America’s Top Gun

13 January 2011

Bloomberg Businessweek has a fascinating article on how, starting from nothing, Glock has come to dominate the American handgun market. You may not be surprised to discover that ill-conceived gun control legislation played a major part in shifting gun owners’ preferences towards ever larger magazine capacities and so on…

When Karl Walter, a firearm salesman based in the U.S., first picked up a Glock during a visit to a Vienna gun shop in the spring of 1984, his reaction was, "Jeez, that’s ugly." The squared-off pistol lacked the blued-steel frame and polished wooden grips of a classic American revolver. Its black matte finish seemed homely. "But still, I was extremely curious why the Austrian army bought it," Walter says. "There had to be more to it than what meets the eye initially."

A native Austrian, Walter sold imported rifles to American police departments, traveling from town to town in a motor home custom-fitted as a rolling gun showroom. For years he had nurtured an idea about handguns: "Where there really is money to be made is to convert U.S. police departments from revolvers to pistols."

Ever since the 19th century, when the Colt Peacemaker became known as "the gun that won the West," Americans had preferred revolvers. Continental Europeans favored pistols, also known as semiautomatics, with spring-loaded magazines that snap into the handle, holding more rounds and allowing faster reloading. "I was astonished," Walter says, "that this modern country still hung around with revolvers." In 1984 he paid a call on Gaston Glock and offered to sell his pistol in America. 

[…] In September 1994, after a string of grisly shootings—the 1989 Stockton (Calif.) elementary school attack, the 1991 Killeen massacre, the 1993 Waco siege—Congress passed the assault weapons ban, which President Bill Clinton immediately signed. The law, which limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, seemed likely to hurt Glock. It had the opposite effect. Long before the law’s enactment, Glock was running its factory at full tilt. "We’re getting 5,000 guns and 8,000 to 9,000 magazines a week from Austria," Dick Wiggins, a Glock representative, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in May 1994. "We’re tens of thousands of orders behind," he added. "Our pistols are scarcer than hen’s teeth."

As a compromise to get the law passed, the Clinton Administration had agreed to allow continued sale of gear manufactured before the ban. Glock executives figured the new law would incite a buying frenzy, and they were right. "People who own guns that use magazines holding more than 10 rounds—including the Glock 9mm popular with police—are buying extra magazines as fast as they can," USA Today reported. " ‘We were cleaned out of magazines in the space of a few hours,’ says Mike Saporito of RSR Wholesale Guns of Winter Park, Fla., which supplies thousands of retail shops. ‘Sales have gone through the roof.’ "

Seventeen-round Glock clips that had sold for less than $20 quintupled in price over the next few years. The unintended consequence of the law was that more high-capacity weapons and magazines ended up in stores, at gun shows, and on the street. Indeed, "the Clinton gun ban," as the NRA called the legislation, created a fascination with large clips that hadn’t existed before in civilian gun circles.

The Austrian company found new ways to feed the demand the law had unintentionally created. Having supplied scores of major police departments with 9mm weapons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Glock gave these agencies the opportunity to trade in their modestly used pistols for brand-new ones. The exchanges earned the company powerful customer loyalty and gave Glock another large batch of pre-ban magazines that could be resold on the burgeoning used market. In one exchange in late 1994, Glock received 16,000 used high-capacity clips and more than 5,000 older pistols from the Metropolitan Police Dept. of Washington, D.C.

Bruce Willis and Die Hard also played a part in boosting Glock’s renown. Whole thing here.


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Show comments
  • A. MacAulay

    The point about Glock pistols is that they were highly innovative in having a polymer grip, in line with Austrian use of modern, light materials in military technology as for instance the AUG Assault Rifle. Glock pistols also have a so called, double action, revolver type trigger which is a massive improvement over the traditional American Colt 1911. This made it easy and attractive for Police Departments to modernise their armories with high quality, high capacity pistols with the essential feature of retaining the revolver type trigger which officers were used to.

