Some people might dispute the idea that the Glock 17 should be regarded as a classic handgun. After all, when it was first adopted by the Austrian military in 1982 the Glock 17 wasn’t the first polymer framed handgun and it wasn’t even particularly technically innovative. However, it achieved such huge commercial success that it has influenced the design of virtually every subsequent semi-automatic handgun. In its own way, the Glock 17 is just as significant as more obviously seminal previous designs like the Colt Single Action Army or the Colt 1911. Not everyone may love it, but there is no escaping the importance of the Glock 17 in the history of handguns.
In many ways, fifty-one year old Gaston Glock was an unlikely person to develop a game-changing handgun. Glock ran a modest manufacturing business based outside Vienna in Austria. The main business was the manufacture of radiators for the automotive industry, but the company also produced small quantities of brass door and window fittings and curtain rods using a second-hand metal press. By 1980 the product range had expanded to include field knives and bayonets which were used by the Austrian armed forces. In connection with this work, in February 1980 Glock was visiting the Armed Forces Ministry in Vienna when he happened to overhear two high-ranking officers discussing the problems they were having in finding a suitable replacement for the antiquated P-38 pistols then in use by the Austrian military. Sensing a chance to expand his product line, Glock asked whether he might be allowed to submit a design for a new pistol. One can only assume that the military were somewhat bemused by his offer. Although Glock was a respected supplier of various items, he had no knowledge or experience of handgun design or manufacture. He didn’t even have much interest in shooting or guns and designing a handgun from scratch is a complex process. However, Glock was insistent and it was agreed that his company would be allowed to submit a tender which would be considered with offers from five established firearms companies.
You might imagine that trying to design a handgun from scratch when you don’t really know much about firearms would be a daunting task, but Glock set about it with the same energy and focus that he applied to all his business ventures. He immediately bought as many examples of existing handguns as he could, and systematically disassembled them, analysing their strengths and weaknesses. He took a number of shooting and gunsmithing courses and shot at ranges as often as possible. Then, in May 1980 he assembled a number of firearms experts and military staff at his holiday home in Velden, a lake resort town in Southern Austria and asked them: “What would you want from a pistol of the future?“.
Designing something entirely from scratch is daunting, but it can also be incredibly liberating. Any existing firearms manufacturer setting out to design a new pistol is constrained partly by a need to maintain a recognisable visual identity which links any new design to existing company products and also by the knowledge that expensive tooling is sitting around the factory floor, emphasising a need to re-use existing parts. Sometimes, approaching an engineering problem with no preconceptions and no history is the best way to find a fresh solution. Gaston Glock started out with only a short list of requirements gained from discussions with firearms experts (the ability to use the existing 9x19mm NATO standard round, a large capacity magazine, simplicity, reliability, light weight, a light and consistent trigger pull, a smooth design to avoid snagging when holstering or unholstering and ease of use with a minimum of training) and combined these with a knowledge of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) manufacturing equipment to develop a design which would meet the requirements of military and police users and yet would be cheap and simple to design. Glock had a number of crude prototypes made which he test fired in a basement firing range he had built in his home. Although he was right-handed, he used his left hand for these early tests, reasoning that if one of the test pistols failed explosively, he would still be left with a functioning right hand. In April 1981, just ten months after the first meeting with his firearms advisors, he filed an Austrian patent for the Glock 17 pistol. Why 17? Simply because it was the seventeenth thing he had invented (we don’t know what the previous sixteen were, though they certainly weren’t firearms). Though by coincidence, the new pistol featured a magazine with a capacity of 17, 9mm rounds, leading many people to suppose that this was the origin of the name.
Early Glock 17
The Glock 17 is a remarkable design in many ways. Functionally it is pretty conventional, using a short recoil, locked breech, tilting barrel arrangement. However, it used injection moulded plastic for the frame and grips. Glock already owned injection moulding equipment, used to produce handles and sheaths for the military knives and bayonets he sold, so using plastic to produce a strong but corrosion resistant part of a pistol seemed entirely logical. This wasn’t the first time that plastic had been used in a firearm – some earlier rifles and assault rifles from other manufacturers had used plastic for stocks and frames and in 1970 Heckler and Koch had produced the VP70, a futuristic looking pistol with a polymer frame and grip. Plastic was cheap and light and the injection moulding process was ideally suited to computer control. It was also notable that the Glock had no conventional manual safety catch. In his research into handgun use, Glock had become aware that even highly trained police officers and military personnel sometimes tried to fire their pistols without first releasing the manual safety when they were in stressful situations. To avoid this, the Glock featured a trigger safety, where pulling the trigger also moved a central blade that released internal safety mechanisms. In this way, the Glock was made drop-safe, but would fire every time the trigger was pulled.
