As you pass through airport security, graphics depict items prohibited in your carry-on luggage. While the representations of a knife and an aerosol spray can are fairly generic, the pictograph of a handgun is unequivocally the silhouette of a Glock pistol.

In 1982, an obscure Austrian engineer named Gaston Glock, who worked in a radiator plant and had a side business with his wife making curtain rods, knives and belt buckles, invented a type of pistol that changed the worlds of law enforcement and firearms and powerfully influenced politics and popular culture. Glock is now 82, and his surname has become synonymous in some circles with “handgun.”

Less than three decades ago, few had heard of Glock, the man or the gun. Just how a pistol developed by an unknown engineer with little firearms experience became the dominant, if not iconic, law enforcement handgun in the United States is the subject of Paul M. Barrett’s “Glock.”

Thirty years ago, Glock knew that the Austrian army wanted 20,000 new service pistols made in Austria, and no suitable gun existed. So he set out to design one. As former Austrian Lt. Ingo Wieser, who tested the new pistol in 1983 for the military, put it: “Mr. Glock was at the right place at the right time.”

The all-black pistol had unconventional lines, sleek simplicity and extreme reliability — and its adoption shocked the firearms industry.

’Glock: The Rise of America's Gun’ by Paul M. Barrett (Crown/Random House)

In designing the gun, Glock started with no preconceived notions — just a clean sheet of paper, a practical idea, good advice, sound engineering and no investment in any particular manufacturing method. When he received the contract, his workspace was the garage where he made his knives.

He had a gift for blending plastic and metal. By mating polymer and machined steel components, he was able to manufacture his pistol at an extremely competitive price. His process gave his fledgling company a profit margin of, at times, an estimated 70 percent, considerably higher than his competitors’.

Although he had the Austrian military contract, Glock had little in the way of a business plan. “Where there really is money to be made is to convert U.S. police departments from revolvers to pistols,” Karl Walter — who soon became an executive with the Glock firm — told the inventor in an early meeting.

Then, on April 11, 1986, a watershed event occurred: the “Miami Massacre,” in which a pair of armed robbers killed two FBI agents and wounded five more. The bloodshed demonstrated to U.S. law enforcement that more police firepower was needed. The Glock offered the high-magazine capacity police craved (17 rounds) as well as an often overlooked advantage: Officers could be easily trained in its use.

The revolvers typically used by American police for decades had a cylinder capacity of six rounds, and officers were trained to fire them double-action, meaning one long, heavy trigger pull would cock the hammer and then release it to travel forward and fire a cartridge. The Glock trigger — just point and pull — operated much like that of the double-action revolvers, a concept law enforcement embraced, but the trigger pull was lighter weight and of shorter length. The pistol was also easy to clean and maintain.

The rise of the man and his gun, as ably reported by Barrett, is a story of innovation, manufacturing, marketing, money, lawsuits, power, influence, politics and a little sex. Barrett does an admirable job of describing the Glock’s cultural and corporate ascendancy. He also explains how the company was able to remain profitable despite allegations of corruption, tax avoidance and malfeasance. A seasoned reporter and now assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, Barrett originally covered the more disturbing allegations of Glock’s financial and managerial irregularities in a series of articles for the magazine.

As sales of the pistol took off, money flowed into Glock, lots of it, prompting one former employee who stole from the company to liken the cash to “Monopoly money.” When Charles Ewert, a former director of Glock and a corporate trustee, was about to be exposed for embezzling company funds in 1999, he hired a Belgian mercenary and professional wrestler to mash in Gaston Glock’s skull with a rubber mallet in a Luxembourg parking garage. Despite taking seven blows to the head, the 70-year-old Glock put up the fight of his life and managed to render his would-be assassin unconscious before the police arrived.

Much of Barrett’s information comes from court documents — including the attempted murder-for-hire that landed Ewert and the wrestler in jail — and interviews with former company executives.

Barrett also reveals the depth of the Glock’s impact on modern culture. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have rapped about Glocks; Hollywood has played up the gun in movies such as “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” and “Cop Out,” which was promoted with the tag­line “Rock out with your Glock out.” In “The Social Network,” the gun is a topic of conversation when Stuart Singer tells Vikram, “Mark Zuckerberg now thinks we got into Harvard on a dimwit scholarship.” To which Vikram replies, “If I had a Glock, I’d kill you.”

The pistol is used competitively by world-champion shooters and defensively by honest citizens; it rides in the holster of two-thirds of American police officers, including FBI agents (they carry Glock 22s today). It has also been used to perpetrate heinous crimes by mass murders such as George Hennard, Seung Hui Cho and Jared Lee Loughner.

Much of the Glock’s success can be attributed not only to its sharp design, but also to political campaigns and media coverage focused on banning the pistol. Glocks have been on the front line of the gun-control debates since they were first imported and dubbed “hijacker specials.” (They have also been labeled “plastic pistols” and “pocket rockets.”) It was feared that Libyan terrorists would smuggle them aboard airliners, taking advantage of the polymer frames, but it turns out that Glocks are just as easy to detect as other handguns.

Indeed, Glock’s success is proof that any media coverage in the gun industry is good media coverage. Political heat and Hollywood’s limelight helped propel the Austrian handgun from obscurity to curiosity to dominance.

While Barrett’s deeming of Glock as “America’s gun” is uncomfortable for many firearms enthusiasts, the Glock is indisputably the most widely distributed pistol amongAmerican law enforcement today, and quite popular with sport shooters, too. While its octogenarian inventor has said he hopes to live to age 120, his pistol and its impact on our culture and society will inevitably outlast him.

Mark A. Keefe IV is editor in chief of American Rifleman.


The Rise of America’s Gun

By Paul M. Barrett

Crown. 291 pp. $26