November 1998

Gun Tests’ Gear of the Year

Here are our choices of the best handguns and long guns. We think their quality, performance and price are on target.

Deciding which firearm is right for you can be very difficult. You have to decide which guns will meet your needs. Then, you have to separate the gems from the lemons. Last but not least, you have to pick the firearm that will give you the most for the money.

Gun Tests subscribers have a big advantage over other gun buyers. We tell you what the firearms we test are really like. We give you the facts and our unbiased opinions, instead of hype. We can be impartial because we buy the guns we test from a regular retail source—just like you—instead of getting them from manufacturers. Furthermore, we don’t take advertising from firearms makers.

We receive many letters that ask what we consider to be the best firearm of a given type. To jump start your buying decisions, we’re giving you our recommendations on our choices of very good pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns. Our choices are based on testing we’ve done in the last 12 months.

Walther P99
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 9mm model has a 4-inch barrel, three automatic safeties and a changeable backstrap. Two 10-round double-column magazines are standard equipment. Most pistols with polymer frames are plain and blocky looking, but this was not the case with the Walther P99. In our opinion, it had a radical and appealing appearance. The polymer frame was very cleanly molded. The machining and finish of the matte blue slide and barrel were excellent.

All of the Walther P99’s controls 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. 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.

Our shooters felt the Walther P99’s human engineering was very good. Everyone said the contour of the grip fit their hands very well, making it quite 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.

We felt the Walther P99’s trigger was acceptable. The single action pull had a lot of slack and released at a heavy 5-1/4 pounds. 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 Walther P99’s semiadjustable 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.

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 124-grain Hydra-Shoks and Winchester 115-grain Silvertips, respectively. Even groups produced with UMC 115-grain ball ammunition were good for 2.60 inches.

H&K USP45C
One of Heckler & Koch’s newest handguns is the $716 USP45 Compact. Like all USPs (Universal Self-loading Pistols), this German-made pistol utilizes modular internal components that allows it to be offered in 10 different versions. Each variant can be converted to any other variant by an armorer with the proper parts. This compact .45 ACP has a 3-3/4-inch barrel and a spurless hammer. It comes with two 8-round double-column magazines.

The Heckler & Koch (H&K) USP45 Compact’s black polymer frame had an integral grip with simulated stippling on the sides and cleanly molded checkering on the front and back. There were dual 1-3/4-inch-long universal mounting grooves in the front portion of the frame for the attachment of a flashlight or other accessory. The dull black steel slide and barrel had what the manufacturer referred to as a Hostile Environment finish to protect them from corrosion. In our opinion, this pistol’s workmanship was very good.

Most of our testers thought the Heckler & Koch’s handling qualities were above average. It was a natural pointer, so target acquisition was a snap. Shooters with small hands felt the grip was too big, but those with larger hands said it was very comfortable. Felt recoil was very pronounced, but controlling the muzzle wasn’t difficult for a compact .45 ACP pistol.

This Heckler & Koch USP was a Variant 1, so its operating lever was on the left rear of the frame and served as a decocking safety. It was intend1ed for right-handed shooters. (The left-hand version is the Variant 2.) When the large three-position operating lever was moved all the way up to the safe position, the hammer and the sear were blocked. This allowed the gun to be cocked and locked. In the mid-position, the safety disengaged. Pushing the lever fully downward decocked the hammer, then the lever automatically returned to the fire (middle) position.

The slide catch on the USP45 Compact, a long lever on the left side of the frame, worked in the usual manner. The magazine release was unconventional. It was a double-ended lever at the rear of the trigger guard, which released the magazine when pushed downward from either side. All of this pistol’s controls could be operated readily with the thumb of the shooting hand.

This Heckler & Koch’s trigger had a 4-1/4-pound single-action pull and a 10-1/2-pound double-action pull. We felt these weights were very good for a pistol of this type.

We thought the USP45 Compact’s fixed sights provided a good sight picture, and were well-regulated to the point of impact. The rear was a rounded steel blade with two white dots and a 3/16-inch-wide notch. The front was a 1/8-inch-wide steel blade with a white dot on its face. Both were dovetailed to the slide, so windage adjustments (only) could be made by drifting the rear sight.

