December 1999

Compact Defense Guns in .45 ACP: Smith, Sig and Beretta

You can fit up to nine rounds into these pistols, but is there really room for two trigger modes as well? We like Smith & Wesson’s 4553TSW more than Sig’s new P245 or the Cougar 8045F.

[IMGCAP(1)] Reliability, accuracy, a fight-stopping caliber and adequate capacity. Add concealability and the facility for rapid, safe deployment. These are the keynotes of defensive pistol design, as exemplified by three products we tested recently: the Smith & Wesson 4553TSW, Sig Sauer’s P245, and Beretta’s Cougar 8045F. All three seek to address not only the prime directive of self defense but liability issues as well. All the guns offer a long double-action pull on the first shot. While the Smith & Wesson stays in the double-action mode throughout, the other two transfer the trigger to a short single-action movement for subsequent shots. How is this safer?

The logic comes from the fear of an accidental discharge while holding a weapon on a suspect. Police departments were looking for a way to reduce liability, and the manufacturers responded with a design that they felt would make the trigger less sensitive.

Does it really work? Is it an advantage for the average consumer? How do two separate actions in the same weapon hinder accuracy? How much extra training will it take to master these weapons? Is it possible to use alternative methods to shortcut deployment?

With more than one action on our test guns it would seem we had than twice the usual questions.

Range Session
Normal procedure consists of shots down range from a benchrest position on sandbags or other support as necessary to steady the gun on target. We couldn’t use a mechanical rest from Ransom International because, as in many of our recent tests, these guns were too new for inserts to be available.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data chart

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We test at 25 yards unless the guns are designed for close combat, then we move targets in to 15 yards. Standards for acceptable accuracy range from a group you can cover with your hand at either distance to a point-of-aim “eye-socket” shot at 30 feet.

Above and beyond the usual groups shot through our Oehler Chronograph, we felt these guns should also be tested in ways that reflect their intended use. So we set up two additional tests. One featured a target with 3-inch bull at 7 yards to be engaged from low-ready position. At the signal the target is engaged with two shots. In the case of the DA/SA pistols the first shot was double action and the second one single action.

In order to succeed with this challenge, we developed three ways to deal with the switch from double- to single-action trigger.

The first technique is the natural reaction of ignoring the change in trigger span and just letting the trigger finger fall where it may. The second was attempting to master the dance one’s trigger finger must do in between using the first joint of the finger for DA and the pad of the finger for SA. The third technique took some practice. It entailed pulling the DA trigger to its most rearward position, holding it solidly in place and then creeping the trigger forward until the trigger resets with an audible click and pressing once again to repeat the process. We found this to be very effective for increased accuracy but it was not the fastest way to go.

Be forewarned that while mastering this technique there may be an accidental discharge or two. We strongly suggest you limit practice of this advanced technique to the shooting range with the muzzle pointed at the target.

The second test scenario was simply a rapid-fire session of 50 rounds at 10 yards utilizing the best available trigger mode. The DA/SA test was performed out of the box, but the 50-round test was performed last, after the guns were well broken in (average 300-400 rounds) and the test shooter was familiar with each weapon. Ammunition for the DA/SA test was Federal Hydra-Shok 185-grain jacketed hollow point. Our 50-round rapid-fire test used Black Hills 185-grain jacketed hollow point. Ammo from the bench was Winchester’s 230-grain full metal jacketed ball ammo, the aforementioned Black Hills 185 JHP, and Black Hills 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter.

We’d like to point out that the Black Hills products used from the bench were factory new (red box), and the 185s in the rapid-fire test were factory reload (blue box). None of the pistols were completely happy about digesting the 200 LSWCs, but they shot the softest.

Sig Sauer P245
Our recommendation: Although the most accurate from the bench, this $845 Sig was tough to shoot standing at any distance. But if you are partial to DA/SA guns or to Sigs, this gun may be for you.

Click here to view the Sig Sauer P245 features guide

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Our first impression of the P245 was that we would have difficulty controlling this pistol because the steel slide looked too big for its abbreviated grip. The base pads with the supplied mags include an extension to the front-strap, which can be helpful. We liked the sights initially because they stand tall and well defined atop the slide. The luminous three-dot night sights were adequately visible inside a dark room but in the bright sunlight in which we shot our 10-yard rapid fire test, the front sight reflected too much glare and put the P245 at a decided disadvantage. We have yet to see a set of night sights that covers all bases. We’d like to see luminous sights mounted in a lined or undercut front blade to prevent glare.

