AUSTEN SUBMACHINE GUN

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.

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Austen-armed Paratrooper from the Australian parachute battalion training centre, c.1945. The Austen’s folding stock made issue to paratroops one of the few roles that the Austen was better suited to than the Owen gun (AWM)

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.

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A close up of the Austen’s Diecast magazine housing (RIA

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.

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The photograph above shows Lt.Colonel Tucker, commanding officer of the 2/23 Infantry Battalion, testing a suppressed Austen in Borneo in September 1945. Note also the suppressed Owen Gun in the background (AWM)

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.

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Australian women war workers pose with an Austen (AWM)

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.

Technical Specifications:

Length (stock unfolded): 73cm (29in)
Weight (unloaded): 4kg (8.8lb)
Barrel Length: 20cm (7.8in)
Action: Blowback, open bolt
Calibre: 9x19mm
Feed: 32-round box magazine
Cyclic Rate: ~500rpm


Bibliography:

‘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)

Patents: BESAL Light Machine Gun

On the 21st May 1943, Birmingham Small Arms Ltd.’s chief designer Henry Faulkner, along with Roger Wackrow, patented a series of features used on the BESAL light machine gun. The BESAL had begun life as a stop-gap, emergency light machine gun design which could be quickly manufactured alongside the Bren gun in the event of an imminent German invasion of Britain.

Instead, the design evolved into BSA’s attempt to have the BESAL adopted as a subsitute standard light machine gun. The images below comes from three British patents filed in May 1943 and granted in October 1945. They show the basic layout of the BESAL along with detailed drawings of the sight, universal magazine adaptor, bolt and the take down knob.

You can find our in-depth video, complete with disassembly, here.

For a more detailed history of the BESAL check out our blog on the history of the weapon.


Patents: 

‘Improvements in or relating to gas-operated automatic firearms’, GB572925, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)

‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572926, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)

‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572924, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)

Photographs: BESAL

We were recently lucky enough to examine a 3rd Pattern BESAL light machine gun dating from c.1942.  You can check out our full-length article on the BESAL here and our video here.

Below are a some photographs I took of the BESAL showing some of the details of its design as well as its stamped and spot welded constriction:

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Left-side profile of the BESAL, note the shape of the butt is very similar to that of the earlier Lewis Gun
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BESAL with magazine removed, the weapon appears to use a standard MkII Bren non-adjustable bipod
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Like the Bren, the BESAL has a universal magazine adaptor to allow it to feed from both box and drum Bren magazines

Some close ups of the BESAL

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Top-down view of the BESAL note the offset sights
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Rivet reinforcement of the bolt’s locking recess in the top of the receiver
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Right side – The butt-retention pin can be seen just below the rear sight assembly, this pin is captive and once pulled allows the butt to come off, the bolt and pistol grip can then be removed from the weapon
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Close up of the BESAL’s barrel removal catch – rotate to the rear to remove the barrel
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BESAL’s spring-loaded magazine dust cover closed, note the magazine catch on the left
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A shot from behind the BESAL showing the rear sight and the enclosed front sight, both off set to the left

 

Our thanks to the collection that holds the BESAL, whom wish to remain anonymous, which was kind enough to allow us access to their impressive array of small arms.


All photographs taken by Matthew Moss. Please do not reproduce these images without permission or credit. © The Armourer’s Bench 2017.

BESAL Light Machine Gun

By the Autumn of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled most of mainland Europe, France had surrendered, and the British Army had been forced to evacuate the continent and in the process had lost much of its arms and equipment.

Arms production in Britain was ramped up in order to arm the returning troops and the new units being formed to defend against the imminently expected German invasion. Existing designs like the Bren light machine gun and the Lee-Enfield Rifle were simplified to increase production however new options were also examined. The cheap, quickly manufactured STEN submachine gun was introduced and calls were made for a simplified light machine gun which could be made in any machine or workshop with simple tooling. Even before the fall of France the British Ordnance Board sent out a memo in June 1940, requesting a light machine gun which could be produced in garages and smaller workshops throughout Britain in the event that the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield was bombed.

In December 1940, the Chief Superintendent of Design outlined a light machine gun based on the Lewis Gun’s rotating bolt, which fed from Bren gun magazines.

The Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) were approached to develop a design. BSA tasked their chief designer, Henry Faulkner, with the project. Members of the British Army’s Ordnance Board, however, began to question the decision to have an established manufacturer build a prototype for a gun that was supposed to be assembled in small ad-hoc workshops. As a result the contract was cancelled, however, BSA and Faulkner persisted anyway.

Faulkner, with the help of Roger Wackrow, came up with a weapon which later became known as the BESAL. The design was developed to be simple, cheap and quick to manufacture. The standards of finish were significantly lower than those of the standard Bren then in production. The plan was to issue the BESAL in the event Britain’s armed forces found themselves engaged in a last ditch defence with German invasion either imminent or already underway.

Faulkner’s design was chambered in .303 and fed feeding from standard Bren gun curved box magazines. It used a basic trigger mechanism, a simple pressed gas cylinder and a body held together by pinning and spot welding. The first prototype had a folding but non-adjustable bipod and a skeleton butt stock with a wooden insert. With the manufacture of barrels expected to be a bottleneck to the weapon’s production it was suggested that the spare barrel issued with each Bren gun be recalled for use in the new BESAL. This clearly illustrates just how desperate the situation was expected to be. The first prototype BESAL was ready by late 1941, and testing began in March 1942. The BESAL proved to be reliable and effective during trials.

Faulkner’s design went through a number of iterations but the gneral design had been finalised by May 1942 when BSA, Faulkner and Wackrow filed three patents protecting the design. The principle feature of the later BESAL patterns was the use of a cocking system which saw the operator push the pistol grip forward to catch the bolt, and then pull it to the rear to cock the weapon. This is a system that was later seen in the Czechoslovakian Vz 52/57, 59 series and the Finnish KVKK-62 general purpose machine gun.

Iterations of the BESAL:

1st Pattern: 

Besal 2 001

(Artists impression of 1st BESAL prototype – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)

  • Right side cocking handle
  • Skeleton butt
  • Simple fixed peep sight
  • Non-adjustable bipod mounted on the receiver

2nd Pattern:

Besal 3 001

(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handlefrom Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)

  • Bipod moved to front of the gas tube
  • Universal magazine adaptor fitted for Bren and Motley Pan magazines
  • Full wooden stock – similar in profile to the Lewis Gun’s
  • 2-position sight
  • Disassembly knob introduced

3rd Pattern:

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(Our photograph of a 3rd Pattern BESAL)

  • Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle

4th Pattern:

Besal 4 001

(Photograph of a 4th Pattern BESAL, note the selector on the pistol grip – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)

  • Introduction of a selector switch on the left side of the weapon’s pistol grip

In August 1942, BSA submitted the 3rd Pattern Prototype for trials. It was extensively tested between September and November 1942. On 6th January, 1943, BSA renamed the BESAL the ‘Light Machine Gun, Faulkner, 0.303-In Mk1’ in order to prevent confusion with the 7.92x57mm BESA machine gun used in some British tanks. The BESA, also produced by BSA, used a similar pistol grip cocking mechanism. We hypothesise that the the BESAL’s name might come from the BESA, meaning BESA-Light. This, however, is unconfirmed.

It seems that over time as BSA and Faulkner improved and refined the design the BESAL ceased to be a cheap, simple, quickly-made alternative to the Bren. Instead it appears that BSA hoped the weapon might be adopted as a somewhat cheaper substitute standard to the Bren. Final testing of the BESAL were held in March 1943, but by now the weapon’s original purpose had been made defunct by the huge increase in Bren manufacturing capacity. By 1943 the Bren was in production on four continents: at Enfield in the UK, at John Inglis in Canada, at Ishapore in India and Lithgow in Australia. Inglis alone was producing 10,000 Brens a month by 1943.

With the need for a new light machine gun gone the BESAL project was cancelled in June 1943. BSA produced an estimated 20 guns, of various patterns, during the BESAL development project. Today, it is believed that only a handful remain.


Technical Specifications:

Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Calibre: .303
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm


Bibliography:

The Bren Gun Saga, T. B. Dugelby (1999)
Bren Gun, N. Grant, (2013)
Military Small Arms, I. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Modern Small Arms, F. Myatt (1979)

Patents: 

‘Improvements in or relating to gas-operated automatic firearms’, GB572925, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)

‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572926, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)

‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572924, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)