Each year, the SHOT Show presents handgunners with a smorgasbord of new product offerings from manufacturers large and small. Some are really new. Some are new variations or configurations of previously proven models. Some are, well, not much more than a new finish or a different rear sight on the same old gun.
Major brand names may have as many as a dozen or more new SKUs to offer for the coming model year; others have only one or two. At the January 2009 SHOT Show in Orlando, I rough-counted more than 60 "new" handguns being presented on the floor displays. Some break new ground and will definitely be long-lasting additions to the handgun world; others will likely not even be cataloged a year from now.
So, here's just a quick survey of my "Top 10" new handgun picks for 2009. These are the ones I think are the most interesting, innovative, and have the best chance of becoming popular players in the marketplace. The choice wasn't easy because most of the manufacturers responsible for the following handguns have several interesting new items in addition to the one or two I'm mentioning here, but these are my picks for cream of the crop.
"Best of Show" for this year's handgun field has to go to Ruger's new Lightweight Carry Revolver (LCR). The LCR is a compact, five-shot .38 Special that weighs only 13.5 ounces; has a fully shrouded hammer, double-action-only trigger pull, 1…ž-inch nominal length barrel; and is rated for "Plus P" ammunition. It is essentially the same size as a classic S&W Chiefs Special or Taurus Model 85, and it maintains basic holster compatibility with these guns. So what's so special about another lightweight, snubnose .38? Well, the LCR's lower half, which contains the entire operating mechanism, is constructed of polymer. Yes, that's right; the Ruger LCR is a +P .38 Special revolver with a plastic frame. It's the first polymer-framed revolver in history.
The LCR's construction consists of three major modular subcomponents: an upper cylinder-frame/barrel assembly, a lower frame/fire-control-housing assembly, and a cylinder/crane assembly. The cylinder-frame/barrel assembly is constructed of a 7000-series aluminum forging with a 1714 stainless-steel barrel sleeve threaded into the barrel shroud. There are also hardened insert bushings for the center pin and firing-pin opening in the recoil shield at the rear of the cylinder window. The barrel is controlled for barrel/cylinder gap by its thread-in depth, so there is no hard-fitting (filing) required at the breech end. This allows for a precisely finished and dimensioned forcing-cone area for consistent transition of the bullet from the cylinder into the barrel. There are no moving parts in the cylinder-frame/barrel assembly except for the cylinder-release latch mechanism; it merely serves as a housing for the cylinder/crane assembly and interfaces with the lower frame/fire-control housing. The grip is a soft-rubber Hogue Tamer with a cushion insert in the wraparound behind the rear of the frame.
During a visit to the Ruger factory a few months ago, I took two LCRs loaded with 158-grain +P ammunition, rapid-fired all five shots from the first, quickly set it down on the bench, and fired all five shots through the second. I fired about 100 rounds doing this in less than 15 minutes. My shooting hand felt no punishment at all. As far as I'm concerned, the LCR is a shoot-all-day gun, unlike any other ultralightweight revolver made.
Among the dozen-odd new handgun models and configurations announced by Taurus for 2009, two stand out. One is the new Taurus Model 738 TCP (Taurus Compact Pistol). Ultracompact, ultralightweight .380 personal-defense pistols are among the hottest handgun categories of recent years, and the TCP has advanced the technology and reliability of this format to a new level. The TCP is a very small, very thin, very light polymer pocket gun with a 3.3-inch barrel and an overall length of 5.19 inches. It is available in three versions: with a blued-steel slide or a stainless-steel slide weighing 10.2 ounces or with a titanium slide weighing only 8.3 ounces, making it the lightest .380 Auto in the world. In fact, it's lighter than most wallets. Just don't forget you're carrying it at TSA security checkpoints.
Designed as an up-close emergency defense pistol, the low-profile sights on the TCP are tiny and essentially extraneous to its purpose, but nonetheless, the gun embodies several full-size features not found on other tiny auto pistols. It has a slide lock that functions after the last round is fired, an ambidextrous magazine release, and a loaded-chamber indicator. Magazine capacity is six rounds, and an accessory eight-round magazine is available. Mechanical trigger operation is long-pull double action only. The Taurus TCP will be manufactured here in the United States. Real-world pricing for the steel-slide TCPs will be in the $300 range, with the titanium model about $100 more.