Controls for releasing the slide and de-cocking the hammer are mounted cleanly along the left side of the gun so that the right hand thumb has immediate access to the slide release and the left thumb can easily operate the de-cocker positioned just ahead of it. Ergonomically, this is one of the best designs we’ve seen. Continuing with a defensive scenario where the gun has been rendered into the hammer-back single-action mode, the pistol can remain mounted or trained upon a suspect and be returned to double action without disturbing one’s grip or creating a moment of vulnerability.

Bringing the P245 into action can be achieved a number of ways. Its primary design dictates that it be carried with one round in the chamber and six in the clip. The de-cocker can then be activated to render the first shot double action. We noted that the transfer from DA to SA was one of the smoother in our test, but the single action was particularly vague. This was the pistol that benefitted the most from our use of the hold and reset “click” technique we mentioned. With this technique we managed some very tight shots (0.80-inch) but also suffered one big one at 3.7 inches.

Dropping the low and high in this category still resulted in an average of 1.7 inches. But we wondered what kind of group could be produced under the stress of fire. Checking the results of our rapid-fire test, where it scored a lowest hit factor of only 19 out of 50 shots in the black, we theorize that groups would likely measure toward the larger end of the scale.

Two other rapid deployments can be used to bring the pistol immediately to single action. The “GI swipe” starts with the chamber empty and is accomplished by racking the slide on the way to mounting the gun. But this limits the capacity to 6 rounds. With 6+1 in the chamber and hammer down, the Sig’s hammer design is such that a practiced shooter can easily use the weak-hand thumb to pull back the trigger. As previously mentioned, we felt the SA trigger on this pistol is too vague for our liking.

But we still believe it is best to be familiar with only one trigger at a time. Certainly the consistent results from the benchrest session indicate that the P245’s slide to frame and barrel fit is best taken advantage using the SA trigger. With three very different loads, groups ranged from 1.6 to 2.8 inches. While none of the guns were completely happy digesting the 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter, all groups measured either 2.5 or 2.6 inches. The typical malfunction was the slide falling short of returning to battery. The Sig was also the only one to prefer the heavier 230-grain jacketed ball ammo over the lighter bullets that operate the slides of shorter pistols more reliably.

Beretta Cougar 8045F
Our recommendation: First impressions can be deceiving. This $719 gun has a great grip and lots of engineers behind it, but the recoil is considerable. There was something about the Cougar we liked immediately. Maybe it was the all-steel package. We knew early that it needed more grip than the mild vertical lines on the front and rear straps offered, so we added adhesive grip tape. It definitely helped.

Click here to view the Beretta Cougar 8045F features guide

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Then we noticed that it liked to be cleaned and oiled regularly. This isn’t odd, but many of today’s defense guns, especially the plastic ones, just seem to spit out whatever you lubricate them with. We first discovered this need while trying to shoot many rounds of lead semi-wadcutters. Our choice of Black Hills 200-grain LSWCs were accurate and pleasant to shoot, but the Cougar complained after about 200 rounds. The problem was, once again, failure of the slide to return completely to battery. Cleaning and oiling were all that was required, and as the gun broke in we could shoot more and more lead before breaking the gun down for service.

Over the course of our testing, the double-action broke in so nicely we wished it would operate DA only. We think even though the single-action trigger is not bad, the position of the trigger in this mode is so far rearward in the trigger guard that it disrupted the natural ergonomics of the pistol. A trigger span matched with the width of the frame is more conducive to a strong energized pull typically characteristic of double action than the fine placement of the pad of the index finger commonly used for single action.

Although the Cougar series pistol is now available in an even smaller package and referred to as a compact model by Beretta (the Mini-Cougar), our model 8045F shared the same “box-size” as the other pistols in this test. We liked the 8+1 capacity and overall feel of the gun, despite it being the heavyweight in the test. It is our opinion that this is the optimum frame size for a pistol of this design.

The Cougar series pistols are distinguished from the other Berettas by a rotating barrel that, upon firing, travels and rotates with axial movement.

According to the Beretta: “By channeling part of the recoil energy into barrel rotation, and by partially absorbing the barrel and slide recoil shock through the central block before it is transferred to the frame, the Cougar achieves unusually low felt recoil.” Actually, our testers found the recoil moderately heavy to heavy. In fact, it wasn’t until we added the grip tape that the word “moderate” appeared in our survey.

