Glock: The Pistol that Changed Handguns
It’s the most influential pistol of the last 50 years and now it’s a favorite of many law enforcement officers and concealed carriers alike. Here’s the story of the gun that changed everything.
When it comes to Glock guns, we’re not in Kansas anymore. And there’s a good reason why.
In the not-too-distant past, the weapon of choice for most law enforcement departments was the .38 Special revolver. Such a gun was reliable, dependable, and easy for officers to control. Many departments adopted revolvers chambered for the more powerful .357 Magnum to gain an edge against the bad guys.
The U.S. military had a different philosophy. Uncle Sam’s team has been using semi-automatic pistols since Howard Taft was President. The .45 ACP is a powerful cartridge, and the 1911A1 pistol—as spec’d by Uncle Sam—is heavy and hard to master, but it gets the job done.
So what does Kansas have to do with all this?
Around the 1980s, momentum was building within law enforcement circles to replace revolvers with semi-automatic pistols. The reason for that was law enforcement was being outgunned. Bad guys were arming themselves with semi-auto handguns, and the cops were behind the curve with their revolvers.
In 1986 in Colby, Kansas, there were 12 full-time officers on the force and they needed to update their sidearms. Beretta had sold their Model 92F to the Connecticut State Police in 1983; SIG and Heckler & Koch had had success with military sales, especially with Special Forces teams; and the Illinois State Police converted to the Smith & Wesson Model 39 way back in 1967. However, budgets, as tight as they were and are, did not lead the Colby department to one of the more well-known manufacturers of pistols, but to a relatively unknown and new manufacturer. That manufacturer was Glock.
New Thinking, New Gun
The Glock G17 was the first model produced to satisfy the Austrian Army’s search for a pistol to replace the aging WWII-era Walther P38 that was currently in service. This was in 1979. Gaston Glock was not a firearms manufacturer, but he knew his way around the Austrian government procurement process because he fulfilled government contracts for knives, ammunitions belts, and other sundries. When he heard that the Austrian military was looking for a new pistol, he saw an opportunity.
Glock assembled a group of firearm experts to come up with a wish list of characteristics and features for a combat handgun. Within three months, Glock’s knowledge of polymers and manufacturing culminated in the G17, a working prototype 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of 17 rounds. It featured a polymer frame and a striker-fire operating system with three safety features.
Whether you want a handgun for self-defense, home security, or just plain fun, here’s what you need to know about handgun types, pros and cons, and best choices for beginners.
My first experience examining and operating a Glock brought the word “simple” to mind. It uses 34 parts, compared to a SIG, which uses 53; or a Beretta, which has 70 components. A friend told me how simple it was to disassemble, and demonstrated in less time than it took to explain.
The Glock G17 passed the Austrian trials in 1982 and was quickly adopted by the Austrian military. Norwegian and Swedish armed forces soon followed.
The G17 had passed numerous endurance tests. It was abused hellishly—dropped from buildings, run over by trucks, dunked in water, frozen in ice, thrown in mud—and the G17 passed all tests.
That’s not to say the new G17 was perfect, as Glock had advertised the pistol. Some first-generation pistols needed frame rails tweaked to avoid accidental discharge, but that was fixed quickly, and Glock’s reputation as safe and reliable ballooned.
The Acceptance Curve
As word spread about the Glock, some news outlets started reporting on the plastic gun that could evade x-ray machines. It was branded as a terrorist’s gun. It didn’t help that Muammar Gaddafi was an early adopter of the pistol. But the fact is that Glock pistols use steel and alloys in their construction. The slide, barrel, springs, and some other parts are easily identified under x-ray examination.
Also, there was an acceptance curve that the Glock had to overcome with those who used pistols in the normal course of their job, and with gun enthusiasts who blast soda cans in the local sand pit.
The G17 compared to other pistols of the time was ugly. Blocky and devoid of ornamentation, it was and still is an unattractive pistol. It was odd compared to the handguns most officers and civilians were accustomed to. The G17’s polymer frame was referred to as plastic—as if implying the pistol was disposable, cheaply manufactured, and would wear out in no time. (Even so, Glock was not the first to manufacture market a polymer-framed pistol. The polymer framed Heckler & Koch VP70 debuted in 1970 and was way ahead of its time—too far ahead, and it was not that popular.
