The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1: Up to 1900

It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call John Moses Browning the most influential and prolific firearms designer of the 20th Century despite the fact that he died in 1926. He designed a whole list of immensely popular and long-lived rifles, shotguns, machine guns and even an automatic rifle. However, it is his pistol designs that I want to look at in this series of articles. Browning wasn’t the only gun designer to work on what was known as the self-loading pistol in the late nineteenth century, but his ideas persisted long after those of contemporaries such as Georg Luger and Hugo Borchardt had been forgotten. If you look at virtually any current semi-automatic weapon you will see a method of operation and features that were all originally designed by Browning.

Browning also designed a single revolver, the Colt M1905 New Marine, but it’s his semi-automatic pistols that I’ll be looking at in these articles. Browning’s pistol designs developed incrementally until the Colt 1911 by which time he had introduced all the features which would be used in almost every later semi-automatic pistol. For this reason I will look at Browning’s pistol designs chronologically including highlighting developments and mentioning any currently available replicas. I’ll also provide some brief background on the life and times of this very private man. There’s a lot to cover here, so there will be three separate parts to this article:

Part 1: Up to 1900

Part 2: 1902 – 1908

Part 3: 1910 onwards

Early life

John Moses Browning was born in 1855 in Ogden, Utah as one of his Mormon father’s 22 children. At an early age Browning helped out in the family gunshop in Ogden and by the time that he was fourteen he was designing and building his own firearms. When his father died in 1873, Browning and three of his brothers started their own gunshop where they sold many guns designed by John. However, Browning quickly became frustrated that his long hours in the gunshop left little time for what he enjoyed most – designing new firearms.

A young John Moses Browning

Then, in the early 1880s, a salesman for the Winchester Firearms company visited the shop in Ogden and bought a single-shot rifle designed by Browning. He was so impressed by the rifle that he sent it back to the Winchester home office in Connecticut and recommended that they take a close look at it. The engineers at Winchester agreed and in 1883 offered Browning $8,000 (equivalent to around $200,000 today) for the manufacturing rights for the rifle. Browning used the money to set up his own design shop and over the next twenty years he would design a number of very successful rifles and shotguns that were sold by Winchester.

Browning in his twenties

However, the relationship between Browning and Winchester wasn’t all good news. On a couple of occasions, Winchester purchased designs from Browning but did not produce them. This made good commercial sense to Winchester – it stopped potential competitors from getting their hands on Browning’s designs, but it infuriated the designer. This was compounded when Browning began to design semi-automatic weapons (or self-loading guns as they were then known) around 1893.

It is said that Browning became interested in the concept of designing a self-loading mechanism in 1890 when out hunting with friends. He noticed that, when a rifle was fired, the grass in front of the muzzle bent and he began to wonder whether this wasted muzzle energy could be used to load the next round for firing? Browning went on to use these ideas to design a machine gun (the Colt M1895) and in 1896 he sold the designs for four self-loading pistols to Colt. However, by 1897 none of these designs showed any signs of going into production.  Colt claimed that there simply wasn’t a ready market in America for this type of pistol, but Browning was concerned that they were trying to suppress his designs in order to protect sales of Colt revolvers.

By this time Browning was also unhappy with the commercial relationship he had with Winchester and other American manufacturers. Browning was generally paid a flat fee for the purchase of manufacturing rights for a particular design, regardless of how many guns were subsequently sold by the manufacturer. And in the case of very successful Browning designed models like the Winchester 1895 lever action rifle, that might amount to a million dollars or more. What Browning wanted was a royalty deal where, in addition to a fee for selling the manufacturing rights, he would also receive a small commission payment for every gun sold.

The FN Story

In 1886, while John Moses Browning was still tinkering with self-loading pistol designs in the US, a group of firearm manufacturing companies in the Liege Region of Belgium formed an association called Les Fabricants d’Armes Reunis (United Arms Manufacturers). The area around the town of Herstal had long been a centre for the production of guns and increasing orders from around Europe made it sensible for local companies to stop working against each other and begin to work together. In 1887 the Belgian Government decided that it wanted to replace 150,000 of its military rifles with more modern equipment. The prospect of winning this huge order attracted other companies to join Les Fabricants d’Armes Reunis and to form a new group, Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN).

The FN manufacturing plant at Herstal was truly vast. This re-touched publicity photograph is from around 1910.

FN won the order for new Belgian army rifles and the association built a state-of-the-art production facility in Herstal. The Belgian order was completed by 1891, and for a short time, things looked good for the new factory. But then, in 1894, FN were sued by Mauser who claimed that the rifles supplied by FN to the Belgian Army infringed the patent of the Spanish Mauser rifle. After protracted and expensive legal action, FN lost the suit and as part of the outcome they found themselves under German control. The Germans who ran the FN factory began to re-direct orders to German arms manufacturers and by 1897, very little arms manufacturing was being done at Herstal. In desperation, FN began to look for other products which they could manufacture in the virtually empty factory. One of the first options they considered was the bicycle, then enjoying huge popularity in Europe.