The futuristic looking Heckler and Koch Volkspistole (People’s Pistol) VP70 was the first commercially produced handgun to feature a polymer frame, but it was never especially popular. Though it will be adopted as the official sidearm of the Colonial Marines in the year 2175, according to the 1986 movie Aliens.
The Glock had other advantages, too. It was light – just 660g compared to, for example, the Heckler and Koch P9S pistol (one of the other entries assessed for selection as the Austrian service pistol) which weighed 930g. It was simple, with only thirty-four components compared to the seventy-five parts in the H&K pistol and yet it managed to pack seventeen rounds into its reasonably sized grip (the H&K pistol held just nine). And best of all, it was cheap. Being designed exclusively for CNC production, the Glock could be produced with a minimum of costly human intervention. The Glock 17 made no concessions at all to aesthetics – it’s an undeniably ugly pistol. But ease and speed of manufacturing meant that the other, perhaps more visually appealing pistols just couldn’t compete commercially with the utilitarian simplicity of the Glock.
The Austrian military thoroughly tested all the pistols submitted to them. The test pistols were subjected to extremes of heat and cold, immersed in water, mud and sand and dropped from a height of two metres. Interspersed with these torture tests, each pistol was fired ten thousand times. While the other entries stumbled, the Glock misfired just once. In November 1982, the Austrian military announced that the Glock 17 had come out top in the trials and would be adopted as their principal service pistol.
The Glock 17 in America
Creating a handgun from scratch and selling it to a national military force in less than two and a half years is pretty impressive. But the total number of pistols involved was relatively small (20,000 were initially ordered). Though other European military and law enforcement agencies showed some interest in the Glock, the biggest single potential market for the new pistol was the USA.
In the mid-1980s, police and law enforcement agencies in the US were predominantly equipped with revolvers. However, they increasingly found themselves confronted by criminals using higher capacity semi-automatic weapons. In 1986 in Miami, eight, revolver equipped FBI agents tried to arrest two murder suspects armed with semi automatic weapons. Both suspects were killed, but the ensuing fire-fight also left two FBI agents dead, three with life-changing injuries and two with gunshot wounds. The FBI agents had simply found themselves outgunned, and this situation was repeated on a number of occasions across America. It was clear that law enforcement agencies needed a pistol with more than the traditional six-shot capacity of a revolver.
In late 1985, Glock Inc. was formed as the US marketing agency for the Glock 17. The reasonably priced, light and simple Glock appealed to US law enforcement agencies for precisely the same reasons that it did to the Austrian military. In 1986 twelve officers from the Police department in the small town of Colby in Kansas became the first US police officers to re-equip with the Glock 17. By 2010 Glock pistols were the most common handgun used by Law enforcement agencies in the US. Currently, 65% of all US law enforcement agencies use Glock pistols and they have also been adopted by police and military in many other countries.
Even in the UK, armed police officers use Glock pistols.
But the biggest part of the handgun market in the US comes from civilian owners and, despite some initial resistance to the idea of a plastic pistol, it was here that the Glock 17 found huge numbers of willing buyers. Part of this success can be attributed to the image the Glock quickly attained. A media frenzy was sparked in 1985 when a Defence Department official dismantled a Glock 17, put it in a duffel bag and took it through a security scanner at Washington National airport without being noticed. “Hi-jacker Gun!“, the headlines shouted, “Terrorist pistol“, “frighteningly easy to smuggle past airport security“. In response, several US states moved to ban the Glock 17 on the grounds that it was just too dangerous. While failing to note that in the same consignment of luggage as the Glock 17 was a fully assembled and all-metal H&K pistol, which also went undetected. The issue clearly lay with bored, inattentive, minimum wage staff manning the security point rather than any attributes of the Glock 17.
Generation 4 Glock 17
It was quickly shown that the Glock 17 was no more likely to be undetected at airport security than any other handgun, but by then it had established an identity as a “bad” gun in many sections of the US media. The situation was exacerbated in 1988 when it was found that the Police Commissioner in New York (where the Glock 17 was still the subject of a licensing ban) was carrying a Glock 17 as his personal weapon. A number of newspapers ran the story, including the New York Post who described the pistol (among other things) as a “state-of-the art supergun“. You just can’t buy that sort of publicity. Imagine: you’re choosing a handgun for yourself. Would you rather have an ordinary pistol, or for rather less money, an evil, hi-tech supergun? Not a difficult choice.
