July 2001

Gun Mates: Pairing Full-Size And Carry-Size Semiauto 9mms

We found even the most dynamic duos from Taurus and Smith & Wesson have trouble keeping up with Glock’s full-sized GL17 and the Model 26 pocket cannon.

We think Glock’s Model 17 (left) full-size
9mm works well with the company’s smaller
Model 26 (right).

Pairing up similar guns for home defense and carry has its advantages. Creating a memory bank of motor skills that carries over from one gun to another can come in handy when you need to be a winner. The trick is to find two pistols with an operating design that offers the same feedback and relies upon the same technique for effective action. One pistol should offer maximum capacity and the other should afford in concealment what it gives up to its larger brother in firepower.

Do such guns exist? Yes they do, as we found out in a recent test. We tried to identify and evaluate the performance of pairs of 9mm pistols that offer the most familiarity from gun to gun—gun mates, if you will. We began with Glock’s full-size model 17, $641, and one of the company’s smallest pistols, the GL26, also $641. Smith & Wesson offered its double-action-only (DAO) duo, the steel model 5946 ($822) and the alloy-frame 3953 ($724). Recently we tested what we consider to be Taurus’s best polymer pistol, the Millennium PT111, $367, and found a close match to it in the steel PT911, $508.

Regardless of how closely related our duos appeared on the outside, we wanted to know if each pair of guns could be used side by side without requiring a distracting level of physical or mental readjustment. Thus, we evaluated them as pairs, not as individual guns. To earn our recommendation, each half of the full-size/compact duo would have to be worthy of buying on its own, and the guns had to allow the shooter to adapt quickly and easily. We found out that was no small feat.

Range Session
Each pistol was treated to a break-in session numbering a minimum of 200 rounds. We fired each pistol standing at 10, 15, and even 65 yards. After toying with the idea of shooting the smaller guns at 15 yards and the bigger brothers at 25, we decided to limit our formal sessions to 15 yards for all pistols. Shooting over our Oehler 35P (print) chronograph, we recorded velocities on all the guns.

Five out of the six pistols were limited to only one trigger action. The Taurus PT911 offers single as well as double action, but the others shared the same characteristic of longer DA travel before firing. The Smith & Wesson pistols are DAO, but the Glocks use that company’s unique trigger system, wherein the initial trigger pull of the Glock pistols is somewhat longer than subsequent shots, but the difference is not as defined as those found on traditional double action pistols such as the PT911. It seems to undergo a total change in personality after the first shot. The PT911 does, however, offer a safety-on cocked-and-locked condition. Testing of this pistol was limited to single action only.

The single most important test-protocol point you should know about is that sandbags very much helped the operation of the DAO and Glock triggers. DAO and Glock triggers are hinged, and as previously mentioned, offer longer movement than 1911-type sliding triggers. If you observe one’s trigger finger as it replicates a press, you will notice the pad of the finger actually describes an arc. To the trigger that slides only a short distance straight back, this means little or nothing. The hinged trigger, on the other hand, must allow the shooter to transfer this arc into a straight rearward motion, lest the sights be pulled off target. This is why one popular modification to a DA revolver is to round and polish the face of the trigger. Doing so allows the finger to slide smoothly across the trigger’s face. This is hard to replicate in a semi-auto, and the result is often “scooping” the trigger, which tends to pull shots downward.

This was evident in our offhand shooting, but the extra support of the sandbag rest tended to mask this problem. We recorded five-shot groups from a rest for each pistol, but made note of how much work it took to overcome the temptation to scoop each shot and fire accurately from an unsupported mount.

S&W 5946 ($822), S&W 3953 ($724)
While both of these pistols fire DAO, the larger 5946 (4-inch barrel) features a double-stack magazine with the potential for more than the civilian limit of 10+1 rounds. The steel-framed 5946 feels much larger than the 3953, even though the barrel is only a half-inch longer than the compact 3953.

Click here to view the S&W 5946 and S&W 3953 features guides

.

The difference in feel is due mainly to the alloy 3953 being much narrower and housing only a single-column magazine, but its capacity is still a healthy 8+1. Our first shots of this pair were fired with the big brother, and we found it easy to shoot. Even with the hottest rounds we could dig out of our war chest, recoil was very soft.

