The first fundamental of gunfighting is “have a gun.” This is made easier by having a gun that is easy to carry, thus will tend to be there when needed. Though good holsters make the packing of a full-size 1911, for example, fairly easy and comfortable, there are still the matters of such a gun’s weight and bulk to deal with. Undoubtedly a smaller, though still adequately powerful, handgun would make the task of packing one easier. Toward that end we took a close look at two pocketable 9mm handguns, to see if smaller was indeed better. We won’t debate here whether the 9mm is a good-enough defensive round. Clearly it is better than anything smaller, and these two pistols are among the very smallest 9mms ever designed.
The guns were the Kahr PM9 and the Rohrbaugh R9s. Both were so-called double-action-only designs, devoid of separate mechanical safeties and fired by a long, relatively hard pull on their triggers. They each held six-plus-one rounds (the Kahr came with a second, relatively ungainly, extended magazine that held seven rounds), and both had fixed sights. The sight pictures were excellent on both guns, though they were designed, and so stated in one instance, to be close-range weapons only. The Kahr had a matte-black-finished stainless slide and a polymer frame. The Rohrbaugh had a matte-stainless-finished slide and matte-black aluminum receiver, and big grip panels with blue and gray decorations. Either gun would easily slip into a pocket, though holsters are available for them. The Kahr was about a quarter-inch longer and higher than the Rohrbaugh, and had a squared-top slide that made it look a lot thicker, but it was only 0.1 inch thicker than the Rohrbaugh. Both guns had minimal grips that permitted grasping with only two fingers of the firing hand, with one exception discussed below. One common suspicion concerning small pistols of any power at all is that they’ll hurt the shooter. How badly would these small pistols maul the shooter’s hand when pumping out full-house 9mm loads?
Right now, we’ll tell you recoil was not really a factor with either gun. Our official test-ammunition types were Speer’s Lawman RHT with 100-grain sintered copper bullet; PMC 124-grain FMJ; and Winchester 115-grain BEB light target loads. We also tried the guns with small amounts of other ammo types. Yes, these rounds all let you know the gun went off, and the Rohrbaugh banged our trigger finger slightly on the bottom as the gun kicked upward, but in our opinion recoil would be no reason to reject either of these small pistols, unless your hands are easily hurt. Our hands were hurt slightly from abrasion by the Kahr’s grip, but not significantly from recoil. The smooth grip of the Rohrbaugh, which we thought would give problems in control, was actually more comfortable in recoil over the long haul of our bench testing. Having said that, we preferred the Kahr’s grip for gun retention and overall control. The design concept of a small pistol for the small 9mm cartridge was thus thoroughly sound, in our opinion. It worked very well, we thought, in both guns — as far as the guns themselves worked. We did as much shooting as possible from fully loaded guns, six in the magazine and one in the chamber, and both guns handled that situation quite well. But there were some problems along the way. Here is the whole story.
[PDFCAP(1)]Specifically, our test Kahr was that company’s package labeled 9094NA. This included a black-finished (Black Diamond) stainless slide, and tritium inserts in the sights. The blocky-looking Kahr had a comfortable grip with square “checkering” that gave us good control of the gun. Though these raised blisters in our continued shooting, we thought the grips offered excellent and confidence-giving control of the small pistol. The sights were outstanding, presenting three white dots to the shooter. There was adequate room around the front sight to easily and quickly center it within the rear notch. Further, because most gunfights take place in subdued light, the three dots of the Kahr’s sights had tritium inserts, for a good sight picture in all light conditions. The front and rear sights were driftable for windage, and though the gun shot slightly left at 10 yards, we left the sights alone. The gun also shot somewhat high at that range, but elevation depended to some extent on the type of ammo selected. There was no provision for elevation changes, short of installing sights of different heights, though we didn’t think it was necessary. But we’re getting ahead of our story here.
The back of the front sight was angular enough that it could cause problems getting the gun out of a pocket, we thought, and that is something the individual owner would have to work out to his own satisfaction. Some pockets worked better than others for casual carry, we noticed. And there are “pocket holsters” that would provide a good solution to those who want or need them. Another feature of the Kahr was that its magazine latch was a button on the left side of the frame. The button was positioned so that it didn’t interfere with left-handed shooters, and they could easily get it with the trigger finger. However, some who like to carry a gun in the pocket might not be happy with that magazine release, because it can be accidentally pressed in the pocket without the shooter knowing about it, which could lead to having only one shot available in a gunfight. Most of us liked it just fine, though.
