Inventions in the Rainforest – The Owen Gun

Owen gun
The Owen Gun – photo courtesy of Dee Kramer

My recent trip to my friend Dee Kramer’s house, which sits on roughly 80 acres of rainforest hinterland in the Macquarie Pass National Park, brought with it a few surprises. As apart from the hurricane of cicadas I walked into, I discovered the place was once the home of Evelyn Owen, inventor of the Owen Machine Carbine or ‘the Owen Gun’ – arguably the most famous gun in Australian wartime history.

Roughly 60 years earlier, in the very spot where I had just loafed in the spa with a glass of scotch, a young Evelyn Owen was hatching ideas for his legendary submachine gun. Doing most of the work in Brewster’s Garage in the nearby township of Albion Park, Owen forged his device that was to operate reliably in harsh combat conditions.

The genius in Owen’s gun was its simple, unconventional design. Containing just one moving part, the gun loaded cartridges from the top. Gravity then assisted in pushing the cartridges to breech. A separate compartment inside the receiver prevented dirt and mud from jamming the bolt, while the gun had a side-mounted sight and was fired from the hip or shoulder.

Owen’s neighbour, Vincent Wardell (a manager at Port Kembla steelworks), was so impressed by Owen’s efforts he convinced him to submit his gun to the Army Inventions Board, which Owen did in 1939, aged 24. However, the gun was misunderstood until 1943, when it was finally pitted against the Sten and Thompson submachine guns in muddy, dirty conditions and was found the only gun to operate reliably.

After its successful deployment in New Guinea and Kokoda during WWII, the Owen Gun became known to troops as the “Digger’s Darling”. It was also favoured by British troops in Malaysia and was rumoured to be a lethal sweetheart amongst US soldiers. Both the US and NZ placed orders for the gun, which was to remain the standard weapon in the Australian Army until the mid-‘60s, when it was replaced by the F1 submachine gun.

Despite its success, it wasn’t until after the war that Owen received 10,000 pounds for his invention, which he invested in a modest sawmill in Tongarra. The mill made little profit, Owen never married, drank heavily and died of a ruptured gastric ulcer in 1949, aged just 34.

Interestingly, the Owen Gun lives on, for as recently as 2004 police raided an “underground weapons factory” in Melbourne – alleged to be the lair of local gangs – and found a number of Owen Gun copies, although with the magazine placed underneath.

Today, there are no guns at Dee’s place, once known as the ‘Riverfarm’ property in Tongarra, just a collection of wonderful photos and acres of arguably the most inviting rainforest scenery you’ll find anywhere.

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