Concealable Plastic 9mms: What Is The Best Pistol Under $400?
Price is relevant! Our test of Standard Arms of Nevadaís $199 SA9, Kel-Tecís $299 P11 and Taurusí $369 PT111 shows that a little extra money can make a life-or-death difference.
[IMGCAP(1)] There are at least two different customers for an inexpensive 9mm pistol as small and light as the three sub-6 inch by 5-inch pistols in this test. Customer number one is the rookie cop with more guts than paycheck that finds himself or herself in need of a second gun. Customer two is the CHL holder who recognizes the need for a pistol that will not discourage regular carry by being too big, too heavy, or too low on firepower. Kel-Tec answered these needs with the polymer-framed model P11 some time ago, as early as 1994.
But two other companies have copied this configuration very closely. Standard Arms of Nevada offers the model SA 9 for considerably less money by simply cloning the P11 in the most economical way possible, undercutting the price of the Kel-Tec by some 33 percent. Taurus’s new and improved Millennium PT111 has evolved since being introduced in 1997. We cipher that when Taurus first offered the PT111 series, the company felt it would compete successfully in the budget-gun market at an acceptably higher price if they could in fact produce a better gun.
Would these guns, whose small overall size, low weight and 10+1 9mm capacity merge successfully with a low price point? Here’s what we found:
Testing for this group of pistols took place outdoors in the cold and on a sunny, windy day. We used sandbags from a bench to collect range data, but fired each pistol standing offhand as well. With a limited amount of frame area available to steady these guns, special attention was given to groups fired standing. Another matter we studied was how fast an accurate follow-up shot could be fired from these little guns. Benchrest data is a result of five-shot groups, but standing we judged via ten-shot groups, or one full mag, fired continuously if not rapidly. Distance for the supported groups was 15 yards, which we feel is challenging enough for these short sight-radii pistols. Groups fired standing were performed at a 12-yard outdoor range. Velocity and related calculations were determined by shooting across an Oehler 35P chronograph 10 feet from the muzzle.
Our choice of ammunition included three commonly found but distinctly different cartridges. We chose the Winchester full-metal-jacketed (FMJ) round because this is a classic profile for 9mm Parabellum and relatively inexpensive. While 9mm practice ammo usually features a 124-grain slug, our choice was topped with a 115-grain FMJ round that achieved velocities in line with the other Winchester round in the test, the 115-grain Silvertip HP. The curvature and profile of these slugs are similar, save for the tip. The third test round weighed in at a somewhat unusual number for 9mm, 135 grains. This is Federal’s Personal Defense Hydra-Shok HP. Its profile is flatter at the tip and with less curvature. We wondered if there would be failures to feed in these guns, which we judged to be a near-fatal disqualification. To get our recommendation, these guns had to go bang. They didn’t always do that.
Standard Arms of Nevada SA9
It is hard to get a good look at a gun that gives you trouble. We did manage to render accuracy and chronograph data (barely) despite many failures to feed. It is easy to see that this is a very close copy, a clone in fact, of the Kel-Tec product. The mags are also very similar, but the Kel-Tec magazines are branded with the Mec-Gar logo. We tried using the Kel-Tec–supplied Mec-Gar magazine, but it did not seem to help. Mec-Gar also supplies the magazine for the Taurus PT111, but the lockup is different, preventing interchanging with the P11 or SA9. Both the Kel-Tec and Taurus pistols fed flawlessly throughout our week-long test, so we would be hard pressed to blame the failure to feed on magazines.
Elsewhere, however, there are a number of problems inherent in the design and manufacture of small semi-automatic pistols. With the shorter slide, there will be less travel, henceforth less time for the next round to be plucked from the magazine while the casing of the fired round is ejected. There is less margin of error in choosing the recoil spring rate and choosing ammunition to match. The adjustment of all active parts is crucial. On each of these guns the extractor is mounted externally. The Kel-Tec’s extractor is tight but will give to the touch. The Taurus’s extractor appears more rigid but is in fact two pieces. The leading edge that first engages the rim of each cartridge is a spring-loaded insert that helps the extractor conform and take hold of each round. The extractor on the SA9 is quite rigid despite springs visible from the exterior. The extractor also showed a great many machine marks. Either way, the gun’s failure to feed malfunctions could easily be a product of too tight an extractor or poorly cut facing.
In checking the instruction manual, there is little help to be found for troubleshooting reliability problems, and we were unsuccessful in getting the gun to run right. (In fact, the re-assembly paragraph is cut short by the end of a page, and it doesn’t continue on the next page.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the similarity in construction and appearance of the SA9 to the Kel-Tec P11 is a compliment. But the SA9 couldn’t match the P11’s reliability, and for us, that was enough to pass on the gun.