The Heckler & Koch’s functioning was 100 percent reliable with the three kinds of commercial ammunition we used, and it shot some very good groups. This compact .45 ACP ‘s best five-shot average groups, 1.68 inches at 15 yards, were produced with Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shoks. Winchester 185-grain Silvertips achieved 1.90-inch groups. UMC 230-grain metal case ammunition managed average groups of 2.30 inches.

S&W Model 686
The Model 686 was introduced by Smith & Wesson in January, 1981 as the .357 Distinguished Combat Magnum. It was the first of a new series of revolvers built on the manufacturer’s L frame, which ranks between the medium-size K frame and the large N frame. This stainless steel .357 Magnum double action revolver has a six-shot cylinder and adjustable sights. It is available with a 2-1/2- to 8-1/2-inch barrel, all with a full underlug.

Our test gun was a $499 Model 686 with a 4-inch barrel. We considered its workmanship to be above average. Stainless steel surfaces had a uniformly brushed finish, while the carbon steel hammer and trigger were color case hardened. The one-piece Hogue rubber grip had molded checkering on the sides and three finger grooves on the front. It covered most of the grip frame, leaving the top portion of the backstrap exposed. The grip was held solidly in place by a large screw that ran up through the butt. We thought the grip mated nicely with the frame.

The Smith & Wesson had a slightly muzzle heavy balance. When pointed, the front sight was right on. This made sight acquisition easy and target acquisition fast. The grip had sufficient length to permit a solid hold. Some shooters thought the grip was on the thin side, but everyone said its finger grooves were well spaced. Felt recoil was noticeable but controllable. Rapid, accurate multiple shots were not difficult.

The cylinder release was located at the rear of the cylinder on the left side of the frame. When pushed forward, it unlocked the swing-out cylinder. The release worked smoothly.

We considered the ungrooved 5/16-inch-wide trigger’s movement to be good. Our shooters thought the double action pull was a pound too heavy, but it released consistently with 12 pounds of rearward pressure. The single action pull had some slack and released cleanly at 5 pounds.

In our opinion, this Smith & Wesson’s adjustable sights were very visible and provided an excellent sight picture after a little trimming. The stainless steel 1/8-inch-wide ramp front blade was integral with the barrel. Its red plastic insert was poorly installed, but this was easily corrected by removing the excess plastic from the sides of the insert. The black rear sight consisted of a leaf and a fully adjustable blade with a white-outlined 1/8-inch-wide notch.

Our Model 686 functioned flawlessly with the three brands of .357 Magnum ammunition we used. Our shooters rated accuracy as very good. The smallest five-shot average groups, 1.87 at 25 yards, were achieved with Federal Hi-Shok 125-grain JHPs. With the USA 110-grain JHPs and Remington 158-grain LSWCs, groups averaged from 2.48 to 2.50 inches, respectively.

Ruger Vaquero
One of the most popular handguns in Cowboy Action shooting is the Ruger Vaquero. This six-shot single action revolver is a fixed-sight version of the manufacturer’s New Model Blackhawk. It is available in .44/40, .45 Long Colt, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. Options include two finishes, stainless steel or blued with a proprietary “color case finish” frame, and three barrel lengths, from 4-5/8 to 7-1/2 inches. This model retails for $434.

We felt the fit and finish of our .45 LC Vaquero was above average. The barrel, cylinder and grip frame had a uniform polished blue finish. The cylinder frame’s “color case finish” was well done, but our shooters said it was not as distinctive looking as a true color case hardened finish. Both of the hardwood grip panels were slightly oversized in several areas, causing the wood to protrude above the surface of the grip frame.

Although the Vaquero had a 5-1/2-inch barrel and weighed 40 ounces, these factors didn’t adversely effect its handling. Muzzle stability was good. Pointing and target acquisition were quick. All shooters said the wooden grips afforded a very good hand-filling hold, and their shape effectively helped dissipate felt recoil. This .45 LC’s moderate muzzle jump was easy to control.

