• Owen and Austen - The WW 2 ‘Aussie’ Machine Carbine Story

    The following article is published with the kind permission of member, Graeme "broadarrow303" Barber. On behalf of MILSURPS.COM members, we'd like to publicly thank him for his support of this forum, as well the broader Lee Enfield collector community in general.

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    Owen and Austen - The WW 2 ‘Aussie’ Machine Carbine Story
    by Graeme "broadarrow303" Barber

    The Owen and Austen (Author)

    (Click PIC to Enlarge)

    The story began in September 1940 and involved two neighbours who had never met. The first a young Australian inventor Evelyn Owen from Wollongong had been working on a .22 small automatic gun for nine years. He had even shown it to a Colonel at the Victorian Barracks in Sydney to be told that the army had no use for sub-machine guns and if they ever did it would be on British advice and be British made. Although he had little engineering experience and no technical qualifications, Owen was fascinated by firearms and experimented with them recklessly. Home from final leave before posting overseas Owen had been at the beach firing some final bursts out to sea. As he approached his home, carrying the gun in a cloth bag, his mates suggested he join them for a drink at the local ‘drinking hole’. He agreed and in his haste left the bag leaning up against a retaining wall separating his father’s house from a neighbouring block of flats.

    His neighbour Vincent Wardell, Manager of Lysaght’s Works at Port Kembla, when returning home from work that same day noticed a hessian bag leaning against the retaining wall in front of his flat and was taken aback by the barrel of a gun protruding from it.

    Neither of these men could ever had predicted that this chance event was the beginning of the WW2 ‘Aussie’ machine carbine story and that they would get embroiled in a power and control struggle between senior Army officers and their political masters.

    Luckily for Evelyn his Neighbour Vincent Wardell quickly recovered from the shock of finding a gun outside his flat, chose to find the owner, accepted his explanation and apology and more importantly expressed genuine interest in his invention.

    In Vincent Wardell’s words

    “When I came home from Lysaght’s works late one afternoon in September 1940, Evelyn Owen’s .22 calibre wheel gun was in a sugar (hessian) bag by a low garden wall at the garage of my flat.

    My flat was next door to the Owen house. I knew Mr. Ernest Owen but had not met his family or heard of his son ‘Evo’.

    I took the gun into my flat intending to hand it in to the police station. Seeing Mr. Owen outside I asked him in for a drink and showed him the weapon. He rather ‘exploded’ about his son’s carelessness and told me something of the background.

    ‘Evo’ was on final leave as a private in the 2nd AIF. Actually he had taken the gun to the beach for a final burst of shots out to sea. Friends in a passing car suggested a visit to the bar of the Oxford Hotel. So Evelyn concealed the gun in its bag and just left it against the wall in his usual cheerful and casual manner.

    At my request, Own later explained his ideas to me. He then endeavoured to extract a promise, which I did not concede, that I would take no action which would prevent his going overseas with his brothers in the same battalion.

    As it was a case that clearly needed urgent study I referred it to Mr. Essington Lewis, Director-General of munitions”.
    Within a matter of days Mr. Lewis had arranged for Owen to transfer to the newly created tri-service ‘Central Inventions Board’ in Melbourne so that work on the gun could progress. Owen demonstrated his .22 gun to Colonel Meredith Director of Artillery at Williamstown on September 24 and then presented it to the Central Inventions Board of the Department of Defence Coordination on November 14, 1940.

    The Secretary of this Board Captain Dyer, aware the Australian Army had acknowledged the need for submachine guns, especially in the tropics, immediately saw the military potential of Owen’s blow back actioned gun. Dyer arranged for drawings of a gun incorporating Owens mechanism. Following consideration by the Inventions Board and the Principal Ordinance Engineer the decision was made not to produce a working model due to the time and costs involved. However, the persistent Captain Dwyer then sought permission to have Lysaght’s produce a test gun in a military calibre but this was also refused because Army Regulations required all testing to be undertaken by Ordnance.

    If you are starting to gain the impression that the Army was road blocking the development of a home grown Sub Machine Gun then you are correct - so read on.

