Steyr's GB; Too Good Too Soon?

by Gene Gangarosa, Jr.

Why do some guns persist for years or decades and make firearms history, while others appear only briefly and then fade into obscurity? That answer might be that the guns that last are good and the ones that don't are no good, but while this may sometimes be true, in many cases it is not. The factors influencing acceptance or rejection are often more complex than any one simple explanation, and a very good gun may fail for any number of reasons.

Consider the story of the Steyr GB. Steyr-Daimler-Puch, a world-renowned Austrian manufacturer of military and sporting firearms - as well as trucks and heavy machinery - officially introduced this pistol in 1981. However, the GB's ancestry really dates back to the latter days of World War II, to the gas-delayed operating mechanism of a prototype German assault rifle and to experimental pistols Walther was building that were less expensive to manufacture than the P-38. By 1969, the Austrian government was thinking of replacing its aging collection of P-38 and FN Hi-Power pistols, and they requested that Steyr, Austria's chief manufacturer of military equipment, develop a new pistol. Steyr studied the late-war German firearms and then painstakingly began developing and testing their own design. The Austrian handgun took the form of a large double-action pistol with an eighteen-shot, double-column magazine. It became known as the "Gas Bremse,' German for "Gas Brake," or by the initials GB.

Before Steyr built and marketed the GB design under its own auspices, Les Rogak, a Steyr importer, received in the 1970s a set of manufacturing drawings for the new pistol. Whether he got the plans for publicity purposes to announce Steyr's upcoming handgun or actually had permission to build the pistol under his own name (the advantage of that arrangement for Steyr being deniability if the gun should fail) is not clear. In any event, he set up a manufacturing firm called L.E.S. or Rogak, Incorporated in Morton Grove, Illinois, and began building the pistol in stainless steel as the Rogak P-18, a reference to the enormous magazine capacity. What resulted was a gun whose troubled history ominously foreshadowed that of the later GB, which it strongly resembled.

Seemingly, the Rogak had a lot going for it. Its advanced design and stainless steel construction, combined with the highest-capacity production magazine available on any automatic pistol seemed to give it great potential for success.

Unfortunately, several factors conspired against the Rogak. First of all, the 9mm Parabellum chambering simply wasn't that popular in the United States in the late 1970s. This was almost seven years before the U.S. armed forces adopted a 9mm automatic pistol. What limited demand existed for 9mm pistols was adequately served by the Smith & Wesson Model 39 and the various surplus war-era Lugers, P-38s, Radoms, etc. Even those desiring a high-capacity pistol were more likely to buy a Smith & Wesson Model 59 or a Browriing Hi-Power than the futuristic-looking Rogak. Those whose tastes ran to the exotic had the new Beretta Model 92 or even, for a lot more money the SIG P-210 or CZ-76 to choose from.

But what really killed the Rogak was poor workmanship. So bad was its manufacturing quality that the leaky gas delay mechanism did not work. Instead, it was made to work as a simple blowback pistol by the addition of fiber buffers around the barrel. Despite good accuracy, the gun gained a reputation for choking on ammunition and earned the derogatory nickname of "Jammatic."

Steyr took legal action to halt its manufacture, but even without a lawsuit the gun's reliability problems would very likely have been all the nails its coffin ever needed. P-18 production ceased in the late 1970s or early 1980s after Rogak, Incorporated had made about 2,300 guns. Not surprisingly Steyr has little good to say about Les Rogak.

Steyr resumed the project, and all further development work on the GB occurred in Austria. Testing continued, with modifications undertaken to correct the Rogak's deficiencies. The magazine lips were strengthened and thickened to make loading less painful and to improve feeding reliability. A decocking lever replaced the Rogak's manual safety. The contours of the front sight, muzzle, hammer, and slide stop were all rounded off for easier carry. Steyr also put the magazine release at the rear of the trigger guard instead of at the bottom rear of the grip as in the Rogak. Most importantly the workmanship of the male bushing was improved to enable it to seal the breech during firing, thus achieving the full potential of the braking mechanism. In the only two retrograde steps, the Rogak's well-contoured rounded trigger guard gave way to a square trigger guard to promote a two-handed hold with the first finger of the support hand on the front edge of the trigger guard, and regular carbon steel replaced the Rogak's stainless construction.

