 

By Rob palmer. Apprentice at Bodmin Keep. 

 

 

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