    What happened next is a real break from military driven tradition. Lysaght’s accepted Captain Dyer’s private request to produce a test gun in .38 S&W as this ammunition was currently on issue to service revolvers. When the army was unable to supply the ammunition and .38 inch barrel Lysaght’s produced in 3 weeks during January 1941 a .32 Owen gun. As the army was unable to supply a .32 calibre barrel Lysaght’s improvised by using part of an old .303 SMLE barrel.

    Owen and Wardell returned to the Inventions Board with their .32 calibre gun and the opinion that the Owen’s main features were, “ease of manufacture, simplicity, rapidity of dismantling, no sliding features operating under heavy load and reliability”.

    Lysaght’s original intention was to design a prototype but a change of heart was influenced by the Army’s continual disruption and obstruction and their realisation that full-scale production of this simple yet effective design was going to be relatively cheap.

    The army’s response was again obstructive with a request that they witness a shoot of 10,000 rounds accompanied soon there after with a claim they were unable to supply any .32 ammunition.

    However, Lysaght’s by now had worked out the Army’s obstructive strategy so had decided in March 1941 to build an Owen gun in .45 ACP, the calibre currently in use in the American Thompson 1928A1 submachine gun. The Aussie version of Kiwi ingenuity, probably something gained from ANZAC connections, came to the fore as the barrel from an old Martini Henry gifted by the Sydney Commissioner of Police and a few rounds of .45 ACP from the Victorian Police combined to produce a successful test fired gun. The Army assured Lysaght’s that they would supply heaps of .45 ammunition but when it arrived it was .455 calibre suitable only for the Webley Revolver. So the persistent Lysaght’s despite more obstruction used the remainder of the Martini Henry barrel to produce a new barrel in .455 Webley.

    At the end of March Wardell wrote to Mr. Lewis to update him regarding progress and included the following insightful comment.

    “This work has given me a fairly grim idea of what is involved in trying to arrange industrial work to suit the Army’s requirements. I am certain that in the ordinary course of events everything we are trying to do could have been completed long before this if the Army had not been involved”.

    It is interesting that it took till the end of March 1940 for the then Minister for the Army Percy Spender to hear about the Owen gun and not from the Army, as one would expect. Having read a Wardell produced written history on the Owen he invited Wardell and Owen to Canberra on April 1 to show him the .32 and .45 prototypes. Spender was “exceedingly interested’’ and promised the earliest decision possible from the Army regarding production. He also invited Wardell and Owen to attend a War cabinet meeting on April 9.

    The War Cabinet was informed that this type of gun was urgently needed and had its production been energetically pursued by the Army in September 1940 the gun would have been made, tested, already in mass production and in the hands of troops. Wardell was confident that if a decision were taken immediately mass production would be achieved within two months.

    However, no .45ACP ammunition was forth coming despite rumours the army had ammunition it was using for training troops in the use of the very expensive Thompson sub machine gun. Captain Dyer got him self into trouble with his senior Officer Major General Milford by suggesting Wardell and Owen produce a gun in 9mm as this was the same calibre as the British Sten. Instead the senior officers insisted that any test guns be produced in the rimmed .38 S&W revolver ammunition and be involved in at least twelve months testing.

    It was around this time that the real reason for the Army’s obstruction was becoming clearer. The Australian Army was expecting the imminent arrival of the British Sten submachine gun, which they claimed had had over one year of testing. The Army also knew as expressed by Major General Milford that a submachine gun would not work firing rimmed cartridges so they gave Lysaght’s an order for one hundred guns in .38 S&W with the proviso they were experimental and did not constitute any ongoing commitment.

    Lysaght’s reaction to the production order was to set up the Owen Gun Annex and produce a .38 gun using a barrel (ironically from a 9mm luger) and 8 test rounds supplied by the Inventions Board. Fitted with a curved magazine, so that the rimmed cartridges did not foul, the gun functioned perfectly.

    With the first supply of Australian manufactured .38 ammo (756 rounds) arriving at the end of July 1941 testing using full magazines proved, what the army already knew, that the .38 cartridge was underpowered for submachine gun use. For example, in a medium cross wind the rounds exiting the muzzle at a low 590 feet per second were being blown off target at 100 yards by 4 feet.