The Kel-Tec P11 was designed to be an inexpensive, concealable weapon light in weight and simple in function. It comes with a well-written, well-illustrated manual that completely explains construction and operation. Of the six main components, the barrel and slide are made from SAE 4140 steel. The slide is mated to a rectangular sub-frame of solid aluminum. DuPont ST8018 (polymer) parts include the frame, guide rod, and frame pins. The guide rod is surrounded by two springs, one inside the other. Matched to the 9mm cartridge, recoil is manageable and not unpleasant. Serrations in the rear of the slide make the gun easy to charge. The grip is checkered and contoured, but for those preferring more area to hold on to, a grip extension that replaces the base plate of the magazine to add room for the pinkie is included. Sight radius is just over 4.5 inches, and the P11 makes the most of it by offering a three-dot system that is cleanly applied. The front dot is largest, and the rear two dots are recessed for protection. The rear sight is a molded plastic unit dovetailed into the slide. The area around the notch is lined to further reduce glare. One way to keep the cost of a pistol down is to use molded plastic instead of machined steel or aluminum. It is hard to look down your nose at this practice because in the P11’s case, it is properly designed and executed.
The P11 favored our two choices of defense loads over the FMJ rounds. With both the Federal Hydra-Shok and Winchester Silvertip rounds, we found it easy to print groups consistently less than 3 inches from a rest at 15 yards. From 12 yards standing, the P11 was capable of similar accuracy, but to perform at this level practice is required. All three pistols require that the shooter hold the gun with the weak-hand wrist (the hand not pressing the trigger) canted forward, enveloping the grip and much of the trigger guard. This is to balance the pressures created by the long trigger pull. The major pitfall in technique when firing a pistol with a long-travel hinged trigger is the tendency to scoop the trigger, resulting in a dip of the muzzle before each shot. Of the three pistols, we actually found the Taurus PT111 to have the best trigger action, but neither the Kel-Tec nor the Taurus are difficult to master. While neither pistol is necessarily a rapid-fire champion beyond a short distance, if we are to recommend the P11 or the PT111 to the CHL holder as a primary weapon, we simply advise him to practice and devote whatever time it takes to imprint the necessary technique firmly upon one’s muscle memory. For those considering these pistols as a backup gun, in our opinion it would be best to mate them with a primary gun of similar design such as one of the larger double-action-only (DAO) autos. That way the same technique can be easily applied to both guns.
Kel-Tec CNC, Inc., offers a number of aftermarket accessories. While we had no experience with the following items, their availability is worth mentioning. For example, tritium night sights that glow in the dark (orange rear, green front) are $80. This might be a very good idea, but the P11’s forte is for close-in targets, and we feel such sights would diminish one of Kel-Tec’s strongest selling points—low price. Another tactical accessory is a flashlight mount that connects to the magazine. The flashlight can be operated attached or separately. The strong point of this $39.50 option may be that both gun and tactical light can be stored together. A second grip extension that adds one round is available for $13.50 and another that allows the P11 owner to use large-capacity S&W magazines. Gun Tests would have to try these out first hand, but so far we have not been able to recommend extended magazines on any gun we have tried so far. For those who train flawlessly, a belt clip that attaches to the frame and negates the necessity of a holster is available for under $14.
One item we would certainly be interested in is a metal guide rod that replaces the standard-issue plastic one. Reason: We hope it would prevent one ominous malfunction the Kel-Tec suffered from recurring. To wit: After firing the P11 until it locked back, we inserted a loaded magazine and elected to let the slide forward not by pulling on the rear of the slide but by pressing the slide release. However, in the blink of an eye, the top end slid forward off the frame with a round chambered. Somehow, the stop pin had worked loose. Normally, the breakdown procedure is to lock the slide back and use the rim of a spent cartridge to pry the pin out. When you do so, a click is heard as it releases, signifying you have overcome the level of resistance to seat the pin. In trying to duplicate this problem later with empty cases in the mag and one in the chamber we found it was possible to loosen the stop pin with very little pressure. The key was that the barrel in its unlocked position needed to settle in such a way that it presented upward pressure to the slide overcoming the detent of the stop pin (heard previously as a click). To duplicate this, we merely pushed down on the muzzle with the slide locked back. With the slide locked back, the guide rod contacts the bottom of the barrel, but being plastic it will flex as much as one-tenth of an inch. This proved to be enough to pry the slide slightly off the frame and release the pressure that holds the stop pin.
To see if a slight upgrade would solve the problem, we ordered a metal guide rod from Kel-Tec for $6.95. While waiting for the metal guide rod to arrive, we were advised by Kel-Tec that a new pin would solve the problem. However, when we installed the rod and returned to the range, we noticed an immediate improvement in rapid-fire capability, both in speed and accuracy. Kel-Tec originally produced a metal guide rod for the P11 to avoid breakage. No, we were informed, the rod was not breaking during firing but during re-assembly of the pistol. Resetting the top end requires making the sure the barrel is all the way forward with the slide locked back, and this takes a little coaxing. Get it wrong and a lot of stress is put on the capped end of the guide rod. Generally speaking, we thought the steel rod improved the P11 markedly. But did the metal guide rod solve the problem of the stop pin coming loose? No, it did not. On the 30th round of the retest, the slide locked back prematurely with the pin dangling out the side.
