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What a small handgun teaches us about our fear of creativity

The firearm industry has grown significantly in the recent years. As gun sales and carry permits have soared many manufacturers have been scrambling to offer smaller, more compact handguns that can appeal to a thriving market. It may be a political hot button, but there’s no denying firearms manufacturing is big business and ripe for innovation.

To get an edge on the market, manufacturers have offered lighter, smaller guns, laser sights and numerous safety enhancements. Some companies have even been working on smart guns, with a goal of only operating in the hands of the owner. But none of these developments are significant advancements that truly separate any manufacturer as a front-runner.

Enter Arne Boberg, an award-winning engineer and scientist who has worked for companies such as 3M and Imation Corp., winning the CES Engineering Excellence Award for audio/visual accessories in 2009 for his novel flat panel mounting design. With a passion for firearms, creating some of his own at the age of 12, he set a goal for himself to address one of the biggest challenges in the industry. He would do whatever it took to fit a full-size hand gun barrel, into one of the smallest pocket pistols in the world.

Fitting a long barrel in a pocket gun is no small feat because the semi-automatic handgun has remained largely unchanged since Hugo Borchardt and John Browning introduced some of the earliest semi-automatic pistol designs in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Boberg didn’t know it at the time, but many before him had already tried and miserably failed.

It makes sense why someone would want a smaller gun. Smaller guns are easier to carry and easier to conceal. But why care how long the barrel is? With a longer barrel the propellant has more time to burn, pushing the bullet faster and delivering more power, as Iain Harrison, editor of Recoil Magazine explained to me.

Starting in 2003, Boberg’s story isn’t much different from many other innovators, his process was ridden with thousands of failures. Struggling with lift ratios, slide manipulation and a feed mechanism that took three years to perfect, it’s enough to make even the smartest of us dizzy. In 2009 however, after being laid off, he was able to focus and his work paid off when he successfully created one of the smallest guns on the market with a full-size barrel. On the outside, it doesn’t look special to the untrained eye, but inside — with 16 separate internal functions and rounds that load into the magazine backwards — it is an engineering marvel.

In an industry salivating for innovation, Boberg had achieved what gun experts considered to be impossible. Not only did he fit a longer barrel in a smaller gun, but at the same time he reduced felt recoil by adding a rotating barrel, very well changing the way firearm professionals view the standard handgun.

Boberg scored two meetings with American gun manufacturers, Kimber and Magnum Research. As Boberg recounts, Kimber showed initial interest, but with such a new and unfamiliar design, and so many moving parts, they had significant doubts it would actually function. They eventually stopped returning phone calls. A meeting with Magnum Research returned a better reaction, with the head of research even firing the gun and singing its praise, but the company was also concerned with the unfamiliarity of the design. Something just didn’t smell right to the leaders making the decisions. Kimber declined to comment on its decision to pass on Boberg’s creation. Magnum Research did not respond to a request for comment.

With no interest from the industry experts, Boberg started his own company, Boberg Arms. With a growing waiting list, only recently has Boberg Arms caught up with demand and now has distributors and dealers all over the United States, recently expanding into Canada. Boberg Arms shipped 750 guns in 2012, 1,100 in 2013 and this year they are on target to ship 1,430.

For a one-man startup introducing unseen technology, selling each unit for $1,049 a piece with no company history, it’s amazing progress — progress that is getting attention. This year Boberg’s XR45-S was named one of the “Top 10 New Products of 2014” by Blue Book of Gun Values and in 2013 was included in the “Top 10 New Handguns of 2013” by Harris Publications. Boberg’s design has also been featured on the cover of Gun World, Gun Digest and Concealed Carry Magazines.

It’s obvious, the concerns of Magnum Research and Kimber over such an unfamiliar design’s ability to function or be a viable product are unfounded. Why did they doubt this new innovative idea? Why could they not see this for the innovation it truly was? I call it the stench of creativity.

The stench of creativity is often responsible for killing great ideas and isn’t limited to entrepreneurs. Even in educational situations, where teachers acknowledge creativity is an important aspect of education, research shows teachers dislike students who exhibit this kind of curiosity.

This psychological effect isn’t theory. A research team led by Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania set out to discover why people may say they value creative ideas, but exhibit a negative bias when presented with one. They took two groups to conduct identical studies, but to one group, they left a bit of uncertainty on how exactly they’d be paid.

The tests conducted were designed to compare what participants explicitly said they valued and what they implicitly believed; they call them explicit and implicit associations tests. It’s no surprise that both groups claimed they valued creativity, but remarkably the study showed, the group that was given uncertain terms on how they’d be paid didn’t implicitly value creativity. In fact, they exhibited a bias against it. Why would uncertainty on payment for this study affect their natural bias against creative ideas? David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity sums this up quite nicely in his TEDx talk.

Creativity is riddled with uncertainty, but even when an idea has clearly demonstrated advantages, only a tiny bit of uncertainty is all that is needed to not only derail any creative opportunity, but turn people against it. Does Kimber regret its decision? That’s unclear. As for Magnum Research, after running out of money, they were purchased by Kahr Arms.

The next time you smell something unfamiliar, think with an open mind. It might just be the stench of creativity.

Brady is a writer and speaker focused on cultivating creativity. He founded the Iowa Creativity Summit and lives in Des Moines, where he owns Test of Time Design. He contributed to The Laws of Subtraction. Find him on Twitter, @JustinBrady.