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Glock: The Rise of America's Gun
Based on fifteen years of research, Glock is the riveting story of the weapon that has become known as American’s gun. Today the Glock pistol has been embraced by two-thirds of all U.S. police departments, glamorized in countless Hollywood movies, and featured as a ubiquitous presence on prime-time TV. It has been rhapsodized by hip-hop artists, and coveted by cops and crooks alike.
Created in 1982 by Gaston Glock, an obscure Austrian curtain-rod manufacturer, and swiftly adopted by the Austrian army, the Glock pistol, with its lightweight plastic frame and large-capacity spring-action magazine, arrived in America at a fortuitous time. Law enforcement agencies had concluded that their agents and officers, armed with standard six-round revolvers, were getting "outgunned" by drug dealers with semi-automatic pistols. They needed a new gun.
When Karl Water, a firearm salesman based in the U.S. first saw a Glock in 1984, his reaction was, “Jeez, that’s ugly.” But the advantages of the pistol soon became apparent. The standard semi-automatic Glock could fire as many as 17 bullets from its magazine without reloading (one equipped with an extended thirty-three cartridge magazine was used in Tucson to shoot Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others). It was built with only 36 parts that were interchangeable with those of other models. You could drop it underwater, toss it from a helicopter, or leave it out in the snow, and it would still fire. It was reliable, accurate, lightweight, and cheaper to produce than Smith and Wesson’s revolver. Made in part of hardened plastic, it was even rumored (incorrectly) to be invisible to airport security screening.
Filled with corporate intrigue, political maneuvering, Hollywood glitz, bloody shoot-outs—and an attempt on Gaston Glock’s life by a former lieutenant—Glock is at once the inside account of how Glock the company went about marketing its pistol to police agencies and later the public, as well as a compelling chronicle of the evolution of gun culture in America.
Paul M. Barrett Glock: The Rise of America's Gun Illustration by John Burgoyne Jacket design by Whitney G. Cookman Jacket photography © Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Getty Images
It was nine forty-five a.m. on April 11, 1986, when Special Agents Benjamin Grogan and Gerald Dove spotted the two suspects driving a stolen black Chevrolet Monte Carlo on South Dixie Highway. The pair had been robbing banks and armored trucks in southern Dade County over the past four months. To catch them, Gordon McNeill, a supervisory special agent with the Miami field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had set up a rolling stakeout. “They had killed two people; another woman was missing,” McNeill said. “They had shot another guy four times. In my twenty-one years with the agency, I never felt more sure that when we found these guys, they would go down hard.”
Moments later, other FBI units converged; soon, three unmarked sedans trailed the bank robbers. McNeill, closing from the opposite direction, spotted the black Monte Carlo at the head of the strange convoy. In the passenger seat, one suspect shoved a twenty-round magazine into a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle. “Felony car stop!” McNeill shouted into his radio to the other units. “Let’s do it!”
FBI vehicles corralled the Monte Carlo, ramming the fugitive automobile and forcing it into a large driveway. The three remaining government sedans skidded into surrounding positions. Two more FBI cars arrived across the street. In all, eight agents faced the two suspects.
Suddenly, one of the fugitives started shooting. FBI men scrambled for cover and returned fire. The occupants of the Monte Carlo seemed to be hit in the fusillade, but the government rounds weren’t stopping them.
In the chaos, the federal agents struggled to reload their revolvers, jamming cartridges one after another into five- and six-shot Smith & Wessons. Three of the FBI agents were members of a special-tactics squad and carried fifteen-round S&W pistols. But none of the handgun fire seemed to slow the criminals. The gunman with the Ruger Mini-14 merely had to snap a new magazine into his rifle to have another twenty rounds instantly. One of his mags had forty rounds. His partner had a twelve-gauge shotgun with extended eight-round capacity. The bank robbers were armed for a small war.
Agent McNeill took a round in his right hand, shattering bone. Shredded flesh jammed the cylinder of his revolver, making it impossible to reload. He rose from a crouch to reach for a shotgun on the backseat of an FBI vehicle. As he did, a .223 rifle round pierced his neck. He fell, paralyzed. A fellow agent was severely wounded when he paused to reload his Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special. “Everybody went down fighting,” McNeill said. “We just ran into two kamikazes.”
As law enforcement officials would later discover, the bank robbers, Michael Platt and William Matix, were no ordinary thugs. They had met in the 1970s at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Matix served as a military policeman with the 101st Airborne. Platt received Special Forces training. Both were practiced marksmen. They operated a landscaping business and according to neighbors seemed like hardworking individuals. Neither one had a criminal record. But something had turned them into psychopaths.
Platt, demonstrating his deadly close-combat skills, worked the shoulder-fired Mini-14 with precision. Based on the M14 military rifle, the Mini-14 was popular with small-game hunters, target shooters, and, ironically, the police. Platt took full advantage of the semiautomatic weapon’s large magazine and penetrating ammunition. Bobbing and weaving, he sneaked up on Grogan and Dove, the agents who had originally spotted the black Monte Carlo. “He’s coming behind you!” another agent screamed. But the warning came too late. Platt fatally shot Grogan in the torso and Dove in the head.
The firefight had been going on for four minutes when Agent Edmundo Mireles, badly wounded, staggered toward Platt and Matix, who had piled into a bullet-ridden FBI Buick. A civilian witness described Mireles’s stiff-legged gait as “stone walking.” Holding a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum at arm’s length, he fired repeatedly at the two gunmen at point-blank range, killing them both. It was the bloodiest day in FBI history.
All told, the combatants fired 140 rounds. In addition to the deaths of Platt and Matix, two FBI agents were killed, three were permanently crippled, and two others were injured. GUN BATTLE “LOOKED LIKE OK CORRAL,” the Palm Beach Post declared the next morning, quoting a shaken witness. But the legendary gunfight in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, had lasted only thirty seconds and involved just thirty shots, leaving three dead—one fewer than the modern-day battle in Miami.
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Lieutenant John H. Rutherford, the firing-range director with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, heard about the shootout later that day. “The bad guys,” he recalled, “were starting to carry high-capacity weapons, unlike what they had carried in the past.… That was a scary, terrible thing to hear about,” he said. “If the FBI is outgunned, something is wrong.”
Scholars of law enforcement and small arms pored over the forensic records of the Miami Shootout, generating thousands of pages of reports. Police departments across the country held seminars on the gun battle. Gun magazines published dramatic reconstructions. NBC broadcast a made-for-TV movie called In the Line of Fire: The FBI Murders .
Later examination would reveal that, for all their bravery, the FBI agents prepared poorly for the violent encounter. At the time, though, and ever since, one idea about the significance of Miami eclipsed all others. The lawmen had been, in Lieutenant Rutherford’s word, “outgunned.” It was a perception widely shared by cops, politicians, and law-abiding firearm owners: The criminals were better armed than the forces of order. Nationwide, crime rates were rising. Drug gangs ruled inner-city neighborhoods. Guns had replaced knives in the hands of violent teenagers. The police, the FBI, and all who protected the peace were increasingly seen as being at a lethal disadvantage. The FBI helped shape this perception by emphasizing the seven revolvers its agents had used, deflecting attention from the three fifteen-round pistols and two twelve-gauge shotguns they also brought to the fight.
“Although the revolver served the FBI well for several decades, it became quite evident that major changes were critical to the well-being of our agents and American citizens,” FBI Director William Sessions said in an agency bulletin after Miami. Revolvers held too little ammunition, and they were too difficult to reload in the heat of a gunfight. There were questions about their “stopping power”: In Miami, the FBI fired some seventy rounds, and Platt and Matix received a total of eighteen bullet wounds. Yet the killers stayed alive long enough to inflict a terrible toll.
In 1987, Jacksonville’s Lieutenant Rutherford received the formal assignment to recommend a new handgun to replace the Smith & Wesson revolvers that his department issued. His counterparts in hundreds of local, state, and federal police agencies were given similar missions. “My job,” Rutherford told me, “was to find a better gun.”
After thirty years in manufacturing, Gaston Glock’s industriousness had yielded a respectable social station and a comfortable life, without elevating him to the higher ranks of Austrian commerce. Still, he dreamed big.
Glock, the son of an Austrian railroad worker, managed an inconspicuous car radiator factory outside Vienna. In the garage next to his house in suburban Deutsch-Wagram, not far from the radiator plant, he operated a side business with his wife, Helga. Using a secondhand metal press made in Russia, they produced a modest volume of brass fittings for doors and windows. The garage metal shop expanded over time to make steel blades the durability and reasonable price of which so impressed Austria’s Ministry of Defense that Glock obtained a contract to supply field knives and bayonets to the Austrian Army. The military work led to contacts at the ministry, where Glock became an occasional visitor, his eyes and ears open for new opportunity.
One day in February 1980, he overheard a hallway conversation between two colonels that jolted his imagination: The Army needed a new sidearm for officers, pilots, and drivers, to replace the antiquated World War II Walther P-38. Steyr, an Austrian arms maker since the mid-1800s, had offered to sell the military a modern pistol, but the gun fell short of the ministry’s stringent specifications. Top generals were running out of patience.
Glock interrupted. Would it still be possible, he asked the officers, for another company—his company—to bid on the pistol contract?
The colonels laughed. In his garage, Gaston Glock made hinges, curtain rods, and knives. Now he thought he could design a handgun?
Reserved in manner, Glock, fifty, wasn’t known for his sense of humor. He was a slender man of average height, with a receding hairline, sloping shoulders, and long arms. A recreational swimmer, he had a sinewy physique and unprepossessing looks. He spoke only as much as was necessary and dressed conservatively, a sweater beneath his dark suit coat. Glock had graduated from a technical institute and received training in mechanical engineering. He worked his way up in manufacturing from an entry-level position with a company that made hand drills. Designing firearms was something far beyond his experience.
Glock asked the colonels to describe the Army’s requirements for a new handgun, which they did. “Mr. Glock, in his credulousness, said it shouldn’t be difficult to make such an item,” according to an official company account published years later. “To him, the handgun was simply another accoutrement that attached to a soldier’s belt, similar to the knife he already produced.” Or, as Gaston Glock himself put it in an interview: “That I knew nothing was my advantage.”
Out of prudence and decorum, he sought an audience with the minister of defense. “I asked him if I was allowed to make a pistol for the Army,” Glock recounted.
“He said, ‘Yes, why not?’ ” The minister wanted Glock to understand something, though: “ ‘I’m not responsible for your costs, for your money. It’s your problem.’ ”
“I said, ‘OK.’ ”
Asked years later about his familiarity with weapons in 1980, he admitted it was slight: “I had very little training. I was just a few days in camps of the German Army” during the latter stages of World War II, he said during a deposition in November 1993 in a lawsuit in the United States. Born in 1929 in Vienna, Glock was conscripted by the Wehrmacht as a teenager. “I was very young in those days: 15, 16 years, but we had to undergo some sort of military training,” he said. This instruction took place in “1944 and 1945,” he explained with a notable lack of precision. How long had he served? “Only two, three days. That is all.”
On other occasions, Glock tried even more strenuously to minimize his involvement with the German military, saying his training lasted for a single day, during which he feigned illness and was sent home. His attempt to play down his connection to the Wehrmacht seems unsurprising, if hardly admirable. Many Austrians of his generation, and the one that preceded it, did the same thing. More relevant to Glock’s role as an arms designer was his assertion that his firearms background was exceedingly limited. “I saw rifle, pistol, hand grenade” in the German military, he said. “I was getting acquainted, when you pull a trigger that it makes boom.”
As an adult, he didn’t own guns. Soon after his fateful visit to the Defense Ministry in early 1980, he bought an Italian Beretta 92F, a Sig Sauer 220 from Switzerland, a Czech CZ 75, and a modern version of the German Walther P-38. All of these weapons were chambered for nine-millimeter ammunition, the standard in Europe.
He used the P-38 as his starting point. Developed in the 1920s to replace a World War I–era Luger design, the Walther was adopted by the German Army in 1938 and used by the Wehrmacht throughout World War II. Captured Walther pistols became prized trophies among Allied troops, who took them home in large numbers.
Glock brought the P-38 and other models to his home workshop in Deutsch-Wagram. He disassembled the guns, put them back together, and noted the contrasting methods used to make them. “I started intensive studies in such a manner that I visited the [Austrian] patent office for weeks,” examining generations of handgun innovation, Glock recalled. “I bought and tested all modern pistols available at that time, and I tried to involve into conversation the best experts that I knew.”
Gaston and Helga Glock owned a vacation home in Velden, a resort on a lake in southern Austria. One weekend in May 1980, Gaston invited several firearm specialists to join him there. Among those who attended were Colonel Friederich Dechant, a champion shooter who oversaw weapons procurement for the Austrian Army, and Siegfried Hubner, the author of technical books such as Silencers for Hand Firearms . Hubner had done research at the famous German gun manufacturers Mauser and Heckler & Koch.
“OK, gentlemen, now it is time to show me,” Glock told his guests. “What would you want in a pistol of the future?”
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The discussion at Velden focused on pistols, rather than revolvers, and it is important to draw the distinction. Dating to the nineteenth-century marketing genius of Samuel Colt and the mythology that came to surround his Peacemaker revolver—“the gun that won the West”—Americans historically regarded revolvers with great affection. The Germans, the Austrians, and the Swiss inclined toward the nine-millimeter pistol designs of German arms designer Georg Luger. The inner workings of the two types of handguns are quite different. A revolver, or “wheel gun,” has a cylinder that typically holds five or six rounds of ammunition. Pulling the trigger of a double-action revolver turns the cylinder, cocks the hammer, and then causes the gun to fire. In a pistol, also referred to as a semiautomatic, ammunition is stored in a spring-loaded rectangular box, or magazine, which is inserted into the weapon’s grip. Spring pressure pushes rounds up from the magazine into the chamber. Each time a pistol is fired, the spent shell is ejected from the chamber and a new round moves up. Pistols are more complicated mechanically, meaning that some models are susceptible to malfunction. On the other hand, their larger ammunition capacity makes them more potent in a gunfight. Reloading a pistol with a fresh magazine is easier than swiveling a revolver’s cylinder outside of the frame and inserting cartridges into the chambers.
Americans and Europeans traditionally also differ on ammunition. According to American custom, bullets—and the weapons that fire them—are designated by diameter as measured in fractions of an inch (.38-caliber, .45-caliber, and the like). European ammunition and firearms have been labeled according to the metric system. A nine-millimeter round is roughly the same diameter as its .38-caliber counterpart; a ten-millimeter corresponds to a .40-caliber. In modern times, the geographic differences in terminology have largely dissolved.
At the gathering in Velden, Colonel Dechant told Glock that the Army desired a high-capacity pistol that held more nine-millimeter rounds than the eight that the P-38 could accommodate, and weighed no more than eight hundred grams (twenty-eight ounces). The weapon should have a consistent and light trigger pull for fast, accurate firing. It should be streamlined and easy to holster. Dechant and Hubner recommended a frame width of no more than thirty millimeters (1.2 inches). Crucially, they said, the gun should have no more than forty parts—far fewer than the industry standard.
Glock asked his guests about grip-to-frame angle. He had nailed together two pieces of wood as a rough model. The experts experimented, pointing the model with their eyes open and closed. The consensus was that an ideal handgun should point “instinctively,” so that an injured user could fire even if he couldn’t see the gun’s sights. The experts settled on an angle of twenty-two degrees, which Glock later reduced slightly.
Colonel Dechant admonished Glock that his pistol should be able to withstand extended contact with snow, ice, and mud. It should fire ten thousand rounds with no more than one failure per thousand. The figure 40,000 was recorded that evening, referring to the goal that the ideal pistol should have a long service life, of forty thousand rounds.
There was much discussion about safety. The P-38 and most other pistols had external levers that when engaged prevented the weapon from firing. Some soldiers and police officers carried their pistols “cocked and locked,” meaning that the guns were ready to fire immediately upon disengagement of the safety. The problem with this common feature, Dechant said, was that an alarming number of soldiers and cops forgot whether their safeties were on or off. That led to confusion and accidental discharges.
“Those experts which I had consulted at the beginning of the development are people that had access to all the accident statistics, domestic and foreign statistics, which had examined how accidents happen and why they happen when a human being is in a stress situation and still able to operate or not operate a pistol,” Glock recalled years later. “The experts said every [safety] lever is a potential source of mishandling or misoperation during the use of the pistol.”
This counterintuitive insight—that safety devices can become hazards—rang true to Glock. He had carried the Walther P-38 in his pants pocket for two weeks. He discovered that he often couldn’t remember whether he had the safety engaged. “If this level of doubt existed, manual safeties were indeed a hindrance to the quick operation of a handgun,” the Glock company history noted.
At the evening’s end, Glock had his guests sign and date one of the sheets of paper that memorialized their thoughts. He treated the occasion as if it would be remembered by history. At the time, Glock did not pay his guests for their ideas. After he retired from the Army as a major general, Dechant went to work for Glock in a salaried position.
Armed with expert insights, Glock began work on a prototype. He hired experienced technicians who labored long hours with him to implement the Army’s demands. In the evenings, after dinner, he tested crude early versions in a basement firing range he built specially for this purpose. He shot alone, using only his left hand. If the gun blew up on him, he would still have his good right hand to do mechanical drawings.
“I learned to stay out of his way,” said Glock’s wife, Helga.
Some days, Glock attended police academy classes or took private shooting lessons. “My intention,” he recalled, “was to learn as much as possible about general use of the pistol, not only combat situations, but also for police use and military use and all the aspects of pistol use.”
Meanwhile, he and Helga continued running the secondhand metal press in the garage. They employed just a couple of laborers. Each morning, before he left for the radiator plant, Gaston set the controls of the ungainly Russian contraption: a coil of brass or steel fed into the stamping machine, depending on whether the Glocks were making door hinges or bayonets that day. When he came home for lunch, Gaston Glock would make any necessary adjustments. An employee loaded bins of product into a van, which Helga then drove to another shop for finishing. Mrs. Glock also had primary responsibility for raising their three children: Brigitte, a strong-willed firstborn; Gaston Jr., her introverted brother; and Robert, the doted-upon baby.
Some accounts claim that Glock developed his gun in just six months, or perhaps even three. Glock himself said the process lasted a year—still a startlingly short period of time for a novice firearm designer to produce a prototype. He filed for an Austrian patent on April 30, 1981. It was his seventeenth invention, so he called his gun the Glock 17. Coincidentally, his creation could store an impressive seventeen rounds in its magazine, with an eighteenth in the chamber, if the user so desired.
After another year of testing and improvement, Glock submitted four samples of the pistol to the Austrian Army on May 19, 1982. “I remember [the date], because I worked two years, day and night, to bring the sample to the Army on time,” he said more than a decade later.
Two overarching concepts would set the Glock 17 apart. First, it was to be made largely out of light, resilient, injection-molded plastic, and second, it was designed without a preexisting factory.
By the 1980s, industrial plastic, often called polymer, was remarkably strong and resistant to corrosion, a major problem with traditional steel guns. Glock had begun learning about the material when he bought an injection-molding machine to make handles and sheaths for the military knives he produced in his garage. He had the wisdom and good luck to hire former employees of a bankrupt camera manufacturer who brought advanced injection-molding and plastic-design skills. One of these men, Reinhold Hirschheiter, continued for decades as Glock’s right-hand man for production.
By fashioning the frame of his pistol from polymer, Glock foresaw savings on raw material and labor, as well as a weapon that had distinct ergonomic advantages over one cobbled together from blued steel and walnut. Earlier guns made from polymer frames—the American Remington Nylon 66 rifle and the German Heckler & Koch VP70 pistol—had engineering or design shortcomings; they never caught on widely. Steyr produced a successful plastic-stock rifle for soldiers and police, the AUG. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Austrian manufacturer was struggling to figure out how to apply the technology to pistols, opening the door for Gaston Glock.
Glock imagined a thoroughly modern pistol factory, dominated by computerized workstations, and he conceived his gun to be made in this as yet nonexistent plant. “The important thing that gave him the big price advantage was he designed the pistol for complete production on CNC [computer-controlled] tools,” said Wolfgang Riedl, a former Steyr executive who later joined the Glock team as marketing director.
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The task fell to Lieutenant Ingo Wieser, an aide to Colonel Dechant, to compare Glock’s submission to that of five other manufacturers. Wieser, a twenty-five-year-old career soldier, had an unusually intimate view of the birthing of the Glock. Without contradicting any of the central elements of the story as told by Gaston Glock, and repeated over the years by his admirers, Wieser adds useful political context and a dose of skepticism to the heroic portrait of Glock.
Today, Wieser operates a security-consulting firm in Vienna and serves as a leading forensic adviser to the country’s court system. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern pistol technology. In 1979, before Gaston Glock’s opportunistic eavesdropping in the halls of the Defense Ministry, Wieser had supervised tests on potential replacement pistols. These trials found that Beretta offered the most effective model. But Steyr, the long-established Austrian arms maker, which was controlled by the Socialist-dominated government, objected fiercely that a foreign manufacturer should not receive the contract. In response, the defense minister told the Army that if Steyr did not win the competition, then another Austrian company had to be found. Otherwise, the military could end up accused of insufficient patriotism in its procurement. But there wasn’t a suitable alternative company in Austria that already knew how to make handguns. “Mr. Glock was at the right place at the right time,” Wieser told me.
Gaston Glock, through his production of knives, ammunition belts, and other accessories for the Army, had earned a reputation as a dutiful contractor. He had also forged strong ties to Socialist party officials. Colonel Dechant concluded that with meticulous guidance, Glock could be used as a means to build an Austrian pistol to the military’s specifications and to head off a messy confrontation with Steyr.
Dechant brought Hubner into the project because of his vast knowledge about European pistols. Glock’s role was to amalgamate ideas from Dechant and Hubner and borrow the millions of shillings needed to fabricate and test prototypes. This was not a small or unimportant function, Wieser told me. But in his view, Glock was more of a general contractor than a genius inventor. “Without Dechant and Hubner,” Wieser said, “Glock would still be making curtain rings.”
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Wieser did not try to conceal his envy of Gaston Glock’s subsequent fame and wealth. As the Army’s top handgun tester in the early 1980s, Wieser made many suggestions to improve the Glock prototype, but he received no pecuniary reward. No one celebrates his contribution to a revolutionary weapon. “Mr. Glock conveniently forgot about me,” he said.
His bitterness notwithstanding, Wieser emphasized that he conducted a fair and objective competition that pitted the Glock against weapons from Heckler & Koch, Sig Sauer, Beretta, Austria’s Steyr, and Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. Only the Steyr GB pistol held more rounds in its magazine—eighteen—than the Glock’s seventeen. The Heckler & Koch P9S and the Sig Sauer P-220 each held nine; the Beretta 92F, fifteen.
With its plastic frame, the Glock was by far the lightest model, at 661 grams (23 ounces). The mostly metal H&K weighed 928 grams (33 ounces). The Steyr was the heaviest at 1,100 grams (39 ounces). Glock produced the simplest handgun, with only thirty-four components. That compared to fifty-three for the Sig. The Beretta, with seventy parts, and the H&K, with seventy-seven, had more than twice as many as the Glock.
All of the guns had slides made from steel; only the Glock’s was machined from a solid rolled-steel bar, with no welding or riveting. The slide is the long rectangular component that sits atop the frame. The firing of a pistol causes the slide to move rearward against a strong spring, ejecting the spent cartridge. When the force of the gun’s recoil is expended, the compressed spring pushes the slide forward to its original position. On its way, the slide scoops up a new cartridge from the top of the magazine and loads the round into the chamber, ready to fire. Because of the unfussy way Gaston Glock fabricated his slide, his pistol required fewer steps to manufacture, and there were fewer opportunities for error.
