In the July 2009 issue of Gun Tests, we evaluated three small revolvers chambered for 38 Special. These guns were chosen specifically as candidates for concealment inside a holster strapped to the ankle. In this test we will look at three semiautomatic pistols suitable for ankle carry or other deep concealment. Each of the guns in this test are chambered for 9mm or 40 S&W, but we went with the bigger round here. Our test guns are the $786 Kahr PM40 No. 4043 40 S&W, Walther PPS No. WAP10002 40 S&W, $713; and the Springfield Armory Enhanced Micro Pistol No. PI9240LP, $1329. Despite their small sizes, these guns are as pricey as many popular full-size models. But if it comes down to drawing a gun from deep concealment, at least you can take comfort in knowing you’re not about to depend on a cheap pistol. In fact, all three guns completed our tests without malfunction.
For testing in the summer heat we arrived at Phil Oxley’s Impact Zone, located in Monaville, Texas, at daybreak. The shade of a cypress tree and a steady breeze helped us keep cool as we practiced firing each gun standing offhand and from the bench before attempting shots of record. Then we fired five-shot groups from sandbag support to establish accuracy from the 10-yard line. We also engaged two different action tests that we hoped would tell us more about each gun’s capability when fired standing without support.
First, we tried our familiar test of delivering two shots to the center of an IPSC metric target followed by a single shot to the head area of its humanoid silhouette. Center mass on the target consisted of an A-zone measuring 6.0 inches wide and 11.0 inches tall. The head area measured 6.25 inches by 6.75 inches overall, with another A-zone measuring 4.0 inches by 2.0 inches to designate a preferred area of impact. After an audible start signal, the elapsed time of each shot was displayed by an electronic timer. Ten separate strings of fire were recorded. Test distance was 7 yards.
Our second action test also required three shots per draw but only to the center of the target. Instead of holding the gun in both hands, the shooter utilized only his strong hand (right hand only for a right-handed shooter or left hand only for the left-handed shooter). In each case the start position was holding the gun pulled back toward the chest with little more than the muzzle at the bottom of the shooter’s vision. Upon start signal, the gun was thrust toward the target.
Our list of test ammunition consisted of four different loads. For our bench session we fired Winchester USA’s 165-grain FMJ rounds and two choices from Black Hills. They were remanufactured loads (sold in blue boxes) topped with a 180-grain FMJ bullet and Black Hills new manufacture 180-grain jacketed hollowpoints packed in red boxes. For our action test, we relied upon Black Hills new manufacture 155-grain JHP rounds to help us paint a picture of how each gun might perform filled with defensive ammunition when rapid fire was called for. Here is what we learned.
Springfield Armory Enhanced Micro Pistol No. PI9240LP 40 S&W, $1329
The Springfield Armory Enhanced Micro Pistol is by all appearance a miniature 1911. But there is one major difference. The lower receiver, or more specifically the grip, was shorter front to back than the original design. Gunsmiths in the past have cut down the grip of a 1911 to make it shorter and more concealable, but to our knowledge no one has ever made one smaller in diameter. This change is lost to the eye because the entire pistol has been scaled down to match. According to the manufacturer, the resulting differences in geometry necessitated an assortment of changes to interacting parts such as the feed ramp, grip safety, spring rates, etc. Evidently, the operation was a success because our EMP ran without fault.
Most full-size 1911 45s are shipped with seven-round magazines, forcing the buyer to purchase the popular 8-round magazines aftermarket. The EMP 40 arrived with three 8-round magazines, making its capacity just as formidable as the big guns right out of the box. Elsewhere, we also found a list of features, each of them once considered to be custom parts, that we think justify the gun’s price tag. The aforementioned magazines are made from stainless steel and include a basepad that enhances both grip and assured seating. The magazine bodies were custom engraved with manufacturer and EMP logo. The thin-gauge grip panels were cocobolo, checkered and logoed. The front strap was left smooth, but the mainspring housing/backstrap was checkered. Above the housing was an oversized grip safety cut in a high arch and fit with a raised area to make sure the palm achieved full compression. The hammer was fully relieved to reduce weight and shorten lock time. This meant it could deliver a blow to the firing pin and return to its ready position faster. The trigger, which presented about 5.0 pounds of resistance, was a skeletonized lightweight aluminum part for this same reason. Night sights contoured to resist snagging on clothing were applied to the top of the slide, which featured vertical lines machined on each side but to the rear of the ejection port only. These were cocking serrations to enhance grip. In addition, a belt-slide holster and dual magazine pouch complete with rails for holding accessories such as a weapon light was supplied.