By 1980 Steyr had finalized the design, so their pistol is sometimes referred to as the "GB-80." Although it externally resembled the Rogak and was the same size, the redesigned GB had the absolutely superb fit and finish for which Steyr has long been famous.

With a length of 8.5 inches and a 5.3-inch barrel, and weighing about 35 ounces unloaded, the GB was the same size as the Beretta Model 92. Grips were usually checkered black plastic, though some specimens with steel grips have been reported. The gas delay mechanism was interesting, and quite ingenious, as it allowed a strong pistol without the need for a breech-locking mechanism or massive recoil spring. Basically, the GB used some of the expanding powder gases from a fired round to form a counterpressure that delayed the opening of the slide until the bullet exited the barrel, allowing the gases to escape. The gases used to lock the slide came from two holes drilled at the midpoint of the barrel, and vented into a chamber sealed by the barrel bushing. Once chamber pressures decreased to the point where the shooter was not in danger, the slide cycled to the rear, ejecting the spent cartridge, and then forward, chambering the next round from the magazine.

The system used by Steyr was simpler and stronger than comparable mechanisms used in the competing Heckler & Koch P7 series of pistols, as it required no pistons or other moving parts. It also did not appreciably reduce the muzzle velocity and hence the energy, of the 9mm cartridge it fired; in fact, the GB's muzzle velocities were competitive with those of other modern 9mm pistols. The fixed barrel was attached solidly to the frame and used polygonal rifiing in the bore, both innovations promoting above-average accuracy. The frame was composed of two steel halves welded together, a technique borrowed from wartime German experimentation. Another interesting production shortcut was that the trigger guard, a part integral with the frame in most handguns, was made as a separate piece and then pinned in place. In the earlier design that had led to the Rogak, the frame, including the trigger guard, had been machined as a single piece in the traditional manner. Steyr's redesign greatly improved and simplified the pistol's manufacture. The refined gun was simple, functional, and rugged: it used fewer than fifty parts, compared to over seventy for the Beretta Model 92.

The modified GB had a lot going for it when it finally appeared in 1981, after an extended and agonizing research and development phase that had lasted for more than a decade. Steyr had eliminated the reliability problems that killed the Rogak, and they lavished excellent workmanship on the new gun. The company felt that the GB was at least as good as anything else in the slowly-growing 9mm market and should sell well.

But fortune decreed otherwise. The first setback occurred in the 25,000-pistol Austrian government contract, a number established as sufficient to replace the PP, P-38 and Hi-Power pistols in that country's military and police inventories. The GB was a shoo-in to win this contest until a then-unknown designer named Gaston Glock unveiled his new pistol, the Glock 17, with which Glock won the order in 1983.

Disappointed, and humiliated at being beaten in its native country, Steyr turned next to the United States XM9 military handgun trials. In November, 1983, the U.S. Army published a formal Request for Test Samples, for which Steyr submitted 30 Model GB pistols. The Army conducted the XM9 trials from February through August, 1984, during which time the GB competed against entries from Beretta, Colt, FN, Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, and Walther. The M9 contract called for over 315,000 pistols (later increased to almost 500,000), and would have put Steyr solidly on the map with its first military centerfire pistol since the legendary Steyr-Hahn of 1912.

But this happy outcome was not to be. Although the GB won high marks from its American examiners for its good handling and its accuracy and had already seen some use by members of Special Forces, its reliability in this testing series was less than that of the control weapon, the M1911A1. This shortcoming caused the Army to eliminate it from the competition on May 4, 1984, and Beretta's Model 92SB-F went on to win.

With the GB's loss of two important military trials, Steyr realized that the GB, despite police sales to Pakistan and Lebanon, and some unofficial use as an individual weapon by police officers in other places, was not generating sufficient sales in the extremely competitive military and police service gun market. Consequently, Steyr made increased efforts to sell the GB to civilians, and from 1983 on they widely advertised it in the United States and Europe. Over the next few years, the GB became a popular pistol among civilian shooters. Several gun dealers have told me that they had no trouble selling these big guns. One dealer in particular liked the GB a great deal, owned one himself, and sold about a dozen of them.