When the Kahr ran dry, the slide was held open by the magazine, and we thought that was tactically sound. The shooter knew instantly when the gun was empty (unlike the Rohrbaugh), and replacing the magazine was fast because of the side-mounted magazine-release button. Also, there was a left-side thumb lever to release the slide, and it made chambering a fresh round as fast as thought. Two magazines came with the Kahr, one having a huge extension that let us get all three fingers onto the grip, and also provided a means to rip out the magazine in case of a jam. This magazine held seven rounds, one more than the shorter one. We’d have liked to see a forward extension on the shorter magazine to permit ripping, but it didn’t have one. If the gun has a failure to feed, or to eject, it is necessary to be able to rip the magazine out of the gun forcefully as the first step in clearing a jam, and this was impossible with one of the Kahr’s magazines, and also impossible with the only magazine provided with the Rohrbaugh.
Workmanship of the Kahr was excellent throughout, we thought. The fit was adequately tight, with no rattling of the slide. Fit and finish were well done on everything we could examine. The barrel breech was locked into the slide, and tipped downward at the back to unlock. Operation was smooth, and got smoother the more we fired. We tested with three types of ammo officially, but also tried a variety of brands and shapes to see what the gun’s preferences were. The Kahr worked perfectly with everything we tried, from light target rounds to hot Speer Gold Dot fodder with 124-grain JHPs. There was never a trace of any kind of problem, which gave us great confidence in this small 9mm. Recoil was not much of a problem, but if you want to have an extended shooting session, some sort of hand protection might be advisable to avoid getting your hands ground up by the super-traction grips on this little hummer. You may not notice it at first, but our test shooters grabbed the gun with an extremely firm grip, and our long shooting sessions caused hand soreness a day later.
The Kahr’s trigger grows on you, we found. It broke at 7.0 pounds. We were eventually able to control it quite well, and though this was no target pistol, it acquitted itself well with some of our test ammo. The Kahr’s trigger was way more easily controlled than the trigger of the Rohrbaugh, in our opinion. This was especially noticeable on fast shooting that included “double taps.” We were able to get good hits with the Kahr a lot faster than with the Rohrbaugh.
The barrel was 3 inches long, with a 1:10-inch twist, and had polygonal rifling. It not only handled all the ammo perfectly, it produced some [PDFCAP(2)], grouping four of many five-shot groups into a tight bunch, with one of the five being slightly away from the rest. Though there were no clear indications of best ammo (for group) with our limited firing, we did notice a significant change in impact point with different types of ammo. Most of it struck high, about 3 inches higher, on average, than the point of aim at 10 yards. This was adequate, we thought, for any purpose to which this pistol might be put. But if we owned it, we’d find our best ammunition by thorough testing and then take whatever steps were necessary to get the gun to shoot exactly where it looked.
The smooth trigger pull of the Kahr was predictable. As you squeezed, it seemed the pressure was constant through the end of the pull. Second shots were faster (and easier) than the first, because the finger had become accustomed to the pull. The literature for the PM9 indicated its striker was partially cocked by loading a round into the chamber, or by cycling the slide. This permitted one and only one dropping of the firing pin onto the primer. If for some reason the round didn’t fire, you were not given the option of dropping the striker onto the primer again. Repeated pulls on the trigger did nothing. It was necessary to cycle the slide before the striker could again be made to fall. If you had a faulty round, it was naturally ejected by the slide as it was manually cycled to load another round. Tactically, this probably made more sense than the Rohrbaugh system — which permitted multiple hammer blows to the primer — if only because rounds with faulty primers historically almost never go off the second time, assuming a solid hit by the firing pin the first time. If you have a bad round, get it out of the gun quickly.
Taking the Kahr apart for cleaning was a bit simpler than with the Rohrbaugh. With the gun unloaded, it was only necessary to line up two witness marks on the left side of the slide and frame, and then tap out the cross pin that was also the slide-stop lever. Then, press and hold the trigger, and start the slide forward. Then let go of the trigger and remove the slide from the frame. Removing the recoil-spring assembly and barrel were then easy. The guts of the gun looked about as good as the outside, one more confidence-builder. Reassembly was a snap.
