Every year, for at least the last five, the 9mm cartridge and the pistols chambered for it, have led the pack in numbers of units sold in the US. Today, almost a hundred years after its introduction in Europe, we can say the 9mm cartridge is so well entrenched in our own society that it is here to stay.
There are several reasons for its popularity, but not necessarily sound ones. First, the 9mm is a NATO round and has been adopted by our own military. Second, it is a relatively small cartridge and large numbers of them can be loaded into a double-column magazine. Third, when the police left the .38-caliber revolver and opted for the semiauto, they found the moderate-recoiling 9mm made it easy to train large groups of personnel. And, fourth, on the civilian side, some think that the ban on high-capacity magazines will be repealed. Good luck on that one.
One of the biggest trends in 9mm pistols is the polymer frame. When properly engineered, a polymer frame is stronger and around 80 percent lighter than a steel frame. Being molded, they can be made in more intricate shapes with no extra work. The downside is that gunsmiths can’t do as much with polymer as they can with steel.
The Test Pistols
Four full-size 9mm pistols with black polymer frames are the subjects of this test. They are the Walther P99, the Glock 17, the Heckler & Koch USP9 and the Ruger P95. The Ruger P95’s frame has polymer slide rails, while the others have steel rails.
Imported by Interarms, the Walther P99 is a $799 German-made pistol with a striker firing system and a double action trigger. An armorer can convert it to double-action-only. This model has a 4-inch barrel, three automatic safeties and a changeable backstrap. Two blued steel 10-round magazines with black plastic followers and removable floorplates are standard equipment.[PDFCAP(1)].
The Glock 17 is a $616 Austrian-made pistol that utilizes a Safe Action trigger and a striker firing mechanism. Since this isn’t a true double action operating system, there is no second-strike capability. It has a 4 1/2-inch barrel and three automatic safeties. Two 10-round polymer magazines with steel inserts and removable floorplates are provided with this model.[PDFCAP(2)].
The Heckler & Koch USP9 is a $681 German-made pistol with modular internal components, allowing it to be offered in 10 different variations. Each variant can be converted to any other variant by an armorer. Features are a double action trigger or a double-action-only trigger and an operating lever, located on either side of the frame, that serves as a manual safety and/or a decocking lever. This model has a 4 1/2-inch barrel and universal mounting grooves in the front of the frame for mounting a light or laser sight. It comes with two 10-round polymer magazines that have removable floorplates.[PDFCAP(3)].
Retailing for only $369, the Ruger P95 DC is an American-made pistol with an external hammer and a traditional double action trigger. The DC in this model’s designation indicates that it has decocking levers, instead of a manual safety. Two steel 10-round magazines, which have plastic followers and removable floorplates, are supplied with this pistol.[PDFCAP(4)].
Most pistols with polymer frames are plain and blocky looking. However, this was not the case with the Walther P99. It had the most radical appearance of the test and, in our opinion, was the most appealing. The polymer frame was very cleanly molded. It had a squared, undercut trigger guard and a non-slip gripping surface, which had thumb depressions on the sides and three finger grooves on the front. The machining and finish of the matte blue slide and barrel were excellent. The slide had a minuscule amount of play. There was no noticeable movement of the barrel when the slide was locked into battery.
The fit of a pistol’s slide and barrel is usually a good indication of how accurate the handgun will be. The less play these two parts have, the more accurate the pistol is probably going to be. More play will result in larger groups.
We felt the Glock 17 was the plainest looking pistol of this test. Due to a number of minor internal molding marks and a readily apparent seam on the exterior, our testers considered the construction of the polymer frame to be only adequate. However, its squared, undercut trigger guard and slip-resistant gripping surface were free of flaws. Steel parts were finished with a surface treatment called Tennifer that made them very hard, corrosion resistant and matte black. The slide had a lot of play. The barrel had a noticeable amount of movement when locked into battery.
Our testers thought the Heckler & Koch USP9 was a fairly handsome pistol. The polymer frame had a few molding marks, but they weren’t as prominent as those of the Glock. The squared, undercut trigger was large enough to accommodate a gloved hand. The gripping surface, which had texturing on the sides and checkering on the front and back, was non-slip. Our test gun’s slide was made of stainless steel (optional) with a matte silver/white finish, while the steel barrel had dull black finish. They were well-machined and had no flaws. The feed ramp was highly polished. We considered the slide’s fit to be very good, and the barrel-to-slide fit was almost excellent.
