October 2000

Packable 9mm Pistols: Walther, Smith & Wesson, MRI Compete

When we compared three recipes for compact pistols, including “traditional” double-action and a 3.5-inch barrel, MRI’s Baby Eagle Compact earned a Best Buy ranking.

[IMGCAP(1)] More than once recently we have tested pistols that use weight-saving materials to make daily wear of a handgun as comfortable as cotton shorts. But more than once we found that reliability suffered as a result when the differential in weight between a steel slide and a featherweight frame put cycling at odds with spring rates and ammunition. Even lightweight revolvers utilizing titanium are fussy in what ammunition they like, we’ve found, when bullets pop out of their case crimp.

Moreover, there’s another downside to too little weight, in terms of shooter preparedness. One of our staff members who is a CHL holder reports that carrying a slightly heavier gun is actually preferable to wearing a polymer or even a titanium firearm because he feels that regular practice with one’s carry piece is a necessity. Shooting an ultralight firearm is often too much pounding for both a gun and its owner.

Nonetheless, the trend toward shorter and lighter guns continues apace, and at GT, we are naturally curious to see how compact pistols shoot and are shot. Toward that end, we recently tested three 3.5-inch-barrel 9mms, two domestic and one foreign. Our test guns were the Smith & Wesson 3913TSW, $724; Walther’s $900 P5; and the $449 Baby Eagle Compact from Magnum Research Inc. The MRI Baby Eagle and Smith 3913TSW occupy the compact niche in their respective catalogs. However, the Walther P5 we acquired is in fact not a compact model by factory designation, but the difference between our test model and the P5 Compact is minimal, and the P5 is in the same size class as the other two guns.

Dimensionally, the P5 Compact is shortened by removing the 0.25 inch of barrel that protrudes from the standard P5’s slide and an equally small amount from the beavertail. Both the P5 and P5 Compact can power up to .30 Luger or 9X21mm simply by dropping in an optional barrel available from the factory ($295).

Range Session
With the rapidity that new models are hitting the market, it has become nearly impossible to continuously restock our supply of inserts for the Ransom Machine Rest. For this reason we chose to fire from a sandbag benchrest. Over the course of our get-acquainted session of casual plinking with these pistols, we found that each gun was capable of hitting a soda can at distances up to 65 yards fired offhand. For accuracy testing, however, we shot these compacts at 25 yards. This is the standard test distance we use for full-sized guns.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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Furthermore, we added a twist to our usual test procedure. Since each gun offers what is now referred to as traditional double-action, we decided that a gun with two trigger actions deserved two sets of accuracy data as well. So, from the bench we fired five-shot groups double-action only as well as single-action only and reported the results.

A second battery of practical tests grew out of our curiosity regarding cycling speed and durability. Here we fired at a target only 5 yards away. Start position was low ready, where the shooter held the gun with arms outstretched and pointed downward each time at the base of the target stand (about a 45-degree angle). The finger was on the trigger without pressure, and the first shot of the six-shot string was fired double-action. Subsequent shots were fired single action. We wanted to find out how much interference there was in the transition from DA to SA, how fast could we make the gun cycle, and whether or not we’d be able to track the sights at speed. Each gun was given three consecutive strings of fire with full-power 115-grain Black Hills JHP +P ammunition and fired until they locked back. We deemed any hit within a 12- by 16-inch rectangle to be acceptable. We found all three pistols to be capable of this go-for-broke rapid-fire accuracy.

Our other two choices of test ammunition were the 147-grain FMJ from Black Hills and a newcomer on the scene, the Russian-made Wolf 115-grain FMJ that features a steel case. We wondered if this would affect the function of these pistols.

With all the rounds, the one lasting impression we were left with was the difference in sensation when firing both DA and SA from a rest. Firing single action, the shooting act is over quickly. But activating a controlled press over the longer DA pull put us in touch with every eccentricity of each moving part within the trigger mechanism. One member of our staff said waiting out the DA pull reminded him of a story a race-car driver told after the driver had won the Indianapolis 500 after establishing a huge lead. With nothing but time and laps to kill leading up to the checkered flag, the driver suddenly became aware of every odd sound the car was making, fueling fears that mechanical failure was imminent. Likewise, the long double-action trigger movement on these pistols gives the gun driver a lot of time to think.

