“He got it right because he hadn’t done it before…” Patrick Sweeney (The Gun Digest Book of the Glock 2008)
Gaston Glock’s seventeenth patent filed in August 1981 covered the innovative design of a semi-automatic handgun and so he named it the Glock 17. He spent another nine months testing and improving the weapon which was markedly different from others because it was largely made of very tough plastic and was designed with no preexisting factory. The 17 had immediate success winning a competition with Europe’s top gun manufacturers for a contract to supply the Austrian Army’s standard side arm. Paul M. Barrett, an assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, researched the Glock saga over 15 years and the compelling result explains in detail how brilliant engineering, canny marketing, publicity both good and bad, leveraging anti–gun politics and plain serendipity helped Glock become a huge player in the most lucrative gun market of all, the US of A.
Herr Glock had never owned a gun when he decided to compete for the contract to replace the Walther P-38 the long-standing standard-issue side arm in the Austrian Army. He had enjoyed some success managing a car radiator factory near Vienna and also operated a small business making brass hardware in his garage . This sideline also did some work for the military and thus Glock found out about the army’s search for a new pistol.
Always industrious, Glock began a through study of small guns. “That I knew nothing was my advantage,” he said later. The 50 year-old did know the army wanted a light durable pistol with more ammo capacity than the P-38; a gun with fewer than 40 parts, a light and smooth trigger and a streamlined frame that would not hang up in a holster. As he researched patents and interviewed gun experts Glock decided that he could design a weapon that met the army’s requirements better than anything other makers would likely offer because they were stuck with certain production methods and unlikely to retrain their skilled and expensive labor.
Importantly, Glock also concluded that conventional gun safe levers created problems particularly when the shooter was under stress. He designed a system that included a safety lever adjacent to the trigger along with two “internal” safeties. This feature of his guns, still unchanged, delights those who use Glocks, but along with the extensive use of plastic makes the Austrian firearm the gun anti-gun groups love to hate.
Gaston Glock was fortunate to have a very talented support staff, perhaps none more so than Karl Walter an Austrian-born US citizen whose marketing for the new pistol quickly cracked the American market. Walter arranged a review of the 17 by prominent gun writer Peter G. Kokalis, then the technical editor of Soldier of Fortune. When Kokalis visited Glock’s still small manufacturing operation he thought the gun was ugly until he visited Glock’s cellar range and opened fire. In the 1984 review headlined “Plastic Perfection” Kokalis wrote, “The Glock pistol represents an entirely new era in small arms technology”
The high-capacity Glock came along just as many US law enforcement outfits were seeking a weapon that would allow them to outgun criminals. particularly those involved with drugs. Their Smith & Wesson revolvers were thought to offer too little firepower in fights where the opponents often had semi-autos with high capacity magazines. And S&W’s quality had noticeably slipped. Police agencies routinely sent back new Smith’s that were defective out of the box.
Among the seekers was the Jacksonville, FL Sheriff’s office. When a Glock sample arrived chief of firearm training John Rutherford remembered opening the box and exclaiming, “We don’t want any crap like this.” His assistant later retrieved the piece from the couch where Rutherford had tossed it. He was Emanuel Kapolsohn who just a year later would be named one of the top five trainers in Police Defensive Handgun Use and Encounter Tactics. Kapolson knew the 17 was finding its way into police holsters and suggested it be taken seriously. Rutherford took a second look and told Barrett that in a few days, “We were fighting over who was going to get the Glock. It’s just like shooting a revolver, and that’s what everybody liked about it. You pull it out, you pull the trigger and you put it away. That was the beauty of it.”
Rutherford and Kapolson also noted that the Glock had only 34 parts and quality was very high. “You can take 50 Glocks apart and put 50 guns together after mixing all the parts, and they all shoot.” Rutherford’s 90-page report recommending the purchase of Glocks was soon circulating in law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
New York City’s PD early in 1986 banned the Glock in part because of reports (erroneous as it turned out) the part plastic gun was a terrorist weapon of choice. A federal agent had taken a Glock apart, disguised the metal parts and passed through airport security. This and other incidents led anti-gun groups and politicians to single out Glocks as particularly dangerous weapons. However NYPD firearms trainers were buying Glocks with their own money and Karl Walter sensed opportunity. During the summer the city’s Emergency Services Unit, the equivalent of other city’s SWAT teams, ordered 70 Glocks. Then in 1988 the police commissioner’s carry permit was examined by the New York Post. The paper discovered the top cop’s carry gun was a Glock 17! The headline called the Glock a “super gun”. Walter couldn’t believe his company’s good fortune; a potentially crippling ban by America’s biggest police department had given the gun maker priceless publicity. Much of the book relates how Glock through luck, but mostly by deliberate cunning turned the lemons of the anti-gun crowd into profitable lemonade.
Anti-gun folks slowly began to learn that frontal assaults on Glock didn’t work. Glock in turn became expert at using adverse publicity to burnish its image as the bad-a**ed gun you’ve got to own. Any conservative will enjoy Barrett’s numerous and often humorous descriptions of liberal fear-mongering about the Glock. Even Hollywood got into it: In Die Hard 2 the Bruce Willis character shouts to an airport police captain, “That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me! You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. It doesn’t show up here on your airport x-ray machines, and it costs more than you make here in a month.” No matter that every “fact” in the line is wrong, Barrett notes, the Glock got its very own “Dirty Harry” moment.
Smith & Wesson meanwhile waited too long to take its new competitor seriously and when it did was immediately one-upped by old man Glock himself. S&W working with the FBI developed a .40 caliber round designed for a softer recoil than 10 mm rounds which female agents disliked. Glock went to the S&W exhibit at the SHOT show in LasVegas and scooped up a few of the new rounds . He quickly realized that only minor changes were required to convert the 17 to the new .40 cal ammo. Because Glock’s manufacturing is computer based the company introduced a .40 cal model quickly and it was an immediate hit especially with police departments. The S&W offering was too late and never caught on.
Today about two-thirds of US police officers carry Glocks including the majority of the NYPD. This in turn has helped drive regular consumer sales. And Gaston Glock who survived an attempt on his life by a hammer-weilding hitman hired by Glock’s financial advisor is a very wealthy man of 82 with a young bride.
This book could plausibly be on the required reading list for business, marketing, political science and sociology curriculums. The main player is the Glock autopistol, a weapon that trainers praise for making bad shots average and average shots good. A product of the highest quality with a 70 per cent profit margin. A gun with a dark reputation not at all supported by crime statistics. An innovative gun marketed on its merits and plenty of sex and booze. A gun that made anti-gun folks examine all of their tactics which generally failed and quite often resulted in another Glock marketing triumph. Author Barrett, himself a fan of the unique pistol, deftly weaves it all together for a most interesting read.