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?

52 Responses to On the Design of Everyday Guns

  1. World Wars do wonders for advancments in weapons,medicine,vehicles etc…. Kel-tec has produced some pretty interesting items ever heard of the KSG? RFB? Sub-2000?

      • What, you really don’t think the KSG is innovative? A double barrel, dual magazine, bullpup shotgun that is slightly over 2 feet long and holds 14 rounds? That didn’t take any innovation at all? Actually, you’re right. I now realize that I just imagined the huge splash it made in the world of firearms, the size of which is pretty much reserved for brand new ideas. Thanks for making me realize that.

        Look, you people are idiots. Kel-Tec’s QC is a little spotty, to say the least. That’s indisputable. But it’s equally indisputable that they do come up with some really novel ideas.

        • The South Africans beat Keltec to the bullpup dual tube shotgun by a decade with the Neostead 2000.

        • This is just incremental. The KSG is still pump action; not exactly ground breaking. It is still tube fed, they just have 2 of them. And it’s not like bullpups are a new thing.

          Yes it was innovative to combine all those things but it’s not like inventing a new type of action.

          And because you called names: idiot.

  2. I think everyone should be required to read “The Design of Everyday Things.” Fantastic book. For us non-designers it will change the way you think about everything. You will never again open a door without evaluating the design.

    • I’m one who always want to know how something works. I appreciate the invisible details that make a thing, whether it’s the construction details of a building or the mechanical workings of an automatic watch movement. I took all my toys apart as a kid. Put em back together too. Erector sets and Legos were great, not for playing, but for building. Once done, demolition and improvement, new creation. I love hand tools that do specific things. Being able to craft with your hands is amazing. Fine guns are one of the best places to see applied craftsmanship. Art which has a functional purpose. Even the M1 rifle- imagine developing that, a rifle which can be field stripped with nothing more than a cartridge, and detail stripped with a single combo tool. Marvelous.

    • And, with certain things you will completely change your outlook when you realize that, occasionally, we engineers go to work hung over….

      • My dad made me use one of your lawnmowers once. Why’d you put the hot exhaust right next to the plastic clean out cap?

        • I always asked myself similar questions, especially when working on cars. Today, I know that it’s the result of outsourced parts. The guy working for Lawn-Boy who designed the mower had no idea where the exhaust would be, and the guy working for Briggs & Stratton who designed the engine had no idea where the plastic clean-out port would be. Then they put it together and hoped the customer wouldn’t notice how stupid that is, because redesign would cost money.

  3. To me it is the look of amazement in non-gun people when you show them a firearm that is over 100 years old and still perfectly functional.

    It is also the amazement when you show proof that many “Modern” designs are actually 60-80 years old. The AR-15 is a scaled down AR-10 from the mid-1950s. The delayed-roller-bolt from H&K goes back to a 1945 prototype and the mechanism itself goes back to the MG42 and earlier prototype designs.

    The idea of the assault rifle (intermediate cartridge, gas operation, select-fire, detachable box magazines) goes back further to the Cei-Rigotti of about 1903 and the Russian Federov Automatic Rifle (apologies for misspelling) of about 1916. More than a couple of decades before the WW2 Sturmgewehr rifles.

    Until we come up with another commercially viable method of transferring energy to a target, I believe we will be sticking with conventional cartridges. Unlike Star-Trek phasers, bullets can’t be jammed, be subject to odd fields, or power draining phenomena. Unfortunately you can’t use a projectile firearm to heat up a rock to keep warm, which appears to be the phaser’s only advantage.

  4. Capacity that feeds.

    If the NAVY is mounting lasers I think we are coming upon “The Days of The Silent Pew Pew Pew”, and I fear the silent Pew Pew Pew has already begun with personnel ‘harming’ homemade IR weapons. But we are bound to be entering the “Era of Silent Triggers” (a la Voere) http://voere.com/en/. Which is also the harbinger of tighter groupings so targets will be made smaller so that most shooters can suck EXACTLY as bad as they do now ; ) Such developments will (likely) sh_t-can the me-too slop to shop for firearms out there and everyone (including ammo mfg co.’s will be scrambling to make it to the top of the accuracy pyramid) optics will be tag-along / drag-along partners in this.

