IT WAS a blunder by Heckler & Koch, a big German gunmaker. On February 15th the firm apologised for a “mistake” after its American subsidiary posted a Valentine’s image showing a handgun surrounded by ammunition arranged in the shape of a heart. The image went out to social media shortly after a deadly school shooting in Florida.
The post was also a reminder that although Europeans often criticise lax firearm-ownership laws across the Atlantic, the region’s firms are increasingly present in America’s market for small arms—defined as revolvers, pistols, rifles and shotguns. Americans buy far more such weapons than any other nationality and their appetites have been growing steadily. This year they are likely to buy 14.5m such firearms, notes Jurgen Brauer of Small Arms Analytics, a consultancy. Europeans have proved deft at grabbing a sizeable portion of all this.
Foreign firms’ share of American firearms sales rose from 10% in 1980 to a peak of 45% in 2007, before dropping to 33% in 2016. The lion’s share of these came from Europe, which accounted for three-quarters of the 3.7m imported handguns in 2016, for example. Austria alone, home to Glock, exported 1.3m handguns to America.
European firms are also producing more small arms inside America. Beretta, of Italy, relies on American sales for over half of its revenues. It opened a factory at Gallatin, Tennessee, in 2016. Sig Sauer, a big Swiss-German firm, has produced weapons in America since 1990 and opened a big factory in New Hampshire in 2014. Glock, which supplies two-thirds of American police forces, has a production site in Georgia. FN Herstal, a Belgian maker of small arms mostly for military and sporting use, is owned by Wallonia’s government and has operations in South Carolina. As well as making rifles it is lifting output of pistols for civilians.
Some European companies appear to be as keen as American rivals to lobby lawmakers on gun-ownership regulation. Glock said it gave over $100,000 in 2016 to branches of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA has acknowledged the Beretta family as a high-ranking donor for giving more than $1m over the years, granting them the title of “ring of freedom”.
America’s acceptance of foreign gun brands is well-established. Mr Brauer notes that Sig Sauer accounted for 12.3% of pistol sales in 2016, and Glock 7.8%; respectively they are the third- and fourth-biggest sellers of pistols. What explains Europe’s success? It has technically capable firms with long histories and skilled workers. Glock innovated with its early use of polymers to make lighter handguns. It and Sig Sauer entered America’s civilian market after first supplying police and armed forces there. As in the luxury industry, European guns are sold on their excellent design and quality. Then there is their lethal force.