9mm Carry Semiautos: The Bad, The Good, and the Not-So-Ugly
The inexpensive Miltex Makarov failed, and we wonder if H&K’s $1,222 P7M8 is overkill. Pistols from Smith & Wesson and Glock hit the center of the target market, in our view.
[IMGCAP(1)] The 9mm cartridge offers great freedom of choice to the prospective gun buyer. It is available worldwide, is inexpensive to buy, comes in a variety of weights and design, and works reliably in many different-sized frames and actions. To get a broad sampling of smaller 9mm guns offered for self-defense applications, we went shopping and found six big chunks of steel and plastic at a variety of price points. As always, we were hoping to find a great gun for a low price, and toward that end, we examined the Miltex-imported Makarov 9X18, $225, and another product from Miltex, a Browning High Power copy named the Arcus 94. We recently saw as many as two dozen of these guns at a local gun show for under $280. Another import in our multinational test was Heckler & Koch’s high-tech P7M8, $1,222, flanked by three domestic offerings, Glock’s 19 ($616) and compensated 19C ($646), and Smith & Wesson’s slim 3953TSW Tactical, $694.
Overall, we found you can spend as little or as much as you want on a variety of different pistol designs in this caliber and they all work. The more you spend, however, the tighter the groups on paper.
Our test procedure normally begins with a break-in period that sometimes extends upward of 500 rounds for the tightest of custom target guns. In the case of the nines we were more concerned with getting in tune with the triggers of each gun than with reliability. This is because although none of the guns in this test should be considered target guns, their forte is function—not necessarily the ability to shoot one-holed groups from a rest. In fact, every single gun in this test was easier to shoot standing with a true continuous press rather than a careful search for a fine breaking point. Trigger feel varied from the Arcus 94’s traditional single action only to the heavy double action of the Miltex Makarov, the latter of which also stood out for another reason.
The Miltex Makarov is a 9mm gun, but not a 9mm like the others. The Makarov cartridge measures only 9X18, not 9X19 like the others, but we decided to include it because its carry profile closely matches the other guns, and because the Mak is unique. We felt this test group might be the closest we could find in getting a head-to-head match-up with the Makarov gun.
Every single gun in this test, save for the Makarov, fired reliably with what we consider to be a good representation of 9X19 ammo. The PMC Starfire is an aggressive 95-grain jacketed hollow point. The P7M8 was the only pistol that could tame it, producing groups that ranged from 2.2 to 2.6 inches from 25 yards off a sandbag rest. One group featured four of five shots inside 0.70 inches. The NATO 124-grain jacketed round ball ammo also shot best in the P7M8, but group size varied as much as 1 inch. Since this was a variation from 1.7 to 2.7 inches, maybe we shouldn’t complain. The Arcus 94’s group sizes also varied by 1 inch, from 4.2 to 5.2 inches. Glock’s Model 19 held this round between 2.4 to 3.3-inch groups. Its compensated brother, the 19C, was more erratic. The other guns put up sub 2-inch groups one minute and 3-inch+ groups the next with this standard round. The 115-grain Remington JHP was perhaps the most consistent in each gun, favoring the Tactical Smith & Wesson with consistent groups averaging just under 2.1 inches.
Some of the factors affecting accuracy had to do with the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of each pistol. The Arcus 94’s trigger was just too rough to offer the kind of accuracy we expect from a High Power design, even if it is a cheap clone. The S&W gun’s trigger is just too heavy even if it is smooth. With the Arcus you seem to get worn out mentally, with the Smith physically. The Glock 19 and 19C were very different, in our view.
From the rest under a tin roof cover, we felt the compensated 19C’s effect on the air around us in our upper plates. Furthermore, its accuracy was less consistent than its non-compensated brother. The ports on this model are placed well before the muzzle. We theorized that its blast was pushing down on the gun and changing the point of aim before the bullet could exit the barrel. But shot standing at 15 yards, the 19C was an inch better than the 19 in rapid-fire drills of five shots in 10 seconds. In fact, it matched the more expensive H&K pistol with average groups of 3.2 inches. The Tactical S&W was only a tick behind at 3.3 inches.
