The GLOCK has been hailed as one of the 10 best handgun designs in history. To put that in some meaningful context, the GLOCK is on the same list as the flintlock and percussion lock pistol, Samuel Colt’s legendary 1851 Navy revolver, the Colt Peacemaker, and the Colt Model 1911/1911A1 semi-auto; in short, some very illustrious arms spanning somewhere on the order of five centuries of gun making. Considering that the GLOCK semi-automatic pistol didn’t even exist until the early 1980s, this accomplishment is all the more impressive.
Everyone is familiar with the GLOCK name, but perhaps not as familiar with how the guns came into being or how they have improved over generations of design engineering to the present 2012 Gen4 series. It all began around 1981, when the Austrian manufacturer, known for its use of polymers and injection molding techniques, was invited by the Austrian government to submit a proposal for an upcoming military trial intended to find a suitable replacement for the nation’s aging WWII-era Walther P38 sidearms. The Walther is still regarded as one of the great (and timeless) designs of the early 20th century, but it had two features the Austrian military no longer admired—its weight and cartridge capacity; one too much, the other too little. While European arms makers began submitting proposals based on their current designs, Gaston Glock and his staff started with a blank sheet of paper, no preconceived notions, and most of all, no existing hardware.
In 1982, the GLOCK 17 was adopted by the Austrian military, shortly after by the Austrian police, and the course of arms making the world over was altered. The innovations of the GLOCK were quickly realized by military and law enforcement agencies on every continent, though many were slow to warm to the idea of the polymer frame, the GLOCK’s almost indestructible design, ease of use and high capacity broke down preconceptions faster than the arms maker could produce guns.
The Makings of a GLOCK
When you start with a clean sheet of paper, the only rules are the ones you make for yourself. Gaston Glock knew he could use an injection-molded polymer frame for his new gun. It had been tried before by Heckler & Koch with the VP70 and VP70Z, both of which used a plastic receiver/grip assembly. The HK 9×19 pistols were introduced in 1970 and produced through 1984. This was a very large (28.9-ounce weight, 8-inch overall length), expensive ($2,250) DAO blowback design that has become one of the more interesting footnotes in German arms manufacturing. Mr. Glock took nothing from the HK when he began working on his proposal for the Austrian Ministry of Defense. The new semi-auto 9×19 pistol would be lighter in weight, innovative in its operation and far less expensive. And GLOCK had the experience to both prototype and manufacture the gun in-house.
The original GLOCK 17 was introduced to the public for sale as a 1983 model. It was virtually identical to the guns being made for the Austrian military and police, chambered in 9×19 with a capacity of 17+1. Being designed as a military sidearm, it was essentially simplistic in its execution and had very few of the features we find today on GLOCK semi-autos. The initial success of the GLOCK 17 also brought forth a wealth of consumer requests for change, something which manufacturers often loathe to do. GLOCK was slow to warm to the idea of altering what was essentially a brand new design, but the company was also market-driven and the original changes consumers wanted were neither unreasonable nor difficult with injection molding. Thus, beginning in 1991 (just eight years after being introduced), texturing was added to the grip panels, along with internal improvements: a new, integrated recoil spring assembly replacing the original two-piece recoil spring and tube design, and slight modifications to the magazine by changing the floorplate and fitting the follower spring with a resistance insert at its base. A second alteration came in the 1990s with the addition of checkering on the front-strap and serrations to the backstrap. This all constitutes the 2nd generation.
The most notable revisions to the gun came in the late 1990s, with a third variation incorporating an integral-with-the-frame accessory rail to allow the mounting of laser sights, tactical flashlights or combinations of both, which became available through GLOCK. Thumb rests on both sides of the frame and finger grooves on the front strap were also introduced first on the G26 and G27 and ultimately expanded to the entire line-up due to an enthusiastic acceptance by consumers. A still later production modification resulted in an improved extractor that served as a loaded-chamber indicator with a tactile, squared metal edge protruding slightly outward from the back of the ejector port. This could both be seen and, more importantly, felt in situations that demanded immediate knowledge of the gun’s condition. The locking block was also enlarged, along with the addition of an extra crosspin to aid the distribution of forces exerted by the locking block. Many of these improvements were made for North American law enforcement agencies, which were becoming one of GLOCK’s principal customers following the establishment of an importing and distribution center (and later manufacturing facility) in Georgia.
