June 18, 2020
Among high-capacity semiautomatic pistols in 9mm Luger (a.k.a. 9x19mm Parabellum), the new micro-compact Hellcat from Springfield Armory is uncommonly lightweight and small. Weighing a mere 18.3 ounces, it departs the factory with two stainless-steel magazines that hold 11 and 13 rounds respectively. My wife’s Glock 26 is small and lightweight, but at a quarter-pound heavier, a quarter-inch longer, a quarter-inch taller, and 0.150 inch thicker, it appears big when the two are held side by side. All things considered, the SIG Sauer P365 is the Hellcat’s only competition.
The recoil-operated, striker-fired Hellcat is offered in two variations. One comes with robust steel sights dovetailed to the slide, and the designers obviously knew what is needed on a personal-defense pistol. The windage-adjustable rear sight with its 0.145-inch-wide and 0.130-inch-deep U-shaped notch is bordered by a white semicircle. Up front, a tritium sight catches the eye just as quickly. Sight radius is 5.0 inches.
Prior to installing an optic, I fired 200 rounds in the pistol and found the sights quick to acquire and dead-on at 25 yards. They rank among the very best irons ever designed for fast and accurate shot placement under all conditions and at typical self-defense distances. I won’t be surprised to see them eventually appear on other Springfield Armory pistols.
The Hellcat is also available in the OSP (Optical Sight Pistol) version, which has the same open sights as the standard model but a 0.190-inch-deep mortise machined into the top of the slide is a snug fit for a micro red-dot sight. It comes with a removable steel plate that fills the mortise, giving the user the option of using the gun with or without a red-dot sight. Embedding the optic allows the open sights to be viewed without having to make them uncommonly tall.
The slide is carved from the European equivalent of Type 4140 carbon-steel bar stock, and it wears a durable black melonite finish. Forward-slanted grasping grooves are at the front and the rear, with those at the rear extending over the top of the slide. (Making them deeper would have been an improvement.) A chamber check is made by peeking into a port at the top of the slide. During a firing cycle, the spring-loaded, side-attached extractor takes a big bite on the rim of a case, and as the case head collides with a blade-style ejector located in the frame, the case tumbles through a roomy port in the side of the slide and lands about 20 feet away. The slide locks back on an empty magazine.
The 3.0-inch barrel is hammer-forged of Type 4150 carbon steel, and it also has a black melonite coating. Rifling twist is 1:10, and examination with a Lyman Borecam revealed mirror-smooth lands and grooves. During firing the barrel locks and unlocks with the slide as its underlug cams against an angled surface on the steel locking block of the frame. The polished integral feed-ramp of the barrel is precisely angled for the smooth entry of cartridges into the chamber.
A pair of nested recoil springs is held captive on a full-length guide rod. I am told that during testing, spring service life proved to be in excess of 10,000 rounds. Even so, the assembly is available at nominal cost from Springfield Armory, and to ensure reliable functioning, I will be replacing it in my Hellcat every 5,000 rounds or so. Call it cheap insurance.
Speaking of round count, in durability tests at the factory, multiple Hellcats exceeded 40,000 rounds each with flying colors. Bad guys know that the slides of some autoloaders can be pushed out of battery by pressing against the muzzle. That’s less likely to happen with the Hellcat due to the slight protrusion of its stationary recoil spring guide through the front of the slide.
The black polymer frame has what Springfield Armory describes as “Adaptive Grip Texture,” and it is in all the right places. Regardless of whether the hand gripping the gun is bone dry or rain-shower wet, the stippling and the shallow finger grooves at the front of the grip combined with a high-sweep beavertail at the rear cause the extremely lightweight Hellcat to maintain a solid position in the hand, allowing accurate, rapid-fire shooting.
Patches of the same texturing on both sides of the frame are located for placement of the tip of the thumb of the support hand when the gun is fired with a thumbs-forward hold. Due to a grip shape that encourages a high hold, muzzle rise when shooting the heaviest 9mm loads is surprisingly mild, and that makes snake-eye double-taps quick and easy. The dustcover has a short accessory rail.