During our testing, we noticed some oddities worth mentioning. Both the Smith & Wesson pistol and the Arcus 94 feature a magazine disconnector that renders the gun unusable with the magazine out. Pushing the mag button on the Arcus will leave the mag in place but slightly ajar. Pressing the mag release on the TSW causes the magazine, loaded or empty, to shoot out abruptly. Still, the chambered round will not fire.
Standing and shooting rapid fire, in the manner we feel these guns were intended to be used, the P7M8 and Glock 19C produced the best results, in our view. Reason: The way they handle recoil. The P7 features an internal piston that reacts with each shot to dissipate energy. But with this comes a price. The friction from the piston produces heat that becomes quite noticeable after as little as 60 rounds. We felt this increase in heat was also affecting accuracy, as earlier stand-and-shoot sessions promised better groups than we achieved from the bench. While superior from a bench rest, the P7 was equaled in the offhand drills because of Glock’s effective porting of the barrel. This gave the 19C a marked advantage over the other guns. Each shot had little effect on the original sight picture. This made it noticeably faster to regain sight alignment. In fact, we were able to look through the shot and completely track the sights from shot to shot.
Other details and insights about the products follow below:
Our recommendation: We got a glimpse of a really fun pistol to shoot at a very low price, $225. But when it quit during testing, we found its construction was lacking. Don’t buy it.
It had been suggested that we refer to this test as the good, the bad and the ugly because of the wide range in price and quality. The Miltex Makarov earned the title of all three. The best news was that we’ve seen the eight-shot Makarov selling for as little as $150 (with an FFL), transfer fees, shipping, and insurance would jack the gun’s price to you to at least $200 to $225.
The other good news was it actually shot with the best point of aim, delivering a sub 3-inch group. We felt confident enough at this point to run it through the chronograph. The Norinco ammunition (priced at only $7.50 a box) produced a power factor of 97 (1,024 fps average times a bullet weight of 95 grains). The standard deviation was only 8 fps. This indicates consistent pressures. The bad news was the firing pin was not always willing to strike the primer. Furthermore, even though the mags would hold eight rounds, it would only feed when filled with seven cartridges. The ugly reared its head when firing pin and de-cocker decided to exit the slide after only 25 shots. That was the end of our experience in 9X18.
Because the gun failed, we didn’t really have a chance to test the Miltex version of this venerable pistol design. However, we would like to pass along our view of the Makarov design and function because there were positives worth noting.
At first glance you will readily notice the profile that recalls Walther pistols. The Mak is just a little larger than a PPK. The grip is ideal for shooting with one hand, albeit the thumb swell limits it to being shot with the right hand only. The sights are fixed and extremely narrow, with checkering across the top of the slide to limit glare, which is somewhat unlikely due to its blued finish. The Makarov front sight is no more than a sliver, but we could easily pick it out against the black-and-yellow Shoot-N-See target.
The trigger is double action only with a very heavy pull and long reach. The effort needed to break a shot is minimized, however, by what adds up to be superb ergonomics that include a magazine extension as well as the aforementioned grip plus one-half inch of frame overhanging the backstap. The magazine release sitting at the bottom of the grip may be considered old fashioned, but the mag will likely never be accidentally dropped.
The Makarov cartridge, which measures 9mm by 18mm in length, is ballistically somewhere between the .380 ACP (9mm Kurz, or short) and a light .38 Special round. The overall design of the Makarov pistol has survived and is even revered because it is comfortable, well balanced, and promotes accuracy. Perhaps it was these ergonomics, which by the way proved far and away better than any of the other guns in this test, that gave us the best point of aim standing at 25 yards. Keep in mind, we were firing the cheapest, oldest looking cartridges we could find in a cheap gun we do not recommend anyone purchase, and it still was accurate. Indeed, what this less potent round gives up in power it regains, at least partially, is the advantage of shot placement.
Miltex Arcus 94
Our recommendation: Anyone with a working knowledge of the Browning High Power will be able to recognize that this $280 knockoff is worth buying for the money. Our testing showed that with just a little refinement, this could serve as a good, economical first gun. After-the-purchase support could be a problem, however. Conditional buy.