    POWER is and will stay ‘king’, I believe we will move into an era of more and more powerful edc’s with YUUUGE take-down power and ever-lessening-recoil adjustment(s). I think a smaller albeit big-for-EDC roller-lock pistol is due, and I think CCW will slowly be consumed by strictly PDW’s (of smallish type) just as +P ammo supplanted previous ammo and lesser-capable firearms.

    Either way, I think you need a grenade launcher so you can UN-REGINALD-DENNY your own a _ _ out of a FING “COPS ARE HERE TO CHEER US ON” BERKLEY/BLM/OCCUPY/PUSSYHAT situation, and leave a nice drone video behind in your wake.

  5. If someone came out with a properly executed Remington Model 53 (or something similar in 9×19), it would be an improvement over the current situation. You can make the Model 51/53 trigger quite nice. It has less recoil and is more accurate than a spec 1911.

    The Broberg pistols are an advance over the current situation, but I cannot vouch for their triggers.

    The thing about 1911 triggers is this: Can you achieve very nice triggers in a 1911? Yes, absolutely. Been there, done that, and I charge money for that service.

    What is it that allows this to happen? Hardened steel-on-steel engagement surfaces, that are stoned and then polished – by hand, with jigs and fixtures to make sure the engagement angles are correct. It takes skilled hands and some time – two things that make modern manufacturing management shriek like the Devil was force-fed a communion wafer.

    Modern management wants to eliminate skilled employees no matter where they are in the organization, no matter what they do. The structure of government mandates, safety regulations, parasitic lawyers, unions, etc make employees a liability now, not an asset. Couple that with a consumer that gets offended if you price a gun at something over $1,000, and you have the current state of the market.

    • You should see today’s workforce. They struggle to understand simple concepts of efficiency and arriving to work on time.

      Not much to choose from.

      • Any serious manufacturing or fabrication job I’ve ever had would not tolerate such behavior.

        If you’re going to be late call ahead and have a damn good reason. The first time you’re more than 90 seconds late be prepared to be put on blast in front of everyone at the morning meeting. The second time it’s worse. Third time, pack your shit, you’re fired.

        Think you can’t be replaced? Think again. There are literally 100 people vying for your job and at least one is competent enough to get it.

        • I had a manager who blasted someone personally in a meeting.

          Within 4 weeks he was looking for an entirely new sales staff, with 90 days he was looking for a job. There is always a job for a skilled man when he wants one; there is not always a skilled man when you have a job that needs one.

        • “There are literally 100 people vying for your job and at least one is competent enough to get it.”
          That may be the case for some industries, but not all. Hiring and retaining competent workers is the biggest challenge in the firearms industry, and this was especially true when the oil industry was doing better. It is the number one complaint I hear in machine shops, and certainly the one I have experienced the most.
          Farm work? Good old fashioned simple manual labor? The labor I grew up doing on the farm and did for decades? Forget it. I pay $15 an hour and I provide you with a small but very nice 600sqft house, the house I and the other 4 members of my family lived in for 3 years. I have never had an American last more than 2 weeks before they quit because it was too hard.
          Finding decent employees is absolute hell. They are one in a million.

    • I hate that you’re right. I’m good with $1k+ for quality, but it’s hard to find at any price without going custom. And not all gunsmiths are equal. Some should not be in business at all.

  6. As far as actual, different, and useful handgun ideas are concerned- I’d like to see Bond arms perfect the Bullpup design they picked up from Boberg… now THAT was something different!

  7. I’d be interested to see not what can be done with the actual firearm but with the ammunition. for example (and yes I know I’m looking back into old technology): if a hollow base bullet could be packed with propellant and fused in such a way that the propellant burned after leaving the barrel (like the 1950’s rocket pistol rounds) and did not disrupt accuracy… we could conceivably be talking about a major step forward in handgun velocities (imagine a .45 apc with 45-70 velocity and no additional recoil)!

  8. Lots of extremely smart people have spent more then a century figuring out how to fire cartridges. Pretty much every way you can do that has been done. Now we are at the point that they are making small improvements on what came before and changing materials. You won’t see any more major advancements until we switch away from cartridges, which is still far on the horizon. To compare it historically we are at the equivalent of the point of the flintlock, which was pretty much the best design you could get for black powder rifle until the development of the percussion cap. So even though it was invented early 1600’s firearms remained pretty much the same until the early 1800’s.

