The Glock Model 23
Part of my opportunity to evaluate three different pistols, one after the other, while at the Silver Island Mountains near Wendover, Utah included an Austrian-made Glock Model 23, a semi-automatic (self-loading) pistol in the .40 S&W (Smith & Wesson) caliber. (It is common for a given caliber of ammo to include a qualifier after it, since multiple purpose-driven variations often follow which are not interchangeable.) This Glock was a Gen4 (Generation 4) version, which is the latest. Apart from an internal spring change for longer service life, the Gen4 is mechanically similar to previous versions except for some ergonomic improvements. Those include a size-adjustable grip assembly as well as equal adaptability for left-handed people. That may make me yawn, but if I were a lefty, I’d suddenly think it was a very big deal.
Glock, as a brand, is heavily used by military, security agencies, and law enforcement agencies throughout the world, including about 65% of U.S. law enforcement agencies. It initially gained publicity in the 1980s as the infamous “plastic gun” that would surely sail through airport metal detectors and jeopardize the lives of thousands of American citizens, according to the popular press. It garnered lots of attention and sold a lot of newspapers by hyping fear and chaos, but the truth is that the frame itself is polymer, while the barrel, slide, and internals are steel – because they have to be. Glock sidearms have become so popular not because of misleading articles, but because of their then-renegade engineering features that boost user safety, durability, reliability, and ease of use. Old-line agency heads and firearm enthusiasts first shied away from it because “plastic” was known for breaking, right? You’d expect it to last a couple of weeks, and it’d be an expensive paperweight. What’s worse is that founding engineer Gaston Glock knew zip about firearm design or manufacture before he designed his first prototype. All he knew was plastics, but he knew them really well.
The first Glock was developed in response to a procurement planned by the Austrian military, begun in 1980. Not knowing much about gun design, he called in agencies and civilians alike to describe all the desirable pistol characteristics they could think of. Three months later, he had a working prototype. Nice trick. With the goal in mind of high-volume manufacturability, he knew that to go up against such high-profile veterans as Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, Beretta, and others, he’d have to not only reduce the parts count somehow, but replace as many of the remaining machined metal parts as possible with plastic ones, to drop costs and yet improve durability. For the remaining metal parts, the usual process of whittling metal would need to be replaced with newer techniques of getting a final shape with less machining. The result was what ultimately became the Glock 17 a year later. Initially laughed at by the Austrian Army when laid out on the table, the upstart Glock 17 passed all the performance hurdles with flying colors, including drop tests from two meters. It surpassed the eight competing brands submitted in 1982 to win the procurement, and the chuckles began to decrease whenever the Glock went up against others in similar evaluations.
In my view, the Glock is not the end-all, be-all. Other semi-automatics are prettier, or more admirable, or do this or that better. In fact, the historic but updated M1911 Colt .45, which made its mark in 1911 because of its admirable reliability, is actually making a comeback of sorts for select military use. But the Glock is purpose-built and no more, so its reliability in adverse field conditions keeps it performing well, long after many others start jamming and failing. Some gun enthusiasts resent all the hoopla about Glock and its “Perfection” motto, but seem to center their complaints on either the company or armchair speculation, rather than praising their own favorite brand. That tells me something, whenever the time comes for my money to cross the counter. The only unfortunate characteristic I can find about Glocks are that they are priced closer to/more than their market competitors, rather than to their true cost of manufacture. Still, in my view, old Gaston deserved every Euro he got. It was a breakthrough design.
The caliber wars
As to the existence of the .40 S&W caliber choice as just one of Glock’s available bores, there had been quite a furor among those sidearm enthusiasts who felt the need to justify their devotion to one particular pistol caliber. Similar to brand wars, their promotion tends to center on “knockdown power”, or the ability of one particular caliber to instantly incapacitate armed assailants, as frequently depicted by Hollywood movie stuntmen. It’s an interesting concept, but does not sum up the spectrum of needs that law enforcement professionals require. It would appear at first blush that the FBI has recently done a radical flip-flop in its recommendation for a preferred caliber. That seeming reversal has inspired much myopic debate among caliber devotees whose allegiance to a particular caliber overrides everything else.