The Glock 17 was put through a preliminary firing run of ten thousand rounds. The Army set twenty stoppages as grounds for disqualification. The Glock malfunctioned just once. It was fired after exposure to heat, ice, sand, and mud. It was dropped from a height of two meters onto a steel plate without accidental discharge or damage to the frame. The other guns had been put through similar paces.
In the end, a comparison chart prepared by the Army ranked the submitted guns. The Belgian FN was “not regarded as [a] considerable competitor.” The next-worst finisher, the hapless Steyr, was described as having an “extraordinary rate of misfires; heats up.” The H&K, Sig Sauer, and Beretta fared better. The first-place finisher was the Glock 17.
On November 5, 1982, Gaston Glock received formal congratulations from the minister of defense. “Your pistol achieved 88.7 percent of the possible maximum points,” the letter said. Glock’s proposed injection-molding technique enabled his pistols to be supplied at a substantial discount from the next most expensive competitor. In 1983, the Ministry of Defense ordered twenty thousand Glock 17s.
The firearm industry suddenly had an ambitious newcomer. All Glock needed, Riedl noted, were a factory and a workforce. “He only had a big garage where he produced the knives.”
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“How was it that Gaston Glock was able to get it right?” the American firearm authority Patrick Sweeney asked in The Gun Digest Book of the Glock (2008). It is a question that handgun aficionados have debated for decades. Sweeney offered as sensible an answer as any, and one consistent with Glock’s. “He got it right,” Sweeney wrote, “because he hadn’t done it before. One of the largest problems in getting a new design accepted by an established manufacturer is not just the ‘not invented here’ syndrome, but also the ‘we don’t have the tooling’ syndrome. Why invent something new when you can simply modify what you have?”
Glock started with a blank sheet of paper. He listened to his military customers. He made adjustments they requested. As a result, he came up with something original—and, as it turned out, he did so at precisely the right moment.
Within just a few years, another market, far larger and richer than the Austrian defense sector, would be keen for “a pistol of the future.” The Miami Shootout of 1986 helped foster this demand. American police officials wanted a new handgun, and Glock was there to offer a powerful alternative to the revolver. Across the United States, the preferences of local cops and county deputies have broad commercial consequences. The American civilian gun-buying population tends to gravitate toward what the professionals carry. For Glock, that translated into a bonanza. The Glock 17 gained profit-making momentum in the fashion of a classic American consumer fad—one that, rather than fade away, kept expanding year after year. Venerable rivals, chiefly Smith & Wesson, ignored Glock at first and then scoffed at him. Eventually, they began imitating the Austrian invader, flooding the market with knockoffs. The Americans, to this day, haven’t caught up.
In the United States, guns are much more than a tool of law enforcement or an article of commerce. They are embedded in the country’s history. By the time the Constitution was framed, a tradition of private firearm ownership was an aspect of daily life and American identity. Citizen-soldiers defeated the mighty British, beginning with the shot “heard round the world,” fired by a Massachusetts farmer. The Second Amendment enshrined the principle of an armed populace. Folklore nurtured the gun tradition. “God may have created all men,” according to a saying of the nineteenth-century West, “but Sam Colt made them equal.”
To many Americans, over many generations, guns have represented freedom, individualism, and self-reliance. “No other country finds so much history, emotion, belief, vice, and virtue in so many guns,” Henry Allen, an essayist, poet, and Pulitzer Prize–winning critic, has observed. Allen served as a Marine in Vietnam and shoots guns recreationally. “Snub-nose .38 revolvers,” he continued, “stand for the world weary persistence of pulp-fiction detectives in the Depression. Single-action Army Colts are the attribute of the cowboy. A Parker double-barreled shotgun is your grandfather picking his way with a knowing elegance through the brush in search of quail. A .22 is the innocence of childhood—that spattering noise of the rifle range at Boy Scout camp, and afterward the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 cleaning solvent. The wood-sheathed M1 evinces the common-man determination that won World War II.”
Guns have another, darker heritage in American life, of course, one related to disorder, crime, and murderous violence. Depression-era gangsters and 1960s urban bloodshed each led to legislation aimed at restricting gun sales and ownership. Cheap “Saturday Night Specials” flooded city streets in the 1970s and became emblems of steadily rising crime rates. In response, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry brandished his Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.
The Glock, introduced in the 1980s, inherited all aspects of the American firearm heritage: It was seen as an instrument of law and security, but also menace, danger, and fear. It became the handgun of choice for cops and a favorite of some demented mass killers. Its black plastic-and-metal construction set it apart from everything else on the market, suggesting modernism and efficiency. The handgun is the weapon Americans really care about, and within a decade of arriving here, the Glock had become the ultimate American handgun.
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Hunters shoot deer with semiautomatic rifles, ducks with double-barreled shotguns. Aside from animal-rights activists, few people spend much time arguing about any of that. United States military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is controversial, but if American troops are going to be over there, who doesn’t want them to have powerful machine guns? The firearm that plays in our fantasies and nightmares is the handgun.
The commonsense criminal uses a handgun because it is concealable and disposable. The National Rifle Association’s main cause is not the spreading of rifles; it is making sure that more people can legally carry handguns, ostensibly to protect themselves from armed thugs. Cops carry handguns too, because they are light and maneuverable.
Of the many makes on the US market, one stands apart: the Glock. Gun-control activists have denounced the Austrian pistol and tried to have it banned—attacks that only enhanced the Glock’s glamour in the eyes of its fans. Today the Glock is on the hip of more American police officers than any other handgun. It is all over the television news and the Internet. When American soldiers hauled Saddam Hussein from his underground hideout in 2003, the deposed Iraqi ruler came to the surface with a Glock. New York Giants star wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg in 2009 with a Glock he had stuck in his waistband before heading to a Manhattan nightclub. Some of our most prolific psychopaths have favored the Glock, presumably because of its large ammunition capacity and lightning speed. Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered thirty-two people at Virginia Tech in 2007, used a Glock. So did Steven Kazmierczak when he shot twenty-one, killing five, at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Jared Loughner fired a Glock with a thirty-three-round magazine in his January 2011 attempt to assassinate Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, an attack that resulted in six dead and thirteen injured, including Giffords, who survived after a nine-millimeter round passed entirely through her brain. The congresswoman herself, it turned out, owned a Glock.
Shapers of culture, low and high, have glommed on to the Austrian pistol. By the 1990s, no firearm brand turned up more often in the pugnacious lyrics and videos of hip-hop, the country’s ascendant popular music. In their 1992 hit “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg traded verses on women and romantic betrayal. “As we groove down the block / See my girl’s house, Dre, pass the Glock,” Snoop Dogg rapped. His girl turns out to be in the arms of another man, and the Glock becomes the means of Snoop’s revenge.
On the big screen, Glocks turned up as early as 1990, in the hands of villains in the Bruce Willis action thriller Die Hard 2 . Countless celluloid toughs followed suit. Think of all the snarling gangsters holding big, blunt pistols sideways, palm-down; most of those guns were Glocks, the ultimate badass weapon.
Referring to a Glock became a signal of cultural awareness. Aaron Sorkin, in his brilliant screenplay for The Social Network , the 2010 movie about the invention of Facebook, has one Harvard nerd verbally lash out at a classmate who publicly embarrassed them: “I’m gonna get a Glock 39, and I’m going to kill you.”
Not “I’m gonna get a gun , and I’m going to kill you.”
Say Glock to the mildest Quaker, and she will know you are talking about a tough handgun. Mention the brand to a firearm buff, and his eyes will light up. Glock is the Google of modern civilian handguns: the pioneer brand that defines its product category. Its boxy shape, black finish, and almost defiant lack of grace became the standard. The no-firearms symbol posted by the federal government at US airports incorporates the profile of—what else?—a Glock.
In the late-twentieth-century chapter of the long story of the gun in America, the Glock achieved the status of a literary character. Elmore Leonard, the crime novelist, gave the pistol a prominent role in Freaky Deaky (1988). Chris Mankowski, Leonard’s suspended detective hero, confronts a hoodlum named Juicy Mouth: “Chris walked around to the front of the Cadillac. He raised the Glock in one hand and stood sideways—not the way Mel Gibson did it, two handed—Juicy looking right at him now, aimed at the fat top part of the seat next to the guy and began squeezing off shots.” A few years later, in his epic satire Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace imagined a deranged junior tennis star habitually carrying a Glock onto the court and threatening to kill himself if he loses: “Everybody watching the match agrees it is one ugly and all-business-looking piece of self-defense hardware.”
How did it happen that in the most firearm-fixated country in the world, “Glock” came to mean “gun.” How did a pistol produced by an obscure engineer in suburban Vienna, a man who spoke barely any English and had no familiarity with the American zeitgeist, become, in the space of a few years, an American icon? The answers reveal more than the history of one company or even the recent evolution of an entire industry. The progress of Herr Glock’s gun illuminates the country’s changing attitudes about law enforcement, self-sufficiency, and safety. It explains the strange, scary allure of the dull clicking sound the slide makes when a nine-millimeter communicates it is ready to fire the first round.
Karl Walter, gun-salesman-on-wheels, first learned about the Glock 17 from a report in the German weapons magazine Deutsche Waffen Journal . An Austrian transplanted to the United States, Walter had enjoyed precocious success selling specialized European firearms to American police departments and gun collectors. He closely followed industry developments back in Europe. When an unknown won a large contract to supply pistols to the Austrian Ministry of Defense, he was intrigued. How could this Gaston Glock have bested the old-line brands? Walter sniffed opportunity.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Walter traveled the United States in a motor home customized as a rolling arsenal. He displayed his wares in locked, felt-lined showcases: Uzis, AK-47s, Steyr AUG bullpup assault rifles, you name it. Walter didn’t sell ordinary firearms. He sold the heavy stuff—to police departments and retailers with special licenses allowing them to trade in fully automatic weapons. He drove a circuit from New England to the Middle Atlantic States, down to Miami, across to Dallas. For a certain breed of gun buyer, “it was a candy store,” he recalled.
Undercover agents with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms kept a wary eye on Walter. Occasionally, they tested him—would he sell a select-fire Uzi to a buyer who lacked the proper federal permit?
He refused the bait. But that did not save him from getting arrested once, in 1972, by the local police in Troy, New York. The Troy authorities accused the young man with the thick Austrian-German accent of illegally transporting weapons. Walter explained that he was a legitimate salesman just earning a living. The gun-trafficking charges were dropped—Walter, as usual, had all the necessary paperwork—but the police in Troy suggested that he make his way to the state border as swiftly as the speed limit permitted.
Walter first came to the United States in the mid-1960s as a high school exchange student. He enjoyed the sense of possibility in America. Back home in Austria, his father, a stern physician who served as a medical officer in the German Army during World War II, sent him to a parochial high school run by Benedictine monks. Frustrated by biblical Greek, young Karl switched to a public school but remained an indifferent student. He eventually obtained an engineering degree and, when he secured a US work visa, returned to the States in 1969 at the age of twenty-four. He got an entry-level engineering job in the auto industry in Detroit.
Some of his colleagues were target shooters, and Walter became interested in firearms as a hobby. “Guns have a mystique,” he explained. “Young people are drawn to it. It’s excitement. It’s adventure. It’s power.” Before he became a US citizen, he couldn’t legally own his own firearm (he borrowed from friends at the range), but in an odd twist of the law, he could mail $50 to Washington and get a federal firearm license allowing him to buy and sell guns as a business. Soon he was making more money moonlighting as a gun dealer than he was from his day job. He decided to get into firearms full-time.
His roots helped Walter develop a relationship with the Austrian manufacturer Steyr, whose rifles were popular with some American police departments. He established ties to the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale and other European arms makers. Despite his success with Steyr’s SSG sniper rifle and AUG assault weapon, Walter could not move a lot of the manufacturer’s GB pistol, the same cumbersome model that the Austrian Ministry of Defense rejected as a replacement for the Walther P-38. “Steyr’s handgun was far more complicated [than those of most rivals] and a pain in the ass to service,” Walter told me.
Still, he saw a chance for gain in law enforcement handguns: “You know, I said, where there really is money to be made is to convert US police departments from revolvers to pistols.” The nine-millimeter pistol had been standard in Europe since World War II. “I was astonished,” Walter said, “that this modern country still hung around with revolvers, when the rest of the world had pistols, including the Soviet Union.” To act on this idea, he needed a product better than the Steyr GB-80.
In spring 1984, Walter traveled on business in Germany and Austria with Peter G. Kokalis, a prominent American gun writer. Savvy small-arms marketers forge close ties to gun magazines (and now websites) in a symbiotic relationship that benefits all concerned. Kokalis, then the technical editor of Soldier of Fortune , could help Walter’s clients by writing about their products. That burnished Walter’s reputation as a middleman. Soldier of Fortune , meanwhile, sold advertisements to the gun and ammunition manufacturers.
Browsing at a Vienna gun shop, Walter and Kokalis came across a Glock 17. This was the pistol Walter had a notion of trying to sell in the United States. “Jeez, that’s ugly” was his reflexive reaction. The squared-off plastic Glock lacked the 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 told me. “There had to be more to it than what meets the eye initially.”
He suggested to Kokalis that they pay a visit to the Glock homestead in Deutsch-Wagram, fifteen kilometers from central Vienna. Walter’s Austrian-inflected German eased the telephone introduction, and a meeting was set.
Gaston Glock received the visitors from America with an awkward shyness. His English was slight. Walter was struck by how unsophisticated and provincial his host seemed. Glock smiled but even in German demonstrated little facility with small talk. Helga, his gracious wife, served coffee.
Walter explained that he represented Steyr in the United States. Perhaps he could do the same for Glock.
Glock responded tentatively. He had not given much thought to America.
Walter, trying to stimulate conversation, asked his host to explain the mechanics of his pistol. Suddenly Glock grew more animated. The gun maker took apart a Glock 17, showing how its parts were housed in stand-alone subgroups: easy to remove and replace, without the skill of a trained armorer. There was no safety or decocking lever to confuse the user. The Glock 17 couldn’t fire if dropped or jarred, Glock said. Its “Safe Action” system required a user to depress a small device built right into the trigger—a “trigger safety.”
Walter and Kokalis had never seen such a feature. They were impressed that the Glock 17 had so few components. Walter concluded after just twenty minutes that he could persuade American police departments to consider replacing their revolvers with the innovative Austrian pistol. “This is kinderspiel ,” he thought, child’s play.
“This pistol will sell,” Walter told Glock. “But it must be sold.” He meant, in a self-serving way, that the Glock 17 required a wizard marketer who could explain to the American law enforcement market and civilian retailers why a gun that looked so, well, strange deserved a chance.
Gaston Glock seemed intrigued but also overwhelmed. He knew little about the United States and its tastes in guns. He was still building his new single-story factory on a compound adjacent to his home. (He had persuaded the town of Deutsch-Wagram to sell him the land for practically nothing, based on the prospect of his creating jobs and generating taxes.) He had hired about three dozen workers, many of them Turkish immigrants, but he lacked a business plan beyond the contract with the Austrian Ministry of Defense.
The possibilities were extraordinary: The armies of Norway and Sweden had shown interest. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was considering adopting the Glock 17 as an approved sidearm for member countries. Elite presidential guard units from Syria, Jordan, and the Philippines were inquiring, as were antiterrorist squads in Austria, Germany, and Canada. Yet Glock seemed uncertain how to proceed, especially with finance and marketing.
Walter had a suggestion: The entrepreneur should give Kokalis and Soldier of Fortune a scoop on publicizing the Glock 17 in the United States. Word of mouth would spread in gun circles. By the time Gaston Glock had expanded his manufacturing capacity, America would be hungry for the new pistol.
Yes, Glock said, the plan made perfect sense. In a celebratory mood, he invited his guests to try firing his creation on the range in the cellar.
Kokalis remained dubious. Five thousand miles was a long way to travel to shoot another nine-millimeter pistol. Then he lined up the Glock 17’s front sight between the U-shaped rear sights, and he pulled the trigger.
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PLASTIC PERFECTION , announced the headline in the October 1984 issue of Soldier of Fortune . The title alluded to Glock’s assertive marketing slogan: “Glock Perfection,” which came stamped on the company’s products, along with a logo of Gaston Glock’s design that highlighted an oversized sans serif “G.” The Glock pistol, Kokalis wrote, “represents an entirely new era in small arms technology.”
“In our pop culture,” the article continued, “ ‘plastic’ has come to mean vacuous or devoid of substance. Yet plastic is a salient feature of the Glock design. Not only the frame, but the trigger and magazine as well are made of this material. The proof of the pudding, in this instance, is in the firing. And the Glock 17 does that quite well, thank you.” With erudition and no small measure of zeal, Kokalis argued that the Glock’s design set it apart from everything else on the market. It was lighter, thinner, and almost gentle to shoot: “The plastic frame’s elastic qualities absorb a significant portion of the counter recoiling forces during firing.”
Gaston Glock’s “only condescension to conventionality,” Kokalis observed, was the method of operation he adopted for his handgun. Glock borrowed his basic mechanics from John Moses Browning, the greatest gun designer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Ogden, Utah, in 1855, Browning was the son of a Mormon pioneer and gunsmith. The younger Browning developed legendary shotguns and rifles for the manufacturer Winchester. His semiautomatic pistols included the .45-caliber 1911 manufactured by Colt and used by the American military during the world wars and for decades afterward. Browning died in Belgium in 1926 while working on a smaller nine-millimeter model.
Under the Browning recoil-operated system, as interpreted by Gaston Glock, the barrel of the pistol is locked up in the slide by a single lug that recesses forward of the ejection port (through which spent cartridges are expelled). The barrel moves back slightly with the slide as the bullet leaves the barrel, and the gas pressure created by the explosion of the gunpowder drops back to a safe level. At that point, the barrel separates from the slide and drops downward. The slide continues to move back until the force of the recoil is expended. A spring then pushes the slide forward, and it grabs the next round from the top of the magazine on its return to battery.
Kokalis marveled at how the Glock’s wide outer trigger couldn’t be depressed unless the smaller trigger safety was pressed first. This arrangement should prevent accidental discharge by, for example, contact with a holster, he explained. “There is no manual thumb safety and no hammer.”
The trigger operates in two stages, he noted. The first stage has a very light pull of only 2.2 pounds and a travel distance of a quarter inch. During the initial stage, three things happen: the firing pin is cocked, a separate internal safety that prevents the firing pin from moving forward is released, and the previously blocked trigger bar is released. The second stage of trigger operation requires five pounds of pressure that cause the release of the cocked firing pin. The firing pin strikes the primer, which is the part of an ammunition cartridge that ignites the powder charge. Pressure from rapidly expanding gas propels the bullet through the 4.5-inch barrel and out of the gun.
“The pistol points instinctively, and despite its large magazine capacity, the grip sits well in normal-sized hands,” Kokalis wrote. Many expert shooters obsess about the angle formed between the grip of a gun and the barrel, as well as the height of the barrel above the top of the user’s hand. Glock fans applaud what they consider the pistol’s “natural” pointing angle, meaning that when they aim the gun, the experience feels similar to aiming an imaginary weapon formed by an extended index finger and lifted thumb. The Glock’s barrel sits relatively low, closer to the hand than the barrels of comparable handguns. That also improves what some shooters call “pointability.” The grip angle and the low bore combine with the flex of the polymer frame to diminish the recoil the shooter feels, which makes the Glock more controllable and accurate. The steel slide striking the plastic frame produces less jarring force and vibration than the metal-on-metal impact of other pistols. The Glock’s lack of sharp metallic edges means fewer shooting-hand abrasions and greater ease in holstering.
“With a clean, constant trigger system, hit probability is quite high. The Safe Action trigger mechanism should pose no problem to even the rankest amateur,” Kokalis wrote. “Other pistol manufacturers have much to fear from the tiny village of Deutsch-Wagram.”
More than six hours of talks between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Vienna in May 1985 produced little progress on nuclear arms control, Central America, or other points of Cold War contention. Accompanying Shultz on his visit to Austria was his usual retinue of aides and bodyguards. The diplomats brought back the standard communiqués on frank and constructive dialogue. The US Secret Service agents, however, returned with more unusual gifts from their Austrian counterparts: three high-capacity black polymer pistols. It was the Glock’s first official foray westward. The Austrian-made handguns fascinated American officials but would come to trouble them as well.
The Secret Service kept one of the pistols for closer examination; the agency passed the other two along to the US Department of Defense. The Pentagon, as it turned out, was already well aware of the Glock 17. Alerted by NATO to Gaston Glock’s emergence as a gun maker, American defense procurement officials had invited him to compete in trials in 1984 to select a new sidearm for US soldiers. Glock had declined, saying he couldn’t build the required thirty-five test samples to meet American specifications and deadlines. But he also objected to the Pentagon’s insistence that rights to manufacture the winning gun design would be open to competitive bidding; Glock intended to collect all profit from the production of his gun himself. (Beretta, the Italian manufacturer, won the Pentagon competition with the model the Austrian Army had passed over in favor of the Glock.)
Another branch of the Pentagon had the Glock 17 on its radar as well. Noel Koch, the Defense Department’s civilian chief of counterterrorism, had learned about the Austrian pistol from counterparts in West German security. The Germans had given Koch a sample gun to take home, but he kept his prize confidential at first. As sometimes happens in the murky world of the military and intelligence services, supposedly allied arms of the US government contradicted each other. While Pentagon procurement officials had made friendly overtures to Gaston Glock, Koch saw the Austrian pistol in a different light—as a potential tool for terrorists. “I was worried about aviation security—could we stop a mostly plastic gun at the airport?” he told me.
Koch wasn’t alone in his fears. Israeli intelligence operatives had found out that, not long before Shultz’s visit to Vienna, Syrian ruler Hafez Al-Assad had ordered Glock 17s for his presidential guard. Gaston Glock prepared a special shipment of pistols for Assad with ornamental Arabic inscriptions inlaid in gold. Israel, which monitored Assad’s every move, passed word to Washington about the transaction. The Reagan administration viewed Assad as a Soviet ally, a mortal enemy of Israel, and an instigator of international terrorism. The Syrian president’s interest in the new firearm reinforced Noel Koch’s unease about Gaston Glock and his gun.
Koch’s apprehension was compounded when the Israelis told their American intelligence contacts that emissaries from another terrorist financier, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, had visited the Glock plant in Deutsch-Wagram. The Libyans, whose activities in Europe Israeli spies closely followed, looked over the merchandise but hadn’t made a purchase—at least not directly from Glock.
Israel had its facts essentially correct, according to Karl Walter and his fellow Glock employee Wolfgang Riedl. In separate interviews, they admitted that Assad was an early Glock customer, and Gaddafi, or someone in his inner circle, showed, at the very least, intense curiosity about the pistol. Walter and Riedl insisted that Glock never sold guns to Libya.
Nonethless, Koch had ample reason to be alarmed. The unpredictable Gaddafi remained an active threat to Americans. In December 1985, he reportedly provided logistical aid to Palestinian terrorists who carried out murderous mass attacks on travelers at airports in both Rome and Vienna. Koch, an experienced national security hand who had served as an intelligence operative with a covert Army unit in Vietnam, decided to conduct some personal research into whether the Glock 17’s plastic construction would allow hijackers to sneak it onto planes.
In late 1985, Koch stripped the Glock he received from the West Germans and bundled the components into a duffel bag. He disguised the gun’s main spring by wrapping it around a pair of metal-framed glasses. He separated the magazine from the frame and slide and emptied the ammunition into a small plastic pouch. He then put the duffel bag through the X-ray machine at Washington National Airport. Alarmingly, no one noticed.
Reverberations from this experiment would be loud and long. Koch, for one, was determined to stop the Glock from entering the United States. “We didn’t need another thing to worry about,” he said.
