May 2000

Compact Alloy 9mm Sidearms: Too Heavy, Too Big, Too Slow?

Does alloy really mean lightweight? Does compact really mean small? We find answers when we test CZ’s new 75D PCR, SIG’s P239, and Ruger’s KP93DAO.

[IMGCAP(1)] When we think of a compact pistol with an alloy frame, we tend to think of a gun that is light in weight and small enough to conceal without excessive compromise in grip area. However, some pistols that are advertised and categorized as compact are not necessarily diminutive nor are they especially easy to conceal. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines compact in terms of “automobiles smaller than intermediate but larger than sub-compact.” In the world of handguns, the compact benchmark seems to be built around the 3.5- to 3.8-inch barrel.

Likewise, this same dictionary defines alloy ten different ways and never once refers to weight, but uses variations on the word mix more than seven different times. No wonder we’ve been fooled in past evaluations when we assumed that a heavy gun meant its frame was made of steel, not alloy. (We’ve gone to magnetic evaluation to eliminate the problem.) In sum, we’ve learned many heavy guns are indeed alloys, such as a recent trio of test guns which included Ruger’s familiar looking KP93, $520; SIG’s little P239, $595; and CZ USA’s latest variation of the 75 series, the 27.6-ounce PCR, $526.

Regardless of size, style, or weight, we believe the most important feature of a defense gun is its first-shot capability or, how fast the pistol can be brought into action. Each of our test guns asks the shooter to address the first shot with a long double-action pull. In fact, the Ruger we chose features a double action–only (DAO) trigger. Both the CZ PCR and the SIG P239 revert to single action after the first shot, but can be “de-cocked” so the hammer can rest safely behind a loaded chamber. Subsequent shots will again begin with a DA pull and revert to single action (SA) thereafter. Somehow, this trigger design has become known as “Traditional Double Action” but we wouldn’t refer to it as such. The big question: Does this feature really offer more safety (from accidental discharge and lawsuit) and still remain effective in terms of firing a meaningful hit? This was a prime question we hoped to answer in this comparison.

Range Session
We wanted the test session to reflect the design intent and purpose of our test guns. Each of these guns are meant to serve as a defensive weapon, and we take that to mean they will be called upon to perform at least one of two chores. Scenario one is brandishing it to halt life-threatening aggressive behavior. In this case the gun may be drawn and held on an attacker. Here, the DA trigger is intended to provide a cushion and prevent accidental discharge under stress where the natural physical reaction is to close the hands, which certainly could result in activating the trigger. The second scenario is a condition in which the gun must be fired quickly and accurately.

To gauge the capability of these guns under both of these conditions, we chose to test each pistol for accuracy and list data using only the double action–trigger mode. For what amounts to comparing the guns to themselves, we also fired the CZ and the Sig pistols utilizing single action only. The shooting distance was 25 yards, and we were seated with the guns fully supported by a sandbag rest.

For our ammo choices, though the 124- or 147-grain round-nosed bullet may be the popular choice for accurate target shooting, we chose to fire only those rounds topped with jacketed hollow-point (JHP) slugs. Our selection included two Eldorado Starfire cartridges from PMC that weighed 95 and 124 grains respectively. From Remington we picked a 115-grain +P round that produced the most average muzzle energy, as much as 377 foot-pounds when fired from the CZ pistol. Of course the PMC 95-grain round was fastest overall (averaging 1,280 fps out of the CZ), and it also offered the least recoil. The award for second-highest muzzle energy was a three-way tie of 346 foot-pounds between the CZ stoked with the 95-grain Starfires and the remaining two pistols loaded with the Remington 115s.

We found accuracy was affected more by the quality of the trigger pull than by the ability of the pistol to lockup tightly, but the CZ was the clear accuracy winner, shooting 2.2-, 1.8-, and 2.2-inch groups with the Starfire 95-grain JHP, Remington 115-grain JHP +P, and Starfire 124-grain JHP, respectively. The Ruger’s groups were 2.6, 3.1, and 2.0 inches with the same rounds, followed by the SIG’s groups at 3.3, 3.5, and 2.7 inches.

There are other factors that go into our recommendations, and we delve into them point by point below:

Ruger KP93
Our recommendation: This $520 KP93DAO was more accurate than expected. Bulky even in compact frame, it wasn’t the prettiest girl at the dance, but it was the most honest and dependable. However, it’s not a sure-fire buy.