Also from Taurus is the Public Defender, a new compact-framed version of the .45 Colt/.410 shotshell Judge revolver that in the past three years has become the single fastest selling handgun Taurus has ever offered. The 3-inch Public Defender chambers the same .45/.410 (for 2.5-inch shells) but is built on the small Taurus Model 85-series frame, which has the same frame size as a classic S&W Chiefs Special. Of course, the frame is lengthened to accommodate the longer cylinder, but nonetheless, it is a compact carry-concealed gun and holds the same five rounds as its larger brother. The hammerspur is trimmed and rounded to prevent snagging on clothing yet is easy to cock for single-action fire. It has a fixed-notch rear sight and a red fiber-optic front sight, and Taurus hand-conforming Ribber grips are standard.
The Public Defender is available in either stainless-steel or blued-steel versions (weighing 28.2 ounces) or a titanium-cylinder version (weighing 26 ounces). Pricing will be in the $500 to $600 range, depending on the version.
Anyone who still questions the personal-defense utility of a compact .410 shotshell revolver should view the new Judge demonstration video on the Taurus website at www.taurususa.com. It's impressive.
Smith & Wesson
The new Smith & Wesson Pro Series pistols and revolvers are designed and specced by the master gunsmiths of the S&W Performance Center, but they are produced on the regular S&W factory assembly floor--with perhaps just a smidgen more attention to detail, ahem. Pro S
eries revolver models range from J-Frame .327 Magnum and .38 Specials to medium- and large-frame .357 Magnums. Pistols include special-featured M&P9 polymer-framed guns and SW1911 compacts and full-size .45 ACPs.
My pick of the lot--at least for this year--is the Pro Series full-size Model 1911 9mm, which is S&W's first 1911 in that chambering. It is laden with Performance Center-style features, including a 10-round magazine capacity, dovetailed front and rear white-dot sights, custom stippled RoCo wood grip panels, matte-silver stainless-steel finish, 30-lpi checkered frontstrap, hand-polished integral feedramp, oversized external extractor, full-length guide rod, ambidextrous thumb safety, extended mag well, and stoned hammer and sear for a crisp 4- to 5.5-pound trigger pull.
Long renowned for its line of high-capacity Model 1911 .45 ACP pistols and for its innovative LDA trigger mechanism, in recent years, Para USA has also moved into the conventional single-stack Model 1911 area. The new GI Expert 1911 is going to be a major player in this category. It's designed as a "basic" Model 1911 but with all the features a skilled armorer might add to create a pistol that can win you an Expert Marksman badge. These extras include a hand-fitted slide-to-frame tolerance to improve accuracy, a premium stainless-steel barrel, a relieved barrel throat, a polished feedramp for reliability, and a lowered and flared ejection port. It has high-visibility, three-white-dot fixed sights, and the front sight is dovetailed into the slide to allow for windage adjustment or for different-height blades.
Other features include a crisp, clean, mid-length, lightweight, three-hole trigger and a skeletonized spur hammer for fast locktime. The grip safety is contoured for the skeletonized hammer to eliminate hammer bite. The magazine well is beveled, and the GI Expert comes with two premium Para PXT eight-round magazines with removable floorplates for easy cleaning. The finish is thermally cured, Teflon-based, nonreflective, Covert Black Para-Kote finish that's similar to Walt Birdsong's highly regarded Black T. Hard and slick, it makes the pistol draw really nicely from traditional leather holsters. The Teflon-based lubricating qualities result in smoother functioning and also make cleaning a lot easier. Its MSRP of less than $600 is the real kicker for this pistol.
Kimber continues to add compact and ultracompact .45 ACP 1911 pistols to its industry-leading 1911 line. The Stainless Ultra Raptor II and Stainless Pro Raptor II are the newest. Chambered in .45 ACP, these functional and sharp-looking pistols feature satin-silver stainless-steel slides and satin-silver frames. The Stainless Ultra Raptor II has a 3-inch bull barrel and a compact aluminum frame. The Stainless Pro Raptor II has a 4-inch bull barrel and a full-size stainless-steel frame. The Ultra Raptor is impressive in its reliability. Other makers of 3-inch 1911 pistols have often overlooked the inherent change in barrel-unlock geometry that accompanies shortening the original Model 1911 5-inch design to 3 inches, creating huge problems in ammunition specificity and reliability of feeding. Kimber designed its 3-inch 1911 pistols to be 3-inchers. They work.
Raptor pistols have flat-top slides with a back-cut row of scales, scaled serrations in the gripping areas, and a beavertail grip safety that is bumped and grooved. Scaled frontstraps and logo grip panels continue the theme that gave them their name. The Raptor design theme is so refined that it was granted a patent, number D560750S. Standard features include Tactical Wedge three-dot fixed green night sights that securely mount in machined dovetails, zebra-wood grips, and an ambidextrous thumb safety. Raptor barrels, barrel bushings, chambers, and trigger groups are match grade.