Walther P5
Our recommendation: Buy It. The $900 MSRP P5 is something special in terms of engineering design and quality. Word is that German military testing required firing in excess of 25,000 rounds to experience a single malfunction. We didn’t have one.

Click here to view the Walther P5 features guide

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The P5 is by no means an ugly duckling, but if you’ve never seen one before, it might impress you as being a science-fiction marvel. The top end has unusual sculpting, and, of all things, a left-side ejection port. The slide release/ decocking/safety lever (all in one, mind you) is on the left side. The magazine release is underneath the grip. Is this not a right-handed pistol with left-handed ejection? Yes, the gun is decidedly right handed. If you have ever cleared a malfunction with a gun featuring a standard right-side ejection port, then you have likely pulled back the slide with your left hand while rotating the gun clockwise. The result is your wrists cross, tying you up. The P5 was designed for police use, and as unlikely as it would seem from the exhaustive function tests this model has suffered through, the left-eject design is supposed to allow the shooter to clear a jam and return the gun to battery faster than on a right-eject system. The shooter can easily turn the gun counterclockwise and pull back the slide, shaking a loose case out, or he can pull the slide back and manually extract a stuck hull. Either way, it feels very natural.

The practice of right-hand ejection is in some ways traditional and other ways functional. Favoring the right eyed-dominant shooter, it is preferable not to have spent cases crossing the visual field of the left eye. This can be a real distraction when firing fully automatic weapons. But when it comes to a handgun, as we see it, whether or not the cases go left or right is unimportant. Other manufacturers should take a long look at the P5’s left-eject feature.

At first glance the P5 will only lock back with an empty magazine in place. The key to locking back the slide without a mag in place is to push the safety catch upward. The safety catch is the crescent-shaped lever just ahead of the decocker, located above the grip on the left side. Once the slide is locked back, more of the Walther’s unique design is exposed. To see more German engineering, we disassembled the P5 simply by holding the gun in a normal grip, and gently pushing the muzzle against a tabletop. With the top end jutting to the rear, the barrel catch is swung forward, releasing the frame and slide. Rather than using a bushing to settle the barrel, it instead rides on three lugs, in effect raised areas that surround the barrel to meet the slide and three “skates” that ride on the frame. The barrel/lug combination is machined as one piece. A cam for locking and unlocking the barrel is integrated between the center and rear lugs. The frame is aluminum alloy with hard anodizing to add “skin” strength, but a steel pin is inserted across the frame for extra integrity just ahead of where the center lug and cam assembly mate with the frame. Dual recoil springs ride on each side just above the frame rails. The use of two springs balances tension to remove any side-to-side play from slide movement. Removing the springs from around the barrel offers a better opportunity to lock up the barrel in this bushingless design.

A look at the rear of the slide reveals safety feature number 1. Retention of the firing pin in a downward position denies the firing pin access to the primer. Safety feature number 2 is a recess in the striking face of the hammer to prevent accidental contact with the firing pin. There is also a hammer-safety notch and disconnector. Effectively, the hammer can only strike the firing pin when the slide is in the locked-breech mode and the trigger is pulled completely through.

Some of the features on this pistol are the product of European government requirements, not entrepreneurial design, but they are still well thought out. If you wanted a contract with the German government in the 1970s, when this pistol was introduced, certain features were compulsory. Namely, a single-column magazine was mandatory. This prerequisite has since been relaxed, and staggered double-column mags are now much improved in guns such as the Walther P99 (see November 1999). Also, the bottom-mounted mag release may seem old-fashioned to some, but for real combat use, the Germans believed this was the only sure way magazine retention could be assured. Despite some protest, a flush-mounted release button has since been deemed acceptable. But in an emergency, the bottom release can be operated while holding the gun in one hand simply by swiping the release across a belt buckle or what have you. Other requirements included an eight-shot minimum capacity, passing a 10,000-round endurance test, and a simple, “idiot-proof” takedown procedure that does not release necessary parts such as the recoil spring or guide rod. One last requirement was that the gun be functional under all conditions, even with the magazine removed. The result is a hard-core combat pistol whose makers would scoff at the notion that a magazine disconnector, such as the one found on the Smith & Wesson 3912TSW, is of any real value.