Click here to view the Ruger KP93 features guide

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While no semi-auto trigger has the aural or tactile cues of a revolver action, the Ruger DAO trigger was easier to operate than its 11-pound pull would indicate. We measured the DA trigger on the SIG pistol to weigh only 5 ounces more, but in comparison the P239’s DA trigger was excruciating to use in a controlled-press situation. Whereas the Sig actually shot groups of 1.1 and 1.4 inches when fired single action (using the 124-grain Starfires), our test sample’s DA prevented it from outperforming either the CZ or the Ruger. The 124-grain bullet also performed best in the KP93 with groups ranging in size from 1.3 to 2.6 inches for a 2.0-inch average. Overall this pistol was tight enough and offered enough feel at the trigger to produce an average group of 2.5 inches for all shots fired. If you are particularly good with a revolver, or able to dedicate yourself to shooting this one pistol, accuracy like what we gathered in our test should be within your reach.

At 1 pound 14 ounces, this gun does not feel particularly light, but the frame only weighs three quarters of a pound. Removing the slide and upper assembly is simple, but disassembly is unique. Locking the slide back, you have to reach into the open breech and push the ejector forward until it locks in place. The slide is then pushed forward until the retaining pin matches with the disassembly notch. Backing out the pin allows you to slide the top end forward off of the frame. It’s interesting to note that the guide rod is surrounded by springs of two different gauges. One is tightly wound with many coils and the outer spring is heavier, the coils of which are wider and lean in the opposite direction. We’d have to guess that one spring addresses shock and the other expansion. The CZ, which proved unreliable in this test, also uses a multi-filament spring but is still a single coil. SIG addresses recoil with a flat wound spring.

Choosing spring rates for guns with a high weight differential between the frame and slide can be tricky. Guns with lighter frames seem to be more prone to stoppages often referred to as limp-wristing, or not holding the gun firmly. Since most of the Ruger’s bulk is up high, we expected a top-heavy feel, but the grip frame with smoothly integrated panels was thin enough to allow for a strong hold that helped control the gun. Still, rapid fire is not this gun’s forte, in our estimation.

While the KP93 proved 100 percent reliable with no less than six different brands of ammunition ranging from 124-grain NATO Military Ball to Winchester Silvertips, it does not cycle quickly, and the long search for the trigger break contributes to this perception. For comfort we’d like the trigger to be radiused instead of square on the edges. Also, we could live with another way to release the magazine rather than pushing forward on the uncomfortable-to-operate levers, but at least these controls are ambidextrous and can furthermore be operated by either the thumb or trigger finger. Actually, the magazine release on our test gun was held by a lighter spring than we’ve seen on past test guns with this same design.

The front sight is held in place with two pins and sports a white dot to match with the rear sight, whose wide notch is surrounded by two smaller white dots. The overall appearance of the P-series Ruger pistols is a familiar one, but is still unique. It’s either a bit clunky, or depending on your taste, maybe it’s charming in a Buck Rogers sort of way. Ruger does its best to keep it all snag free, but the widest part of the gun is the link pin as it protrudes from the frame.

This model lacks decocking levers since the long DAO pull is meant as the only deterrent to accidental discharge. Whether or not you have the savvy to control this trigger under stress is up to you. Can the gun be held at the ready without accident? It has been expressed to us by a former FBI training instructor that the major consideration would be, “Does the pulling of the trigger require a willful act?” We would answer yes, but due to the lack of a crisp, strongly defined break point on the trigger, you’re in a gray area whenever you touch it.

Second, what happens when you perceive a threat and have no alternative but to fire? Is the Ruger KP93DAO an effective weapon? Our view: Perhaps. Given the reliability and accuracy that we observed, success in this situation would depend strictly upon the skill and tactics of the operator—moreso than with other models.

CZ 75D PCR
Our recommendation: CZ has a few bugs to work out before the PCR can get a Buy recommendation from us. We think this $526 introductory model has reliability questions that need to be resolved before it’s a good carry choice.

Click here to view the CZ 75D PCR features guide

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The PCR model from CZ is a fresh variation on the successful Model 75 lineup. It carries on the 75 line’s features, such as internal frame rails and ergonomics that are among the best in history of handgun design. The 75D (for decocker) features a soft-rubber variation of CZ’s palm swell–style grips with diamond-shaped checkering. The frame with grips installed weighs just less than 10 ounces, and at a total weight of 26 ounces, this CZ was the lightest gun in our test.

