September 1998

Taurus PT-111 Beats Kel-Tec, Smith & Wesson DAO 9mms

We found the Taurus was more accurate and had a better trigger than the Kel-Tec P-11 and the Smith & Wesson SW9M.

Subcompact pistols, those which are small and light enough to ride in an ankle holster or carry in a large pocket, have been around for several years. Many of these handguns are reduced versions of already existing handguns. Typically, they cost as much as the original or maybe even a little more.

Within the last couple of years, a new kind of subcompact pistol has emerged—which we shall refer to as an SMPD. The SMPD is a subcompact with a moderate price (in the $300 range), a polymer frame and a double-action-only (DAO) trigger. The combination of a low price, polymer construction and a DAO trigger is not accidental. The ease of making a polymer frame and the simplicity of a double-action-only trigger mechanism are two of the main reasons why SMPD’s cost less than other kinds of subcompacts.

Of course, the workmanship and accuracy of a $300 pistol probably isn’t going to be as good as those of a $500 to $600 pistol. The big question is whether it’s going to be reliable and will handle well enough for its intended use as a self-defense tool. To answer that question, we recently evaluated three SMPDs.

The Test Pistols
The subjects of this head-to-head test are the Taurus PT-111, the Kel-Tec P-11 and the Smith & Wesson SW9M. All of these SMPDs are chambered for the 9mm cartridge.

New this year, the Taurus PT-111 Millennium is a $344 Brazilian-made 9mm pistol. This recoil-operated handgun’s firing system has an internal striker and a double-action-only trigger. Unlike most striker-fired pistols, it is equipped with a frame-mounted manual safety. The polymer frame, which has an integral grip, accommodates a double-column magazine. Barrel length is 3-1/8 inches. Although there are several differences, the P-111 looks like this next pistol.

Click here to view the Taurus PT-111 Millennium features guide

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Introduced in 1995, the $309 Kel-Tec P-11 is made by CNC Industries of Coco, Florida. Like the Taurus, it is a recoil-operated 9mm with a double-action-only trigger. However, it utilizes a spurless hammer, instead of an internal striker. Furthermore, there is no manual safety. Other features include a polymer frame with an integral grip, a double-column magazine and a 3-inch barrel.

Click here to view the Kel-Tec P-11 features guide

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The $366 Smith & Wesson SW9M, a member of the Sigma line since 1996, is this manufacturer’s cheapest 9mm pistol. It utilizes a blowback-operated firing system with an internal striker and a double-action-only trigger. Unlike the others in this test, the SW9M has a trigger-mounted safety and a single-column magazine. There is a cutout in the polymer frame’s integral grip for the magazine’s dual latches. A takedown tool and a magazine loading tool are provided with this model.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson SW9M features guide

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Initial Observations
We thought the Taurus PT-111 was slightly better looking than the other pistols in this test. Most of its steel parts had a uniform matte blue/black finish. The barrel was dull white and had a belled muzzle. The deep gripping serrations at the rear of the slide were functional and aesthetically appealing. The internal frame, an aluminum block with slide rails on the top, was pinned to the black polymer grip. The grip’s front and back straps had well-molded serrations, as did the front of the squared trigger guard.

The 10-round magazine supplied with this Taurus was made by Mec-Gar. Its double-column body and removable floorplate were constructed of shiny blued steel, while the follower was made of black plastic.

Our shooters felt the Kel-Tec P-11 had a boxier appearance than the Taurus. The barrel had a belled muzzle and a matte white finish, while other steel parts were dull blue. The gripping serrations at the back of the slide were deep and functional. As on the PT-111, this pistol had an aluminum internal frame that was pinned to the black polymer grip. The grip had molded checkering on the sides and somewhat shallow serrations on the front and back. No texturing was present on the round, elongated trigger guard.

The magazine provided with this Kel-Tec, also made by Mec-Gar, was almost identical to the Taurus’ magazine. The difference was the location of the cutout for the magazine catch, so the two were not interchangeable. The P-11 was designed to accept Smith & Wesson Model 59-type magazines.

Although the Smith & Wesson SW9M’s clean styling made it the most snag resistant, we felt it was very plain looking. The steel slide had a relieved ejection port, functional gripping serrations and a thick, black finish. The steel barrel had a frosted gray finish, and its back end was surrounded by a sleeve that was pinned to the black polymer frame. The takedown rail, which was also pinned to the frame, served as the slide rails. There were molded serrations on the front and back of the grip, as well as on the front of the round trigger guard.

The 7-round magazine packed with this Smith & Wesson had a steel single-column body, a red plastic follower and a nonremovable black plastic floorplate. Dual latches on the sides of the magazine, which were integral with the floorplate, engaged with corresponding recesses inside the magazine well to lock the magazine in place.

Fit And Finish
In our opinion, the workmanship of the Taurus PT-111 was satisfactory. The polymer frame was examined and no defects or imperfections were found. The finish on all metal parts was evenly applied and without flaws. We thought the slide-to-frame fit was a little loose, but the barrel lockup was just fine.

We found no glaring faults with the fit and finish of the Kel-Tec P-11, so we judged it average for a pistol in this price range. The molded frame had no rough edges or sharp corners. Some lateral and horizontal movement was noted in the slide-to-frame fit. Also, there was a slight amount of barrel movement when it and the slide were locked into battery.

For the most part, we considered the workmanship of the Smith & Wesson SW9M to be acceptable. The polymer frame was cleanly molded, with no rough or sharp edges found. The fixed barrel was securely pinned to the frame. However, there was a noticeable amount of movement in the slide-to-frame fit. The magazine’s right locking latch was overly stiff, which made getting the magazine in and out of the pistol difficult.