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Unaware of the growing consternation over the Glock 17 at the Pentagon, Gaston Glock, Karl Walter, and Wolfgang Riedl were trying to establish a market for the gun in America. Walter recommended that the manufacturer locate an outpost near Atlanta. Georgia was a gun-friendly state, and the city’s large international airport allowed for efficient shipping. The three settled on the quiet suburb of Smyrna.
Riedl felt that the European market alone for handguns was too small. Military and law enforcement orders, by their nature, were unpredictable and subject to political whims. The American commercial market, with its tens of millions of civilian gun enthusiasts, was the mother lode. “I thought if I can get two percent or three percent of the US commercial market, that’s much more than the commercial markets of fifty other countries,” Riedl said.
The son of a three-star general in the Austrian Army, the well-connected Riedl had first heard of Gaston Glock several years earlier from his father-in-law, who was also a senior army officer. “There is an interesting guy,” his father-in-law had mentioned. “He never in his life designed a field knife, and he delivered the best-quality samples among all the industry participating, and all those guys have been in the knife industry for hundreds of years.” Then this “interesting guy” came back and sold a newly designed handgun to the Ministry of Defense. Riedl’s father-in-law introduced him to Gaston Glock, and a week later, the pistol inventor offered Riedl a job.
An engineer by training, Riedl had a comfortable position at the time as an executive at Steyr, a conglomerate that manufactured not only weapons, but tanks, trucks, and bicycles. Government-controlled, Steyr was stodgy, and the road to promotion into senior management was long. “I was interested to work for a small company, but one with potential,” Riedl explained to me. “From what Mr. Glock showed me, I thought the company had potential.”
Gaston Glock was rightly proud of the gun he had designed, but he was devoid of management or finance skills, and fearful of revealing his weaknesses. Glock complained when workers spoke to one another on the job, claiming that if they had time to talk, they weren’t staying busy enough—an approach sure to breed needless resentment. Glock was so nervous about dealing with Viennese bankers that he instructed Riedl to do all the talking at meetings they attended together. “This created a strange impression of a mute business owner,” Riedl said. “Mr. Glock seemed to outsiders as naïve or aloof, a little odd. In private, within the company, he made all the decisions, but in public, at this time, he was awkward.”
In November 1985, Glock signed the legal papers that established Glock, Inc., as a Georgia corporation. He wired money from Austria to a new company account in Atlanta, and Walter found a small suburban warehouse-and-office complex in Smyrna. Riedl flew to the States to plot a pricing strategy with Walter. They worked in Walter’s basement, with Walter’s wife, Pam, serving ham sandwiches and coffee.
The pair settled on a commercial wholesale price for the Glock 17 of $360 and a recommended retail price of $560. These levels undercut comparable American and European brands, yet assumed generous potential profits. According to Riedl, Glock’s gross margins exceeded an astounding 65 percent—the manufacturer pocketed $240 on each gun sold. By comparison, manufacturer margins on pistols at companies such as Smith & Wesson and Beretta ranged from 5 percent to 20 percent, according to people in the industry. The Glock’s simpler design and the computerized manufacturing methods allowed for larger profits.
Gaston Glock at first urged his marketing men to try a lower price to boost demand even further. Walter strongly disagreed. “If you sell it for cheap, you will have the image of a cheap gun,” he told Glock. “Quality will always bring you more money.” Glock deferred to Walter’s experience in the American market. It was a crucial early decision, one that eventually made Gaston Glock a very rich man.
Riedl drafted an initial sales plan. Under the plan, the company’s gun operation would break even in its first year if it sold 8,500 units. By comparison, S&W and Beretta each sold hundreds of thousands of guns annually. For Glock, the sale of knives, bayonets, and other products, such as machine-gun belts and plastic fragmentation grenades, to the Austrian military provided a revenue cushion for its fledgling firearm business.
That December, Riedl and Walter traveled to Denver for the annual trade show of the National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers. Industry rumors had piqued interest in their gun, even though it wasn’t widely available yet in the United States. The Austrians themselves had only a handful of pistols to display. They borrowed exhibition space from one of the wholesalers with whom Walter was friendly.
The response was overwhelming. On the very first day of the event, Riedl and Walter logged orders for 20,400 guns—far more than Riedl’s target for the entire first year. It would take months to manufacture and ship that many pistols to the United States. “We couldn’t get enough out the door,” said Walter—the sort of predicament any small company would love to have.
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To celebrate their triumphant debut in Denver, Riedl and Walter invited sales representatives to join them that night for free drinks at the bar of a Holiday Inn. The men from Glock arrived in navy blue business suits and ties, as they had dressed for the trade show. The Americans, to their dismay, turned up in cowboy hats, denim jeans, and pointy Western boots. “A little embarrassing,” Riedl admitted.
The next morning, he and Walter rushed to a Western outfitter to buy Stetsons and the rest of the frontier costume. Feeling prepared, they invited their new colleagues back to the Holiday Inn bar on the second night of the wholesalers’ show. This time, the Austrians came attired like John Wayne in Stagecoach . Once again, however, they were confounded—the Americans had switched to business suits.
It turned out that the previous evening had been a special Western Night at the Holiday Inn—which was why everyone had dressed like a cowpoke. “We had something to learn about the United States,” Riedl said.
A few weeks later, the Glock team received another lesson in business, American style. During a retailers’ trade show in Dallas, an FBI agent with whom Walter was acquainted asked the salesman what he thought about that morning’s column by Jack Anderson in the Washington Post about Gaddafi buying Glocks to distribute to terrorists.
Walter assumed the gossip was some kind of strange joke. A couple of days later, when he returned to his still-bare office in Smyrna, he discovered that the FBI man had not been kidding. “Sure enough,” Walter said, “the shit hit the fan.”
Jack Anderson, in the sunset of a long muckraking career, thrived on scandal. Factual accuracy was not his strength. But when he broke a story, other journalists often followed, fixing the mistakes as they went. His syndicated column ran in the Post and scores of other major newspapers. On January 15, 1986, Anderson’s headline declared: GADDAFI BUYING AUSTRIAN PLASTIC PISTOLS . Cowritten with his assistant and leg man, Dale Van Atta, the column reported that “Gaddafi is in the process of buying more than 100 plastic handguns that would be difficult for airport security forces to detect.” An unnamed “top” US official told Anderson and Van Atta: “ ‘This is crazy. To let a madman like Gaddafi have access to such a pistol! Once it is in his hands, he’ll give it to terrorists throughout the Middle East.’ ” The official was none other than Noel Koch, the Pentagon’s counterterrorism chief.
“The handgun in question is the Glock 17, a 9mm pistol invented and manufactured by Gaston Glock in the village of Deutsch-Wagram, just outside Vienna,” the column continued. “It is accurate, reliable, and made almost entirely of hardened plastic. Only the barrel, slide, and one spring are metal. Dismantled, it is frighteningly easy to smuggle past airport security.” Cloaking Koch’s identity, the column described his experiment at Washington National: “One Pentagon security expert decided to demonstrate just how easy it would be to sneak a Glock 17 aboard an airliner.”
The Anderson column created havoc in the Glock world. Everyone who had anything to do with the sale of firearms was desperate to know about the Glock 17. Politicians and activists who opposed widespread ownership of guns, as well as those who favored it, formulated instant opinions on why the violent Libyan pariah might be so fascinated by the plastic pistol. The phones at Glock, Inc., in Smyrna did not stop ringing. “We were inundated,” Walter said. “Not only media, anti-gun people, hostile people, but law enforcement, too.”
“The amazing thing was that nobody had even heard of Glock before the Anderson column,” recalled Richard Feldman, a lawyer then working as a political operative for the National Rifle Association. “ ‘Glock? What’s that? … I’ve got to see one of those.’ ”
The media-political echo chamber amplified the excitement. The New York Times published an editorial on February 9 headlined HIJACKER’S SPECIAL? that summarized the alarmist Anderson column. Mario Biaggi, the dean of the New York City delegation in the US House of Representatives, announced that he would introduce legislation to restrict non-metal firearms. In a February 26 press release, the liberal Democrat’s office described how he had confirmed the danger the Glock posed by having one of his aides carry a disassembled pistol into the Capitol: “When dismantled, the frame and magazine of the weapon, which are made of plastic, went undetected by the metal detector, and the barrel created a deceiving image on the X-ray screen.”
The next day, USA Today devoted its entire editorial page to plastic handguns. The paper’s editors argued that firearms like the Glock ought to be outlawed. A large cartoon showed a gun store advertising the Glock with a poster: HIJACKER SPECIAL! PLASTIC GUNS: BEAT THE METAL DETECTORS! In the drawing, an obsequious salesman asks a grinning Gaddafi how many Glocks he wants. The Libyan ruler, rubbing his hands together with evil glee, answers: “5,000, please!”
Two weeks later, Jack Anderson came back with a second syndicated column, recounting the Biaggi staff episode on Capitol Hill. Josh Sugarmann, communications director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, a Washington lobbying group, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times that relied heavily on the Anderson columns and was entitled PROGRESS GIVES US GREAT NEW HANDGUN—HIJACKER SPECIAL . Sugarmann, who would go on to start his own anti-gun organization, recalled digging up everything he could find about the Glock. The fawning reviews in the American firearm press got his attention. Glock “did a good job of creating an image for itself as being outside the gun industry,” Sugarmann told me. “That was a key selling point for them: ‘You guys have been building your guns in Quonset huts and brick factories. We’re from the future, and we are here to give you a new gun.’ ”
As the furor over the Glock built—congressional hearings were scheduled for May—several pertinent facts were obscured. The National Airport test that inspired the initial Anderson column had actually involved two handguns, not just the Glock. The Pentagon’s Noel Koch arranged to smuggle a fully assembled Heckler & Koch pistol through the security checkpoint, along with the Austrian handgun. He taped the German-made H&K, also a nine-millimeter model, to the bottom of a leather briefcase. Made entirely of metal, the H&K weighed more than the Glock and presumably should have been even easier to pick up, since it wasn’t stripped to its component parts. That neither gun was noticed indicated that the weakness at National Airport was one of ineffective detection machinery, possibly combined with inattentive security personnel. The “plastic pistol” wasn’t any more of a hijacking threat than an ordinary firearm.
Also strangely absent from the debate was that both the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Aviation Administration had scrutinized the Glock 17 in late 1985 and determined that it did not pose a special threat. “As a result of these tests, it was determined that when put through an airport X-ray screening system, the outline was readily identifiable as a pistol,” the FAA’s director of civil aviation security, Billie H. Vincent, said in a document dated March 21, 1986. Despite the approval of these two federal agencies, major media outlets repeated and augmented the alarmist Anderson columns. “Easily concealable handguns like the Glock,” Time reported on April 14, 1986, “along with hard-to-detect components for putty-like explosives that are also readily available, give air pirates an edge that officials are finding increasingly difficult to counter.”
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The National Rifle Association leapt to Glock’s defense, publishing supportive articles in its in-house magazine and on the opinion pages of major newspapers. Feldman, the NRA operative, was dispatched to a meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to hand out X-ray-machine images demonstrating that the Glock 17 could be readily identified. Unimpressed, the mayors passed a resolution calling for a ban on the manufacture and importation of plastic handguns.
In New York, Representative Biaggi’s hometown, the police department banned the Glock by name, based on its reputation as a terrorist weapon. Several states, including Maryland, South Carolina, and Hawaii, would follow suit, using a variety of regulations and laws to restrict the Austrian weapon. “It felt like there was real momentum against this one pistol, and the opposing sides in the gun-control debate were gearing up bigtime,” Feldman recalled. “Hijacking was a big concern, and here was one pistol that supposedly the terrorists loved—or that’s what the media and some politicians said. Was this going to kill the Glock in the crib?”
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Into this turmoil stepped the Subcommittee on Crime of the US House of Representatives. Chaired by William Hughes, a Democrat from New Jersey, the panel held hearings that began in May 1986 and continued sporadically over the following year, ostensibly to review the Biaggi bill and other legislation that would make plastic guns illegal.
The subcommittee convened in the wake of a bitter and much broader clash in Congress over gun control that did not involve the Glock. The NRA and its allies got the best of that bigger fight, winning passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which loosened restrictions on gun sales and reined in the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. President Ronald Reagan signed the law in May, the same month as the House hearings on “plastic pistols.” Anti-gun activists saw the Glock controversy as an opportunity to push back in a protracted war they weren’t prepared to surrender.
Hughes, a stalwart of the gun-control movement, had led a successful drive for his side’s main amendment of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, the NRA’s one disappointment with the otherwise gun-friendly law. The Hughes amendment banned the manufacture or sale of new fully automatic machine guns for civilian ownership (possessing and transferring older machine guns remained legal, with special permission). The New Jersey congressman seemed like a natural to lead an investigation of the Glock. To his credit, Hughes did not exacerbate the “hijacker special” hysteria. Setting a calm tone, he said by way of introduction: “This subcommittee, indeed this Congress, cannot solve the problem of terrorism, but we can and must take steps to protect ourselves against terrorist acts. A new threat that seems to be emerging is firearms made of materials which can escape detection in X-ray machines, or which can be smuggled through metal detectors.”
The star witness to appear before the subcommittee was Gaston Glock himself. Up front, Hughes alluded to “controversy over the Glock 17,” but he dampened that in two ways. First, he sounded quite friendly to the gun’s namesake. “We are very pleased,” Hughes said, “that Mr. Gaston Glock, the inventor of the Glock 17 handgun, has come today from Austria to testify about this famous gun.” More generally, Hughes played down any immediate danger created by Glock pistols by stressing that “the development of non-metal firearms that will be even less traceable, and detectable, will soon be upon us.” This view was reasonable enough, given that during this period, various tinkerers and entrepreneurs were experimenting with all-plastic gun designs. None of them, however, reached the marketplace.
Unlike Hughes, some of the other participants in the House hearing weren’t terribly scrupulous in distinguishing between the theoretical possibility of an all-plastic gun and the reality of the Glock 17. Biaggi, attending the session not as a member of the subcommittee but as a witness, saw an opportunity for political theater. A twenty-year member of Congress, he was still famous for having been a hero during his pre-political days as a New York City cop. Biaggi condemned “the plastic handgun” as “the latest tool of terrorist technology.” He offered no illustrations of terrorists using plastic guns, but he singled out the Glock 17 as “the weapon that aroused my concern” because “it is mostly plastic. I say that the Glock 17 is far more difficult to detect than any conventional weapon.”
Federal security officials who testified following Biaggi clearly tried to avoid offending anyone, but just as clearly refused to concede that the Glock, or any other firearm then available, posed a significant detection problem. “While the Glock 17 pistol uses a considerable amount of plastic in its construction,” said Edward M. Owen Jr., chief of firearm technology at BATF, “the pistol contains more metal by weight than many other handguns constructed entirely of metal.” Owen and Billie Vincent of the FAA tiptoed around the personnel problem: that air travelers were—and are—protected by low-paid, barely trained human screeners doing boring, repetitive work.
When it was their turn at the witness table, Karl Walter and Gaston Glock put on an awkward performance. Glock spoke haltingly, using Walter as an interpreter. Yet, in an odd way, the two were disarming.
Until Walter led off the Glock presentation, no one at the hearing had raised the Libyan connection alleged by Anderson and Van Atta. A well-coached corporate executive would have left the issue alone. Walter instead plunged in: “The truth is Glock has at no time … offered directly or indirectly, or negotiated about, or concluded any deal, to or with Libya, Libyan agents, or representatives or other entities representing Libya.”
His tortured assertion may have been technically accurate. The Libyans who, according to Walter’s own account to me, had visited the Glock plant in Deutsch-Wagram supposedly did not discuss an actual sale. But they had not traveled to the Vienna suburb for the Wiener schnitzel. Walter’s decision to make this just-barely-true denial of the Anderson charges seems tendentious at best. Strangely, Hughes and other members of the subcommittee showed no interest in pursuing whether Gaddafi had sent his personal shoppers to the Austrian gun factory.
Walter tackled the question of detection in a more sensible way. He produced an X-ray image of a disassembled Glock 17, inside an attaché case, with other items such as pens and pencils. The reproduction in the hearing transcript reveals that the pieces of the pistol were recognizable, at least if the viewer knew what to look for. Walter stressed that the company had addressed this concern from the outset: “Austrian security authorities confirmed the clear detectability of the pistol in tests at the Vienna International Airport in 1982.”
When Gaston Glock had his turn as a witness, he offered no opening statement and answered questions with Walter’s laborious assistance. Little was accomplished. Hughes inquired into methods for disassembling a Glock, which led its maker to offer pronouncements that sounded alternately like sales pitches and filibusters, none of them particularly coherent. “This is an advantage for every weapon which you can easily [break down] for cleaning purposes,” Glock said, “because even during peacetime, training with weapons is required.”
The businessman never faced any real pressure from Hughes or other members of the panel. Instead, he gave a tedious tutorial on the pistol’s design and its relatively few component parts. “Our important thing is,” he said, “because of these components, less parts can break, and therefore, the weapon will last longer.” Not exactly a blinding insight. The Austrian ran out the clock and avoided serious trouble.
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The appearance before the House panel was only one stop in an impressive circuit the Glock executives traveled through the halls of Washington. Without benefit of expensive lobbyists or legal counsel, Glock’s tiny executive group responded to the Anderson column by paying courtesy calls on the BATF, the FAA, the separate training academies of the Secret Service and the FBI, the US Capitol Police, and the National Rifle Association. Walter, Riedl, and Glock also secured multiple meetings at the Pentagon. They even visited Noel Koch, the self-appointed scourge of the Glock. The encounter in Koch’s office quickly deteriorated when Glock began lecturing the American. “You’re trying to destroy my company,” Glock said.
“I don’t have anything against your company,” Koch responded. “I just want to keep your gun out of my country.”
“We didn’t like each other,” Koch recalled later. “He was a sour, self-righteous SOB. He was not a great representative for his product, I’ll tell you that.”
For his part, Glock demonstrated impressive chutzpah, scolding a senior American security official when the Austrian was selling his handgun to the likes of Assad and hosting Libyan operatives at the plant in Deutsch-Wagram. But Glock’s risky indignation paid off. In another meeting, Defense Department officials said that despite Koch’s instigation of the Anderson column, the American security establishment had no objection to the Glock 17. The Austrians thanked their hosts and asked that they issue a corrective public statement. The Americans refused, but they made a conciliatory counterproposal. They arranged for the Austrians to meet with weapons experts from a variety of elite military units that had the authority to choose their own small arms.
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The House Crime Subcommittee would hold three more days of hearings spread over more than a year, keeping Glock in the headlines. Considering all the melodrama that preceded it, passage of legislation in May 1988 to ban the manufacture, import, or sale of undetectable plastic firearms seemed a ho-hum afterthought. As a practical matter, the law had no effect on the Glock 17, which was deemed detectable. Since no other manufacturer has tried to market an all-plastic invisible gun, the statute, at best, stands as a prohibition of a bad idea that never became a reality. Viewed more skeptically, the congressional fuss seems like a waste of legislative time and energy.
But the intense public attention devoted to the Glock did have an impact on the gun and its manufacturer. Within months of the original Anderson column in January 1986, questions about the pistol’s unusual design and materials become a major selling point.
Civilian orders continued to pour in, as thousands of gun buyers decided to see what all the commotion was about. Karl Walter also tallied more than one thousand requests for free samples from law enforcement agencies in 1986 alone. Some came from small municipal police departments; others, from large state prisons and international airport-security offices. The US Capitol Police obtained a Glock and passed it along to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. Soon Walter was holding seminars with representatives from the Customs Service, the Border Patrol, the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. All of them wanted Glock 17s for closer study and tryouts on the range. Nine out of ten of the recipients eventually sent a check, saying they would like to keep the test guns.
At the Pentagon, Noel Koch eventually dropped his campaign against the Glock. He even bought one for his private gun collection. “Actually, it shoots very nicely,” he told me. “With a full clip, it’s nicely balanced and comes back on point easily.” He expressed an amused insouciance about the tumult he had initiated: It was but one more Washington war story.
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Shipments arrived from Deutsch-Wagram every weekend at the Atlanta airport. The first batch of eight hundred was delivered in January 1986, before Walter had managed to get an alarm system installed at the Smyrna facility. He slept in the plant that night, accompanied only by his loyal Samoyed, Tasso. Walter hired his wife, Pam, to help him repackage the guns, record their serial numbers, and send them out to wholesalers via United Parcel Service. As the business expanded, he brought on more employees. The Glock’s success illustrated that in the gun industry, all publicity is good publicity, and high-profile enmity from anti-gun forces is the best publicity of all.
Marty Arnstein, an American wholesaler who placed an early order for Glocks, congratulated Wolfgang Riedl on the plastic pistol controversy. “You just got $5 million worth of advertising for free,” Arnstein said.
While the FBI was quick to blame inadequate firepower for its losses in the Miami Shootout, the nation’s premier law enforcement agency moved cautiously to replace its Smith & Wesson revolvers. A lumbering bureaucracy in the best of times, the FBI was traumatized by the bloodshed of April 1986 and embarrassed at how the confrontation spun out of control. Its choice of a new handgun would take years.
The Feds’ hesitation, however, did not slow others. A patrolman in Colby, Kansas, read an article about Glock in the spring of 1986 and suggested that the small town order a couple of the exotic-sounding weapons. With a full-time force of only twelve officers, Colby made the very first formal US police acquisition of Glocks. Karl Walter instituted what would become a permanent Glock policy of offering cops a big discount from the wholesale price of $360 per pistol; Colby paid $300 apiece. “Officers found them unconventional, but really liked their performance,” recalled Randall Jones, now the chief of the Colby PD. His department switched over exclusively to Glocks and carries them to this day.
Curtiss Spanos, a firearm trainer with the larger Howard County Police Department in Maryland, began carrying a Glock 17 in mid-1986. In December, he and a fellow officer encountered two armed robbery suspects. “There would be two dead officers if I didn’t have the nine-millimeter gun,” Spanos told the Washington Post . The hero cop explained that during a thirty-minute chase and gunfight, he was able to return fire rapidly with the seventeen-round Glock as the suspects reloaded several times. “I fired a total of 16 rounds,” Spanos said. “I couldn’t have done that with a revolver.”
Several months after municipal cops from Miami responded to distress calls about the brutal FBI shootout, the Miami PD became the first big-city department to inquire about a force-wide purchase from Glock. A six-month pilot program yielded positive reviews. Miami city commissioner J. L. Plummer called the Glock 17 “reliable, accurate, and very fine.” Beretta protested that it had not been given an adequate opportunity to compete for the Miami contract, but the Italian manufacturer’s complaint was brushed aside. The Miami PD ordered eleven hundred of the Austrian pistols.
Dallas, San Francisco, and Toronto quickly followed Miami’s lead. In St. Paul, Minnesota, John Nord, the deputy chief, was alarmed that twice in early 1987, officers involved in shootings emptied six-shot revolvers while criminal suspects kept firing. Those incidents, combined with the Miami PD’s decision to go with Glock, inspired St. Paul and neighboring Minneapolis to switch. “It’s the wave of the future,” said Minneapolis chief Tony Bouza.
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In 1987, Miami’s crime scourge was spreading north. “The crack cocaine wars were hitting Jacksonville,” recalled John Rutherford. The police felt threatened. Rutherford headed firearm training for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which was responsible for the growing city and surrounding Duval County. His range served all police and correctional officers in northeast Florida. Rutherford’s boss, the sheriff, ordered him to conduct a study of whether to change over to semiautomatic pistols and, if the answer was yes, which one. Thirty-five years old at the time, Rutherford was a rising star in the department, the son of a Navy man, and a graduate of Florida State University. The assignment became a major test.
Rutherford had hunted as a boy and liked guns. He kept a framed copy of the Second Amendment on his office wall and taught his two children to shoot. He carried a handgun at all times, on and off duty—even to church on Sunday, which annoyed his wife. Rutherford’s view was that if some armed nut decided to take out his frustrations on the congregation, he wanted to be prepared.