CZ lists the 75D PCR as police model available to civilians. The gun is actually more compact than listed because there is a connection for a law-enforcement lanyard beneath the grip that accounts for an additional one-quarter inch in height. Still, this was the most comfortable gun to handle hands down, and on first impression it was a strong favorite. It is the right size for the hand, has a manageable weight, offers good sight radius, and presents a no-snag three-dot sight system that’s easy on the eyes. Capacity is 10 (or 15+1 if you can legally obtain the LEO mags), and all levers and buttons are accessible without being obtrusive or prone to accidental function. The double-action trigger is pleasant and one of the more predictable we’ve found to date.

Breaking the gun down happens as fast as you can drop the mag, back the slide about three-eighths of an inch to line up the notches in the frame and slide and remove the slide stop (this is a linkless design). It was at this point we ran up against two flaws that may or may not be repairable.

First, the PCR was easily the most accurate gun in the test, even when we fired the SIG P239 single action. The double action felt very natural and after some very good results (an overall average five-shot group size of 2.0 inches for all shots fired) we tried this pistol single action. This is where the trouble started. The single action trigger included a noticeably rough travel before it broke. We inspected the mechanism and found the cause to be to the contact between the hammer and the final lever in the single-action chain of command. These pieces interact somewhat crudely. Due to its design, we think these parts can be smoothed and the action refined, but not completely solved. With this hitch in the trigger, we weren’t able to improve on our accuracy from the DA test session. Standing and shooting in a hammering or rapid-fire situation, this problem was not as noticeable to the hand, but we are sure it effected accuracy just the same.

An even bigger (and in our view fatal) complaint was the CZ’s periodic malfunctions—in the neighborhood of 7 percent. The first hint of a problem was irregular slide inertia, that is, when the slide hesitates before it goes forward on some shots. When this happened, the PCR suffered nosedives where the round hid front-side down from the feed ramp, and the slide failed to return fully forward into battery. To solve the problem, we tried a number of different spring rates, replacing the factory-supplied recoil springs with a variety of Wolff single-coil springs in weights varying from 14 to 22 pounds. The original spring was approximately 16 pounds. We tried the 22-pound spring first, but ultimately settled upon on the 14-pound Wolff spring. This helped the gun’s function, but we decided there might be other factors involved.

For one, the lightweight PCR alloy frame, instead of the real-deal steel frame CZ is famous for, demanded too much attention to grip. Second, we didn’t like the looks of the plastic guide rod. Sure, metal guide rods have been known to let go, but we’re not really pointing at durability. We’ve never seen a semi-automatic pistol that ran better with a plastic guide rod than with steel one. We decided to let CZ USA figure out the problem, and we hope they do because the PCR comes closest to what we envision when we think of a compact pistol.

Also, when we asked if this gun can be safely held at the ready without fear of accidental discharge, our answer was yes. The trigger is long without feeling mushy and clouding the point of ignition. Then, if you’re threatened and must fire, we wondered if the CZ 75D PCR would be an effective weapon? It could be very effective, offering a combination of high capacity, accuracy and the ability to produce ballistics at the top of the 9mm Luger chart. But these advantages were wiped out by the gun’s unreliable service in our test.

SIG P239
Our recommendation: The double-action trigger on this $595 gun will likely be called upon for the first and most important shot. On this P239, it was just too hard to use. If you can’t perform a controlled press you may end up hammering the trigger to catch up. This could make for dangerously wild shots. We’d pass on it, based on the gun’s performance in this evaluation.

Click here to view the SIG P239 features guide

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We recently tested this same model chambered for .357 SIG, but this of course does not mean we tested the same gun. Example: Some time ago we tested the CZ100 in .40 Smith & Wesson, which we liked, but we later found the same model to be without distinction when chambered for 9mm.

In the case of this P239, we’d have to say that even in the smaller cartridge this pistol is loud, visceral and if the trigger on this 9mm sample had been more like the .357 model we tested, we’d swear it was downright fun. But, frankly the DA trigger on this test gun was too stubborn to shoot well in a controlled press. Additionally, we feel the difference in travel between the two modes of fire is too unsettling.

The P239 is a perfect example of a gun with two triggers, neither of which serve their original purpose. The DA stroke proved not only fatiguing in controlled press from the bench, but left marks on the trigger fingers of our staff members. Transferring to single action, we felt our index fingers were way out of position for anything but an outright hammering of the trigger. This means the gun was not accurate on a longer shot when it counted, and was somewhat out of control on subsequent SA shots due to the trigger finger contacting the frame. Additionally, the movement and reset on the SA trigger is so subtle we think the shift in ergonomics from hard pull to delicate reset is a disadvantage.