As mentioned earlier, the Hellcat comes with two stainless-steel magazines of double-stack, center-feed design. Three bases are included. With the flush-fit base on the 11-round magazine, the front of the grip is long enough for a two-finger hold. Installing the pinkie extension does not increase magazine capacity, but it does extend the grip for a 2.75-finger hold. The base of the 13-round magazine leaves the front grip length the same as with the pinkie extension installed, but being deeper at the rear, it has room for two additional rounds. Pressing the magazine release latch gravity-drops empty magazines smoothly, and light beveling of the magazine well opening along with a tapered magazine add up to smooth reloads under pressure. The gun will fire a cartridge in the chamber with the magazine removed.
A steel chassis inside the frame contains steel slide rails, striker housing, passive safeties, sear, locking block, and trigger components. A blade safety in the center of the relatively flat trigger prevents it from moving to the rear unless the blade is depressed. A disconnector prevents firing until the slide and barrel are completely locked into battery. Should the gun be dropped, the striker is blocked from forward travel. The striker cannot move forward until the trigger is squeezed all the way back to its sear-release point. Average trigger pull weight measured on my Lyman digital gauge was 5 pounds, 14 ounces. Total trigger travel is around 0.360 inch with trigger reset easily felt and heard.
All controls are within reach of the thumb, and the slide latch is recessed deeply enough into the frame to discourage unintentional engagement. The exposed tab of the magazine release is grooved and easily reversed for a left-handed shooter.
Easy field-stripping encourages cleaning, and that’s a good thing. It begins with making sure the pistol is completely empty of cartridges, the slide is locked back, and the magazine is removed. Then rotate the takedown lever clockwise to the 12 o’clock position. While maintaining a firm grip on the slide, allow it to slowly move forward, and once you feel recoil spring tension relax, point the pistol in a safe direction and squeeze the trigger. The upper is now free to move forward and off the lower. The barrel and recoil springs are lifted from the slide.
Moving in the opposite direction, place the barrel and spring assembly into the slide, engage the rear of the slide with the forward rails in the frame, fully retract the slide, and push on its latch to lock it there. Rotate the takedown lever counterclockwise to its horizontal position, and you are back in business.
Optics-Ready Is the Way to Go
While the Hellcat is loaded with excellent design details and features, its biggest appeal is that it’s small enough and light enough to wear a red-dot sight without compromising its suitability for deep-concealment carry. As this is written, Shield Sights (RMSc) and JP Enterprises (JPoint) are the sources for optical sights small enough to be compatible with the diminutive pistol. Both are assembled in the United Kingdom with all parts made there. The 4-minute dots in those I tried proved to be ideal for the Hellcat, but other dot sizes are available. Installing either optic takes less than a minute. Simply remove the filler plate and bolt the sight directly to the slide.
Weights of the sights with a CR-2032 battery are 0.5 ounce for the RMSc and 0.4 ounce for the JPoint. The machined mortise in the top of the slide reduces slide weight by 0.80 ounce, and that makes a Hellcat wearing an optical sight and its factory open sights a bit lighter than the open-sights-only model. An optic does slightly increase height at the rear, but from a practical point of view, it by no means makes the gun any less concealable. And due to smooth, rounded edges, the optic will not snag on clothing. As this is written, I have carried a Hellcat daily for five weeks in a CrossBreed MiniTuck holster, which has long been my favorite holster for IWB (inside-waist-band) carry. At no time did the optical sight make the Hellcat less comfortable to carry.
Another huge advantage the Hellcat has over other high-capacity pistols of its caliber is remarkable thinness. Not much thicker than a slice of thick bread, you probably won’t need a longer belt and pants with a bigger waist to carry it in the thin CrossBreed holster.