Inside the FN factory complex, around 1908

To research the possibilities for bicycle manufacture, FN sent their Director of External Affairs, the American-born Hart O. Berg, to America to study bicycle manufacturing techniques. On arriving in the US Berg went first to his home town of Hartford in Connecticut. Now, it happens that Hartford is also the location of the Colt factory and, seemingly entirely by chance, Berg met John Moses Browning who was on one of his frequent visits to Colt. The meeting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for both. Browning was frustrated in his dealings with US manufacturers and FN was desperate for something they could manufacture in their idle Herstal plant. ‘Think of it!’, Browning later told his brother Matthew, ‘a new gun factory with nothing to make! I’ll give them something that will set their wheels in motion.

FN Pistolete Browning/Model 1899

Drawing from the patent application for Le Pistolete Browning

What Browning gave to Berg in June 1897 was the prototype of a small, .32” ACP calibre self-loading pistol. FN tested the prototype and were delighted to find that it was not only relatively simple, it was also extremely reliable in contrast to most other self-loading pistols of the period. In initial tests, 500 rounds were fired without any failure to feed or eject. Despite the fact that they had never manufactured a pistol before, FN were so keen to get their hands on the new design that they agreed to pay Browning not just $2,000 for the manufacturing rights but also a royalty equivalent to around 7% of the cost of every pistol sold. Browning was delighted – this was just what he had been refused by US manufacturers. However, the terms of the contract forbade FN from selling these guns in the US or Canada because of Browning’s previous sale of pistol designs to Colt.

The first version of the new pistol went on sale in Europe in January 1899 as Le Pistolete Browning (The Browning Pistol). Looking back at it from the twenty-first Century, Le Pistolete Browning looks pretty basic. It’s a single action, striker-fired design where the barrel is fixed to the frame and the slide moves under blowback to eject the spent cartridge via an ejection port on the right side of the frame above the grip. Up to seven .32” ACP rounds were held in a drop-out magazine and the not particularly easy to use magazine release catch was a small lever located in the heel of the grip. A manual safety on the left side of the frame blocked the sear and locked the trigger. There was no provision for locking the slide back either for cleaning or when the magazine was empty. Finish was blued steel with black rubber grips though a nickel-plated option was also offered and reinforcing plates were added to either side of the frame, just above the trigger. This pistol was fairly small, with an overall length of just over six inches and a four-inch barrel.

All this sounds pretty conventional now but you have to put it in context and remember that this was not only the first John Moses Browning pistol to make it into production, it was also the first production handgun to feature a moving slide rather than a moving bolt or breech block. If you were so inclined, you could probably make a good argument that modern semi-automatic handgun design started with Le Pistolete Browning.

This pistol was in production for less than three years as it was quickly superceded by the FN Model 1900. However, the heavy slide on Le Pistolete Browning meant that felt recoil was minimal and accuracy was very good and as a result it became immediately popular and more than 15,000 were sold before production ended in 1901. After the release of the FN Model 1900, this pistol became commonly known as the FN Model 1899, though this name wasn’t officially used while it was in production.

Replicas

As far as I am aware, there are no shooting replicas of the Le Pistolete Browning/FN 1899 of any type in any calibre. Which is probably understandable because this is an odd looking, dumpy and (compared to later Browning designs) ugly little pistol, but it’s a pity because the Le Pistolete Browning is historically very important.

FN Model 1900

In 1899 the Belgian Army were looking for a self-loading pistol to replace existing service revolvers. One of the options they considered was Le Pistolete Browning. They reviewed this pistol in 1899 and delivered their verdict to FN – with a number of fairly minor modifications, Le Pistolete Browning would be suitable for adoption by the Belgian Army. The changes required were that the manual safety was modified so that pushing it up would lock the slide to the rear (though the slide still didn’t lock back automatically when the magazine was empty). A cocking indicator was added in the form of a bar which projected from the top of the slide and blocked the sight view when the pistol was not cocked. Grip plates were thicker, a lanyard ring was added at the base of the grip, ‘Sur’ and ‘Feu’ (On and Fire) markings were added to the manual safety and the frame sideplates were enlarged.

The resulting pistol was adopted by the Belgian Army in 1900 and sold commercially by FN as the FN Model 1900. Originally, FN planned to retain Le Pistolete Browning in their range as a civilian model and sell the Model 1900 as the military model, but the differences between the two were so minimal that they decided that a single version would be sufficient. Le Pistolete Browning was phased out in 1901 and subsequent production concentrated on the Model 1900. The new model proved to be hugely popular and almost three-quarters of a million Model 1900s were sold between 1900 and 1914 when production ended. Despite its official designation, this pistol was also widely referred to as Le Pistolete Browning (The Browning Pistol).

Strangely, the FN M1900 is often claimed to be Browning’s first design for a self-loading pistol, which clearly it isn’t. This is simply a development of the earlier Le Pistolete Browning, and his earliest designs for pistols of this type were those which he sold to Colt in 1896. Incidentally, it was also claimed for many years that an FN Model 1900 was used in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, an event which precipitated World War One. This is incorrect – the pistol used in the assassination was an FN Model 1910, another John Moses Browning design which we’ll look at later.

