The Glock 17

Glock G17
Despite initial resistance from the market to accept a “plastic” handgun, the Glock 17 quickly redefined pistol design and prompted police departments around the U.S. to give up their age-old revolvers for Glocks.Richard King

In 1980, a 50-year-old manager for a car radiator factory in Austria named Gaston Glock happened to be visiting that country’s Ministry of Defense. Glock, who had a part-time, home-based business, was there because he sold knives to the military. By coincidence he overheard a conversation between two colonels about the Austrian army’s need for a new pistol. Glock interrupted them to ask if he could bid on the contract. Knowing that he didn’t make guns, own guns, or even know a thing about guns, the colonels laughed and said something like “Sure, knock yourself out, buddy.”

When Glock read the details of the requirements for the new gun he said, “It shouldn’t be too difficult to make such an item.”

He was perhaps too naive to even understand that gun making is a complicated, difficult process. In Europe, handguns were made by companies that were often hundreds of years old. The thought that some guy who made knives, curtain rods, and door fixtures in his garage could come up with a workable handgun design and then manufacture the guns was beyond absurd.

But Gaston Glock had brains and courage, and the fact he knew nothing about guns actually worked to his advantage. Even something as simple and as long established as the grip angle on a handgun was new territory for him. Rather than copy other pistols, he nailed a couple of wooden sticks together and asked people to tell him which angle felt more natural. The preferred angle was 22 degrees—a departure from other handguns.

Everybody assumed that guns had to be made of metal, but Glock didn’t. He used injection-molded plastic to make handles and sheaths for his knives, so he applied that technology to guns.

Not being a gun guy, he picked the brains of guys who were. He also did a self-educating crash course on handguns by buying every gun he could. He took them apart and studied the engineering and he shot them until he knew them well.

He decided a safety was unnecessary. Safeties caused problems, mainly when people under stress forgot to disengage them in a gunfight. Revolvers didn’t have a safety; the long, hard, double-action trigger pull was their safety. So why did a semiauto handgun need one? Glock hired some engineers, including a plastics pro from the camera industry, and went to work. Legend has it he designed the gun in six months, but he has said it took a year. Either way, it was remarkable.

He called his new pistol the Glock 17. He didn’t name it as such because the plastic magazine held 17 rounds of 9mm luger, but because it was his 17th patent. The Glock 17 also had only 34 parts. Everything except the barrel, frame, and a few small internal parts and springs were made of plastic. Even the magazine was plastic. The gun was cheap to make; even when priced well below the competition, it created unprecedented profit margins. Its simplicity also made it a hard gun to kill. Glocks just keep shooting.

Glock G17
Gaston Glock didn’t name the Glock 17 because the magazine held 17 9mm Luger rounds, but because it was his 17th patent.

Glock won the military contract, beating out long-established handgun makers such as H&K and Beretta. Later, he would partner with Karl Walter to introduce the gun to America. Walter agreed to a small salary and a percentage of the U.S. sales. (Several years later, when Glock was a billionaire, he tried to change the contract to remove the percentage of sales clause. When Walter refused, Glock fired him.)

Walter had been brilliant in marketing the gun. He focused on law enforcement at first. Fueled in part by a disastrous FBI Shootout in Miami, there was a transition in law enforcement from revolvers to higher-capacity semi-automatic handguns. Walter used some unique marketing ideas, such as taking old revolvers as trade-ins, to arm police with the new Glock 17.

The gun became controversial when some people thought the plastic would make it undetectable at airports. The hysteria reached alarming levels as Congress considered banning the gun. Walter just used all this publicity to get the Glock ame out.

The Glock 17 was unfailingly reliable and its durability became legendary. The trigger has a small metal lever in the center that must be depressed before the gun can fire. It is essentially a safety. But, due to the location, there was no need to remember to activate the safety, it was automatic when you pulled the trigger. The firing system, called “striker fired,” was different than the conventional, hammer-fired guns. The trigger pull was somewhere between the long, hard, double-action trigger pull of a revolver and the light--some say unsafe--single-action trigger pull of some conventional semiautos. The striker-fired trigger required about 5.5 pounds of pull weight and half an inch of movement. The system proved to be safe and reliable while still being easy to shoot accurately.

This new and innovative handgun design didn’t just rewrite the book on defensive handguns--it burned it and stomped on the ashes. The Glock 17 changed everything.