Then Steyr, which had stayed with the GB throughout its protracted development period, decided in 1986 to discontinue the pistol. The main problem with the GB was not mechanical, but marketing. Without a firm contract for a large number of pistols from a well-established customer, preferably a major police department or military force, the company did not feel that it could commit enough resources to the gun to build it economically. Civilian sales were welcome, but were too fickle and variable to plan on.

The last straw for the GB came when Steyr informed Gun South, the U.S. distributor, that the price would have to be raised by about $150 to recover costs incurred in developing the pistol and to make it economically viable. Gun South felt that the GB would not sell in the United States at close to $700. Steyr soon concurred, and decided to drop the pistol. However, Gun South continued importing GBs for two years after production ceased, receiving their final shipment of 633 pistols on November 25, 1988.

A late advertisement for the GB appeared in the fall of 1988 in the 1989 edition of the Sportman's Gun Annual. This listed the GB at $595 suggested retail, a price identical to that of the Beretta Model 92F, while the SIG P226 retailed at the time for $780. Neither Beretta nor SIG was having any trouble selling pistols to the American public, and neither, perhaps, would Steyr, bad they been more patient. On the other hand, both Beretta and SIG bad received U.S. arrned forces approval and the SIG P226, while not being ordered by the military, was enjoying a tremendous quantity of police business, in addition to strong civilian sales. In contrast, the GBs inability to secure a passing score in government testing seriously hurt it in the fierce competition for official orders. The GB was also hurt by its association with the failed Rogak and, perhaps, by its unconventional appearance.

Despite the GB's woes, the pistol received almost unanimous praise from some very discriminating users-the gun writers who reviewed it. From 1981 on, Wiley Clapp, Joe Poyer, Pete Dickey, J.B. Wood, Massad Ayoob and others all spoke highly of the GB's features, performance, and quality of workmanship. Their comments included such statements as: "one of the best shooting, most versatile handguns made in 9mmP chambering ... a delight to shoot... a likable gun" (Clapp); "everyone who shot the pistol remarked on the mild recoil ... the grip is contoured in such a manner that it cuddles nicely into your hand ... the GB functioned flawlessly" (Poyer); "superb quality ... more than 300 rounds of assorted 9mm ammunition was run through the Steyr with accuracy and comfort to the shooter. There were no malfunctions of any kind" (Dickey); "excellent" (Ayoob); "superb" (Wood). These are the words of men who make their living using guns, and their praise indicates that the GB is indeed a fine pistol.

A rare negative view of the GB was expressed by Rene Smeets, a Belgian gun writer highly regarded in Europe. Co-writing Great Combat Handguns with Leroy Thompson in 1987, Smeets acknowledged the GB as "very accurate indeed," but described it as "enormous" and "bulky," and added, "range tests suggest that the GB-80 is not a success ... the handling of the GB-80 came as an unpleasant surprise... the handling qualities of the big Steyr pistol not only negate its accuracy but also reduce its value as a combat weapon." But Smeets was definitely of a minority opinion here, and in the same book he spoke favorably of the handling of Beretta's Model 92SB, a gun of almost identical dimensions to the GB.

Modern features abounded on the GB, which was ahead of its time. It is a gun that could still sell today in terms of what it has to offer, and is by no means outdated. A partial list of its desirable features follows: a spring-loaded decocking lever which safely lowers the hammer onto a loaded chamber and then returns to the fire position, leaving the pistol ready for an instantaneous first shot; double-action trigger mechanism; firing pin lock that remains in place until the trigger reaches its rearward travel; three-dot luminous sighting system; a flxed barrel promoting above-average accuracy; double-column, eighteen-round magazine (more than any otber production Wondernine, although the Ram-Line company makes aftermarket eighteen-round magazines for several popular fifteen-shot 9mm pistols); chrome-lined, polygonally-rifled barrel; steel frame; virtually indestructible finish; and smooth, rounded contours throughout, even on the sights and operating controls. It gives many the impression that it is a bigger gun than it actually is; the reality is that the GB, while large, is extraordinarily well-engineered for easy handling. No heavier or bulkier than the Beretta Model 92, it offers competitive features and handling with three extra shots and a steel, not alloy, frame.