As of 1987, he had little experience with semiautomatic pistols. He knew only revolvers. So he had the department hire an outside consultant to help sort through the many options on the market. He chose Emanuel Kapelsohn, a well-known firearm trainer who called his advisory business Peregrine Corp., after the Peregrine falcon, a sharp-eyed bird of prey.
Gun manufacturers from all over the world sent the sheriff’s office their latest models, a dozen in all. Rutherford and a brain trust of fellow officers with firearm expertise gathered to examine the candidate guns. “We’re taking these guns out and looking at them,” Rutherford recalled. “ ‘Ooh, Beretta 92F. Isn’t that pretty? Sig Sauer! You know everybody loves Sig.’ Then, I pull out this black box and pop the thing open, and here’s this Glock. I’m like, ‘What the heck is this?’ I’m tapping it on the table. It’s plastic! What the hell? And there’s no hammer on this thing. I literally said, ‘We don’t want any crap like this,’ and I slung it over onto the couch, didn’t even put it back in the mix with the other guns.”
Kapelsohn noticed the lonely Glock. “You need to give it a chance,” he said.
His words carried weight. Kapelsohn, who came from New Jersey, had a national reputation and heavy connections at the NRA. His credentials were unusual in the weapons-training business: He held a BA in English literature from Yale and a law degree from Harvard. He had worked at a New York firm as a civil litigator for corporate clients; on the side, he drew on a lifetime love of guns to become a noted shooting instructor. Eventually he decided to turn his sideline into a full-time job. He earned gun-instructor certification from the FBI and studied with some of the best-known handgun authorities in the country, including the legendary Jeff Cooper, who ran a school in Arizona. The 1988 treatise Police Defensive Handgun Use and Encounter Tactics named Kapelsohn one of the five top trainers in the United States. He also testified as a paid expert for both plaintiffs and defendants in lawsuits over allegedly wrongful shootings.
Kapelsohn’s suggestion that the Austrian pistol be taken seriously proved prescient. Within a few days, “we were fighting over who was going to get the Glock,” Rutherford said. “It’s just like shooting a revolver, and that’s what everybody liked about it. You pull it out, you pull the trigger, and you put it away. That was the beauty of it.”
Revolvers typically don’t have external safeties. As Kapelsohn explained to Rutherford, training a cop—or a civilian—to switch to a standard semiautomatic pistol requires intensive drills on deactivating the safety lever before firing. Many officers forget whether the safety is on or off. Some standard pistols, including the Beretta, remain cocked after being fired, with the hammer poised to fall again. To be safe, the user has to “decock” the gun manually before replacing it in a holster. Between operating the safety and decocking, there is a lot of opportunity to make mistakes.
The Glock 17, Kapelsohn said, presented none of these challenges. There is no external safety lever or decocking mechanism. As Rutherford recalled the lesson: “The safety in a Glock was the exact same as the safety in a revolver: trigger travel, trigger weight. You have to overcome both for the gun to go off, and that’s where the safety is at.”
Rutherford and his colleagues in Jacksonville had a nostalgic affection for the standard-issue Smith & Wesson .38. Some of them liked the look of the large .45-caliber S&W Model 645 pistol, the American company’s nominee in the Jacksonville shoot-off. “But the problem was, several of us had gone out on target [with the S&W 645] with the safety on,” Rutherford said. “That’s chilling. We just had a two-week class on using these guns, knowing about decocking and the safety and all that.… Here we are going out on target with the safety on.”
The Glock had another advantage: a light, steady trigger pull. The Smith & Wesson .38-caliber guns in use in Jacksonville had a heavy pull of twelve to fourteen pounds—standard for revolvers. Shooters who train regularly can achieve accuracy with a heavy trigger. But only a small minority of cops practice diligently. “There’s this myth out there that all police officers are gun enthusiasts, and they train like crazy and shoot all the time,” said Rutherford. A dirty little secret of law enforcement is that many cops don’t take range time seriously. And even in high-crime cities, the vast majority of officers go years, or even an entire career, without getting into a gunfight. The average officer is a mediocre shot, or worse.
With a Glock, poor marksmen become adequate; moderately skilled shooters begin grouping rounds in small bunches near dead center of their target. The pistol’s gentle five-pound trigger action doesn’t require the sort of muscular squeeze that can cause the user to jerk the gun off target.
The Smith & Wesson Model 645 and other semiautomatic pistols at the time had an inconsistent trigger pull that didn’t solve the accuracy problem. On most semiautos other than the Glock, the first squeeze was comparable to that of a revolver: around twelve pounds. This initial heavy pull both cocked the gun and fired it. The momentum of the recoil and rearward movement of the slide automatically recocked the pistol for the second and subsequent shots. Succeeding shots required a much lighter, shorter trigger pull because the hammer was already in a cocked position. As a result, a less-than-expert shooter was prone to fire low on the first heavy squeeze of the trigger, and then high on the second, much lighter pull. With training and practice, these tendencies can be overcome, but few police officers receive sufficient preparation. The Glock requires training too, of course, but its soft, consistent trigger action and modest recoil make it “the easiest semiautomatic to transition to,” Rutherford said.
When word got out that Rutherford was leaning toward the Glock, some of his superiors warned him that could be risky. “Now, John,” he recalled one senior officer telling him, “you know the sheriff and the undersheriff, they really like that Smith & Wesson 645.” Smith & Wesson was what the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had always known. It was the American cop’s brand.
But Rutherford was adamant. He had worked for months on his report, he said. “Now you want me to change it to something else that I know is not the best gun?” During a two-hour presentation to the sheriff, he stressed the Glock’s accuracy and safety advantages, as he saw them. He explained that the Austrian pistol was much easier to maintain because it had only thirty-four parts; the Smith & Wesson 645 had more than one hundred. “You can take fifty [Glocks] apart and put fifty guns back together after mixing up all the parts, and they all shoot,” he said. As beloved as the brand had been, Smith & Wesson had allowed its manufacturing quality to slip, Rutherford told his superiors. The story was similar to that of the American auto industry; gun makers in the United States had lost ground to foreign competitors more diligent about engineering and quality control. That is how Toyota sneaked up on General Motors. Out of a shipment of forty new Smith & Wesson revolvers, three or four would malfunction right out of the box. “The damned things wouldn’t even fire,” Rutherford said. This was something the sheriff hadn’t known. In the Firearm Training Division, Rutherford said, “we were a little miffed at Smith & Wesson by that time.”
A decision came quickly: “We’re buying Glocks,” the sheriff said.
An order went to Smyrna for nine hundred pistols to arm the Jacksonville force. Over the next six months, more than one hundred police agencies around the country requested copies of Rutherford’s ninety-page report on Glock. And Rutherford received a promotion to captain.
Not that the pistol conversion went flawlessly. Shortly after Jacksonville began issuing the Glock 17, a deputy mistakenly shot and killed a teenager he was trying to arrest on suspicion of stealing a pickup truck. An investigation revealed that the officer had drawn his gun and had his finger on the trigger, as he attempted to cuff the juvenile suspect. The deputy should have holstered his gun, especially since the Glock required much less force to fire. “This was a horrific accident, but a training issue, not the fault of the gun,” Rutherford said.
He similarly did not blame the Glock for several incidents early on when deputies’ pistols jammed. After consultation with the manufacturer, Rutherford concluded that the ammunition the department was using didn’t feed properly from the Glock’s magazine. After a switch to Winchester rounds recommended by Glock, the jamming ceased. “That gun does not jam with proper ammo,” Rutherford said. Still, serious questions about Glocks discharging accidentally and having finicky appetites in ammunition would recur in other jurisdictions as the handgun’s popularity spread.
Rutherford’s allegiance never wavered. Twenty-two years later, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which he now presides over as the popularly elected sheriff, has seventeen hundred officers. It still arms them with Glock pistols.
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Emanuel Kapelsohn’s recommendation of the Glock wasn’t happenstance. In mid-1986, Karl Walter began putting some of the country’s most admired shooting instructors on contract to spread the word about the Austrian pistol. This melding of training and marketing, motivated by a keen sense of customer needs, became a Glock hallmark. Kapelsohn was one of the specialists Walter hired.
In some cities, the Glock gun instructors were paid by the local authorities; that’s the way it worked in Jacksonville, where the sheriff’s office hired Kapelsohn. In other situations, usually after a department indicated it would make a purchase, Glock dispatched Kapelsohn or another trainer as part of the procurement deal—a freebie for the new customer. Strictly speaking, Kapelsohn’s role as an expert hired by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had a built-in conflict of interest. During the plastic pistol debate before Congress, he testified in Washington with notable eloquence on Glock’s behalf. Nevertheless, he insisted he “did not have an axe to grind” and endorsed Glock on the merits.
After the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office placed their order for the Glocks, the company sent Kapelsohn back to north Florida to provide transitional training on the company’s dime. “Karl Walter had the genius at that time to take the training programs on the road,” Kapelsohn said. “You had to go to the Smith & Wesson Academy [in Springfield, Massachusetts] if you were going to use the Smith & Wesson. If your agency was going to adopt the Glock, [Walter] would send some training your way.” Many times, instructors from neighboring agencies attended these sessions out of curiosity, or Glock would sponsor an open-house seminar for all federal, state, and municipal trainers in a given region. “The effect of it was to get Glocks in the hands of instructors all over the country,” Kapelsohn explained. “This was just a brilliant way to sell this gun.”
Making customers’ encounters with Glock memorable was one of Karl Walter’s talents. He showed up to close big deals, zooming into town from Smyrna in a Porsche roadster stocked with boxes of Austrian pistols and free ammunition. (He switched to the sports car from the RV once he became a full-time Glock employee.) Walter also made a habit of inviting police customers and wholesale distributors for all-expenses-paid visits to the Glock facility outside of Atlanta. The cops were treated to steak dinners at a downtown restaurant, expensive liquor, and imported cigars.
On occasion, a visiting Gaston Glock put in an appearance. “He looked very European, smoked like a chimney,” one law enforcement official recalled. “He knew his stuff. You could not ask him anything he couldn’t tell you about that gun.” Glock enjoyed showing off the Glock 18, a fully automatic version of the pistol. Depressing the trigger of the Glock 18 unleashes a stream of bullets in the fashion of a machine gun. It can hold a capacious thirty-three-round magazine that sticks out of the gun’s grip and empties in a matter of seconds. Unless the user is familiar with the Glock 18, its enormous recoil results in the barrel jumping upward. Many an embarrassed police officer inadvertently peppered the ceiling of the company shooting range with rounds. Unavailable on the civilian market, the Glock 18 is designed for police SWAT squads and military special-ops units. Rolling it out for visitors to Smyrna remains a Glock marketing practice.
Using imaginative financing and trade-in arrangements allowed Walter to sign up police departments on tight budgets. In Marietta, Georgia, he won over Police Chief Charles Simmons in 1988 by promising to arm his hundred-person force without any money changing hands. The Marietta PD simply exchanged 126 old handguns for 100 new Glock 17s. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article about the transaction, noting that the Glock “would be an easy gun to switch to since officers train quickly with it and gain better accuracy than with the present revolver.”
Such publicity introduced the brand to a wider audience at no cost to Glock. The deals worked financially because of the company’s startlingly low manufacturing costs, which Glock was able to push down even further—to less than $100 a unit—as its production volume grew. When it did trade-ins, Glock sold the used police handguns to wholesalers, who refurbished them for sale at firearm shops and weekend gun shows. Overhauled police weapons became a staple on the used-gun market throughout the United States, and trade-ins emerged as an important aspect of the Glock modus operandi.
As the company’s reputation and revenue grew, Walter began hiring full-time employees from the agencies that bought his guns. These revolving-door recruits became some of his most effective evangelists. The New York State Police, a 4,500-person force, initiated its move to semiautomatic pistols in 1988. The veteran sergeant in charge of the review process, Frank DiNuzzo, was known throughout the Northeast as a firearm trainer and author of instructional manuals. At first inclined toward Smith & Wesson, DiNuzzo ultimately recommended the Glock for reasons similar to Rutherford’s in Jacksonville. Glock sweetened the deal by arranging for a $1,246,000 credit when the agency traded in 4,550 old handguns. New York received 4,310 new Austrian pistols for an additional payment of only $40,000. The used police guns were later resold by a Massachusetts gun wholesaler. After DiNuzzo retired from the department in 1990, Walter hired him as Glock’s first full-time in-house trainer. Retirees from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Detroit PD, and the special-operations Navy SEALs went to work for the company as well.
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New York City had, and has, the biggest police force in the United States, with thirty-five thousand officers—more than twice the size of the FBI. Other departments take cues from the NYPD, and no municipality sees its officers depicted more often in movies or on television. At the same time, New York City is not a gun-friendly jurisdiction. It has strict local gun-control laws. And while the state troopers based upstate in Albany were receptive to Glock, the leadership of the NYPD imposed a brand-specific ban on the Austrian gun in early 1986, based on the terrorism fears fanned by Jack Anderson.
None of this stopped Walter, who had sold Steyr sniper rifles to the NYPD during his pre-Glock days. In May 1986, a contingent of New York police trainers invited him to make an unofficial presentation at the department’s range at Rodman’s Neck. To Walter’s surprise, twenty firearm instructors showed up; he had brought only a handful of sample pistols. Not to worry, his hosts told him. Several had privately obtained Glock 17s and retrieved them from their lockers.
Walter took this as a promising sign: Some of New York’s top in-house firearm trainers were curious enough about what he was selling to spend their own money on the gun, and in the process violate the ban on possessing a Glock within city limits. That summer, with the prohibition still in place, the Emergency Services Unit of the NYPD, what other cities called SWAT, quietly ordered seventy Glock pistols—another hopeful development. Walter continued to press for a broader hearing in New York.
In June 1986, the limitations of the six-shot revolver were convincingly illustrated in a gunfight in Far Rockaway, Queens. Rookie NYPD officer Scott Gadell and his partner chased a gunman who opened fire on them. Gadell leaped for cover behind a stoop and shot back, emptying his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson. As he tried to reload, the gunman stepped forward and fired a fatal shot into the left side of Gadell’s forehead, just above the ear. The gunman fired a total of nine shots from a nine-millimeter semiautomatic. “Every cop knows about Scott,” a fellow officer later said. “He’s an example of a cop who did everything he was supposed to but ended up dying because of second-rate equipment.”
Then, in September 1988, the Associated Press landed a scoop that ricocheted around the city’s media and beyond: New York Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward was carrying a Glock 17 beneath his suit jacket! The New York Post teased the story on its front page and ran this punning all-caps headline:
TOP COP WARDS OFF BAN ON SUPER GUN
“Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward is licensed to carry a controversial plastic super-pistol that is banned in New York City,” the Post reported. “Ward can carry a state-of-the-art nine-millimeter Glock pistol, according to a copy of a renewal of Ward’s carry license, dated July 6.”
Caught flat-footed, the NYPD told the Post that “the Glock issued to Ward was ‘part of a controlled test.’ ” Since the department wasn’t very responsive, the newspaper sought others to describe the “super gun.” One was Dr. David Mohler, an orthopedic cancer specialist at Sloan-Kettering who said he had owned a Glock in California but had been discouraged from bringing it with him to New York because of the licensing ban. “The Glock,” Mohler told the paper, “is one of the best combat pistols you can find.”
“ ‘Super gun,’ can you imagine?” Karl Walter would muse more than two decades later. Shaking his head, he chuckled. “You can’t buy that kind of attention, not for $50 million, not for $100 million.”
A day after the Ward disclosure, the NYPD ended the Glock ban. A deputy police commissioner explained that research had demonstrated that the gun “could not be defined as an undetectable weapon, and in fact can be detected with today’s present technology in the security field.”
“From that moment on, everything started to roll,” Walter said. Soon hundreds of NYPD narcotics detectives, organized crime investigators, and other specialized units were carrying Glocks. Today the brand is one of three that New York authorizes, and about twenty thousand of the city’s officers carry a Glock.
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Gaston Glock was not the first firearm designer to promote a handgun to Americans in uniform as a means of developing a lucrative market. “The first was Samuel Colt,” Karl Walter noted. Nor is there any evidence that Gaston Glock was consciously inspired by the mid-nineteenth-century impresario of the revolver. But the strategy that the Glock-Walter team pursued 140 years later uncannily resembled that of Sam Colt. The similarities illuminate lasting themes in the American gun business.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1814, Colt was a mechanically inclined boy who grew bored working in his father’s textile mill. At fifteen, he shipped out as an apprentice seaman, and, according to most biographies, it was on this youthful voyage that he got the idea for his version of a repeating firearm the cylinder of which revolved, wheel-like, around the barrel. Some accounts say the design came to him while he fixated on the operation of the ship captain’s wheel; others, that he got the idea while focused on the capstan used to raise anchor. More prosaically, according to historian Chuck Wills, young Colt may have seen early flintlock revolvers in India, where they were used by British troops. “By the time he returned to the US, he had carved a working model out of wood.”
Colt hired two experienced gunsmiths to advise him on the details and fabricate experimental models. Like Glock, he required the assistance of specialists. Revolvers had been in use for decades. Colt’s advance was to link the cylinder to the firing mechanism, eliminating the need to manually rotate the cylinder. The user pulled back the hammer, which caused the cylinder to turn and lined up the chamber containing the ammunition with the barrel. To fire, the shooter then simply pulled the trigger.
Colt’s guns became known as powerful, reliable, and durable, a reputation much like the Glock’s later on. After several years of difficulty getting his business off the ground, Colt had a series of breakthroughs winning endorsements from prominent lawmen and military officers, foreshadowing the path Karl Walter followed with the Glock. One of Colt’s earliest champions was Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers. In 1844, newspapers reported that Walker and fifteen of his mounted men, armed with Colts, fought off some eighty Comanche Indians. “People throughout Texas are anxious to procure your pistols,” Walker wrote to the gun maker in the sort of testimonial that Colt reproduced in illustrated pamphlets. (In the 1800s, “pistol” and “revolver” were used interchangeably.) Two years later, Walker, by then an officer in the Army, collaborated with Colt to develop a .41-caliber model. The US government ordered one thousand of the “Walker Colts” for use in the Mexican-American War, allowing Sam Colt to get his company aloft. Colt built one of the most advanced factories of the era, a facility in Hartford that was the first in the firearm field to take full advantage of mass-production techniques, such as the manufacture of interchangeable parts.
It was only in the 1850s that urban police departments in the United States began to allow officers to carry handguns, especially following the riots that accompanied the economic panic of 1857. Eager to serve this new market, Colt came out with the New Model Police Revolver, one of the last new products his factory made before its founder’s death in 1862. The Police Revolver was an inexpensive, lightweight six-shooter with a three-and-a-half-inch barrel, making it easy to conceal. “What speaks most of Colt’s character is his hyperactive brand of opportunism,” biographer William Hosley observed.
A pioneer of mass advertising, Colt used high-quality brochure art to promote his products as symbols of frontier adventure and technological advancement. Seeking credibility, he wrangled celebrity endorsements from the likes of General Sam Houston, the former president of the Republic of Texas. Colt relentlessly pursued public contracts, regardless of the profit margin. “Government patronage,” he once said, “is an advertisement, if nothing else.” Colt spent lavishly to entertain celebrated military officers and politicians, buying cigars by the thousands and running up enormous bills for liquor and entertainment.
While rivals invoked tradition, Colt made his easy-to-remember single-syllable name (not unlike “Glock”) a synonym for “new.” In 1854, he said: “A musket is an old established thing; it is a thing that has been the rule for ages, but this pistol is newly created.” He stirred consumer interest by continually introducing slightly altered models with patriotic-sounding names. One of his most successful revolvers was the six-shot .36-caliber Navy, so called not because it was made for the US Navy, but because it had naval scenery engraved on its barrel. And, of course, the name “Navy” sounded valiant. As with several other designs, Colt also produced a smaller, more easily concealed Pocket Navy Revolver. Eleven years after he died, the factory in Hartford introduced the .44 Colt Army Model, which was sold to the military and spawned several popular civilian variants. This was the legendary single-action sidearm—still made in replica today—that became known as the “Peacemaker.”
In many ways, Gaston Glock became the Sam Colt of the twentieth century. It is an assertion that might offend some American handgun historians and revolver loyalists. But it is no exaggeration to say that a pair of Austrians—a reticent engineer and his ambitious salesman—set about to remake the handgun business in the United States.
From his company headquarters in the downtown SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, Rick Washburn supplied movies and television shows with guns, knives, bombs, machetes, stilettos, ninja throwing discs—any instrument needed for theatrical violence. His company, Weapons Specialists Ltd., also stocked swords, daggers, spears, and shields for the opera and ballet. Washburn kept his collection behind triple-locked doors in a basement vault invisible to the boutique shoppers strolling by on Greene Street.
A native of Arkansas, Washburn came to New York in the 1970s to be an actor. He landed some minor roles: a hit man in The Cotton Club in 1984, an FBI agent in Mississippi Burning in 1988, and a hit man, again, in Billy Bathgate in 1991. As a boy growing up in the country, he had learned a lot about guns. He offered advice on the set to directors who didn’t know a revolver from a semiautomatic pistol. Sometimes his kibitzing was resented; often it was appreciated. He began charging for gun consulting and discovered he could make a much better living in the prop business than from performing. Washburn trained actors, as well, on how to handle firearms realistically. He worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Karl Walter first went to work on persuading Washburn of the Glock’s merits in 1986. “He ran the Glock spiel on me,” Washburn recalled with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Did you know that it has half the parts of a regular gun? Did you know it won’t jam when a regular gun will jam? Did you know we’ve dropped these things out of helicopters and then picked them up and shot them?’ ”
At first, like many handgun aficionados, Washburn was skeptical. A devotee of the .45-caliber Colt 1911, he considered the Glock homely. “I was one of those people who believed, you know what, this thing is going to be a flash in the pan.… Maybe it’ll be popular in Europe, not here.” Fellow Colt chauvinists derided the plastic Glock as “handgun Tupperware.” At Walter’s insistence, Washburn finally took a Glock 17 to an indoor shooting range on the far West Side of Manhattan, one of the few places a civilian with a permit can fire a gun legally in the city. “There I am— bang! bang! bang! —just popping those targets like it was going out of style,” he recalled. “I found it to be handy, easy to shoot, didn’t jam. I was hitting targets on a regular basis with it. Suddenly I realized, as a tool, as a carry gun, as a military sidearm, this thing would be hard to beat.” In Arkansas, he explained, “we used to have what we called our ‘truck gun’—that old gun that you threw in the back of the truck, so if you saw a rabbit or a squirrel, you had something to shoot. It stayed in the back of the truck, and it got beat up. It shot OK, but it looked like hell. It wasn’t the gun you hung up on the wall or showed to your friends. Glocks were kind of like that to me: a truck gun.”
Until there were more Glocks in circulation, Washburn hesitated putting one in an actor’s hand. But as a proponent of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, he resented that New York banned the Glock by name. “It was a typical elitist attitude,” he explained. “You know, you can’t trust the regular people.” In 1988, he had an opportunity to strike back. A friend of his ran a firm that helped New Yorkers navigate the procedures for obtaining handgun permits from the NYPD. Curious about which public officials had permits, Washburn’s pal requested the records under the state freedom-of-information law. To his surprise, the city supplied the names and the types of weapons each official was licensed to own. Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward was on the list, and his permit noted the Glock 17. Washburn and his buddy decided the rest of the world should know about Ward’s secret Glock. The prop man picked up the phone and called the Associated Press—and that is how word got out about the “super gun.”