The Cougar 8045F showed a marked preference for the lighter 185-grain bullets. However, it did little to distinguish itself in any of our tests, no matter how much we enjoyed shooting it. In reference to alternate methods of fire, its trigger responded best to the “click” method referred to earlier. Of the guns tested, it is the only pistol other than the Sig that enables the shooter to carry a round in the chamber with the hammer down and pull the hammer back on the way to mounting the gun for access to single action.

Swiping is out of the question due to the ambidextrous de-cocking/safety levers mounted on the slide. Their forward surface is so square and abrupt that we winced each time we had to rack the slide. Manipulating these levers also forced the shooter to use the weak hand so that one’s grip is completely out of position should the need to fire arise.

Offering a DA only model would in our opinion likely gloss over many of the shortcomings mentioned above.

Smith & Wesson 4553TSW
Our recommendation: The price makes this $781 gun a contender. It is easy to shoot and performs well off the bench.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 4553TSW features guide

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If it wasn’t so going into this test, the feeling that one consistent trigger action beats two of any kind is now obvious. The Smith & Wesson 4553TSW was the only pistol in the test to feature a single mode of fire. The 4553TSW fires double-action only and its pull is the heaviest of any gun in this test. The only safety on the pistol (save for the handler’s discretion) is disengagement, where even if a round is in the chamber, the hammer will not fall if the mag is removed or ajar. It is on record that during the struggle for retention of a firearm the owner has defeated the intent of the assailant by pushing the mag release, rendering the gun inoperative. This goes beyond the original argument for DA/SA guns in the first place and even makes possible safe storage by merely separating the mags from the gun, with or without the seventh round in the chamber (capacity is 6+1).

At the bench this heavy trigger pull was detrimental to shooting small groups. On a rest the trigger becomes tiring very quickly. Plus the three-dot combat sights were small and wearying to use for fine shooting. In our first practical test of two shots from low ready at 7 yards we again wished for a larger front sight. However, our two-shot drills proved the most consistent of the pistols. No, we didn’t have any spectacular sub 1-inch groups, but we didn’t have the big 3- or 4-inch plus crashes either.

Groups measured in order, 1.4, 1.8, 2.4, 1.1, 2.9, 1.9, 3.0, and 1.3 inches. Even with this in the book we were surprised to find that our last test of rapid fire at 10 yards yielded 35 out of 50 shots (70 percent) in the black.

On the reliability front, the Smith had the least trouble feeding the 200-grain lead semi-wadcutters. While new, (fewer than 150 rounds) it missed bringing the 200-grain semi-wad-cutters completely into battery by 0.25 inches or less on three different occasions. By the end of the test (400+ rounds) no such malfunctions occurred. Sights provided are of the Novak three-dot design. The rear sight is windage adjustable and locks into place via an Allen screw. Grips are a plastic wraparound design that has become Smith & Wesson’s trademark. Checkering is molded into the back strap and cut mildly in to the frontstrap portion of the steel frame.

This may not be an especially lightweight gun, but its heft is more than acceptable. This pistol is quite trim and devoid of any levers or sharp edges. There’s nothing fancy about it. It looks like its short narrow grip would promote uncontrollable recoil, but it recoils less than the Beretta with all of its fancy engineering. In our view, the mags blend into the frame, and although a set of alternate base pads with grip extension are supplied, we found them superfluous.

Gun Tests Recommends
Sig Sauer P245, $845. Conditional buy. Its MSRP includes an additional $95 for the luminous Siglite sights, but we feel it is overpriced. Although it was the most accurate of our group from a rest when shot single-action only, this pistol was difficult to shoot unsupported past short combat distances. Contributing factors were a glaring front-sight blade and recoil that disrupts trigger control. Unless all your guns are of DA/SA or better yet, all Sigs, you may not be able to keep up the training necessary to adequately defend yourself.

Beretta Cougar 8045F, $719. Don’t Buy. Despite its comfortable grip, heavy weight and fancy engineering that ups the price, the 8045F recoils heavily. It might feel more coordinated as a double-action-only pistol. Ultimately, only one of our testers liked this gun and his enthusiasm flagged as it displayed only mediocre accuracy.

Smith & Wesson 4553TSW, $781. Buy it. At this price, Smith & Wesson makes life simple. Where other guns performed at the bench, we found that this pistol performs best when fired offhand. This all-steel pistol is well balanced to distribute recoil evenly, making it comfortable to shoot even the heavier .45 loads. For those with faith in nothing but revolvers, here is a 6+1 option in .45 ACP that offers a single, consistent trigger with the shortest learning curve demanding the least remedial training.