The biggest downside to this gun is that the company which imported it may be out of business. Phone calls to Miltex, Inc., the Waldorf, Maryland-based company that brought these guns into the United States, met with a “this number has been disconnected” message, and the company’s website isn’t active either. Also, mail sent to the company’s Pinefield Station address was returned as undeliverable. Last January, we tried to visit with Miltex at the SHOT Show in Atlanta, but its booth was empty. Perhaps the company is still alive somewhere, but we can’t find its pulse. Nonetheless, remnants of what Miltex imported are still floating around in quantity, including a Browning High Power copy named the Arcus 94. Miltex began importing these pistols in 1998 from Bulgaria. As recently as July 31, we spotted as many as two dozen of them at a local gun show, and decided to test these guns because they are still widely available. There are still plenty of Arcus 94s out there for $280 and less, and their low-cost appeal is strengthened by the guns being full-sized copies of the Browning High Power design, well known for its accuracy and reliability.
We spent more time shooting the Arcus than any other pistol in the test. We even oiled it once. The mags hold ten rounds, and the gun never malfunctioned over the course of 400+ shots. Its trigger is scratchy to the point of laughter, but its full-size steel frame brings recoil down to a pleasingly comfortable level.
On our test gun, the finish was matte black and not the most durable. The thumb safety was easily disengaged as Browning designed it, but it was too stiff to be reset without the use of the weak hand. The trigger needed work. It seems to have been installed without polishing any of the contacting parts. The grip is rubber and a little clunkier than the original, but felt quite good in the hand with a knurled finish and finger grooves that wrap around the frontstrap like those available aftermarket from Hogue. The low-mounted sights are of the three-dot variety and are dovetailed into place front and rear, meaning they are adjustable for windage and easily changed out if you so desire. The extractor is mounted externally and held by a hollow roll pin amid the slide serrations.
Glock 19 and 19C
Our recommendation: Glock successfully upgrades its gun ergonomics to put two of the company’s most aggressive (and one of the loudest) midsized-caliber handguns into the hands of more defense-minded citizens. We’d buy both the $616 noncompensated Model 19 or the compensated 19C, $646, but we prefer the blowhole model.
A recent check of street prices for these guns found a range of retail choices, with a low price of $430 for a mail-order gun. With necessary fees, shipping, and insurance, that would translate to an actual street price of $500 to $515. As well, we’ve seen these guns advertised at retail for that amount up to an additional $45 to $50.
In these two pistols we see the further improvement of Glock pistols. One of the very first complaints heard about Glocks was the boxy, uncomfortable grip. Hogue and several other grip makers even went so far as to bring out a sleeve to add finger grooves to the original models, as there was no other alternative to the standard grip. In response, these latest models feature an indentation along each side for the thumb, and finger grooves with molded-in checkering on the frontstrap.
Checkering also adorns the rear of the grip, and its contour is similar to that of an arched mainspring housing a la the 1911 frame. With the magazine removed you can see the hollow cavity that creates this profile and a hint of the original grip that shared ergonomics with a 1-by-2 piece of pine. Also new is the standard inclusion of a track molded into the full-length dust cover designed to fit a flashlight attachment. These improvements add up to the best feeling Glock yet, in our estimation.
However, the sides of the grips are still very slippery. Brownells, among other dealers, sells grip enhancers such as the Grupo Mercari Decal Grip (tape) cut specifically for these new finger groove models, as well as the older standard-framed Glocks. These inexpensive add-ons are worth the money.
In all but one way, these models are duplicates. Their magazine capacities are 10, and it would seem more space is available for foreign or law-enforcement issue. Mags drop free, unlike the earlier Glocks where the mag, once released, would stay in place until they were physically plucked from the frame. Perhaps this is the influence of practical shooting games demanding rapid reloads. Old-school mags were often referred to as offering a battlefield reload, where you wouldn’t be coming back for the mag but would pocket it for now in hopes of having a chance to refill it later. The mag button is out of the way to prevent accidents, so it will require most shooters to shift the gun in the strong hand to operate it. The slide is boldly serrated to the rear of the ejection port and the ejector is externally mounted. The front sight is part of the slide and shows a white dot. To the rear is a U-shaped white outline on a rear blade that is dovetailed into place adjustable for windage. The 19 and 19C are tactical pistols, and as such the sights are of the low-mount variety.