The EMP featured a 3-inch bull barrel, forgoing the need for a bushing at the muzzle. The recoil guide-rod assembly was a piston/plunger design. To remove the top end a special part was required to lock down the recoil unit. This amounted to a small plastic collar found in the gun case along with an Allen wrench to set the rear sight and keys for the internal lock located on the backstrap that seized the mainspring. With the slide locked fully to the rear the thin inner rod of the recoil assembly was exposed. Snapping the collar on to the exposed rod sealed the unit as one piece. The slide could then be unlocked and moved forward until the relief in the slide matched the detent on the slide stop pin. With the slide stop removed the entire top end could now be moved forward off the frame and the recoil unit plucked out as one piece. After rotating the barrel link forward the barrel could then be pushed out through the front of the slide.
At the range we learned that the EMP’s recoil guide rod assembly presented significantly more resistance to racking the slide than did our other pistols. Members of our staff commonly use a pinch-pull technique (grasping the rear of the slide between the thumb and the edge of the index finger). To rack the slide of the EMP, we adopted a technique that required less effort. We changed to gripping the slide with our weak-side hand to the rear of the ejection port between the fingertips and the base of the palm. Holding the gun straight ahead with the forearm perpendicular to the bore, the other hand held the gun in a shooting grip with finger outside the trigger guard and pushed the gun forward. The hand on the slide stayed where it was but released the slide when it was fully rearward. This technique, sometimes compared to working a slingshot, made charging the EMP much easier.
From the bench we learned that the EMP was best suited for the Black Hills 180-grain hollowpoints. We consistently landed five shot groups measuring little more than one inch. A lone 1.5-inch group expanded the average to about 1.3 inches across. Accuracy firing the Winchester 165-grain FMJ rounds resulted in an average group size of about 2.0 inches at 10 yards. That the EMP performed best with aggressive self-defense rounds rather than target or “practice” ammunition is just what we look for in a defense gun.
In our action tests we were reminded what the differences are between a double-action-only (DAO) pistol and the 1911. The sliding single-action trigger of the 1911 required less movement than the hinged triggers found on the DAO pistols. In addition, the hinged triggers move in an arc rather than straight back like a sliding trigger. Overall, the 1911 trigger requires less movement. All runs at our action tests began with safety on. We began each run with our strong-hand thumb atop the safety lever. At the start signal the safety was pushed down long before the sights were settled on target. We left our thumb on top of the safety to provide added leverage against the recoil of the gun. With so little movement necessary for the trigger, the gun was reset and ready to fire quickly.
The Springfield Armory EMP was the top performer in our action tests. Our first run was over in 1.79 seconds. The first shot was fired 0.82 seconds after the start signal. All our hits were perfect, two in the central A-zone and one in upper A-zone. We scored five perfect runs out of our ten attempts. Our average elapsed time for the runs showing three A-zone hits averaged about 1.83 seconds with a 0.77-second first shot. Firing strong hand only, our perfect runs took about 2.54 seconds with a 0.70-second first shot.
The EMP pistol we tested was built on a steel frame. At more than 30 ounces, its weight helped us control the pistol. Heavier than our other test pistols, we do not think this should eliminate it as a pistol suitable for ankle carry. The ergonomics of this small pistol were much better than what we normally find in a subcompact. There was no need to supply an alternate grip panel or the like, and making room for the fourth finger did not dictate using a longer magazine or special basepad. Best of all, anyone trained on a 1911 of any size or description will find themselves right at home with the EMP. It is a natural complement to a primary carry gun, even if your bigger gun is a different caliber. If the characteristics of the EMP are to your liking but you would prefer a lighter weight pistol, the alloy-framed 9mm EMP No. PI9209LP (tested in the February 2007 issue), would also be a very good choice.
Our Team Said: Perhaps the ultimate “Detective Special,” we think the EMP is destined to be a classic. For ankle carry, the EMP may be a better fit for larger people. But with its 8+1 capacity, few guns can fill the role of primary carry gun and a deep concealment piece like the EMP can. Custom features, extra magazines, holster and dual magazine pouch offset its higher suggested retail price.
