After World War II, the Austrian military used a mixture of Browning High Power and Walther P38 pistols – they were effective and available in large numbers so why not? However, by the early 1970s it had been decided to replace them with a new standard pistol. To fulfill the military requirements, Steyr (a preeminent Austrian firearms and heavy equipment manufacturer) designs the GB pistol.
Steyr’s design was quite a good one, offering both light recoil and better than average accuracy. It did this by utilizing a gas delayed blowback system virtually identical to the last ditch German Volkssturm Gustloffwerke (VG1-5) rifle. Basically, the front half of the slide acts as a gas piston, and ports in the barrel allow gas into that piston while the bullet is still in the barrel, thus slowing down rearward movement of the slide. In the photo below, you can see the gas sealing rings machined into the barrel, to prevent that gas from venting down around the recoil spring. The piston sleeve rotates to unlock from the slide for disassembly.
The fixed barrel necessary for this type of gas delayed action has the happy side effect of allowing very good accuracy. In most service handguns the barrel moves on firing as do the sights (being mounted on the slide), requiring two major parts to realign precisely for accurate fire. In the Steyr, only the sights move – not as good an arrangement as one where the sights are fixed to the barrel, but better than the norm. The gas delay system also slows down the recoil energy transmitted to the shooter. In conjunction with the mass of the gun (approximately 2 lb – it’s a full-size steel-framed pistol) this provides a pleasant soft-shooting feel. Italso came standard with an 18-round magazine capacity, which is large even by today’s standards.
Steyr expected the GB to be a shoo-in for the Austrian military contract, as it was well understood that a domestic Austrian design would receive preferential consideration. However, a no-name bayonet supplier named Gaston Glock appeared out of nowhere and won the military trials with his polymer-framed G17. Steyr certainly hadn’t expected that, and they proceeded to enter the GB in the 1983 US military pistol trials – where it lost out to the Beretta 92 despite many good qualities. Steyr’s management must have found all this rather unbelievable (losing to a fellow Austrian is one thing, but Austria being beaten by the Italians?) and fell back to marketing the gun to police and civilian buyers. Sales trickled in slowly, but it never gained a major official departmental sale and by 1988 they threw in the towel and stopped manufacturing the guns.
As an aside, we should note the stereotypical Germanic flair for creative naming – the “GB” stands for “gas bremse”, which translates into simply “gas braked”. Kind of like Steyr’s previous service pistol design, the 1912 Steyr-Hahn or “hammer”. In recognition of, well, the fact that it used an external hammer.
Photos for this article (including the additional detailed shots you can see below) were kindly provided by reader Chris B – thanks, Chris!