January 03, 2011
The author rounded upfour good candidates for a pocket 9mm defensive gun and put them through an extensive shooting test to see which one distinguished itself. Here are all the results.
Many die-hard .45 ACP shooters have been picking up the 9mm these days. Skyrocketing ammunition costs are a big reason, but the fact is improved bullet designs have made the 9mm far more effective than most ACP adherents would ever admit. Today's shooters no longer have to give up fight-stopping lethality when they opt for a 9mm. Combine that punch with a higher magazine capacity, lighter recoil, and less expensive ammunition, and it's easy to see why so many shooters are taking another look at the 9mm.
When I decided to purchase a pocket nine of my own, I looked at a bunch and then ordered four likely contenders for a good old-fashion shootout.
Deciding which pistols to include was difficult simply because there are so many quality offerings. To whittle down the pool of contenders, I first removed all single-action autos from the list. Though mini nines like Springfield's little EMP are small enough and very interesting to this 1911-lover, I am not comfortable carrying cocked-and-locked autos in my pocket.
Next, I struck those pistols with conventional DA/SA triggers from the list. While there are many good ones, my hands are small enough that reaching the trigger is sometimes difficult. I also do not hit as well under stress with the first shot as I do with a single-action or striker-fired auto.
Finally, after a trip to my local Houston gunshop, Fountain Firearms, I settled on four pistols that felt good in my hand and that were made by manufacturers known for turning out quality firearms. My short list consisted of the Glock 26, Kahr PM9, Para Carry 9, and Walther PPS. As you'll see here, all performed admirably, although each had its good and bad points.
The Glock 26 has pretty much defined the pocket-nine class for a long time. In case you spent the '90s living under a rock, all Glocks have polymer frames and steel slides with the rugged Tenifer finish. The frame has molded-in checkering on the backstrap and the frontstrap. The frontstrap also has a pair of finger grooves. The frame is wide enough to accommodate the G26's 10-round magazine.
The G26's slide houses its robust external ejector, which also serves as a loaded-chamber indicator. The top of the slide is square, but the front is beveled for easier holstering. The Baby Glock's hammer-forged, hexagon-rifled barrel is 3.46 inches long, which is long enough to push its projectiles along at a respectable velocity but short enough that the entire package is quite compact.
Glocks are famous for their reliability, but their "Safe Action" is loved and hated in equal measures. Though all Glocks have a drop safety and a firing-pin safety, the trigger-mounted safety device and light trigger pull of this striker-fired pistol give fits to Glock-haters. There have been negligent discharges to be sure, but shooter error caused every one I know of. On the plus side, the standard 5.5-pound trigger pull is easy to shoot but isn't so light that it's a liability in high-stress situations.
Kahr's entry is also a polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol. Like the Glock's slide, the PM9's stainless-steel slide has a square profile and rides on steel frame inserts in the polymer frame. It also has an external extractor that serves as a loaded-chamber indicator.
The PM9's polymer frame has checkering molded in, but its grip is substantially thinner than the Glock's because it houses a single-stack magazine that holds six rounds. The tiny pistol's only controls are a magazine release and a slide release that doubles as a disassembly lever.
Like other striker-fire designs, the PM9 has an excellent trigger. The sample's broke at a smooth 5 pounds, 10 ounces. The trigger stroke was a bit longer than that of the Glock's. If I had to compare it to something, I would have to say it feels like a double-action revolver with a very light trigger pull. I shoot double-action revolvers well, so that suits me just fine.
The PM9 has a 3-inch, polygonally-rifled barrel and is only 5.3 inches overall. It makes for a very light, trim package that feels good in the hand.
Its LDA (Light Double Action) trigger allowed me to skirt my own "no-1911s" rule to include Para's slick little Carry 9.
The Carry 9 looks every bit the subcompact 1911 except for the absence of a protruding hammer as well as its unusual trigger. That trigger is the first clue that this isn't your pappy's 1911.
The LDA system was designed to give 1911-loving officers whose departments won't let them carry a single-action auto a familiar looking and feeling replacement for their favorite blaster. The LDA is basically a short, light double-action trigger. The review Carry 9's broke at 5 pounds, 6 ounces and was very smooth.
The Carry 9's steel slide is finished in Para's Covert Black and topped with Novak-esque sights with three bright, white dots. A heavy, tapered-cone, 3-inch, ramped barrel replaces the standard 1911-pattern barrel and bushing.
The Para's matte-black alloy frame accepts eight-round magazines. The controls are nearly standard 1911, save the bobbed hammer and beavertail grip safety.
The overall package is lightweight, trim, and compact — everything I was looking for in a pocket nine — plus it's a 1911. To be honest, I was not feeling particularly objective about the rest of the guns after handling the Para.
If thin is in, the Walther PPS (Police Pistol Slim) is as cool as pre-jumpsuit Elvis. The PPS's polymer frame is the only entrant to have an integral accessory rail molded into its dustcover. It has molded-in texture for a nonslip grip and a most unusual ambidextrous magazine release located in the trigger guard. To release the magazine, simply swing down the trigger guard.
The only other controls are the slide release, disassembly lever, and trigger. Like the Glock's trigger, the face of the Walther's trigger houses a small safety lever that releases when your finger makes contact with the trigger. The trigger doesn't just look like the Glock's either; it feels equally mushy at first but cleans up nicely once you get past the take-up. The PPS's trigger broke at 5 pounds, 14 ounces.
Like two of the other competitors, the PPS has an external extractor, but it also has a small cutout at the back of the ejection port
that allows you to visually verify that a round is in the chamber. The thin, steel slide houses a 3.2-inch barrel and a small set of steel three-dot sights.