    Lysaght’s now had Owen guns in .32, .38 and .45 all waiting for full supply of ammunition to facilitate testing. On September 4, 1941 the Footscray velocity trials were under taken using Owen guns in the three calibres. It was here that Vincent’s brother Gerard Wardell saw the Sten gun, an Mk 1, for the first time. He was unimpressed with the gun design based on the German Bergmann but was impressed with the calibre.

    Mk1 Sten as used in the Long Bay and Randwick Trials. (Author)

    (Click PIC to Enlarge)

    Compared to the muzzle velocities of the 3 Owen guns (.32 - 920 feet/sec, .38 – 590 feet/sec, .45 – 940 feet/sec) the 9mm Sten had a muzzle velocity of 1300 feet/sec. The Wardell brothers recognised immediately that any ‘Aussie’ machine carbine needed to be produced in either 9mm or .45ACP.

    Vincent Wardell referred back to Mr. Lewis stating,

    “Almost to the day it is twelve months since your prompt action caused Owen to be transferred from the Infantry at Bathurst to the Inventions Board at Melbourne, and it is two years since the war began. The Army’s answer to the submachine gun problem has been to produce a shoddy reproduction of the German Bergmann, as used by the German Army twenty three years ago, and to delay in everyway possible the production of an Owen gun for suitable ammunition”.

    Lewis passed this information on to Army Minister Spender who gave approval on September 7 for the commencement of Owen guns in 9mm. On September 8 Major Howe, the Military Secretary for Army Minister Spender wrote advising, “that there appears to be marked hostility, verging on deliberate obstruction, in Melbourne in respect to all matters concerned with the Owen gun”.

    In order to settle the matter once and for all and to stop the Army from insisting on protracted and delaying tests Howe and Wardell requested that Spender attend the proposed trials to be held at Long Bay on September 29, 1941.

    As it was also becoming evident that Australia would need many more submachine guns than first thought (an increase from 10000 to 100000) pressure was being put on the Ordnance Production Directorate by the Army to produce a Sten in Australia. Die Casters in Melbourne, claiming they could produce guns cheaply using die casting, were given approval on September 18, 1941 to experiment on the production of an Australian Version of the Sten. Major General Milford was convinced the Owen gun would fail and that the locally made Sten would cause a cessation of orders for the expensive Thompson.

    In time for trials Lysaght’s had remarkably designed and produced 3 working 9mm Owen guns. The guns to be tested were the 9mm Sten MK 1, .45 Thompson 1928A1, and the Owen gun in .45 and 9mm. The tests included accuracy (select fire and automatic combined with magazine changes), handiness at opportunity targets and mechanical functioning under battle conditions. These tests involved pouring sand over the guns while firing, immersing the guns in water before firing and then immersing in mud before firing.

    Long Bay Trials-Owen gun covered in mud. Owen and Mr. Spender behind. (Wardman, 1991)

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    The Thompson worked very well in clean conditions but jammed during the first magazine when exposed to a little sand or dirt. The Sten was a poor performer even in good conditions and failed completely during the first magazine in dirty conditions. A premature explosion blew the extractor off and propelled it sideways out of the ejection port hitting with considerable force one of the observers.

    Major General Milford while impressed that the Owen, “continued to function satisfactorily when subjected to severe conditions of sand, water and mud”, and suggesting it had, “distinct possibilities as a suitable and efficient weapon”, wrote to Mr. Spender suggesting that prolonged firing trials involving many thousand rounds precede any thought of production.

    Long Bay Trials-Sand being poured over fully functioning Owen gun. Major General Milford standing at right. (Wardman, 1991)

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    Mr. Spender responded stating he, “was highly impressed with the Owen gun and certainly thought it a much more effective weapon than the Sten”. He also insisted that Owen and a Lysaght’s representative be present at any further Army test and that some Owen guns be sent for troop trials.

    Major Howe who was also present at the Long Bay Trial reported that the Owen gun passed all tests showing amazing reliability. He also stated that the Owen gun is probably better than any other infantry machine gun in use by any army worldwide. He recommended its suitability for use in, “ desert fighting, street fighting, beach defence or under conditions of mud and wet”.