In our opinion, the Ruger P95 DC’s appearance and workmanship were satisfactory for a pistol that sells for under $400. The polymer frame was smooth, except for horizontal serrations on the sides of the gripping area. The smooth plastic gave the frame a blued appearance that we thought was appealing. However, serrations or checkering on the frontstrap and backstrap would have afforded a more non-slip grasp. Although a blued model is also available, our test gun’s metal parts were made of stainless steel with a matte grayish-white finish. Slide movement was noticeable, but not excessive. There was minimal movement of the barrel when the slide was locked into battery.
All of the Walther P99’s control’s worked positively. However, the unusual location of the decocker, which was mounted flush on top of the slide, took a while to get used to. Also, operating it was somewhat difficult for those with short thumbs. The large slide catch was conveniently located just above the shooter’s thumb on the left side of the frame. The magazine release, dual levers on the sides of the trigger guard, was ambidextrous. A safety built into the trigger prevented the trigger’s rearward movement unless the trigger was pivoted slightly.
Right-handed shooters could readily manipulate the Glock 17’s controls with the thumb of their firing hand, but only the trigger safety could be considered ambidextrous. This safety was a small lever in the middle of the trigger that blocked the trigger’s rearward movement unless the lever was depressed by the shooter’s trigger finger. The slide catch was a relatively small lever on the left side of the frame. The magazine release was a polymer button at the left rear of the trigger guard.
Since the Heckler & Koch USP9 was a Variant 1, it was set up for right-handed shooters. All of the controls could easily be manipulated with the shooter’s dominant thumb. The operating lever on the left rear of the frame served as a decocking manual safety. Moving this large three-position lever all the way up to the safe position blocked the hammer and the sear, allowing the pistol to be cocked and locked. Thumbing the lever to its mid-position disengaged the safety. Pressing the lever fully downward decocked the hammer. After decocking, the lever automatically returned to the fire (middle) position. The slide catch was a large lever on the left side of the frame. The ambidextrous magazine release was a double-ended lever at the rear of the trigger guard.
The Ruger P95 DC had the most traditional controls. The only control that wasn’t ambidextrous was the slide catch lever on the left side of the frame. The dual levers at the rear of the slide decocked the hammer when pushed downward. The magazine release consisted of dual buttons at the rear of the trigger guard. All of the controls could be operated with the thumb of the shooter’s firing hand.
Comfort and Pointability
Each of the pistols had a wide body designed to accommodate double-column magazines. But, the dimensions and shape of their grips were all different, even though the trigger reach (the distance from the middle of the trigger face to the middle of the backstrap) of each measured the same — 3 1/2 inches.
Our shooters felt the Walther P99’s human engineering was the best of the test. Everyone said the contour of the grip fit their hands very well, making it the most comfortable. Three interchangeable backstraps inserts (small, medium and large) were provided with this pistol. This allowed the backstrap to be customized for an individual’s hand. Pointing was fast and natural.
The back of the Glock 17’s frame was shaped to allow the shooting hand to be positioned up close to the barrel. This improved the shooter’s ability to control the pistol. The grip felt somewhat boxy, but its flat sides kept it from being overly wide. Pointing was more than satisfactory, though the front sight tended to align a little high.
The Heckler & Koch sat higher in the hand than the Glock, and its grip felt more squared than the others in this test. But, none of our shooters considered it to be uncomfortable. In fact, we thought the pistol pointed very well, which we attributed to the favorable angle of the grip.
Although the Ruger P95 DC’s grip shape was better than that of this manufacturer’s other P-series pistols, it didn’t fit our shooters’ hands as well as the other pistols covered here. The grip was also the widest, but its rounded edges prevented it from feeling overly bulky. The smooth frontstrap and backstrap were reasonably comfortable, but their lack of serrations made it difficult to establish and maintain a non-slip grasp. This was especially evident during rapid fire. Pointing was satisfactory. The pistol came up naturally, but the front sight tended to align high.
