Though the $1,095 Pardini Model SP target pistol offered the best price/performance matchup, we would pick the more expensive Hmmerli Model 208S over it and Benelli’s MP 95E Atlanta model.
Over and above the cost of beginner-level .22 target pistols such as those we covered last month, there are many handgun choices for those who are willing to spend $1,000 or more for the best of the best. Some of these cost more than $1,500, and we suppose if you look hard you’ll find some over $2,000. We don’t know if it’s necessary to spend that much money for a top-quality target puncher, but we do have some solid opinions about three guns we tested recently that range between $1,000 and $2,000.
Our target pistols included a Pardini Model SP with scope ($1,095) from Nygord Precision; a Hmmerli Model 208S ($1,925) from Larry’s Guns out of Portland, Maine; and a Benelli MP 95E “Atlanta” ($795). The Pardini and Benelli were Italians, and the Hmmerli was Swiss-made.
We also acquired some outstanding target ammunition for them. We chose an English brand, one from Germany, and two from the U.S. They were, respectively, Eley 10X, RWS Rifle Target, Federal Gold Medal, and CCI Pistol Match.
We of course shot all three guns for precision. Once again we chose to hold them in our hand and avoid a machine rest. As with the high-dollar .45 autoloaders we tested back in April, these guns had already been proved in a Ransom Rest or similar machine designed to wring the most out of them. We wanted to insert the personal element, and so fired them by hand.
We were surprised that there were very big differences in feel. All of them were reasonably comfortable, at least for our right-handed shooters. However, one felt like the handshake from a trusted old friend. If you’re going to stand on your hind legs and blaze away at a bullseye, we assume you’d like the pistol to feel as comfortable as possible. However, it remained to be seen how well we could do offhand with each of them.
The two Italians had forward-placed magazines. The mag well was just in front of the trigger, and that gave the shooter added weight forward. All three handguns had radically shaped grips. The least radical was on the Benelli, which was an ambidextrous laminated and nicely rounded grip. The other two were cut for “north-paws,” which put our left-handed test shooter out in the cold. Other details on the guns follow:
Our recommendation: Buy it. This pistol is probably the best bargain in a modern target-only handgun that features all of the latest necessities, like short barrels and forward-mounted magazines. The short barrel gives shorter barrel time, so there’s less chance for wobble as the bullet travels down the barrel. The Pardini with a red-dot ADCO sight was a thoroughly modern, reliable and accurate package that was well made and efficient. Its construction quality, trigger adjustments, and feel and design features all appealed much more than those of the Benelli. It was far less costly than the Hmmerli 208S, even a good used one. If we wanted a serious paper-punching handgun with all the modern bells and whistles that wouldn’t break the bank, we’d buy it over the Benelli and Hmmerli.
The $1,095 Pardini came with an ADCO red-dot one-power aiming “scope” and two steel magazines, and had a beautifully carved grip of walnut that had to be put on like a glove. The price also included a case, tools, cleaning kit, and a pretty good instruction manual that covers necessary adjustments and cleaning disassembly for the entire Pardini pistol line, in Italian, French, and English.
The tiny red-dot scope added only 3.9 ounces to the weight of the handgun, including its rings. It had eleven brightness options, plus off. We liked it very much, and if we were serious competitors in bullseye shooting we’d have it on our pistol. It was clamped to the grooved top of the barrel by two large and solid-looking Allen-screwed rings. The great thing about such sights is that you no longer have to match the front to the rear sight, keeping everything even as you press the trigger. The bullet goes where the red dot looks. For older eyes this is a grand blessing.
In case you don’t like the pistol, you could remove the magnificently carved hand grip and display it as a fine example of modern art, and throw the rest of the gun away. We’re sure you’d (almost) get your money’s worth out of the grip alone. But seriously, once our hand was in place, the remaining wood didn’t give us a perfectly comfortable grip, but it wasn’t bad. We found we could hold the gun very steadily while pressing the trigger. Numerous grips are available for this pistol, so one ought not to fret if the supplied one isn’t a perfect fit. The alternate grip provided to us by Don Nygord had an adjustable bottom piece and was easier to grab. By the way, the Pardini was actually designed for UIT Standard and Sport Pistol matches, but it will do nicely for NRA shooting, as long as all trigger-pull and grip rules are followed.
The two five-shot magazines were easily disassembled for cleaning. They had plastic followers and bases. They went into, and came out of, the pistol easily and positively.
The Pardini’s trigger was adjustable for everything short of the phase of the moon. If you don’t like anything, anything at all, about the trigger, change it to suit your tastes. There were seven screws for altering just about everything. They controlled the trigger position (fore and aft), conversion from single-stage to varying stages of two-stage trigger pull, ultimate weight of trigger break, disconnector engagement, first-stage weight, trigger stop (to control overtravel), and length of first-stage travel. The instruction manual had a very clear diagram and instructions how to accomplish all this. For our testing, we left the trigger exactly as we found it. It was excellent, and broke at 2.0 pounds. There was a plastic chamber insert that permitted dry-firing.