There is no on/off switch, so the dot is always there. The sights sense target light level and automatically control light output of the LED to give optimal visibility of the dot against the target. And because dot brightness adjustment is determined by lighting conditions, covering the sight when the Hellcat is not in use will prolong battery life. A battery can last up to two years, but replacement every 12 months is not a bad idea. The dot does not suddenly disappear but becomes gradually dimmer as a warning that the battery should be replaced. And in the unlikely event that the dot is not there when you draw the Hellcat, simply align its open sights and squeeze the trigger.
Both optical sights and their mounting system are rugged enough to serve as a handle when retracting the slide. In an emergency situation, the front surface area of the sight makes the gun easy to perform a one-hand slide-rack should the other hand be busy with other matters or out of action. With a loaded magazine in the gun, its muzzle pointed downward, and your finger off the trigger, engage the front of the sight with the top of your belt, push the gun downward to fully retract the slide, and then quickly twist the gun away from the belt, allowing the slide to spring forward into battery. Doing so comes quick and easy with a bit of practice. Just remember to keep your finger away from the trigger.
Incredible Shooting Results
I had fun racing the red-dot-sighted Hellcat through a modified 90-round IDPA classifier consisting of targets at 7, 10, 15, and 20 yards. Strong-hand-only and weak-hand-only shooting is required, as is shooting around barricades. Most shots are to center mass, but head shots must also be taken. I also shot while moving away from the target, moving toward the target, and while moving right to left and left to right.
After completing the three stages with the Hellcat, I shot the same classifier with a full-size Glock 17 with factory open sights. I have been shooting the G17 for almost 30 years, and that should have given it a big edge. And whereas I started cold when shooting the Hellcat, I was warmed up and wheels spinning by the time I got around to the G17. As it turned out, there was very little difference in my overall performance with the two guns. The short grip of the Hellcat made it a bit slower to reload, but its optical sight made target acquisition quicker and accuracy better, and that made up for the difference. Simply put, the optical sight elevated my performance with the tiny Hellcat to the same level as with a full-size G17 with open sights. The Hellcat has totally sold me on the practicality and the advantages of an optical sight on a concealed-carry gun.
When testing the Hellcat for accuracy from an MTM K-Zone Shooting Rest, I fired 16 different standard and +P loads with bullets in a variety of shapes and weights. Bullet weights ranged from the all-copper 70-grain hollowpoint of the Lehigh Defense load to the hard-cast 148-grain roundnose flatpoint from Choice Ammunition. Uniform, across-the-board accuracy was simply amazing for such a small pistol. Nine of the 16 loads averaged less than 2 inches for five, five-shot groups at 25 yards, and not a single load exceeded 2.5 inches. The two most accurate loads by small margins were the Black Hills 100-grain HoneyBadger +P (1.55 inches) and the Lehigh Defense 70-grain HP (1.62 inches). The smallest single group was achieved with HSM ammo loaded with the 115-grain Gold Dot (0.63 inch) and SIG SAUER Elite Performance ammo loaded with a 124-grain V-Crown JHP (0.68 inch). The results for all 16 loads fired are listed in the accompanying chart.
Prior to shooting the Hellcat, I made sure it was properly lubricated. Cleaning and relubing took place after about 500 rounds. Over 900 rounds were fired during two range sessions, and the little pistol suffered not a single malfunction. No pampering or break-in period was required; it emerged from its box ready to go to work, and it kept on working until only a pile of empty cases remained. It’s a keeper.
Springfield Hellcat OSP
- Type: Recoil-operated autoloader
- Caliber: 9mm Luger
- Magazine Capacity: 11 and 13 rounds
- Barrel: 3.0 in.
- Overall Length: 6.0 in.
- Width: 1.08 in. (grip); 0.98 in. (slide)
- Height: 4.0 in.
- Weight, Empty: 18.3 oz.
- Grips: Integral to polymer frame
- Finish: Black melonite
- Sights: White-outline U-notch rear, blade with tritium dot front
- Trigger: 5.88-lb. pull (as tested)
- Safety: Trigger-blade and internal striker block
- MSRP: $599
- Manufacturer: Springfield Armory, springfield-armory.com