Friday, January 21, 2011

Testing Firearms: Military Acceptance Tests for Handguns

In the history of firearms, the most stringent requirements are usually applied when a weapon is selected for military use. This is because military weapons:

  1. Should be able to work in demanding conditions (snow, heat, rain, dirt etc.)
  2. Should be reliable, extremely resistant to damage and have long service life.
  3. Should have good range and stopping power.
  4. Should be simple to service in the field.
  5. Should not be too expensive, because a large number of them will be ordered.
  6. Should perhaps maintain compatibility with some other existing system (e.g. use cartridges of a specific caliber, be under a certain size to fit into vehicles, have at least a certain magazine capacity etc.)
The weapon that is selected by a military strikes a balance between these various factors. In this posting, we will look at some historical selection criteria for handguns from various regions around the world. 

The first set of criteria we will look at is the requirements of the US Army in 1906 for a new handgun. A few years earlier, US Army units in the Philippines had discovered that the standard Army revolver at that time, a revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt cartridge, was not sufficient to stop a charging Moro tribesman high on narcotics. With that in mind, the US Army Ordinance Department (headed by Colonel John Thompson, who later invented the Tommy gun), did some experiments and determined that a .45 caliber cartridge had the stopping power needed. Therefore, one of the first requirements of the new handgun was that it should be able to shoot the new .45 caliber cartridge. The US Army also subject all submitted handguns to the following torture tests:
  • Each gun was to fire 6,000 rounds.
  • Each gun would shoot 100 rounds at a time and then allowed to cool for 5 minutes before shooting again.
  • Every 1,000 rounds fired, the gun was to be oiled and cleaned before firing again.
  • After firing 6,000 rounds was completed, the gun was to be tested with deformed cartridges (i.e.) some that seated too deeply, some that were not seated enough etc. 
  • The gun would be exposed to acid to test rust resistance, buried in sand and mud to test reliability etc.
Designs were submitted by Colt, Luger, Knoble, Bergmann, White-Merrill, Smith & Wesson and Savage. The Colt entry was designed by the renowned designer John Browning. The Browning design easily passed all the tests and became known as the M1911 pistol (as it was accepted officially in 1911). In the words of the selection committee:
"...the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate."

Now we will look at some of the requirements for the Austrian military in 1980, when selecting a new firearm. The Austrians were looking for a handgun to replace their old World War II era Walther P38s. Among the criteria specified:
  • The design has to be self-loading (i.e.) it should load a new cartridge automatically after an old one is fired.
  • The weapon must fire the NATO standard 9x19 mm. parabellum round (same as the old Walther P38)
  • Magazine of the weapon should not require any means of assistance for loading.
  • Minimum capacity of the magazine should be 8 rounds.
  • All actions necessary to prepare the pistol for firing and any actions required after firing must be done single-handed, either right or left-handed.
  • Pistol must be secure from shock. Tests to be conducted by dropping the pistol from a height of 2 meters onto a steel plate from various angles.
  • Pistol should allow for disassembly and reassembly of the main parts, without using any tools.
  • Maintenance and cleaning of the pistol should be done without tools.
  • Pistol should not have more than 58 parts (which was the number of parts on the Walther P-38)
  • Gauges, measuring and precise testing devices must not be necessary for long term maintenance.
  • All components must be interchangeable with other pistols
  • No more than 20 malfunctions are permitted during the first 10,000 rounds fired.
  • After 15,000 rounds, each pistol will be inspected for wear and tear. The pistol will then fire an over-pressured test cartridge generating 5,000 bar (72,518 psi) which is almost 2x the pressure generated by the standard NATO 9x19 mm. parabellum cartridge (which only generates 2,520 bar (36,500 psi)). The critical components must still continue to function properly after firing this over-pressured cartridge.
  • When handled properly, under no circumstance should the user be endangered by case ejection.
  • The muzzle energy of the bullet should be at least 441.5 Joules when firing a 9mm. S-Round/P-08 Hirtenberger AG cartridge.
While there were submissions by many well known firearm manufacturers, it was the design by a then unknown firm called Glock that won this contest. Interestingly, since Glock had no previous firearm design experience, the Austrian authorities decided to subject it to the 10,000 round test with no more than 20 malfunctions. To everyone's surprise, the Glock design only suffered one malfunction in 10,000 rounds. None of the other manufacturers' submissions were subject to this grueling test because it was simply assumed that the others would pass as well!

Other torture tests included testing under extreme heat, ice, sand and mud and testing the firearms both after oiling and in an unlubricated state etc. They also considered other factors such as the time taken to train new shooters, number of parts to manipulate to make the weapon ready to shoot and ease of maintenance. Glock's design not only passed these tests with flying colors, they were far ahead of any other competing pistol, while also being 25% cheaper than the next lowest bidder. Glocks have since been accepted by many other militaries and police forces around the world.


  1. How many people were involved in the 10000 round test. Must've been extremely tiring :D

  2. Maybe that's why they only tested one pistol :).

  3. For more about Glock and its history, I strongly recommend:

    Barret, Paul M. (2012). Glock: The Rise of America's Gun. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 9780307719935. OCLC 714724571. Google Books.