The Glock 17 is often erroneously thought of as the world's first polymer-framed handgun. While Glock popularized the use of plastics in pistols, it wasn't the first. Rather, Heckler & Koch was the first manufacturer to bring a polymer-framed handgun to the market. Today, the German manufacturer is well-known for its extremely tough and equally expensive firearms that are primarily marketed to law enforcement and militaries. However, H&K's original polymer pistol was actually made for civilians.
The Cold War was a tough time for West Germany. After recovering from WWII, the democratic country remained under constant threat of a Soviet invasion from across the border. NATO and a strong U.S. presence in Germany served as effective deterrents against communist aggression. Still, West Germany lacked the military might to remain free in the event of a Third World War. To avoid serving only as a buffer zone for NATO, the nation needed a better defense.
If the Soviets invaded, West Germany would be plunged into total war. Infrastructure and civilians would likely become targets alongside border defenses and military installations. If it came to that, the free German people willing to take up arms against the invaders would need...well, arms. The military and police could distribute rifles, but personal firearms were needed as well. Enter H&K.
Chambered in 9x19mm, the official sidearm cartridge of NATO since 1955, the VP70 boasts an impressive 18-round capacity. The "VP" stands for Volkspistole which literally translates to "People's Pistol" in German and the weapon was first produced in 1970. In the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany, the VP70 put a significant amount of personal firepower in the hands of a civilian defender. For comparison, the standard British Army's sidearm at the time held 13 rounds of 9x19mm.
The VP70 was produced in an "M" variant for the military that could be fired in a three-round burst mode and included a holster that could be used as a stock. Lacking the stock holster, the "Z" variant for civil use was limited to semi-automatic fire. The VP70Z for the Italian civilian market was chambered in 9x21mm and included the stock mount but was still restricted to semi-auto. With its high-temperature rated polymer frame and gas-delayed blowback action, the VP70 was easy to wield and smooth to shoot. However, the gun had drawbacks that prevented it from attaining commercial success.
While the double-action-only trigger was simple and easy to understand, it was also heavy. At about 15 pounds, pulling the trigger on a VP70 matched the pistol's visual similarity to a staple gun. The polished ramp front sight was difficult to aim with, which, when combined with the heavy trigger, made the gun difficult to shoot accurately for those with little experience and training. Finally, while the gas-delayed action was smooth, it also bled gas from the barrel and reduced the velocity of the bullet. Less velocity means less lethality. It also made the gun dirtier, although disassembly and cleaning are simple procedures.
In the end, the VP70 found little success. It saw adoption by Brazil, Lebanon and Portugal, but scored no large military or law enforcement contracts. By the time production ended in 1989, the Glock 17 established a firm grip on the market. The VP70 is proof that being first doesn't necessarily equate to being the best.