Guns and public opinion

Owen Machine Gun
90/322 Machine Gun, Owen Mark 2/3, Lysaghts, Port Kembla, NSW, Australia, 1948 – Powerhouse Museum Collection

Firearms are a polarizing issue. The middle ground is a stripped no-man’s-land. The argument against prevalent gun ownership is of course more than ever legitimate. And honest gun ownership, confined to sportspeople, professional shooters and primary producers is provisional; and reasonable. Ownership outside these areas, except where the firearms have been irreversibly disabled, is criminal. One of the most fundamental reasons humans have designed and engineered firearms – for protection and self-defence – is not a legitimate reason for firearm ownership anywhere in Australia.

The only members of Australian communities outside of the armed forces to benefit from the legal use of guns for protection are the State and Federal police forces and police-authorised security associations. The forces’ use of firearms has not been exemplary in recent times, though Australian legislation is unlikely to adopt the far more enlightened model of UK police, who only arm themselves with guns in extraordinary situations.

Unfortunately, despite the various State and Federal governments’ legislation on firearm ownership, criminal use of guns is still occurring.

There was a time though in recent history where public opinion of firearms was tremendously pro. Nationalism, and the real threat of invasion were behind it, but from the viewpoint of 2012, it is still a jarring notion.

On the south coast on New South Wales in the 1930s, a young man, Evelyn Owen, indulged his pastime interest in firearms. Owen was not an engineer, but he was easily capable of describing his ideas to one, and was able have a gun fashioned. Owen’s idea was not to make a rifle or a pistol, but a sub machine gun – something not even Australian gun manufacturers were doing in the 1930s.

Although only a serious hobby for Owen, one of his neighbours, Vincent Wardell, was in the business of arms manufacturing. Wardell was in fact acting manager of Lysaght’s Works in Port Kembla, a New South Wales gun maker. On his way home one afternoon, Wardell noticed something in a sugar bag leaning against his neighbour’s garage wall, which looked suspiciously like a Tommy gun. It was in fact Evelyn Owen’s home-made .22 calibre sub machine gun. Owen had left the gun there in an honest instance of absent-mindedness; and although not a common occurrence, such was the climate in Australia with regards to firearms that such a thing could happen. Wardell did not know Evelyn Owen – as Evelyn had been away training in the 2nd Australian Imperial Forces – but he knew Evelyn’s father. Wardell showed him the gun, and after cursing his son’s carelessness, Owen senior told Wardell about his son’s innate interest and talent for designing firearms.

Vincent Wardell championed Owen’s machine gun, seeing it as an ideal weapon for the Australian Armed Forces, right at a time when there was a need to rearm. Sub machine guns were not widely used, particularly by the British and Australian armies. The Germans, however, were using the Schmeisser, and the American army and marines were training with the American Thomson, or Tommy gun. Owen’s prototype did not use a heavy enough calibre for combat use, but Lysaght made several to fire .32 and, later .45 rounds. Despite successful testing, the army would not commit to the Owen gun, leaning more towards following the British army’s contracts to supply the British designed and, as it would prove, inferior Sten gun.

The advantages of the Owen gun were in its simplicity of design. Because of the lack of engineering equipment at Owen’s disposal, his gun was elementary – but as the tests would show – this enabled it to outperform its British and American peers. Testing included completely submersing it in mud, and then firing it, and firing the weapon while sand was poured directly onto it. These harsh actions did not stop the Owen gun. The American army in Australia were so impressed that an order was placed for 60, 000 Owen guns, worth one million USD, but the Ordnance Production Directorate (OPD), the bureaucracy who oversaw arms manufacture, for reasons which are not clear, but which were obviously political and not practical, cancelled the order.

The Australian press, who could influence public opinion, which is always a desirous thing to democratic politicians, took the argument for large-scale manufacture of the Owen gun to its readership and this must have had some effect on the Army and OPD. The stalling, seemingly pointless design alterations, and favouritism for British arms – and the money that would go to British arms manufacturers – were the subject of editorial and parody in the newspapers. An Australian, from a working class town, had designed a superior gun, and an Australian company was more than willing to manufacture it and supply the Australian troops. And Australians loved nothing more than sticking it the poms! In the most friendly manner of course.

Lysaght went on to manufacture the Owen gun, and supplied several versions to the Australian army. The gun was used in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The British army also adopted the Owen gun.

Powerhouse Museum's arm cage showing examples of Owen Guns
Powerhouse Museum’s arms cage showing examples of Owen Guns

The Powerhouse Museum has an extraordinary arms and armour collection. Firearms are understandably a contentious issue, but the collection of firearms as historical, cultural, technological and even aesthetic objects is important – as are the stories which accompany them.

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One response to “Guns and public opinion

  • An interesting and revealing piece. Thank you for not demonising firearms and firearms owners, as is currently the practice of the media. As you correctly identify, some of the world’s most stringent firearms legislation does not prevent criminal activity.

    Just another example of Aussie ingenuity…

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