I find that apparent reversal interesting enough that I’ll summarize it here. In 1986, two hardcore bank robbers wearing body armor in Miami-Dade County Florida engaged in a firefight with FBI agents, the result being that two agents were killed and five more were wounded, three of those grievously. Close analysis after the encounter showed that the main shooter had taken a 9mm round through one arm and lung, which was technically a non-survivable wound. Unfortunately, he remained mobile enough to then kill two agents and wound a third. The bullet he had taken was found to have stopped just short of his heart, while better penetration would have probably stopped him quickly and saved lives.
Naturally, following subsequent ballistics tests, the FBI confirmed its dissatisfaction with the 9mm round (which had become the new standard for military use) and began migrating toward firearms having higher performance, like the 10mm and its less powerful derivative, the .40 S&W. This was significant, since many law enforcement departments follow the FBI’s own preferences. They do so because of the FBI’s extensive testing and evaluation, plus their own need to standardize in order to control inventory and overall costs. When the FBI began recommending the .40 S&W, that caliber gained new sales ground among departments and enthusiasts, and new devotees to that caliber.
In truth, the FBI’s recent reversal back to the 9mm caliber is not a reversal at all. They aren’t going back to what they had before. The 9mm round evolved into a variant in the early 1990s called the 9x19mm +P and +P+, often summarized as the 9mm Luger, and they represent a sort of 9mm on steroids, able to achieve an overall terminal performance notably better than the 9mm cartridges previously available. Given this improvement and terminal performance now roughly comparable to the .40, the .40 S&W’s tendencies toward faster pistol wear and greater recoil suddenly make the improved 9mm caliber the preferred choice to use overall. It is more affordable as well, and can house more cartridges in the same-sized pistol.
This doesn’t make the .40-caliber cartridge obsolete per se, but it does make it redundant, with fewer situations left to it where it can show an advantage. Being less desirable for service or duty use and, relegated to sporting and night table use, it likely will one day join the all-but-orphaned cartridges that are never kept on store shelves. That’ll take awhile though, a good long while. There are tons of .40 pistols out there, and sidearm manufacturers still continue to include the .40S&W in their new model lineups. They wouldn’t do that if the sales potential weren’t strong enough to justify the costs. If the 9mm cartridge has been improved, can’t the .40 be improved too? Not without increasing its comparative drawbacks even more. The .40’s greater recoil affects rapid and accurate repeat shots (a critical survival need), the cartridge cost is higher, and the faster wear caused by its greater violence pumps up service and replacement schedules. It is also more prone to feed problems, which is never good. The improved 9mm now approximates the .40’s terminal performance in a more affordable, more user-friendly form, with fewer liabilities. It allows the use of a small-frame pistol which can fit into a greater range of hand sizes (with the Glock offering adjustable grip sizes in its new Gen4 models), less kick and more accurate follow-up shots, and greater overall control. I really like the .40, but I can see why the FBI is now recommending the new 9mm cartridges for departmental use. I doubt that they’ve been waiting for my agreement and approval, though.
What was infuriating to new .40 caliber devotees about the FBI’s conclusions was that it backed up to take a cold, hard look at its own extensive records. That caused it to ignore most of the armchair infighting dogma perpetuated to advance one caliber over another. It took a decidedly unromantic view of the results of actual encounters, and dismissed many widely-held “facts” in light of those results. The shock factor is sobering, at least for pistol enthusiasts. Here are some points of the Executive Summary that I find to be most interesting, all of which center on using only premium ammunition engineered specifically for law enforcement duty. Comments within parentheses are mine.
- Most of what is “common knowledge” with ammunition and its effects on the human target are firmly rooted in myth and folklore.
- Projectiles are what ultimately wound our adversaries, and the projectile needs to be the basis for the discussion on what “caliber” is best.
- In all the major law enforcement calibers, there exist projectiles which have a high likelihood of failing LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officers) in a shooting incident and there are projectiles which have a high incident likelihood of succeeding for LEO’s in a shooting incident.
- Handgun “stopping power” is simply a myth.
- The single most important factor in effectively wounding a human target is to have penetration to a scientifically valid depth (the FBI uses 12” – 18”).
