During World War II, Australia Was Desperate for Submachine Guns
Owen versus Sten
At the beginning of the World War II the Australian Army, much like the British Army, lacked a standard-issue submachine gun. Following Britain’s lead, in early 1941 Australia ordered a small number of Thompson submachine guns for trials purposes. The Australian military purchased 18,382 Thompson M1928A1s before deciding it wanted an indigenous weapon.
The Australians were developing and testing Evelyn Owen’s submachine gun when technical drawings for the Sten arrived from Britain. The Australian engineers who examined the Sten believed that it was too rudimentary for Australian needs. In September 1941, the Melbourne-based Die Casters Ltd. received a contract from the Ordnance Production Directorate to investigate improving the Sten.
W.T. Carmichael & Sons Ltd. was also interested in producing submachine guns. The government awarded both Carmichael and Die Casters contracts to produce the improved Australian Sten gun.
The Austen was based on the Mk. II Sten — but with extensive changes. These included a new folding stock based on the German MP38/40 stock, a forward pistol grip and a cocking handle slot that ran almost the full length of the tube receiver. On the downside, this longer slot let in more mud and dirt.
The magazine housing was die-cast while the rest of the weapon’s parts were stamped steel. Die Casters Ltd made some attempts to incorporate die-casting production methods. There was some trial and error — and by early 1942 the weapon was ready for production.
Like the Sten, the Austen was a simple blowback submachine gun, chambered in nine-by-19-millimeter and feeding from the left via a 32-round magazine. With its stock folded, it was 52 centimeters long and weighed 3.9 kilograms unloaded. By contrast the heavier but more reliable Owen weighed 4.2 kilograms. The Austen’s fixed rear aperture sight was fixed at 100 yards.
The new folding stock increased the weight of the Austen. It was also slightly longer than ideal in order for the butt plate to clear the forward handgrip. Some troops complained that this made the weapon’s length-of-pull too long.
In general the Austen required more parts and was more expensive and complex to manufacture than the Sten was. Some Sten parts were interchangeable with the Austen, as were Sten magazines. Like the Owen, it appears that at least some Austens were fitted with suppressors similar to that on the Sten Mk. II(S) and Mk. VI.
A lieutenant colonel Tucker, commanding officer of the 2/23 Infantry Battalion, testing a suppressed Austen in Borneo in September 1945. Australian War Museum photo
As Australia was in desperate need of submachine guns, it ordered both the Owen and Austen into production. The Austen, however, suffered from a series of delays and quality-control issues. As a result, by early 1943 only 2,100 Austens were issued out of 16,000 made.
In total, Australian built 19,914 Austens. In contrast, the country produced 45,400 Owen guns by June 1945. Troops in the field favored the Owen. A report following troop trials with 300 Austens noted that the weapon’s working parts were exposed, it didn’t function as well as the Owen did after submersion in mud and water and it lacked a flash-hider. Its stock was too long. It was less accurate than the Owen was. The Owen, while heavier, was popular for its reliability, ergonomics and balance.
Attempts were made to produce an improved Mk. II Austen, which used more die-cast parts. Only 200 were made. By the end of the war the Australian army had removed the Austen from frontline service and placed it in reserve. Dutch troops in the Dutch East Indies — present-day Indonesia — also used a number of Austens during The Netherlands’ period of decolonization in the region between 1945 and 1949.