    He went on to claim that the Sten gun was unsuitable for use where even a small amount of sand or mud would be encountered. Due to this and the need for reliable guns he recommended, “the Sten’s complete rejection for use by Australian Forces”.

    As for the Thompson, Howe acknowledged it as a “fine piece of mechanism but quite useless on active service”. He reckoned the Thompson to be less reliable than the Sten.

    Thompson 1928 A1 as used in the Trials. (Author)

    (Click PIC to Enlarge)

    A film of the trial was made by ‘Movietone News’ entitled Australian Inventor Creates New Miracle Gun. It showed the Owen gun being fired having been dunked in a drum of water. The next footage with associated narration depicts ‘the stiffest test any machine gun can face’. Onlookers, including Mr. Spender and Major General Milford look on in amazement as the Owen gun continues to fire while sand is poured over it and after it has been immersed in mud. Interestingly the Thompson and Sten are not shown undertaking these tests but are shown firing in ‘clean’ conditions. As Owen dismantles the gun the narrator declares ‘what a vindication of Mr. Spender’s confidence in this brilliant young Australian inventor’.

    The day after the Long Bay Trials the Owen, Sten and Thompson guns moved on to a six-day endurance test involving the continuous firing of 2,700 rounds. The Sten, which the Army described as a proved and reliable gun, broke down three times due to premature cartridge explosions which badly damaged the gun rendering it un-operational after 824 rounds. Prior to this the Sten had also experienced 15 faulty feeds and 12 faulty ejections. The Thompson worked well during the tests.

    The endurance testing loosened some of the Owen gun screws and incorrect magazine spring pressures caused some stoppages. It needs to be noted here that the Owen guns had not previously been significantly test fired due to the Army’s reluctance to supply ammunition. The cocking handle positioned on top, to make the gun easy to use for left or right hander’s, kept striking the firers helmet rim so it was recommended to move the cocking handle to the right side in the future.

    ‘Movietone News’ made a second film entitled Owen Gun passes World’s Most Searching Test. It shows Owen vigorously pushing the gun deep into mud one side at a time then the gun firing perfectly. He than replaces the magazine, simulating battle conditions, and the gun fires again perfectly. The narrator comments ‘almost unbelievable isn’t it and every soldier who has seen the Owen wants one’. Owen is also shown holding a target and saying ‘you can see for yourself the guns are all right but we made them for killing Japs. I’m quite sure the AIF will be satisfied with them’.

    Following this trial Mr. Spender placed on October 3, 1941 an order with the Department of Munitions for 2000 Owen guns. In his letter to the new Army Minister Mr. Forde, he stated, “ there has been too much procrastination in the past…on the part of the Army Authorities”. However, the Army’s Department of Munitions’ continued to thwart production, expected to be 500 per week, by ranking the supply of much needed machine tools as a low priority, placing them in storage instead of delivering them to Lysaght’s.

    The Daily Telegraph ran a piece under the title ‘Owen Gun Holdup To End’ on November 1941 criticising the Army’s obstructionism. The editorial in the same issue went further, “Kick them right out of their solid wooden heads and their well thumbed textbooks of English practice with them…if that will put men with initiative in their places and if it will break once and for all the fine old belief of our local brand of blimp, that the Australian Army must be modelled and equipped by second-hand textbooks about wars a quarter of a century ago”.

    Other publications also criticised the military obstruction and questioned why the Owen gun was not already in the hands of ‘our boys’ serving overseas.

    Owen Mk I s/n 2107 nicknamed the “Digger’s Darling”. (Author)

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    For the 1941 trials the 9mm guns had been using Winchester ammunition produced in America. After the trials the army moved to make its own 9mm ammunition based on English data but it took until October 1942 for the first supplies produced at the Footscray plant in Melbourne to be supplied. By this time over 10000 Owen guns were in service. Footscray were joined in producing 9mm ammo by the Hendon plant in South Australia in 1943 with wartime production running at 8 million rounds a year. Lysaght’s completed comparative tests on the ammunition and found the Winchester to feed better and be much more accurate. Using seventeen guns firing 400 rounds at 100 yards from a clamped ‘rest’ the Winchester gave an average group of 7.2 by 6.3 inches. The ‘Aussie’ rounds gave an average group of 19 by 18.5 inches. Understandably, Lysaght’s were unimpressed with the accuracy of the ‘Aussie’ ammunition and the Army were equally unimpressed that Lysaght’s had undertaken such thorough testing.