Our results offhand in this first session were actually superior to what we were able to achieve later when we started jumping from one pistol to another. We feel this points out an important issue that affects these pistols across the board. Whether operation was by DAO, Glock’s trigger, or TDA, we found the effectiveness of these weapons to be more directly affected by training than by mechanisms. There are six pistols in this evaluation with at least four different actions. We found success to be a matter of sticking with one of them. The question then becomes which pistol is the easiest to adapt to.

We found the Smith & Wesson 5946/3953 to actually be quite different, not so much in action but in what it takes to learn them. The larger model with the wider grip necessitated by the double column magazine was more difficult to master. Its trigger seemed longer, softer, and ill defined. Rapid fire with it was difficult. All of the above problems, in our opinion, are not just a product of the trigger’s feel. The girth of the grip opened the hand, which diminished the shooter’s strength. The narrow 3953 felt very different and seemed much easier to command. Going from one gun to another, it always took us longer to “re-boot” our muscle memory to fire the 5946 effectively. On the other hand, it seemed like we could shoot the little brother accurately at any time.

By itself, the 4-inch double-stack 5946 is a satisfactory pistol that can be mastered. Is the 5946 a match to its little brother the 3953 single-stack? Yes, but only going in one direction. We found it difficult to spend time shooting the 3953 and then pick up the 5946 and produce acceptable results. In comparison, a long firing session with the larger gun had little effect on our talent with the smaller gun. In fact, the 3953 proved rather fun to shoot.

However, from a bench rest each of these guns were tiring to shoot. We attribute this to the weight of the trigger. Would reducing the weight of the trigger jeopardize the intended safety margin presented by a DAO trigger? We doubt it because it could still be demonstrated that these guns will not fire without a willful, deliberate act. A good trigger job might just change everything when it comes to the Smith & Wesson DAOs.

Results from the bench revealed another interesting trend. Each group produced a flyer that always printed low. Were we scooping the trigger despite support, or was there a mechanical problem? Flyers did not correspond with the emptying of the magazine so we feel the possibility of a loose slide seeking support from the magazine was not the problem. In our opinion, shooter error due to fatigue caused by the inordinately heavy triggers was the most likely cause.

Click here to view the S&Ws' Accuracy and Chronograph Data

.

Firing the Black Hills ammunition in the 3953, we had four shots within the reported five-shot groups measuring from 1.1 to 1.7 inches. When our shooter was at his freshest, he managed to print true 1.7- and 1.6-inch five-shot groups with both the 124- and 147-grain rounds, respectively. This is odd because the larger 5946 offered more sight radius and less eye fatigue. The Black Hills 115s printed groups ranging between 1.3 to 1.8 inches. Throughout the test, however, we felt the most comfortable with the 124-grain rounds, even though we dropped fifth-round flyers that expanded four-shot groups as small as 0.70 inch. The 147-grain subsonic FMJ round was consistent as well.

Taurus PT911 ($508), Taurus PT111 ($367)
As reported in our March 2001 issue, it was our opinion that the PT111 “works as backup or primary concealed carry gun.” For the home we felt we could pair it up with a larger Taurus pistol, such as the PT911. This is a model we hear little about but has been in the Taurus catalog for some time.

Click here to view the Taurus PT911 and Taurus PT111 features guides

.

The PT911 is a steel pistol, and we were disappointed to find that neither its single- nor double-action trigger actions were close in feel to that of the Millennium. What we do like about the PT911 is that it does offer cocked-and-locked operation. Naturally, it is heavier and recoils less than the smaller plastic gun. Also, its sight radius is longer, as is the barrel (4 inches versus 3.3 inches), which should make the PT911 easier to shoot.

We chose the fanciest model (1-911049PRL) complete with a bright stainless finish accented with gold trigger, slide lock, slide release, ambidextrous safety, magazine release, hammer, grip screws, extractor and faux pearl grip panels. But does it shoot? A look at the accuracy and chronograph results will tell you that it will average about 2.5 inches per five-shot group virtually across the board. But this is not the whole story.

Click here to view the Taurus' Accuracy and Chronograph Data

.

For some reason we suffered stoppages with various hollowpoint ammunition, wherein the spent case was not ejected and another fresh round was presenting itself at the feed ramp. This is different than nose-diving rounds. We suspect this was an extractor problem. Also, we had one really good group with the PT911, measuring 1.2 inches from center to center just above our six o’clock hold on the bull. The rest of the time we really weren’t sure where the group would print. The white dot on the front sight left early and the low-profile sights, although offering generous light bars, seemed blocky due to what we consider to be a wider front blade than necessary. Losing the white front dot made our sight picture look ugly.

