Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Third Extinction and America's Gun.

Every time I get together with people in the firearms industry and the talk turns to the state of quality in the handgun world, Gaston Glock's name eventually comes up. For better or worse, his plastic pistol changed the rules of the game: If you want to compete on price, you either have to cheapen and skimp on the way you build your old-fashioned metal guns, or you have to start from a clean sheet of plastic yourself. Or you have to just resign yourself to not competing on price.

That SIG-Sauer is one of the more notable casualties of this tectonic shift is ironic, since it was their P-220 and its derivatives, using the cost and weight benefits of sheet-metal stampings and light-alloy frames, that brushed aside the milled-steel pistols of the ancien regime, like the SIG Neuhausen P-210 and the Browning High Power.

Browning's High Power, in turn, was the final effort of a man whose simple pistol designs did to the handgun marketplace of the early Twentieth Century what Glock's offerings did at its close. In the first two decades of the 1900's, you could buy American-made semiautomatic pistols from Colt, Savage, Harrington & Richardson, Remington, and Smith & Wesson, and by the end of the third decade, only Colt's simple John Browning designs were left, able to compete on price at higher profit margins.

Glock's adventures in the American marketplace are chronicled in Paul Barrett's book, Glock: The Rise of America's Gun. The title alone has stirred controversy, what with the Glock being an Austrian pistol designed to win the Austrian service pistol trials. In response, I would point out that, were Austria to issue a pistol to every active duty service member, Glock would sell 19,000 guns. Could he land a similar contract with the New York City Police Department, that's 36,000 pistols, and the follow-on sales in the civilian market would be enormous.

Like any manufacturer of pistols, Gaston Glock knew where the world's biggest handgun market was, and the company went after it wholeheartedly. In the years since, the Glock has gone from being an exotic European military pistol to a sight as familiar as Barney Fife's Colt revolver; the ubiquitous, generic American Cop Gun.

The book is a combination of investigative business journalism, and Margaret Mead-esque anthropology, as Barrett turns his outsider's eyes on familiar names, spending time with Massad Ayoob and interviewing Dean Speir. As with any investigative journalism, the book rakes muck, and Glock is a company with plenty of muck to rake: Lawsuits, accusations of shady business practices, executives for which "colorful" would be a charitable description... even a strip club scandal.

All in all, though, I have to hand it to Mr. Barrett. He claimed he was going to write an even-handed portrayal, and he did. (And I'm not just saying that because I have a tiny, off-screen part: I laughed out loud when he mentioned that Dean Speir was "banished" from GlockTalk.) If you want the warts-and-all story of how Glock went from nowhere to being the 800lb gorilla of the handgun world, you should read this book.

38 comments:

Tango Juliet said...

They still my bite my hand.

Darrell said...

Glocks do nothing for me, sorry.

Tam said...

Darrell,

Obviously they do. You typed something, didn't you? ;)

the pawnbroker said...

Not sure if "accusations of shady business practices" included the Glock marketing blitz of the 90's -and I'm sure there was some backroom dealing and quid pro quo going on-, but to me it was a brilliant seizing of opportunity.

The High Capacity Clip "ban" was used by Glock to funnel thousands of their products complete with LEO ONLY mags in even-up trades to cop shops. Every Smith and Beretta et al and every "pre-ban" magazine begat a G17 with a like number of LEO mags. How could they afford to do that? Well, did anybody pay attention to all the "refurbished" cop guns that hit the market in that period? Most times one ten-round mag and one high-cap one was included with each, bringing close to what a new gun with ten-rounders only did. And that is without mentioning the many thousands of magazines sold separately in the (wholesale!) range of $40-$50. So it was definitely profitable as a stand-alone transaction. Add in the reps coming in to every department with demos of durability, etc., and the end result is that your book's subtitle became an accurate description, perhaps edited to "The rise of America's Cop Gun".

