(The following was written in 2008 prior to the Gen 4 Glock release, among other changes in the polymer pistol world, so consider it historically.-ed.)
Glock, S&W M&P, and Springfield XD. The Big Three makers of striker-fired, polymer-framed pistols made for the police, military and self-defense markets. Glock is there because they essentially created the market, developed it, and became the biggest selling police gun of all time. The M&P (right) is there because after a couple previous failures to break into this market (Sigma, SW99), Smith & Wesson went back to the drawing board again and came out with a new product. Remember their Sigma (below left) was practically a warmed-over Glock (with a horrible trigger) and they ended up being sued by Glock for infringement--which they settled out of court by paying big bucks to Glock. The SW99 (below right) was a slightly tweaked Walther P99, and Walther-- high quality and popular in Germany--has never ever broken into the American police market. And they weren't going to do so with a pistol with a push-button decocker on top of the slide and seventeen different trigger pulls (okay, maybe three). The M&P is a different cat altogether. It is a Smith & Wesson, not a warmed over Glock or Walther, and it truly has the features most cops want. It one-ups the Glock by taking advantage of the latest fit feature, interchangeable grip inserts. I predict that a good product that continues to be tweaked, the S&W name and "made in USA" will continue to make inroads for S&W back into the cop market.
Glock (G17, right) to a great extent has a world vision, which sounds good but it is somewhat contrary to a US-vision. Glock is determined to make their products number one around the world--probably they already are. They do in fact have something like 65% of the US police market. They do not have Germany, another prize in the gun maker's cap, as Walther, SIG and HK have Germany sewn up. But despite all the new calibers and the changes to their (too-) large frame pistols, Glock has not materially changed their frames since the FGR (3G) frame appeared in 1997--prior to everyone jumping on the interchangeable grip bandwagon. This may seem like a small thing, but hand-to-pistol fit is critical for best shooting. The different inserts are not perfect--they can't guarantee an otherwise over-large or too-small pistol will fit, but they go a long way toward it.
Springfield (XD, right) has gotten a share of this market with very aggressive marketing and what I consider a very cozy relationship with gunzine editors and writers, including those working for NRA. Springfield also took advantage of what they rightly perceived as specific features of Glocks that many people didn't like. The plastic Glock magazine is a big one. Springfield's are steel, as are S&W's. The lack of a manually-operated safety on the Glock was addressed with a grip safety on the XD. This had the added advantage of providing a warm fuzzy for the legions of 1911 users who were used to grip safeties and saw them as a good thing. Springfield continues to make changes as they perceive the need. They first announced the addition of a thumb safety (which Glock doesn't have and which S&W offers as an option) in order to come in line with what is known about the next U.S. military pistol requirements. Next Springfield redid the surface of their grip frame in what looks like much like Glock's famous "grenade grip." Springfield calls it "the M factor." I have no clue why. Finally, Springfield played down the fact that their pistol was manufactured in a war-torn, almost third world country, Croatia. It wouldn't surprise me if they threatened editors with the withholding of lucrative advertising dollars if the Croatia source was played up, but I'm just speculating wildly--that might be the furthest thing from the facts. Still, being made in Croatia didn't hurt the XD as much as I suspect it could have. The main reason the XD is one of the Top Three, however is because they are well-made, they have responded to perceived desire with rapid design changes, and they work. Ultimately, reliability must be nothing short of outstanding or these pistols will not survive.
Speaking of reliability, Taurus would dearly love to break into the police and military market outside of Brazil, but they just don't have that degree of reliability across the board--and that is killing them. Their own high capacity .45ACP (left) is well-designed and comfortable in the hand, and even features high-end items like Richard Heinie's Straight Eight combat sights. Yet Taurus .45 magazines are an on-going problem and keep their pistol from breaking through what has been a glass ceiling for them into a large acceptance in the USA. It would seem that they could solve the problems keeping them as a marginal marquee, but it remains to be seen if they will. I do have to believe that if Springfield can sell a pistol made not even by them but by a gun maker in Croatia of all places, Taurus should be able to sell their own made-in-Brazil product. Springfield's own highly-popular 1911-A1 series of pistols are and always have been a Brazilian product, so that can't be what is holding Taurus back.
The Glock, M&P, and Springfield are all reliable pistols. They all have features that shooters want. There will always be shooters who favor one or another for specific reasons that are particular to a smaller group. For example, I prefer Glocks for two primary reasons. A simple one is the fact that I like Glock sights--no, I love Glock sights. I am much less enamored with the sights on the M&P or XD. No, it isn't hard to change these things, but many of us would just as soon buy a gun and shoot it as it comes and not have to automatically change something on it that probably requires a gunsmith or an expensive tool. The second and more important reason why I prefer Glocks is that they are a simple design, easy to completely detail strip and maintain. That is exactly why I like 1911s. Both these pistols give me a great big warm fuzzy knowing what is going on inside them, what each part does. Fit is important as well, though in this case all three brands fit me fine. If Glocks didn't fit me I would be grumbling about the lack of interchangeable grip inserts and looking hard at the other makes.
Will Glock maintain the lead? Hard to predict. S&W is a well-loved all-American brand, and they are playing that up since the British company that owned them during the Clinton years divested itself of S&W. S&W has never been an arrogant company. Glock can't really make that claim, and they are somewhat arrogant in a Teutonic way--their claim of "Glock Perfection" sure doesn't help, except perhaps with the know-nothing gun users who actually believe that a certain brand or model of firearm can actually be "perfect." I can't see Springfield over-taking Glock but I do think they will continue to nip at their heels as long as they keep aggressively marketing the XD. (20 June 2008)