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How Gaston Glock Changed the Firearms Industry

by Ben Jimenez

How Gaston Glock Changed the Firearms Industry

Most Americans were introduced to the Glock pistol by Bruce Willis in the 1990 action movieDie Hard 2 when he announces, “That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It's a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, here, and it costs more than you make in a month.”

He was referring to the Glock 17, which has a polymer frame, twopounds of readily detectible steel and not nearly as expensive as a month’s salary for a police officer.

The script writers were paraphrasing the 1983 comments of then-Congressman Charles Schumer’s objections to the importation of “a plastic pistol that can’t be detected in airport metal detectors.” These comments formed the basis for the movie quote as well as legislation passed in 1986 which outlawed the manufacture of any firearm undetectable to metal detectors.

By 1983, the Glock 17 had been adopted by Austria and Norway, and Gaston Glock had set his sights on the U.S. market. The U.S. pistol market was already in turmoil, as America’s sweetheart–the 1911 .45 Automatic–had just been dethroned as the U.S. service pistol after a 70-year run. And it was replaced by an Italian 9mm with an aluminum frame–the horror!

While federal contracts remained elusive, Glock’s aggressive law enforcement marketing and sales strategies cut deeply into the market previously owned by Smith & Wesson (S&W). Mass defections by departments like the NYPD fed into the Glock marketing campaign until 65 percent of all U.S. agencies were issuing the plastic fantastic.

The Glock 17, and the more concealable Glock 19, were the epitome of reliability. No one realized at the time that this new plastic gun was about to change the handgun market for good.

No manual safety

Gaston Glock decided that the inclusion of a manual safety was not necessary with the internal safety mechanisms he put in place. This was a first for any major centerfire semi-auto sold on the U.S. market. Today, a manual safety is looked upon as a drawback and is usually only added if there is a requirement stipulating one for a contract or to comply with certain state and municipal laws.

 Gaston Glock Manual Safety 

Safe action trigger

The Glock trigger was designed so that it could not be moved into a firing position without depressing the trigger block contained in the trigger body. This simple yet highly effective safety feature has been copied in one form or another by every major pistol manufacturer. S&W uses a hinged trigger to achieve the same effect, but the concept is here to stay.

Striker fired

Most semi-auto pistols were hammer fired until the time Glock entered the market. Everything from Sig Sauer, Beretta and Smith & Wesson were hammer fired. Today, every major pistol manufacturer offers striker fired designs, which was a requirement in the recent U.S. military trials for replacing the Beretta M9.

Minimal parts

Gaston Glock had never designed a firearm before the G17, but he knew that reliability was a product of simplicity. The Glock pistol uses 35 parts, which was a departure from the norm when it first appeared.

Stamped parts

In order to keep costs down, the majority of the Glock’s internals are stampings or MIM. The only parts that require any serious machining are the barrel and the slide.

Hammer forged barrel

Hammer forged barrels are more common on European firearms but the practice has caught on in the U.S. Hammer forging uses (you guessed it) a series of rotary hammers which smash the steel around a mandrel. The process creates an extremely durable barrel that will exceed performance specs for a cut rifled equivalent. Hammer forged barrels are typically more accurate and exhibit wear resistance which leads to longer life.

 Gaston Glock Integrated Rail

Integrated frame rail

Glock was one of the first companies to offer an integrated frame rail to accept lasers and weapon lights. These first appeared in what is commonly referred to as their “Gen 3” pistols in the late ‘90s, further endearing their products to law enforcement.

Magazines

The Glock magazine has evolved into one of the most reliable pistol magazines available. Initial designs were 100 percent polymer but would not drop free of the gun. This was acceptable in Europe, where spare magazines were not always issued or doctrine called for manually removing the magazine from the pistol. In the U.S., that wouldn’t fly.

Second generation magazines had a metal insert molded in that made the walls rigid enough to resist flexing and allowing them to drop free from the pistol.

Customer service

Glock provides a de facto lifetime warranty service for their pistols for any owner. Glock realized that it was cheaper in the long run to repair any issues and even perform preventative maintenance on any guns sent in for repair than to quibble over repair costs and liability exposure. Standing behind their product in this manner has created a loyal customer base and attracted new customers.

Cult of personality

“Glock Perfection” has been personified through Glock’s marketing efforts around the world. From the  “Glocktalk” internet forum to appearances of the late R. Lee Ermey (The Gunny) at Glock events, Glock has created a culture of excellence promoting the Glock legend. Few companies can boast the number of  “fanboys” preaching the gospel of Gaston.

These fans happily embraced the new technology, stuffing their tactical Tupperware into cutting-edge Kydex holsters and turning their backs on traditional pistol accessories.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Tired of losing lucrative contracts to Glock, competitors eventually decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Smith & Wesson was the first competitor to develop their own polymer-frame, striker fired automatic. They followed the Glock design so closely that parts could interchange. Pundits jokingly referred to the S&W Sigma pistol as the “Glock & Wesson.” Unfortunately, Gaston Glock failed to see the humor in it and sued S&W, who had to pay Glock a royalty for every Sigma-family pistol they sold.

