Bringing guns into the digital age

By Michael S. Rosenwald / The Washington Post

UNTERFOHRING, Germany — In nearly 30 years at Heckler & Koch, a legendary German gunmaker, Ernst Mauch designed some of the world’s most lethal weapons, including the one that reportedly killed Osama bin Laden. A state regulator once called him a “rock star” in the industry.

Now the gun world sees him a different way: as a traitor. The target of their fury is the smart gun Mauch designed at Armatix, a startup near Munich. The very concept of the weapon has been attacked by U.S. gun rights advocates even as it helps Mauch resolve a sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire career. He knows children have killed each other with his guns. Crimes have been committed with them.

“It hurts my heart,” the 58-year-old gun designer said. “It’s life. It’s the lives of people who never thought they’d get killed by a gun. You have a nice family at home, and then you get killed. It’s crazy.”

Mauch’s solution, the iP1, can be personalized so it only fires if the gun’s rightful owner is wearing a special watch connected wirelessly to the weapon. It has not been the hit he imagined for the multibillion-dollar U.S. market. Second Amendment advocates, fearing the technology will be mandated, launched angry protests this year against stores in Maryland and California that tried to sell it. The industry that once revered him now looks at him with suspicion.

“I love Ernst, and his contributions to firearms are incredible,” said Jim Schatz, a gun industry consultant who worked for Mauch at Heckler & Koch. “But he doesn’t understand that the anti-gunners will use this to infringe on a constitutional right. They don’t have a Second Amendment in Germany.”

Mauch realizes that many people in the gun world oppose what he’s doing. But he sees himself as a Steve Jobs-like figure, someone with the know-how and stubbornness — “no compromises” is a phrase he uses repeatedly — to bring “dumb guns,” as he calls them, into the digital age.

“This is the beginning of a new generation of weapons, which makes people think I am crazy,” he said. “Anyone can make a gun or a pistol. But if the potential is here to make it safer, we have to do it. We absolutely must.”

Building an empire

Mauch grew up a farmer’s son in Dunningen, a small village at the edge of Germany’s Black Forest, where he still lives today, raising bees and growing wheat. He tinkered. He fixed things. As a teenager, he took up watchmaking. He loved the intricate parts, the sequence of small movements that led to time.

In college, he studied mechanical engineering, and two of his required internships were at Heckler & Koch. He immediately took to the preciseness of the work, impressing his superiors with a design for an antitank weapon site system. The idea of spending a lifetime in weapons did not occur to him.

“At the time, I did not think,” he said. “I just learned.”

The company asked Mauch to return after his graduation in 1978. He quickly rose up the corporate ladder, earning a reputation for designing inventive weapons systems and cracking complicated problems, often walking down to assembly lines to examine issues and offer solutions.

Mauch’s assault rifles and grenade launchers become coveted by armed forces around the world, including the United States. He was the first foreign-born winner of the Chinn Award, an annual prize from the National Defense Industrial Association honoring achievement in small-arms weaponry. He still consults regularly with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

“He understood where the end-user was coming from and how to meet those needs on the engineering side,” said Larry Vickers, a former Delta Force member who collaborated on weapons projects with Mauch. “He had a grasp on the issues that was very unique and remains so this day.”

One of the weapons they worked on together was the HK416, a powerful assault rifle with a special gas system that took on the M4 Carbine in the early 1990s. The rifle is used by U.S. special forces, and it was apparently the weapon of choice for the SEAL Team 6 members who killed bin Laden in a covert raid in Pakistan in 2011.

“I was happy for your soldiers that they could do this without getting injured,” Mauch said. “I don’t think about this a lot, though. I really have no feelings about this.”

‘Dumb gun’

But Mauch is not a gun designer without a conscience. Early in his career, working on a new sniper rifle, he laid awake one night thinking, “What are you doing? Is it right to develop these kinds of products?” His life, he knew, was being defined by killing, a career at odds with his deep faith in God.

He found a justification in his head: This rifle will one day be used by a sniper trying to kill a kidnapper holding a child in his arms. “This weapon must do its job,” Mauch said. He has found comfort in that rationale throughout his career. He thinks God is on his side.

“My best partner is our Lord,” he said. “More or less, I think he is supporting my life.” The proof: “I am still alive, and he has blessed me with a beautiful wife and family.”

Mauch came home to that family one day in the 1990s following four hours of questioning by authorities after a boy accidentally killed a friend with one of Heckler & Koch’s handguns. “Why did the boy not know the gun was loaded?” Mauch was asked. “Why did the boy not know there was a round in the chamber?”

He told his wife, “My dear, I will never forget these last four hours.”

The questions, Mauch said, were good ones. “It was a good gun,” he said. “A good gun, but a dumb gun.” The idea of making guns smarter took hold.

Several years later, while running Heckler & Koch, Mauch awarded a research and development contract to a German electrical lock company interested in smart-gun technology. But in 2005, Mauch left Heckler & Koch in a dispute with the investment firms behind the company, a painful moment in his life.

Mauch said he received lucrative job offers from many of his competitors, but he wanted to pursue smart guns. His wife told him: “Now you have to do this other mission. This is why you aren’t at H&K anymore. You have to make guns safer.”

In 2006, Mauch joined Armatix, a spin out from the lock firm, investing his own money and leading the development of the .22-caliber iP1, targeted specifically for the U.S. market, where interest in the technology has increased in recent years. He recruited electrical engineers, gunsmiths and a few old contacts in the industry who didn’t think he was certifiable.

“I wanted to make sure that smart guns are the next generation of weapons,” Mauch said.

The question that torments him now: Does anyone agree?