Walther PPS No. WAP10002 40 S&W, $713
Walther’s PPS, for Police Pistol Slim, was narrow and snag free. Ignoring the discreet protrusion of the slide release, the pistol was barely 0.90 inches wide. The slick profile of its polymer frame included ambidextrous magazine-release paddles seated flush within the lower rear portion of the trigger guard. The PPS was the only gun in our test that had an accessory rail as part of the dust cover. This added to its squared appearance. The single supplied six-round magazine added a third finger groove to the front strap. Extra magazines are $57 each from waltheramerica.com. Five-round and seven-round magazines are also available, the difference between them being in depth of the basepad (which Walther refers to as a floorplate).
In each case the base pad overlapped the magazine body, reaching further back than forward. Separated from the gun the blue steel magazine, made in Italy, appeared to be seated upon a snow ski. The rearward portion of the basepad covered the bottom of the backstrap. This is important because the backstrap consisted of a removable panel (two panels, sizes small and large were supplied) to accommodate different size hands. The overlap included two hooks that locked into the panel. This served to block the panel release lever from being pushed inadvertently. Why all the complexity about the removable backstrap? That is because by removing the panel the striker assembly was decocked and the gun was effectively locked. This is a unique way of providing security, which Walther has trademarked as QuickSafe technology. Another source of security was the plastic case the gun arrived in. The latches were impossible to move unless you pushed them at their center and pulled them up at the same time. Otherwise, you could work up quite a sweat trying to open the case.
The grip of the PPS was angled forward, burying the web of the hand more than one half inch forward beneath the rear of the slide. When the action was cocked, a red-tipped striker indicator filled a hole in the rear face of the slide. A relief in the barrel hood served as a chamber-loaded indicator. The slide offered rear cocking serrations only, and low-profile sights that outlined the front sight blade in bold relief. Large white dots were countersunk into the front and rear sight units. The trigger required only a moderate length of pull. The press wasn’t entirely smooth, but it felt more like a mild case of plastic-on-plastic drag than a gritty metal-on-metal feel. A Glock-style safety lever was mounted inside the trigger face. The field-stripping regimen was also in the manner of the Glock pistol. Move the slide back about one-quarter inch, pull down on the locks located on the frame just above the trigger, press the trigger, then slide the top end forward off the frame. Reapplication of the slide meant simply sliding it back on to the frame and pulling it rearward until the locks clicked into place. Beneath the top end was a two-piece plunger, dual spring guide rod assembly. Both springs were captured, so the assembly could be removed as one unit. The barrel simply lifted out chamber-end first.
From the bench the Walther PPS was our top performer. Tied with the Springfield Armory EMP when firing the Black Hills 185-grain JHP rounds, the PPS was the only pistol that landed average-size groups measuring less than 2 inches across with all three test rounds. It landed the best single group of the test and the lowest average-size group firing the Winchester 165-grain FMJ rounds (0.9 inches and 1.2 inches respectively).
In our action tests our first drill required two to the center and one to the head. The PPS produced four perfect runs with all hits inside the lower and upper A-zones. But elapsed time and time of first shot were slower than our performance with the Springfield. Average elapsed time for the three shots during our perfect runs was 2.10 seconds. The elapsed time to first shot was about 0.93 seconds. Shooter impression was that despite the slower elapsed time the shooting process nevertheless felt smooth and coordinated. To us this indicated an easily obtained complement of trigger control and sight acquisition. Our shooter did however mention that at times he was guessing on the sight picture when moving the gun toward the upper A-zone. Was this a clear fault or a sign that the PPS was a natural shooter?
During our strong-hand-only drill we began to home in on this gun’s point-and-shoot capability. The key was to never stop the trigger. Even at the bench firing from full support, staging the trigger was a detriment. Pulling straight through the trigger break, we found we could deliver three accurate shots in a time frame of about 2.82 seconds. Taking about one second to get set and evenly stroking the trigger was the best advice. The PPS is an easy-handling gun that conceals well and handled the recoil of hard kicking rounds with comfort. Like the EMP it could serve as a primary carry gun but would also serve as an excellent batterymate to a larger handgun. Certainly we would match it to the Walther P99. Another option would be to have one as back up to a Glock or, due to its manner of magazine release, the Heckler & Koch pistols that offer similar operational controls.
Our Team Said: If you’ve been carrying a high-capacity polymer pistol, the narrow PPS will be a revelation. Double-action-only aficionados will take to it immediately. Extra magazines are pricey, but the shorter five-round magazine will better adapt the PPS to ankle carry or other deep concealment. For summertime carry or as a matching backup piece, the PPS may be hard to beat.