Even when I dislike vehemently the product being sold, I can't help but be impressed when a great plan comes together, even when it is based solely on the marketing campaign alone.

I've said before that as much as we rightly malign MSM, it is they who have masterfully guided the current political scene so that in the end our choices are two versions of the very same thing, albeit with one coming in a different-colored package.

I'm not a big fan, but at least with the Glock, the product being sold is functional and capable. Would that the same could be said for the product that will be delivered to us come November.

SGB said...

This book will be excellent for people who need to prop up one corner of a couch or people who like to give bad books to charity.

Tam said...

SGB,

Have you read it?

Old NFO said...

I've read it, and it does a good job of peeling back some layers to show the reality of the gun manufacturing world... And pretty much shows nothing has changed in 100 years... Insert Colt, or S&W, or Winchester or Remington or Springfield and I'm betting the stories wouldn't vary by much.

Tam said...

Old NFO,

It's a good reminder of what a bitty little cottage industry the firearms world is.

It always amuses me when journalists try to paint up "Big Guns" a la "Big Oil" or "Big Pharma", when any oil or drug company could buy the largest firearms manufacturers in the world out of pocket change, and your average Super WalMart probably employs as many people as many firearms manufacturers...

Jon said...

Thanks for the tip-off on this; I'm not a bit fan of the Glock ergonomics, but I still own a 19 for historical purposes.

I'm always interested to read a decent book about guns!

SGB said...

Tam,

Yes I read it. I was loaned a copy given to someone to review it. I read it in two days and found it to be less than what I would have expected. In addition, as has been discussed elsewhere, the author has views on firearms I don't agree with but had he written a decent book I would have looked past those. Alas, he did not.

SGB said...

Let me add something though - The book is better than had it been written by an anti-gunner. However, the authors contention that there should be a ban on high capacity magazines really got under my skin. While he is sympathetic to gun owners I still found the book to be less than what I expected from an investigative journalist. It's "Pop Investigation" rather than the straight forward tale I would have liked.

Still, it will sell well. So did Twilight.

Tam said...

Well, I disagree with you. I found it entertaining and well-written. But you know what a big ol' semiliterate Twilight fan I am.

And if I only read things by people whose ideology overlapped mine, I could start by deleting every blog off my sidebar. ;)

SGB said...

You are one of the most intelligent people I've ever read about a lot of different subjects. This is the first book I've ever read where I didn't agree with your assessment.

My crack about Twilight was intended for you. It was meant to convey that even things I don't like sell well. (Self deprecating sarcasm was what I intended)

I just didn't like the Glock book. But if you like it, it has value because you are one of the best writers I read. Period.

mariner said...

Field strip or detail strip?

Tam said...

mariner,

In Atlanta, they're allowed to detail strip. :p

Tam said...

SGB,

*gawrsh*

*scuffs toe* :o

I'll admit that the book had probably more interest for me than many lay readers, in that I was in the firearms biz in the ATL from '93-'00 and was rarely more than a few degrees of separation from many of the events relayed in the book.

In such a small industry, you know your sales rep, who also reps for so and so, and they just happened to hire Mr. X, who used to work for Brand Z, and he said... I felt like a Polynesian kid reading Mead at times, too, kinda chuckling behind my hand. ;)

Montana said...

It's interesting that Sig moved away from stamped steel slides back to milling. I've enjoyed the Glocks that I have shot, but I prefer the feel of the DA/SA trigger of 'old school' guns. And in that market, Sig is top of the heap. Someday I'll probably buy a Glock, but it'll never get the loving attention that I lavish on my Sig pistols.

Tam said...

Montana,

Stamped slide or milled, they're still full of toaster parts, just like most postwar designs. ;)

Tim D said...

Well, at least whats-her-yutz can stop bothering you in the comments.

Panamared said...

