The Owen Gun

By John Vogel

There is an urge deep within every young man, from even their earliest days that I believe is natural … to build unregistered machine guns in their garage.

Evelyn Owen was born in New South Wales, Australia in 1915. Coming from a working class family, he failed to make any real progress in school, didn’t go to college, and found himself working as a mortar mixer with his brother. But Evelyn had a passion for two things: guns and booze. For 5 years, he worked on a design for a submachine gun that looked kooky as hell but functioned like a dream.

The design looked like something from a 1950’s alien movie, but honored the upside down nature of Australia. It had a normal pistol grip, trigger group, butt stock, foregrip and barrel. All pretty standard. The key to the design was the gun fed from a stick magazine that was inserted in the top of the receiver, not the bottom. The result was a highly functional and reliable feeding system that looked goofy as hell. Magazines will always be the weak point of any repeater, but since gravity exists, even in Australia, the design would allow rounds to feed, regardless of the magazine’s quality. The iron sights were offset to allow for straight down feeding.

In 1938, at the age of 23, Owen went to ordnance officers with the Australian army and showed them a prototype that was chambered for .22 lr Not only did they believe the design to be as attractive as a Lizzo afterparty, they were expecting the first round of Thompsons and Stens to be delivered. Further thwarting Owen’s attempt at selling his design was a belief within the army that submachine guns were limited in function, and rifles were the superior weapon.

Rejected, Owen enlisted with the Australian Army and deployed to the Middle East.

By 1941, the British empire had seen and experienced first-hand the effectiveness of submachine guns in combat, primarily the Nazi-used MP40. Within cities and during close combat, the submachine gun could be used with deadly precision. Additionally, these guns used pistol caliber ammunition, making production and distribution of ammunition much easier. The British also found both the Sten and the Thompson went through catastrophic failures when gunked up with sand or mud, which so happened to be present in most combat theaters.

Looking for a solution, Australian Army officers went to Lysaght Manufacturing, a metal fabrication company, and asked for ideas. It just so happened that before he shipped out, Owens had shown his prototype to a manager there. A letter was sent to Owen asking him where the prototype was, only to find out it was still hanging on the wall of his garage at his parents’ house.

Evelyn Owen was discharged immediately and sent back home to oversee production of the Owen gun, chambered in 9mm.

The goofy looking submachine gun was a hit. Nicknamed “Diggers Darling” by users, it was issued to troops fighting throughout the Pacific and soon found its place as a highly reliable and deadly weapon, capable of surviving whatever the jungle threw at it to the point where even Americans were drooling over it—including Gen. Douglas Macarthur. Overall, it saw 30 years of use, through Korea and Vietnam.

Evelyn Owen sold the patent to the Australian government for 10,000 pounds and used that money to buy enough liquor to kill a herd of water buffalo—or one Evelyn Owen. He died at the age of 33 of a ruptured gastric ulcer, the result of consuming insane amounts of booze.

Honor the man by buying a drill press, a mill, some welding equipment and head out to the garage. Just don’t drink too much.

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