Kahr PM40 No. 4043 40 S&W, $786
The Kahr PM40 was the smallest gun in our test. This would seem to make it the most natural choice for an ankle holster or other manner of deep concealed carry. Indeed, it is a very popular gun for backup, and from its introduction aftermarket houses such as Wilson Combat and more recently Cylinder and Slide (cylinder-slide.com) offer enhanced custom Kahr pistols. This is not to say the stock pistol is lacking, but is a high compliment, in our opinion.
Overall there are more than 20 different Kahr pistols now available with different frame sizes, frame materials (stainless steel or polymer), barrel lengths (3.0 inches to 4.04 inches), finishes, and sights. Our PM40 was a subcompact polymer-frame version of the basic Kahr design with a 3-inch barrel and ultra-low-profile sights. Three other versions of this same pistol are available with night sights and/or a blackened stainless steel slide. Prices range from $786 to $939. The kahr.com website describes the operation of the PM40 as “Trigger cocking DAO, lock breech, Browning type recoil lug, passive striker block and no magazine disconnect.” We think the term “trigger cocking DAO” can be misleading because the trigger will not fire the gun without movement of the slide to set the action. The term passive striker block means that pressing the trigger releases the striker. You might say this is more of a drop-proof system than an actual mechanical safety, not much different really than the Glock or Walther pistols. The key is that the gun will not go off without pressing the trigger.
Without a decocker or a safety lever, the only point that interrupted its straight vertical sides was the slide-stop pin. When we listed the maximum width of the PM40 (about 1.11 inches) on our spec sheet, we were actually listing the length of the pin from the contact pad on the left side of the gun to the end of the pin on the right. With the pin removed, the gun itself is less than one inch wide. The box size of the PM40 varied from about 5.7 inches by 4.1 inches to 5.7 inches by almost 5.0 inches, depending on which of the two supplied magazines were in place. The flush-fit model carried five rounds, and the extended-length magazine held six. We did most of our shooting with the longer magazine in place because the flush-fit magazine left our pinky fingers dangling beneath the pistol. In most cases we think the gun remained small and concealable even with the long magazine in place. Each of these magazines featured a removable basepad for easy cleaning or to replace the springs and followers.
Field-stripping the PM model varied from its steel-framed brothers in that the slide was moved rearward to match marks in the slide and frame imprinted forward of the trigger guard rather than to the rear of the frame. Once aligned, the slide stop tab matched the cutout in the slide, allowing it to be pushed out from right to left. Pressing the trigger freed the top end from the frame. The Kahr also utilized a plunger and dual spring recoil system, but the forward spring was not captured. It was seated so tightly on to the guide rod that it remained attached to the unit. Reinstallation, however, did require compression of the spring against the inside face of the slide. After replacing the slide on to the frame, insertion of the slide stop pin began not with aligning the frame and slide marks but instead watching for the kidney shaped hole in the barrel lug to line up with the hole in the frame. After inserting the pin the slide was moved rearward to clear the relief for the locking tab.
From the bench we found the standard Kahr sights to be more than adequate. The front sight showed a white dot and the rear sight offered a white vertical line below its notch. The resulting accuracy was well behind when firing the hollowpoint ammunition, but the PM40 tied the accuracy of the Walther when firing the Black Hills 180-grain FMJ rounds and tied the Springfield Armory EMP when firing the 165-grain FMJ rounds. Overall, the Kahr PM40 was capable of delivering 2.0-inch groups with our selection of test ammunition. With so many different rounds of 40 S&W to choose from, we’re sure we could improve on this. But what was remarkable about this performance was the fact that despite having the shortest barrel, the Kahr PM40 produced the most velocity and muzzle energy overall. In addition, we liked the way the small gun nestled deeply into our hands without any danger of the slide bite.
In our action tests we did not find it difficult to land hits to the central A-zone. We didn’t have any hits inside the smaller upper A-zone, but only two shots narrowly escaped the head area completely. Elapsed times were the slowest of our three guns averaging about 2.47 seconds. First shots were fired at about the 1.10-second mark. We think it was the length of the trigger pull and the short sight radius that prompted us to be more deliberate. Our strong-hand-only runs were over in about 2.98 seconds. First-shot strong-hand-only shots came at about the 1.17-second mark, but accuracy was good.
Our Team Said: This is one of the few really small pistols where we could lock our hands around the gun and take command of the trigger while keeping the gun stable. With the shorter five-round magazine in place the PM40, was our best bet for ankle carry. Not a blindingly fast pistol, our PM40 was nevertheless precise and unexpectedly the most powerful of our trio overall.