At a time when a colt 1911 cost premium dollars to buy and then you would have to spend that much more to make it shoot anything but hardball reliably. Glock came out with a pistol that worked reliably out of the box. With all of the ink printed about being unsafe, having bad triggers, and being made from cheap plastic, they still managed to change the firearm industry, for better or worse.

Aaron said...

Shouldn't the first sentence of the second paragraph refer to this change as a "teutonic shift"? :-)

Ken said...

@Aaron: boooooooo. Cute, but booooooo just the same. :-)

Glocks fit my hand well (left-handed), and I actually like shooting .40 for some reason, so I may end up with a Glock 22 some day, unless I decide to get some big ol' brick like a Ruger 944, which I also enjoy to shoot, instead.

The book sounds interesting. You want real high-quality misinformation about guns? Allow me to quote the textbook I use with my Fundamentals of Marketing students (this is from a sidebar describing so-called "'domestic' gray" markets):

"In a recent court case (no cite offered -- ed.), it was argued that because Glock produces more firearms than are needed to supply a legitimate (no definition offered -- ed.), the excess goes into illegal secondary channels. Glocks aren't for civilian use; they're intended for law enforcement. But they encourage quick, free upgrades and trade-ins, thereby creating a supply of 'former police guns' (which have enhanced value and credibility in the civilian market). The end result is an increase of sales to illegal and underage users. Well, that's a channel. (See research by Professor Don Mayer, Oakland U.)"

I suppose the passage could be referring to the magazine-capacity period, but both editions of this textbook were published well after 2004. Rarely does one see so many O RLY and Spock eyebrow moments packed into a single paragraph. :-)

Al T. said...

Getting it from the library. That lets me buy yet another evil high capacity magazine for my G17/19.

Darrell said...

Tam said...
Darrell,

Obviously they do. You typed something, didn't you? ;)

9:43 AM, January 21, 2012

Well, Glocks don't, but Tam does. ;^)

TBeck said...

Dean Speir always has some good Glock stories. I'll have to read the book just to get his take on things. He helped this paduwan learn his way around the Prodigy gun boards a couple decades ago and was a definite formative influence.

Anonymous said...

been there done that, 17 19 20 21 etc etc...
seen too many problems and kbooms to ever go back to the brand...
sometimes i miss my 1st yr production 17, but then i realize i still have all my fingers and want to keep it that way...
seen to many horror stories on GT to risk my dollars anymore , just saying...

Jayson said...

'former police guns' (which have enhanced value and credibility in the civilian market)

I don't think it's credibility. I think it's that they'd more than likely only been shot once a year.

Firehand said...

Yeah, but maybe cleaned the month after, too...

Which reminds me of something, but that's post material

Anonymous said...

I still remember the time a Philly PD LT was shocked that I would carry a pistol that was undetectable by airport x-rays.

He said he read it in Time/Newsweek so it must be true.

Gerry

Ancient Woodsman said...

Very, very good post. While I've had various Glocks and will again someday, I have been a SIG fan for 30 years and carried one professionally for my soon-to-retire career. I wasn't going to go near that Glock book, but now will look for it and either borrow, buy, or download. Thanks for the review.

The SIG stamped-now-milled simply makes economic sense for the manufacturer. The stamped early 220s were a wonder that I still like, but were pre-CAD & pre-CNC and yet still superior to the hand-fitted Colt & like; the milled SIG now is the logical extension of the then-stamped. The 'revolution' of the then-stamped 220 wasn't more than a few years - maybe 8 - before the 'revolution' that was Glock. My time in the wholesale/retail industry was that time when Browning was just importing the SIG, and Glocks were simply a rumor, a bit earlier than your time behind the counter. It was indeed exciting, yet I envy your closeness to the Glock story.

Your description re: industries is spot on. The SIG factory 6 miles down the road is pretty small with fairly few employees, as is the H&K factory 8 miles in the other direction. To us they are a big deal; on the scale of other industries they are small potatoes.

Thanks again for the post.

the pawnbroker said...