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As NYPD officers began carrying Glocks, Washburn felt it was time to give the Austrian gun entertainment-industry exposure. He was providing prop weapons for a television show on CBS called The Equalizer , which concerned a fictional former CIA operative who helped ordinary people deal (often violently) with hoodlums, drug dealers, rapists, and other unsavory sorts. The vigilante character made his services available via a cryptic newspaper ad: “Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer.” As befit a suave secret agent, the Equalizer carried a small Walther PPK stainless steel pistol. But late in the series’ prime-time run, courtesy of Rick Washburn, walk-on characters began appearing with Glocks. “Once the [New York] Police Department started using them,” he said, “we started putting them on cops, and particularly detectives.”
Washburn liked helping the Austrian company; he realized he also could benefit financially from having an up-and-coming gun maker favorably inclined to supply him with pistols on reasonable terms. Washburn sensed a groundswell of interest in Gaston Glock’s invention: “You had people buying Glocks, using Glocks, checking Glocks out just because they were pissed off, just because of the notoriety.” In the United States, he observed, “the people who are most against firearms usually end up being the best salesmen for firearms.”
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Only the automobile rivals the gun as a Hollywood prop. Wheels and firepower—representing adventurousness and machismo—are seen by many shapers of popular culture as essential American characteristics. Karl Walter wasn’t a deep-thinking media analyst, but he knew that “people buy what they see on television and in the movie theater.”
Colt revolvers had a surge of popularity among American gun owners in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of being featured in cowboy movies and TV shows. The elegant Walther PPK gained cachet as James Bond’s favorite pistol. Smith & Wesson received a huge marketing boost when Clint Eastwood appeared as Inspector Harold “Dirty Harry” Callahan in 1971 carrying his signature S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum. The movie “had a major impact on the sale of our .44 Magnums and our products,” said former S&W company historian Roy Jinks. Pointing the enormous revolver at one criminal suspect, the Callahan character uttered one of the classic tough-guy speeches in cinema history: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ But to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Walter wanted the Glock to have its Dirty Harry moment.
“Product placement” first became a common marketing technique in the 1980s, as manufacturers paid to have their brand of soda, clothing, or car written into scripts. But the gun industry never had to pay for this kind of recognition. Screenwriters and directors needed no financial incentive to weave firearms into their plots. Gun companies, though, can make it easier or more difficult to cast their weapons. From its inception, Glock gave every consideration to prop men who could influence the process. Walter provided pistols to Washburn at huge discounts and, when Washburn ordered guns for rush delivery, let him cut in line ahead of other customers.
Colt and Smith & Wesson, by contrast, insisted that Washburn pay full price for their wares. Sometimes there were long delays in shipping from the American companies. The US marketing people at the German manufacturer Heckler & Koch, the Swiss Sig Sauer, and the Italian Beretta were even more recalcitrant, to the point that they seemed to Washburn almost indifferent as to whether their brands received theatrical exposure. Most gun makers tried to negotiate approval of how their products would be used. Cops and good guys were OK; criminals, not. Walter expressed a preference for Glocks being on the side of the law, but he didn’t enforce the rule strictly. Dirty Harry, after all, was no Boy Scout, and he sold a ton of .44 Magnums. According to Washburn, “People don’t care if a bad guy or a good guy uses your gun.” The key, he said, is to get noticed.
In the late 1980s, Michael Papac, an up-and-coming weapons master in the Los Angeles area who specialized in action movies, worked on the Lethal Weapon films with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger. “You were starting to hear about Glock, this plastic gun,” Papac recalled. “There were stories about how you couldn’t see it on an X-ray. People didn’t know what they were talking about, but they were talking. Eventually you knew it would end up in a movie.” Then Papac landed the assignment to provide weaponry for the sequel to Bruce Willis’s slam-bang hit Die Hard . In Die Hard 2: Die Harder , which was released July 4, 1990, Willis reprised his role as John McClane, a hard-bitten and resourceful Los Angeles police lieutenant. This time, McClane faced off against a band of mercenaries involved with Latin American drug trafficking, who take over a major US airport. The villains threaten to cause the crash of incoming planes, including one containing McClane’s wife.
The script for Die Hard 2 called for the mercenary terrorists to carry Glocks—the big-screen debut for the Austrian pistol. “Those were the first Glocks I owned; they were new to Hollywood,” said Papac. In the movie, the McClane character, who was armed with a Beretta 92FS, expressed surprise that his foes possessed the latest in handgun technology. At one point, he 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!”
The Glock had its Dirty Harry moment. It didn’t matter that every single trait Willis/McClane ticked off about the pistol was incorrect: There never was a model called the Glock 7. The gun was made in Austria, not Germany. It did show up on airport X-ray machines, and the Glock didn’t cost more than what a police captain made in a month. “Everything Bruce Willis said about the Glock was made up,” Papac said. “You can tell them the truth on the set, but that doesn’t mean the director is going to change the script. They didn’t listen to me.”
Despite all of the errors—or, more likely, because of them—the Bruce Willis Die Hard 2 soliloquy on the Glock became an instant favorite of American gun enthusiasts. “Lots of people, whether they know about cars or World War II or the layout of New York, love to pick at errors in movies or television,” noted Richard Feldman, the former NRA operative. “Gun people are the worst. They love to go on and on about mistakes about guns in the movies. It makes us feel smart and special: we know guns, and those stupid liberals in Hollywood don’t know anything.” The faulty Die Hard 2 references to Glock “just got everyone talking again about this gun,” Feldman said. “You had Jack Anderson, and Congress, and now, Bruce Willis—everyone’s making things up about Glock. And gun owners, they want to defend the ‘porcelain gun’ or the ‘plastic pistol’ or the ‘hijacker special,’ or whatever the media are calling it. What fabulous publicity!”
Hollywood, in its growing love affair with the Glock, would go on to put the gun into countless movies in the 1990s, and screenwriters improved their technical accuracy, if not necessarily their literary sophistication. In U.S. Marshals (1998), Tommy Lee Jones, as US Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard, lectured Robert Downey Jr., who played a State Department security agent carrying a stainless-steel Taurus PT945. Holding the Taurus aloft with obvious disdain, Jones snapped, “Get yourself a Glock and lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native, took pride in his home country’s famous export and requested it by name for his movie roles, according to Washburn. Gaston Glock gave the actor a pair of complimentary pistols as a gift and showed off a framed photograph of the two men shaking hands. But Glock couldn’t persuade Schwarzenegger to endorse the brand publicly in the United States. Washburn calls Schwarzenegger “a closet gun guy, like a lot of Hollywood people.” But the former champion bodybuilder more than made up for this reticence with his characters’ on-screen pronouncements. In End of Days (1999), a supernatural thriller in which Schwarzenegger battles the Devil, he responds irritably to a priest’s lecture on religious devotion, “Between your faith and my Glock nine-millimeter, I take my Glock.”
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What set Glock apart from other handguns in the realm of pop culture was that it so quickly acquired a reputation as the firearm of both the cop and the outlaw. The former association had roots in reality; police officers from Colby, Kansas, to New York City had migrated to the Austrian pistol. The television police-and-prosecutor procedural Law & Order , which began its prime-time run on NBC in 1990, evolved into what some called one long Glock advertisement. Filmed in New York and outfitted by Rick Washburn, the show had its detectives and beat cops over the years move en masse from Smith & Wesson revolvers to Glock semiautomatics.
Glock’s link to the world of criminals was, at first, more fantasy than fact. The Glock has an intimidating profile. It does not look like the gun of a hero, in the fashion of the Colt Peacemaker in westerns. It had been introduced to the American public by its critics as a hijacker weapon (however tendentiously). Die Hard 2 portrayed it in the hands of paramilitary maniacs. But more important in terms of popular culture, the Glock was embraced by leading stars of hip-hop.
All sorts of major apparel, liquor, and jewelry brands took advantage of rap’s rapid rise to popularity, not just in the inner city but in predominantly white suburbs across the country. Big consumer-product companies sponsored concerts, bought advertising in music magazines, and used performers as spokesmen. “While virtually every other industry maneuvers to exploit hip-hop’s commercial influence, gun manufacturers have been saved the work,” Rodrigo Bascunan and Christian Pearce wrote in their rap history, Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent . “Guns are a part of life, death, and status in the same neighborhoods that hip-hop grew up in. It only makes sense that firearm brands would come to pervade rap music.”
“Gangsta rappers” peppered their lyrics with references to firearms and gunplay. The gun represented manhood; it was brandished in response to punk street rivals and perceived challenges from the police. Some MCs adopted stage names alluding to favorite brands: AK-47, Beretta 9, Mac 10, Mikhail Kalashnikuv, Smif-n-Wessun, and Young Uzi. But no model was more popular than the Glock. The rhyming potential alone—“pop,” “drop,” “cop,” and, of course, “cock”—made it a lyricist’s dream. Rappers Glock 9 and Glokk borrowed versions of the Austrian name as their professional identities. Song titles incorporated the brand: “Mask and da Glock” by Three 6 Mafia, “Hand on the Glock” by Cypress Hill, “Ain’t No Glock” by TRU. The repertoire of rap works that refer to Glock is so voluminous in no small part because one of the most influential performers of the early 1990s, Tupac Shakur, featured the brand in “Soulja’s Story” on his 1991 debut solo record, 2Pacalypse Now . “I chose droppin’ the cop, I got me a Glock,” Shakur rapped, “and a Glock for the niggas on my block.”
Apart from accelerating Shakur’s career, the album sparked a national debate in 1992 when a Texas state trooper was killed by a teenager who allegedly listened to 2Pacalypse Now . Vice President Dan Quayle denounced the record and demanded that it be withdrawn from stores. Chuckling all the way to the bank, executives at Shakur’s studio, Interscope, refused. Shakur, whose mother, a former Black Panther, named him for a Peruvian revolutionary, defended his work, claiming it reflected the inescapable violence of poor urban black existence. Critics argued that he glorified such carnage. In the darkly poetic culmination of a life marked by real bloodshed, Shakur died in 1996, at the age of twenty-five, after he was shot four times by a drive-by triggerman in Las Vegas. The handgun used to kill the rapper was a .40-caliber Glock.
Shakur had firsthand experience with guns. For most rappers, Glock was just a weapon that rhymed. “Most people who talk about a Glock, they can’t tell you a model number or how many shots it holds. They’ve never fired it, they’ve never felt spent shells hit them and burn their forearm, they’ve never done any of that shit,” said Paris, an Oakland-based rapper. “Most people whose knuckles are draggin’ in the streets aren’t making records.”
Little of what the urban crime rappers sang about actually involved Glocks. Rick Washburn points to Juice , a 1992 film about down-and-out inner-city black life. It starred Shakur as Bishop, a young man who sought respect and credibility—“juice”—by means of firepower. Washburn was asked to arm the movie’s street figures. He went to the NYPD and asked what guns the police were taking from young black men at crime scenes. “The rappers would have you think it was Glock this, Glock that,” Washburn said. “That’s not the truth, at least not stickup guys and drug gangs in the ghetto. They used cheap revolvers and cheap American-made pistols, like they had since the 1960s and 1970s.” Glock, fast becoming the “it” gun in Hollywood, had a tough-sounding name that rhymed easily. It had acquired cachet. But in the early 1990s, it wasn’t common yet on the streets.
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Worlds away from the one Tupac Shakur inhabited, Karl Walter was stoking demand for Glock with other promotional methods. Glock, Inc., the US unit of Gaston Glock’s company, was growing rapidly, adding salaried employees and signing up independent regional sales representatives who worked on commission. Walter retained an Atlanta advertising firm called Indelible Inc. to generate stark, simply worded display ads, mostly for gun magazines. “Set your sights on the handgun of the future. It’s here.…” declared one early ad, a full-page, text-only spread in the Shotgun News . “The Glock 17 ‘Safe Action’ 9mm semi-automatic pistol,” it continued. “Unprecedented performance and reliability. Revolutionary concept and design. Unsurpassed shooting comfort and durability.”
American handgun makers offered many diverse models, in the fashion of the Detroit car companies. Gaston Glock saw that as competing with himself and resisted the temptation. The fully automatic Glock 18 was a rarity sold to SWAT units. The Glock 19, a compact nine-millimeter pistol that held fifteen rounds, was marketed to detectives for concealed carry and as a more manageable alternative for women police officers with smaller hands. But the original Glock 17 remained the company’s mainstay.
In 1988 Glock, Inc., had moved to larger quarters on Highlands Parkway in Smyrna that included firing ranges and classrooms to accommodate training programs. The expanded facility became a gathering place, almost a clubhouse, for visiting cops and federal agents. Deputy marshals transporting prisoners through Atlanta would stop by to chat or squeeze off a few rounds on the Glock range. DEA, Customs, and Border Patrol agents on their way to or from Georgia’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center did the same. Instructors from the London Metropolitan Police and law enforcement agencies from Australia, Canada, Venezuela, and Colombia made appearances as well. The regional wholesalers that distributed Glocks and the independent sales agencies that visited retail gun shops on behalf of the company were required to send personnel to Smyrna for a four-day course on the use and maintenance of the unusual handgun.
After a businesslike curriculum that began on Monday morning, by Thursday evening the group of cops, salespeople, and Glock employees was ready to unwind. Karl Walter hosted lavish dinners in Atlanta restaurants followed by visits to the Gold Club, the city’s best-known venue for exotic dancing and allied entertainment. Thursdays became known as “Glock Night” at the Gold Club. The group from Smyrna—as many as twenty-five or thirty men—was assigned its own VIP room on the enormous strip joint’s second floor, above the main pole-dancing stage. Guests could watch the action below from a wraparound balcony or retreat to the roped-off VIP lounge for a lap dance. Loud electronic music pounded; strobe lights pulsed. Professional athletes from the NBA and NFL ambled by. In shadowy corners, cocaine could be had. Full-on sex wasn’t on the official menu, but behind closed doors, who knew what transpired?
The girls, the liquor, the brushes with celebrity—to Glock it was all part of doing business. “For a lot of guys coming in from out of town, this was the best time they were going to have all year, or maybe in their entire life,” said one former police official. “You go to Smyrna, get laid at the best strip club in town, drink champagne, you’re not going to forget the experience when it comes time to choose between Glock and Smith & Wesson.”
Walter emphasized that he never paid for anyone’s drugs or hookers. If there was illegal activity, he didn’t know about it. As far as he was concerned, there were always plenty of cops at the Gold Club whose job it was to arrest any lawbreakers.
In the late summer of 1989, Walter had another marketing brainstorm. He convened a meeting for more than fifty independent regional sales reps and their managers. As Thursday evening approached, he gave the group a special assignment for their night out at the Gold Club: “What I thought was we should pick the best-looking, the best candidate, among the three hundred girls, to promote the product at the SHOT Show.”
The Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show is the US gun-and-ammunition industry’s main conference of the year, often held in Las Vegas. In January 1990, Glock planned to unveil a new model, the Glock 20, a larger pistol that fired ten-millimeter rounds. Walter’s idea was that the company should export some of the Gold Club sparkle to the SHOT Show. This wasn’t entirely out of character for the firearms convention; it wasn’t unusual for gun or ammo makers to decorate their booths with provocatively attired young ladies. Hiring a professional stripper, Walter hoped, might turn heads.
The audition that evening lasted until midnight. The Glock delegation settled on a performer in her early twenties: Sharon Dillon, a blond, full-breasted, and strikingly tall young woman. When Walter asked Dillon if she would be willing to promote Glock in Las Vegas, she agreed. Next, he asked permission of the management of the Gold Club; the club was in no position to displease one of its steadiest corporate customers.
Walter told Dillon that she would have to go through a standard Glock four-day training. “We didn’t want to send someone stupid to the show,” he said. So the buxom stripper attended a program alongside personnel from the Defense Department and several federal agencies and police departments. Dillon’s presence in the Glock classes and on the company firing range caused a significant stir, to be sure. “The guys came in and asked, ‘Who is this girl?’ ” Walter recounted. He didn’t want to tell federal agents and police SWAT specialists they were training with an erotic dancer. So he didn’t. “I can’t tell you,” Walter said. “They all thought she was with the CIA.”
“To everyone’s surprise, she was the top shooter in this class and was the only one who finished all written tests 100 percent,” Walter recalled. “She was … no dummy.”
To heighten anticipation and draw maximum attention to the new Glock 20 ten-millimeter pistol, Walter had Dillon pose for a photographer and created an enormous billboard on the highway from the Las Vegas airport to the downtown Strip, featuring her comely image. Convention attendees were greeted by Dillon’s dazzling smile and head-turning figure, with the slogan: “THE HOTTEST ‘10’ IN TOWN. See the new Glock 10mm at the Shot Show (booth 1200).”
At the show, the aisles all around the Glock booth were jammed. Retailers and wholesalers jostled to get a peek at Dillon in her tight-fitting blouse. The Gold Club star posed for pictures with attendees and signed eight-by-ten glossy photographs; by general acclamation, she helped make Glock the hit of the SHOT Show. “A lot of guys from mom-and-pop gun shops had their ears pulled by the mom,” recalled Dean Speir, a federally licensed firearm dealer from Long Island who wrote for gun periodicals. “You’re talking real excitement—sex and guns.… The Glock reps must have taken a thousand orders the first day.”
Some distributors got carried away. “People came up and said, ‘Karl, I’ll give you a $1 million order right now if I can go to bed with her,’ ” Walter recounted. Glock discouraged any extracurricular contact. But, then again, it was Las Vegas, and Walter didn’t tuck her in at night.
At the awards ceremony marking the end of the SHOT Show, Dillon was called to the stage and given a plaque honoring her as “Best All-Around Model.” Covering the event, Shooting Industry magazine reported: “After seeing Glock’s Sharon Dillon, it is easy to see why dealers were anxious to get ‘Glocked.’ ” Most would agree that hiring Dillon had been a stroke of genius.
In the wake of the show, the Gold Club became an even more integral element of Glock marketing and a symbol of the brand. Glock fashioned itself as the hot handgun, the sexy pistol. Gold Club girls received black Glock T-shirts and were urged to wear them at the club and elsewhere in Atlanta. When the company began using corporate jets for marketing trips, Gold Club girls sometimes went along for the ride. And for major events like the SHOT Show or the International Chiefs of Police convention, Sharon Dillon continued to accompany the Glock team. Glock parties at such events eclipsed the staid cocktail hours sponsored by rival companies. In the evenings at trade shows, Walter brought Dillon to Glock-hosted dinners. “All of a sudden, the president of Sigarms stops by,” he recalled. “The president of Smith & Wesson, he sits down.… Everybody around the table trying to be with this beautiful woman. The information you can pick up in this conversation is priceless. I learned their thinking. Through their thought process, you learned how they’re going to run the company.” Glock, Inc., was on a tear.
Iwill never forget how it felt to hold a loaded gun for the first time and lift it and fire it, the scare of its animate kick up the bone of your arm, you are empowered there is no question about it, it is an investiture, like knighthood, and even though you didn’t invent it or design it or tool it the credit is yours because it is in your hand, you don’t even have to know how it works, the credit is all yours, with the slightest squeeze of your finger a hole appears in a piece of paper sixty feet away, and how can you not be impressed with yourself, how can you not love this coiled and sprung causation, I was awed, I was thrilled, the thing is guns come alive when you fire them, they move, I hadn’t realized that.
— BILLY BATHGATE, FROM BILLY BATHGATE: A NOVEL BY E. L. DOCTOROW
S ell a handgun to a civilian, Karl Walter understood, and you have sold one handgun. Sell a handgun to the police, as Colt had proved a hundred years before, and you sell handguns to an entire village.
John Davis, the owner of a financial-services firm in a small town west of Jacksonville, Florida, was a walking example of that adage. Davis didn’t know much about Glocks when he traveled to Miami in 1986 to attend a personal-defense seminar. Even years later, he could recall with reverence the talk given at the multi-day class by Sergeant Paul Palank, the chief firearm instructor at the Miami PD. Such civilian courses, common around the country, combine lectures with practical instruction at a firing range. They are one way that knowledge about firearms passes from law enforcers to the public.
At the time, Palank was helping lead Miami’s testing of the Glock as a replacement for Smith & Wesson revolvers. He recounted the FBI’s harrowing Miami Shootout and how it illustrated that revolvers were inadequate for police and civilians alike. Davis took to heart the lesson that the cops were “outgunned.” Palank did not raise—and probably did not know about—statistics that suggested a more complicated reality. Violent crime rates were rising in the 1980s, but studies in New York and elsewhere showed that the average police gunfight involved officers firing only two or three times each. In other words, six-shot revolvers still provided sufficient firepower for the typical violent encounter. Moreover, the number of US law enforcement officers killed annually on the job was falling. In 1973, police fatalities hit an all-time high of 268. By a decade later, the figure had dropped to 191; by 1993, it was down to 157. The real lesson of the Miami Shootout was that the FBI was poorly prepared. The agents on stakeout failed to equip themselves with military-style rifles at their disposal, and most of them neglected to wear armored vests. The FBI—and experts like Palank—played down these disheartening facts to promote a less damning story about revolvers having lost the day through no fault of the valiant federal agents. Unsurprisingly, civilians such as Davis readily accepted what they were told. After hearing Palank’s talk, Davis went home “and ordered several Glock pistols to try out.”
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A chaplain and religious historian by training, Davis works in a one-story office building he owns on the main commercial street of his north-central Florida town. Every day he puts on a white shirt, striped tie, and business suit—and tucks a handgun in his belt holster. His decision to carry a firearm presents challenges in the Florida humidity. He explained that a finish called Tenifer makes the Glock’s steel slide largely impervious to rust and even to the corrosive effects of sweat and salt water. Perspiration is not a threat to the gun’s plastic frame. Davis’s wife and adult son, who work in the family business, also carry handguns, usually Glocks.
The Davis men are statistically typical American gun owners: white, Protestant, politically right-leaning, and middle class. The elder Davis serves as a GOP committeeman, sings in his church choir, and meets some afternoons with friends at the local gun store. He lifted weights competitively as an undergraduate at Florida State University and, in his early sixties, resembles nothing so much as a 170-pound, five-foot-nine tree trunk. Sporting a bristly gray flattop, he doesn’t speak so much as rumble, in a thick north Florida dialect.
Davis and his wife, Mary, a wispy, high-voiced woman of roughly the same age, met at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, where John enrolled after Florida State to prepare for his intended career as a hospital or prison chaplain. Mary completed her undergraduate English degree at a small religious college in Jackson. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. Then she corrected herself: “I wanted to get married and raise a Christian family.” A minister she knew recommended that she attend the seminary to look for a husband. She did, and she found one. They married and moved to Florida so John could take a job as chaplain of a center for troubled children. He later switched careers, going into business for himself.
The Davises compete together in a monthly tournament sponsored by the International Defensive Pistol Association. John loaned me his twenty-two-year-old Glock 17 for the competition. He believes that all adults should carry guns as an exercise of civic responsibility. “An armed society is a polite society,” he said, echoing a popular NRA aphorism originally coined by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein.
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In an essay called “America as a Gun Culture,” historian Richard Hofstadter traced our distinctive regard for firearms to the anti-militarism of eighteenth-century British Whig politicians. For those English thinkers, the ultimate civic vice was a standing army of the sort the American Revolutionaries resented and eventually shot at. Virtue was embodied by the rugged yeomen admired by Thomas Jefferson, who included in his first draft of the Virginia constitution that “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
“What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination,” Hofstadter observed. “For millions of American boys, learning to shoot and above all graduating from toy guns and receiving the first real rifle of their own were milestones of life, veritable rites of passage that certified their arrival at manhood.”
For Christmas when he was sixteen years old John Davis’s grandparents gave him a .45-caliber pistol that had been in the family for decades. “That was something special,” he recalled. “That was my self-defense pistol for a long time.” He practiced at an old sawmill, shooting targets he propped up in front of piles of wood dust that served as a backstop. Davis spoke about the pleasure over the years of “working” with guns, “feeding” various models different brands of ammunition to see which ones they would “digest” the best. In his description, firearms are alive.
