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At the time of writing, Glock, Inc. has posted a 36% increase in sales over 2007, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Now, it’s no secret as to why these pistols are so popular, though I thought I would examine them in greater detail to see just how close to “Perfection” they really are.

Prior to their introduction of the Model 17 in 1985, other manufacturers had toyed with the idea of the use of advanced plastics for firearms parts, most notably Heckler and Koch’s P9S and VP-70 series pistols of the 1970s.  Earlier pistols primarily used plastics for stocks (grips), and these can be seen in the 1930s Walther PP and PPK, as well as the “hard rubber” grips found on certain Colt 1903 hammerless .32ACP and .380ACP pistols.

The P9S used a trigger guard/front strap molding, and a plastic wrap around stock, thus the shooter never touched anything metal when grasping the pistol.  Coming from Germany this is unsurprising, as it does get cold there in winter, and the advantage of having a thermally-neutral feel when it’s below freezing outside is a plus.

The VP-70 went further, in that the entire grip frame, housing the trigger, magazine, and lower fire control pieces, was of plastic.  This rather ungainly DA-only nineteen-shot auto was primarily a selective-fire machine pistol, meant to be used with a detachable shoulder stock and fired in short bursts, but a civilian VP-70Z was available for a short time in the U.S.  This pistol, with required steel reinforcements and slide rails, was truly the first pistol to use plastics in a big way.

Let us face one fact squarely here; despite the many positive attributes of the plastic frame, its primary advantage to a manufacturer is cost control, because it is far easier to build injection molds and mold plastic than it is to machine steel and aluminum, which is far more labor and tool intensive. This is the exact same issue that long gun makers have famously faced, so despite non-traditional aesthetics, the proliferation of plastics in firearms production is here to stay as manufacturers try to expand market share while controlling cost.

Gaston Glock was not involved in firearms originally; he had contracts to supply the Austrian military with entrenching tools and knives partially constructed of lightweight polymers.  He decided to enter a competition in the early ‘80s for a new Austrian service pistol contract, and the rest is history.  The G17 went on to become a world-wide favorite among law enforcement due to its light weight, simplicity, and durability under use and abuse.

The proprietary polymer does NOT have glass strands on it, and Glock explains that this is to provide integrity under extreme cold.  While I am not familiar with the exact formulation, in feel the receiver’s injection molding feels like a combination of nylon and polyethylene plastics, as there is some flex to the frame when grasped hard; this may provide some felt recoil reduction as some of its fans suggest, though I think the effect would be minimal.  Rather I believe it to be a function of the wide and fairly flat frame cross section filling the web between thumb and forefinger, spreading recoil force over a larger surface area.

The pistol’s metal parts are protected by a process known as “Tenifer,” which is evidently too toxic a process to be applied in the U.S.  (Glock will be producing complete pistols in the U.S. within the next couple of years according to my sources.  --editor)  It essentially closes the metal pores with a surface hardening crystalline structure over Rockwell 60c, close to diamonds, and a non-reflective black matte coloring is added to the mix which in and of itself offers no additional corrosion protection.  Tenifer is considered the current best service pistol finish available on the market, as it is rust-resistant to the extremes of available testing modalities, durable against normal wear and holster presentations, and does not decrease operating tolerances when applied.

The pistol’s near legendary reliability is the result of several design factors.  First, the narrow slide rails on which the slide reciprocates on the frame rails, offer minimal space for foreign matter such as oil, sand particles, and powder residue to collect, and the rails themselves appear to be a very hard stamping or thin machined part which is molded integrally to the frame.  Both surfaces are so hard that (it is claimed) that a Glock pistol can operate completely dry, which is a boon to dusty or sandy environments, or in extreme cold, where the use of conventional petroleum-based lube can attract dirt or freeze solid.  Glock does use a copper-based “anti-seize” grease on the rear of the slide rails as a break-in lube, which is supposed to be left in place during initial shooting.