- LEO’s miss between 70 – 80 percent of the shots fired during a shooting incident. (This is the result of extreme stress, adrenaline, and the resulting loss of fine motor control. Pronounced recoil does not help with this. In any firefight, it’s instinctive to want to send more lead down the perp’s way than he can send to you.)
- Contemporary projectiles (since 2007) have dramatically increased the terminal effectiveness of many premium line law enforcement projectiles.
- 9mm Luger now offers select projectiles which are, under identical testing conditions, outperforming most of the premium line .40 S&W and .45 Auto projectiles tested by the FBI.
- 9mm Luger offers higher magazine capacities, less recoil, lower cost (both in ammunition and wear on the weapons) and higher functional reliability rates (in FBI weapons).
- The majority of FBI shooters are both faster in shot strings fired, and more accurate when shooting a 9mm Luger vs shooting a .40 S&W (in similar sized weapons).
- There is little to no noticeable difference in the wound tracks between premium line law Auto enforcement projectiles from 9mm Luger through the .45 Auto.
- Given contemporary bullet construction, LEO’s can field (with proper bullet selection) 9mm Lugers with all of the terminal performance potential of any other law enforcement pistol caliber with none of the disadvantages present with the “larger” calibers.
The basis for such a summary is that earlier studies had often been conducted principally to vouch for one caliber over another. Studies involving shooting fatalities are irrelevant, since law enforcement’s goal is to immediately incapacitate and stop the threat, not to inflict wounds which ultimately prove fatal to the recipient over time. On a per-capita basis, the most lethal round in the U.S. is the lowly .22LR (Long Rifle), a bullet incapable of dissuading anything much bigger than an angry feral cat. Yet the fuzzy concepts of “stopping power” and “hydrostatic shock” are theories without definable numbers. How much measurable kinetic energy is needed to immediately stop a determined or drugged-up attacker? Looking over the records, there is only one type of shot guaranteed to do so, and caliber has been shown not to be a factor. Aim has. The bullet, regardless of caliber, must strike the central nervous system in the neck or above. Below that, there are no guarantees whatsoever. In practice, the bigger-bore pistol may well speed up fatality rates by accelerating bleeding out, but not immediate incapacitation rates. The records fail to support a hoped-for trend here. Without taking the big view, individual encounters become anecdotal. That’s the problem, and that’s where the conjectures and personal testimonies of individual encounters begin to lose their steam. Singular incidents do not prove much, while caliber bias and unverifiable ballistic theories will tend to dictate results instead of reveal results.
The heartbreak of forensics
The medical analysis of wounds also betrayed the true believer’s conviction that big pistol bullets make big holes in bad guys. Neither medical doctors nor forensic specialists are able to discern any differences in tissue damage caused by the various calibers used by law enforcement after the fact. The vaunted tissue tearing caused by big bullets ramming their way in, and the momentary compression damage assumed to take place with big, spreading bullets simply isn’t there on the autopsy table, and the reason for that is well-established. It’s the 2,000 feet-per-second bullet speed required to cause compression and the resulting “shock” area damage, and no pistol suitable for service duty can meet it. High-powered rifle cartridges can and do exceed this speed, as can a very few pistol rounds, but not in a pistol size practical for law enforcement duty or everyday citizen carry. Thus, one can defend .45 ACP hollow points, citing the width difference in hundredths of an inch in diameter over smaller rounds and hoping for the slightly improved odds of nicking a major artery, but in practice, this is hoping for a miracle. Meanwhile, the determined perp, ignorant of the fact that he is mortally wounded, is still shooting back.