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On several occasions, Davis said, he was “really, really glad I had a firearm with me.” Before he was married, for example, he was sitting late at night on a deserted beach in Pensacola with a girlfriend; three men approached, menacingly. “They had come up using the dune as a screen,” he recounted. “I happened to have that little firearm. Never even pointed at them. As soon as I produced the gun, they were just like ghosts. They just melted away.”
A self-described orthodox Presbyterian, Davis believes that “this self-defense stuff has to be driven by principles that are not just from the inside of men.… There is a God in Heaven who has not just put everything in place and backed off and left it like a wound-up grandfather clock to tick. He has told men in the Scriptures how they are to live. Those principles that are enscripturated are there for us to bring out and apply for life.” He illustrated his point with the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” Liberals, he argued, interpret the divine rule too broadly, as a ban on all killing. Many conservatives understand the proscription as applying only to murder. Davis sees the issue slightly differently. “If you are not to slay, if you are not to arbitrarily take human life,” he said, “then the opposite side is you must protect human life, which is part of the basis for self-defense.”
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Mary Davis says firearms make her feel safer. Like her husband, she has a Florida concealed-carry permit, and she usually is armed with a nine-millimeter Glock when she leaves the house.
Has she ever had to use a weapon to defend herself?
No, she said. But it does give her reassurance. One time when she accompanied John to a business conference in Houston, she and a tour bus full of other wives ended up in a tough inner-city neighborhood. The driver seemed lost, and it was getting dark. “I was glad to have that gun,” she said. “I didn’t know what could happen in a neighborhood like that.”
“You have a right to peace of mind,” her husband said. “Wrong neighborhood of a strange city—you [can] get in trouble quick.”
“I don’t ever want to shoot someone,” Mary added, “but I don’t want to be a victim.”
Mary told a story about the sometimes heavy responsibility of carrying a firearm. Years ago, she attended a family wedding in Texas. She hitched a ride with a relative to the celebration, but planned to return to Florida by plane. She had her Glock with her. You can’t carry a handgun onto a plane, of course, although airlines do allow guns to be transported with checked luggage. But Mary didn’t want to bother checking her bag, so she gave the weapon to a male relative who was driving home. The gun was loaded.
“I was not as responsible as I should have been,” Mary said, her head bowed in confession.
The relative stayed overnight with his son in a motel on the car trip home. When the father and boy got to their room, the man took the Glock from his bag, saw that there was a magazine in the grip, and decided, understandably, to unload the gun.
“But he was beyond his level of competency,” said John, who is a stickler for firearm safety.
The man pushed the magazine-eject button and slid the mag out. But before doing that, he made a cardinal mistake. He pulled the slide back to look in the firing chamber. He didn’t see a round in the chamber and released the slide. When a semiautomatic pistol’s slide is released in that fashion, it scoops up a cartridge from the spring-loaded magazine and places it in the chamber. Basic safety procedure is to remove the magazine first, then rack the slide to check if the chamber is empty.
For whatever reason, the man pointed the gun, which he thought was empty, in the direction of the motel room bed and pulled the trigger.
“That Glock did what a Glock is supposed to do,” John said. “Bam!”
The bullet ricocheted off the bed frame. A fragment of the round hit the man’s young son in the leg, shattering bone. The injury was severe, requiring extended hospitalization. The police investigated, but no charges were filed. The boy recovered over a period of months. The Glock was returned to Mary in the end. No one blamed her—but she couldn’t forgive herself: “I will never be able to forget it. That boy won’t forget it. His father won’t forget it.”
“You were not irresponsible,” John insisted. After a minute of awkward silence, he sighed and put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “That marks you,” he said, not specifying who was marked. “It marks you like Cain. There are consequences.”
Mary’s experience had not caused her to rethink the prudence or propriety of carrying guns.
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That very night the three of us attended a lecture on Second Amendment rights, followed by blueberry pie at the Davises’ home. I joined John and Mary on other occasions at shooting ranges in Florida; she certainly never seemed timid on the firing line. She claimed the accident with the Glock made her more careful, the way a car crash might make a driver more careful.
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Later, she had powerful misgivings about revealing this episode. The accident remains a source of emotional pain within the extended family. I agreed to use Davis, rather than their real name, and to refrain from identifying their hometown in Florida. The rest of their story is unchanged, and they are the only people in this book referred to by pseudonym.
By 1990, the predicament at Smith & Wesson headquarters over what to do about the ascendance of Glock had gone from worrisome to alarming.
Smith & Wesson built its storied reputation on revolvers. Horace Smith, an employee at the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Daniel Wesson, an apprentice to his older brother, a leading New England gunsmith, had joined forces in the early 1850s to make a repeating rifle that could fire metallic cartridges. Smith and Wesson were part of a long-standing New England tradition. The government armory in Springfield had its roots in the Revolutionary War and spawned a gun industry in Massachusetts and Connecticut that went through cycles of boom and bust for more than two centuries. If Sam Colt was the most colorful character in what became known as Gun Valley, Smith and Wesson were sturdy rivals.
As with Colt, success at first eluded Smith and Wesson. Eventually they found a source of steady revenue by supplying the Union Army during the Civil War. Like the Colt, Smith & Wesson’s guns also found their way into some famous frontier holsters. Jesse James, “Wild Bill” Hickok, and members of the Younger gang carried S&W. By the 1930s, police departments around the United States were increasingly arming their patrolmen with Smith & Wesson .38s, and the company grew into the world’s predominant manufacturer of handguns. Its most famous designs included the powerful .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum revolvers, as well as the first American-made nine-millimeter pistol.
Constructed after World War II, the S&W plant in Springfield is an art deco fortress designed to withstand aerial bombing. In 1990, the company employed two thousand people and was a mainstay of the western Massachusetts economy. Prepared for a Soviet military invasion that never occurred, Smith & Wesson didn’t anticipate commercial incursions from Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, and, most threateningly, from Austria.
Foreign handgun makers looked toward the United States in the 1980s and saw a domestic industry in disarray. The dollar value of firearm sales was falling as economic hardship devastated the farm belt, oil-producing states, and other gun-friendly parts of the country. Fear in the insurance industry of product-liability litigation had made corporate policies far more expensive for firearm makers, even though few verdicts of any size had been imposed on gun companies. Similar anxiety hit mass retailers like JCPenney, which phased out gun sales, citing litigation risks, low margins, and criticism from gun-control activists. Smith & Wesson and Colt had another set of problems: aging plants, expensive workforces, and a failure to introduce new models that piqued the interest of consumers, law enforcement, or the military. Colt fumbled away several lucrative Pentagon contracts. Smith & Wesson, which had endured a series of destabilizing ownership changes, suffered an embarrassing falloff in the quality of its revolvers.
Sensing S&W’s vulnerability, Brazilian firearm manufacturer Forjas Taurus, which at one time was affiliated with S&W, expanded distribution in the United States of its moderately priced handguns. Beretta made its move in 1984, when the US Army invited bids for a nine-millimeter semiautomatic to replace the heavier, higher-caliber Colt .45. European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization preferred the smaller nine-millimeter, which accommodated more rounds in its magazine. The Pentagon decided to follow suit on the theory that, in combat, the ability to fire more bullets quickly outweighed the advantage of ammunition that punched larger holes in an enemy. The Army demanded that delivery start within six to nine months after a contract award. Neither Colt nor Smith & Wesson could meet the tight schedule. Italy’s Beretta and Switzerland’s Sig Sauer said they could. After spirited bidding—colored by the Reagan administration’s desire to reward Italy for its willingness to host nuclear-tipped missiles—Beretta won a five-year contract for more than three hundred thousand pistols. Sig, although frustrated in the Army competition, carved out the high end of the US pistol market, selling guns in the $700-to-$800 range (and later won an American military contract to supply compact pistols).
But of course far more threatening to US gun makers than Beretta, Sig, or Taurus was Glock, the Austrian upstart. Glock was aimed directly at Smith & Wesson’s stronghold: the police.
While Gaston Glock hadn’t been prepared in 1984 to respond to the Pentagon’s solicitation of bids for a new pistol, his company benefited indirectly from the military’s switch to the nine-millimeter. The change gave added credibility to a caliber previously little appreciated in the United States, and to pistols over revolvers in general. Police chiefs concluded that if the high-capacity nine-millimeter met Pentagon specifications, it was suitable for fighting urban violence. And the fact that Glocks were less expensive, lighter, simpler, and more durable than Berettas or Sigs gave them a significant competitive edge in the marketplace.
Astute observers of American gun commerce noted with dismay that foreigners were moving in on the firearm business, up to then arguably the most American of any industry. Business Week magazine published a piece in May 1986 entitled “US Gunmakers: The Casualties Pile Up—Depressed Sales, Costly Insurance, and Foreign Competition Keep Claiming Victims.” Henry Allen, the gun-owning essayist and former Marine, wrote in March 1990: “What America needs are better guns.” He noted that the Secret Service was equipping agents with Israeli-made Uzis; the M-16s originally made for the Pentagon by Colt were being manufactured by a Belgian company. The Washington police were converting to the Glock. “It’s bad enough that we invented the VCR and can’t manufacture it, or that the Mercedes is the top-prestige sedan in the land of Cadillac,” Allen lamented. “But guns! The gun is to America what the sword is to Japan—a tool that shaped our geography, politics, and psyche.”
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Sherry Collins, a former copywriter for the marketing department of an insurance company, stepped unknowingly into the American firearm debacle. In the mid-1980s, a corporate headhunter recruited her for the post of head of public relations and advertising at Smith & Wesson. She had next to no experience with guns; as a woman, she was a rarity in the executive ranks in the firearm business. “I just admitted to everybody that I didn’t know squat, but I wanted to learn,” she said. Collins spent her first month being tutored on how to assemble and disassemble revolvers.
Slim, brassy, and not averse to an after-work drink, Collins was a fallen-away English literature graduate student in her thirties. She smoked enthusiastically and slung profanity with the guys. She also wrote clever ad copy.
When she arrived at the monolithic Springfield facility, she found that “Smith wasn’t that concerned about Glock, as far as inroads into the law enforcement area. They were convinced at that time that the police were going to be very slow to switch to semiautos, because of their reputation for unreliability. What they failed to factor in was the Glock goes ‘bang’ every time.”
In fact, Smith & Wesson executives were obsessed with the wrong foreign challenger. In 1965, the Wesson family had sold S&W to a conglomerate called Bangor Punta Allegra Sugar Co. Five years later, Bangor Punta bought a controlling stake of Forjas Taurus in Brazil. The two gun companies operated as affiliates, sharing equipment and technology, with Taurus focusing on sales in Latin America. But in 1977, Brazilian owners bought the Bangor Punta stake in Taurus, splitting it from Smith & Wesson and making it a potential rival for sales in the United States. According to Collins, some of her superiors at S&W feared that they would lose the American revolver market to the less-well-known Brazilian competitor. The S&W executives were obsessed by the fact that Taurus had retained American technology and plant equipment. In the early 1980s, Taurus established a unit in Miami and offered buyers a lifetime repair guarantee. Smith & Wesson countered by enlarging its array of revolvers in a marketplace already overflowing with similar models. Meanwhile, S&W barely noticed the major shift to pistols.
“Glock was out there,” Collins recalled. But “the word in the industry was, ‘The gun’s uglier than a sack full of assholes.’ Who’d want it? It’s plastic.”
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An incident at the 1990 SHOT Show, the same year in which Glock’s Sharon Dillon starred at the gun industry convention, illustrated how the Austrian company outmaneuvered its American competition on substance as well as sex appeal.
With bureaucratic sluggishness, the FBI had been deliberating for several years over which pistol and ammunition would replace the six-shot Smith & Wesson. The agency at first decided to leapfrog existing gun models and ammo to equip its forces with a hard-hitting ten-millimeter pistol. “The Ten” would be a real “man-stopper,” FBI ballistics experts believed. Word of this inclination, which seeped out from Washington in 1988 and 1989, stimulated gun and ammunition makers to go large. Glock had readied the ten-millimeter Glock 20 for introduction at the SHOT Show, under the assumption that the FBI’s choice would influence tastes in wider law enforcement and commercial circles. By then, however, the FBI had discovered that conventional ten-millimeter ammunition—fired from a pistol about the same size as the traditional Colt .45 model that the military was phasing out—produced too much recoil for many agents to shoot accurately. The agency was beginning to recruit female personnel, and the women had even more trouble with the ten-millimeter. As an alternative, S&W collaborated with Winchester to design a new, shorter cartridge of the same bore diameter, which could be fired from a slightly altered version of the nine-millimeter pistol. To distinguish the new product, and give the FBI its own distinctive load, the manufacturers called the ammunition the “.40 S&W.” (Forty-caliber rounds are the same diameter as ten-millimeter rounds.)
Glock, with its ten-millimeter, seemed to have missed a subtle twist in handgun tastes. Obviously, Smith & Wesson would come out with a pistol to match the .40 S&W ammunition. With the FBI’s imprimatur, that combination would become the hot new handgun—or that, at least, was what everyone in the industry assumed.
Gaston Glock traveled from Vienna to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show that year. American wholesalers and retailers, to whom Karl Walter, the company’s top executive in the United States, introduced Glock, treated the Austrian engineer with respect bordering on awe. He was the hero of the plastic pistol controversy, the champion of greater police firepower.
For all his stature at the SHOT Show company booth, however, Gaston Glock wasn’t yet known on sight by most executives and marketing men in the American gun industry. He could stroll the exhibition floor without being noticed. Walter had told him about the .40 S&W round. Glock decided to take a look for himself. He walked over to the Smith & Wesson display area, scooped up samples of the .40 ammo, and put them in his pocket. Later he took measurements and made an important discovery. “Mr. Glock realized,” said Walter, “that with only very minor changes to the Glock 17, we could introduce a pistol to fire .40-caliber rounds, and we could steal this opportunity from Smith & Wesson.”
Before S&W could get its distribution wheels turning and put a .40 model on gun store shelves, Glock began shipping its own version: the .40-caliber Glock 22. By mid-1990, the new Glock pistol, which, to the layman’s eye, appeared virtually identical to the original Glock 17, was headed toward being a big hit in its own right.
“Oh, my God, what an embarrassment,” recalled Smith & Wesson’s Sherry Collins. “We’re beaten to market on the gun for our own ammo, the round we’ve made especially for the FBI. And some Austrian gets there first!” Swirling a midday cocktail, Collins added: “The technical industry term for that kind of experience is ‘getting your ass kicked.’ ”
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Panic rippled through Smith & Wesson. Tomkins, a British conglomerate, had bought the company in 1987 and brought in a new chief executive officer to shake things up. The former head of United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Engine Division, Steve Melvin knew little about firearms. Collins, also new to the industry, was one of the few S&W executives working for Melvin who openly acknowledged the reality of the company’s decline. When Henry Allen, who worked as a feature writer for the Washington Post , called her in early 1990 to discuss the deterioration of American gun quality, she decided to plead guilty and promise that S&W would do better in the future. “Smith & Wesson admits its quality control became a laughingstock, even among writers for American gun magazines, who tend to be shills for the gun companies,” Allen wrote. “ ‘We are aware of that, and we feel we have corrected those problems,’ ” Collins told him.
While Smith & Wesson already made pistols, in addition to its better-known revolvers, its steel semiautos were mechanically complicated, prone to malfunction, and, as a result, not very successful in the marketplace. As more police agencies indicated they would switch from S&W .38 revolvers to Glocks, Melvin pressed his engineers to come up with a fresh pistol design that would keep these departments in the Smith & Wesson fold. The engineers whined about how the whole pistol trend was overblown. They insisted the plastic gun was a fad.
Melvin disagreed. Not only was Glock taking over the new market for nine-millimeters, but if the .40-caliber caught on, S&W would fall even further behind. In early 1991, the CEO gathered his top engineers and marketing executives around a conference table at the Springfield factory. He demanded to know what prototypes were in the works. What polymer pistol could S&W offer to compete with the Glock 17, the new Glock 22, and their respective compact variants?
The engineers fiddled with their Styrofoam cups, making excuses. Plastic, they repeated, would never catch on in the United States. They clearly resented being lectured by Melvin, a guy who made airplane engines.
Melvin lost his temper. He had brought a Glock 17 with him to the meeting; he took out the (unloaded) pistol and slammed it on the conference table. “If you can’t come up with a better handgun than the Glock,” Melvin shouted, “then copy the motherfucker!”
“And they did,” Sherry Collins recalled.
Melvin’s tantrum became the subject of gossip throughout the industry—an emblem of the American industry allowing a foreigner to beat and embarrass it. Reluctantly, the S&W engineers produced a polymer pistol. The company called it the Sigma, but it was a blatant knockoff of the Glock 17. Moreover, it was generally considered less reliable than the Austrian original. Introduced in 1994, the Sigma reinforced the growing impression that Smith & Wesson had lost whatever mojo it had left.
“I remember the first Sigma I saw,” said Rick Washburn, the New York–based theatrical prop master and gun trainer. “I called the Smith & Wesson people and said, ‘You guys, what do you think Glock’s going to say about this?’ ”
His S&W contact argued that the Sigma was different from the Glock—an improvement.
Washburn didn’t buy it. “I went, ‘Ah, I’ve taken your gun apart. I’ve taken the Glock apart. Yeah, the trigger is a little bit different. But, I’m sorry, I think you guys got some problems.’ ” Handgun experts made fun of the Sigma, calling it “the Swock” or “the Glock & Wesson.”
Within a few months, Glock filed suit against Smith & Wesson, alleging that the American company infringed on Glock patents and deliberately caused confusion among consumers by marketing an almost identical gun. “These patents are my personal property,” Gaston Glock said in a company newsletter at the time. “If someone stole my wallet or stole my car, I would call the police. The situation here is no different, except that I can’t call the police. So I must rely on the courts.”
Smith & Wesson claimed the suit was “totally without merit,” but three years later, it agreed confidentially to settle the matter out of court. S&W made a multimillion-dollar payment to Glock and altered the Sigma design slightly. But by then, the Sigma was a commercial afterthought. It never posed a real competitive threat to Glock.
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The successful patent suit against Smith & Wesson constituted a dazzling industry debut for Glock’s young in-house lawyer, a gregarious former prosecutor named Paul Jannuzzo. Despite the risk of offending American gun owners by taking a legendary rival to court, Jannuzzo pushed for aggressive legal action. The approach paid off handsomely, and there was little, if any, backlash from gun buyers. For an attorney in his mid-thirties who liked guns and shooting, the Glock general counsel’s job turned out to be a dream come true.
Jannuzzo, the son of a middle-class Catholic family, had majored in political science at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University. He attended mass on Sunday, often after a boisterous Saturday night of partying. Charming when he wanted to be, Jannuzzo had an explosive temper, especially when he had been drinking.
After college, he enrolled at the newly opened Vermont Law School, where he befriended an irreverent and equally loquacious classmate named Richard Feldman. The two shared a bawdy sense of humor and both joined an informal law student shooting club. Jannuzzo had been taught about guns as a child and enjoyed plinking bottles and cans in the Vermont woods. He subscribed to the NRA’s view—that guns per se were not a problem; it was guns in the hands of the wrong people that threatened society. He decided to become a prosecutor and put the bad guys in jail.
Armed with a J.D., Jannuzzo passed the bar in New Jersey and became an assistant district attorney. He enjoyed the work and helped with a major death penalty case. After learning his way around the courtroom for several years, he moved on to the more lucrative private practice of law in 1985. At a small firm in Red Bank, he handled criminal defense assignments and represented companies in product liability cases. Some of his clients were gun retailers who had been sued when firearms they sold were later misused.
Jannuzzo became an active member of the New Jersey Coalition of Sportsmen, the local NRA affiliate, where his path crossed again with that of his law school friend Feldman, who was a regional organizer for the NRA in the Northeast. Feldman recruited Jannuzzo to testify against gun-control laws before the New Jersey legislature. “Paul was a very effective witness,” Feldman recalled. “Here’s the young ex-prosecutor telling the politicians that New Jersey’s version of the assault weapons ban is just symbolism.”
Feldman was so impressed by Jannuzzo’s performance that he asked him to address a pro-gun rally on the State House steps in Trenton in 1990. Jannuzzo obliged, appearing before a rambunctious, casually dressed collection of hunters and handgun owners. The attorney wore his usual dark suit and conservative tie, as well as horn-rimmed eyeglasses that made him look more like a law professor than a rabble-rousing Second Amendment activist. For several years afterward, the NRA used a video of the event in its advertising.
By 1991, Karl Walter realized that Glock, Inc.’s, increasing litigation burden required a full-time staff lawyer. He called Feldman, who was an acquaintance, and asked if he knew any attorneys who were “not assholes.” Feldman suggested Jannuzzo. “I guess it didn’t totally escape my attention that it wouldn’t be bad to have my friend working inside Glock, the up-and-coming manufacturer in the industry,” Feldman told me. “Was I looking out for my own interests? Sure. But Paul really was perfect for the job.”
Jannuzzo became Glock’s in-house attorney and, over time, its main spokesman, as well. Sharply worded sound bites came naturally to the ex-prosecutor. Responding to an Associated Press report on liability lawsuits against Glock, he said: “Nike gets sued by people who have twisted ankles. It doesn’t matter if you make tennis rackets or pistols, you get lawsuits.” That may be true, and it is certainly glib, but of course sneakers are rarely implicated in life-threatening injuries. Jannuzzo was not above bending logic to make his point.
Within the company, he became a popular figure, admired for his ability to impress Gaston Glock without being pretentious. Most of the American employees in Smyrna were intimidated by the German-speaking Austrian and his entourage. Jannuzzo, a quick study, picked up enough German to figure out what the Austrian executives were saying. But rather than hoard this information to his own advantage, he used it to try to reassure his American colleagues. Out of the Austrians’ presence, Jannuzzo would roll his eyes or wink when explaining how to “manage up” in the company. “I’m not embarrassed to say I loved the man,” said Ed Pitt, a gunsmith employed by Glock. “He was a straight shooter.”
A fall 1992 newsletter sent to members of the Glock Shooting Sports Foundation, a company-sponsored group that held competitions, featured a profile of Jannuzzo, describing him as an exemplary employee. Jannuzzo arrived earlier and stayed later than anyone else at the Smyrna corporate offices. The circular added: “The most common remarks heard about Paul are: ‘He’s always up. You never see him angry.’ ‘I value his opinion and advice.’ ‘A great sense of humor.’ And, more often than not, ‘He’s a lawyer, but I like him anyway!’ ”
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Sherry Collins had helped promote a .38-caliber revolver at Smith & Wesson marketed to women as “The Ladysmith,” for which she became well known in industry circles. But to her, Smith & Wesson seemed lost, despite the affection she still felt for the company. She left S&W in late 1991 to edit a gun-industry magazine.
In 1994, Glock, Inc., offered her a job as head of public relations in the United States. Collins, like Jannuzzo, thought the foreign label had a unique advantage: “Glock owners have a kind of brand loyalty that’s incredible, because they were pariahs in a way. You know, you own ‘the hideous plastic gun.’ ” So she agreed to move to Smyrna.
About eighty people were crowded into Luby’s café in Killeen, Texas, eating lunch on October 16, 1991, when George Hennard, a thirty-five-year-old former merchant marine, crashed his pickup truck through the plate-glass front of the restaurant. Some customers, thinking the vehicle was out of control, moved to help the injured. Then Hennard began shooting.
“He was firing at anyone he could shoot,” said Luby’s patron Sam Wink. He “had tons of ammo on him.” Another witness described him shooting “as fast as he could pull the trigger.” When he emptied one seventeen-round magazine in his Glock 17, he inserted a fresh one. Some witnesses said Hennard spoke to his victims as he approached them. “Was it worth it?” he asked before pulling the trigger of the Glock.
