The history of firearm design is fascinating, but even more interesting to me are the beliefs and assumptions that we make about the designs we see. Why do some designs persist, while other – sometimes quite promising – ideas never see the light of day?
It’s often held that certain gun designs succeed in the marketplace (the military and police being a skewed adaptation of a market) because they’re the “best”. It’s true that in some form any given design must win over others to succeed, but “winning” needs to be understood in context for it to have any meaning at all. Too many people assume that the winner is the best performer, and that’s not always (if it ever really is) the case.
“Winning” means not just physical performance: the gun shoots well, is reliable and durable. It also needs to be economical to manufacture, easy to repair, use a minimum amount of resources, and not intrude upon political or social contracts. Sometimes it’s those political concerns which trump all.
Take, for instance, the case of the M14 rifle. The testing and adoption of the M14 was convoluted at best, with charges of test-fixing, tampering of the data, not a small amount of military pressure on our allies in NATO, and a strong dose of nationalism. Many people today hold that the FN Herstal design – essentially a FAL in American clothing – was the actual winner of the physical tests, but political pressure by Springfield Armory (which had been the origin of nearly all of our military’s rifles up to that point) won over the more meritorious design. Regardless what one believes about the two designs, it’s clear to all but the most myopic that there was more than just the rifle’s shooting qualities that went into the decision to adopt the M14. The same could be said the of that gun’s successor.
A military or police trial is not necessarily a good indicator of merit, even if it is run fairly and squarely. The easiest way to explain this is the old joke about the two guys being attacked by the bear; one says “gee, I’m glad I wore my running shoes!” The other guy says “are you crazy – you can’ outrun a bear!” The first guy looks at him and says “I don’t need to outrun him, I just have to outrun you.” The winning design in a trial only needs to perform better than the others in the design pool to win; if all the designs are crap, it’s simply the least crappy which gets the crown.
The entity which runs the trial can establish a performance floor through firm goals and requirements, but that’s still not definitive. In the case where an entry meets spec just enough to win, it’s helpful to remember the adage: “what do you call the guy who finished dead last in medical school? ‘Doctor’!” Just because something completes a trial successfully doesn’t mean there isn’t something better out there that didn’t even get entered – or wasn’t allowed to because it didn’t come from the right place.
-=[ Grant ]=-