Firing the gun standing, we never felt like we were holding the pistol naturally or correctly, in part because the “pearl” grips were slippery and came loose.

As well as this gun performed on paper, we did not like shooting it. We would recommend the Taurus PT92/99 series pistol as a better choice of full-sized weapon. This pistol resembles the Beretta, and like the Glock 17, the PTs can be filled with a pre-ban magazine that takes full advantage of the larger frame for capacity of 15 or more rounds.

Compared to the PT911, the Millennium seems to do everything right, as we noted in March. It has better ergonomics than most plastic pistols, including the Glocks, and it has a manual safety on the slide. One trend that does seem to be gathering momentum is the DAO-type polymer pistol in a full-size frame. Perhaps a grown-up Millennium is just around the corner. This would certainly make for a well-matched pair. The Millennium will stow 10+1 rounds just like the GL26, but it offers a full grip. Although little has changed visually since this pistol was introduced, the trigger action is shorter and more predictable and attention to the cycling problems often attached to small guns have been successfully addressed by innovations such as a two-piece leafed extractor. Accuracy with today’s 115-grain hollowpoints was better than with heavier rounds, and recoil was more manageable than any 19-ounce pistol should be. In terms of building a matched pistols for home and carry, Taurus is only halfway there.

Glock Model 17 ($641), Glock Model 26 ($641)
We have said time and again that a manufacturer cannot simply arrive at a design platform and expect it to work with every caliber, but the GL17 has proven to be one of the seminal pistols of the 20th century.

Click here to view the Glock Model 17 and Glock Model 26 features guides

.

We feel this concept of limited universality carries over to the low mounted three-dot fixed sights that are standard on Glock pistols. In our estimation they are a long way from Bo-Mar target sights, but they are at their best when mounted at a sight radius of 6.4 inches atop the GL17. Since the Glock pistol was introduced, one complaint against it has been how the hand fit the gun. European pistols are usually built around a strong-hand-only grip, allowing one hand to be free to hold on to Herr Rin Tin Tin. The outcry for grip improvement became louder as Glock offered more and more variations (read smaller) on the full-sized gun. Today’s Glock pistols offer “checkered” finger grooves and lines on the palm-swelling backstrap as well. There is even an indentation for the thumb on each side.

The Glock’s advantageous hand-to-grip fit showed up at the range. Despite a range of trigger design, all the pistols in this test proved capable of shooting the Black Hills ammunition into five-shot groups measuring 2.5 inches or less from a sandbag rest. The Glock pistols stood out from the rest because they were willing to shoot very nearly as well standing unsupported. Certainly this is the way a defense gun is meant to be used. We found it easy to keep the muzzle up and prevent scooping. At the bench the Glocks were easy to shoot continuously without fatigue. Before beginning a controlled press, we were able to pad the trigger like a catcher palming his glove in anticipation.

Click here to view the Glocks' Accuracy and Chronograph Data

.

Shooter comfort and a consistent trigger made it possible for the little GL26 to print at least one sub 2-inch group per choice of round. This despite the GL26’s grip being so short that the pinkie is free to wave in the wind. (Magazine extensions are available but we do not feel that the 9mm cartridge produces sufficient recoil to make them a necessity.) The larger GL17 broke the 1-inch barrier firing the 124-grain JHP +P cartridge. We even managed to shoot the Black Hills 115-grain JHP +P rounds so consistently that every group measured only 1.1 inches at 15 yards. The Glocks define what we think gun mates should be.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson models 3953 ($724) and 5946, ($822). Don’t Buy. Our take on the Smith & Wesson DAO pistols is they demand exclusive training for effective use. If you regularly shoot a variety of actions, you will have to work much harder to fire these pistols accurately. If you intend to choose only one or two pistols and train with them regularly, each of these pistols is a fair choice. But the Glocks are much better, in our view.

Taurus Millennium PT111, $367, and PT911, $508. Don’t Buy. There is no perfect matchup to the polymer PT111 yet. Though we previously recommended the PT111, it doesn’t mate well with the 911.

Glock GL26, $641, and GL17, $641. Buy them as a pair. You will never be confused even when your pinkie has no place to go on the smaller GL26. The GL17 pistol is one of the best nines ever, and in the GL26 9mm pistol, this same magic has survived the shrinking process very well.