Hennard’s fellow residents in Belton, Texas, would describe him as a strange man. On occasion, he came out of his house screaming. He had sent neighbor Jane Bugg a rambling letter about “treacherous female vipers … who tried to destroy me and my family.” Bugg gave the letter to police, but they did not investigate.
On the day of the attack, Texas state law enforcement officials happened to be leading a class for local police officers in Killeen. The coincidence probably saved a number of lives. Cops arrived less than ten minutes after Hennard started shooting. They found the café floor covered with glass, blood, and spent ammunition. The police opened fire and wounded Hennard, who retreated into a hallway leading to the restaurant’s restrooms. Trapped, he shot himself fatally in the head. But by then, he had killed twenty-two people and injured many more. At the time, it was the worst mass shooting in United States history.
An investigation revealed that Hennard had purchased the Glock legally. It was swiftly traced by its serial number to the company plant in Smyrna, which told the police that the gun had been sold to a distributor in Sparks, Nevada. The distributor transferred it, legally, to Mike’s Gun House, a federal firearms license holder in Henderson, Nevada. Mike’s sold the Glock to Hennard, who at the time was staying in Henderson with his mother. Hennard provided the salesclerk with all of the information requested on the registration form required in Clark County, Nevada, a jurisdiction that had relatively stringent rules governing gun purchases. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department ran a criminal background check on Hennard, but it turned up only a 1981 misdemeanor arrest for marijuana possession in El Paso. A felony conviction would have disqualified him from owning the weapon; the misdemeanor dope arrest did not.
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On the day Hennard made history in Killeen, the US House of Representatives was debating proposals to tighten national rules about gun ownership. House members gathered in the Capitol to consider a major anti-crime bill, a version of which the Senate had passed in July. Republicans and Democrats were waging a raucous political contest to claim the title of toughest crime-busters.
House Republicans added provisions to the bill that would broaden the kinds of cases eligible for the death penalty and give prosecutors more leeway to use illegally obtained evidence. The most heated debate focused on provisions in the anti-crime bill that banned guns classified as “assault weapons” and put restrictions on high-capacity magazines. As drafted, the legislation limited magazines to no more than seven rounds, fewer than half the number in the magazine of a Glock 17.
Several hours into the debate, news broke about the Killeen killings. Lawmakers seized on the horrific reports to score rhetorical points. George W. Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the Luby’s massacre showed that more crimes deserved capital punishment. Most Democrats drew a different lesson: that semiautomatic weapons and large magazines should be curbed. “Twenty-two people died,” said Charles Schumer of New York, then a House member. “Maybe they didn’t have to.” The Glock 17 wasn’t one of the weapons on the list of thirteen guns to be banned, but the seventeen-round magazines Hennard used would be outlawed if the proposed legislation passed.
The clash over high-capacity weapons intensified the next day. Harold Volkmer of Missouri, a conservative Democrat in the camp of the National Rifle Association, put forward amendments that would do away with the bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, derided the notion that a seven-round limit would have made a difference in Killeen. “The killer was in the cafeteria for over ten minutes,” he said. “He had plenty of time to change clips, and apparently he did.”
Ed Feighan, an Ohio Democrat and one of his party’s more vociferous anti-gun proponents, rose to oppose the Volkmer amendments. “I would have thought that yesterday in Killeen, Texas, this body had run out of time for posturing on this crime bill, or pandering to one of the most powerful special-interest groups in the country,” Feighan said. Weapons commonly used for hunting would not be affected by the legislation, he argued. Rather, the firearms at issue were the AK-47 and its military-style brethren. “And we are talking about seventeen-round magazine clips on guns like the Glock nine-millimeter that was used yesterday afternoon to kill twenty-two innocent Americans.” John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, also lashed out at the Austrian pistol: “Innocent people lost their lives to a gunman whose import Glock 17 was a death machine which fed bullet after murderous bullet in the firing chamber.”
Amid all the speechifying, few lawmakers wavered in their views. One who did, setting gun-control hearts racing, was Representative Chet Edwards. The Killeen massacre took place in his home district. A Democrat of moderate-to-conservative views, Edwards said the killings had caused him to rethink his long-standing opposition to tough gun control. “For me the old arguments ring hollow,” Edwards said. “It’s a human story now, a human tragedy, and I just simply have to vote to put some limit on assault weapons that could be used by drug kingpins and crazed killers to murder innocent victims.” He added that if the magazine limit were already law, “the killer could not have had seventeen bullets in each clip, and we could have perhaps saved lives.”
“It was not the pistol that caused those deaths,” countered Volkmer. He deplored the bloodshed but said the proposed curbs would not have prevented it. “If it was not a pistol,” he said, “it could easily have been a rifle; if not a rifle, a shotgun; if not a shotgun, a can of gasoline.”
President George H. W. Bush expressed himself similarly in a television interview broadcast during the debate. Two years earlier, in a move that enraged the NRA, Bush had used an executive order to stop the importation of certain semiautomatic assault weapons. He had done so at the urging of his anti-drug czar, William Bennett. The administration suffered politically, and Bush now tried to mend fences with pro-gun forces. “Obviously, when you see somebody go berserk and get a weapon and go in and murder people, of course it troubles me,” the president said. “But what I don’t happen to have the answer to is can you legislate that behavior away.… I don’t believe there is one federal law that is going to rule against aberrant behavior of that nature.”
At the end of the debate, the House voted 247–177 against limiting assault weapons and magazine capacity.
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In Smyrna, Karl Walter held a news conference the day after the shooting, expressing sorrow for the victims and their families. But he waved off suggestions that the Glock’s design exacerbated the carnage in Killeen. You can’t blame an inanimate object for the actions of a madman, he said. In fact, what happened at Luby’s illustrated why there should be fewer restrictions on handgun use. If more Americans had legal access to Glocks, he argued, the murders in Texas could have been kept to a minimum. “If there had been one armed person there,” he said, “it would have stopped.”
Walter was not prone to self-doubt. The Glock was a phenomenal commercial success. He took offense that anyone would criticize it. Beginning with production for the United States of 25,000 pistols in 1985 and 1986, Glock had more than tripled that figure in 1989. In 1990, Glock shipped 120,000 handguns to the States. Several thousand law enforcement agencies across the country had purchased Glock 17s, putting a serious dent in Smith & Wesson’s near monopoly on the police handgun market.
And as a result of the company’s low costs, Gaston Glock was enjoying extraordinary profits. In the space of a few years, he had become a multimillionaire, and his lifestyle shifted accordingly. The once-frugal engineer acquired a yacht and a BMW Series 7 sedan. His company bought gleaming executive jets—one for the United States, one for Austria. Glock, who held a pilot’s license, flew the aircraft himself, with a professional copilot. He enjoyed the airplane pilot’s relative isolation, explaining: “There are fewer crazy people in the air.”
In Velden, Glock built a more spacious vacation villa and spent lavishly at two-star Michelin restaurants, glitzy nightclubs, and high-end casinos. He did not try to join high society in Vienna, however. He did not become a patron of the arts or hobnob with diplomats or international bankers. If he dined out in Austria’s worldly capital, he did not create a sensation among other patrons. The newspapers did not report on his comings and goings.
Glock also retained his middle-class affection for bargains. When in Atlanta, he took extended trips to Home Depot for discount plastic bathroom fixtures, which he shipped back to Velden. He outfitted the bedrooms of his five-story villa with inexpensive mattresses bought in bulk at a Georgia shopping mall. While Glock traveled first class to and from Europe, he diligently kept the giveaway airline toiletries and hoarded perfumed soap from the fancy hotels he patronized.
Glock was the sort of boss who monitored closely the company’s expenses, including what he paid his top executives. He was very aware that Karl Walter was profiting handsomely. In addition to a salary, Walter’s contract with Glock provided that he would receive a small percentage of the company’s US revenue. To his surprise, and Gaston Glock’s, that commission had ballooned to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—not bad for an immigrant gun salesman who once trundled from town to town selling rifles from an RV. With the likelihood that Walter’s total compensation would soon hit seven figures, jealous grumbling began to be heard among less-well-remunerated Glock aides back in Austria. “Some who had Mr. Glock’s ear,” Wolfgang Riedl recalled, “asked whether Karl was getting too big for his pants.”
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Despite the setback in the House of Representatives, gun-control advocates and the media kept the spotlight focused on Glock. “The Glock 17,” the New York Times reported, “is popular with drug dealers and at one time was banned by the New York City Police Department, which feared that terrorists could sneak it through airport metal detectors.” But the Times offered no evidence that drug dealers preferred Glocks. The paper did note that the NYPD “recently bought 1,000 of the pistols,” which were also being used “by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs agents, the Secret Service, and more than 4,000 other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including the New York State Police.”
Contrary to the Times ’ assertion about the Glock’s popularity with criminals, federal traces of guns recovered from crime scenes showed that compared to its rivals, the Glock was not a weapon of choice on the street. In June 1992, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported the top eighteen models of the nearly fifty-seven thousand handguns seized by law enforcement and traced during 1990 and 1991. The Glock 17 ranked last, meaning it was recovered the least often at crime scenes. The most common crime gun, according to the ATF, was the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, almost certainly because it had been on the market for generations, and millions of the guns circulated on the legitimate used market and on the black market. Filling out the top five, in descending order, were: a cheap and unreliable .25-caliber pistol made by Raven Arms; an inexpensive Davis Industries .380 (like the Raven, a type of handgun often referred to as a Saturday Night Special); the nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson Model 3904 semiautomatic, with an eight-round capacity; and the heavy-duty Colt .45, another model that had been sold for many decades. For all of its notoriety, the Glock was less popular with criminals than the older S&W and Colt or the junky Raven and Davis.
These statistics did little to blunt the fulminating of editorialists who condemned the Glock’s lethal force. “It is one in a class of weapons known as ‘assassin’s guns,’ ” the Houston Chronicle stated. The paper quoted Bernard Horn, state legislative director for the Washington-based nonprofit Handgun Control Inc., as saying that the Austrian pistol, equipped with its large magazine, was one reason police were “outgunned.” Civilians, Horn said, “have no business with magazines this size.”
Despite what Handgun Control and newspaper editorial boards might have assumed, continuing attacks on the Glock only seemed to enhance its image in the eyes of potential buyers. Whenever gun-control advocates announce that citizens should not have access to a certain handgun, firearm enthusiasts are prone to take a closer look. “This kind of media reporting does not hurt sales,” Karl Walter asserted.
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The Killeen killings actually inspired some people to consider buying a gun for the first time. Two months after the massacre, the Dallas Morning News published a feature on the post-Killeen gun boomlet in middle-class north Texas. The Bullet Trap, a gun shop in suburban Plano, told the paper it had seen an increase in registration for its gun-safety courses and a related uptick in handgun sales. Pete Waldroop, a twenty-three-year-old computer engineer, said he had never considered owning a gun. Then “I saw the Killeen thing and thought I ought to know more.” He paid $59 to take a beginner’s class at the Bullet Trap, where he tried out several models in the store’s indoor range. A few days later, after some more practice, Waldroop returned to the Bullet Trap and paid $459.95 for a Glock 17. He kept the pistol in a briefcase beside his bed.
Suzanna Gratia Hupp, too, became a pro-gun activist as a result of Killeen. A chiropractor, she was eating lunch at Luby’s with her parents when Hennard crashed through the restaurant’s glass front. After Hennard started shooting, Suzanna and her seventy-one-year-old father flipped their table to provide cover. She reached into her purse for the .38 Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special she usually carried. After groping around for a few seconds, she realized that on that day, of all days, she had left the revolver in her car. Suzanna’s father, a World War II vet who didn’t own a firearm, charged at Hennard. The gunman shot him fatally in the chest. And when Suzanna’s mother tried to comfort her dying husband, Hennard killed her, too. Suzanna survived, and in the wake of the tragedy, she became an advocate for relaxing laws on when and where civilians may carry concealed handguns.
In testimony before legislatures in Texas and other states, she spoke of her painful regret at leaving her revolver in her parked automobile at Luby’s. “My state has gun-control laws,” she told lawmakers in Missouri in March 1992. “It did not keep Hennard from coming in and killing everybody.” Elected to the Texas House of Representatives, Hupp became a nationally known gun-rights activist who appeared on television programs such as the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight . The NRA gave her a life membership and its Women’s Freedom Award. Texas changed its gun-permit statute in 1995 to make it easier for residents to carry concealed handguns.
Richard Feldman learned about Killeen during a telephone conversation with a friend who owned a gun store and had seen a television bulletin about the massacre. The police had identified the killer’s gun as a Glock. Feldman flipped on CNN with one hand and hit the speed-dial on his desk phone with the other, calling his old law school buddy Paul Jannuzzo. He suspected Glock’s general counsel might appreciate some public relations advice.
Jannuzzo, speaking from his office in Smyrna, confirmed the dire nature of the situation. “Richie, the phone lines are already lighting up: reporters, TV. How should we respond?” Jannuzzo didn’t have any experience with a media frenzy of this magnitude.
Feldman’s history with Glock went back almost to the company’s arrival in the United States. Like other NRA staff members, he had defended Glock against gun controllers’ attacks in 1986. Five years later, he took a new job as executive director of a fledgling gun industry organization called the American Shooting Sports Council. Killeen was the first crisis on his watch running the trade group.
“Make sure to say that this was a terrible tragedy,” Feldman said. “Whatever you do, Paul, do not say ‘no comment.’ ” It was Feldman who insisted that Glock hold a press conference, even as members of Congress were castigating the Glock in Washington. “Empathize with the victims and the community of Killeen,” Feldman advised. “Obviously the killer was another crazy. Be sure to stress it was the criminal, not the gun. Tell the press how many police and law-enforcement agencies are now armed with Glocks.”
Jannuzzo passed this advice along to Karl Walter, as well. Together they followed Feldman’s script, and, for the most part, it worked. The media emphasized the Glock 17 as the murder weapon but also pointed out how popular it was with cops. Democrats in the House of Representatives kicked the Glock around during the floor debate, but pro-gun forces in the House prevailed by a wide margin. Though he knew gun-control proponents in Washington would not give up, Feldman considered the immediate legislative response to Killeen at least an interim victory. “Richie,” Jannuzzo recalled, “always had a good feel for how things would play in the media.”
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In the Northeast, Feldman had become Glock’s top defender at the NRA in the 1980s. When Sheriff Eugene Dooley of suburban Suffolk County, New York, banned the gun by name, following the lead of the NYPD, a local Long Island gun dealer and shooting enthusiast named Dean Speir appealed to the association. It was Feldman whom the NRA dispatched to speak with Sheriff Dooley. When polite persuasion didn’t work, Feldman delivered a blunter message: “Let Speir and other dealers transfer Glocks to licensed individuals, or we’ll take you to court and pull your pants down.”
Within the month, Sheriff Dooley folded, and Glocks were legal on all of Long Island. “Richie Feldman got it done,” Speir recalled.
Feldman did his job as a gun lobbyist with a zeal the NRA famously inspires in its employees and members. Over the years, though, he grew to resent the organization’s top officials. NRA management, Feldman concluded, cared just as much, if not more, about getting members to make financial contributions as it did about protecting gun owners’ rights. “That was one reason that we were all pleased when the anti-gun groups and their media and congressional allies made so many embarrassing technical errors in the protracted ‘plastic gun’ controversy,” Feldman wrote in his spirited memoir, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist . The NRA used the controversy, he continued, “to spread the incipient fear that the gun grabbers were not just after the Glock 17. Once they used their bogus information to outlaw Glocks (a well-made and expensive pistol), all handguns—revolvers and semiautos alike—would be threatened. Emergency alerts flooded the nation from the [NRA’s] Institute for Legislative Action, and contributions to fight this potential ‘unprecedented’ gun grab poured back into the NRA’s mailroom.”
The NRA’s leaders, Feldman realized, “don’t really want us to educate people on this issue. The association wants to use it as a club to beat the antigunners.” The NRA “had no interest in compromise. It would have been relatively easy to demonstrate to the public that the Glock pistol was no more dangerous than any other weapon. But educating the public—either through elected officials or the media—was not the association’s paramount goal. Its overriding aim was preserving its dominant position as protectors and guardians of the faith, a sort of Knights Templar extraordinaire, of the Second Amendment.”
Opinions like that did not endear him to the NRA’s inner circle. They were weighed with suspicion against the victories he won for the gun lobby. Feldman, for example, had orchestrated an imaginative media campaign on behalf of Bernard Goetz, the New York “Subway Vigilante” who shot four black young men armed with sharpened screwdrivers after they threatened him. Acquitted of serious felonies, Goetz was convicted of a single firearm charge for which he served just eight months in jail. But for every pro-gun public relations triumph, Feldman had two run-ins with his NRA bosses. Forced off the full-time NRA payroll in the late 1980s, he continued to work from time to time as a paid consultant for the organization, finding other employment defending the interests of gun manufacturers and firearm owners.
Part of what made Feldman a bad fit within the NRA was his upbringing in a politically moderate middle-class Jewish family on Long Island. He understood that many patriotic Americans—like his parents—felt little affinity for hunting or guns. As a young man, Feldman supported strong gun control. His views began to shift after college, when he took a job as a deputy tax collector and auxiliary police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The city issued him a .38 Smith & Wesson for making his rounds. He met store owners and other working-class people who kept guns to protect themselves. Feldman decided that their down-to-earth desire for self-defense seemed reasonable.
The American Shooting Sports Council, or ASSC, was a quirky trade group—a rump caucus of firearm wholesalers, retailers, and importers uneasy about the NRA. Its members worried that the NRA’s take-no-prisoners strategy didn’t always promote their best interests. The ASSC advised against incessantly provoking paranoia among gun owners and urged its members to avoid the “annual crises so dear to the NRA.” When Feldman was hired to run the group in 1991, he set up an office in Atlanta, near Glock, Inc., and far from the NRA’s Washington stronghold.
Eager for the membership of any company that would pay dues, Feldman presided over a decidedly mixed constituency. In addition to some of the country’s largest gun-distribution and retail businesses, the ASSC included Intratec, manufacturer of the TEC-9 made famous by crime lords on Miami Vice , and Action Arms, importer of the feared Israeli Uzi. Feldman didn’t discriminate. He also catered to well-established foreign manufacturers, including Heckler & Koch of Germany and Sig Sauer of Switzerland, whose executives were more committed to expansion in the United States than to Second Amendment absolutism. For much the same reason, Smith & Wesson signed on, as did Glock. The latter two, focused as they were on selling to the police, saw a political advantage in crafting a more moderate image.
One point of contention was the availability of federal firearm sales licenses. The NRA ceaselessly fought to make the licenses as widely available as possible. The more people who retailed guns, in the NRA’s view, the more people would buy and own guns—and potentially join the NRA. Feldman, in contrast, argued that the gun industry should try to restrict the number of licenses to include only businesses that owned brick-and-mortar storefronts, paid taxes, and charged full retail prices. Some at-home dealers skimped on recordkeeping and sold to criminals. But that wasn’t Feldman’s or his constituents’ main concern. For purely competitive reasons, the better-established gun dealers who helped pay Feldman’s salary sought to eliminate less formal operators.
He called his group “the kinder, gentler gun lobby,” a clever slogan that helped win favorable press coverage. As a rule, he avoided the NRA’s demonization of the “liberal media” and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He didn’t suggest that government agents dressed in black were plotting to confiscate firearms as part of some larger conspiracy to impose United Nations sovereignty on the United States. Feldman established a reputation as a less extreme voice for business interests, in contrast to the NRA’s bullhorn for continual culture war.
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When Bill Clinton was elected president in November 1992, along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, federal gun-control proposals that had been dead on arrival under Republican administrations suddenly became viable. Sensational shooting incidents continued to inject emotion into the firearm debate: In August 1992, FBI agents and deputy US marshals faced off against a family of gun-trafficking white extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In February 1993, federal forces began a violent months-long siege of the heavily armed Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. And in July 1993, a client with a grudge against his former attorneys shot up their tony San Francisco firm, Pettit & Martin.
These events, and the perception that ordinary violent gun crime continued to increase, helped seal the success of the federal Brady Bill, named for James Brady, the White House press secretary grievously injured by gunfire in the 1981 attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Signed by Clinton in November 1993, the law imposed a five-day waiting period and background check for all handgun purchases (thirty-two states until then lacked background check requirements). The Brady Bill obliged the federal government within five years to replace the waiting period with a computerized “instant check” system overseen by the FBI.
NRA purists declared Brady a dire threat to individual liberty, tantamount to the repeal of the Second Amendment. Feldman took a calmer position. He bemoaned the temporary waiting period but embraced the instant-check system, which would apply to all firearms, handguns and long guns. A quick records check should only inconvenience criminals and nuts, Feldman argued. It would not seriously interfere with lawful sales. To mollify the NRA, he cried some crocodile tears in public about a section of the law that increased firearm sales license fees, but, in fact, Feldman’s retailer members quietly applauded the change. The higher fees helped reduce the ranks of kitchen-table dealers.
While the NRA raised millions of dollars ranting against the Brady Bill, Feldman advised his trade group members to remain composed. The political turmoil was actually boosting business, he noted, and would continue to do so. The inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993—apart from any particular piece of legislation—had set off anxiety in gun-buying circles. Passage of the Brady law only fanned the flames. “ ‘There is a tremendous amount of fear buying,’ ” Feldman told Newsday later that year. “Part of that fear,” the Long Island paper added, “is of looming restrictions on handgun sales.” Glock in particular profited from fear buying, because the Austrian pistol was already perceived as a favorite target of gun controllers. John Reid, owner of Reid’s Gun Shop in Auburn, Maine, told the Associated Press that he couldn’t keep Glock 17s on the shelf. He put out word to suppliers that he would buy as many as they could provide. “I had a distributor call me,” Reid said. “He had a dozen [Glocks], and I bought all twelve.”
The threat of new restrictions, Feldman lectured his allies, often becomes a selling point, whether or not the curbs ever become law. Keep your eye on the ball, he told Jannuzzo and other gun company executives. Focus on the next fight and how you can benefit from it. Don’t come off as fanatics. Leave that to the NRA.
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Democrats’ determination to curb so-called assault weapons and large ammunition magazines did not diminish. Tasting victory on the Brady background check, gun-control advocates revived their push for restricting the military-style weapons. The Glock found itself swept into this drive because of its jumbo magazine—the one that so impressed police departments. But once again, as Feldman predicted, legislative efforts to curb the potent pistol had the opposite result.
The assault weapon, a loose translation of Sturmgewehr , a German World War II rifle, had moved to the center of the gun-control debate after an attack on an elementary school playground in Stockton, California, in January 1989. Patrick Purdy, a twenty-six-year-old drifter obsessed with foreigners, targeted a group of children, some of them of Asian descent. Using a Chinese-made knockoff of the Soviet AK-47 Kalashnikov, fitted with an enormous seventy-five-round drum magazine, he killed five children and wounded twenty-nine others and a teacher before fatally shooting himself in the head.
The Stockton massacre sparked outrage over the easy availability of the AK-47 and other rifles that accommodated large magazines. Like the later AK-47 and the American M-16 carried by GIs in Vietnam, the original Sturmgewehr had a switch that allowed it to fire in either semiautomatic mode or as a fully automatic machine gun. Set for semiautomatic functioning, a rifle fires one round with each pull of the trigger, essentially the way a semiautomatic pistol works. In fully automatic mode, a rifle fires a stream of bullets, as long as the trigger is depressed. US law prohibits civilians from owning or transferring fully automatic machine guns without obtaining a special federal license. However, some semiautomatic-only rifles cosmetically resemble machine guns; as a result, the two categories are often confused. Exacerbating the muddle, both types of firearm are commonly referred to as assault weapons.
