November 2000

More Premier Paper-Punchers: Snag the Walther GSP; Pass on the Hämmerli SP20

In the August 2000 issue, the Pardini Nygord Master beat out the Hämmerli 208S and Benelli MP95E Atlanta target pistols for value received. Here we test two more high-dollar .22 LR pistols.

[IMGCAP(1)] Shooters who want unabridged performance in their handguns know there’s a niche of Olympic-class firearms wherein a good trigger simply isn’t good enough, and a comfortable-enough grip still may not be perfect enough to allow hole-in-hole accuracy. Most shooters will never need or want such precision shooting tools, but we are still curious about them. We want to know, How good does a gun have to be to cost $1,500 to $2,000, and can it ever truly be worth such an outlandish price? Perhaps even more important, we wonder, Won’t every gun in that price class be as indistinguishably good as another one?

The answer to the last question is no, as recent testing of several pricey .22 LR pistols has shown. We’ve found real differences in the execution of vital areas of Hämmerli, Walther, Pardini, Smith & Wesson, and Benelli handguns—enough for us to recommend some of the cheaper (if you can call $1,000 cheaper) units over some costing nearly twice as much.

Our last test in this category found the Pardini Nygord Master, $1,095, to offer more value than competing units from Benelli and Hämmerli. We wanted to continue expanding the test class by adding two more products, Walther’s GSP, $1,500, and Hämmerli’s SP20, also $1,500, to the mix. Here’s how they stacked up:

Accuracy Testing
We’ve received a few letters from GT readers who failed to read our statement on testing these guns’ accuracy. We shot them by hand to get the results of one shooter’s ability to group with them. We preceded that statement with a note to the effect that most of these costly target pistols are tested in machine rests before they ever leave the factory. Often a test target accompanies them. These test targets may be loosely described as being one ragged hole at some long range. Each and all of these high-dollar target pistols will outshoot anyone’s ability to hold. The accuracy results given in our table were not intended to give the ultimate accuracy of the pistols, but just one shooter’s relative ease in getting the most out of each of them.

Once again, we’ll attempt to tell you how easy or hard we found each pistol was to shoot, and the ease with which we could group with them. Our accuracy results have little to do with the pistol’s inherent accuracy, though we did find slight differences between brands of ammunition. Any serious target shooter will test his individual handgun to see what both the gun and the shooter prefers. Any of these target pistols will give truly amazing accuracy with its ideal ammunition, even if we may not be able to show you that with our shooter’s results.

We didn’t expect to see any malfunctions, and we had none with all pistols we’ve now tested. We did find differences in handling that were quirky, some little things that made one magazine easier to load than another, a bit better balance here and there, and varying degrees of success in the makers’ efforts to fit the guns to different individuals’ hands.

Let’s see what the Walther GSP and Hämmerli SP20 had to offer.

Walther GSP
Our recommendation: Man, what a pistol! We liked the Walther’s appearance, balance, and its overall feel and function. Like the Hämmerli 208S tested a few months ago, this one gave a great feeling of confidence in the hand. All our shooters said the pistol was pretty much “just right.” We didn’t like the fact that it would be trouble to put a scope onto it, and many serious target shooters need scopes as their eyes get older. We also didn’t like the limited adjustment of the sights, but they’re okay for shooters who use a 6-o’clock hold. If you need a scope, budget extra money to have the gun drilled and tapped. If you don’t need a scope and you’re looking for a target pistol that exudes excellent workmanship, the GSP might be for you. It was a very nice handgun, would last many lifetimes, and you should Buy It.

Click here to view the Walther GSP features guide

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From a distance this one looked like it was done right, and for the most part, it was. The nicely carved one-piece walnut grip blended well with the matte-black finish of the aluminum frame and steel barrel. The grip angle was quite comfortable for everyone who tried it. The gun had a business-like look, as imposing as that of the Hämmerli 208S and far sterner than the black-and-white Pardini, two-tone Benelli or circus-atmosphere-red-and-black Hämmerli SP20. Some shooters believe in intimidating their competition (even if they can’t outshoot ‘em), and the GSP sure is imposing.

When we cleared the magazine we found an optional hold-open for the bolt, easily tripped upward with the trigger finger. (This was a right-handed gun.) It came with a proof target fired at 25 meters, that had five shots (Tenex) in 0.4 inch. With accuracy assured, the test of this pistol became punching paper with it.

The GSP .22 LR converts into either .22 Short or .32 S&W Long for various competitions, and that flexibility can be important for the serious competitor. Also, the rear sight blade was easily interchangeable, and two spares came with the gun. The spare blades had different notch widths to give several degrees of light on each side of the front post. The front sight blade appeared to be easily replaceable, but no spares were in the box. We could see no easy way to mount an optical sight, but drilling and tapping the top of the pistol for a scope did not look like it would be tough.

