What The Glock

Story of ‘America’s gun’ is filled with intrigue, luck, ego, tragedy and marketing triumph

It’s weird to think now, but prior to 30 years ago, the best chance of encountering the word “glock” was in the funny pages, where it might have been used as an interjection to suggest a heavy blow. Its existence as a proper noun, at least in popular culture, did not exist until 1982, when a then-humble machinist and engineer named Gaston Glock created the eponymous handgun that would revolutionize the firearms industry.

As told in journalist Paul M. Barrett’s Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, it did not take long before the name was a household word, at least among those who knew firearms, law enforcement agents in particular. By the early ‘90s, most of the rest of us had at least heard the word—whether in cop shows, movies or rap songs—and were able to identify it as a synonym for a cutting-edge, lethal weapon and force to be reckoned with in the gun world.

Memorably, for example, Bruce Willis as Lt. John McClane in 1990’s “Die Hard 2” yelled to an airport police captain: “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, and it costs more than you make here in a month!”

As Barrett notes in his book, “It didn’t matter that every single trait Willis/McClane ticked off about the pistol was incorrect: There was never a model called the Glock 7. The gun was made in Austria, not Germany. It did show up on airport Xray machines, and the Glock didn’t cost more than what a police captain made in a month.” The scene nevertheless helped to do for Glock Inc. what Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” Callahan did for Smith & Wesson and its .44 Magnum.

Like Glockwork

Barrett does a thorough job of chronicling the short time between the gun’s invention and its whirlwind achievement of near-icon status, and the tale is, in its way, riveting. As is often the case with mass-accepted products, much of the Glock’s wild success had to do with its being at the right place at the right time.

One of the watershed episodes in the story of the Glock’s rise, as Barrett tells it, was an infamous 1986 shootout in Miami between two bank robbers and eight FBI agents. Despite being outnumbered four to one, the robbers, armed with semiautomatic weapons, killed two of the agents and wounded five others before being taken down. The agents, like most other federal and local law enforcement officers at the time, had been armed with standard six-shot revolvers. The incident led to the introduction of more powerful handguns, both in the FBI and in police departments around the United States.

Compared to the Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers that were, up to that point, de rigueur in most departments, the pioneering semiautomatic Glock 17 nine-millimeter was lighter weight, had fewer and interchangeable parts, could fire as many as 17 bullets from its large-capacity spring-action magazine without reloading, and could be reloaded more quickly. In short, officers flocked to the Glock. Today, the Austrian pistol has been embraced by two-thirds of all U.S. police departments.

Glock, Stock and Barrel

“The American civilian gun-buying population tends to gravitate toward what the professionals carry,” Barrett writes. “For Glock, that translated into a bonanza.”

So ubiquitous did the Glock become that it was just a matter of time before it was as much a part of the arsenals of the criminal and disturbed as it was of the forces of good.

Among the high-profile tragedies Barrett devotes attention to is the one that took place Oct. 16, 1991, at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. After smashing his pickup through the restaurant’s plate-glass window, George Hennard shot 22 people dead and wounded at least 20 others before turning his Glock 17 on himself, committing suicide by putting a bullet through his left eye. At the time, the incident’s 23 deaths made the attack the worst mass shooting ever to occur in the United States.

Unfortunately, that dark distinction later belonged to the massacre at Virginia Tech, where on April 16, 2007, student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before committing suicide. One of the guns Cho used was a Glock 19 nine-millimeter.

Although he could, Barrett does not use such incidents to polarize his narrative of the Glock’s evolution. Rather, keeping in mind the good the gun has done for law enforcement and security-minded homeowners, and maintaining a mostly even-handed perspective, he concludes that the Glock “is not a particular villain within the fraternity of firearms. Nor is it a hero—regardless of what Hollywood tells us on both scores. As a weapon, a means of self-defense, and a source of recreation, the Austrian pistol has many positive attributes. It also has aspects now shared by many brands, such as large ammunition capacity, that can be problematic, even fatal.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Security Today.

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