At the beginning of the Second World War the Australian Army, much like Britain, lacked a standard issue submachine gun. Following Britain’s lead a small number of Thompson submachine guns were ordered for trials purposes in early 1941. The Australian military eventually purchased 18,382 Thompson M1928A1s, however, it was realised that an indigenously produced weapon was needed.
1941 saw extensive testing and development of Evelyn Owen’s submachine gun, at the same time technical drawings for the Sten arrived from Britain. The Australian engineers that examined the Sten believed that it was too rudimentary for Australian needs. In September 1941, the Melbourne-based Die Casters Ltd. were contracted by the Ordnance Production Directorate to investigate improving the Sten. W.T. Carmichael & Sons Ltd were also interested in producing submachine guns and both Carmichael and Die Casters were contracted to produce the improved Australian Sten gun.
The Austen was based upon the MkII Sten, however, substantial changes to the design were made. These included a new folding stock based upon the German MP38/40 stock, an added forward pistol grip and a cocking handle slot which ran almost the full length of the tub receiver. This longer slot opened allowed greater ingress of mud and dirt. The most significant internal change was the use of the MP40’s bolt and telescoping return spring. The magazine housing was die cast while the rest of the weapon’s parts were stamped steel. Some aborted attempts by Die Casters Ltd to incorporate die casting production methods lead to early failures but by early 1942 the weapon was ready for production.
Like the Sten, the Austen was a simple blowback submachine gun, chambered in 9x19mm and feeding from a 32-round magazine which fed horizontally from the left. With its stock folded it was 52cm long and weighed 3.9kg (8.8lb) unloaded. By contrast the heavier but more reliable Owen weighed 4.2kg (9.3lb). 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. 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 of the Sten MkII(S) and MkVI.
As Australia was in desperate need of submachine guns both the Owen and Austen were ordered into production. The Austen, however, suffered from a series of delays and quality control issues. As a result only 2,100 Austens had been issued, out of over 16,000 made, to troops by early 1943. In total 19,914 Austens are thought to have been built, most of these were factory spray painted with a camouflage pattern (see image #3) In contrast 45,400 Owen guns were produced by June 1945. The Owen was certainly favoured by troops in the field. A report written following troop trials with 300 Austens noted that the weapon’s working parts were exposed, it didn’t function as well as the Owen after submersion in mud and water, it lacked a flash-hider, its stock was too long and was less accurate than the Owen. The Owen, while heavier, was appreciated for its reliability, ergonomics and balance.
Attempts were made to produce an improved MkII Austen, which used more die cast parts, however, this was not adopted and only 200 were made. By the end of the war the Austen had been removed from frontline service and placed in reserve. Dutch troops in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) also used a number of Austens during the Netherlands’ period of decolonisation in the region between 1945-1949. The Owen Gun continued to be used into the 1960s, seeing action in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam before it was replaced by the F1 submachine gun.
Length (stock unfolded): 73cm (29in)
Weight (unloaded): 4kg (8.8lb)
Barrel Length: 20cm (7.8in)
Action: Blowback, open bolt
Feed: 32-round box magazine
Cyclic Rate: ~500rpm
‘Australian SMGs During WWII’, The Armourer, K. Driscoll
The Sten Gun, L. Thompson (2012)
Owen and Austen – The WW 2 ‘Aussie’ Machine Carbine Story, G. Barber, (source)
The Owen Gun, W. Wardman, (1991)