Hollywood has reinforced the confusion with images of terrorists and drug gangsters blazing away with fully automatic AK-47s. In real life, military-style rifles have been used only in a handful of high-profile crimes, including the Stockton massacre. But Patrick Purdy’s knockoff AK-47 was a semiautomatic rifle, not a machine gun. Criminal gang members in the United States, especially drug traffickers, have been apprehended with semiautomatic rifles, but only on the rarest of occasions have they had fully automatic machine guns. The fact is, handguns are easier to conceal than rifles, and thus are far more popular among street thugs.
Experienced gun-control advocates understand these nuances. Nevertheless, they sometimes succumb to distortion in hopes of stoking public anxiety. Shortly after the Stockton killings, Josh Sugarmann, the former spokesman for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, published a strategy paper called Assault Weapons: Analysis, New Research, and Legislation . As the head of a new organization called the Violence Policy Center, he favored outlawing handguns across the board. But he also recognized that this goal was politically impossible. So he decided to push for a “ban” that had a better chance of passing Congress. “Many who support the individual’s right to own a handgun have second thoughts when the issue comes down to assault weapons,” he observed in his paper. “Assault weapons are often viewed the same way as machine guns and ‘plastic’ firearms—a weapon that poses such a grave risk that it’s worth compromising a perceived constitutional right.” The “menacing looks” of assault weapons, he added, “coupled with the public’s confusion over fully-automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”
There are legitimate arguments against assault weapons that do not rely on this kind of rhetorical mystification. The one that is intuitively appealing to many people—the seemingly reasonable question of why any civilian needs an AK-47—is ultimately not very logical, however.
Few liberal gun skeptics would suggest banning standard big-game hunting rifles—say, the familiar Remington that is used to shoot deer or elk. But what is the appeal of a weapon associated with the Cold War Soviets and terrorists? Why, gun-control advocates ask, do civilians need a variant of the military rifles carried by American troops? The answer relates to aesthetics and psychology.
Military-style rifles, whether of Russian or American design, do not use particularly powerful ammunition, at least compared to the .30-06 rounds preferred by many hunters. The AK-47, as it happens, is not very accurate, either. Still, some gun buffs get a kick out of using weapons derived from military models. (The military look and black finish of the Glock have appeal for the same reason.) This may be objectionable to gun skeptics, who associate a Remington with killing deer and an AK-47 with killing people, but the aversion relates more to symbolism than lethality. Today’s traditional hunting rifles originated as military weapons issued to soldiers during the world wars; there is a long-established custom of civilian gun owners adopting former military arms.
The stronger argument against semiautomatic assault weapons is that they usually accommodate large magazines. Recall that Purdy had attached a seventy-five-round drum to his knockoff AK-47. More commonly, semiautomatic rifles and some pistols accept magazines holding fifteen, twenty, or thirty rounds. Although there are gun competitions geared to high-capacity firearms, no hunter or target shooter needs thirty rounds in a magazine to pursue his or her sport. And it’s not obvious why a civilian handgun owner requires seventeen rounds in the magazine of a Glock pistol. Ten bullets, with the opportunity to reload swiftly, provide adequate firepower for most self-defense emergencies.
Gun skeptics who want to push measures that actually might slow a crazed killer should focus on ammunition capacity, not the superficial appearance of firearms. Even then, they will face a tough fight. Once Glock persuaded police departments that they needed big magazines, civilian buyers found the feature attractive too. The NRA’s muscular version of the Second Amendment—keep your hands off my guns!—tends to meld with the more generalized American instinct that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
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In the wake of the Stockton massacre, California enacted a state law prohibiting the AK-47 and fifty-five other types of rifles labeled assault weapons. Several other states later passed similar restrictions. The NRA and its allies in Congress were able to resist assault weapons legislation at the federal level until the summer of 1994, when President Clinton signed the national ban into law.
Some in the gun industry were distraught. “We’re finished,” Ron Whitaker, the chief executive of Colt, told other ASSC board members. The AR-15, a civilian semiautomatic-only version of the military M-16, was one of Colt’s most lucrative products.
But the fine print of the federal legislation left plenty of room to maneuver, Feldman pointed out. The law banned nineteen weapons by brand and model, as well as any other semiautomatic rifle that could accept a detachable magazine and had at least two military-style features, such as a flash suppressor, protruding pistol grip, or bayonet mount. The law also prohibited magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammo, regardless of the kind of firearm. It was that last provision that affected growing sales of the Glock.
As tough as the law sounded, the ban was laughably easy to evade in practice. By renaming their guns and modifying them cosmetically—removing the superfluous bayonet mount, for example—a manufacturer could transform a banned assault weapon into a perfectly legal “sporting” rifle. The ban had another, even bigger loophole: It grandfathered all weapons lawfully in existence at the time of enactment in September 1994. That meant that any gun or magazine manufactured by the day the law took effect could be legally sold, and resold, later on.
Nearly a year before passage, Feldman had given ASSC manufacturers a very clear directive: “Make as many guns and high-capacity magazines as you possibly can,” he told them. “Put your plants on three shifts, seven days a week. You won’t get stuck with unused product.” The political controversy and the perception of a finite supply would pump up demand and prices.
At Glock, Paul Jannuzzo fully backed his friend’s advice, as did Karl Walter. Gaston Glock ordered production in Austria into high gear. Before the deadline, the company stockpiled inventory. “We’re getting five thousand guns and eight thousand to nine thousand magazines a week from Austria,” a Glock representative in the US, Dick Wiggins, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in May 1994. Consumers were buying everything Glock could produce. “We’re tens of thousands of orders behind,” Wiggins said. “Our pistols are scarcer than hen’s teeth.”
The actual enactment of the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines spurred yet another round of shopping frenzy. “People who own guns that use magazines holding more than ten 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.’ ”
Tales from gun counters from California to Maryland confirmed the trend. “People bought everything they could get their hands on in every store in town: ammo, handguns, semiautomatics,” said Nancy Nell, owner of a gun shop in West Valley City, Utah. Chris Encinas, a twenty-five-year-old resident of Van Nuys, California, bought a Glock 22 with a fifteen-round magazine that May, hoping to beat the shortages and rising prices he expected would follow the passage of legislation. “I’m trying to rush it,” he told the Los Angeles Times . “If we didn’t have the ban, I wouldn’t have to, but it’s better that I buy it today.” He paid $510 for his .40-caliber Glock. By 1995, the same weapon, grandfathered under the law, would retail for 50 percent more.
Even as the company scrambled to ship pistols, Glock built up an enormous surplus of grandfathered “pre-ban” magazines, which gradually filtered out to the public, as the retail price of a Glock seventeen-round magazine rose—from less than $20, to $30, to $50 and higher, after the ten-round limitation became law. Jannuzzo and other Glock executives each personally bought large crates of high-cap magazines at insider prices and gradually sold them as prices soared.
“If the purpose of the assault weapons ban was to reduce the number of these guns [and large magazines] on the street,” Feldman noted, “the bill had exactly the opposite effect.” He recalled driving in the early fall of 1994 to the Glock facility in suburban Smyrna for a meeting with Jannuzzo. Passing a large sporting goods store called Adventure Outdoors, Feldman saw two long lines snaking down the block. He stopped to investigate. One was a customer line: people waiting to buy grandfathered guns and Glock magazines. The other line was for volunteers signing up to work for Bob Barr, an outspoken pro–Second Amendment Republican challenger running for Congress. Barr had put a campaign table near the gun store.
At their tête-à-tête, Jannuzzo took out cigars and declared: “Our business has never been better. Mr. Glock is going to be very pleased.”
In the United States, a company manufacturing a handheld product that launches metal projectiles at high velocity eventually will encounter lawsuits. Whatever one thinks of plaintiffs’ lawyers or the large corporations they sue, the prevalence of legal skirmishing is as much a fact of American life as the pervasiveness of automobiles, fast food, and firearms. Glock was no exception.
The company’s internal legal files offer an unusual window on how Glock, Inc., dealt with the challenges posed by the plaintiffs’ bar. A sampling of company records from 1991 and 1992 listed nineteen accidental injuries involving Glocks. There may have been more; these were the ones the company acknowledged. Eleven of the cases by mid-1992 had led to lawsuits.
Some of the cases concerned pistols that allegedly malfunctioned, harming the owner. Others involved shootings in which the gun operated properly but someone pulled the trigger unintentionally. In these latter instances, the victim blamed the Glock’s design.
Yet another set of six suits were labeled “container” cases, referring to the padded plastic box in which Glocks were sold. The box resembled a miniature black suitcase. It had a handle for transporting the pistol—say, to a firing range—and, inside, it had room for a spare magazine and ammo. A small post in the box was meant to protrude through the trigger guard and keep the gun in place. The post was the problem.
Some users stored their pistol with a round in the chamber, ready to fire. If the box were jostled, so that the post contacted the trigger, the gun could go off, as it did in the case of Marshall Rosen. “Claimant removed his Glock 17 from its holster, removed the loaded magazine and unloaded same,” the file on Rosen states. “He then placed the pistol into the container, and it discharged. Injuries to the left hand (palm). Tendon and severe nerve damage requiring surgery. Permanent disfigurement.” Another Glock owner, Mark Herman, similarly shot himself in the left hand, sustaining “permanent disability.”
When informed of the box accidents, Gaston Glock “wanted to blame the dumb Americans,” according to one former longtime company employee in the United States. “They should know better than to store the gun loaded.” Mr. Glock showed little regard for the American business credo of “the customer is always right.”
Callous as this might seem, the Austrian manufacturer did have a legitimate point. The user manual that came with each pistol stressed emptying the gun before storing it. The owner was told to remove the magazine and check the chamber to make sure there was not a round left there. Following those instructions would preclude exploding gun boxes.
Still, as a practical matter, some people, especially homeowners who thought of their Glock as protection against intruders, were bound to keep it loaded and ready to fire. Others were careless. The file on Mark Herman noted that he “forgot his Glock 17 was loaded and placed it into the storage container.” Such accidents were eminently foreseeable.
A more high-minded company might have announced a recall in the name of consumer safety, issued an apology, and established a claims process to pay victims’ medical bills. That did not happen at Gaston Glock’s company; confessions of fallibility were not his style.
Paul Jannuzzo, Glock’s corporate counsel, knew the carrying case was poorly designed. Many in the company knew—almost everyone, apparently, except the founder. Fighting the cases in court made no sense, because Glock might lose, piquing the interest of the plaintiffs’ bar. Since a recall and apology were out of the question, Jannuzzo moved quietly to put out legal brushfires as they ignited. If injured Glock owners were persistent, they received a settlement—in exchange for which they had to sign binding legal papers promising not to discuss the case or the flawed gun box. Marshall Rosen got $95,000 to drop his suit; Mark Herman, $99,000. Wounded Glock owners who failed to hire a good lawyer received little or nothing for their trouble.
As a result of Glock’s efficiently executed policy of settlement-and-silence, some gun owners who might have been alerted sooner to the peril learned about it the hard way. No one knows how many people shot themselves or others before Glock changed the box design in the early 1990s to one where the handgun rested securely in heavy foam, without a post that could contact the trigger.
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Carrying cases were not the only hazard of owning a Glock, of course. Firearms, like lawn mowers or microwave ovens or motorcycles, occasionally malfunction. The reason could be bad parts, a mistake in assembly, or recklessness by the user. The world is full of imperfections and misfortune. When guns break down—and all brands of firearms suffer glitches from time to time—it’s not uncommon for someone to get hurt.
The Glock legal files describe a suit filed by Jeffrey A. Gueno, an Air Force captain who badly injured his right index finger when his Glock 21 .45-caliber “exploded in his hand.” Gueno, an experienced firearm user who was practicing at a range, “alleged that Glock placed on the market a product in defective condition which is unsafe for its intended use.”
When confronted by such cases, Jannuzzo had one overriding initial objective, he told me: “Get the gun.” The company lawyer made sure that Glock recovered the supposedly substandard pistol for examination and, if the case were to be settled, destruction. He did not want faulty Glocks being passed around, and possibly photographed, to the detriment of the manufacturer’s reputation.
The company’s inspection of Captain Gueno’s Glock attributed the accident to the plaintiff’s ammunition, rather than his pistol. “There was no indication of any obstruction having been lodged in the barrel,” the file states. “The damage to the pistol was caused by an ammunition failure–related problem.”
Ammunition can fail in several ways. A batch of rounds may be poorly fabricated, leading some to disintegrate. Shoddy ammunition may jam as it moves from the magazine to the chamber or from the chamber to the barrel. To save money, some gun owners “reload” ammo, using basement hand-crank machines to insert new lead bullets into spent brass cases they collect at the shooting range. Unless it’s done expertly, reloading can lead to problems. Glock explicitly voided its warranty if the customer used reloaded ammunition.
The company’s determination in the Gueno case was that the plaintiff’s factory-made ammunition was of poor quality and lacked full-metal jacketing or plating. This was often the company’s response when confronted with the claim of a malfunctioning pistol. Glock instructed users from the outset to buy top-grade, factory-made, full-jacketed ammunition. Rounds that have exposed lead because they are not fully jacketed, whether those rounds are reloaded or factory-made, are much more likely to produce malfunctions in Glocks than in certain other handguns, as a result of the kind of rifling in Glock barrels.
Rifling refers to the spiraling grooves in a gun barrel that cause the bullet to spin in flight. The rotation stabilizes the bullet, increasing accuracy. Traditional rifling incorporates twisting lands and grooves. With an exposed-lead bullet, the lands actually engrave the projectile’s relatively soft metal. Gaston Glock designed his barrel with polygonal flat sides: six or eight, depending on the caliber. Polygonal rifling provides a superior bullet-to-barrel seal when jacketed or plated ammunition is used. “This leads to an increase in velocity over conventional cut rifle barrels of the same length,” according to The Complete Glock Reference Guide , a volume published independently of the manufacturer. However, the Guide continues, “the lack of lands in the polygonal rifled Glock barrel tends to allow a lead bullet to skip down the bore rather than spin, leaving larger lead deposits, while creating buildup and reducing the bore diameter.” In a barrel constricted by lead detritus, excessive pressure can accumulate, leading to an explosion, or what the reference book politely calls “a Glock KB (Ka-Boom).” The easiest way to prevent ka-booms is to use jacketed or plated bullets, as Glock admonishes its users to do.
Jeffrey Gueno may or may not have used substandard ammunition. In any event, he was not the sort of plaintiff Jannuzzo wanted to fight in court: a clean-cut Air Force captain who many jurors would assume knew how to handle a gun. Gueno offered to drop his suit for $24,000, not an extravagant amount. The company legal file suggested that the case “should be settled on economic analysis, i.e., less expensive to settle than defend.” Jannuzzo listed an “anticipated expense” of only $14,000, indicating his expectation that Gueno, whose medical bills were paid by the military, would agree to the lower amount. (The file doesn’t indicate the company’s actual payout.)
As a result, the entire potentially embarrassing episode—labeled a “catastrophic failure” in the Glock records—disappeared from public view. Glock, Inc., obtained the damaged gun and disposed of it. Upon receiving settlement, Gueno swore in writing not to discuss the incident.
In a memo dated December 17, 1992, Jannuzzo urged Gaston Glock to sign off on a joint settlement in which the company would share the costs of a confidential $20,000 payment with the ammunition manufacturer Olin/Winchester. “It is important to note that Olin/Winchester Corporation has approximately 30 damaged Glock pistols at their facility,” the attorney wrote. “Should this case be tried, it is safe to assume that those pistols will be presented as evidence, which would have a destructive and widespread effect for Glock Inc.” The complaint, brought by a US Customs agent named Wernli, whose .45-caliber Glock 21 had exploded, causing a “crush injury to the distal tip of his right index finger,” was resolved out of court. The damaged guns did not surface.
On occasion, Glock employees in Smyrna testing pistols as they arrived from Austria identified mechanical problems before the guns were shipped to users. Senior executives in Austria typically had a short and impatient reaction to any suggestion of a flaw: “Impossible!”
In 1998, Smyrna discovered a batch of .40-caliber Glock 22s that mysteriously jammed even when loaded with appropriate ammo. “These malfunctions were very difficult to clear and could not be cleared with the normal ‘tap, rack’ drill,” according to a February 12, 1998, memo addressed to Gaston Glock. “Law enforcement officers see this type of stoppage as a serious failure and one which has life-threatening implications.”
When executives in Austria brushed off the concern, saying the balky guns merely needed to be “broken in,” Jannuzzo followed up with a sharply worded letter to his employer. The notion of having to break in a new handgun, he wrote, “flies in the face of the Glock pistol’s reputation as being the best-shooting semiautomatic ‘out of the box.’ ”
There is no evidence that Glock 22 jams were a widespread problem. But neither is there any indication that the company warned its customers, police or civilian, that at least some .40-caliber guns might not work properly. When questions about defects have arisen, Glock has consistently maintained that every single pistol is carefully tested and, if used correctly, functions without flaw.
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Yet another category of legal complaints about the Glock focused on the negligent or criminal misuse of handguns, sometimes by someone other than the owner. This kind of suit first began cropping up against gun manufacturers in the early 1980s. Under traditional American injury law, the intervention of a third party—the curious child who foolishly shoots a friend, the convenience-store robber who attacks a clerk—was thought to break the chain of liability between the victim and the manufacturer. But since the 1960s, some US judges and law professors had been expanding theories of liability to give injury victims a better chance of finding a defendant with deep pockets. The consumer-protection movement led by Ralph Nader reinforced this trend and helped turn up new evidence that manufacturers often knew more than they liked to admit about hazards associated with their products. Rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s added a sense of urgency to the gun-control movement and prompted some activists to turn their attention to the courts, as well as the legislature, as a venue where they might rein in companies that make and sell firearms.
Initially, the targets of these innovative suits were manufacturers and retailers of inexpensive, unreliable “Saturday Night Specials”: revolvers and pistols that could be purchased for as little as $29 and were favorites of stickup artists, drug dealers, and cash-strapped residents of inner-city neighborhoods who feared those criminals. Lawyers representing accident and crime victims argued that Saturday Night Specials had no redeeming social value; they couldn’t plausibly be marketed for target shooting, hunting, or police work. By their very nature, according to this view, cheap handguns were meant only to kill people and therefore were “unreasonably hazardous.”
The plaintiffs’ argument had visceral appeal to gun foes, but also significant weaknesses: As a matter of economics and fairness, it didn’t address the concerns of people living in violence-ridden neighborhoods who might seek to defend themselves with cut-rate handguns. More broadly, suits seeking to hold gun manufacturers responsible for crime and negligence implicitly demanded that juries look away from the role of the person who pulled the trigger. While suits over individual guns that exploded in the hands of their users sometimes resulted in plaintiffs’ verdicts or settlements, most courts were hostile to claims that handgun makers should be liable for the misuse of otherwise lawful articles of commerce. The product, after all, was supposed to fire bullets; that there was risk should have surprised no one. Even in a period of expanding liability theories, there were limits to what judges would tolerate.
Despite the failure of most manufacturer-liability suits stemming from crime and negligence, the litigation continued into the 1990s. Plaintiffs’ lawyers thought that if they achieved just a few breakthroughs, gun companies would be intimidated into a series of lucrative settlements. Some of the suits were sponsored by gun-control organizations willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the litigation, no matter how unlikely the odds, because the mere existence of legal combat drew attention to their cause. In this environment, gun opponents inevitably took aim at Glock, given the Austrian-based company’s success and profitability. Maybe its unusual design would make it more vulnerable to legal attack, or so the plaintiffs’ attorneys and activists hoped.
Of course, Glock did not make Saturday Night Specials. By the late 1980s, the lowest end of the handgun market was dominated by a group of small interlocking companies based in Southern California. According to police departments, the Austrian pistol had ample social value as a tool to fight crime. It wasn’t cheap, and it clearly was suitable as a target pistol or home-defense weapon. What distinguished the Glock from other handguns was that it was easier to fire and it lacked an external safety lever. These differences troubled some people, and not just gun-control advocates.
In May 1988, a team of FBI shooting instructors involved in the federal agency’s arduous process of replacing its revolvers issued a skeptical internal evaluation of the Glock. “Unintentional discharges of the first shot lead to safety and liability issues in view of the manner handguns are routinely used by FBI agents,” the report noted. This wasn’t the last word on the topic; in fact, other FBI officials came to think highly of the Glock. By the mid-1990s, the agency was arming thousands of agents with the Austrian pistol. But the early FBI evaluation indicated hesitations about the fast-firing firearm.
Herbert Timm, the police chief of the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, lobbied his village board to buy Glocks for his small force, only to embarrass himself with the new pistol. “I was transferring the gun from the holster I was wearing into another holster in the desk drawer, and assumed—which is something that no one should ever do—that it was not loaded,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times . It was loaded. “I pulled the trigger, and it fired into the wall just below the ceiling.” Luckily, no one was hurt. “I’ve been a policeman for twenty-five years,” Timm said, “and never had an accidental discharge of a weapon.”
Negligence with guns has occurred as long as there have been guns. Visit any older police station, and you may notice posters and photographs in odd places: very high and very low on the walls. Remove the strangely placed decorations, and behind them you will find bullet holes.
In some places, the arrival of the Glock almost certainly contributed to a surge in unintentional firing. When the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC, switched to the Austrian pistol in 1989, Gary Hankins, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee, announced: “We’ve got the right gun.… This is going to make all of us feel better out there on the streets.” Almost immediately, however, Washington cops began shooting themselves and each other. The Washington Post found that in the decade after the 3,800-person department adopted the Glock, more than 120 accidental discharges occurred, with 19 serious officer injuries. The police mistakenly wounded nine DC citizens and killed one. The skein of accidents resulted in the city government paying out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits.
Looking back, DC officials concluded that the fiasco stemmed from an unhappy coincidence of three factors. The department, responding to generational turnover and rising crime, hired fifteen hundred new officers in just eighteen months. It then failed to train many of the rookies. Recruits often received only three days of firing-range instruction, rather than the goal of ten. “They just rushed through this stuff,” said Lowell Duckett, a retired instructor at the DC Police Academy. The final factor was putting an easy-to-fire Glock in the hands of each and every one of the underprepared new officers. The Austrian pistol is an excellent first firearm because it is so simple and light. But without expert guidance, a novice is probably more likely to make a dangerous mistake with a Glock than with another pistol or revolver.
Police departments from Tampa to Tucson reported accidental shootings soon after changing over to the Glock pistol. In November 1990, Richard Johnson, an officer with the Port Huron Police Department in Michigan, “was in his patrol car when he removed the gun from its holster,” the Glock legal files note. “As he did so, the gun discharged, shooting him in the left foot.” The following year he sued the manufacturer, alleging that the Glock’s unusual “trigger safety” was inherently dangerous.
Glock countered that Officer Johnson had handled his firearm too casually. Like Captain Gueno of the Air Force, Johnson sought only modest damages, described in his suit as “in excess of $10,000.” In his file, Jannuzzo wrote: “Should be settled for less than it would cost to defend” and added an anticipated outlay of $12,000. Glock settled dozens of suits in this manner, with little or no fanfare.
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On occasion, plaintiffs and their lawyers held out for bigger payoffs. One such clash occurred in Knoxville, Tennessee, as a result of a disastrous encounter in the early-morning hours of July 9, 1991.
Cheryl Darlene Grant and her husband, Benny, both in their early forties, had driven back to Knoxville after attending a concert. Police said that they noticed the Grants’ late-model Camaro speeding. In the ensuing chase, Benny Grant jumped out of the Camaro, while his wife drove off. Eventually cornered, Cheryl Grant rammed a police cruiser and started to run. Patrolman Danny Wagner chased her on foot. The officer said that Grant turned and reached behind her back, as if to draw a weapon. He pulled out his Glock. When the cop finally caught up to Grant, they tussled, causing him to fire accidentally. A single shot smashed into Grant’s head, killing her. As he tried