  9. Pretty sure lots of these ideas could come to fruition with sufficient capital. Whether anyone would pay is the key ?. Like making a Colt Python = to a 60’s model without breaking the bank…

  10. You want an improved firearm? Everything is a compromise, so what do you want it to do? My favorites are:

    1. Small and lightweight.
    2. Accurate.
    3. Devastating knockdown power.
    3. Easy, or unnecessary to reload.

    In earlier years I was a science fiction fan, and one author (maybe Heinlein or Niven) wrote about a handgun he called a “Klipe needler”. It shaved projectiles off a steel block, accelerated them the barrel with electromagnets, and was recharged by the sun. It also fired about 600 of these little slivers of steel per minute! Death of a thousand cuts?

    We won’t see any such thing any time soon, if ever. But there is more than one way to skin a cat.

    Note: I searched google for “Klipe Needler”, but all of the results were porn videos. lol

    Charlie

    • Interestingly enough that’s how the weapons in Mass Effect work, if I remember right.

      I remember the Man-Kzin War stories in Niven’s universe had some interesting weapons. I liked the one that was called something like the Straekaker Machine gun that slung thousands of glass needles at extreme velocities. However the best was the modified digging tool in Ringworld where one beam suppressed protons and the other electrons essentially making a lightning rifle that dissolves its target at the atomic level.

  11. I am surprised no one has mentioned the H&K P7 M8 and M13 squeeze cocker guns. Gas delayed fixed barrel, squeeze to cock and uncock or to release the slide on slide lock reload. single or double stack mag in 9mm with great sights and one of the very best triggers on any gun. Not cheap so it didn’t make it but still a great package.

    For ammo and advances that haven’t made it to handguns or commonly available consumer guns there are caseless ammo that only need feeding and firing with no extraction or ejection required. These fired by electric means could also improve accuracy by almost eliminating lock time and could allow for any trigger weight,length of pull,take up and overtravel a person desires and be adjustable. Under similar guise is already here with Metal storm multiple projectile multiple barrel firearm. Now just to get it reliable and in handgun form.

  12. Great topic. I have thought some about next gen semi-auto pistols.
    About automobiles and the notion that there has been nothing substantially new. There is something of an important sleeper car feature that’s about 14 years old now which is ESC, electronic stability control. The much older ABS braking was supposed to dramatically reduce accidents but never did. The same braking hardware re-tasked with a smarter computer chip can now prevent or stop lateral skids at boulevard or highway speeds. The insurance co. stats. show a large reduction in accidents.

    • And the first thing I do when it snows is disable the ATC. The reason accidents have gone down is that when your car won’t move, you can’t wreck it.

  13. Advanced technology handguns that are a quantum leap beyond what we as civilians can buy today do exist but are illegal or unavailable. These are the exotic electric guns most of you have already heard about. Some such handguns are capable of propelling a projectile at five times the velocity of common civilian-owned guns.

  14. Since I’m not a high speed low drag gunfighter, but simply a dude that has loved shooting since I was 3 (Daisy Powerline pistol), my number one requirement is that the thing puts a smile on my face every time I pick it up, pull the trigger or brag about it to my friends. It should also put an even bigger smile on my face when I describe it to my hoplophobic co-worker. If I get that, then I buy.

    • Damn.

      I need to sell off my PF-9 then. It’s not fun, brings me no smiles, all it is is reliable and concealable. Maybe get an LCP?

  15. With respect to the Sig 320, in some ways it’s a first-last handgun due to its modularity. From what we were told at the AAFES gun counter I used to work for, it was designed for the European market where if you were lucky you may be allowed to own a single handgun, hence serializing the internal firing mechanism thereby making that the ‘gun’ and selling external modification kits that would allow owners to essentially buy multiple weapons simultaneously and skirt the law. It may not be a ground-breaking design, but is quite the unique solution to a problem. I like it overall personally, and wouldn’t mind owning one with a thumb safety.

    • The next big thing I see with pistols like the sig is the ability to just print a grip/frame that fits your hands perfectly instead of switching out back straps and palm swells until you find a combination that kind of works.

  16. You think that guns need to be modernized? What about the wheel! It’s been relatively unchanged for a millennium. Sure, they’re covered with inflated rubber now, but they’re still round.

    What we really need is a new wheel.

  17. Electric cars are over 100 years old. Nothing new there, they’ve just finally started to catch up to the advancements of the internal combustion engine over the last 100 years.

