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.