Mind over matter
Shots to the head and neck aside, what does influence instantly “stopping the attack” the most? The FBI’s data points to psychological state. The attitude of an armed assailant determines when it’s quittin’ time, not the medical damage he may have suffered at any point. For most perps, being shot (or even just shot at) erases the assumption of invulnerability and luck, and replaces it with shock and fear of further injury and death, prompting him to quit his activity in the hope that he will not be shot again. In this regard, the lowly .22 and .32 have proven as effective a deterrent as a .45, since the majority of assailants (armed or not) will run when presented with a firearm of any type, while most of the rest will surrender or run once shot with anything at all. As a practical matter, they much prefer to ply their trade with defenseless victims, which is a common-sense approach on their part. (See “gun-free safe zones”.) Though he himself may be a caliber enthusiast, he will be able to sense only that he has heard or taken a bullet, but will have no idea of its caliber or the level of damage it has inflicted. He will not know if it’s a .38 Special or a .45ACP, a solid ball or a flowering hollow point, and then adjust his behavior accordingly. The FBI found that, even shot in the torso, perps commonly stop because they decide to, not because they must. Pain doesn’t often factor in, because of ingrained survival instincts and reactions within the body, drug influences, extreme anger or psychosis. Psychological state is the main factor of influence, and it can swing either way. For the more determined perp, a bullet will increasingly need to mechanically end the physical functionality of the nervous or circulatory systems. So adequate penetration, combined with sufficient quantities of properly aimed lead, is the next best alternative to the unlikely head shot.
The cop’s dilemma
As the confrontation in Florida demonstrated, any exchange of fire can be both simple and complex at the same time. As one officer I talked to related to me, to bad guys, the legal constraints and accountability do not apply like they do to police officers. Perps will not stop firing and observe apparent condition once they know that their opponent has fallen to the ground and stopped moving. When an officer is hit, the only real survival option for him is what he called a “warrior mentality”, an unwavering determination to persist and end the firefight in his favor. He must convince himself that he is the one who will be going back home that day, and keep going aggressively. That’s a worthwhile mindset, since for all practical purposes he lacks the option to surrender as a choice anyway. There is no other alternative for him.
Lastly, there’s all those missed shots, since a moving perpetrator is not a paper target on a firing range, and paper targets generally don’t shoot back. There are far too many variables operating to simply dismiss law enforcement of being bad shots. The same issues exist during armed home invasions, where residents sense the need to have a large magazine capacity to compensate for error in placement. Overcoming the variables is tough going, but places even more demand upon both accuracy and speed in return fire. Since caliber is not much of a factor in immediate damage to the torso, quantity with accuracy is; a higher percentage of shots on target within a very limited time and under adverse conditions. In other words, given adequate penetration, an accurate aim and high rate of fire trumps caliber every time. Thus, the sidearm which makes that task easier is the one which will be likely to improve the desired end results: bad guy down. That overall task is where a separation begins to take place between calibers, with the improved 9mm Luger giving markedly better overall test results than the .40 S&W, and both of those better than the .45 ACP. Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum isn’t really able to “blow your head clean off”, but in the real world of deadly exchanges of fire, that large-game hunting pistol is close to useless, as well as a legal liability to anyone behind the perp. Given the need for more accurate aiming and sufficient penetration to instantly end the attack, the longer it takes to recover from recoil and re-aim for another shot, the poorer the odds of success, and the greater the vulnerability of the Magnum shooter.
But enough of that. There really isn’t much to cleaning any Glock pistol, since it quickly pops apart into just a few pieces for cleaning, and without using any tools. Lubrication points are down to a bare minimum, and even lube is used sparingly, or those points will collect filth and promote wear. Glocks can jam and misfeed just like any other semi-automatic pistol, but you’ve got to have some problem ammo, be about four years behind in your clean & lube schedule to do it, or be holding it too limply. Their comparative insensitivity to sand/dust makes them a good pick for use in a desert environment.
The Glock’s safety mechanism, which they refer to as “Safe Action” is not a safety in the conventional sense. That is, it’s not a little independent switch that deactivates the trigger or otherwise stops it from firing a round when a deliberate attempt is made to pull it. The ultimate purpose of any safety device is to prevent an accidental, unintended discharge, and this is where Gaston Glock’s thinking took a hard turn from convention. From a military combat perspective, there are three givens. The first is that, regardless of safety mechanism status, one’s finger is never placed on the trigger until there is a high expectation of needing to fire. This is a universal training principle common to any class you’ll ever take, and it is expected at any firing range you’ll ever visit. Whatever other mechanical safeties may be present, the index finger position is the last “safety” to be disengaged. Second, if you’re at that point, all mechanical safeties should already be turned off. Using a safety mechanism as your last resort instead of finger position raises the risk that either the gun will eventually refuse to discharge when you need it to, or it will discharge when you do not expect it to. That’s a hazard to you and/or anyone else nearby. Third, there must be some type of safety system to prevent accidental discharge from dropping the gun to the ground. Some would add a fourth given, that being that a safety should prevent the gun from firing even when the trigger is pulled, as a safety measure against careless handling. But this requirement begs the question of why the heck you’d be carelessly handling or playing with the trigger of a loaded firearm if you had no intention of firing it. The Glock’s tolerance for negligent handling practices is indeed lower, while its demand for competent gun-handling discipline is higher.
