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America’s Top Gun

13 January 2011

6:02 PM

13 January 2011

6:02 PM

Bloomberg Businessweek has a fascinating article on how, starting from nothing, Glock has come to dominate the American handgun market. You may not be surprised to discover that ill-conceived gun control legislation played a major part in shifting gun owners’ preferences towards ever larger magazine capacities and so on…

When Karl Walter, a firearm salesman based in the U.S., first picked up a Glock during a visit to a Vienna gun shop in the spring of 1984, his reaction was, "Jeez, that’s ugly." The squared-off pistol lacked the blued-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 says. "There had to be more to it than what meets the eye initially."

A native Austrian, Walter sold imported rifles to American police departments, traveling from town to town in a motor home custom-fitted as a rolling gun showroom. For years he had nurtured an idea about handguns: "Where there really is money to be made is to convert U.S. police departments from revolvers to pistols."

Ever since the 19th century, when the Colt Peacemaker became known as "the gun that won the West," Americans had preferred revolvers. Continental Europeans favored pistols, also known as semiautomatics, with spring-loaded magazines that snap into the handle, holding more rounds and allowing faster reloading. "I was astonished," Walter says, "that this modern country still hung around with revolvers." In 1984 he paid a call on Gaston Glock and offered to sell his pistol in America. 

[…] In September 1994, after a string of grisly shootings—the 1989 Stockton (Calif.) elementary school attack, the 1991 Killeen massacre, the 1993 Waco siege—Congress passed the assault weapons ban, which President Bill Clinton immediately signed. The law, which limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, seemed likely to hurt Glock. It had the opposite effect. Long before the law’s enactment, Glock was running its factory at full tilt. "We’re getting 5,000 guns and 8,000 to 9,000 magazines a week from Austria," Dick Wiggins, a Glock representative, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in May 1994. "We’re tens of thousands of orders behind," he added. "Our pistols are scarcer than hen’s teeth."

As a compromise to get the law passed, the Clinton Administration had agreed to allow continued sale of gear manufactured before the ban. Glock executives figured the new law would incite a buying frenzy, and they were right. "People who own guns that use magazines holding more than 10 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.’ "

Seventeen-round Glock clips that had sold for less than $20 quintupled in price over the next few years. The unintended consequence of the law was that more high-capacity weapons and magazines ended up in stores, at gun shows, and on the street. Indeed, "the Clinton gun ban," as the NRA called the legislation, created a fascination with large clips that hadn’t existed before in civilian gun circles.

The Austrian company found new ways to feed the demand the law had unintentionally created. Having supplied scores of major police departments with 9mm weapons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Glock gave these agencies the opportunity to trade in their modestly used pistols for brand-new ones. The exchanges earned the company powerful customer loyalty and gave Glock another large batch of pre-ban magazines that could be resold on the burgeoning used market. In one exchange in late 1994, Glock received 16,000 used high-capacity clips and more than 5,000 older pistols from the Metropolitan Police Dept. of Washington, D.C.

Bruce Willis and Die Hard also played a part in boosting Glock’s renown. Whole thing here.


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