Two five-round magazines came with the gun, and they were easily loaded via the comfortable follower button. They had plastic followers and bases, and they came apart easily for cleaning.

The trigger was adjustable for length (reach), angular and rotational position, both pull stages, engagement, and overtravel. As we got it, the GSP had a pronounced two-stage pull. Some shooters like this setup for rapid-fire events. We chose not to mess with the settings. The final stage broke at 3.5 pounds.

The Walther GSP was rife with levers and adjustments here and there. On the right side of the pistol were the magazine hold-open lever and a plunger-locked wheel to adjust the takedown-lever tension. The left side had the takedown lever, and an indexed screw that locked in the trigger mechanism. Cocking handles protruded from each side of the bolt. The walnut grip had an adjustable palm rest, held by two Allen screws. The excellent manual had instructions in three languages that explained all the various adjustments and also described the many options available for both this pistol and the OSP model.

We eagerly anticipated shooting this good-looking pistol. We found the Walther to be as accurate and easy to shoot as we had initially thought, though we had a minor problem. We couldn’t get the rear sight low enough to get the bullets to strike where we wanted. The spare rear blades that came with the gun had different widths of notch, but they were all the same height, and that meant we needed a taller front sight blade, which we didn’t have. The manual didn’t mention anything about different front sights, but the front was held into a slight groove by a single screw, so at the worst you could have one made to suit, that is if Walther doesn’t stock them in different heights. We look for a sight setting that puts the bullets exactly where the sights look. Many target shooters use a 6-o’clock hold and, depending on the size of the bull, this one might be okay as is for such usage. The Walther struck about 2 inches high at 15 yards, and nearly 4 inches high at 25, depending on ammo.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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We tried Eley Tenex, CCI Pistol Match, Federal Gold Medal Match, and Winchester T22 ammunition. The Walther favored Tenex and CCI, putting them into 1-inch groups at 25 yards. It didn’t much like T22, averaging only 1.8 inches with it. That preference might vary with individual pistols, and the owner of such a costly handgun would get his money’s worth of fun trying to find the best type of ammunition. All shots struck about 3 inches high at 25 yards with the rear sight all the way down.

During our offhand evaluation, we rated the Walther as eminently controllable. We really liked the feel of the grip, its angle, and even the two-stage adjustable trigger, though some would have preferred a single-stage setup. That is easily accomplished by setting the first-stage weight up to the total letoff weight. The trigger broke at 3.5 pounds as tested.

Hämmerli SP20
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy It. We believe there was something wrong with this pistol, but we could not determine what it was. If subsequent testing or outside help shows us the difficulty, we’ll pass the information along to you. However, in spite of the accuracy problem, we believe there are better bargains out there in the target-pistol market.

Click here to view the H?mmerli SP20 features guide

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Shades of Buck Rogers, a red pistol! And why not? Most of the visible metal parts of the Swiss-made Hämmerli SP20 were aluminum, and the choice of red anodizing gave an innovative look to the pistol. The red contrasted nicely with the dead-black synthetic grip, one of the best features of the SP20. We got five different grips with the pistol. A single screw held the guts of the gun to the grip, so swapping them was a few minutes’ job. Unfortunately, the unrestrained safety lever fell off the pistol each time we swapped grips.

Each grip had an adjustable platform to help fit it to your hand. We got a left-handed one, and enough right-handed versions to fit a variety of hands. Further, if the best-fitting grip needs a bit of altering, that’s easy to do with a file or sandpaper, so with a little work you can have a perfect grip on your handgun.

The SP20 had a forward-magazine design. The two magazines that came with the pistol were plastic, and each held six rounds. They came apart for cleaning by drifting out a steel pin in the base. The mag was held in place by a spring-loaded lever located at the lower rear of the mag well, which was integral with the synthetic grip. Pressing the lever forward released the magazine. To chamber a round from a locked-open magazine, it was necessary to move the bolt slightly rearward and let it fly forward. There were two levers, one on each side of the bolt, for this operation.

On this design the bolt did not stay open after the last shot. This is a quirk favored by today’s serious target competitors. There was a right-side button that permitted the bolt to be locked rearward. A safety lever was on the left side of the pistol just above the trigger. Pressing it inward and moving it to the rear put the safety on.

All but one of the grips had too much angle for most of our shooters’ hands. The wrist had to be bent severely downward to get the sights to align, and we didn’t like that. However, with a bit of practice it seemed to be easy to hold the pistol steady with that grasp, so perhaps over time it would produce better scores. The least angular grip was a big improvement over the remainder, in our view.

