Most commercially successful semi-automatic pistols change over time because the initial design usually isn’t perfect. Nope, not even Glock with its “Glock Perfection” tag line has avoided design changes since its introduction. The purpose of this post is to highlight some reasons why pistol designs change and why that should matter to you.
Semi-automatic pistols are more complex than semi-auto rifles and shotguns and tend to have more problems and malfunctions as a result. Despite that, combat-style pistols, a.k.a. high-capacity semi-automatics, remain the most popular choice for personal defense. Many people never shoot their sidearm enough to experience malfunctions, and that’s a bad thing. What if a jam occurs in the heat of the moment? Do you know how to handle it? The good news is that pistols evolve over time from user feedback, and manufacturers make improvements to those pistols that reduce malfunctions.
Failure to feed, failure to extract, and/or failure to eject malfunctions WILL occur with EVERY pistol. No pistol is 100% reliable. Some pistols are 99.97% reliable. Others are 98% reliable. Others are less than that…and there’s more of those pistols than you think. What reliability rate do you want for a personal or home defense pistol? If you’re like me, the highest possible.
You will notice that all of the sidearms featured on our Pistols page have been on the market for at least 20 years. That may seem odd considering the shooting community’s fascination with the latest and greatest combat pistol offerings like the M&P series from Smith & Wesson or the XDS models from Springfield, but interestingly enough, both of those pistols had recent recalls, and that’s not uncommon for newer designs until manufacturers get all of the kinks worked out. See the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield recall and the Springfield XDS recall. The truth is, in reality, 20 years is a relatively short period of time in gun design years.
As mentioned earlier, Glock is a prime example of a solid initial design changing over time from user feedback. Introduced in 1982, the basic Glock pistol design has not changed in 30 years, yet the newest Glocks are Gen4, short for fourth generation design. Glock made design changes to its pistols in 1988 (Gen2), 1996 (Gen3), and 2010 (Gen4). You can read about Glock’s evolution here. My point is that even the most respected pistols undergo design changes during their lifetime to improve safety, function, and reliability. All modern-day combat pistols evolve from their civilian, law enforcement, and military users who collectively shoot millions upon millions of rounds through a particular model. This feedback drives the evolution.
In 1981 and 1984, the U.S. military ran trials with the goal of replacing the venerable M1911A1 with a higher capacity pistol chambered in 9mm. The Beretta 92FS, eventually called the M9, won that competition. You can read about the pistol specifications and trials here. Some people, including me, think the Sig P226 should have won based on the its reliability ratings. You can decide for yourself after reading the United States General Accounting Office’s Report. See page 19 and below to read about the reliability tests outcomes. (By the way, both pistols are great, I just prefer the Sig.)
Here’s the point. There were some issues regarding the test in 1981, and what one sees when comparing the test results from 1981 to 1984 is that both Beretta and Sig made improvements to the 92FS and P226 that significantly improved reliability. See the tables below. (Note that SACO refers to the importer of Sig Sauers in the early 80s.)
Taken from the GAO report mentioned above. The number of malfunctions in Table III.6 are based on more than 35,000 rounds fired in each system (not each pistol). Class I malfunctions can be cleared in less than 10 seconds. Class II malfunctions can be cleared in greater than 10 seconds. Class III malfunctions had to be repaired in the shop.
The most popular combat pistol of all time, the 1911, has seen some changes too. You can read a history of the 1911’s evolution here.
Unfortunately, the Glock was too new to be included in the 80s pistol trials and did not meet the military’s criteria. Remember, “plastic” pistols were very new at the time and had many doubters. I wish there were data to directly compare the reliability of the Glock 17 to the Beretta M9 and Sig P226 but there isn’t. At the same time, the reliability of the G17 is legendary. You can see some tests of the Glock design here and here.
Similar to what Apple did with the iPod and iPhone, creating elegant design via simplicity and intuition, Glock has done in the world of pistols. I love my 1911, Sig Sauers, Berettas, H&Ks, S&Ws, and CZ75s with their levers, de-cockers, and manual safeties. But, when it’s all said and done, the Glock pistol is the ultimate in evolution so far for semi-automatics. Why? Simply aim and pull the trigger. No levers to think about. Reliable. Safe. Accurate. Simple. It’s the closest thing to pistol perfection we have.
I took a tactical pistol class last weekend and went through a variety of drills with my Colt 1911A1. I love that pistol, and I’ve shot hundreds upon hundreds of rounds through it. But truth be told, under stress, it wasn’t easy to click off the safety one-handed while drawing from a holster with the pistol cocked and locked, and I made errors during several drills. I was humbled during the exercise, and I’m convinced that extra levers are accidents waiting to happen in real life under pressure. I also saw the vulnerabilities of the mighty Sig P226 in the class when my classmate holstered his pistol a few times before de-cocking it. In other words, his Sig was holstered cocked and unlocked. This is a guy who shoots regularly and practices more than anyone I know. Again, an accident waiting to happen. One can argue that problems like this can be avoided with adequate training, but who has enough time for that level of practice beyond full-time law enforcement and military personnel? Very few.
My final thought: buy a Glock for defense. Buy everything else to shoot at the range and enjoy the beauty of engineering.
Update: The Philippine National Police recently chose the G17 and ordered 74,000 pistols. Other competitors included the CZ75 and Beretta 92S. Read more here.