There was no safety on the gun. Modern target pistols like the Pardini are not beginner’s guns. They are special-purpose tools that require dedication and knowledge from their owners. Because they are used on the firing line in a controlled manner by experts, or those who would be experts, a safety is non-essential. Also on a safety note, the slide did not stay open after the last (fifth) shot was fired, and we would have liked that feature.
The ejector was actually part of the magazine. The single extractor was mounted on the steel bolt. A button on the bottom of the pistol in front of the magazine permitted locking the slide open. It required a knack to do so efficiently. The pistol also had iron sights, fully adjustable by coin-slotted screws. The rear blade was just under 1.6 inches wide, perfectly flat on top, and gave a very open sight picture. Lots of light could be seen on both sides of the front blade, which was held to the gun by an Allen screw. We could not discover if different widths were available, but the front sight is of steel, simple in design, and alternate widths would thus be easily available.
The axis of the barrel was actually below the top of our hand. This design is supposed to reduce muzzle flip during rapid-fire shooting strings. We found the pistol recoiled very little, and follow-up shots were thus very fast. Also designed toward eliminating recoil were the coaxial bolt and the 50-degree grip angle, which was too much angle for some of us. The weight-forward design was enhanced by a large steel piece in front of the aluminum frame. The barrel and front sight were attached to this piece, which also contained four muzzle weights.
Shooting proved to be a challenge, but through no fault of the gun. From offhand, we couldn’t hold that doggoned red dot still to save our souls. From the bench it was a different story, and in changing light, the variable intensity of the red dot gave us an excellent sight picture at all times.
Our test results indicated the Pardini had a preference for European ammunition. Though the smallest group was fired with Federal Gold Medal Match, the average with that fodder was 1.0 inch. The average with Eley 10X was 0.8 inch, and with RWS, 0.7 inch.
From the offhand position we didn’t shoot for group, only for relative feel. We liked the heft and balance of the Pardini, and particularly liked the ADCO red-dot sight. On balance, we would have moved the trigger forward, but that’s an easy change to make. The next guy might have liked it even farther rearward. All but our lefty liked the grip, and even he said he would be able to shoot the gun as it was. Left-handed grips are available nonetheless.
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. There was something about the Benelli that was not quite right for some of our test shooters. Unfortunately, they couldn’t put their fingers on exactly what it was. It might have been the trigger pull, but that was pretty good. It might have been the feel or even the look of the piece. Something was not quite right, even though we can’t put it into words, but everyone who handled the Benelli noticed it. We preferred the overall feel of the Pardini somewhat more, and would choose it over the less expensive Benelli. Yet for the budget conscious, this was a more-than-adequate paper puncher, and you’ll save nearly $300 over the scoped Pardini.
The polymer-framed Benelli came in a plastic case with only one six-shot magazine. The laminated grip was fully ambidextrous, and mildly stippled (as was the Pardini) where the hand touched it. The two-tone appearance was attractive and appeared durable. The frame was black, the slide grayish-white with red-filled “Benelli” markings on both sides. The top of the barrel was grooved for scope mounting. We chose to use the iron sights for our testing.
Unlike the Pardini this one had a safety, though again the magazine didn’t stay open after the last shot. The ambidextrous safety was located just in front of the trigger. It could be manipulated easily by the trigger finger, or by the weak-hand thumb. The magazine release was on the left side of the frame, and required a knack to get the mag out easily. This was as easily done by lefties as by right-handers, so the gun retained its ambidextrous quality. This continued to the slide stop, which was a button on the right side of the slide that could be as easily operated by lefties as by the rest of us.
The Benelli’s rear sight blade was as wide as that on the Pardini, just under 1.6 inches, and also had two big open-slotted adjustments that our U.S. makers would do well to emulate, instead of using their discreet but nearly invisible screws that require two different sizes of screwdriver. The adjustments were detented, easily moved, and stayed in place. One major complaint was that the rear notch didn’t give enough light around the front blade. However, like the Pardini’s front sight, the Benelli’s was removable with a single Allen-headed screw, and even had a size number on it, so presumably a different-width front sight could be dropped into place. This one had “4.0” on it, indicating a width of about 0.16 inch.
A prominent cocking indicator protruded down behind the magazine, just in front of the trigger. We could see little use for it. This pistol really needed a second magazine. The one that came with it held six rounds and was well made of steel with a plastic follower, but there was no easy way we could see to remove the bottom for cleaning. Like those of the Pardini, this mag had a button to aid loading, but it was very small and not that easy to use.
The top of the barrel held a plug that permitted us to remove the slide. However, unless the pistol was disassembled further, it was not possible to rod-clean the barrel from the breech, though a pull-through cleaning line would work as well. No tools or instruction manual came with the package, so we were reluctant to probe further. It appeared that removing the grips might have made breech cleaning possible.
