Gun manufacturers walk a fine line between catering to a demand for traditional weapons, and the need to remain abreast of the technological developments that other industries are seeing. The Innovation Trail's Kate O'Connell takes a look at the history of innovation in the gun business, and what its future might hold. This series is produced in partnership with wnyc.org
For gun manufacturers, there is one thing that seems very apparent - the demand for traditional weapons is high.
For many there is a personal connection to guns that have been in the family for years, for others it is the allure of brands and models that have stood the test of time.
Massad Ayoob is an editor for Guns Magazine and American Handgunner Magazine, and he says guns differ greatly from most other products we can buy.
“Firearms essentially are the ultimate durable goods. When you’re done with your washing machine or your refrigerator, it goes to the dump. You can’t throw a gun in the dump. The guns have very long product lives.”
He says although guns have evolved, tradition and a sense of heritage outweigh innovation.
The Remington 700 model rifles have been very successful, having sold more than 5 million units. But they are built around the same bolt-action technology used when the gun was launched over 50 years ago.
And this is characteristic of the industry.
Evolution, not Revolution
You won’t often see someone driving around in a T-bird that used to belong to their great-grandfather, but that’s not the case with firearms.
“Basically, the history of firearms design is one more of evolution rather than revolution. The basic mechanisms have been with us essentially for more than a century.”
Ayoob says many of the guns currently under discussion as “assault weapons” - including the AR-15 platform - emerged in the 1950s.
He says apart from the rise of the polymer frame in handguns, there haven’t been any huge leaps in gun technology for decades.
“It is a mature industry. There is only so much you can get a pistol, a rifle, or a shotgun to do. And barring some science-fiction level of breakthrough like plasma rifles or something, I think we will continue to see evolution rather than revolution on the mechanical design front.”
Ayoob says on the innovation front, there have been attempts at what people are calling ‘smart guns’; guns that would recognize their owner and fire only for that owner.
But, he’s not yet convinced about the technology.
“Essentially that, with one exception, has been vapor wear. When I say vapor wear, it’s a theory people talk about like colonizing outer space but the technology does not exist to make it happen.”
"Sci-fi" may be closer than you think
But some researchers say the technology does exist and the introduction of these “science fiction” products might not be as far away as many think.
Donald Sebastian is Senior vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and part of a team that has been working on smart guns for more than a decade.
“The confluence of low-cost, reliable electronics that we find almost pervasive in every aspect of our lives, could contribute to substantially improving gun safety, and even add value for sports shooters and for law enforcement,” Sebastian says.
He says there seems to be reluctance from the industry to take up new technologies for a variety of financial and political reasons.
“We have to understand that the core competencies don’t exist in these companies. They have survived, and prospered in a market place by focusing very tightly on what has been the traditional engineering and scientific competencies that go into gun manufacturing which is precision machining and mechanisms.”
“If you’re working on relatively thin margins you certainly have to be cognizant of your marketplace, and there’s not been a strong market pull for this kind of innovation. There hasn’t been a demand from the traditional gun-buying public that is enough for someone to take the risk and be satisfied and sure that there would in fact be an increase in sales volume to offset the considerable R&D costs. So that’s been a barrier.”
But Sebastian thinks this can change.
“I am confident that at some point we’re going to find a tipping point where we can introduce technologies and innovation into weapons platforms that are not viewed as non-gun owners trying to force something onto gun owners but really provide value adding protection to those who are responsible gun owners and at the same time protect everyone else from those who may not be.”
Tradition outweighs incentives to innovate
Sebastian says the fondness for tradition and older technologies in guns might just come with the territory of being such a well-established industry.
“I guess it’s perhaps just the nature of the beast that when you become a mature industry and you own the marketplace it’s easier to do incremental improvement than to look for disruptive technologies that re-define your future, but could in fact put you on top of that market.”
Dean Hazen is a Police and SWAT team veteran, and co-owner of D&R firearms. He says the lack of innovation in the industry is simply driven by the market.
“I think it could be a faster paced industry in the US, however hunters traditionally in the US stick to their traditions, they like their traditional guns. And I think that drives the market in that particular area.”
Hazen says it isn’t so much reluctance that he’s seen in the adoption of new technology, but more attention to consumer demands.
“I haven’t really seen a reluctance toward it but I don’t think that they see the demand for it that much on the civilian market and therefore they’re likely not to invest that much in it. It’s kind of like electric cars, it might sound like a great idea on paper but if the demand isn’t there for it in the market they’re not going to invest in it.”
Civilian vs. Military markets
And he says there are breakthroughs being made, they’re just not in the civilian market.
“Where you see the future of that technology is really in the military. The US military especially stays on the cutting edge and they’ve got some just amazingly high-tech weapons now. They are always open to new things, and testing new things, and that’s where a lot of that market is driven from.”
US gun manufacturers will export $4.4 billion worth of guns and ammunition to other countries this year, and Hazen says there could be a bigger market for innovation in Europe than there is in the US.
Most of the exports are accounted for by foreign law enforcement and military agencies, and if innovation in the US military is really where the technology will take off, that could represent a lucrative road for the industry.
But NJIT’s Donald Sebastian says electronics are most likely to enter the gun market through new players in the industry.
“Where we are likely to see these technologies come in is not through the traditional name brands, but rather through start-ups.”
For the foreseeable future, it will be the strong tradition of US-made firearms that continue to guide manufacturers and consumers, especially if the regulatory landscape for gun ownership changes significantly.