Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" by Paul M. Barrett

 How did an unknown Austrian engineer who had barely ever touched a gun come to develop the most iconic modern handgun, with the largest market share in production today? Author Paul Barrett does an excellent job of tracking Glock’s meteoric rise from a Viennese suburb into a handgun empire that trounced the established monoliths of the American handgun industry, like Smith and Wesson. If you are interested in Glock’s, firearms, the gun industry and the wrangling’s of modern gun politics in America, you will thoroughly enjoy Glock.

I began reading this book with a basic knowledge of Glock’s history but Barrett provides a detailed account of the company’s character and inner workings, based on his research with industry insiders and Glock employees. One could say that Gaston Glock was a man who found himself in the right place at the right time, both in Austria and the US. The initially unassuming Austrian decided to compete for a government contract to supply pistols to the Austrian military. Lacking the infrastructural or a priori design path-dependency held by other companies, a factor later believed to have been a benefit as opposed to a constraint, he set about designing a unique handgun. His timing in the USA was also fortuitous – the late 80’s saw many police departments wanting to upgrade their duty side arms from predominantly 6 shot revolvers to higher capacity pistols. A number of high profile police shootouts that left the authorities feeling under-gunned precipitated this review of duty gun capabilities (many of these events also became slightly embellished).  Many in the US at that stage still saw ‘wonder 9’s’ as Euro-trash; the all-American 1911 .45 being the only pistol worthy of consideration. This alongside with the Glock’s unusual features and polymer frame meant that the pistol was initially met with scepticism. However it wasn’t just good timing that worked in Glock’s favour, the fact is that the pistol was, and remains, and very ergonomic, ultra-reliable and user-friendly handgun. It didn’t take the police long to see the light, in part because of the Glock’s capabilities and in part because of the company's innovations outside of pistol design.

Barrett’s research reveals a company that was not only innovative in engineering handguns but one that excelled at marketing and customer relations. Whether it was advertising style, appeasing large police departments or navigating the scorched earth between the NRA and anti-gun activists, Glock never missed a beat when it came to getting their pistols in the hands of those who could publicise, promote or buy them. All the while they literally ripped the rug out from underneath the establish giants of the US handgun market. In addition to the innovation and genius of Glock Inc.’s guiding executives, the book reveals a company that at times operated in great secrecy, even between different departments and executives. As one Glock executive described it, the company had ‘wheels within wheels’ that the top honchos never wanted to reveal (and there were reasons…).

Part of the intrigue also stems from Glock’s relationships with pro- and anti-gun movements, politicians and the political weight of large US police departments. The book provides insight into the convoluted world of gun politics, policy and law. It is anything but prosaic. Glock has been subject to numerous legal challenges, some from gross negligence by users or poorly trained authorities, others from those who saw them as a danger to society by virtue of them being an extremely effective product. The effectiveness of the Glock became something of a misappropriated legend, one that led them to be seen by some as ‘too deadly’.

On this last issue I think Barrett does a thorough job of critiquing the myriad myths that surround Glock (and he is largely ambivalent in his bias). ‘Glock’ has become a household name. Few other firearms have been used as frequently in action movies, lauded in lyrics or been the subject of pop-fallacy. In fact, other than the AK47 series of assault rifles, probably no other firearm is as well known by name. As Barrett points out, for journalists or policy makers to use the word ‘Glock’ shows their ‘street cred’, that they should be taken seriously, its pop-media currency. Perhaps the first of the Glock myths was the pistol’s apparent ability to pass security scans because it was ‘plastic’. While Heckler and Koch preceded Glock by a decade with their polymer framed P9S and VP70Z, neither sold well. Glock’s were the first ‘plastic pistols’ to go mainstream and their novelty preceded gross misinformation. Noel Koch’s experiment in the 1980’s that allowed him to pass airport security with a disassembled Glock was perhaps the seminal moment for the hysteria that labelled Glock’s as a menace and elevated threat to public safety. There are some large omissions regarding his security breech that seldom accompany the story, but I’ll let you read the book! The fear that Glock’s would become the harbinger of violence on the streets never really came to pass. In 2002, the last year that authorities were required to release the stats on handguns seized from criminals in the US, Glock never even made the top 10, and that after about 15 years of substantial Glock presence in the US market.

I can highly recommend the book; it’s an entertaining and informative read.

“Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” by Paul M. Barrett. Crown Publishing Group, New York.

ISBN: 978-0-307-71993-5

eISBN: 978-0-307-71994-2

©Brian Joubert

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