Five Thoughts on Firearms Design

We’re very, very busy right now, and so we’d just like to throw some gun zen at you, maybe to be elaborated later.

I: The safety never breaks on a Tokarev TT-33.

II: Anything good enough gets copied. The better it is, the faster it spreads.

III: German engineers love complexity above all. It’s a natural characteristic.

IV: The most successful guns are not just functional, but beautiful also. (Perhaps it helps them sell. Even military designs must attract boards of officers). Most failures are ugly.

V: Over time, good designs drive out bad. This drives consolidation until there are new breakthroughs, in a process of punctuated equilibrium.

31 thoughts on “Five Thoughts on Firearms Design

  1. Kirk

    RE: Your point # III:

    “III: German engineers love complexity above all. It’s a natural characteristic.”

    I’m going to further suggest that there are clear cultural traits that are expressed as engineering and design features in nearly everything human beings do. While many tools and mechanisms are going to mimic evolution, in that similar requirements in nature beget similar characteristics, there is still a lot of room for cultural influences to creep in. You go looking at the old-school weapons that are out there, and it is astonishing just how easy it is to say “This is Russian; this is German; this is English…” based merely on cues that can be observed, and which come down to “style”. Same-same with vehicles–The Soviet tank, for example. One can outline a clear progression forward from the T-34 to the later tanks, and be able to say with authority “This is a Soviet tank…”. Some of that was deliberate, some of it wasn’t–Stalin is reputed to have decreed the turret-forward bias first identifiable in the T-34.

    Likewise, with engineering approaches. The Germans never seem to go for “simple”, in anything; they have to wring out the last little jot of performance and adjustability in a mechanism, before they let it out the door. This often means that an assembly where the US-school engineer has a bias for sturdiness and simplicity becomes some baroque creation with ten times the parts, and a tenth the reliability. Japanese engineers often seem to go for either some Zen minimalist approach, or something completely insane, with no intermediate option.

    I’m convinced that you could examine most automotive components, and be able to tell who the hell was behind the design, originally. Even today, a Bosch part doing the same job is going to “look German”, while an AC/Delco part is going to “look American”. Granted, that’s going away under a tidal wave of globalism, but it’s still there.

    1. Steve M.


      Spot on. I’m a firm believer of national identity evidencing itself through design. Usually each design tells a story of the time, place, and people from which it hails. The ability or care to see that is lost on too many people currently.

    2. whomever

      “Japanese engineers often seem to go for either some Zen minimalist approach, or something completely insane, with no intermediate option.”

      Counterargument: Honda Civic, Toyota Camry…

      American engineers gave us the Saturn V, the SR-71, … and the Chevy Vega, AMC Pacer, and the LCS.

      1. poobie

        Have you ever looked at the vacuum diagrams for an early Honda? Reliable, sure, but simple? no freaking way.

        RE the SR-71 and Saturn V, I would argue that they are as simple and robust as possible, given the mission requirements and available technology. Moreover, they _worked_, unlike your very appropriate automotive and maritime examples.

        1. whomever

          “vacuum diagrams for an early Honda?”

          True enough, although in fairness most of the early emissions control stuff for any brand was a bit … ad hoc :-(

          “Moreover, they _worked_…”

          Precisely so; to clarify the point, I was saying that U.S. engineers produce both masterpieces and kluges. I think that’s the norm for most nationalities. I’d argue for an exception for maybe the French, but then I recalled that during the Napoleonic wars the Brits thought the captured French ships were better designed than the Brit ones; the British naval supremacy had to do with the crews, not the ships.

          1. Hognose Post author

            In the 1700s, the new US had plenty of experience with Brown Bess and Chatellerault muskets when it was time to design their own for the first time, and they went with the more elegant French design rather than the more solid (and heavier) English.

        2. W. Fleetwood

          A minority report. I had a Vega GT hatchback and it was great. I loaded it like it was a pickup, and drove it like I stole it, and it never failed to preform. When I went across the big water I sold it for more than I paid for it. I wish I had it now. FWIW.

          Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

    3. TRX

      > Zen minimalist

      The safety on the Arisaka Type 38 and 99 is like some elaborate multifunction puzzle piece. How so few parts can do so much is amazing.

  2. Sommerbiwak

    I: perceptive! ;-)

    III: oh come on. German engineering can do simple and effective. (only after trying the most complex solutions first ;-)) see MG34->42->45. The latter two are exercises in simplicity. Or the Stgw.45 and later CETME/G3. The Volksturmgewehr. We can if we want to.

    But then we produce wheel locks. The best wheel locks ever, but well… those were as complicated as a cuckoo clock with moving figurines, playing music and everything. Or the folding hard top roof of the Volkswagen Eos. Or the Stellarator fusion reactor Wendelstein 7-X.

    1. Kirk

      II: oh come on. German engineering can do simple and effective.”

      This is true. There are a lot of simple and elegant German things out there. Unfortunately, the ability to do such things is akin to the alcoholic’s ability to stop drinking: In theory, it’s possible. All it is is a simple decision, no? But, like all such “simple” things, the actual execution is very, very hard. Mostly because the alcoholic just can’t make the decision stick…

      I’d love to be the fly on the wall at some of the decision-points during the design process for a lot of the really asinine engineering I’ve seen come out of Germany. In my heart of hearts, I think that at least some of the considerations going into those decisions were based on the idea of getting back at those rat bastard Americans and Englishmen who bombed most of Germany flat, and doing so in the most passive-aggressively Teutonic way possible, via the German Mechanism.