[PDFCAP(3)]Claimed to be the world’s smallest and lightest 9mm handgun, the R9s was scarcely bigger than some .25 autos we’ve seen. As noted, it was only slightly smaller than the Kahr, but was smaller in all three dimensions, and that all adds up. It felt and looked a great deal smaller, yet had the same six-plus-one capacity. Weight difference was a bit more significant, the Kahr going 16.4 ounces empty and the Rohrbaugh only 13.6. The R9s came with only one magazine, a serious omission, we thought, for a handgun costing awfully close to a thousand dollars. Fit and finish were outstanding, and the gun was clearly designed for pocket use, we thought, from its smooth and snag-free exterior. The sights, though adequate, were sloped to make sure the front blade would not grab any clothing on the way out. This had the unfortunate effect of causing the front blade to be less than clearly visible in some kinds of light, but for a gun designed for extreme close-range use, as this one admittedly is, they were adequate. The sights were milled into the slide, so no adjustments were possible. The gun hit close to dead center with all ammo tried, so adjustments were not necessary.
The grip panels were made of a stiff, light, and durable polymer, so far as we could tell, and incorporated an attractive swirled design in blue and gray over their large surfaces. Each panel also had a logo in the center. They were held to the gun with two Allen screws on each panel, and the gun’s instructions cautioned the shooter to keep them snug. No Allen wrench was provided. The instructions also cautioned the shooter to replace the recoil spring after every 500 rounds. This might seem odd, but we had no problem with it because it indicated the makers had absolute reliability in mind with this gun, and told the owner what he needed to do to maintain the pistol. The firing of 500 rounds in these small pistols will take, generally, a very long time. Of course, the initial familiarization process could take most of those, and that’s always a good idea. But we don’t think you’ll go broke replacing that spring.
Takedown was a real bitch. You had to hold the slide back part way with one hand, and then insert a punch into the right side, with the slide in just the right position, and push the takedown pin out the left side of the gun. This freed the slide and barrel assembly to be taken off the front of the frame. Inside the diminutive pistol we found outstanding machining and fine attention to detail. The interior finish was truly excellent. This made cleanup a snap. In battery, the barrel was locked to the slide by a simple cam-tipping mechanism similar to that of the Kahr. We took off the right grip panel, which permitted us to inspect and clean the trigger mechanism. We found the panel screws were non-magnetic. They seemed to be made of aluminum, and we hope they are not, because their Allen sockets won’t hold up over time. Though the gun was new, the sockets already showed signs of wear. Under the panel we found more excellent workmanship, and a trigger spring that could be easily removed for cleaning, or replacement if needed. The grip panel secured that vital spring in place, hence the requirement to keep the right panel tight. Normally there would be no great need to remove the grip panel. Reassembling the pistol was much easier than taking it apart.
The R9s had a hammer that was flush with the back of the gun until the trigger was pressed. The hammer then lifted and fell like a common double-action revolver hammer. It struck a sound blow to the primers, and that can be important with some types of ammo. If the round didn’t fire, you could just pull the trigger again. There was, however, no indication given the shooter to let him know when the gun has run dry. Firing the last round in the magazine didn’t cause the slide to stay open, and we are thoroughly accustomed to that little feature in all our self-defense handguns. We don’t want to be snapping a gun on an empty chamber when we’re trying to fire a shot. We would have preferred a hold-open feature, even if we’d have to tug on the slide with the weak hand to load a round out of a fresh magazine. No, that’s not the best tactical solution, and some will prefer the design as it is. Both guns would fire with the magazines removed.
The nicely finished stainless slide had a loaded-chamber indicator in the form of its extractor, which protruded with the gun empty. With a round in there, the extractor was smooth with the exterior of the slide. We didn’t take notice of this feature during our shooting. However, that is one of those things the individual will get familiar with as he gets to know his pistol. We thought it was a better solution than having an indicator sticking out in the breeze when the chamber was loaded.
The trigger reach for this handgun was less than that of the Kahr, and we found it to be less comfortable. We were able to shoot the Kahr with the middle of the first segment of our index finger placed onto the trigger, which gave good control. The shorter reach of the Rohrbaugh didn’t permit that with any comfort, although that would depend on the size of the individual hand doing the shooting. We chose to put our trigger finger fully into the guard and pull the trigger with the joint of our finger placed on top of the trigger. We then found the index finger would bump the thumb unless the thumb was held high. These are not complaints, just things you’ll have to get used to with this particular handgun. We found we had less trigger control with this setup than with the Kahr because of our deep finger position. The pull of the Rohrbaugh stacked badly, the last bit of pull being much higher than the effort to get it there. The actual pull weight was 8.0 pounds, 7 pounds of which was required to get the trigger most of the way back. The pull was quite smooth, however, and familiarity with it would probably give more confidence and better results.