Secondly, the plastic frame is recoil-resistant and durable.  It has come in three “generations” thus far, with a fourth “Rough Texture Frame” variant of Gen. 3 just debuting at time of writing, each having non-adjustable ergonomics, and primarily distinguished by the addition of raised checkering (Gen. 2) and finger grooves and accessory rail (Gen. 3).  While it does not have the tensile strength of steel or even hard-anodized aluminum (more on that below), normal recoil forces are resolved by the plastic material, and by the steel locking block in the frame, so frame failures due to recoil alone are nearly unheard of even under very high round counts (100,000+).

The other thing which provides reliability for the system is also one which has proven somewhat problematic over time.  This is the company’s use of larger chamber dimensions, as well as extensively relieved feed ramp throats from roughly 4-to-8 o’clock .  The magazines supplied already provide an adequately “nose up” attitude to the chamber, but the company still believes that this wide and deeper than industry norm feed ramp is essential to provide reliability under lots of shooting.  It could be that the more acute grip angle than most other semi-auto pistols also requires this deep barrel throating.

While there are lots of anecdotal stories about the Glock being able to digest thousands of rounds of ammunition without feed failure, there are also many similar reports about how ammunition which has always been ruled “out of spec” by failure analysts, have been fired with catastrophic results to the pistol and sometimes also resulting in serious injuries to the shooter.  Known colloquially as “kaBOOMs!,” or “kB!” for short, the evidence gathered so far has exonerated Glock, though there have been enough instances where factory-loaded, jacketed bullet ammunition of standard operating pressure configuration have caused destruction to include rupturing of the hammer-forged barrel, outward explosion of the slide, and cracking of the frame, as the powder gases choose routes of escape both out the ejection port and down the magazine well.

No less than H.P. While Laboratories have investigated these detonations, and they are perhaps the foremost forensic firearms testing lab in the country, if not the world.  In every instance thus far, they have ruled the culprit to be ammunition related.  However, and this mind you is an educated guess, in my opinion, the Glock design does not offer as much protection of the shooter compared to other designs due to the relieved barrel design, and there also may be the company’s use of lighter than industry normal recoil springs depending on caliber, when any of the specs of the cartridge are less than perfect.

These issues might include the continued loading (from the magazine, thus bullet noses are impacting the feed ramp) and unloading of the same round during law enforcement “administrative handling,” which may be increasing pressures due to bullet setback in the case, they might be the fairly rare occurrence of the ammo manufacturer’s automated production machines overcharging the powder column even slightly, it might be due to the use of substandard brass of insufficient head thickness or ductility.  No one really knows for sure, and neither do I.

Both Federal Cartridge and Winchester have both gone on record to state that their ammunition is good for just two, from the magazine, loadings, as safe against bullet set-back. Federal increased the web thickness of their .40 brass in 1995 without fanfare.

What I remember from experience over 35 years, however, is that very few semi-automatic pistol designs have experienced like detonation issues, and this is where the plastic frame, despite its many other advantages, may play a role in the injuries sustained by shooters.  A typical pistol of previously normal steel or aluminum alloy receiver construction, if the barrel itself had a similarly-heavily throated, SAAMI-standard diameter chamber, would typically NOT be destroyed in such incidents; usually these older pistols would simply vent the powder gases down the magazine well, as well as of course the ejection port, and destroying perhaps the magazine and the stocks without causing any but minor injury, if any, to the shooter.  If said pistol wore the old Pachmayr steel-lined rubber stocks, the shooter might not have any injury at all.

Some have said that out of battery firing might be occurring.  I think this is unlikely, though there have been some rare reports of it, due to the triple automatic safeties in the design, and Glock itself is adamant about non-use of any lead-bulleted ammunition in their polygon-rifled barrels due to lead stripping ahead of the chamber as the softer lead bullets fail to obturate, instead just smearing, compared to standard jacketed ammunition, this causing another potential source of over-pressure as the lead continues to build up at this point of peak pressure just ahead of the chamber.  (At least one forensic engineer has stated in print that this is one of the major causes of failures, lead build-up causing extremely rapid pressure increases.  More info can be found in The Glock in Competition, 2nd Edition, by Robin Taylor  --Ed.).

