Iconic Australian weapon had humble origins
by MATTHEW MOSS
Evelyn Owen, the legendary Australian firearms-designer, built his ingenious first prototype submachine gun in 1938. This first prototype shared little in common with Owen’s more-refined, later submachine gun designs — and met with little enthusiasm, at first.
It appears Owen borrowed the prototype’s stock and barrel from a .22-caliber civilian rifle and added a crudely-cut steel cover to enclose the weapon’s action.
Owen cleverly fashioned the drum magazine from an automobile crankshaft’s harmonic balancer. He drilled holes into the balancer to hold each individual cartridge, essentially creating a revolving cylinder with individual chambers. The magazine/cylinder held 44 .22 short cartridges.
The prototype lacked a traditional trigger. Instead, Owen added simple a thumb trigger that he made out of spring steel. When cocked, the trigger held the bolt back. Depressing the trigger released the bolt, allowing the weapon to slam-fire.
In this layout, the pistol grip was actually the front grip. The magazine/cylinder was apparently turned by a piece of flat spring steel that attached to the receiver. The prototype lacked any kind of safety mechanism.
In May 1939, Owen traveled from Wollongong to Sydney to present his prototype at Victoria Barracks, all in the hope of sparking some interest in the Australian military. But the Australian army rejected Owen’s design. A year later, Owen enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force … and stored the prototype weapon in the garage of a house his father had rented.
The man renting the house, Vincent Wardell, discovered the prototype. Wardell happened to be the manager of Lysaght metal works in Port Kembla. He encouraged Owen to demonstrate the weapon — and wrote to the Australian government, pleading with officials to take another look.
The weapon garnered enough interest this second time around that authorities allowed Owen to continue developing it at the Lysaght factory. The Australian army tested Owen’s refined submachine gun and finally adopted it in 1941.
Originally published at Historical Firearms.