On the range, we found the Rohrbaugh had some definite preferences and dislikes for ammo types. Specifically, don’t use 115-grain BEB Winchester in it, because that light-recoiling ammunition gave us fits. We had three failures to eject, actually lengthwise stovepipes, with three magazine-loads of that ammo. Clearing the jams was both time-consuming and difficult, not to mention potentially dangerous, because of two limitations of this pistol. The slide could not be locked back, and the magazine had no lip by which it could be forcibly removed from the gun. Therefore we had to hold the slide partway back with one hand, remove the magazine with the other, and then put things right at our leisure. In a gunfight, such a jam would be fatal. The gun printed groups of from 5 to 7 inches with that ammo, so that is clearly one type of ammunition to avoid if you buy this gun.
Unfortunately, we had other problems with the Rohrbaugh. We noticed clear indications of bullets striking sideways at a range of 10 yards, with all three types of our main test ammo. There were two partially sideways strikes with Speer’s Lawman, one with PMC’s FMJ, and two with Winchester’s BEB ammo. In most cases the tipped bullet struck well away from the main group. We noticed the Rohrbaugh’s 3-inch barrel had, visibly, about half the twist rate of the Kahr’s barrel. This undoubtedly led to insufficient stabilization of the bullets, and resultant sideways bullet strikes. We guess the low twist rate was used to slightly diminish felt recoil or twist in the hand. But we’d rather have a bit more twist and kick to the gun and have all our bullets strike head-on, particularly those that are designed to open, which must at least strike head-on in order for that to happen. There are no guarantees a firefight will take place at ranges where accuracy just does not matter, so we always prefer all the accuracy we can get.
Gun Tests Recommends
Kahr PM9 9mm, $845. Buy It. Despite the Kahr’s written statement that the gun is not broken in until the firing of 200 rounds, there were absolutely no malfunctions of any kind with the Kahr, with six types of ammunition tried. It only got smoother in its overall feel as our testing progressed. We came to like the Kahr quite a bit. It performed well with everything, and gave us the impression it was a well-though-out and thoroughly reliable pistol that any serious shooter would be happy to own. In our shooting tests the Kahr quickly showed itself to be the superior pistol over the marginally smaller Rohrbaugh. As noted, the Kahr’s trigger was far superior. In rapid-fire tests from 10 yards, the Kahr put five shots into a group about 4 inches in diameter. The Rohrbaugh put its shots into a pattern over a foot in diameter. We would be happy to carry the Kahr in our pocket as our only self-defense pistol, and we’d probably load it with Speer’s Gold Dot 115-grain JHPs. We had every confidence the Kahr PM9 would do its job, and because it is so small and light, we felt that it would always be there, ready to go to work. We think you’ll like it too. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s one of the better small auto pistols we’ve tested. For those who want more punch, a similar small Kahr is available in .40 S&W.
Rohrbaugh R9s 9mm, $945. Conditional Buy. In addition to the ejection failures with the light-recoiling and wholly inappropriate (for this handgun) Winchester BEB ammo, we also had one failure to feed with PMC 124-grain FMJ ammo, and another with Speer’s Lawman sintered ammo. We tried a small quantity of Speer Gold Dot JHP ammunition, in both 115- and 124-grain weights, and all of it worked well and shot fairly small groups. We did not test enough of it to gain confidence with it in this handgun, but we’d start with the hottest, lightest bullets we could get, if we owned the R9s. And we’d put a bunch of it downrange and insist on zero malfunctions with all our testing before we’d be happy. We also like all our bullets to strike head-on, and they all didn’t when fired from the Rohrbaugh. In fairness, during our limited shooting of the hotter Speer Gold Dot ammo, all rounds seemed to land head-first. Based on a couple of failures to feed with proper ammo and on our personal dislike of its trigger pull and the occasional tipped bullet strikes, we had to give the Rohrbaugh a Conditional Buy rating.
We could not reject it outright, we felt, because some of our test shooters liked it slightly more than the Kahr, especially because it is easier to conceal. More shooting could easily lead to greater reliability, and we would not rule out this tiny 9mm completely because of its quirks. Undoubtedly it was a smaller package to conceal, and that might be perfect for some shooters. The gun was clearly well made and seemed to be a good and relatively simple overall design. It just didn’t give us the absolute confidence we got from the bigger and heavier Kahr. Concerning prices, the Rohrbaugh was a C-note more expensive than the Kahr, and we think all pistols ought to come with two magazines regardless of the gun’s price. We can’t help but mention both of these handguns seem to be overpriced. At least the Kahr gave us confidence for our money.