    Packet of 9mm service ammunition produced at Footscray in 1944. (Author)

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    Ammunition accuracy testing at Lysaght's 1942. (The Australian War Museum)

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    In February 1942 Carmichael’s, a stove manufacturing company in Sydney, offered to produce Austens as well as Die Casters provided they receive an order of more than 5000. Both company’s guaranteed that no machine tools, gauges, dies or fixtures were needed and that they could have the first guns in production within 2 months. The Austen’s reputation was based by the Army on production rates and not on efficiency and reliability. While the Owen guns design and production had met much obstruction by the Army the Austen’s production journey was fast tracked with no delay in orders, call for re-design, questions over calibre and difficulty obtaining tools.

    Austen Mk I s/n 270. (Author)

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    The design of the reliable Owen with its front loading bolt and return spring on a round piston that slid backwards and forwards in a channel/guide effectively sealed the chamber, bolt and spring area from water, sand and mud. Any mud that did get in was captured in areas machined on both ends of the bolt or blown out via the bottom ejection port. The Owen also had no sliding surfaces under heavy load. The entire rearward thrust of the fired cartridge was on an axial plane with out the need for sliding or rotating surfaces. The cocking handle was located in the rear section of the gun body and fitted on to the back of the piston. The cocking handle travelling back and forward in a slot on the gun body kept the floating bolt in the correct plane. Any mud that entered this rear section could not move forward into the chamber and bolt area. The top loading magazine and bottom port effectively utilised gravity negating the need for a heavy magazine spring and an easy to loose loading tool. The rear face of the magazine acted as an ejector making it easy to replace by swapping magazines.

    Owen Mk I field stripped showing front loading bolt, load bearing piston and return spring. (Author)

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    By comparison the Sten and Austen with their rear loading bolts were both built on an open gun body that allowed any sand, water and mud to surround the bolt, return spring and enter the chamber. Both guns used magazine loading tools due to the stronger spring tension needed to feed the cartridges on the horizontal plane.

    Magazine loading tools. (Author)
    Austin loading tool (left) ..... Sten Mk 1 loading too (right)

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    Austen Mk I field stripped showing rear loading separate bolt, return spring and firing pin assembly. (Author)

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    On March 10 Major General Milford claimed that the Austen was a production dream compared to the Owen and that both were now on an equal footing to be produced at 500 per week. With this comment he attempted again to shift the focus away from design and reliability to production speed and costs.

    In Melbourne in June 1942 the 9mm Austen gun was tested and compared to the Thompson, Sten (this time the Mk II replaced the Mk I used in previous tests), a captured German MP40 and the 9mm Owen gun.

    Mk II Sten as used in the Trial. (Author)

    (Click PIC to Enlarge)

    The Owen gun, as expected, performed well. The Thompson, Sten, MP40 and the Austen all failed to fire the first magazine and the Austen suffered several mechanical problems including broken springs. Major General Milford in his report understated the Owen and overstated the Austen test results.

    But, what did the troops in New Guinea think of both guns? The following are extracts from a report written by Major Hall.

    Austen gun working parts exposed.
    Austen will not fire as well as the Owen after immersion in mud.
    The need for a magazine loader with the Austen is a disadvantage.
    The Austen’s barrel needs a flash hider/compensator like the Owen.
    The Austen’s butt is too long.
    The Owens top loading magazine and catch design allows for faster magazine change and more reliable feeding.
    The Owen is better balanced than the Austin.
    The Owen has less parts and is easier to field strip.
    The Owen is more accurate than the Austin at 100 yards.
    More vibration is noted with the Austen than the Owen.