Handling and Comfort
Although the three pistols in the test had the same grip length of 2-3/4 inches, their different depths and widths gave them a distinctive feel.

The Kel-Tec sat well in the hand. The tang’s good shape allowed the hand to be placed up close to the slide and still be protected from the slide when it moved rearward during recoil. The pistol pointed slightly high. We could not get all the fingers of the shooting hand around the grip. The sides of the grip were flat, so it wasn’t very hand filling. The wide frame spread the kick generated upon firing over a large portion of the web of the shooting hand, which aided in dampening felt recoil.

The Taurus’ handling was almost a carbon copy of the P-11. It sat low in the hand. We found the grip length to be a little too short for a full shooting grip. The little finger of the shooting hand tended to rest curled under the magazine. The pistol pointed as well, or better, than the others. The frame’s width helped to lessen perceived recoil.

Of the three pistols in the test, the Smith & Wesson had the slimmest and most comfortable grip. Although the gun sat satisfactorily in the hand, the front sight aligned high when pointed. We were able to get all of the fingers of the shooting hand around it, but just barely. The grip was thin and transferred recoil to a smaller portion of the shooter’s hand than the others in this test, so this 9mm seemed to kick the most.

Controls
Of the pistols in this test, the Taurus PT-111 was the only one with a traditional frame-mounted safety. This two-position lever was very conveniently located on the left side of the frame, just above the shooting thumb. When moved upward, the safety engaged and prevented firing by blocking the trigger. The slide catch was a small lever located in front of the safety. The magazine release was a large serrated button at the left rear of the trigger guard. All of the controls worked positively.

The Kel-Tec P-11 didn’t have a manual safety, but its Dynamic Safety System would prevent the pistol from being fired, even if dropped, due to a very heavy firing pin spring. The slide catch on the left side of the frame was larger than the Taurus’ catch, so it was a little easier to operate. The magazine release was a rectangular button at the left rear of the trigger guard. Right-handed shooters could operate each of the two controls with the thumb of their firing hand.

Unlike the Taurus and the Kel-Tec, the Smith & Wesson SW9M had no slide catch or any other provision for locking the slide open. The external safety was built into the trigger. The upper part of the trigger was blocked from moving rearward if the bottom portion wasn’t pivoted to the rear. To release the magazine, the dual latches on the magazine had to be pinched together with the thumb and index finger of the support hand. This system required more hand strength than other latching arrangements, and tended to slow reloading.

Triggers
In our opinion, the Taurus PT-111 had the best trigger movement of the test. The long double-action-only pull released at 9 pounds. Although it seemed heavy for a small pistol, we found this trigger much easier to control than the others.

Like the Taurus, the Kel-Tec P-11’s double-action-only trigger released with 9 pounds of rearward pressure. However, the trigger traveled so far back that it was difficult to pull all the way to the rear.

We thought the Smith & Wesson SW9M’s trigger was mushy and overly heavy. Its long double-action-only pull released at 10-1/2 pounds, but felt about 2 pounds heavier.

Sights
The Taurus’ open sights consisted of a low-profile 1/8-inch-wide front blade with one white dot and a snag-resistant rear blade with a white dot on either side of its square notch. The rear sight was held in place by one setscrew. This arrangement provided a decent sight picture out to 10 yards.

For sighting, the Kel-Tec had a 1/8-inch-wide front blade with a white dot on its slightly angled face. The rear sight was a dovetailed blade with a square notch and two white dots. It could be drifted for windage adjustments (only). We found these sights to be the easiest to find and align of the test.

The Smith & Wesson’s fixed sights were a narrow channel on the top of the slide with a squared 1/8-inch-wide face at the rear and a very small 1/16-inch-wide integral blade at the front. The sights weren’t adjustable. We found this setup hard to see and difficult to keep in alignment during the firing process.

At The Range
Functioning of the Taurus PT-111 was 100 percent reliable with the three kinds of ammunition we tried. Accuracy was very good for this type of pistol. The gun achieved five-shot groups that ranged from 0.38 inch to 2.00 inches at 7 yards. The best average groups of the test, 1.00 inch at 7 yards, were obtained using Winchester 155-grain Silvertips. Federal 124-grain Hydra-Shoks came in a close second with 1.13-inch groups. UMC 115-grain metal case ammunition yielded respectable 1.50-inch groups. The sights’ point of aim was well-regulated to point of impact.

Click here to view the Performance Table

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We experienced no malfunctions while firing the Kel-Tec P-11. Accuracy was acceptable, but not nearly as good as the Taurus. This 9mm produced five-shot groups that measured from 1.00 inches to 2.13 inches at 7 yards. Groups averaged from 1.28 inches with UMC 155-grain metal case ammunition to 1.75 inches with Winchester 155-grain Silvertips. The sights were regulated nicely to point of impact.

In our opinion, the Smith & Wesson SW9M’s functioning was unsatisfactory. It failed to fire three times with UMC ball ammunition. Inspecting the primers of fired casings, we found that all had off-center firing pin hits. Accuracy was also disappointing. The pistol did produce two 1-1/2-inch groups at 7 yards. However, five-shot groups averaged from 2.20 inches with Federal 124-grain Hydra-Shoks to 2.78 inches with Winchester 155-grain Silvertips. We also noted that the pistol consistently shot 2 inches high and 1-1/2 inches to the left of the point of aim with all of the ammunition used.

The Taurus produced the highest muzzle velocities and the most muzzle energy. The Kel-Tec came in second. The Smith & Wesson finished last. For more information, see the performance table.