At a very well-stocked gun shop, the most expensive new firearm might be a Barrett .50 or a TrackingPoint precision guided weapon. But it might not. It might very well be a European trap or hunting shotgun, a well-decorated and supremely finished, but technologically simple double-barrel over-and-under, with lockwork a 19th Century gunsmith would have recognized.
For about $600 a buyer can take home the latest high-tech defensive pistol, or for about the same price a basic clone of the high-tech defensive pistol of 1911. He’s well armed either way, but why has technology marched on in the pistol world, but stood still on the shotguns used by bird busters (of the meat and clay variety alike)?
Any rifle problem in the world from rimfire plinking to open-range elk hunting has a version of the AR that can conceivably be applied to it. But hunters still buy lots of bolt-action rifles, with bolts that owe their basic design to the 19th Century efforts of Mauser in Oberndorf.
Indeed, here in New England, the single-shot break-action firearm continues to hang on in the market; new production continues.
The firearms market, then, is unlike other markets. In 1960 only a few car models sold in the United States came with automatic transmission standard; by 1970, air conditioning was in that market position, by 1980 electronic fuel injection… but these technologies are nearly universal now. Why do “obsolete” firearms actions persist and thrive in a market that has seen centuries of innovation? Why does the innovative product take its place alongside the venerable one, and not replace it?
Here are some thoughts.
- In some cases, the innovative product does replace the venerable one. Consider the police revolver. 30 years ago, a mainstay of industry magazine publishers was “revolver vs. automatic for police.” Nowadays, if you brought that article to your editor, he or she would suggest you need your head examined. Many agencies don’t let a cop carry a revolver, any more, even off duty.
- The gun buyer is inherently conservative. It’s much easier to sell a driver on the benefits of fuel injection than it is to sell a hunter who’s perfectly happy with his .30-30 on the benefits of a funny-looking plastic and alloy semiauto. (This also hurts European makers who tend to make guns that “look funny” to Americans. Think HK’s hunting rifles of the 80s and 90s).
- There is a draw to history in old-fashioned firearms. We double-dog dare you to pick up a Colt SAA and not think about the Old West (even if the Old West of public memory was mostly the creation of dime novels and moviemakers). Ditto, a 1911 and World War II. For many in the shooting sports, the draw to history is personal and familial. If you were the unloved grandson who didn’t inherit Gramps’s Winchester 64, you pine for one; this seems especially true for bird hunters, almost all of whom were introduced to the sport by family.
- Sometimes you’re tied by rules. Nobody’s going to get to use a Saiga shotgun in a trapshoot this year. Some states’ hunting laws ban semiauto or detachable-mag-fed semi weapons, on the theory that they promote snap shooting and bad sportsmanship.
- Sometimes the older design is perfectly fit for the task. Evolution stops because it has reached a plateau or point of equilibrium (just as evolution of living things is currently thought to do, between incidences of salutary mutation). While many jurisdictions’ regulations restrict hunting weapon magazine capacity, there’s little impetus to change these laws because the game gets a vote, too, and it tends not to stick around when the guns open up. Hunting upland game birds, two shots is often one more than you can practically get off when the birds flush, and two is pretty much the limit. Same with bolts and hunting of ground game. Doesn’t matter if you’re belt-fed, one shot and Bambi is outa there. Likewise, if there is a better gun to teach a beginner the rudiments of safety and shooting than a break-action, exposed-hammer single shot, we surely can not think of what it is.
We’re “thinking out loud,” here, and there might be more than five reasons. We’re most partial to #5 of the explanations above. But you’re welcome to shoot holes in this theory. Are there other guns than the police revolver that have become eclipsed in living memory? The .25 Auto, perhaps… what else?