 S&W Sigma Pistol

S&W Sigma Pistol, aka the ‘Glock and Wesson’

Springfield Armory began importing their poly/striker offering, the XD, in 2002. This was a licensed version of the Croatian HS2000 pistol which used metal-body magazines and added a grip safety as a new feature.

Sig Sauer’s first stab at a polymer pistol was the SP2022, followed by the P250. These differed from the Glock in that they were hammer fired. Sig’s P320, a true poly/striker design, was recently adopted by the U.S. government as the M17 to be used by all branches of the armed forces.

Sturm Ruger has released multiple polymer frame models but didn’t launch a striker until the SR9. Many of their models used an “internal hammer” which looked like a striker system on the outside, but still used a small hammer to drive the firing pin. Even the all-new Security 9 has a hidden hammer. The compact LC9 started as an internal hammer but changed to a striker system in later years. The Ruger American pistol, on the other hand, was launched as a striker design.

Smith & Wesson went back to the drawing board after the Sigma debacle and launched the highly successful M&P line. These poly/striker guns had sleek lines and contoured frames that could be sized to a shooter’s hand. The M&P has helped S&W regain some of the law enforcement market share lost to Glock.

Smith & Wesson police sales

Walther has attempted a number of poly/striker designs with limited success. The P99, also produced by S&W under license, was unreliable and prone to failure. A lack of understanding about the American handgun market has held them back, as evidenced by S&W taking the Walther PPS and “Americanizing” it. This created the number one selling CCW gun in America–the S&W Shield.

Every manufacturer from High Point and Taurus to FNH and Hecker and Koch have launched a polymer frame, striker fired pistol inspired by Gaston Glock’s success.

Notoriously absent from this crowd is Kimber, who once advertised the launch of their poly/striker KPD pistol but never brought it to market. Their only venture into the striker fired market has been the ill-fated Solo which has been plagued with performance issues.

So, in the final analysis, every pistol manufacturer has attempted to emulate Gaston Glock’s success by launching a poly/striker product or by launching something thatlooked like a poly/striker design on the outside.

Impact on performance expectations

Since Glock hit the market, their ability to fire tens of thousands of rounds without a failure or part breakage has raised the bar as far as customer expectations. While failures do occur, they have become so infrequent that they are no longer the norm. So long as the end-user changes the recoil spring every 5,000 rounds or so, the gun will keep running like new.

The 1911 owners can only dream of this sort of performance, frequently spending thousands of dollars with specialty ‘smiths to achieve anything approaching this level. Glock delivers it out of the box at a $550 price tag.

User serviceable

Before Glocks roamed the Earth, gun owners who wanted to customize their guns or have them repaired had to send them off to a gunsmith or the factory for rebuild. This could take months, cost hundreds of dollars and presented a certain level of risk when shipping a firearm for service. Almost all pistols manufactured at that time had parts that needed fitting to operate correctly.

Gaston Glock Rebuild

Today, just about any semi-mechanically inclined individual, armed with an 1/8-inch punch and access to YouTube, can strip a Glock down to its component parts and put it back together in operable condition. This means that with spare parts readily available online, owners can maintain, customize and rebuild their Glocks without the assistance of a gunsmith.

Weak points

The only legitimate criticism of the Glock product is the plastic factory sights. Owners are advised to replace them at the earliest opportunity before they remove themselves under hard use.

The polymer recoil spring guide rod can melt underunrealistic endurance testing (like shooting 1,000 rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger) but the gun will keep running until you field-strip it and the spring launches.

The early magazines without metal reinforcements will swell when left loaded, but most people will never encounter one in today’s market.

Some consider the polygonal rifling a drawback as they will not tolerate un-jacketed projectiles. High-volume shooters reloading with cast bullets have had to replace the factory tube with an aftermarket solution with cut rifling.

Gaston Glock Three Pin Frame

The early .40s experienced parts breakages when the G22 and G23 were launched, as the larger caliber was shoehorned into G17/19 frames and called good. This led to the three-pin frame which provided enough reinforcement to keep the internals running as intended.

To appreciate ALL of the changes to the original product over the last 36 years, you would need to take a Glock Armorers Course, in which they actually do cover all of the changes. Unfortunately, this class is normally restricted to law enforcement and FFLs and not open to the public.

Other gripes

For decades, Glock has refused to sell threaded barrels to the general public, despite the existence of a legal suppressor market in the United States. They have also restricted firing pin spring cups intended to let the gun be safely fired underwater or after a submersion. Like the threaded barrels, Glock will only sell this item to law enforcement agencies and the military with an official purchase letter on agency letterhead.

Constant evolution

In addition to different frame sizes and caliber options, Glock has continued to grow with changing demands. Recent generation guns have added interchangeable grip panels, military-style browncolor frames andimproved grip textures.

The most startling departures for the company have been the compact single stack Glock 42 and Glock 43 pistols in .380 and 9mm respectively. These pocket blasters were meant to take on the S&W Shield and other hot sub-compacts and became an instant hit.

The pistol market today

Despite an inauspicious start in the United States, Gaston Glock managed to change the entire handgun market with his plastic fantastic. His impact is arguably as significant as that of John Moses Browning, whose products reigned supreme until they ran into the Glock 17.

Ben Jimenez
Ben Jimenez


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