      Come to think of it, I wonder if the German engineering community might not have been secretly anti-Nazi, and actively doing the same thing to the Nazis…? That would explain the Panther’s transmission, that’s for damn sure, along with the interleaving road wheel suspensions on all the German armor…

      Hmmm… I may need to think about this, a little. I mean, seriously… The Maus? Was that Porsche going after doing as much damage as possible to the German war machine? Was the Ferdinand some kind of esoteric in-joke, with the engineers?

  3. Keith

    A lot of German engineering during the Nazi period was driven by the feudalistic nature of the government, the departments and personalities involved. They kind of forgot what should be the first thing every engineer of any type should learn and not get there degree if they can’t remember it at graduation, the best is the enemy of good enough.

  4. Scott

    IV. I understand the caveat ‘most’ is in there… but Glocks. Ugly, and it feels like a you’re holding a 2×4.

    Now, the ‘beauty’ is the reliability, which is why I went Glock. But still.

    1. Raoul Duke

      A Casio G-Shock isn’t pretty or sleek, either.

      It tells time just as well for an average person’s needs, as a Rolex, at a fraction of the price.

      Not to mention, you won’t be shedding nearly as many tears when it’s lost/stolen/broken.

      1. Loren

        Yes, but the Rolesx gives me joy each and every time I put it on whereas the Casio……not so much. Same for XKE’s and Corollas and a walnut stocked Mauser vs a modern plastic pos.
        Function isn’t all or even the main thing unless it’s a parachute.

        1. Raoul Duke

          Absolutely true. Different equipment for different tasks.

          A wiser man than me once said, “1911’s and Hi-Powers are what you show to your friends. Glocks are what you show to your enemies.” It’s nice to have some barbecue guns and some flat-out ugly utilitarian pieces, too.

  5. Michael

    I haven’t seen but a few guns I consider beautiful. …function for guns is far more important to me…..i carry a Glock and it feels great to me

      1. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

        Indeed. The Colt double-action revolver design is the epitome of elegant simplicity, but… the timing can be thrown off by a variety of causes, all of which end up affecting the geometry and relationship of the aztec-pyramid-looking stump on the right side of the rebound bar.

        Change the relationship of that feature to the rest of the clockwork, and things go wrong – fast.

        The S&W revolver design, with the rebound function split off into its own spring, is much more robust.

  6. Jim Scrummy

    Point III, is true, but sometimes I believe complexity is the outcome of a platform evolution. Look at the Porsche 911, originally it was a fairly simple machine. Today, I as a shade tree mechanic won’t get near one for any modifications, just too complex piece of machinery for my limited skill set (It’s not a ’69 Camaro SS, where I can change out the engine, tranny, rear-end, and modify the suspension with stiffer shocks in my garage). But sometimes complexity can be confused with over-engineering. I look at HK pistols, particularly the USP platform. This pistol, to me, is over-engineered, with some complexity (changing the trigger from stock to match grade can be trying if you don’t have the right tools). Whereas, a Glock (yes, it’s Austrian) pistol, to me, is not complex, but rather a KISS platform. Unfortunately for my bank account, I like both weapon platforms, but, got out of the Porsche ownership 16 years ago.

  7. TRX

    > (Perhaps it helps them sell. Even military
    > designs must attract boards of officers).

    The USAF is notable for that, having purchased many beautiful but underperforming aircraft. Meanwhile maintaining an institutional hate-on for the aircraft only they call the “Thunderbolt II”, which is more beautiful than angels to an aeronautical engineer or someone waiting for ground support Right Now.

    [gunheads may refer to the Thunderbolt II as the “GAU-8.” The airframe bits are just accessories, like a bipod or a wheeled carriage.]

    1. Sommerbiwak

      USAF officers should have more aeronautical engineering degrees and thus should appreciate good practical design, but today there are more $MINORITY studies graduates for the new touchy feely air force I guess. So more beautiful less capable aeroplanes in the future. But how did the ugly F-35 did get approval then?

      1. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

        It is best to think of the F-35 as solving political problems, not military weapons platform requirements.

        The F-35 “solves” the following problems:

        1. How to enrich Lockheed’s management and shareholders, of course.
        2. How to increase their political clout by spreading the project spending & employment over (last I knew) 46 of the 50 states.
        3. How to extend their influence into several “allied” foreign countries.

        In light of this, and given that Congressional parasites want to be seen as (a) “patriotic” and (b) bringing home the jobs (if not the pork), it is easy to see how the project got a big, fat green light.

  8. Max Popenker

    I. TT-33 are known to break off half-cock notch and go off when dropped hammer-down, or even go off withouth breaking anything when dropped hammer-down;
    IV. Glocks are 100% sucess and 101% ugliness

    1. Hognose Post author

      Fair enough, but it’s an unwise man who trusts a half-cock notch as a safety, whether it’s on a percussion rifle or a modern handgun. (The decocker on my carry gun leaves the hammer down on the half-cock notch. I know why the designer did that — and it has a firing pin safety — but it still bugs me).

  9. Dienekes

    IV, beauty or the lack thereof is my gripe. Ugliness seems universal, not limited to guns; it’s in architecture, cars, and music as well. A Glock goes well with an old worn field jacket. When I wear a BHP, I feel dressed up.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Read Tom Wolf’s From Bauhaus to Our House. He is talking about ugly architecture, but the prose sometimes achieves beauty.

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