The trigger operates a striker system with shooting characteristics similar to a double-action design. While not a true double-action pistol all that is needed to break a shot is to pull the trigger. Simply put, the trigger will not fire the gun unless the spring-loaded lever in the center of the trigger is first depressed. This prevents accidental discharges from forces other than direct pressure to the trigger, much like a double-action revolver. A point of contention is that this type of gun fires too eagerly. While some pistols will not fire without the magazine in place, the grip squeezed (see P7M8), or a slide safety released, Glocks are ready, willing, and able to fire with one stroke. Of course, this is what defensive handguns are for.
The only true difference between the 19 and 19C is the feature of a compensated barrel on the 19C. The C model presents two slots midway in the bore measuring 0.40 inch that direct gas upward at approximately a 45-degree angle to counteract muzzle flip. Slots of 0.93 by 0.28 inches are cut into the slide to correspond with the ported barrel and further accommodate the blast. The result is more control and faster recovery time from shot to shot. While the 9mm is not the heaviest-recoiling gun, it is a lot of fun to look through the shots and completely track the sights. The loss in velocity is a trade off (only 41 fps, on average) to control. Another result is an increase in noise level. This could be detrimental in an enclosed area like an automobile, or perhaps beneficial serving as a further deterrent, making this pistol seem more ferocious than it is.
Inspecting the barrel on either gun is one of the easiest chores in the industry. Pull back the slide about .25 inches, pick up the latch with thumb and forefinger and slide the top end forward and off. Actually, there are many modern-design non-1911 pistols that can be disassembled by a second party even when the gun has been presented in self-defense. While any of these pistols can be prevented from firing by simply pushing the slide back 0.25 inch or less, to the Glock’s credit the top end cannot be easily removed with one hand.
Smith & Wesson 3953TSW
Our recommendation: For $694, the 3953TSW should be the right answer for many shooters who want a concealable, strong semi-auto with a healthy dose of charm. This is a handsome pistol beyond its special marking of Tactical Smith & Wesson on the slide. Frame and slide are two different shades of satin stainless plus the grip, mag base (which blends nicely) and the trigger are black. The grip is plastic and covers the back strap with molded-in checkering. A modest section of 30 lines-per-inch checkering is found on the front strap. The mag button is easy to find and releases the mags (two supplied) with enthusiasm, but the gun will not fire without a mag in place.
Sights are dovetailed in front and rear (three-dot design), and the rear unit is a no-snag design by Novak. To assure windage adjustment of the rear sight, an Allen screw is included. At first glance it would seem that the short grip without a lip attached to the 3953TSW’s mag would add up to one slippery gun. But, such is not the case. The 3953’s steel construction soaks up enough recoil to make shooting comfortable and confidence inspiring.
The trigger is, in our opinion, much heavier than it needs to be, but, that’s how nearly all guns are delivered these days. Even with the heavy trigger, accuracy from the off-hand position was very good. It’s just that double action requires so much more attention than single. The trigger pull lasts longer, and there is more time to lose the sight picture. The other side of the coin is you can think of it as having more time to clean up the sight picture. We’re sure this gun could be improved further with a trigger job performed by an expert, and we’d even risk re-cutting the crown for better accuracy. It’s not that we noticed any deficiency in the crown as delivered, we just happen to know that a final cut by a craftsman can lend measurable improvement at relatively low cost (about $30).
Smith & Wesson has gone a long way to improve the performance of this pistol by increasing the contact surface between the frame and slide. Measuring only 6.4 inches in length, almost all of the slide is in full contact with the frame at time of lock up. Fit is as tight as you’d want on a defense gun, maybe tighter.
Heckler & Koch P7M8
Our recommendation: At $1,222, this isn’t a gun, it’s an investment. It’s tight, reliable, and superbly accurate. Its price is its only drawback. Buy it if you can afford it.
