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The marketplace determines what’s best on its terms, not ours.

The marketplace determines what’s best on its terms, not ours.

What makes one firearm design more successful than another? Probably not what you think.

Ian McCollum at Forgotten Weapons posted an interesting video recently about a prototype BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) pistol that was produced circa 1920. The pistol, in .45ACP, was intended to garner a military contract which never materialized.

What I found most intriguing was the combination of design features it incorporated: the trigger mechanism reminiscent of an FN 1910, and a rotating barrel similar to that of the 1912 Steyr-Hahn. This is pretty typical of that time period; not the exact features, mind you, but a continual experimentation to find out what worked and what would be best in the marketplace.

The rotating barrel is the most salient piece of the gun’s design. The rotating barrel was a very early entrant into autoloading pistol design, during a time when everyone was trying to figure out the best method to lock a pistol breech firmly closed until pressures had dropped sufficiently to make extraction and ejection safe. There were all kinds of solutions to that little problem, some crude and some tantalizingly complex — and every inventor was clamoring for his solution to be the dominant in the marketplace.

The rotating barrel was perhaps the second most successful ever devised, but far behind Browning’s tilting barrel design. The Browning system would go on to dominate pistol design right up to the present day, while the rotating barrel would appear only sporadically throughout handgun history; even so, since none of the other systems typically appear on more than one or perhaps two designs and usually only from one manufacturer, that’s enough to give it second place.

The rotating barrel would make appearances in the ill-fated Colt 2000, the Beretta Storm and Cougar, the aforementioned Steyr-Hahn, the Steyr TMP, and probably a few I’m forgetting. (It’s worth mentioning that John Browning patented a rotating barrel mechanism in 1897, but apparently it never went beyond the prototype stage.)

Today the only such pistols still in production (that I can think of, anyhow) are the Beretta models. Virtually everything that isn’t straight blowback uses the Browning tilting barrel design (though often in modified form, such as Petter’s well known variation.) The only really common pistol that doesn’t use his design, in fact, is the Beretta 92 series.

This domination of the pistol field by one design surely couldn’t be happenstance — it must mean that Browning’s design is the best, right?

Well, that depends on what you mean by “best”. Very often we think that designs which win out in the marketplace do so because their performance is superior to other designs; we think they’re “best” from a functional standpoint. Sometimes that’s true, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

What’s “best” is instead an almost indefinable combination of function, longevity, maintenance requirements, size, and economy of manufacture. The latter is far more important that you might first assume.

A manufacturer looking to produce a new product is going to look at all of those factors and make a decision on what they believe to be the very best combination for their product. If two competing designs are similar in most factors but one has a clear performance advantage, it’s likely that one which will win out. Let’s say, however, that one design has a slight performance advantage but is more expensive to manufacture; if the less expensive design’s performance is good enough, even if it’s not better, it may in fact be the one which goes into production and thus wins in the marketplace.

Looking at the rotating barrel mechanism it’s clear that it was considerably more difficult (and therefore expensive) to make than the much simpler tilting barrel design, and it’s little wonder that Browning put his effort into the latter idea. Even if the rotating barrel were a noticeably better performer its more expensive machining was going to doom it eventually. It did, too.

(Rumor has it that Browning offered Colt both designs and Colt obviously picked the tilting barrel. I suspect that one of the reasons they did was the perception that it would be a lot easier, faster, and cheaper to make given the machining technology of the day.)

Fast forward to 2015 and we’ve managed to substantially reduce the cost of machining through technology. Computer controlled lathes and mills make parts that were once extremely expensive to manufacture available at an affordable price point. It hasn’t completely erased the cost differential, mind you, because machine time has to be paid for, but that’s a lot cheaper on a per-unit basis than a skilled machinist.

That being said, most of the grand experimentation in handgun design happened prior to World War II. In theory our lowered cost of production should encourage new designs but that doesn’t seem to have happened. New model introductions over the last decade have virtually all been tilting-barrel mechanisms; the only recent exception was the Remington R51, and it was based on a design they originally produced in 1917.

The fate of the R51 might give us a clue as to why manufacturers don’t try new things even if they have the ability to produce them: testing and quality control are a huge amount of the cost of any new introduction. Consumers today expect more and are quite vocal about expecting to get it; consumer protection and liability laws make any new design a legal risk; and the rapid spread of information means that any firearm which doesn’t live up to expectations or proves to be unsafe is quickly banished from the marketplace.

Put yourself in a gun manufacturer’s position: risk something new and innovative, or make yet another modified Browning tilt-barrel design that you already know works? That new design would have to outperform the existing competition is some significant manner to justify the risk, and we’re at the point where what we have is really good enough. The tilting barrel design has won, even if it wasn’t necessarily technically superior.

(I still wish we had starry-eyed inventors roaming around, however!)

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On April 1, 2015

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