Replicas

Zip. Nada. Nothing. Just like Le Pistolete Browning, the FN Model 1900 has been comprehensively ignored by replica manufacturers. Which is a great pity. I would certainly be delighted to see a replica of either of these pistols and I believe anyone with an interest in the development of the modern handgun would probably feel the same way.

The Colt Automatic Pistol

Back in the US, Colt watched FN’s commercial success with the Model 1899 and began to wonder whether perhaps there was a potential American market for a self-loading pistol? They had been tinkering with the designs they purchased from Browning in 1896 (including producing a full auto version of one of his pistols which proved impossible to control). In November 1898 a prototype of one of these pistols was submitted to the United States Army Ordnance Department where it was examined and tested along with four other automatic pistols.  However, the testers weren’t impressed, reporting that; “The Board is of the opinion, based upon a careful examination of the Borchardt, the Mannlicher, the Mauser, the Colt, and the Bergmann repeating weapons, that the development of this type of pistol has not yet reached such a stage as to justify its adoption in the place of the revolver for service use…”

Undeterred by this report and encouraged by FN’s European success, Colt continued to refine the new pistol and Browning worked on a new rimless cartridge, the .38” ACP, which it would use. In 1900 the US Army Ordnance Department purchased 100 examples of the new version for additional testing (though Colt were unhappy to discover that at the same time, an order was placed for 1000, 7.65mm Luger pistols). Colt were also interested in pursuing the possibilities of commercial sales and in early 1900 one of the new pistols was sent to the very popular Shooting and Fishing magazine.  The resulting review was generally positive but the author did note that; “…the term automatic pistol does not seem to be the proper term to use in connection with the arm; semi-automatic seems to be correct.” Which, as far as I can tell, is the first use in print of the modern term “semi-automatic” to describe what had previously been known as self-loading pistols. From this point on, any pistol which used a reciprocating slide became generally known as a semi-automatic.

The Colt Automatic Pistol shared many of the design features of the FN 1899/1900, but it did provide some entirely new ideas. This was a much larger pistol at over nine inches in length and it had a six-inch barrel. Unlike the FN it had a conventional hammer rather than an internal striker though it was still single action only. In another change to the FN design  the barrel on the Colt was not fixed to the frame – it was mounted in slots in the frame and moved a short distance to the rear as the slide retracted and the ejection port was in the top right of the slide, not the frame.  The manual safety was also interesting – engaging the safety involved depressing the rear section of the slide, including the rear sight. This meant that it was immediately apparent that the safety was engaged (because the rear sight wasn’t visible) but it was found to be very difficult to disengage the safety while gripping the pistol with one hand. Initial versions had serrations on the rear of the slide, but it was just too easy to inadvertently disengage the sight safety while gripping the slide at the rear and the serrations were quickly moved to the front. The sight safety was discontinued about three-quarters of the way through production of this pistol. There was no way of locking back the slide on this pistol and despite its large size, the drop-out magazine held just seven .38” ACP rounds and the release catch was still a small, awkward to use lever in the base of the grip.

On early versions of the Model 1900 the rear sight had to be pressed down to engage the manual safety

A little over four thousand of these pistols were produced between February 1900 and May 1902 when production ended. Two hundred were sold to the US Army and 250 to the US Navy. The remainder were civilian sales. This pistol has come to be known as the Colt Model 1900 but it was simply known as the Colt Automatic Pistol while it was in production.

Replicas

Guess what? That’s right, there aren’t any shooting replicas of the Model 1900 of any type in any caliber. And again, that’s a great pity. The Colt Automatic Pistol was the first semi-automatic pistol to be widely used in the US and that alone makes it interesting. Writing about this pistol in 1920, noted firearms commentator Captain H.B. Pollard said: “The adoption of the automatic pistol by a firm of the eminence of the Colt Company practically established the principle.  People no longer looked upon automatics as dangerous experimental toys, but recognized that the principle was a success…” IMHO, and in addition to its historic significance, this is a great looking pistol, the hefty slide would provide strong blowback, the quirky sight safety would be an interesting feature to see on a replica and the six inch barrel should provide plenty of power and accuracy. So please, someone give us a replica of this pistol. Pretty please?

I hope you enjoyed this article. In the next instalment we’ll be looking at more John Moses Browning pistols, this time from the period 1902 – 1908. And don’t worry, in that article there will actually be some replicas to discuss!

Related Posts

The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2: 1902 – 1908

Classic handguns – the Walther PPK

Classic is an overused and seldom defined term. What exactly is a “classic” handgun? Ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers, and ten different lists of “classic” guns. However, there are a small number of handguns which I’m fairly confident would appear on most people’s list, including the one I want to talk about here: The Walther PPK. Although it was introduced almost eighty-five years ago, the PPK is still available, virtually unchanged from its original form. That in itself is testament to good basic design, but the PPK is also perfectly sized, a decent shooter and of course is has an association with a certain British secret agent…

Development

The pocket pistol (what we’d now call a compact or sub-compact design) wasn’t a new idea in the 1920s. A number of manufacturers including Colt, Mauser and Steyr all offered small, easily concealed semi-auto pistols. However, most were of a hammerless design and were intended to be carried with a round in the chamber. Manual safeties were provided, often of the cross-bolt type, but accidental discharges due to light, single action triggers were frighteningly common. Revolvers, which required a long, double action trigger pull were generally safer, but less popular for concealed carry due to their greater bulk. What the market wanted was a compact semi-auto pistol which incorporated a revolver style double-action trigger.

