I just finished reading Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, and John Farnham’s article about poor choices in design and marketing made by firearm manufacturers. That got me thinking: we haven’t had a major handgun design improvement in decades now. What’s the next one going to be?
I’d say that there have been three big design innovations in the world of handguns in the past 100 years; 1) the single action semi-automatic 1911 with its tilting barrel locked-breech design, and a trigger that to this day could only be improved marginally by either God or John Moses Browning; 2) the double-action-only trigger that Walther created in the 1930s; and 3) the polymer frame, striker-fired, staggered magazine semi-automatic that H&K tried with the VP70, and which Gaston Glock took to great success when he got the secret sauce of trigger, durability, interchangeable parts and weight just right for the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
The fact that I’ve only listed three really significant advancements probably shouldn’t be that shocking. After all, what were the revolutionary automotive innovations since the 1930s? The automatic transmission? Electronic fuel injection? The hybrid/electric car? Big changes don’t happen every day.
Where guns are concerned, though, to paraphrase Mr. Spock, is this all that there is? Is there nothing more?
Sure, American capitalism will be pleased as punch to produce tons of tactical gee-gaws for Operators to hang on their operational GLOCK-brand GLOCK forty when they go out beyond the wire. And as Norman pointed out in Everyday Things, the impetus is for manufacturers of items to add features at the factory purely to differentiate their products for first-time buyers, and to inspire current owners to buy the new model. They range from “nice, but not essential” add-ons like tactical rails for lights and lasers, to “we can do it because we have the technology, who cares if it works?” items like electronic fingerprint scanners that replace the manual safety switch.
I’m also tempted to throw in the SIG 320’s modularity that wowed the DoD’s procurement people in the former category. Sure, it’s a neat item, and perhaps for military logistics types it makes a certain amount of sense. But I’m not sure I see the value add beyond the ‘cool factor’ for the non-military, non-civilian LEO average Joe firearm buyers for whom this is probably a fifth or sixth handgun. They aren’t likely to take serious advantage of the ability to change grips/size and caliber after the first week or so. A few may switch out barrels and calibers for carry vs. target shooting at times, but this seems more like a gradual, evolutionary thing and not a revolutionary one.
One of the design principles I took from Norman’s book was that one oughtn’t ask customers what they want to see, but should rather think about what problems they’re trying to solve with the product. These are a few factors I consider in my EDC firearm and I suspect most other folks think the same way:
(1) The purpose of this product is to stop potential attackers.
(2) Concealment is important, including both size and weight. I can dress around things effectively enough, but I wouldn’t go much beyond the size of a GLOCK 19 right now.
(3) Accuracy is important…nay, almost everything. Traditionally, this has meant things like sights and trigger are critical.
(4) Reliability. I’m just a guy living in the suburbs, and I don’t get to lovingly maintain my firearms. The less fussiness, the better
(5) Cost is always a consideration.
Looking at the list, there are plenty of existing options that are ‘good enough’. As I’ve written elsewhere, my GLOCK 43 is ‘good enough.’ But there are always things about it that could be improved. Why has no one been able to deliver, for instance, a trigger as crisp as a 1911’s on a handgun that isn’t a 1911? Or have they? Is it possible to get sights as clear and helpful as a reflex sight without having something portrude two inches above the slide?
Yes, there are good technical reasons why these things don’t exist on a GLOCK as it’s currently designed. There are always good technical reasons why a particular innovation seems difficult to achieve. The innovation happens when people try to find a different solution. I won’t ever have a GLOCK 43 with a 1911-quality trigger and a Trijicon RMR. But someone might be able to design a new product that achieves those goals in a different way. Maybe.
That’s the way I see it. What do you see? What do you need in a gun?