Compact Polymer .40 S&Ws: Glock, Springfield, and H&K
Glock’s GL23 leads the way with polymer innovation, but Springfield’s XD pistol and the H&K USP/LEM show us how those companies are trying real hard to catch up.
While older designs, such as the double-action revolver and the 1911 semi-automatic pistol, continue to prosper through new materials and manufacturing techniques, the polymer-framed pistol may be at the forefront of pistol development. The .40 S&W is the leading round chosen by today’s local and federal law-enforcement professionals. Compact .40s (3.5- to 4.25-inch barrels) bridge the gap between plainclothes duty and civilian concealed carry, and of these, the lightweight “plastic” pistols lead the way. And the Glock line of pistols is perhaps synonymous with the word “polymer.”
In this report we take a look at the latest .40-caliber compact model from Glock, the GL23, and compare it to two challengers trying to make a dent in police and civilian markets that Glock continues to dominate. Heckler & Koch (HK) has been offering the USP series for some time now, and their latest model, the LEM (Law Enforcement Model), features a simplified trigger system. Springfield Armory decided to enter the polymer race by importing the HS pistol from Croatia. This is a striker-fired pistol very much like the Glock, but with a grip safety added. We tested a 9mm HS in the April 2001 issue of Gun Tests, and again in May 2002 after Springfield Armory bought into the company and renamed the pistol the XD, an acronym for “Extreme Duty.”
Can either Springfield or HK outsell or outshoot Glock? And where is the evolution of the concealable duty gun headed? Let’s find out.
Glock GL23, $641
The 4-inch-barreled GL23 is still the mid-sized .40 S&W in the Glock lineup. It’s the choice of many law enforcement agencies as well as legions of civilians licensed for concealed carry. Recent changes include finger grooves on the front strap with sections of checkering molded in. The texture of the side panels has not changed much, but there is an indentation for the thumb on each side. The rear of the grip is contoured with a mild palm swell.
The magazine release is more pronounced than it was on the original design, and a utility rail with Weaver style cut is molded into the dust cover. Perhaps the biggest news is the pleasing case the pistol arrived in instead of the old “Tupperware” design. It is unique, not a Doskocil or an aluminum attaché, but a simple, functional case that displays the Glock logo in a modern-art motif.
Our fixed-sight model had a wide, stubby front blade with a big white dot. The rear notch was lined in white. The only manufacturing flaw we found on our GL23 was a burr on the left stanchion of the rear sight. We chose not to cut or file it away, preferring to send it back after our tests for warranty repair. We find it hard to say whether or not this imperfection affected our ability to shoot accurately.
The major reasons Glock pistols have been so successful are their affordable price, durability and simplicity of operation. Early demonstrations featuring the original 9mm GL17 included burying the gun in mud, freezing it, and even dropping it hundreds of feet from a helicopter, after which (of course) the gun functioned perfectly.
Because our Blackhawk helicopter was in the shop and we couldn’t repeat the aerial drop tests, we chose instead to plink with our Glock and also shoot it for groups at 25 yards. That type of shooting taught us plenty about this latest model. There were no malfunctions, but our choice of ammunition taught us a few things about this weapon. The lightest of our trio at 26 ounces, the GL23 produced the most felt recoil. We enjoyed shooting the Winchester USA 165-grain FMJ rounds the best, and the Glock agreed, giving its best performance with that ammo. Groups averaged 2.6 inches. Winchester’s new 180-grain Q-load ammunition was second best, averaging just under 3 inches. (The new 180-grain Q load now has the same truncated-cone profile as Winchester’s 165-grain version.)
Actually, we were not surprised at the performance of this pistol with the 165-grain bullet because we know some federal agencies specify this bullet weight and profile for their official ammunition, in the form of Federal’s 165-grain Hydra-Shok JHP. That ammo is shaped much like Winchester’s.
We also tried a frangible SWAT round from MagSafe. This was a high-velocity (2,224 fps), low-payload (46-grain), epoxy-sealed, jacketed round that proved surprisingly docile to shoot. We did not try gelatin expansion tests, but our paper targets, mounted on corrugated cardboard backers, were noticeably more disrupted by the MagSafe rounds than by any of the other jacketed rounds.
Average accuracy of the MagSafe load in the Glock was 3.6 inches at 25 yards. We’d have preferred more accuracy, but what we got was acceptable with ammunition designed for close-quarters indoor shooting, where it is preferred that rounds not penetrate sheetrock walls.
There are some caveats in terms of bullet choice for the Glock. Due to the rifling style of the Glock, the use of any sort of unplated lead or cast lead bullets is particularly not recommended. There have been documented cases where the continued use of lead bullets, even hard ones, have caused progressive pressure increases in Glock pistols, and in some cases, caused pistol failures. With that qualifier in mind we decided to try a different MagSafe round. We found MagSafe’s 84-grain Defender load matched up with our Glock much better. This load gave 1,717 fps, and we got 2.2- to 2.7-inch groups at 25 yards with complete reliability. Recoil was not as mild as with the 46-grain SWAT load, but was perceptibly less than that of the Winchester 180-grain Q-load.
What is it about the Glock that leaves the door open for competitors? The perceived safety issue , for one. The perception—however faulty —that merely touching the trigger, with no intermediate step, will cause the gun to fire has been a commonly heard complaint about the Glock. (Why we never hear this very same complaint lodged against the double-action revolver is a mystery.) Yet this is not quite a true picture of the Glock’s so-called SafeAction system. The Glock has a lever in the middle of its trigger face that has to be depressed before the gun can fire.
