Fear and Loathing of Gaston Glock

posted on February 24, 2024
Glock handgun
Images: NRA

We lost Gaston Glock (1929-2023) last December. He was 94. In the early 1980s, with the development of the Glock 17, he used polymer and many other innovations to propel the semi-automatic pistol—and, after it, so much more—into the modern age.

Gaston GlockIt is now easy to forget how controversial the polymer-framed Glock 17 was in America. Gun-control groups wanted to ban its import. While most gun-control-promoting groups and politicians might not know a shotgun from a rifle, their kneejerk reaction has long been to ban any gun innovation. They seem to find it intuitive that, to disempower individuals, they need to sever the historic relationship between market-driven civilian gun designers and our military and police forces.

Gaston Glock’s then-new pistol, to gun-control activists, had to be stopped. (If this makes you think of the current power-grabs coming from the Biden administration’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as the agency tries to change definitions to ban firearms and accessories today, then you’ve been paying attention.)

The thing was, in the 1980s, gun-control activists didn’t just want to stop the Glock; they also wanted to stop all the innovations that would soon be born from Glock’s leap forward—developments that would make concealed-carry so much better for armed citizens.

So, to stop the Glock from entering the American marketplace, gun-control activists labelled the Glock 17 a “plastic gun” and said it could not be detected by metal detectors at airports. As the hijacking of commercial planes by terrorists was then a real problem, this fed into public worries.

Of course, the claim wasn’t true.

A review of the Glock in the May 1986 issue of American Rifleman by Pete Dickey, for example, proved that the only way it would make it through a metal detector is if the machine was not turned on, as the Glock easily has enough metal to set off such a device.

The truth is that Glock pistols, and all their modern competitors, still contain many vital components made of metal (such as the slide and barrel). They can be detected by conventional screening technologies. The public misinformation campaign did, however, lead to legislation (The Terrorist Firearms Detection Act). In 1988, Congress banned the manufacture, import or sale of any firearm with less than 3.2 ounces of metal in it.

Still, the American public and law-enforcement customers pushed the market right over the gun-control activists. By 2007, for example, Glock commanded 65% of the market share of handguns for U.S. law-enforcement agencies.

But let’s step out of the politics to note that Glock pistols are a series of polymer-framed, short-recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistols made in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria. Before inventing the Glock 17, Gaston Glock had been making curtain rings. He’d had no previous experience with firearm design or manufacture at the time his first pistol, the Glock 17, was being prototyped. Glock did, however, have extensive experience in advanced synthetic polymers, and this knowledge was instrumental in the company’s design. Glock also introduced ferritic nitrocarburizing into the firearms industry as an anti-corrosion surface treatment for metal gun parts.

Glock actually got into the gun business when he decided to compete for a military contract. In 1980, the Austrian military announced it was seeking a new, modern duty pistol to replace its World War II-era Walther P38. The Austrian Ministry of Defence formulated a list of criteria for the new generation service pistol that included: The design had to be self-loading; the pistol had to fire the NATO-standard 9x19 mm Parabellum round; the magazines couldn’t require any means of assistance for loading; the magazines had to have a minimum capacity of eight rounds; and the pistol had to be secure against accidental discharge.

Gaston Glock assembled a team and developed a working prototype that made extensive use of synthetic materials and modern manufacturing technologies—making it a very cost-effective pistol. Several samples of the Glock 17 (so named because it was the 17th set of technical drawings of the company) were submitted for trials in early 1982.

The technology in the Glock’s firing mechanism wasn’t new. Semi-automatic technology had been developed in the late 19th century. The two primary handgun operating systems that emerged from the 19th century were the revolver and the semi-automatic. Even the Glock’s higher magazine capacity wasn’t novel. During World War I, for example, the Germans tried to turn the Luger pistol into a “trench broom” by inventing a 32-round “snail drum” magazine (incidentally, it fired the same round for which the Glock was originally designed).

The Glock was revolutionary because its design and engineering improved the pistol’s ease of maintenance and manufacture. Its extensive use of polymer made it lighter. Basically, though, a Glock was “better” because, unlike most pistols then available, you didn’t and still don’t need a gunsmithing course to take one apart. It doesn’t have all the pins, springs and lathed bits of steel many pistols were then using. What this means is if you drop a Glock in a forest and find it a year later, the Glock will probably still go bang, while most of the other pistols available in the early 1980s would have become fossilized relics.

The Glock 17 won the competition. It was adopted into service with the Austrian military and police forces in 1982 as the P80 (Pistole 80). The results of the Austrian trials sparked interest in Europe and in the U.S., where a similar effort to select a service-wide replacement for the Model 1911 had been ongoing since the late 1970s (known as the Joint Service Small Arms Program). In late 1983, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) inquired about the Glock and received four samples of the Glock 17 for unofficial evaluation. Glock was then invited to participate in the XM9 Personal Defense Pistol Trials, but declined because the DOD specifications would have meant extensive retooling of production equipment.

Despite being too late to the competition for the U.S. service pistol, the advantages of the Glock prompted the FBI and police forces all around the U.S. to rethink carrying revolvers. The Glock soon became the top choice of a lot of police departments. The Glock was comparably lighter than other pistols. Its simple design made it easy to clean and maintain. And the Glock was turning out to be almost indestructible. The Glock’s trigger was revolutionary.

By 2002, some two million Glocks had been sold in more than 45 countries. In 2007, Glock passed the five-million milestone. Meanwhile, the Glock revolution influenced the designs and materials used by other pistol makers. Since the Glock takeover began in the 1980s, firearms have gotten simpler (fewer parts and easier to manufacture) and more sophisticated (more intricate designs within each piece thanks to the new materials and manufacturing changes). This makes them more reliable, lighter, often smaller and more ergonomic.

The pistol Gaston Glock submitted to the Austrian military for testing weighed just 23 ounces, while the next-lightest gun in the competition was a model from Heckler & Koch that weighed 33 ounces. The Glock 17 was also the simplest. It only had 34 components. The other pistols in consideration were much more complex—a SIG Sauer in the running had 53 parts; a Heckler & Koch had 77 parts; a Beretta had 70 parts.

As NRA Publications Editorial Director Mark A. Keefe IV told me when I was writing my book The Future of the Gun, “The pistol took a giant leap into the future with the Glock 17. Polymer-framed pistols can now fit anyone’s hands—an NFL player and a ballerina can often use the same pistol by just changing grips.”

Thank you, Gaston Glock!



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