By the end of the 20th century, GLOCK had gone from near obscurity as an untried Austrian arms maker to one of the most successful brands on two continents and the gun preferred by more U.S. law enforcement agencies than any other—finally surpassing Colt and S&W (among others) as the most prevalent sidearm for federal, state and local police departments, as well as filling specific needs within the U.S. military. Not bad for a company that hadn’t existed 18 years earlier!
Within the 3rd generation line, GLOCK had more new models in more frame sizes and calibers than at any time in its history. Models based on the original 9×19 included calibers from 10mm Auto, to .40 (the preferred cartridge for U.S. law enforcement by the 21st century), .357, .380 Auto, .45 Auto, and the manufacturer’s proprietary .45 G.A.P. (which was adopted by the Pennsylvania State Police and others). Almost three decades after the G17 was introduced, there are now GLOCK models in virtually every caliber and frame size, from 9×19 subcompacts to hefty 13+1 round .45 Autos.
The 3rd generation models saw additional changes over the last few years, which led to the introduction of the Gen4 models in 2010. The first RTF2 model (Rough Textured Frame) was introduced with the .40-caliber GLOCK 22 in 2009. This, while effective, proved too coarse of a surface and in 2010 a new RTF finish using flat-topped squares in place of the pointy polymids was introduced.
The one constant in GLOCK engineering for more than a quarter of a century has been the Safe Action® trigger design introduced with the original GLOCK 17. Utilizing a toggle safety projecting through the face of the trigger, the gun is always in a safe condition unless the trigger is pulled, very much the same concept as a revolver where the trigger is the only actual safety. The difference with the GLOCK is that when the Safe Action® system is activated, internal safety devices make the gun inoperable so it cannot accidentally discharge if dropped. This is accomplished through three separate safety mechanisms activated the instant the trigger is released.
With the Gen4, GLOCK addressed the grip size. While not a big gun, the GLOCK was not sized for everyone. The Gen4, first with the GLOCK 22 and then GLOCK 17, were the first new models to offer interchangeable backstrap panels to accommodate a greater variety of hand sizes. The standard grip, which is now slightly smaller than the previous models’, can be covered over by one of two different panels, medium and large, that attach at the base of the grip frame and lock into position with an extended trigger housing pin passing through openings in the grip panel and frame.
While the aesthetics of the Gen4 certainly improve the gun’s serviceability, the arms maker added one more change, a new recoil system.
GLOCK found that different calibers provide different forms of recoil with some being more aggressive than others. GLOCK had addressed this in various ways over the years with longer barrels (original GLOCK 17L) and compensated models (initially with the GLOCK 17C), but the fundamental issues still remained. The Gen4 takes a fresh approach, utilizing a dual recoil spring and guide rod. The primary recoil spring goes over the guide rod as before, only this is a heavier, more tightly wound round spring, as opposed to the flat spring that preceded it. An even larger secondary recoil spring is wound around an alloy case, which then shrouds the recoil spring assembly. The combination, though a bit more demanding when cycling the slide to chamber the first round, significantly reduces muzzle flip across all calibers, providing the ability to reacquire the sights for faster follow-up shots. In comparison to a previous generation GLOCK 17, firing the Gen4 feels closer to that of a .38 Special than a 9×19.
Currently, the Gen4 line includes the GLOCK 17 and G19 (9×19); G22 and G23 (.40); G26 Subcompact (9×19); G27 Subcompact (.40); standard-size G31 (.357); new compact-sized G32 and G37 (.45 G.A.P.); new G21 (.45 Auto); competition-size G34 (9×19) and G35 (.40).
The Gen4 series represents better handling, better engineering and more versatility; the differences, although subtle, are both distinctive in appearance and in function. It’s a 21st century GLOCK.