    Veterans of the Australian 39th Battalion when spoken to recently amplified these findings. Most credited their survival to the Owen gun. They liked the two handgrips and vertical easy to change magazine that created an ‘agreeable’ centre of gravity. Put simply by the veterans the Owen gun was easy to hold and shoot in all conditions. This gun, nicknamed the “Digger’s Darling”, gave those who possessed them much confidence and an advantage over others. Sergeant ‘John’ who preferred to remain anonymous and now 90 plus, described an ambush at Huggins Roadblock near Gona in the North. He recalls ‘bushes’ (camouflaged Japanese soldiers) slowly moving towards him. When they got to within 20 yards he emptied his wet and muddy Owen in to them without any misfiring. In his words he ‘liquefied six Japs’. On many other occasions his Owen worked without fault having been submersed for long periods in water and or mud. His parting comment was, “I wouldn’t be sitting here enjoying a ‘cuppa’ if it wasn’t for the Owen gun”.

    Australian soldier with an Owen near Huggins Roadblock in Gona. (The Australian War Museum)

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    In April 1944 General Blamey, who has also been identified as the leading officer obstructing the progress of the Owen in preference for the Sten, finally went on record as identifying, “…that both the Austen and Owen should be regarded as acceptable for use by the army”.

    It appears he was conceding that the Owen had to be produced while also ensuring the Austen project continued. He also identified that cost and manpower should be the driving consideration in deciding which gun to order. The army up until this point in time had been significantly understating the true costs of producing the Austen.

    It wasn’t until later in 1944 that more reliable production records showed that the Army’s claim that the Owen cost twice as much and involved twice as many man-hours to produce were found to be incorrect. In fact, the comparative figures were as published by Wardman (1991):

    According to Wardman (1991) 3000 Owen Mk 1’s were in July 1942 sent to New Guinea after the main Kokoda Track theatre (where the Thompson was used) in time for the Northern battles. Owen gun #2107 pictured in this article would have been in that group.

    In all 45,479 Owen guns (total varies from source to source) were manufactured with 4 marks of barrel and 4 marks of butt. The body also had lightening cuts to the trigger section in the Mk 2 version. From approximately the end of 1942 the Owen guns were camouflage spray painted prior to leaving the factory.

    From 1948 though to 1955 34,662 Owen guns were ‘Factory Through Repaired’ at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory. They were fitted with Mk 2 barrels, wooden butts, a bayonet bar and a safety catch and redesignated Mk 2/3.

    While there are no available records regarding what happened to the Owen guns when they were replaced by the F1 (and the introduction of the M16) half way through the Vietnam War there are lots of rumours and a few facts. In 1950, 2000 were sold to Malaya and during renovations at Lysaght’s in the late 1950’s 38 were found ‘hiding’ in a wall. Some were given to museums, some reputably dumped at sea in the late 1960’s and some melted down at BHP in 1976.

    The Austen was produced in 2 marks with the Mk 2 not going in to formal production and only the Mk 1 seeing service. Most were camouflage spray painted prior to leaving the factory. Austen gun #270 (manufactured by Die Casters) pictured in this article was one of 300 sent to New Guinea probably for troop trials. In 1944 Lieutenant General Northcote issued an order that the forces in New Guinea be only issued the Owen gun. The Austen guns were all returned to Australia and issued to defence troops. After WW2 the Austen was all but forgotten, as it saw no further service. All the Army’s 19000 Austen guns in stores, except those in museums were unceremoniously melted down enmasse at BHP in the late 1960’s. Some would say a fitting end to gun that was only produced because of its British lineage and the Aussie Army Generals belief that it was modelled on a tried and tested design. This irrational thinking only served to delay and limit the production of the Owen, a gun that passed all tests and that troops could rely on.