  18. There are lots of great stuff around, both old and new. The arsenal strike one pistol for one. The roni carbine conversion. Sig arm brace. Silent cartridges for pistols and revolvers. Full auto uzis and sterlings, Thompson SMG. Mini 14. Scorpions, SIG mpx, Beretta nano, armalaser, trijicon rmr, ar15s made from magnesium alloy that weighed under 5 pounds. Etc etc etc. The problem is not tech. The problem is the laws and govt regulations.

  19. I doubt handgun design will get better any time soon because there is no demand for better handguns. The military seems content to pay billions in order to “develop” the same handgun over and over again and are more interested in advanced other technology (Drones, missiles, etc). Likewise, the private sector is more interested in figuring out how to make a handgun with an extra light rail (tactical operator!) fit into their pants better than new technology.

    • “New technology” in nearly every market is focused on electronics, which we don’t want in firearms (at least until I can legally own a Dillon aero), or in reducing cost of manufacture. The first one combines a frequently faulty thing with a normally reliable one, and gets us closer to politically mandated nonsense we definitely don’t want. The second rarely benefits the consumer, only shareholders, up to the point you have to recall an entire product line (I’m looking at you big green).

      I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on the bones of firearm design and function, everything else is either execution or dressup.

  20. There are very few revolutionary engineering changes out there. Most of advances are evolutionary in nature- minor changes to whatever revolutionary changes occurred. I think we’ve tapped out the “revolutionary” changes for the time being- most of the changes we see aren’t to the core operating mechanisms. They’re to the body & paint, not to the engine and chasis.

    Why we don’t have an M-2 (.50 cal) made out of titanium now is just amazing to me.

    Next level changes that no one thinks about:

    1. Electronic Ignition and Caseless ammunition. If we can do it with a Tank for 40 years, we can do it for handguns and rifles
    2. Magnetic Rail Guns
    3. Gas Gun- think like a comet, shoot a burst of souped cooled gases. The projectile is the propellent.
    4. Lasers
    5. Self Guided “fire and forget” ammunition.
    6. Burst ammo- Army is experimenting with something like this now, where the shell will burst above the target.

  21. I think the next big advancement will be in materials. Polymers was a stutter step in that direction I think. Another possibility will be guns like the Taurus Curve. Built to curve with your body and with your hand. If the Curve had a half decent trigger, traditional sights, and were a compact instead of a micro pistol, I’d consider buying it. What I’d really like to see though is the Magpul FMG-9 or variants of it. Overt conceal carry would be fantastic

  22. you may know guns. but cars..After all, what were the revolutionary automotive innovations since the 1930s?
    1934 Double wishbone suspension
    1948 Radial tires: Yuge change to Jeep transportation and the like in WWII
    1951 power steering. try driving without it, it sucks.
    1959 Modern style seat belts. get in a fender bender with a lap belt and you will appreciate this invention.
    1971 Airbag: great song by Radiohead
    1981 Carbon Fiber F1 cars. Mclaren.
    1991 GPS in Cars
    1992 constant variable timing (Porsche) power and efficiency improvements that are very good.

    I’m just saying that these have been around so long that you might not consider them all breakthroughs, but they kind of were.

  23. The next real advancement in hunting & self-defense technology will involve a power source other than nitrocellulose/nitroglycerin, and energy delivered by something other than a hunk of lead.

    I have no idea what that will be, but I hope the next technology will be as much fun to shoot as current technology. Otherwise I’ll need to find a new hobby.

  24. If you like Don Norman, read Bruce Tognazzini, and Edward Tufte. I’m not as impressed as perhaps I should be by Neilsen: Norman & Tonazzini’s long-time parter in the Nielsen-Norman group.

    “Tog” and Norman did a delicious take-down of Apple’s “usability” in Wired magazine a couple years back.

    The most compelling thing from Norman for me was the notion of “affordances” and object *affords* as in *allows* certain ways of interacting with it. For example, if a gun is for pointing, when you just grab it, it should point. With pistols this translates to grip angle, among other things.

    Be warned. Expose yourself to this stuff & you will likely be p-o-ed when you start noticing all the things that are harder to use than they have to be. A friend and I have a running joke about the “perfectly ergonomically incorrect” “handle” molded into the hatch on his crossover. You can’t grab it cleanly down from above, or up from below. If you manage a grip, the changing angle while the hatch lifts essentially puts you in a wrist-lock, while the hatch itself interferes with your arm and your body.

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