Fritz Walther, the eldest son of founder Carl had persuaded his father to enter the pistol market in 1908. Recognising the need for a safer pocket pistol, in 1924 Fritz registered a German patent for a “self-loading pistol with magazine and revolver self-cocking lock and double action trigger“. Development continued until 1929 when the Walther PP (Polizei-Pistole) was released. The PP was a mid-sized, blowback operated design with an external hammer and double and single action trigger. Additional safety elements included a manual safety which also locked the trigger and hammer, a de-cocker and a loaded chamber indicator. Another notable feature was the takedown system – rather than using a separate lever or catch, the trigger guard of the PP was hinged at the rear. Rotating the trigger guard down and letting it rest against the frame allowed the slide to be removed. Reliability, safety and a reasonable price ensured that the PP immediately became popular both as a police handgun in Germany and as a civilian weapon in that country and elsewhere.

cppk11

The Walther PP

However, though it was smaller than a full-size military pistol, the PP was still relatively large and was mainly used as a sidearm by uniformed police. Walther almost immediately began work on a more compact version suitable for use by undercover and plain-clothes officers. In 1931, the Walther PPK was released. Visually and mechanically similar to the PP, the PPK featured a shorter barrel and grip and a smaller capacity magazine, making it the perfect concealed carry weapon. Incidentally, the “K” in PPK stands for Kriminalmodell (Detective model) and not Kurtz (Short) as is sometimes claimed.

cppk10

Early Walther PPK produced in Zella-Mehlis

Use

The PPK was an instant success, being quickly adopted by police and civilian users in Germany and elsewhere. Both the PP and PPK also became very popular as German officer’s sidearms. In this period, German army and navy officers were given an allowance to select and purchase their own pistols, and very large numbers chose the small and light Walther pistols and not, as Hollywood would have us believe, the larger and heavier Luger.

Why was the PPK so popular? The de-cocker and double action trigger certainly made it less prone to accidental discharge than some other pocket pistols and it was a reliable and effective shooter. It was also relatively cheap, being one of the first commercially produced handguns to use pressed steel parts. But most of all it was the perfect size. Very small handguns are difficult to grip and fire accurately. The PPK was just big enough to provide a good and comfortable grip while being small and light enough for concealed carry. Even more than the PP, the PPK was an instant commercial success.

cppk4

Post-war Walther PPK from Ulm, with “pinky rest” magazine extension

Initially, the PPK was manufactured at the Walther plant at Zella-Mehlis in Thuringia, Germany. Following World War Two the plant was relocated to Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, though for a number of years firearm manufacture was forbidden by the Allied powers. As a result, in 1952 Walther licensed production of PPK series pistols to Manufacure de Machines du Haut-Rhine, a French engineering company better known as Manurhin. Manurhin produced the PPK from 1952 until 1986, though their licensed versions continued to feature Walther markings. Production of the PPK at the new Walther plant in Ulm finally resumed in 1955, though early models utilised many parts manufactured by Manurhin. It wasn’t until 1986 that full manufacturing and production of the PPK was undertaken in Ulm and this continued until 1999. The only significant new version produced during the post-war period was the PPK/L, featuring a lightweight dural frame.

cppk3

Manurhin Walther PPK

In 1978, Walther also granted a manufacturing license to US company Ranger Manufacturing to produce both the PPK and the new PPK/S. These versions were distributed in the US by Interarms. The PPK/S was produced in response to the US Gun Control Act of 1968 which set minimum sizes and weights for imported handguns. The PPK was simply too small to comply with these new requirements, and the slightly larger PPK/S was produced by combining the slide and barrel of the PPK with the frame and grip of the original PP. From 2002 Smith & Wesson began production of a licensed version of the PPK/S in the US. S&W are now the only producers of the PPK and the pistol remains part of their current range.

cppk12

Interarms stainless steel Walther PPK/S

The PPK was produced in several calibres. The majority were 7.65mm, though a 6.35mm version was produced in relatively small numbers. The PPK was also available chambered for the .22LR round, principally to provide a police practice and training weapon which used much less expensive .22 rimfire ammunition. The PPK was also chambered for the 9mm short (9x17mm, also known as the .380 ACP) cartridge, but this was considered the limit for the strength of the slide, and no versions were produced using the more powerful 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm) cartridge.