The PPS's frame has interchangeable backstraps to fit shooters of every shape and size. Each backstrap is part of what Walther calls its QuickSafe system. To use it, simply remove the backstrap by pushing down and out to make the gun inoperable. The pistol comes with a short, six-round magazine and an extended seven-rounder. An even longer eight-round magazine is also available.
The .09-inch-thick PPS was easily the thinnest and coolest-looking pistol of the bunch, but because it was so new, no one I showed it to knew what to think of it.
To be fair, I selected shooters of varying sizes and experience levels for my testing. My shooters included the wife of a friend who is an inexperienced shooter with very small hands, a police firearms instructor who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall with average-size hands, and a police officer who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall with big mitts. I am 5 feet, 3 inches tall with small hands.
Before commencing my test, my partners and I spent a day on the range with the Kahr, Para, and Walther. We thought it was only fair to the other candidates since we all have so much time on Glocks. All three ran well and shot great, and we came away with a better feel for the strengths and weaknesses of each pistol.
I started my testing by running 350 rounds of assorted hollowpoint and hardball ammunition with bullets weighing from 115 to 147 grains through each cleaned and lubricated pistol. All four hit on top of their respective front sights at 10 yards and grouped very well. The Para, Glock, and Walther pistols performed flawlessly. However, the Kahr had a consistent hiccup.
The Kahr's issue initially was with the first round out of the magazine. When loading from slide lock, the slide would not close to chamber a round unless it was pulled back and released three or four times. Once that round chambered, the PM9 chugged right along. Later, I spoke with a representative from Kahr who explained that the pistols are held to such tight tolerances, a break-in period is often necessary. He advised me to use the slide release until I hit 500 rounds, and the problem would disappear. I tried it, and after one more extended range session, the problem vanished.
With the reliability work out of the way, I moved back to 15 yards for some accuracy work. I did all the accuracy testing to ensure consistency. Once again, all four pistols shot very well, especially given their compact sizes and fighting-gun configurations.
The Kahr and Walther pistols were the accuracy champs; both produced 1-inch five-shot groups with their respective favorite loads. But the Glock and Para were right behind, with the Glock's 1.5-inch best-load average accuracy being the biggest of the lot. That's outstanding accuracy in anyone's book, but it is especially good when you consider the intended role of these subcompact pistols.
The Glock was the favorite pistol of the two police officers who helped me conduct the shootout. But that was no surprise because both carry Glocks every day. However, their prejudices showed; though they rated it their favorite pistol overall, they rated other pistols higher in terms of individual qualities like accuracy, trigger, and ergonomics.
I liked the Glock, but I thought its slide and grip were too wide compared to the other pistols. I wasn't crazy about the trigger, either, which felt a bit too mushy to me. Our lady shooter dismissed it out of hand for being "too fat."
She liked the Kahr the best and raved about its tiny grip and smooth trigger. But she opined that recoil was more considerable with it, the smallest test pistol, than with the other three pistols. I would have to agree, though I did not find its recoil objectionable.
My only complaint with the Kahr was with the loading issue mentioned previously. Now that it runs 100 percent, the PM9's compact size, light weight, and smooth trigger make it tough to beat.
Our police officers' opinions were mixed. The shorter officer felt the same as me about the PM9, but the taller officer thought the pistol was actually too small for his hands. He shot well with it but would prefer a pistol with a slightly meatier grip.
All of us really liked the Para. It was accurate, reliable, and had the best trigger of the bunch. While not the smallest or lightest of our carry guns, it was compact enough for deep concealment. I really dug its sights, which had brilliant dots and a serrated rear sight. They were fast to target and snag-free. The only complaint came from our biggest shooter, whose hands paid the price for the minimalist beavertail a few times. Other than that, he really liked it, although he wasn't too crazy about having to relearn working a thumb safety after years of carrying a Glock.
The Walther PPS was the biggest wild card. It was the newest and most distinctive looking pistol, though this quality was obvious to all of us. Its reviews, on the other hand, were a mixed bag.
The standard grip was comfortable to everyone, and its ultrathin profile was very appealing, especially for carry inside the waistband. However, the slide was unnecessarily tall, which really accentuated muzzle flip for all of us. The unusual trigger-guard magazine release was not well-liked; however, I suspect it could become second nature with a little practice. The PPS's tiny sights were not favorites, either; though as you can see by the accuracy chart, they didn't hamper its accuracy one bit.
On the plus side, the PPS was very reliable and extremely accurate. And its trigger was very nice once you got past the initial take-up. I have no doubt this one will prove popular among shooters who don't have decades of experience with other platforms, but neither I nor my training partners are ready to learn a new system. Our female shooter, on the other hand, really liked the PPS.
The final results didn't surprise me a bit. Both police officers really liked the Para's sights. Lance, the shorter of the two, also fell in love with the Kahr's trim size and the Para's trigger. Even so, both officers rated the Glock 26 as their overall favorite — no surprise given their familiarity with it. The Para was their second choice, followed by the Kahr, then the Walther.
Our lady shooter picked the Kahr as her first choice. Though she was a bit put off by the increased recoil, she shot it well and concluded that it would fit perfectly in her purse. She liked the Para as well and rated it second only because it was a bit heavier than the Kahr. The Walther was her third pick, while the Glock's excessive girth moved it into fourth place on her list.
As for me, well, it's probably no surprise that the Para was my first choice. However, Kahr's PM9 tied it, as the Kahr is the pistol I will probably end up carrying in my pocket on warm days. The Glock came in third, f
ollowed very closely by the Walther.
Subjective tests like this are hard to do because they are so — well — subjective. What feels good to me may feel terrible to you, and vice versa. Were you to perform the same test with four different shooters, your own results would doubtlessly vary wildly. All I can say is that all the pistols we tested were accurate, reliable, and had excellent triggers. I would not feel ill-equipped walking the mean streets with any of them.