Estimates of total GB production vary. Steyr gives "about 15,000" as the number, while Gun South estimates from serial numbers of pistols received in the United States that the final production approached 20,000. Gun South revealed to me that the company received thousands of letters of protest upon Steyr's decision to drop the pistol, indicating that the GB was building a large following among civilians at the time it was discontinued.

It is difficult to fault Steyr for discontinuing an unprofitable gun. In 1986, they could not have foreseen that the 9mm market in the United States was on the verge of an enormous expansion after the Beretta's military acceptance. But while Steyr's underestimation of the American 9mm market following the Beretta's marketing coup is understandable, less understandable is the way that Steyr missed some valuable earlier opportunities to market the GB.

For example, in the early '80s the company built several prototype models of a single-action target version that did very well in European and American IPSC matches. Due to the GB's gas-delayed recoil design, the pistol was especially well suited to the fitting of a compensator. Yet Steyr chose to ignore this rich advertising field, contenting themselves with making small numbers of a lengthened barrel/compensator assembly that could be added to a standard GB pistol by substituting it for the standard muzzle bushing. Steyr also made experimental machine-pistol versions with extended magazines and a three-shot burst capability; Beretta successfully markets a similar weapon, the Model 93R, modeled after their Model 92 pistol, to police and paramilitary forces, but Steyr took their design no further. Alternate calibers might have been a possibility also, adapting the GB's excellent gas-braking mechanism to other cartridges.

Discriminating shooters today recognize that the GB, despite its unhappy history and untimely end, was and remains a fine combat handgun. While many owners are holding onto theirs in hopes of the gun becoming a collector's piece, the GB shoots too well to let it sit unused in its box. It is incredibly accurate for a combat pistol. Recoil is low, thanks to the gas delay mechanism and the ample weight of the pistol. And reliability is not generally a problem with a variety of hollowpoint and jacketed ammunition, though cast lead bullets cause gas port fouling after several hundred rounds.

From a collector's standpoint, the GB is an interesting pistol, as it is rather rare, there are several distinct variations, and prices are quite low. The Rogak P-18 was made in two variations, with the standard finish model selling in 1991 for about $350 and the high-polish variation for about $400. Getting to the true GB, the military variation, the last model available in the United States in 1987-1988, sold in 1991 for about $450 in mint condition. Only 937 of these military GBs were imported into the United States. They had dull, smooth epoxy-finished frames and a Parkeiized slide, and some may have had metal trigger guards. Their appearance was unattractive, a gray-green reminiscent of late Nazi-era Mauser-Werke "Gray Ghost" P-38s. I once owned one of these late GBs and found it to be plagued with unreliable feeding, though that may not be true of this variation in general.

The commercial model GB is by far the most common, with several thousand still extant. There were two variations of markings on the commercial guns imported into the United States. Early guns (examples noted in the P 3000 serial number range) had the importer given as "Secaucus N.J." stamped on the left slide flat. Mid-production versions, including my own, seirial number P 08501, had the new importer's mark "Gun South, Inc., Trussv. Al." stamped on the upper portion of the slide. On the latest guns, the Gun South address was given as "B'ham." The last models made had a spur hammer instead of a rounded one and a smooth trigger instead of the earlier grooved type. With an improved hammer spring, this version had the best trigger pull of the entire GB line.

The commercial guns had a black epoxy crinkled finish, giving the frame a rough texture that makes the gun easy to hold, while the slide had a high-polish blued finish on the flats and a matte blued surface on the balance of the slide. For a commercial model in mint condition, $525 is Fiestad's top price listed in the 1991 Blue Book of Gun Values.

The Steyr GB proves that even a well-designed, superbly-built gun with the backing of a world-renowned and experienced firearms manufacturer can fail. Mechanical characteristics aside, political and economic factors also play a major role. The GB was a fine handgun that deserved better fortune than it got. Happily, it is still available used at reasonable prices and is well worth getting, either as a collector's item or as a good shooter.

Originally published in the 1994 edition of Gun Digest