There exists a theory that introducing operating complexity into a situation of extreme stress is a bad idea. It is on this reasoning that Glock introduced a safety mechanism which meets the three criteria: a safety which takes advantage of and relies on safe handling practices, disengages automatically when a finger pulls back firmly on the trigger, and prevents discharge if the firearm is dropped. It tends to meet the fourth demand, but can occasionally fail to, if you’re careless about inserting it back into a holster with your finger still at the trigger, which is often blamed on the holster somehow aggressively inserting itself within the small trigger guard. No one wants to admit that they were so careless on the basics that they did that. It must be the gun, right?
In Glock’s case, a small protruding rib projects down the centerline of the trigger. This rib only allows the trigger to be pulled back when the rib itself is first pulled back. Whichever way the ideological debate over this type of safety swings, the end result is a sidearm that requires nothing else to fire besides a finger placed deliberately on the trigger. In a threatening situation, your finger position along the firearm is the last safety, and there are no other mechanisms to remember to deal with first. About the last thing you want is to have to suspend dealing with a surprise situation and swing your attention to the pistol, as in, “Oh, don’t forget to switch off the safety!” This in itself can be hazardous to your health, because some crisis situations that, say, police officers have to deal with don’t allow time to wonder why their pistol is refusing to fire. And yet a safety feature needs to be engaged whenever a finger is not inside the trigger guard. Some shooters are very uneasy about the theory of a safety which does not require a separate, conscious action to disengage it. It is neither foolproof nor infallible, but then, neither are conventional safeties, especially for people who keep a pistol in their nightstand solely for emergencies. A conventional safety is technically a distraction from whatever is going down, and so requires presence of mind to prevent an inoperable pistol in hand. In practice, Glock’s integrated safety works quite well, and because of that, other manufacturers like Ruger have introduced the same feature on some newer models.
What’s firing the Glock 23 like, to a plebe like myself? Well, it generates a healthy respect. Because of the integrated safety and the simplified operation, you get a proper grip on it, aim, and pull the trigger. It makes a loud bang, and there you go. Thirteen shots are held by its magazine, yet it is a somewhat compact sidearm. I found the “adjustable” interchangable grip inserts to be fab, because when the grip properly fits your own hand size, recoil and natural feel in the hand become less of an issue. You don’t need to compensate for anything.
Aiming is made straightforward by the sights, which are marked in bright white. Nothing fancy, and they don’t glow in the dark, but they are still usable in fairly low light. Recoil is a bit terse in the Gen4 .40, but noticeably less than the Gen3 .45 Glock I rented at a firing range years ago. That was just plain unpleasant to shoot, while the .40 was at my outer limits of comfort. The more unpleasant the recoil is, the less likely one is to practice sufficiently with it, and practice is essential to both safety and competency. The 9mm version I rented at the same time had still less recoil, but that was with the standard ammo available at that time. Still, the higher-power versions of modern 9mm cartridges are reputed to retain their handling and re-aiming advantages over .40 S&W. Overall, I’d probably prefer some similar-sized model of 9mm Glock today, both for its better control and its lower ammo cost. I’m cheap. The .40 does force a distinct pause between shots, while you work harder to get the sights back where they need to be. I’m sure that’s partly a practice issue, but the .40 doesn’t make the process any easier for your typical desk jockey.
