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Rise of an Empire: The Glock Story

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Since the GLOCK pistol first appeared in the U.S. in the 1980s the polymer pistol’s innovation, reliability, and ease of use have made it the standard by which other pistols are judged.

In the public eye the GLOCK design has been demonized in the press, praised by shooters, and turned into a pop-culture icon.

The GLOCK story begins in 1980 when Gaston Glock entered the competition to provide a new pistol for the Austrian military. His small company had already been providing the military with field knives, practice grenade bodies, and machine-gun belt links, but this would be the largest contract yet. Because Herr Glock had never designed a firearm he started with a clean paper. His submission combined his extensive knowledge of polymer manufacturing processes with the desire to create the most simple and efficient pistol possible.

The result was a polymer framed, striker fired, pistol with only 34 total parts. The design incorporated the common short recoil, locked breech, system used in most modern autopistols with GLOCK’s proprietary “Safe Action” mechanism. When the pistol is loaded the action of the slide puts the striker in the half-cocked position. Three safeties, including a firing pin safety, drop safety and external safety on the trigger face, keep the pistol from firing unless the trigger is pulled to first fully cock and then release the striker.

The Austrian government awarded the contract to GLOCK in 1982 and the first 30,000 9mm GLOCK 17 pistols were delivered the next year. A contract with the Norwegian Army followed in 1984. Although European military sales were important the United States domestic market was where the money was and GLOCK jumped in big time with the establishment of a U.S. subsidiary in 1985.

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The mid-80s was the era of the “Wondernine.” The craze for these double-action, high capacity, 9mm pistols started when the U.S. military picked the Beretta 92 to replace the venerable Model 1911A1 in 1982. In police service the .38 Special revolver had ruled for decades but, whether true or not, the perception was that cops armed with six-shot wheelguns were outgunned by criminals armed with superior firepower. Both the real life “Florida Cocaine Wars” and fictional entertainment like “Miami Vice” reinforced this belief.

The GLOCK 17 offered several advantages over pistols like the Beretta 92, SIG SAUER 226 and the various Smith & Wesson 2nd and 3rd Generation automatics. The polymer framed GLOCK was lighter than its steel and aluminum framed competitors. More importantly the GLOCK was easier to use, especially for officers transitioning from a revolver. The absence of any external safety lever or decocker was one less thing to worry about and, unlike a traditional DA/SA trigger, the GLOCK’s Safe Action trigger required the same short and relatively light trigger pull for every shot. The 17-round magazine capacity was a bonus as it offered at least two more rounds over any competing pistol. The low parts count made the pistol more reliable, as there were fewer parts that could break, and made it easier for department armorers to maintain their issue fleets.

The company knew that if they could succeed in the police market civilian sales would follow as private citizens would emulate the example set by the police. To make this work GLOCK aggressively courted police departments and offered trade in deals on their old guns that in many cases made the new GLOCK pistols almost free. This strategy, along with the pure quality of the product, played a role in the GLOCK pistol’s dominate position in the law enforcement market. According to GLOCK company literature approximately 65% of U.S. police agencies issue some model of a GLOCK handgun.

All was not smooth at first however: The GLOCK 17’s polymer frame led to unexpected controversy. When the gun was first imported anti-gun activists claimed that this “plastic pistol” was undetectable to x-rays or metal detectors and that terrorists would smuggle the guns past airport security. Several anti-gun politicians jumped on the bandwagon to hold hearings and the national media ran with the story. At one point the press was so bad that the State of New York banned the pistol by name. Fortunately, the truth won out after multiple demonstrations showed that not only would the metal of the slide set off a metal detector and appear on an X-ray, the polymer receiver itself could also be clearly seen in airport scanning machines. Although the Heckler & Koch VP 70, first manufactured in 1970, was actually the first polymer handgun design, it had not been noticed by the media and the newer GLOCK was singled out for this smear campaign.

This myth was picked up in one of the GLOCK’s first big, and most infamous, pop culture references. In 1990’s Die Hard 2 Bruce Willis as Detective John McClane said, “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 on your airport x-ray machines here and it costs more than what you make in a month!”

The handgun received a better mention in 1998’s U.S. Marshalls when experienced Marshall Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) takes a look at neophyte John Royce’s (Robert Downey Jr.) Taurus PT 945 and told him, “Get yourself a GLOCK and lose that nickel plated sissy pistol.”

The original GLOCK 17 was joined by other models starting in 1987. The first, the full-auto G18 “machine pistol” is rare in the United States due to its restriction to law enforcement and military sales only. The pistol introduced the following year has proven to be one of the most popular in the line however. The GLOCK 19 is often considered to be the perfect balance of size, conceability, and firepower. The pistol is essentially a slightly chopped G17 with a 4.01-inch barrel instead of the G17’s 4.48-inch barrel and with a shortened grip that holds a 15-round magazine instead of the 17-round magazine of the GLOCK 17. An even smaller variant, the GLOCK 26, appeared a few years later. This CCW-oriented pistol has a 3.42-inch barrel and 10-round magazine.

The company has kept up with advances in the field. When the FBI and Smith & Wesson developed the .40 S&W cartridge to replace the Bureau’s 10mm pistols GLOCK stole a march on Smith & Wesson by getting their pistol to market before the Smith gun was available. Not only was GLOCK the first to get a .40 S&W pistol released they later developed the .45 GAP cartridge in an effort to provide the ballistics of the .45 ACP cartridge in a smaller envelope. Outside of some police sales though this cartridge has not proven to be popular with shooters. GLOCK pistols are also offered in .357 SIG, 10mm, and .380 ACP. The latest 10mm versions recently released are set up from the factory to accept red dot optic sights and are designed for hunting and competition.

The original Gen 1 pistols were replaced with Gen 2 versions with an improved texture. These were, in turn, replaced with Gen 3 versions that added finger grooves to the grip and an accessory rail under the dustcover. The current Gen 4 version features a redesigned recoil spring setup and adjust grip inserts to custom fit the pistol to the owner’s hands.

The GLOCK pistols have also proven popular with competition shooters with the company producing different competition oriented variants over the years. In addition to the sponsored TEAM GLOCK shooters the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation gives GLOCK owners a chance to compete on an equal basis with other GLOCK owners.

By Rob Reed. Originally published in the April 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.

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