    Austen gun being demonstrated during Australian based training. (The Australian War Museum)

    (Click PIC to Enlarge)

    So how did the Owen and Austen guns in this article end up in civilian hands and eventually in New Zealand? Both guns were in Papua New Guinea and both were ‘lost’ along with many other weapons during the war. What we do know is that natives nicknamed ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ assisted and escorted injured soldiers down the Kokoda Track. You were probably expecting to see it named the Kokoda Trail but all veterans spoken to were adamant ‘we’re not American’ so it must be called a track and not a trail. During this time the natives would have had access to much military hardware. An Australian dealer who lived in Papua New Guinea from the 1960’s bought picked up weapons and other wartime hardware from natives for cash that often got spent on ‘booze’. Over the years this dealer ‘leaked’ many weapons back to Tasmania as and when he could. As a competitive shooter he also attended events in NZ and from time to time catching up with a Christchurch based arms dealer and gunsmith/collector. In 1983 after several elections and much political upheaval the New Guinea Government advised this dealer that he had 28 days to dispose of any remaining weapons in his possession - 3 Austen’s, 1 Owen, 2 M1928A1 Thompsons with drum magazines, 1 Lithgow manufactured Bren Gun cased with all accessories, 1 M3 Grease Gun and 1 MP40 - or face their confiscation for destruction with out compensation. A ‘gun nut’ allowing guns to be destroyed- unlikely so he contacted the said New Zealand gunsmith/collector offering them to him for free if he paid the shipping costs and asked how long it would take for him to get an import permit. The answer was 2-3 weeks. So when the permit arrived the Christchurch dealer made contact and the permit was faxed. The guns had already been dispatched and arrived in NZ the very next day. The collector paid the $170 freight costs and happily added the items to his collection-what a great deal.

    Like me you are probably wondering how a MP 40 ended up in Papua New Guinea. When the Japanese started their expansion through SE Asia, the Philippines and on into Papua New Guinea, the Australian 6th Division was urgently recalled from the Western Desert. At Ceylon a portion (about 20%) of the Division was split off and sent directly to Port Moresby while the remainder went back to Australia to re-equip. As this MP40 was the first year of manufacture and had not had the cocking handle modification that the Germans were very thorough in doing, it can only be assumed that it was a souvenir in the kitbag of one of the soldiers that went directly to PNG.

    Evelyn Owen with his hands full of Mk I guns. (Wardman 1991)

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    Evelyn Owen, born in May 15 1915, a truly brilliant inventor was poorly rewarded for his revolutionary submachine gun design that saved many Australian lives. During the early production of the Owen no formal royalties were arranged. However in January 1942 a contract was signed that gave Owen 5 shillings per gun. In 1943 the Army wanted to enter a lump sum, with a free patent right, arrangement as this would give them the right to make their own gun. Owen earned a total of 11,250 pound in royalties minus tax of 6,800 pound plus a patent sale of 2000 pound over which they exchanged many letters negotiating the final position. He finally received 6,450 pound in 1945. Disenchanted he withdrew from the world to a log cabin south of Wollongong and set up a saw mill for his brothers to work at post war. Owen was accused of operating an illicit still, which was never found, but he was fined 12 pound for possessing a bottle of home brew and a further 12 pounds for possessing a submachine gun. Owen a poor and broken man died on April 1,1949 aged 33 years from cardiac arrest caused by a bleeding gastric ulcer - likely a bi-product of serious drinking.

    In an open and with out prejudice process the Austen would never have been produced and the Owen would have received full military, political and production attention. And, if only the Owen gun had been produced in .45 (the caliber available) in early 1941 Wardman has established that Australia would have saved 2,092,034 pound because the 23,000 Thompson guns purchased cost 56 pound compared to the Owen at 10 pound per unit. Following the introduction and local production of the superior 9mm round the Owen in this caliber would probably have become a later and improved model.

    Hindsight is however a wonderful thing. Regardless, this story as described provides an interesting insight into the WW II ‘Aussie’ Machine Carbine.


    Australian War Memorial. Selected photos.
    Skennerton, I.D,. (1989). 100 Years of Australian Machine Guns. Private publication. Margate, Australia.
    The Good Guts, No 172, August 2011. Official Magazine of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion (1941-43), Association Incorporated.
    Wardman, W., (1991). The Owen Gun. Private publication. A.C.T., Australia.

    Owen and Austen - The WW 2 ‘Aussie’ Machine Carbine Story

    (16 picture virtual tour)

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