Springfield's introduction last year of the impressive new XDM series pistol in .40 S&W chambering is being followed for 2009 with the XDM 9mm, which offers an amazing 19+1 firepower capacity with a grip that is no different in feel than the comfortable and ergonomic previous XDM .40 version. Eschewing conventional checkering, the texture of the sides and frontstrap of the XDM grip feature a lugged surface that matches the pattern of the interchangeable backstraps. It is evocative of an all-terrain tire and provides a remarkably comfortable and secure grasp. The angle and depth of each contour in the grip has been calculated for maximized control vertically, horizontally, and torsionally, and Springfield's tests of the effectiveness of this pattern have shown that it takes approximately 30 percent more torque to dislodge an XDM from a shooter's grasp than a grip with typical checkering or grooves, even in a wet or sweaty hand.
In addition, XDM disassembly and reassembly is easier and safer than any other semiauto I've ever handled. You simply remove the magazine and lock the slide to the rear, thereby clearing the chamber. Then rotate the takedown lever upward to vertical and pull the slide/barrel assembly forward off the frame. You do not need to pull the trigger, as is required with many other striker-fired polymer pistols. In fact, when the takedown lever is rotated upward, the entire XDM firing mechanism is disabled, and it's impossible to pull the trigger. And you do not need to push out or remove any takedown pins or levers from the gun. To reassemble, just slip the slide onto the frame and latch it back, rotate the takedown lever back to horizontal, and release the slide latch. It's quick and simple, with zero possibility of any accidental discharge.
In my view, SIG Sauer's most interesting 2009 pistol introduction is the new P238 .380 ACP. Not one of the new category of hypertiny .380s, it is specifically designed as a concealed-carry or backup handgun for legally armed citizens or law enforcement professionals. The P238 is a smart-looking small handgun built with the same accuracy and reliability as large-frame SIG Sauer pistols.
With an overall length of just 5.5 inches, a height of 3.96 inches, and a weight of just less than 1 pound, the P238 is built on an anodized alloy beavertail-style frame with fluted aluminum grips for comfort and a secure hold during rapid-fire usage. The stainless-steel slide features the popular SIG Sauer slide serrations and improves overall performance and accuracy. Additionally, the contrast or Siglight night sights are removable and adjustable for windage. The sear and trigger return springs are redesigned to prevent spring override of the ejector during assembly. Two finishes are available: two-tone and cor
rosion resistant Nitron. The P238 is shipped in a lockable hard case with one six-round magazine. MSRP starts at $515.
The FN Five-seveN USG single-action autoloading pistol has set a new benchmark for handgun performance. Firing the recently developed, low-recoil, high-velocity 5.7x28mm pistol cartridge, the Five-seveN features a textured, ergonomic polymer frame with checkered panels for enhanced grip. It is the only handgun currently chambered for this cartridge.
Operating controls are placed for easy access with a reversible magazine release and ambidextrous manual-safety levers. The barrel is hammer-forged and hard-chrome lined for enhanced accuracy and extended service life. Models are available with matte black, olive drab, or flat dark earth frames. Sight options include adjustable three-dot target sights or the new-for-2009 fixed C-More Systems day or night combat sights.
All Five-seveN pistols come with three magazines, a locking device, and a lockable fitted hard case. The new sight option is similar to the C-More Slide Ride, which has become the sight of choice for "custom" applications because of its ability to attach to any flat surface. This enables the sight to be mounted directly to the firearm or a custom-made mount, allowing the sight to be applied to applications that may not provide standard mounting options.
The CZ75 platform has long been called "the M1911 of DA autoloaders" for its battle-proven reliability and durability. Now, finally, CZ-USA has introduced a polymer-frame version of the CZ75, the 9mm CZ75 SP-01 Phantom.
The SP-01 Phantom has a polymer frame with an accessory rail and a forged-steel slide with a weight-saving scalloped profile. Two interchangeable grip inserts are included with the Phantom to accommodate users with different size hands, a feature that has become almost de rigueur for modern polymer pistols.
At 28.2 ounces, the Phantom is a full 33 percent lighter than the steel-framed models, making it ideal for all-day carry. Retaining the superior grip geometry of the original metal-frame SP-01, the Phantom has less perceived recoil than models of similar weight and power, and it is unmatched in its natural point of aim. The Phantom has an 18+1 round capacity in 9mm and will also accept all previous CZ75 model magazines. With a 4.6-inch barrel, black polycoat metal finish, a decocking lever, and traditional CZ75 DA/SA action, the SP-01 Phantom is state-of-the-art for the classic full-size CZ75 platform.