On the range we shot our smallest group with CCI Pistol Match. It was just under an inch. Most groups, however, were in the 1.2-inch range, and several went as large as 1.5 inches. We fired much better groups with our Smith & Wesson Model 41 in a recent test.
In our offhand evaluation we liked the Benelli about as much as the Pardini, but didn’t like the sight picture. We’d have preferred the scope. We had a hard time seeing the front sight. The grip angle and trigger position were very good, though some of us thought the grip had too much angle. We thought the grip was, overall, very comfortable. The trigger pull measured 2.5 pounds, and it was an extremely clean pull. We could not find any trigger adjustments, but it didn’t need any adjusting for any of our shooters. They all liked it just as it was.
Our recommendation: The Hmmerli 208S will not be produced much longer. There is a new design, the SP 20 introduced in 1998, that will take the place of this sweetie. The new one has, you guessed it, a front-mounted magazine and also a lower barrel center, making it much more similar to the Pardini and Benelli guns. Therefore, if you have a hankering for one of the best-made pistols we’ve seen, try to find yourself a Hmmerli 208S soon. We liked it a lot, and feel the 208S will quickly turn into a much-sought-after collector’s item. However, they’re not cheap, since current prices for an excellent-condition used sample range from $1,500 to $1,750. The last price we saw for a new one was $1,925 in the 1998 Gun Digest. For those kinds of prices we’d far rather have an old, nearly perfect S&W Model 41 and well over a thousand dollars in our pocket. We can’t imagine how SIG can offer the Trailside we tested recently for roughly a quarter of the price of the 208S. The price difference will buy lots of options for the Trailside, which will apparently keep this grand design alive a while longer.
Overall, we’d give the Hmmerli 208S a Conditional Buy. Get one if you truly want one, or if you hope to make money on it over the long haul. We think there are less expensive pistols that are just as good, if not as well made, than the 208S. This $1,925 gun felt like an old friend. The grip angle, shape, overall heft, and less-pronounced grip angle gave us a feeling of confidence that we didn’t get with the two Italian pistols. The Hmmerli was conventional in that it held its magazines (two eight-shot magazines were provided) in the grip. Some of us don’t like the pronounced grip angle of Pardini, Benelli, or Ruger .22 handguns, and the Hmmerli was much more comfortable than any of them. We didn’t miss the lack of front-end weight either, because a dandy muzzle weight came with the Hmmerli.
The big thing we noticed about this extremely handsome, perfectly polished, and well-blued pistol is that it was essentially identical to the SIG Trailside, only better made, and with the sights mounted onto the frame—where they belong—instead of the Trailside’s slide mounting. The sight picture was perfection. The front sight had a number, 3.2, on its left side, and was proportionally narrower than the Benelli’s front, which was marked 4.0. These are the metric equivalent of 0.12- or 0.16-inch widths.
The rear sight of the Hmmerli was, like on so many U.S. pistols, adjustable by means of a thin-slotted screwdriver. A tool came with the package to permit easy adjustments. This sight was affixed to the pistol with a single slotted screw, and it had to be removed from the frame before removing the slide for cleaning. The same multi-pronged tool is used for this. The slide was released by first pulling down on the trigger guard and pressing it to the side, just like on the Trailside.
The Hmmerli came with a kit that included a sight-adjusting tool, cleaning rod, cleaning brushes, Allen wrenches, and a spare chamber flag to avoid chamber damage from dry-firing. There was an excellent instruction manual, which told us there were two muzzle weight options, plus various front and rear sight blades to suit you. The manual also detailed the trigger adjustments.
The trigger had numerous adjustments, but again we found no need to change anything. The nicely curved trigger broke absolutely clean at 2.5 pounds. There was a safety device at the rear of the pistol in the form of a rotating dial that blocked the hammer. In the fire position it displayed a red line. In the safe, it was white. It worked. The muzzle brake attached via an Allen-head clamping device into a slot similar to that under the front of the Trailside.
The magazines were easily taken apart for cleaning. They were made of steel, with plastic followers and bases. They had loading buttons that protruded from each side, and that made loading them by far the easiest of the three test guns. Of course they held the action open after the last shot. Isn’t that what pistol magazines are supposed to do?
Gun Tests Recommends
Benelli MP95E Atlanta, $795. Conditional Buy. The Benelli was ambidextrous, featured solid construction and finish, and incorporated innovative construction. Nothing at all wrong here, but we liked the Pardini better.
Hmmerli 208S, $1,925. It’s expensive, but that’s the sole drawback of the 208S. Still, the price disparity between it and the Pardini merits us giving the gun a Conditional Buy.
Pardini “Nygord Master,” $1,095. Buy It. This pistol’s accuracy, trigger adjustments, clean design, and great feel made it our pick over the costly Hmmerli and less-handy Benelli.