Does it seem reasonable that a tighter fitting pin would solve this problem? With the metal guide rod installed we could not lever away enough pressure to release the pin without using a tool to pry it loose as described in the manner above. As a result we feel there are other areas of stress that produce variations in tolerance. Because this problem occurs on an intermittent basis, the exact cause of this malfunction will be difficult to completely diagnose. As such, we’re not convinced the gun is reliable.
Taurus Millennium PT111
In our January 2001 issue, we reviewed the similar PT140. Is this not the same gun chambered for 9mm instead of .40 Smith & Wesson? The answer is yes and no. Yes, it is the same configuration, but it all goes back to ammunition. The 9mm version of this pistol came first, and once it was proven, Taurus made the necessary changes to chamber it in the hotter caliber. The Millennium series has even been expanded to include a .45 ACP model. But we feel this is just getting carried away because the overall performance of the PT or Millennium series platform is at its best when chambered for 9mm, and upping the caliber ante, according to our experience with the PT140, does nothing to improve the gun.
It could be said that Taurus developed the PT series to compete directly with the Kel-Tec P11 pistol. The Taurus, however, is not just a copy but an upgrade.
As members of our staff recall the first PT111, this newest model of the gun is a vast improvement. It has always been a handsome piece, but the contour and hinge of the trigger is redesigned for improved control. Travel is the shortest of the three pistols in this test, and it breaks consistently at 9 pounds. A key-operated locking slide has been integrated to keep away gun grabbers of both the unauthorized and the political type. The rear sight is tiny but quite usable in combination with the front blade. Bold, helpful checkering is molded into the grip fore and aft, just where it should be on a small pistol.
The PT111 recoiled the least of our test trio, we thought, perhaps because of the telescoping guide rod. Aftermarket inventors have offered similar looking units for years on the claim they reduce recoil. The Taurus guide rod is a four-piece unit (two rods, two springs) that features all steel construction with the outer spring being wound from flat heavy-gauge wire. As with each of the pistols in this test, barrel lockup is of the linkless design. Compared to the Browning 1911 linked design for example, it is recognized that with fewer moving parts to absorb energy, linkless models produce more felt recoil. This leads us back to why the PT111 is superior to its larger-caliber brothers.
The fact is ammunition runs the gun, not the shooter. The available energy from a particular caliber is asked to move payload (the slug) and cycle the slide and accomplish extraction (reloading) and ejection. Too much energy or too much payload, as found in the .40 or .45 calibers produces all kinds of unwanted side effects. In pistols of this size, the 9mm cartridge is just right.
Disassembly is similar to the procedure on both the Kel-Tec and Standard Arms pistols. First, the slide is locked back. Then the stop pin is removed from the left side of the frame. But the Taurus pistol requires that the stop pin be rotated 90 degrees before it can be removed. A wire torsion spring adds additional stay. No tool or other part is required for disassembly. When putting the top end back into place, we found it necessary to push down on the hood of the barrel to make sure it seats forward enough when the slide is locked back to align with the notch below the barrel for inserting the stop pin. This was easily performed.
If the PT111 is a copy of the Kel-Tec P11, then it is surely an upgrade. The difference in price includes more than a few improvements. The mag release and grip are better than the P11’s, we think. A thumb-operated external safety that is easy to use and snag free to boot is added to the left side of the slide. The omission of an external mechanical safety has been a major complaint for years in the construction of DAO pistols, but there’s a good one on the PT111.
Function was 100 percent with all rounds fired, and we couldn’t help but notice the two-piece extractor that, in our opinion, makes it more forgiving to a variety of cases. Trigger performance was better to the point that we need issue no qualifiers. We averaged 2.5-inch groups from the bench with two out of the three test rounds, and the PT111 was way ahead of the others when we shot it standing. While the PT111 would serve well as a backup gun, it would be our first choice in this category to be carried as a primary weapon.
Gun Tests Recommends
Standard Arms of Nevada SA9, $199. Don’t Buy. This gun did not run well in our tests. Perhaps there are only so many ways to lower cost before performance is compromised.
Kel-Tec P11, $299. Don’t Buy. The P11 comes close as a weapon design that succeeds in close quarters on the basis of its high capacity and low weight. But its freak malfunction spooked us off.
Taurus Millennium PT111, $369. Buy it. The PT111 may be the lowest price one should pay for protection. It certainly is new and improved, and it outshines more than a few higher-priced pistols as well.
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