Visual style

I don’t normally consider the appearance of a pistol separately. After all, a handgun is a functional piece of equipment which is principally designed to operate efficiently rather than to look good. However, there is something about the appearance of the PPK that I can’t entirely explain but which makes this pistol look as fresh now as it did in 1931. As is the way of things, I started to wonder why that might be…

The design of any item is inevitably influenced by events in the wider world. The Walther PP and PPK were designed at a time of political change and social turmoil in Germany. However, this period was also notable for the influence of the German Bauhaus art movement. Started in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius, Bauhaus took the concepts and philosophy of high art and translated them into the industrial production of everyday objects. Rejecting the ornate and ostentatious Art Nouveau which had gone before, Bauhaus stressed simplicity, functionality, unity and ease of use and manufacture. A Bauhaus artist had to be not just creative in an abstract sense, but also capable of translating this into functional and useful manufactured objects. Though it’s notable that many of the things created by Bauhaus artists also have a timeless and elegant aesthetic that makes them as visually appealing as they are functional.

“It is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting – and much more useful.”

Walter Gropius, the Bahaus Manifesto

cppk14Take a look at this “cesca” chair above, designed by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer, a leading member of the Bauhaus movement. Look familiar? The chances are that if you visit any modern office or public space, you’ll see something very similar to this 1928 creation. Why has this design lasted so long? I suspect the answer is because it’s comfortable, practicable and simple to manufacture and yet it somehow manages to appear contemporary more than eighty years after it first appeared.

cppk7

Tokarev TT-33 (top), Walther PPK (centre), Enfield Number 2 (bottom)

I haven’t found any evidence that the engineers at Walther who created the PPK were directly influenced by Gropius or the philosophy of Bauhaus. But by the late 1920 the ideas inherent in the movement, that industrial production could and should generate objects which had artistic value, were prevalent in Germany and elsewhere. Take a look again at the PPK and consider the Bauhaus ideals of simplicity, unity and ease of use and manufacture within a visually pleasing whole. Is the PPK a Bauhaus pistol? I certainly think so. Also, try comparing the PPK to a couple of roughly contemporary handguns – the British Enfield Number 2 revolver and the Russian Tokarev TT-33 for example. Both were perfectly adequate handguns, but unlike the PPK both now look very dated and neither could be mistaken for a modern design. Somehow the PPK looks as good now as it did in 1931, which suggests a design which, in some indefinable way is “right“. Whether or not its designers were consciously influenced by Bauhaus, I believe that the PPK embodies the ethos of the movement perfectly.

James Bond and the PPK

However, one of the reasons the PPK is so well known has nothing to do with its abilities, design or appearance. The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming were hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Strangely however, for the first five novels Fleming provided his hero with a Beretta 418 in .25 calibre. Which is an ineffectual and rather rubbish gun for such a tough hero.

cppk13

Beretta 418. James Bond gun? Really?

In 1957 while he was writing the sixth novel, Fleming received a letter from Bond fan and firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd who pointed out that the Beretta was “a lady’s gun – and not a very nice lady at that!” Boothroyd suggested that it would be much more appropriate to provide Bond with a Walther PPK in 7.65mm calibre. Fleming agreed and Boothroyd went on to provide advice about firearms for the following Bond novels. In recognition, a new character was introduced in Dr No; – Major Boothroyd, the MI6 armourer known as “Q” who is described as “the greatest small-arms expert in the world”.

cppk9When Albert “Cubby” Broccoli came to make the first movie based on a Bond novel in 1962, the screenplay was based on Dr No, and so the movie Bond (then played by Sean Connery) exchanged his Beretta for a PPK from the very start. The PPK continued to be 007’s screen sidearm for sixteen more films and 35 years, until in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 it was swapped for a Walther P99. However, with the advent of Skyfall in 2012, the third film starring Daniel Craig as Bond, the character has once again reverted to using a PPK, albeit modified with a palmprint recognition system. The Bond connection gives the PPK additional cachet, and ensures that it is recognised by people who otherwise know very little about firearms.

article-2085176-0F6B14E400000578-797_634x480

Walther PPK Replicas

Given the enduring appeal of the original plus the James Bond connection, there have been surprisingly few decent replica air pistols based on the PPK. Ignoring spring powered replicas, which are pretty dire, I’m aware of just two: The Umarex PPK/S in 4.5mm and the Umarex/Maruzen PPK in 6mm.

ppk6

The Umarex Walther PPK/S

The Umarex CO2 powered 4.5mm version was introduced back in 1999 and was the first Umarex blowback pistol. In some ways it’s a great replica – all metal, heavy with great fit and finish and strong and snappy blowback. Unfortunately in other ways it’s not so good. I don’t care for the moulded-in-place slide-mounted safety, or the actual safety which is a moving lever at the front of the right grip (though it’s similar to the safety fitted to some prototype PPKs). It’s also very inaccurate compared to more modern BB shooters. However, the main issues for me are the large and visible CO2 tightening tab at the base of the grip and the shape of the grip itself, which has been stretched to accommodate the CO2 cartridge. The tab can be replaced with something less obtrusive, but there’s nothing you can do about the lengthened grip which, to me at least, completely loses the pleasingly squat profile of the original. However, this is overall a decent PPK/S replica and it does have the virtue of being readily available and relatively cheap.

cppk8

The Maruzen Walther PPK

The 6mm Walther PPK from Japanese manufacturer Maruzen is a much better visual and functional replica (it’s also licensed by Umarex, but for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to it as the Maruzen PPK here). It’s a gas powered blowback replica and the slide mounted safety, magazine release and takedown all work as they do on the original. It incorporates Walther markings and this version accurately replicates the short, squat grip of the original. Even the magazine incorporates a pinky rest, just like the original. The metal finish version looks particularly good and in 2011 a 125th Anniversary edition (celebrating 125 years of Walther) was released. However, this is an all plastic replica which is very light (around 375g) and it shoots only in the 220-240fps range, so it isn’t particularly powerful. It can also be very difficult to find new, and production seems to be sporadic.