H&K’s USP series pistols are competent, reliable pistols, in many ways among the better guns available today. Then you come upon the P7s, in this case the P7M8. All steel, compact, ultra-reliable, high tech; It features a recoil reducing system with an internal piston. It didn’t really dominate like we thought it would in accuracy, but it still won out. Our break-in sessions featured a wider variety of ammo than most shooters even imagine, and this gun was more accurate with a wider variety of cartridges than any other factory gun in recent memory. The list price is $1,222, but we’ve seen street prices in Gun List ranging from $1,275 for a nickeled P7M8 (new in box), to $950 for a new gun, to a low of $650 for blued model as new in box.
Shooting the Heckler & Koch P7M8 is a unique experience. Merely holding the gun is not enough. To cock the gun, or rather position the striker to fire, you must first squeeze the grip and compress the front strap. When the gun runs dry and locks back you release pressure to the front strap, insert the mag, squeeze the grip again and the gun immediately returns to battery. This is an advantage because you can shoot the gun dry to get full use of the mag’s eight-round capacity before reloading and not lose any time recharging with the weak hand or manipulating any further controls. The disadvantage is it can be very tiring to the shooter compressing the grip with adequate force and isolating the trigger finger for a smooth relaxed press. We felt our accuracy would have improved if we were not fatigued by the squeeze-cocker design. One other potential problem presented by the squeeze-cocker design is in the event you are injured and don’t have the strength necessary to get off a shot.
However, this device is an excellent safety factor from more than just the standpoint of an accidental discharge upon impact. An article in the July 1999 issue of NRA’s American Guardian reported this mechanism being instrumental in thwarting a gun-store robbery and saving lives. The felon who seized the P7 was unfamiliar with its operation and failed to get it to work before he himself could be gunned down. The P7M8 is slim and easy to hold, albeit you have to have the strength to squeeze the grip. The frame-to-slide contact at lockup is nearly 100 percent. Atop the slide is a three-dot system that unlike some guns never gets smudged by debris. The rear dots are engraved, and the dot on the front sight is actually globe-shaped with about one eighth of a white sphere protruding from the front sight. The trigger is relatively light and extremely smooth. Since you have to squeeze the grip to get it into battery, this trigger could even be made lighter without compromising safety. We initially questioned why more shooters do not use this gun in competition.
Suitable for Bullseye or Action Pistol’s Stock division, the hefty price tag should rate as acceptable in the face of what other guns could wind up costing after modification. The answer: It is not used as a match gun because the pistol mechanism tends to make the gun heat up, possibly affecting accuracy, durability and certainly comfort. Second, it can be downright tiring to hold the grip in. It’s not hard to imagine reducing the spring rate on this mechanism, but we’re not sure it would be legal to deactivate or pin the squeeze-cocker in the off position. This is because there is no other safety on the pistol.
To release the magazine a downward push on the ambidextrous lever is required. Mags hold eight rounds, and they eject smartly. The gun has an overall blockish profile. Maybe it weighs a little bit more than the latest designs, but its boxiness lands its center of gravity right in the center of the hand. Fit and finish are superb and well thought out. Slide-to-frame fit, no jagged edges, grip panels that integrate flawlessly, parts that flow smoothly into one another as if the entire gun were molded were among its design positives.
Gun Tests Recommends
Heckler & Koch P7M8, $1,222. Buy it. There is really no other gun like it. You could certainly spend more customizing another pistol and still be disappointed in comparison.
Glock 19, $616. Buy it. The standard 19 will do everything the self-defense shooter asks. With the grip-frame on board this is probably the optimum size for carry.
Glock 19C, $646. Buy it. Ditto the above, but you have to be a fan of loud compensated guns to really like the 19C. If you can live with the noise, pick it over the noncompensated 19.
Smith & Wesson 3953TSW, $694. Buy it. Steel is heavier. We don’t think you’ll mind.
Miltex Arcus 94, $280. Conditional Buy. If the pistol we had is typical of what is still out there, this could be a bargain. Even without a trigger job this is a far better defensive choice for those on a budget than the typical .380 or .25 ACP.
Miltex Makarov, $225. Don’t buy it. This incarnation of the Makarov is a poor example of the breed. If the pistol we had is typical of what is still out there, we would avoid them.