In our tests, the Walther P5 ran without complaint under all conditions. From the bench, accuracy results varied only 0.1 inch (between 2.3 and 2.4 inches) for all ammunitions fired. (We recorded five-shot groups both single and double action, but computed averages with the results of both modes of fire combined.) The quality of the sights and each trigger action pointed out that ammunition had more effect on accuracy than did the mode of fire we chose. As the accompanying accuracy table shows, this pistol prefers 115-grain rounds, which didn’t surprise us, since shorter-barreled guns often prefer lighter bullets. In the practical test, we found results nearly identical to the other two pistols. The first split of the six-shot string included a transition from double to single action. Here the Walther was fastest with an average DA to SA split of 0.20 second versus 0.22 for the Smith & Wesson and 0.21 for the Baby Eagle. All three guns enjoyed an average split time between single-action shots of 0.19 second. The largest difference in elapsed time was in the total average time of the three six-shot strings. The Walther trailed with an average ET of 1.37 seconds. The Magnum Research was best at 1.32 seconds, and the 3913TSW ranked in the middle with an average ET of 1.34 seconds. However, these figures could be looked at as a wash because this includes the reaction time of our test pilot, whose reaction time varied as much as 0.05 second.

Smith & Wesson 3913TSW
Our recommendation: Buy It. The $724 3913TSW proved the most accurate of all three guns, even if all three were acceptable. It’s hard to say a defense gun is overpriced if it does a good job and is easy to conceal as well, which this gun does. Arguably, this is Smith & Wesson’s best semi-auto.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 3913TSW features guide

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The 3913TSW is a very good example of a modern semi-automatic pistol. Not only did it average between 1.9 and 2.2 inches for all shots fired at 25 yards (fired both single and double action), but it is slim and handsome. This pistol is fit with snag-free sights, an accessory mount, fancy graphics on one side, near full-length slide-to-frame contact and an emphasis on safety features. Were we to compare the 3913TSW with the Walther P5, the German engineers might argue that even though the mag release is adequately out of the way on the S&W gun, its magazine should not shoot out so vigorously. In case the spring under the release button becomes worn and the mag is accidentally dropped, the gun should not deny the soldier/police officer a second chance at reinserting the mag. Also, the magazine disconnector that prevents the gun from firing without a mag in place could leave an officer vulnerable at a crucial moment. P5 supporters also might find the decocker safety-on/safety-off positions confusing and hard to reach. As to right-hand ejection, this gun may be narrow enough, and the ejection port broad enough, so that counterclockwise rotation to clear a jam is not out of the question. Regarding the accessory mount, we’re not sure anyone is going to fit what we perceive as a concealment pistol with a flashlight or even a laser.

Of these features, none bothered us, save the magazine disconnector, which in our opinion is probably more useful in a movie scenario than real life. Our main complaint, however, is the spurless hammer that will not allow the shooter to begin with nor return to single action without racking the slide and losing a round.

From the bench the Smith & Wesson seemed equally at home with all three ammunitions, whether it was the 147- or 115-grain bullets. Function was 100 percent throughout the test.

As previously stated, the results were very close in the practical test. But the 3913TSW shot not only the best average, but the best individual groups as well. The smallest group measured 1.4 inches, and that happened twice—once with the Black Hills 147-grain FMJs fired single action and once with the Wolf 115-grain FMJs fired double action. The Magnum Research Baby Eagle also produced its best group (1.8 inches double action) with the 147-grain FMJs. The best hollowpoint groups from this pistol were a pair of 1.8-inchers (Black Hills 115-grain JHP) fired double and single action respectively. Overall, the second-best hollowpoint group was shot with the Walther P5, measuring 1.9 inches single action.

Magnum Research Baby Eagle Compact
Our recommendation: A Best Buy. On average the $449 Baby Eagle narrowly outshot the Walther P5 at half the price. It is well made and will do the job as well as the more expensive pistols, in our estimation.