Shooters Design (a company specialising in aftermarket parts for airsoft guns) produce a full metal kit for the Maruzen PPK, which replaces the plastic slide and frame with metal versions, though a heavyweight slide return spring is also required. I’m not sure if this kit is still in production and it is certainly hard to find. The Maruzen PPK has good functionality and looks good, but is too light to be an entirely convincing replica and it isn’t a particularly great shooter out of the box. Upgrading by using the Shooters Design kit is said to improve look, feel and function, but this is also a pretty expensive option. You can expect to pay around £125 ($200) for the basic pistol and over £200 ($325) for the upgrade kit, if you can find one. I have been looking for a Maruzen PPK and an upgrade kit for some time, and if anyone has either one they’d be willing to donate or sell for review, I’d be very happy to hear about it!

Conclusion

Whether you regard it as a piece of Bauhaus art, an industrial artefact from a significant historical era, a James Bond movie prop or simply a compact and pointable handgun, the Walther PPK doesn’t disappoint. It’s small, light, looks great, fits most hands and shoots better than its small size and relatively antiquated design would suggest. It’s no accident that in 2003, when Walther engineers set out to create a new compact pistol (the PPS), they used the weight and dimensions of the PPK as a guide to what looked and felt right. If ever a handgun deserved the “classic” label, it’s the Walther PPK.

It’s disappointing that the PPK is under-represented in the replica world. The Umarex and Maruzen versions both have good points, but neither is entirely satisfactory. We’re still waiting for a weighty PPK replica which is also a decent shooter and mirrors the functionality and distinctive look of the original.

Links:

The Walther PPK (on the Walther Arms website)

The Umarex Walther PPK/S

The Maruzen Walther PPK (on the RedWolf UK airsoft site)

Shooters Design kit for the Maruzen PPK (on the redwolf airsoft site, but don’t get too excited because it’s currently out of stock)

The Bauhaus movement

Related pages:  

Umarex Walther PPK/S review

Modifying the CO2 tab on an Umarex Walther PPK/S

Classic Handguns – The Glock 17

 

Classic handguns – the Glock 17

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on firearms which are the basis for replica pistols. These won’t be exhaustive or definitive, but they will provide some basic and I hope interesting information for anyone who wants to know a little more about the cartridge version of their replica. Let’s start with a pistol which has spawned a plethora of (unlicensed) 6mm replicas, though strangely no current 4.5mm or .177 versions – the Glock 17.

Development

In many ways, fifty-one year old Gaston Glock was an unlikely person to develop a game-changing handgun. Glock ran a modest manufacturing business based outside Vienna in Austria. The main business was the manufacture of radiators for the automotive industry, but the company also produced small quantities of brass door and window fittings and curtain rods using a second-hand metal press. By 1980 the product range had expanded to include field knives and bayonets which were used by the Austrian armed forces. In connection with this work, in February 1980 Glock was visiting the Armed Forces Ministry in Vienna when he happened to overhear two high-ranking officers discussing the problems they were having in finding a suitable replacement for the antiquated P-38 pistols then in use by the Austrian military. Sensing a chance to expand his product line, Glock asked whether he might be allowed to submit a design for a new pistol. One can only assume that the military were somewhat bemused by his offer. Although Glock was a respected supplier of various blades, he had no knowledge or experience of handgun design or manufacture. He didn’t even have much interest in shooting or guns and designing a handgun from scratch is a complex process. However, Glock was insistent and it was agreed that his company would be allowed to submit a tender which would be considered alongside offerings from five established firearms companies.

ARCHIVBILD: GASTON GLOCK

Gaston Glock in 2010

You might imagine that trying to design a handgun from scratch when you don’t really know much about firearms would be a daunting task, but Glock set about it with the same energy and focus that he applied to all his business ventures. He immediately bought as many examples of existing handguns as he could, and systematically disassembled them, analysing their strengths and weaknesses. He took a number of shooting and gunsmithing courses and shot at ranges as often as possible. Then, in May 1980 he assembled a number of firearms experts and military staff at his holiday home in Velden, a lake resort town in Southern Austria and asked them: “What would you want from a pistol of the future?“.