Others on some of the Glock Internet forums have stated that it is their understanding that Glock as a company stresses the interchangeability of parts, to include the use of the same recoil spring assemblies for different calibers, and many advocate using heavier springs in the .40 S&W chambered pistols, as these guns are the ones which have experienced the majority of the problem.  The .40 is also of course most represented because its prevalence in American law-enforcement circles.

While there may be a case for this, in that the typical operating pressure of the .40 round is in the 33,000psi range, there have also been a number of kB!s in the .45ACP chambered Model 21, which typically operates at just 17,000psi, half that of the higher-intensity, smaller caliber rounds.  (.45ACP SAAMI pressures are 21,000 PSI.  source.  The same source gives 35k for the .40S&W. --Ed.)

Having said all this, to be fair, all of the polymer pistols currently being sold have had similar incidents of catastrophic destruction, including the HK USP, the Springfield XD, and the S&W M&P, so perhaps there is something to the idea of retaining machined metal frame in one’s hands despite the weight penalty.  Thus, while it is important to inspect your carry ammo no matter what pistol you use, I think it’s that much more critical with a polymer-framed one.

The pistol’s shooting dynamics have attracted many thousands of shooters, due to its simplicity of operation.  It is a so-called “point-and-pull” weapon, because there are no external manual safeties to remember to “off” before it can be shot.  In addition, the relatively short stroke, quick resetting “double-action” trigger (called “Safe Action” by the manufacturer) resembles a two-stage military bolt-action rifle trigger in feel, if not in operation, because the trigger does fully cock the striker before releasing it for fire, has endeared it to many single-action shooters because the system offers a consistent short press for each shot.

Those of us who are used to this sort of trigger (and we know who we are) usually do well with it, for rapid fire drills.  In slow fire, it is still a bit of a hindrance, in that the spring-loaded trigger safety is somewhat uncomfortable, and the trigger action itself has been called “sproingy” by others due to the squirt-gun feel of its motion, which of course is still longer in travel than that of a single-action pistol, rifle, or shotgun.  Sub-standard trigger pulls are evidently endemic to the breed of polymer-framed, striker-fired pistols.

Also in slow fire, in the shooting that I have done with G23s in .40 S&W, and G21s in .45ACP, I have found them to be only “combat accurate,” in my usual conclusion to a shooting session of slow fire, one full magazine into a 4” x 2” rectangle at 25 yards. Generally, my results have been roughly 70% hits at that range, which is okay, but not as good as other pistol designs of which I am equally familiar, and ammunition fired has been either factory loaded ball practice ammo, or premium jacketed hollow point defense ammo.

Others will undoubtedly disagree, or dismiss such shooting as a “stunt,” though generally I have done better with a 1911, Browning Hi-Power, Heckler and Koch P7, Springfield XD, or lately, my SIG P-229.  YRMV.

One final point about the Glock design is that it is unforgiving of sloppy gun handling, even more so than single-action autos; its short stroke trigger with only that pivoting “trigger safety” lever on its face is the only thing that prevents a negligent discharge, and several nationally-recognized shooting schools have been allegedly banned the use of any inside the waistband holsters during training because of the potential for injury, if covering clothing somehow became trapped in the holster mouth during reholstering.

Keeping one’s finger straight on the side of the frame during the draw stroke or returning it to its holster is a must with any arm, but especially for one without a manual safety lock and a short stroke trigger.

I would also follow the factory’s advice and use only factory loaded jacketed ammunition for both practice and self-defense, if one sticks with the factory barrel.  For we civilians, this does rather negate the somewhat lower acquisition price of the pistol if one has to use expensive factory ammo for practice, especially lately as of this writing (2009).

In perspective, one cannot help but admire the Glock design for its low parts count, operating simplicity, great durability, and light weight.  I would probably select a 9X19mm version as they are the least likely, statistically, to be involved in a kB! incident were I to purchase one for my own use and I were to leave it factory stock, though I would strongly consider the use of a stainless steel Bar-Sto Precision Machine barrel, fitted by them, which features conventional land and groove rifling and chamber throat; this company has an excellent reputation and have supplied combat and target pistol competitors and the USMC Special Operations and their shooting team personnel for decades, in the other larger calibers which would be my preference.



copyright 2009 by the author, all rights reserved

Uploaded: 6/14/2009