How are self defense guns designed?
You might have a romantic notion about engineers meeting with experts in the field, intently listening to their sage advice whilst drawing on graph paper, going back to their labs and making several prototypes to ensure they’ve understood the concepts, and only when the expert(s) approve of the product does it get produced.
In reality, it often works like this: “let’s ask our dealers and distributors what’s selling well and tell engineering to make more of it!” I wish I was kidding — it happens far more often than you might imagine.
Guns aren’t necessarily made with you in mind
When you think about it, new handgun designs really don’t come to market all that often. Most manufacturers find something which works well enough and sells in great enough numbers to meet financial projections, and then simply produce variations of that winning formula. If self defense experts ever get involved it’s well after the design is finalized, and usually only after it’s on the market.
In those cases the company brings in their Expert and tells him/her that they’ll make a special edition just to “their specifications”. The Expert gets to pick sights, finish, and sometimes grips. Then it’s released to be market as being “personally designed by Expert A!”
I liken it to having an anonymous cook build an amazing salad while the Famous Chef comes in at the last minute to pick out the dressing — of course, it’s Famous Chef who gets his name all over the menu for having “created” the salad!
In reality very few new defensive gun designs are made with the input of people who really know about defensive shooting. That the guns we have work pretty well for the job is as much a testament to our ability to adapt as it is the talent of the designers.
A lemon in the making?
Take, for instance, a prototype gun which I was shown at SHOT Show 2016. The designers — none of whom, by their admission, knew much about concealed carry or defensive shooting — asked what I’d do to make it a better tool for the job. I gave them some advice and went on my merry way.
Fast-forward to SHOT 2017 (which I did not attend) and some friends sent me pictures of the updated prototype. The designers in fact did exactly the opposite of what I’d suggested, making the already sub-optimal design even worse for concealed carry. (I was told “dealer feedback” was the explanation they offered, though I haven’t confirmed it with the company — and don’t intend to bother.)
It’s actually rare for gun companies to seek out informed opinion at the start of the design process, and even rarer for them to listen. I’m proud that Kimber asked my advice at the very beginning for their K6s revolver, and humbled that they listened to most of what I told them. The design which ended up on dealer’s shelves is, to my mind, one of the best dedicated defensive revolvers in existence. If you’re a serious revolver person, you should try one out.
On the autoloader side, the folks who started Avidity Arms brought in Rob Pincus as a partner to help them develop their PD10 pistol. He was involved from the very start, reportedly drawing pictures on a napkin to illustrate to the engineers what he wanted to see in a defensive pistol. That product should be appearing later this year, and I suspect it will be ideal for the intended purpose.
These two guns are definitely the exception, and I hope they’re the harbinger of new attitudes in the industry.
Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s important
I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard some variation of the phrase “it must be a good gun for self defense or they wouldn’t sell it for that purpose!” Trust me on this: I’ve seen absolute crap sold as defensive tools. When someone doesn’t know the requirements for the job, they’ll put together anything that looks good and try to foist it on an unsuspecting public. It happens a lot; I can think of several examples just off the top of my head.
Sometimes handgun designs are driven not by utility, but by marketing concerns which are sometimes based on old assumptions. For instance, in recent years we’ve seen “features” like thumb safeties appear on otherwise modern pistols because the makers have come to the conclusion the market demands them. Because they’re historically common, and so many other pistols have them, it’s sometimes assumed by the designers that all handguns should have them — and thus they appear even when they’re not needed or warranted.
(Kudos to a couple of manufacturers who listened to customer complaints after the guns went up for sale and corrected their mistake by eliminating the redundant safety levers. One of the companies once told me to my face that they’d never, ever do so…but apparently someone, somewhere convinced them otherwise.)
Just because it’s on the market doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for the job. Since the designers often don’t understand the job to be done, you need to. Be uncompromising in your choice.
P.S.: Do you own a snubnose revolver? Do you know someone who does? Get a copy of my NEW book, Protect Yourself With Your Snubnose Revolver. Available on the Apple iBooks store and at Amazon (in both paperback and Kindle editions.)
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