Designing something entirely from scratch is daunting, but it can also be incredibly liberating. Any existing firearms manufacturer setting out to design a new pistol is constrained, partly by a need to maintain a recognisable visual identity which links any new design to existing company products and partly by the knowledge that expensive tooling is sitting around the factory floor, emphasising the need to re-use existing parts. Most often, this leads to an incremental development of an existing design rather then something entirely new.  Sometimes, approaching an engineering problem with no preconceptions and no history is the best way to find a fresh solution. Gaston Glock started out with only a short list of requirements gained from discussions with firearms experts (the ability to use the existing 9x19mm NATO standard round, a large capacity magazine, simplicity, reliability, light weight, a light and consistent trigger pull, a smooth design to avoid snagging when holstering or unholstering and ease of use with a minimum of training) and combined these with a knowledge of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) manufacturing equipment to develop a design which would meet the requirements of military and police users and yet would be cheap and simple to produce. Glock had a number of crude prototypes made which he test fired in a basement firing range he had built in his home. Although he was right-handed, he used his left hand for these early tests, reasoning that if one of the test pistols failed explosively, he would still be left with a functioning right hand. In April 1981, just ten months after the first meeting with his firearms advisors, he filed an Austrian patent for the Glock 17 pistol. Why 17? Simply because it was the seventeenth thing he had invented (we don’t know what the previous sixteen were). Though by coincidence, the new pistol featured a magazine with a capacity of 17, 9mm rounds, leading many people to suppose that this was the origin of the name.

800px-Glock_17_2nd_Gen

Early Glock 17

The Glock 17 is a remarkable design in many ways. Functionally it is pretty conventional, using a short recoil, locked breech, tilting barrel arrangement. However, it used injection moulded plastic for the frame and grips. Glock already owned injection moulding equipment, used to produce handles and sheaths for the military knives and bayonets he sold, so using plastic to produce a strong but corrosion resistant part of a pistol seemed entirely logical. Some earlier rifles and assault rifles from other manufacturers had used plastic for stocks and frames, but no-one had used it on a commercially successfully pistol design. Plastic was cheap and light and the injection moulding process was ideally suited to computer control. It was also notable that the Glock had no conventional manual safety catch. In his research into handgun use, Glock had become aware that even highly trained police officers and military personnel sometimes tried to fire their pistols without first releasing the manual safety. To avoid this, the Glock featured a trigger safety, where pulling the trigger also moved a central blade that released internal safety mechanisms. In this way, the Glock was made drop-safe, but would fire every time the trigger was pulled.

The Glock had other advantages, too. It was light – just 660g compared to, for example, the Heckler and Koch P9S pistol (one of the other entries assessed for selection as the Austrian service pistol) which weighed 930g. It was simple, with only thirty-four components compared to the seventy-five parts in the H&K pistol and yet it managed to pack seventeen rounds into its reasonably sized grip (the H&K pistol held just nine). And best of all, it was cheap. Being designed exclusively for CNC production, the Glock could be produced with a minimum of costly human intervention. The Glock made no concessions at all to aesthetics – it’s an undeniably ugly pistol. But ease and speed of manufacturing meant that the other, perhaps more visually appealing pistols just couldn’t compete commercially with the utilitarian simplicity of the Glock.

The Austrian military thoroughly tested all the pistols submitted to them. The test pistols were subjected to extremes of heat and cold, immersed in water, mud and sand and dropped from a height of two metres. Interspersed with these torture tests, each pistol was fired ten thousand times. While the other entries stumbled, the Glock misfired just once. In November 1982, the Austrian military announced that the Glock 17 had come out top in the trials and would be adopted as their principal service pistol.

The Glock 17 in America

Creating a handgun from scratch and selling it to a national military force in less than two and a half years is pretty impressive. But the total number of pistols involved was relatively small (20,000 were initially ordered). Though other European military and law enforcement agencies showed some interest in the Glock, the biggest single potential market for the new pistol was the USA.

In the mid-1980s, police and law enforcement agencies in the US were predominantly equipped with revolvers. However, they increasingly found themselves confronted by criminals using higher capacity semi-automatic weapons. In 1986 in Miami, eight, revolver equipped FBI agents tried to arrest two murder suspects armed with semi automatic weapons. Both suspects were killed, but the ensuing fire-fight also left two FBI agents dead, three with life-changing injuries and two with gunshot wounds. The FBI agents had simply found themselves outgunned, and this situation was repeated on a number of occasions across America. It was clear that law enforcement agencies needed a pistol with more than the traditional six-shot capacity of a revolver.

In late 1985, Glock Inc. was formed as the US marketing agency for Glock handguns. The reasonably priced, light and simple Glock appealed to US law enforcement agencies for precisely the same reasons that it did to the Austrian military. In 1986 the twelve officers from the Police department in the small town of Colby in Kansas became the first to re-equip with the Glock 17. By 2010 Glock pistols were the most common handgun used by Law enforcement agencies in the US. Currently, 65% of all US law enforcement agencies use Glock pistols.

