Biography

Birth date: 15 May 1915
Birth place: Australia: New South Wales, Wollongong
Death date: 01 April 1949
Death place: Australia: New South Wales, Wollongong
Final rank: Lieutenant
Service number: NX22028 - Second World War, 1939-1945

Inventor of the Owen sub-machine gun, Evelyn Owen was born on 15 May 1915 in Wollongong, New South Wales. Despite the considerable efforts of his parents to steer him towards less dangerous pursuits, the young Owen was obsessed with guns; with making them, modifying them and firing them. At the age of eight he began his experiments by building his own shotguns from which he would fire stones at rubbish heaps.

Over the ensuing years Owen pursued his hobby with great passion. At one stage he transferred his interest to bomb making, once being wounded in the stomach by shrapnel from one of his explosives. On another occasion he shot himself in the stomach while trying out a new kind of bolt in an old rifle. He then turned his interest to sub-machine guns, making each of the prototypes himself, having learned metal and lathe work in the workshop of a family friend.

The weapon that would eventually bear his name, the Owen sub-machine gun, had its genesis in 1931, but he did not perfect it until 1938. Repeated testing proved that little could jam or interrupt the gun's rate of fire, making it superior to the Thompson gun. But the following year when he attempted to interest the military, Owen was rebuffed, being told that neither the Australian or British armies had any need for such a weapon.

Owen enlisted in the AIF in May 1940 but, just before embarking for the Middle East with his unit, he managed to interest the manager of the Port Kembla plant of Lysaght's Newcastle Works, Vincent A. Wardell, in the gun. Wardell spoke to Sir Percy Spender, Minister for the Army, who had Owen transferred to the Central Inventions Board.

In June of 1941 Owen was discharged from the AIF and began work at Lysaght who manufactured his gun. In September 1941 Owen's gun was ready for testing against similar weapons; the Thompson, the Sten and the German Burgman. In the first test the Owen proved more accurate and able to group its shots better. Having then been variously immersed in water, mud and sand, the Owen proved itself almost impossible to jam while the other weapons faltered and eventually became unworkable. Those present at the test agreed that the Owen was the simplest, cheapest and toughest of sub-machine guns.

By late 1942 the Owen was being used in jungle fighting against the Japanese in New Guinea. More than 45,000 Owen guns were produced during the Second World War and they continued in use during the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and in the early years of the Vietnam War. Owen received £10,000 in royalties and from the sale of patent rights, and used the money to establish a sawmill near Wollongong, where he lived alone. A heavy drinker, Owen was admitted to Wollongong hospital where he died from a ruptured gastric ulcer on 1 April 1949 at the age of 33.

Rolls and Awards

Collection Items

Photograph

012281

1942-05-18. EVELYN OWEN (RIGHT) 27-YEAR-OLD INVENTOR OF THE OWEN GUN, DISCUSSES FEATURE OF HIS INVENTION WITH MR D. WEST, A SIGHT SETTER AND GUN TESTER WHO RETURNED TO AUSTRALIA AFTER BEING WOUNDED IN TOBRUK. WEST NOW WORKS AT A PLANT (Lysaght's) WHICH MASS PRODUCED THE OWEN GUN. (NEGATIVE BY C....

012281

067341

NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA. PRIVATE EVELYN ERNEST OWEN, 2/17TH INFANTRY BATTALION, OF WOLLONGONG, NEW SOUTH WALES, INVENTOR OF THE OWEN SUB MACHINE GUN, HOLDING THE FIRST EXPERIMENTAL MODEL, DEVELOPED IN 1939-06. THIS WEAPON WAS OF .22 CALIBRE, AND EXCEPT FOR A FEW MACHINED PARTS, COULD BE...

067341

Film

1. US nurses latest arrivals in Australia 2. Owen Gun in mass production 3. Flying chief tells of raid on Philippines 4. The call of Anzac 1942. (Fox Movietone News Vol. 13 No. 20)

Extracts from Fox Movietone News Vol. 13 No. 20 1. (1 min 23 sec) Nurses inspected by US army officers - at the zoo 2. (1 min 58 sec) Owen Gun in mass production in Australian small arms factory, range testing, Owen and Mr Spender 3. (1 min 22 sec) Brigadier-General Ralph Royce who led the B-17...

F00343

1. Australian engineers help build military railway 2. Owen Gun passes test 3. Thanksgiving Day (Fox Movietone News Vol. 13 No. 51)

1. (1 min 44 sec) AIF, British and South African Troops construct Syrian link in strategic Middle East railroad 2. (1 min 57 sec) Owen Gun is demonstrated by the inventor 3. (43 sec) Thanksgiving day is celebrated by United States servicemen in Australia.

F00373

Heraldry

Ashtray with Owen Gun Lysaghts badge

Brass ashtray in nickle plate finish with an enamelled brass badge in the centre, showing an Owen gun over a white globe, with the words 'OWEN GUN' over 'LYSAGHTS' on a red background.

REL42096

Technology

Prototype Owen Sub-machine Gun

Owen Sub-machine Gun .22 Prototype. This weapon has been home made from mainly .22 (short) calibre rifle parts but has a 'wheel' drum magazine operated by a coil spring, that takes 44 cartridges and has a trigger made from a piece of spring steel above the stock wrist.

RELAWM30622.001

Timeline

Date of birth 1915-05-15 Wollongong, NSW.
Other 1931 Began work on what was to be become the Owen sub-machine gun.
Other 1938 Perfected his design of the Owen sub-machine gun. The gun proved to be superior to the favoured Thompson gun as its fire was rarely jammed or interupted.
Other 1940 Worked at Lysaghts Works, where the Owen gun was developed.
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1940-05-25 Enlisted in the 2/17th Infantry Battalion of the AIF. The Manager of the Port Kembla Plant of Lysaghts Newcastle Works came across Owen's developments and helped have Owen transferred to the Army Central Inventions Board to work on the gun.
Date of discharge 1941-06-25 Discharged from the AIF as he was required for employment in a reserved occupation. Owen then began working at Lysaghts who were to manufacture his gun.
Other 1941-09-19 The Owen Gun was ready for testing against similar weapons
Other 1942 Went into production of Owen sub-machine guns for use in the Second World War. The Owen Gun proved to be ideal for jungle fighting in New Guinea, but proved to be less useful in the longer range fighting of the Korean War.
Date of death 1949-04-01 Wollongong, NSW.