This Ruger’s loading and unloading sequence was easy. When loading or unloading most single-action revolvers, the hammer must first be thumbed back to the loading position to permit the cylinder to turn freely. This wasn’t needed, or even possible, on the Vaquero. Unlocking this revolver’s cylinder was a simple matter of opening the loading gate, which activated its interlock mechanism.

Movement of the ungrooved trigger was, in our opinion, satisfactory. Its pull released cleanly with 3-3/4 pounds of rearward pressure. There was a minor amount of takeup and overtravel.

In our opinion, this Ruger’s fixed sights were very good for a revolver of this type. The rear sight, a square notch in the top of the frame, was the easiest to acquire and see clearly. It, and the quarter-moon-shaped front blade, provided a well-defined sight picture.

During live fire testing, the Vaquero functioned flawlessly with the three brands of ammunition we used. Unlike most other cowboy revolvers, this one had a modern passive safety. It was an internal transfer bar system that prevented firing if the trigger wasn’t pulled to the rear. We thought the Vaquero’s accuracy was average. At 15 yards, its five-shot groups averaged from 1.55 inches with Remington 225-grain LSWCs to 2.08 inches with Black Hills 250-grain RNFP ammunition.

Marlin Model 7000
The Marlin Model 7000 is a semiautomatic .22 LR rifle with a heavy barrel. Its receiver is made of an aluminum alloy with a matte black finish. The 18-inch barrel measures 0.81 inch in diameter at the muzzle and has a brushed blue finish. The stock is made of a black fiberglass-filled synthetic, with a smooth finish and molded-in checkering. This $219 rifle features a detachable 10-round magazine and a FAL-like bolt control lever that we’ll describe a bit later.

We thought the Marlin 7000 was about average in its stock-to-metal and metal-to-metal fitting. The barrel was not free-floated, and there was a medium-size gap at the rear of the receiver and a small gap around the rear of the trigger guard. There was some play in the magazine when it was locked in place, and there was a moderate to small amount of play in the majority of the moving parts.

Weighing 5-1/4 pounds, the light Marlin 7000 was very fast in shouldering and target acquisition. Most of our shooters liked its 14-inch pull length. They also thought the rifle had enough muzzle heft for adequate offhand stability, in spite of its light weight. The recoil pad was comfortable, but just about all shooters wanted a less-pointed toe. We thought the raised comb permitted good cheek and jaw contact for comfortable and easy shooting. Recoil was completely controllable and inconsequential.

The Model 7000’s bolt operated smoothly, and had a large cocking handle. (Remember those gloves in cold weather?) One of the neatest features was the bolt release/lock lever, located on the right forward portion of the trigger guard. Pulling back the bolt and pushing up on the lever locked the bolt open. After inserting a loaded magazine, pressing down on the lever released the bolt to fly forward and chamber a round. The bolt automatically locked open after the last shot. The bolt release/locking lever worked well and smoothly.

The Marlin’s manual safety was a crossbolt located at the rear of the trigger guard. Another safety-related feature was a magazine disconnect device, which made it impossible to fire the gun with the magazine removed. Getting the magazine out of the Marlin required pressing rearward on a spring-steel catch located at the rear of the magazine well. It worked well.

Marlin equipped the Model 7000 with a 5-1/4-pound trigger. Its pull had minor slack, a clean release and little overtravel. The trigger itself had a grooved 1/4-inch-wide face.

A two-piece Weaver-style scope base was included with the rifle, but there were no metallic sights. For testing, we installed a Burris 3-9X Mini scope on the Marlin using the provided base and a set of rings.

There were no malfunctions of any kind during our testing of the Model 7000. Accuracy was, in our opinion, more than acceptable. The best five-shot average groups, 1.55 inches at 100 yards, were produced with Federal’s Gold Medal Match load. Not many production .22 LR rifles will consistently beat that, and usually not by much. Winchester T-22’s were good for 1.60-inch groups. Remington High Velocity ammunition managed 2.68 inches.