ARMS_&_Hunting_2012_exhibition_(474-23)

Generation 4 Glock 17

But the biggest part of the handgun market in the US comes from civilian owners and, despite some initial resistance to the idea of a plastic pistol, it was here that the Glock 17 found huge numbers of willing buyers. Part of this success can be attributed to the image the Glock quickly attained. A media frenzy was sparked in 1985 when a Defence Department official dismantled a Glock 17, put it in a duffel bag and took it through a security scanner at Washington National airport without being noticed. “Hi-jacker Gun!“, the headlines shouted, “Terrorist pistol“, “frighteningly easy to smuggle past airport security“. In response, several US states moved to ban the Glock 17 on the grounds that it was just too dangerous. While failing to note that in the same consignment of luggage as the Glock 17 was a fully assembled and all-metal H&K pistol, which also went undetected. The issue clearly lay with the bored, inattentive, minimum wage staff manning the security point rather than any attributes of the Glock 17.

It was quickly shown that the Glock 17 was no more likely to be undetected at airport security than any other handgun, but by then it had established an identity as a “bad” gun in many sections of the US media. The situation was exacerbated in 1988 when it was found that the Police Commissioner in New York (where the Glock 17 was still the subject of a licensing ban) was carrying a Glock 17 as his personal weapon. A number of newspapers ran the story, including the New York Post who described the pistol (among other things) as a “state-of-the art supergun“. You just can’t buy that sort of publicity. Imagine: you’re choosing a gun for yourself. Would you rather have an ordinary pistol, or for rather less money, an evil, hi-tech supergun? Not a difficult choice.

Hollywood too added to the mystique of the Glock. Reprising his role as John McLane in Die Hard 2 in 1990, Bruce Willis said:

“That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, here, and it cost more than you make in a month.”

Wrong on every count of course – there never was a Glock 7, Glocks are made in Austria, not Germany from metal and plastic, not porcelain, they are detected by airport scanners and they aren’t particularly expensive. But people watching the movie got the message – a Glock was something special. In the 1998 movie U.S. Marshalls, Tommy Lee Jones looks contemptuously at Robert Downey Junior’s stainless steel Taurus PT945 and quips:

“Get yourself a Glock and lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol.”

Unsurprisingly, Glock 17 sales to civilian customers went off the scale in the US. Other gunmakers struggled to compete and Glock still accounts for a sizeable proportion of handgun sales to the US civilian market.

800px-GLOCK_19

Glock 19

The Glock 17 went on to spawn a number of other variants. The Glock 18 added a full auto feature, the 19 was a slightly smaller version and there are currently a whole range of Glocks of different sizes and calibres including .40 and .45 in addition to the original 9mm. They still recognisably use the same design as the original, and an updated Glock 17 is still available. The new Generation 4 version only differs in very minor details from the original and is visually almost identical (other than minor differences in grip finish and the addition of an accessory rail).

Glock replicas

Glock have an active legal department which aggressively pursues any perceived infringement of intellectual property rights, which includes replicas which are visual replicas even if they don’t actually use the word “Glock” in advertising or packaging. This is partly down to the registration of the shape of the pistol itself as a trademark. In part, the description of the trademark reads:

The mark consists of the three dimensional overall configuration of a semi-automatic pistol having a blocky an squared-off shape as viewed from the side, the front, and the rear. The shape of the trigger guard and the shape, location, and a position of the trigger safety tab are claimed as a part of the mark…”

In other words, if you make something that looks like a Glock, you’re infringing the trademark. This has deterred some companies from producing unlicensed replicas of Glock pistols. It also probably explains why some replicas which looked rather like Glock pistols have quietly disappeared from the market after a short period. Glock have also pursued some airsoft vendors who sell Glockalike replicas. The most recent case (in March 2014) involves a lawsuit against AirSplat, the largest US airsoft vendor, for patent and trademark infringement and false advertising relating to selling replica pistols which look like Glocks.

g17n2

6mm Stark Arms S17. Obviously not intended to resemble any real-world pistol.

People may be surprised to learn that Glock don’t actually license any replica pistols. Especially if you look at the websites for most airsoft vendors where you will see what look awful like replicas of the Glock 17 and other variants of Glock handguns. Despite what you may read on these sites, these are not licensed replicas and don’t generally include accurate Glock markings.

tmg17

Tokyo Marui G17. Quoting from the AirSplat website: “This airsoft gun is not to be misrepresented as a real firearm or gun that is manufactured by Glock and is merely an airsoft gun that fires 6mm pellets.” It’s also noticeable that the markings shown above on the front left of the slide are rather more difficult to read on the site. And the logo on the grip seems to have disappeared…

Which seems like a terrible shame. Given how popular the cartridge version is, it would be great to be able to buy a licensed replica. But for the moment at least, none are available and Glock do not appear to have any plans to do a licensing deal with any replica manufacturer.

Conclusion

Is it fair to call the Glock 17 a classic? Well, it’s as ugly as a box of frogs and it might not make it on to most people’s list of classic guns but it’s undeniably a seminal design which changed the landscape of handgun construction forever. It hard to name a single new semi-automatic pistol design which doesn’t feature a polymer grip and frame and many also include some form of trigger safety and a high capacity magazine. These things can be traced directly back to Gaston Glock, sitting in his basement in Austria with a blank sheet of paper and pondering what the pistol of the future might look like. If that isn’t a reasonable definition of a classic, I’m not sure what is. Now if only Glock would license a decent replica…

Links

Tokyo Marui G17 on the AirSplat site