Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Owen, Evelyn Ernest (1915–1949)

by V. A. Wardell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Evelyn Ernest Owen (1915-1949), by unknown photographer

Evelyn Ernest Owen (1915-1949), by unknown photographer

Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society

Evelyn Ernest Owen (1915-1949), inventor of the Owen gun, was born on 15 May 1915 at Wollongong, New South Wales, fourth of five children of Australian-born parents Ernest William Owen, law clerk, and his wife Constance Elaine, née McMillan. Robert and Percy Owen were his uncles; Sir William McMillan was his maternal grandfather. 'Evo' was educated at Wollongong High School. He showed no interest in scholastic endeavour or in his family's traditional vocations, the law and the army. Raised in an affectionate household, he had an independent spirit and a generous nature. With one of his brothers, he began a ready-mixed mortar business, but the venture failed due to their lack of commercial acumen. Although he had little experience and no technical qualifications, Owen was fascinated by firearms and experimented with them recklessly.

Appreciating that sub-machine guns would be widely used in a future war, Owen designed and built (by 1938) a .22-inch (5.6 mm) calibre prototype, adaptable to a larger bore for military use. His attempt in July 1939 to interest the Australian Military Forces in his invention was rebuffed on the grounds that neither the British nor the Australian armies saw a need for such weapons. On 28 May 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to the 2nd/17th Battalion. While on pre-embarkation leave in September, he discussed his gun with V. A. Wardell, manager of the Port Kembla plant of Lysaght's Newcastle Works Pty Ltd. Wardell referred the matter to Essington Lewis who arranged Owen's immediate transfer to the Central Inventions Board, Melbourne. Owen was reluctant and annoyed because he wanted to serve abroad with his brothers.

When Lieutenant C. M. Dyer, the board's secretary, failed to gain approval to produce a model of Owen's gun suitable for military use, he sent Owen to Port Kembla and asked Wardell (unofficially) for assistance. Lysaght's made versions of the weapon with larger calibres, but the Australian military authorities, by then in favour of sub-machine guns, opted for the new, British-designed Sten. (Sir) Percy Spender, the minister for the army, overruled his advisers and instructed the army in June 1941 to order one hundred Owen guns for testing. On the 25th of that month Owen was discharged from the A.I.F. and joined Lysaght's.

Trials conducted in September showed the Owen gun to be more reliable than the American Thompson gun and the British Sten gun. Only after further intervention by Spender and his successor Frank Forde, a campaign by Brian Penton in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and the courageous support of some army officers, notably Colonel E. W. Latchford, were the Australian armed forces equipped with the 9-mm calibre Owen gun in 1942. Lysaght's produced 45,477 Owen guns in World War II. Soldiers in New Guinea preferred them to similar weapons, and Australians later used them in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War.

Having received about £10,000 in royalties and proceeds from the sale of his patent rights, Owen established a small sawmill at Tongarra, near Wollongong, and lived there, unmarried and usually alone, while experimenting with sporting rifles. He died of cardiac syncope on 1 April 1949 in Wollongong District Hospital and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • G. S. Wardell, The Development and Manufacture of the Owen Gun (Wollongong, NSW, 1982)
  • Reveille (Sydney), 36, no 1, 1 Aug 1962, p 9
  • Australian Army Journal, Sept 1967, p 33
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Nov, 21 Nov 1941
  • John Lysaght (Australia) Ltd, bibliography on the Owen gun (copy held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

V. A. Wardell, 'Owen, Evelyn Ernest (1915–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/owen-evelyn-ernest-11322/text20215, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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