Click here to view the Magnum Research Baby Eagle Compact features guide

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The Baby Eagle is manufactured in Israel by IMI (Israeli Military Industries). All three pistols are designed with a full-length dust cover that makes full use of the available area for slide-to-frame contact. The Baby Eagle is the heaviest of the trio due to its steel frame, however. This same model is available chambered for .40 S&W and .45 ACP. In these calibers, we feel the extra weight might be more in scale than in this 9mm.

The Baby Eagle fires from a linkless design similar to the CZ pistols. The grip is very comfortable to hold and fire, and it breaks down easily without the use of tools. With the top end off we were reminded of another Israeli product that faired none too well in our August 2000 issue. One look at the two-piece spring, and we saw some similarities between this pistol and the polymer-frame .45 ACP Bul Storm Compact. Whereas the Storm suffered from the huge differential between a featherweight frame and a heavy steel slide, the Baby Eagle’s top and bottom are nearly equal in weight, giving the gun much better balance.

In our get-acquainted session, all three guns were fed odd lots of ammunition left over from previous tests. All three guns shot quantities of PMC Starfire in 95- and 124-grain varieties, 124-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoints; along with rounds from MagTech, Cor-Bon, Remington, Winchester, NATO ball, Triton, and others.

Little did we suspect the only malfunctions in this test would be with the Baby Eagle chambering the heretofore untried Wolf 115-grain copper FMJs made in Russia. The Wolf ammunition features a steel case and comes in a box marked “non-corrosive.” What is the difference between steel and the more common brass casing? Today’s guns are designed for brass cases. Brass gives under pressure, and the expansion and contraction in the chamber actually retards the action briefly. The timing of the action is actually based on this phenomenon. Brass is widely used because it is easier on the gun. Contact with the extractor and ejector by steel cases is considered to be abrasive. Breech-face wear is also accelerated. The nature of the malfunction in the Baby Eagle was a failure of spent cases to eject. There was a distinct mark where the extractor had scored the rim on the offending cases. Also, we noticed that rounds extracted by hand when unloading a magazine were scratched from sliding against each other inside the mag. Why the Smith & Wesson and Walther pistols were tolerant of the Wolf cartridges, we couldn’t say. It might be that the steel-cased Wolf rounds are better suited for single-column magazines such as those used by the P5 and 3913TSW. Still, we’re skeptical about the universal functionality of the Wolf ammunition.

Despite the occasional malfunction firing the Wolf cartridges, we managed to collect accuracy and chronograph data with this round. The Wolf ammunition was very consistent whether fired DA or SA from the Baby Eagle. However, its best overall average group size (2.1 inches) was with the 147-grain FMJ round from Black Hills. In terms of trigger feel, the double-action trigger displayed some roughness noticeable from the bench under a controlled press situation. The Magnum Research pistol also finished a close second to the P5 in the power column. Again, all three guns were close, but the Baby Eagle produced as much as 352 foot-pounds of muzzle energy firing the Black Hills 115-grain JHP.

The gun’s outstanding ergonomics contributed to its having the fastest first shot in the practical test. On one run the shooter fired the first shot into the lower portion of the desired target area in just 0.25 second. This contributed to the fastest average first-shot double-action time at 0.34 second.

Like the Walther, the Magnum Research Baby Eagle Compact can be thumbed into single-action mode. But just like on the Smith & Wesson pistol, the safety/decocker lever found on the Baby Eagle requires extra manipulation to find a ready-to-fire mode.

Gun Test Recommends
Walther P5, $900. Buy it. Although its MSRP includes almost $300 in taxes, import fees, and brokerage, plus higher fuel and labor costs in its native Germany, you may want to consider it carefully before buying one of the others. Its reliability track record as a German military and police gun is proven. Whether you can afford it is a matter between you and your wallet.

Smith & Wesson 3913TSW, $724. Buy it. We could nit-pick the need for a bobbed hammer and perhaps complain about the price tag. But the increase in cost from the non-TSW model has helped it climb the pyramid to better accuracy. Not every concealable defense gun needs to shoot sub 2-inch groups, but it’s nice to know it can.

Magnum Research Baby Eagle Compact, $449. A Best Buy. Any pistol that can average under 2.5 inches at 25 yards with modern defense ammunition, carries 10+1 rounds, and sells for an affordable price deserves our highest ranking. Though it’s somewhat heavy for this class of 9mm, it should be durable as a result of its steel frame.