Ken: Only in American academia could a textbook in marketing find a way to demonize the pure genius of capitalizing on misguided gov machinations to become as I paraphrased in my comment above "America's Cop Gun".

Jayson: Mostly true about the low miles on the cop trades; they typically had a lot of holster wear, and I think the refurb entailed just a fresh coat of flat black Krylon, new manual, cleaning kit, one used normal mag and one new stunted one, all packed tight in a new black Tupperware gun box from hell. But the Perfesser got the "enhanced value and credibility" part right, in the same way that any other celebrity endorsement lends credibility and adds value; that shit works and I sold the piss out of those things throughout the 90's...because if all the po-po had 'em they just had to be the best. I just wish I had hung onto a lot more of the "wheel gun" trade-ins that everybody was so anxious to divest themselves of at that time. :(

But it's fun to see that there is documented acknowledgement of the masterful and effective marketing plan that I saw unfold firsthand.
Love 'em or hate 'em (I myself am ambivalent; they are an effective tool and a G27 lives in the cash drawer of my safe at work but I don't feel drawn to caress it as I might the old High Power kept on the top shelf), Glock is indisputably the king of handgun ubiquity in America, and that's marketing success by any (unbiased) measure.

Sigman said...

I don't see a Glock without hearing Darth Vader breathing, saying FEEL THE POWER OF THE DARK SIDE. They did however prove that a light weight, reliable, relatively low cost pistol could be built; just like Timex did with watches.

Anonymous said...

SIG really? You had to say SIG? Now I am thinking of Ron Cohen again.

Geez.

Shootin' Buddy

Lanius said...

I've got nothing against Glocks. Honest.

Different strokes for different folks. People like different films, books, porn, why should everyone like the same gun?

But what really pisses me off about human nature is the monkey-see monkey do attitude that means here, where Glocks are as expensive as milled-steel CZ's, and more expensive than steel-frame CZ clones from a lesser brand, people live who still buy Glocks...


So, in the end, it's one company, Glock raking in hundreds of millions by producing a so-so, not very accurate, butt-ugly but reliable firearm... selling it with a 200*% markup(~150 manufacturing, 450 retail) usually found only in the luxury goods for snobs trade, and companies that struggle to exist producing quality, all metal guns where the profit margin is one quarter of that, if not less..

And I needn't even mention that Glock bribed Slovak interior ministry to rig the police pistol competition. The usual method was used, the specifications were made so specific only Glock could win.
The other contender was the STI GP6 pistol, which is both locally made and more innovative.

*don't crucify me if it's just ~150%.

DirtCrashr said...

Interesting conversation taking place here, and one where I learn that it is Glock to whom I should/might owe thanks - for the beautiful, seldom-shot Model 10 Smith that I got for only $300 back in the 90's.

Anonymous said...

Bought a used Glock 19 from a pawn shop back in 1995. I'd prefer a pistol with an external safety, but the Glock has been reliable and safe for me.

I alternate carrying it with an HK Compact .45 USP. Both are very similiar in bulk. My beloved M1911A1 is too big for concealed carry, but the either the Glock or the USP work just fine.

MAJ Mike

Paul Barrett said...

Paul Barrett, author of the GLOCK book, here.
Just wanted to weigh in to thank Tam for an even-handed and very nicely written review. Sorry that SGB wants to use my book to prop up his couch, but hey, as long as you buy the book, you can do what you want with it! Seriously, though, I think that anyone interested in the most recent chapter of the long and fascinating history of guns in America will find some information and entertainment in the pages of GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun. All best, Paul www.glockthebook.com

Matthew said...

Dirtcrasher,

When I was a counter jockey at The Firing Line here in Anchorage in the early '90s you could get trade-in Mdl 10's at wholesale for $150 or so, $75 to $100 for 3 or more.

Don't even get me started on the 13's and 19's I didn't buy.

But I was young and foolish then, I feel old and foolish now.