Here is what the Sig P239 has going for it: Small size, eight-plus-one capacity in a concealable package. The frame alone weighs 12 ounces, which means it shouldn’t feel any different to carry or to fire than the CZ. However, the weight is more evenly distributed. The Ruger is heavier and feels bulky, but at least its heft is distributed well in the hand. We were surprised how light the SIG’s frame was once separated from the slide. With the CZ you know right away a heavy slide is perched atop its featherweight frame. The Sig P239, on the other hand, is so well balanced we found it hard to believe it had such a low frame weight. It handles like a bigger, more comfortable gun, but it was actually the smallest of the three.

Removing the slide from the SIG was also the easier to perform than on either the CZ or the Ruger. The Ruger required a little bit of witchcraft reaching into the breech hoping the slide wouldn’t close on our fingers to push forward the ejector, of all parts. Lining up the marks on the slide and frame of the CZ required good eyesight and dropping of the hammer after removing the slide lock to push the top end off the frame. On the SIG, you simply line up the relief in the slide, turn a lever and the top end disengages. The advantage is there are no loose parts to misplace. The P239 proved 100 percent reliable, but due to its poor trigger, we never felt like we had the kind of control we needed. As a result, accuracy was ho-hum, with groups as large as 4.1 inches at 25 yards fired DAO. To our surprise, only the 124-grain Eldorado Starfire ammunition fired single action produced the kind of accuracy we expected.

Can this gun be held safely at the ready without fear of accidental discharge? We think so. But an overly heavy trigger may encourage a sudden burst of energy that can break the shot unexpectedly. Is the Sig P239 an effective weapon when you must shoot? We think so, but each trigger pull is so contrary, success would be up to the training and tactics of the individual. Why fight it when there are other choices?

Gun Tests Recommends
We don’t think any mechanism can replace the kind of training that enforces the habit of keeping the finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. In our view, saying that a long trigger ensures that only a willful act can fire the gun can be just as dangerous as a hair trigger. It has been the experience of our test staff that a poorly designed double action trigger devoid of feedback will indeed cause an accidental discharge. We’d much prefer operators who keep their fingers off the trigger until they have identified a target, perceived a threat, and found an effective sight picture. At that point nothing should come in the way of firing the gun to preserve the life of the operator or a third party.

Therewith, one safety feature we’d like to see is a positive off-trigger position for the index finger. Too many people think of the trigger as being part of the grip and handle the gun with the index finger inside the trigger guard. We recommend that shooters “feel” where the trigger finger is at all times. Just as a good shooter knows the feel of the trigger let-off, he should also learn how the trigger finger feels when it is safely out of the way. One of our staff members has taken to mounting a small piece of grip tape onto the frames of his firearms just above the trigger to create a safe off-trigger rest for the index finger. He mentally registers this rough surface with his trigger finger until he has identified the target and justified firing. Hopefully, firearms manufacturers will one day add a “passive restraint” system of checkering to the frame above the trigger to remind operators that they are the ultimate safety device.

Let’s remind ourselves of what defensive means. It means reacting to a situation. Offensive means acting first, and since action beats reaction, the defensive gun must be faster to operate efficiently. If the gun is too hard to fire, it becomes more suitable for use by the one who starts the action. With this counter-intuitive opinion in mind, we ranked our test guns this way:

Ruger KP93DAO, $520. Conditional Buy. This is a gun for those dedicated to the art of double-action triggers. This is also a gun for the revolver shooter who always wanted more capacity. The aficionado will want to look elsewhere, but some trainers say DAO can be just right for the beginner if it’s all they’ve ever know and practice. If this matches your description, then take a look at the Ruger. Otherwise, pass on it.

CZ 75D PCR, $526. Don’t Buy It. We’d like to take a look at this gun again in the future—when it runs right. If CZ can cure the reliability problems, it would be a sure buy.

Sig P239, $595. Don’t Buy It. We’ve tested nearly every iteration of the 239 recently, so we guess we’ve proved there is enough variation in samples to change our rating of any particular model test to test. The big flaw in this gun was that it lacked one good trigger—or even two more closely related ones. This one improvement would upgrade our rating, but based solely on our test sample, we’d have to suggest you look elsewhere for a 9mm compact self-defense gun.