Just about everything about the trigger was adjustable. One could move the position forward or rearward, change the first-stage pull, and adjust the letoff and overtravel. As the pistol came to us, the pull was set very much to our liking, and we left it alone. There were tools within the pistol case for all the adjustments, including a large-headed Allen wrench for swapping grips. The package also included an excellent instruction manual that detailed all the adjustments for the trigger, which could be varied from 1,000 to 1,350 grams (2.2 to 3 pounds). As tested, it broke at 2.6 pounds. The manual also described the adjustments for the recoil buffer, which gives different recoil impulses for varying intensities of ammunition.

The Hämmerli SP20 was also convertible into .32 S&W for centerfire competition. The only provision for dry firing was the inclusion of a red-plastic button that fit into the chamber. It fell out easily, and we would like to see something better here. The manual emphasizes that you ought not to drop the firing pin on an empty chamber.

The top of the pistol was drilled and tapped for scope mounting. The SP20’s iron sights were big and simple, much like those of the Pardini, Walther GSP, and Benelli. With the sight screwed all the way down, the Hämmerli hit about 1.3 inches high at 15 yards, and it was still a bit high at 25 yards. Some shooters prefer a center hold, and that wasn’t possible with either of the two pistols tested here as they were set up. It was not possible to adjust the sights with a coin on either of these two test pistols.

The front sight blade of the SP20 was cleverly machined so that it offered three widths by simply rotating the sight in place. The front sight blade was locked in place by a screw in its base. Other front sight options are also available. The rear sight had a blade with easily adjustable notch width, by means of a screw on the right side of the gun.

One potential point of aggravation was that the upper-rear surface of the grip, just below the rear sight, was slanted so it could catch light from a source directly over, or slightly behind the pistol. The rear-sight blade itself was slanted to prevent that, so in certain lighting conditions the eye would see a bright surface beneath the dull line of the rear sight.

At the range we found the Hämmerli had a distinct hitch in its gitalong. The first shot out of the magazine usually hit into a distinctly different point of impact than the remaining rounds. This is commonly seen when testing from a Ransom Rest, but not when holding the pistol in the hand, even when shooting from the bench. We noticed this with all brands of ammo tried. The first shot landed from half an inch to more than 2 inches away from the main group. All shooters who tried the gun noticed this tendency to varying degrees.

The best group fired was five into 0.7 inch at 25 yards with Eley Tenex. However, another Tenex group was 2.7 inches, with four into 1.2 inches. The worst group was with CCI Pistol Match of 2.8 inches, but four of these went into 1.1 inch. Another group fired with CCI Pistol Match had four into half an inch, but the first shot struck 1.5 inches away. It was not possible to tell which brand of ammo gave the best results because of the problem here. The target included with the Hämmerli SP20 was well under half an inch for five shots at 25 meters, ammo unspecified.

We really liked the trigger pull and the pistol’s feel of precision. The magazine was easy to load, thanks to its double-lugged follower. A single extractor threw empties against a protrusion of the magazine and gave positive ejection.

We were taken aback by the price of this pistol. When you see the guts of the SP20 out of its grip, the pistol doesn’t give the impression that it’s all that complex, though there are plenty of little parts within that aluminum frame, and we’re sure they are all fitted with Swiss precision. We much preferred wood grips to the SP20’s black plastic ones. Wood is a whole lot friendlier looking, more comfortable, and better looking as well. If Hämmerli had used its innovative and cost-cutting design to reduce the price by half, we’d think it was a reasonable deal.

Gun Tests Recommends
As we continue growing the number of guns in this test segment, we’ve found some we like a lot. If you want a quality target pistol for bottom dollar, we suggest you hunt up a pre-agreement used Smith & Wesson Model 41, which can often be found for about $600.

If you’ve got a little more coin, we think the Pardini Nygord Master, $1,095, offers a lot of features and accuracy for substantially less money than other new guns, such as the Walther GSP, $1,500, and Hämmerli 208S, $2,000. With the Pardini, you get a brand new pistol of modern design, all the accuracy you will ever need, a good red-dot scope, and an outstanding and totally adjustable trigger. It also had the compensating spring-loaded counterweights to drastically reduce bounce. If you don’t want or need a scope, you can get the Nygord Pardini for $950.

Walther GSP, $1,500. Despite our recommendation of the Pardini, we still think this is a very good gun. If you see something in the GSP’s description above that makes it a better choice for your needs, we wouldn’t hesitate to Buy It.

Hämmerli SP20, $1,500. Though we have confidence this model can shoot, we have to base our recommendations on what actually happens during our testing. We can’t explain the first-round flyers we noted during accuracy testing, and we think other guns have better feature sets for the same or less money. Don’t Buy It.