  • ACN

    Dearieme. One reference to hand, the Army and Navy Catalogue 1907, has revolvers and pistols (Colt ‘automatic pistols’, Mauser ‘repeating self loading pistol’) as separate categories. Ditto the Brtitish ‘Textbook of Small Arms 1929’ and the American ‘Hatchers Textbook of pistols and Revolvers’ of 1935. The first commercial auto pistol appeared in 1893 and was largely perfected by 1900. The revolver appeared in the late 1840’s and again was pretty well sorted by the end of the century, since when most improvements have bee driven by the target shooting fraternity,
    In the media the term handgun has now indeed seemed to have replaced ‘pistol’ for both revolvers and automatics/self loaders in the media, but not necessarily amongst those with a greater knowledge or interest.
    Not sure if I agree with Olaf about Glock quality. It’s made of plastic for goodness sake! But as a one-time owner of a SIG P210 perhaps my sights are set a little high, so to speak.
    Cannot add much more as I need to loosen my anorak.

  • dearieme

    Thank you, ACN. When you say “The modern term ‘handgun’ now appears to have superseded ‘pistol'” I take it you mean that “handgun” embraces both pistol and revolver? Anyway, my original question remains: when did these changes of usage occur? I look forward to whatever Olaf discovers.

  • ACN

    A brief history lesson for dearieme. First there were pistols (single shot flintlock, later percussion). Sam Colt then came along and gave us the revolving pistol, a repeating weapon. Next, with ammunition improvements, came the self-loading pistol (British and German terminology)or semi-automatic (the American term). In Britain these terms reduced to ‘revolver’ and ‘pistol’ where pistol implied a self- loader. Hence my old club (before the politicians decided the populace was not to be trusted anymore) was named the ‘B****** and District Revolver & Pistol Club’. The modern term ‘handgun’ now appears to have superseded ‘pistol’. Though if you go back further a ‘Handegonne’ meant anything that wasn’t a cannon.

  • Olaf Rye

    Sorry, Dearleme, I did misunderstand you. I shall have a look at the OED to see what they have to say about the origins of the word !

  • dearieme

    “A pistol generally refers to a semi-automatic handgun”: no, you miss the point. My question was when did this usage come in. It wasn’t the British usage of my boyhood and I’d like to know when Americans adopted it. A revolver was referred to as a pistol in the USA in 19th century: when did the change occur?

  • AndyinBrum

    The Glock is an excellent, reliable, tough weapon which rarely, if ever, jams.

  • Olaf Rye

    A pistol generally refers to a semi-automatic handgun, whereas a revolver has a rotating cylinder. As one of the people that has used most of these side-arms at one time or another, I think that the Glock is popular also because of its quality. Many people like the 9mm versions because of the larger magazine capacities of these pistols, but I still prefer high calibres.

  • Alex Massie

    JDub – You are correct but in Die Hard 2 the villains used Glocks…

  • dearieme

    When did Americans take to using “pistol” as excluding revolvers? It certainly wasn’t a British usage in my boyhood.

  • Baron

    the Clinton’s tweaking of the law once again confirms that good intentions often lead to outcomes not only unexpected, but more lethal that what the status was before it got enacted. Madness.

  • Johnnydub

    Anorak Attack!

    I think you’ll find that the gun that Bruce Willis uses in Die Hard is a Beretta 92F… the same as Mel Gibson uses in Lethal Weapon…

  • DavidDP

    It’s the fetishisation of the weapon, it’s raising to some sort of holy icon in US society that’s a major problem.

  • ndm

    The Wall Street Journal has a slightly different take:

    — The gunman in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre also used a Glock 19, and another gun, but law-enforcement officials said it was not normally considered a gun used by criminals.

    — Glocks are more expensive than guns normally found at crime scenes. ($)

  • simon

    I wonder Uffie had anything to do with? Pop The Glock:

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