GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun, by Paul M. Barrett. Crown, 291 pp., $26.

In 1982, an obscure Austrian engineer named Gaston Glock, who worked in a radiator plant and had a side business with his wife making curtain rods, knives and belt buckles, invented a type of pistol that changed the world of firearms and powerfully influenced politics and popular culture. Glock is now 82, and his surname has become synonymous in some circles with "handgun." Just how a pistol developed by an unknown engineer with little firearms experience became the iconic law enforcement handgun in the United States is the subject of Paul M. Barrett's "Glock."

Thirty years ago, Glock knew that the Austrian Army wanted 20,000 new service pistols made in Austria, and no suitable gun existed. So he set out to design one. The all-black Glock pistol had unconventional lines, sleek simplicity and extreme reliability -- and its adoption shocked the firearms industry.

But Glock had little in the way of a business plan. Then on April 11, 1986, a watershed event occurred: the "Miami Massacre," in which a pair of armed robbers killed two FBI agents and wounded five more. The bloodshed demonstrated to American law enforcement that more police firepower was needed. The Glock offered the high-magazine capacity police craved (17 rounds) and an often overlooked advantage: Officers could be easily trained in its use.

The rise of the man and his gun is a story of innovation, manufacturing, marketing, money, lawsuits, power, influence, politics and a little sex. Barrett explains how the company was able to remain profitable despite allegations of corruption, tax avoidance and malfeasance. Barrett, assistant managing editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, originally covered Glock's financial and managerial irregularities for BusinessWeek.

As sales of the pistol took off, money flowed into Glock, lots of it. When Charles Ewert, a former director and a corporate trustee, was about to be exposed for embezzling company funds in 1999, he hired a Belgian mercenary to mash in Glock's skull with a rubber mallet in a Luxembourg parking garage. Despite taking seven blows to the head, the 70-year-old Glock managed to render his would-be assassin unconscious before the police arrived.

Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have rapped about Glock, Hollywood has played up the gun in movies such as "Die Hard 2: Die Harder." The pistol is used by world-champion competitive shooters and defensively by honest citizens; it rides in the holsters of two-thirds of American police officers -- including FBI agents (they carry Glock 22s today) -- and has been used to perpetrate heinous crimes by George Hennard, Seung-Hui Cho and Jared Loughner.

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Glocks have been on the front line of the gun-control debates since the guns were first imported and dubbed "hijacker specials." They have also been labeled "plastic pistols" and "pocket rockets." Political heat and Hollywood's limelight helped propel the Austrian handgun from obscurity to curiosity to dominance.