Hollywood too added to the mystique of the Glock. Reprising his role as John McLane in Die Hard 2 in 1990, Bruce Willis famously said:
“That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines here and it cost more than you make in a month.”
Wrong on every count of course – there never was a Glock 7, Glocks are made in Austria, not Germany from metal and plastic, not porcelain, they are detected by airport scanners and they aren’t particularly expensive. But people watching the movie got the message – a Glock was something special. In the 1998 movie U.S. Marshalls, Tommy Lee Jones looked contemptuously at Robert Downey Junior’s stainless steel Taurus PT945 and quipped:
“Get yourself a Glock and lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol.”
Unsurprisingly, Glock 17 sales to civilian customers went off the scale in the US. Other gunmakers struggled to compete and Glock still accounts for a sizeable proportion of handgun sales to the US civilian market.
The Glock 17 went on to spawn a number of other variants. The Glock 18 added a full auto feature, the 19 was a compact version and there are currently a whole range of Glocks of different sizes and calibres including .40 and .45 in addition to the original 9mm. They still recognisably use the same design as the original, and an updated Glock 17 is still available. The new Generation 4 version only differs in very minor details from the original and is visually almost identical (other than minor differences in grip finish and the addition of an accessory rail).
You may be surprised to learn that there aren’t any licensed Glock replicas in any calibre. For some reason, Glock seem very resistant to the idea of even licensed replicas and they have a very active legal department which aggressively pursues any perceived infringement of intellectual property rights. This includes replicas which are visual replicas even if they don’t actually use the word “Glock” in advertising or packaging. This is partly down to the registration of the shape of the pistol itself as a trademark. In part, the description of the trademark reads:
“The mark consists of the three dimensional overall configuration of a semi-automatic pistol having a blocky an squared-off shape as viewed from the side, the front, and the rear. The shape of the trigger guard and the shape, location, and a position of the trigger safety tab are claimed as a part of the mark…”
In other words, if you make something that looks like a Glock, you’re infringing the trademark. This has deterred some companies from producing unlicensed replicas of Glock pistols. It also probably explains why some replicas which looked rather like Glock pistols have quietly disappeared from the market after a short period. Glock have also actively pursued some airsoft vendors who sell Glockalike replicas. They took legal action against Michael Kaye, the proprietor of airsoft and air gun vendor Replica Airguns after he suggested that a particular replica looked like a Glock in a video review. The most recent case involved a lawsuit against AirSplat, the largest US airsoft vendor, for patent and trademark infringement and false advertising relating to selling replica pistols which looked like Glocks, particularly the Tokyo Marui G17.
The AirSplat website quickly changed the description of the Tokyo Marui G17 to read: “This airsoft gun is not to be misrepresented as a real firearm or gun that is manufactured by Glock and is merely an airsoft gun that fires 6mm pellets.” This replica has now disappeared from the site and if you look at the large range of replicas currently carried by AirSplat, you won’t even find anything that vaguely resembles a Glock.
The 6mm, gas powered Stark Arms S17 is one of several replicas that are obviously not intended to resemble any real-world pistol.
If you search on-line you may see replicas that look rather like the Glock 17 and other variants of Glock handguns. These are not licensed replicas and don’t generally include accurate Glock markings. In October 2015, Cybergun did issue a press release that noted that they had concluded a licensing agreement with Glock which would allow them to sell Glock replicas for military and police training purposes which were to be manufactured by Taiwanese company VFC. However, I have heard nothing about this since and the Cybergun website still doesn’t list any Glock replicas as part of their range…
Which all seems like a terrible shame. Given how popular the cartridge version is, it would be fantastic to be able to buy a licensed replica of a Glock 17. But for the moment at least, none are available and Glock do not appear to have any immediate plans to do a licensing deal with any replica manufacturer or distributor.
Is it fair to call the Glock 17 a classic? Well, it may be as ugly as a box of frogs but it’s undeniably an instantly recognisable and seminal design which changed the landscape of handgun design forever. It hard to name any new semi-automatic design which doesn’t feature a polymer grip and frame and many also include some form of trigger safety and a high capacity magazine. These things can be traced directly back to Gaston Glock, sitting in his basement in Austria with a blank sheet of paper and pondering what the pistol of the future might look like. If that isn’t a reasonable definition of a classic, I’m not sure what is. Now if only Glock would license a decent replica…
Glock Perfection, the US Glock Website
The Glock-free AirSplat range of airsoft pistols
Mike Kaye of Replica Airguns explains in this video why he doesn’t sell replicas which are intended to replicate Glock pistols.