Browning BAR Lightweight
As its model designation suggests, the Browning BAR Mark II Lightweight is a lightened version of the manufacturer’s standard BAR Mark II Safari rifle. The weight reduction is achieved by making the receiver of an aluminum alloy, instead of steel, and shortening the barrel to 20 inches. This $730 gas-operated semiautomatic rifle features a detachable four-round magazine on a hinged floorplate, open sights and a rotary bolt. It is available in four non-magnum calibers from .243 Winchester to .30-06 Springfield.

In our opinion, the workmanship of the .30-06 Browning BAR Mk II Lightweight we acquired for this test was very good. The alloy receiver and trigger guard had a matte black finish, while the steel barrel was brightly blued. The steel bolt had a matte grayish-white finish. No tool marks or sharp edges were found. Moving parts had little or no unnecessary movement.

The Browning’s two-piece stock was made of select walnut with a high gloss finish. Its checkering was somewhat dull, and the cuts on the pistol grip were ragged in several places. However, the black rubber recoil pad with a black spacer and the blued steel swivel studs were expertly installed. In wood-to-metal mating, the only gaps present were one at the rear edge of the forend, intended to permit the hinged floorplate to move freely, and another around the back of the trigger guard, intended to allow the removal of the trigger assembly. The barrel wasn’t free floating.

Weighing 7 pounds and measuring 41-5/8 inches long, the Browning was only slightly muzzle heavy. However, it still had enough forward heft for good muzzle stability. Shouldering and target acquisition were fast and natural. The rubber recoil pad was non-slip and lessened felt recoil, but our shooters didn’t care for its squared edges. Although the straight comb afforded a very good stockweld when using the open sights, it permitted mostly jaw contact when using a scope.

The Browning BAR Mk II Lightweight’s controls worked smoothly and conveniently. When pushed from the left to the right, the crossbolt safety at the rear of the trigger guard prevented firing by blocking the trigger sear. When moved rearward, the magazine catch in front of the trigger guard unlocked the back of the hinged floorplate. Once open, the magazine snapped on and off the floorplate. When pushed downward, the bolt release at the right rear of the forend permitted the bolt to move forward to the closed position.

Our shooters considered the Browning’s trigger movement to be acceptable, though it could have been about a pound lighter. After a small amount of creep, the pull released cleanly at 5 pounds. There was a little overtravel. The gold-colored trigger had an ungrooved 5/16-inch-wide face with comfortably rounded edges.

We felt the Browning BAR Mk II Lightweight’s open sights were first-rate. For accuracy testing, we installed a Burris 3-9X Mini scope on the gun using a one-piece base and Redfield-type rings (not included with the rifle).

Regardless of the ammunition used, the Browning’s functioning was 100 percent reliable. The bolt automatically locked open after the last round was fired, and stayed open when the magazine was removed. In our opinion, the BAR Mk II Lightweight’s accuracy was satisfactory for a .30-06 hunting rifle. It produced the smallest three-shot average groups, 1.50 inches at 100 yards, with Winchester 165-grain PSPs. Remington 125-grain PSPs achieved 1.53-inch groups. Federal Premium 150-grain BTSPs averaged 2.55 inches.

Ruger Red Label
For many years, the Ruger Red Label was the only over/under shotgun made in the USA. Although other such guns are now available, it is arguably the most popular. This model is offered in 12, 20 and 28 gauge with 26-, 28- or 30-inch barrels and a straight or pistol grip. Features include a single selective trigger, selective automatic ejectors and an automatic safety. The 20 gauge version in this test has a suggested retail price of $1,215.

Workmanship of the Red Label was, in our opinion, above average. Its stainless steel receiver and forend iron had a brushed low-glare finish, while the 26-inch barrels and other blued parts were brightly polished. The barrel assembly had no undesirable side-to-side movement. The two-piece stock was made of American walnut with a flawless satin finish and expertly cut 20 line-per-inch checkering. In wood-to-metal mating, the only shortcomings were a small gap on the left side of the receiver’s upper tang and another along the right side of the barrel.

In handling, we found the Red Label to be almost evenly balanced. Consequently, shouldering was quick and easy. Swinging was fast and responsive. The buttstock’s comb afforded a comfortable cheek-to-stock fit with a very good view of the sighting plane. Shooters with large hands felt the semi-beavertail forend and the pistol grip were a little too slim, but they could be grasped securely. The rubber recoil pad did a good job of lessening felt recoil and was nonslip.