Glock pistols do not have a manual safety or a decocking lever, which also led early users to think it was unsafe. How could it be safe if it had no safety?
On the plus side, the gun was lightweight. Unloaded, the G17 weighs about 22 ounces. Compare that to a 1911A1 that weighs 34 ounces, or a S&W Model 59 that weighs 30 ounces. Capacity is another advantage. The 1911A1 has a 7+1 round capacity, the S&W Model 59 has a 14+1 round capacity, and the G17 has a 17+1 round capacity. Lightweight, a high capacity, and a price tag of $300? That’s easy math. The G17 was inexpensive, but it did not perform like an inexpensive gun.
Better Than Expected
Back in Kansas, the Colby PD could take the risk of a “plastic” gun. It would be more cost-effective to run the guns until they wore out, and then buy new ones. Little did the force in Colby know that by adopting the Glock G17 pistols they helped make a Glock a household name and the most influential handgun design of the late 20th century.
And, it turned out that these plastic guns did not wear out. Gun writers of the time ran endurance tests trying to prove the cheapness of a plastic gun. No doubt those pistols with thousands of rounds through them are still functioning today.
The G17 entered late onto the scene but quickly took the lead role. The era of “Wonder Nines”—9mm semi-automatic handguns with a staggered column magazine featuring a capacity ranging from 13 to 15 rounds or more, and a DA/SA trigger—started in the mid 1970s and continued through the 1980s. Wonder Nines offered over twice the firepower the typical officer carried, and the caliber was accurate and easy to control. In comparison, revolvers seemed as dated as a horse and buggy is to the NASA space shuttle.
Actually, Glock pistols were not really that much different from semi-automatic pistols used during WWII. But what Glock added was light weight, relentless reliability, ease of use, and three built-in safeties.
To Miami and Beyond
In 1986, the Miami PD became the first large law-enforcement department to purchase Glock pistols. To date, Glock has about 65 percent market of LE, making the Glock the most used pistol among law enforcement. I have spoken with police chiefs from Mississippi to Michigan, and they all have praise for the weapon.
It also became obvious that Glock is good at quickly changing design to meet the needs of LE.
As the 9mm fell out of favor with LE and the .40 S&W took over, Glock redesigned its pistol for the new caliber (although many agencies are now reverting back to the 9mm as ammunition technology makes the round more effective). The outward appearance of a 9mm Glock compared to a .40 S&W Glock or any other Glock for that matter is not radically different. Part of what makes Glock unique is the similarity of models, which allows a user trained on a 9mm to easily adapt to a Glock in another caliber. All Glocks operate the same way. It might seem unfair to say that if you shot one Glock you shot them all, but that is the reality of the design.
A deadly shootout between bank robbers and FBI agents in Miami led to the development of the cartridge that’s a top choice for personal defense.
Glock easily displaced well known pistol manufacturers due to the competitive price and ease of training and use. Many trainers I know have new shooters learn with a Glock because it is so simple to learn, with minimal ramp-up time.
From a competitive point of view, Glock pistols are not tack drivers—nor are they meant to be—but in action-pistol shooting, the Glock reigns supreme. It affords good accuracy and reliability.
Many concealed-carriers choose compact and subcompact Glock models, as well as full-size versions. When the 9mm G34 debuted a few years back, it was the hottest, most sought-after concealed-carry pistol. It is subcompact and thin, making it easy to conceal.
If Glock gets criticism, it is about their trigger. The first time I fired a Glock I thought the trigger felt like a heavy-duty staple gun—not exactly crisp and clean like a 1911’s single-action trigger. The grip of Gen 1, Gen 2 and Gen 3 models also have a reputation as having a large circumference grip. Small-handed shooters have a hard time grasping the pistol, so Glock introduced Gen 4 models with a modular backstrap system to allow a custom fit for nearly any hand size.
Today most of the other pistol manufacturers that Glock displaced produce a polymer frame striker-fire pistol. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
There is more to the Glock story. The new M.O.S. models that were introduced in 2016 offer shooters the ability to mount a small reflex optic, which makes shooting the Glock easier than with iron sights.
Glock is a brand that nearly every person on planet knows, right along with Coke, Ford, and Apple. Rappers have sung about the Glock in song and TV, and movies helped make Glock a household brand. My experience with the brand, as is with millions of other shooters, is that Glock strives for perfection and is a true innovator.