A tool, not an icon
The whole aura about the Glock (to me) is that it’s a tool, a tool designed to do one job well, under the most adverse conditions. That job is to reliably propel the desired quantity of metal pellets downrange at high speed, no matter what. It’s a state-of-the-art tool, to be sure, but with little more glamour than a fiberglass-handled axe has to a woodcutter. An heirloom, it’s not. If all you need is for it to work no matter what, then it does, and without asking for veneration. Glocks tend to take all the visual glamour, adoration and legend out of semi-automatic pistols, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The Model 23 is a bit of an all-around tool, and its size and caliber are such that it could come in handy “just in case”, while traversing remote areas known to have hostile critters that aren’t super-sized. An all-round camp gun, if you will. Against large predators, bear spray is the much more effective choice in calm weather conditions or wind-blocking terrain, conditions which are often lacking in the Great Southwest.
Among ordinary folks, the .40 is most commonly sold for home protection and self-protection, especially for concealed carry in the many states that now permit it. The Model 23 is a bit large for concealed carry use – it can be done, but physically smaller models are available that would make things easier, albeit at the cost of much more recoil due to their lighter weight, and a smaller ammo capacity. I suppose that the Model 23 would stop a perp breaking into my 24-year-old trailer, but I mean really, have you looked at the Defiant lately? I’d have to ask him if he needs eyeglasses, and if he could spare a few bucks to fix the sagging door he just broke through. Plus, I’d have to ask him if he’d mind moving toward one sidewall or the other, so there would be no danger that a miss might go through the room divider wall and hit my big computer monitor or the propane tanks beyond it, outside. It’s a courtesy thing. The truck camper would be more of a can’t-miss turkey shoot.
What’s my own interest, besides the geek factor and the potential ability to put holes in tin cans, plus make loud noises at the same time? I don’t devote much thought to coming up against a bad guy in either remote or urban areas, though one look at the statistics makes walking into a posted “gun-free” business a little unsettling for me, since it’s essentially the same as a “perps welcome” sign. Combine that with the fact that people with concealed carry permits have proven to be far more law-abiding in behavior than both the general populace and law enforcement. Despite the plethora of fat, bearded loudmouths on YouTube, the vast majority of carriers, male and female, are ordinary folks who keep a low profile. No, my concern is for where I camp, out in the boonies. When I go out hiking – which I must to maintain my health – I’m aware of the potential to face such varmints as packs of feral dogs, javelinas, wild pigs, or uncontrolled and aggressive “pets” off-leash and wandering about the terrain. Contrary to popular belief, coyotes can pose a problem. Its just that they normally don’t. So far, I haven’t been to wolf country. I keep tabs on such areas that I spend time in, looking up the wildlife that they are noted for containing. Once you’re out there, walking solo (which is always recommended against), you have to go with your gut. I pay attention to first-hand accounts of previous encounters in such areas. When applicable, I of course put a can of dog repellent on my belt, but wind often works against this being an effective solution. Most folks don’t face such concerns because they are already familiar with certain areas from previous visits, are not alone, and don’t wander out far from their campsite, which is not located out where most rigs can’t go. Me, I’m just out there. By myself. The favorable odds don’t matter much if you happen to be one of the few to encounter “a situation”. People who actively promote this lifestyle usually poo-poo the necessity to carry any form of self-protection, just in case. After all it’s Nature in all its glory! What could possibly go wrong? Then again, they don’t do what I do, and they have their own agendas. I have mine, which is to arrive back at camp in approximately the same condition as I left, guaranteed. Exhausted perhaps, but intact. Naturally, a .40 or .45 isn’t going to do much good against a large predator on a frontal charge, but that’s why I review the weather and wildlife in each area I visit, and dress accordingly. I intend to be at this for awhile yet, and peace of mind counts for much with me. I want to feel free to relax and enjoy where I go.
I very much like the Glock Model 23, not so much as a pistol to romanticize over, but as a general-purpose sidearm that one doesn’t have to fuss over, and one that tolerates some neglect in dusty conditions. Only a revolver has a better reputation for reliability, though the dirty secret is that even those occasionally fail. The Glock is one of those pistols that stays out of your way and out of your thoughts, but it’s ready and waiting in the offhand chance that the one-in-a-thousand “unusual” event surfaces just for you.