Although the Walther P99’s trigger took some getting used to, our shooters felt it was acceptable. The single action pull had a lot of slack and released at a heavy 5 1/4 pounds. In this mode, the trigger stayed partially to the rear if the shooter stopped pressing it before the release. The smooth, long double action pull released cleanly at 9 1/2 pounds. We thought the trigger’s face was a little short in length, because the bottom of the shooter’s trigger finger tended to drag on the trigger guard.
The Glock 17’s Safe Action trigger had only one kind of pull, which we considered to be satisfactory. Some said its movement felt like a short, light double action pull, while other thought it felt like a heavy single action pull with a lot of takeup. After about 1/4 inch of takeup, the pull released smoothly at 6 pounds with no noticeable overtravel.
Movement of the Heckler & Koch USP9’s trigger seemed heavier than it actually was. Our shooters rated its movement as average. The single action pull had a small amount of creep and released at 4 3/4 pounds. The long double action pull released at 11 1/4 pounds.
In our opinion, the Ruger’s P95 DC’s trigger was above average for a pistol in this price range. After a moderate amount of slack, the single action pull released at a heavy 5 pounds. The smooth double action pull released with 10 1/2 pounds of rearward pressure.
The Walther P99’s semi-adjustable sights provided a well-defined sight picture. Four interchangeable front blades of different heights were provided with this pistol. Elevation adjustments could be made by changing the front sight. Each blade had a white dot on its face. The rear was a snag-resistant blade with a square notch and two white dots. It was micrometer adjustable for windage (only). This arrangement’s point of aim was regulated exactly to the point of impact.
The Glock 17’s fixed sights were the most visible and easiest to acquire of the test. The front was a triangular blade with a white dot on its slightly angled face. The rear, which could be drifted for windage corrections, was a dovetailed blade with a white-outlined square notch. Both sights were made of black plastic. Unfortunately, this system’s point of aim was 3 inches to the right and 2 1/2 inches lower than the point of impact at 25 yards.
The Heckler & Koch’s fixed sights provided a good sight picture. The rear was a low-profile blade with a white dot on both sides of its square notch. The front was a post with a white dot in its face. Both were dovetailed to the slide. Windage changes could be made by drifting the rear sight. The sights were well regulated to point of impact.
We thought the Ruger P95 DC’s fixed sights were a little small, but afforded a decent sight picture. The front was a wedge-shaped blade with a white dot on its straight face. It was fastened to the slide with two pins. The dovetailed rear was a relatively tall blade with two white dots and a square notch. After loosening a hex screw, the rear sight could be drifted for windage corrections. Sight regulation was right on.
At The Range
During firing, the Walther P99’s slide failed to lock to the rear twice after the last round was fired. Both occurred within the first 75 rounds while using the same magazine and Winchester Silvertips. Since no other problems were encountered, our shooters considered functioning to be satisfactory. Accuracy was outstanding for a standard pistol. At 25 yards, five-shot groups averaged 1.58 and 1.65 inches with Federal Hydra-Shoks and Winchester Silvertips, respectively. As you can see in the Performance Table, even groups produced with UMC ammunition were good for 2.60 inches.
Initially, the Glock 17 failed to feed about a dozen times. Since this was highly unusual for a Glock, the pistol was unloaded, field stripped and inspected. We were surprised to find there was no lubrication on the slide. After lubricating the pistol, there were no more problems. The only complaint we had was that inserting the 10th round into either magazine was very hard, even when using the loading device that was furnished. Accuracy at 25 yards was consistent, but only adequate. Five-shot groups averaged from 2.80 to 2.98 inches.
The Heckler & Koch USP9’s operation was admirable. It digested all of the commercial ammunition we fed it without a hitch. We considered this pistol’s accuracy to be satisfactory for defensive work. The five-shot groups we obtained averaged from 2.23 to 2.80 inches at 25 yards.
No malfunctions of any kind were encountered while firing the Ruger P95 DC. Our shooters felt this 9mm’s accuracy was acceptable with the right ammunition. At 25 yards, five-shot average groups measured from 2.55 to 3.00 inches.