The Gaston Glock Story: Why Americans Love European Guns

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There's a predictable European reaction to American firearms-related tragedies. The Guardian's Ed Pilkington puts it this way:

Gun fanatics and lobbyists will tell you that carrying a lump of metal in your hand is as American as cooking baked beans and sausages around a campfire. Invocations of the golden age of the Wild West are often heard at times like these, when people need reassurance that the cost of so much death and maiming is worth it.

But there is a flaw in the argument. Yes, the gun was ubiquitous in the days of the westward migration, when the courage and ingenuity of the early settlers flourished. But then, so was scurvy, syphilis, snake bites, mining accidents and amputations. You don't hear people lauding those hazards as noble American traditions.

But what few Europeans talk about is the skill of their community in marketing across the Atlantic. Glock opened a U.S. assembly plant in Smyrna, Georgia. Business is evidently booming. The Smyrna City Council recently granted the company an exemption from stream buffer rules, over the objections of some residents, so it could cut trees and level 18 acres of land for future buildings.

Writing in the National Rifle Association's American Rifleman in 2009, Industry Insider columnist Cameron Hopkins provides background:

The most significant innovations of the past 30 years, have all come from European gun companies. Even Ruger, the most innovative American gun manufacturer since World War II, has been playing catch up to the likes of Glock, HK, Beretta, Blaser, Sauer, and SIG.

In the early 80s, the U.S. Armed Forces conducted a trial to replace the venerable 1911 pistol. An Italian gun came in first (Beretta) and a Swiss-designed, German-made gun was second (SIG).

In the mid 80s, some 90 percent of U.S. law enforcement officers carried Smith & Wesson revolvers, but a change came about with the introduction of a "point gun, pull trigger" semi-automatic pistol from Austria. Glock never looked back and now controls an estimated 60 percent of the police market today with SIG and Beretta taking sizeable chunks from Smith's pie.

Whatever you think of American firearms policy, the life and times of Gaston Glock are a riveting story, material for a film that might have starred his countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger. Glock built an extremely profitable business with two-thirds of its sales in the U.S. market, and brought down contract killer with his bare hands in a Luxembourg garage in 1999, according to this account of the man and his company in Forbes.

Like many other successful innovators, Gaston Glock had no experience in the industry he helped transform. He began as a chemical engineer making plastic curtain rods and other household hardware, in 1963, four years before The Graduate's "Just one word." His explanation for his success is not unusual in such cases: "That I knew nothing was my advantage."

Glock falls into a pattern of the Central European independent engineer-inventor-entrepreneur. I've written about a few of them (Anton Lorenz [reclining chairs] and Kurt Lorber [triangular paper clips) here. But the Glock saga also shows that "only in America" doesn't happen only in America, and our unique traits good and bad are the result not of a bygone frontier but of the contemporary globe.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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