Both right- and left-handed shooters could readily manipulate the controls with the thumb of their firing hand. The action release was a large lever on the tang. The sliding safety on the tang, which automatically engaged when the action was opened, also served as the barrel selector. All of the controls operated smoothly and easily.

Experienced shotgunners think that both of the trigger pulls on a double-barreled shotgun should feel and weigh the same. The Red Label’s ungrooved 5/16-inch-wide stainless steel trigger almost made it. The first pull released at 4-1/2 pounds, while the second pull released at 5 pounds. Both trigger pulls had a moderate amount of takeup.

In our opinion, this Ruger’s sighting system was satisfactory. It consisted of a ventilated barrel rib with a medium size, gold colored bead on the front. The top of the rib was serrated to prevent glare.

With the commercial shotshells we tried, this Ruger functioned admirably. The barrel assembly unlocked easily, and its pivoting movement was smooth and free. When the action was opened, the selective ejectors automatically ejected spent hulls and pushed live rounds rearward about 1/4 inch for relatively easy removal.

Five 2-inch-long screw-in choke tubes made of stainless steel, and a blued steel wrench, were provided with the Red Label. Both of the tubes installed in the shotgun at the factory were labeled Skeet, while the other tubes were rated as Improved Cylinder, Modified and Full. Each of the chokes provided well-distributed shot patterns with Winchester #8 Small Game Hunter shotshells and Fiocchi #7 1/2 Field loads.

Remington 870 ESM
The Remington Model 870 Express Super Magnum is a $332 12 gauge pump shotgun with a 3-1/2-inch chamber. It will fire all types of shotshells from 2-3/4-inch up to 3-1/2-inch. Consequently, the shotgun is very versatile. Other features are a 28-inch barrel, a Modified screw-in choke tube and a tubular magazine. This model’s magazine holds three 3-1/2-inch shells, four 3-inch shells or four 2-3/4-inch shells. Our Remington Super Magnum had a plain-looking hardwood stock with a satin finish and pressed checkering. The buttstock had a black rubber recoil pad with black spacer that was slightly undersized. All metal surfaces had a matte blue/black finish. The steel receiver was a shade lighter in color than the steel barrel, magazine and bolt. The trigger guard was made of an aluminum alloy.

We considered the Remington’s non-reflective wood and metal finish to be well-suited for hunting. No structural or cosmetic shortcomings were found. Fitting of metal components was above average. Most moving parts had only a small amount of play. Stock-to-metal mating was average. The front of the buttstock wasn’t quite flush with the back of the receiver. The forend had a moderate amount of side-to-side play.

Weighing 7-1/2 pounds, the Super Magnum handled just like a standard Remington 870 shotgun. Although moderately muzzle heavy, swinging and target acquisition were fairly quick. Shouldering was natural. The well-shaped comb provided a comfortable cheek-to-stock fit with a good view of the sighting plane. Most shooters said the pistol grip was overly thin, but it and the forend afforded a secure grasp. Felt recoil was very heavy with 12 gauge 3-1/2-inch ammunition.

All of the Remington’s controls worked smoothly. Right-handed shooters could disengage the crossbolt safety at the rear of the trigger guard with their trigger finger, but had to shift their grip and use their thumb to engage it. Shooters had to move their firing hand forward to reach and depress the action release lever at the left front of the trigger guard.

The trigger had a 3/16-inch-wide face with square edges. Its pull released cleanly at 5 pounds.

Operationally, the Remington worked admirably. It functioned flawlessly with all of the 12 gauge 2-3/4-inch, 3-inch and 3-1/2-inch ammunition we tried. Except for a hitch in the action’s rearward movement, it operated smoothly.

The 870 Super Magnum’s sights consisted of a silver/gray front bead on a ventilated barrel rib. The top of the rib had a heavy matte finish to prevent glare, but no serrations. This arrangement provided a decent sighting reference.

One Rem-Choke tube rated as Modified was provided with this model. It produced satisfactory shot patterns with the four different kinds of hunting ammunition used.