But there is no chamber-loaded indicator and no visual cue to let someone know the gun is cocked and ready for fire. Those characteristics are part and parcel of Glock’s desired level of simplicity. However, the Glock system is disliked by those who commonly fail to follow safe gun-handling practices, and who fail to treat all guns as if they are loaded, or who touch the trigger when they are not ready to shoot. One way the Glock pistols have been made “more safe” is by the addition of a heavier trigger. Our GL23 did not include this extra-heavy “New York” trigger that supposedly lowers the possibility of an accidental discharge. In our view, the Glock GL23 offered fast, consistent firepower that should be treated with all the respect due any working firearm.
Heckler & Koch USP LEM Compact, $821
Discussion of the HK LEM model picks up where our evaluation of safety and a long trigger leaves off. The heart of the LEM system is a hinged trigger that requires a sizable take-up before it drops the hammer. The HK was the only pistol in this test that even had a hammer. The Glock and the XD40 were striker fired, which means that the firing pin is pulled back by the trigger against the load of a spring, and is then released like a battering ram.
The HK trigger loads a spring that releases the hammer to strike the pin. You could say when one fires the XD or the Glock, the shooter is hitting the primer with a cue stick, but in firing the HK LEM, the game is more like croquet, with a “mallet” striking the primer. While the HK USP uses the same polymer material as the Glock, the USP is more of a Browning variant than a Glock copy.
The standard HK USP has two distinct modes of fire. In the first mode, the first shot is fired after a long double-action pull. The trigger brings the hammer back to load the mainspring, and then releases the hammer. The second mode is that on subsequent shots the slide has cocked the hammer, so the trigger becomes single action, and only serves to drop the hammer.
The standard USP comes with a combined decocker lever and safety on the left side. After racking the slide and chambering a round, depressing the decocker lowers the hammer to prepare the trigger for a double-action first shot. Or, the hammer can be left cocked and the lever moved upward to Safe, giving a cocked-and-locked configuration.
The LEM system preloads the hammer spring, in effect putting the USP in single-action full time. But it does not leave the hammer back, nor does it position the trigger rearward inside the trigger guard.
The trigger movement in the LEM system was by far the longest of our test, approximately half an inch. Does this mean the gun is safer? Maybe, but as with the Glock system, if the trigger is pressed, the gun will go off.
We felt that the LEM’s long take-up left the uneducated hand at a disadvantage. If you are not experienced with this gun you probably won’t hit the intended target. The first time you handle the USP LEM the tendency is to assume a grip that lets the index finger wrap around the trigger in its fully forward position. By the time the shooter has reeled in all the take-up, the trigger finger will likely be out of position. The result will probably be dipping the muzzle and getting a low hit. Although it was an unsafe procedure and absolutely not recommended, we found it easier to position the trigger finger correctly by partially pressing the trigger as we took our grip on the gun. Clearly this was an unworkable and highly dangerous solution to what we thought was a significant problem.
The LEM system had the ability to be fired double action whenever necessary. If a chambered round does not ignite for any reason, pressing the trigger again will cock and drop the hammer again. This is called second-strike capability. Also on the plus side we liked the size and slim profile of this gun. The HK was the most concealable of our test trio. The magazine release at the corner of the trigger guard was ambidextrous and could be activated in a number of ways. The base pad on the ten-shot magazine added a pinkie rest to the grip.
The sights on this pistol were three-dot tritium, which glow in the dark. We’re big fans of the triangulated profile. Unfortunately the sights were not quite the proper dimensions for point of impact at 25 yards. Our USP LEM printed groups ranging from 2 to 4 inches low. Once we learned the best grip with this long trigger system, our shooting improved. In fact we got the second-best accuracy of all guns in the test with the 180-grain Winchester Q loads. Unfortunately, that load was the only one the HK really liked.
The recoil spring of the HK was the heaviest of our three pistols. However, the HK also had the shortest slide. That strong spring meant the MagSafe SWAT rounds didn’t reliably cycle the gun, and we had numerous stovepipe jams and other failures to properly eject. We tried the MagSafe’s heavier-recoiling 84-grain Defender and the HK ran fine, delivering 3-inch groups and 1,705 fps.
We had no mechanical problems with this system, but felt the trigger system had problems. The design should not require the trigger finger to travel so deeply into the trigger guard as the trigger is pressed. The ability to move the trigger finger directly rearward is compromised after the finger moves only a very short distance. Flattening the trigger face might help.
Springfield Armory XD40, $489
The XD pistol frankly exceeded our expectations. We’re not sure just what changes have been made in production since Springfield Armory took this pistol under its wing, but from the very start we felt the Croatian HS pistols have been underrated. Most people see these pistols as an attempt to cross a Glock with a 1911. We assume this is because of the addition of a grip safety and Colt-like ergonomics, such as the operation of the magazine release.
Certainly the melding of a Glock with a 1911 pistol is intriguing and quite possibly the next step in the evolution of the handgun. This means a short-action trigger on a gun that can be mass produced at low cost. It would thus consist of a vacuum-formed polymer frame that is light in weight, durable, weatherproof, and easy to fit without tedious and time-consuming labor. This describes a Glock, to some degree. The XD adds safety features such as the grip safety, a loaded-chamber indicator and a cocking indicator in the form of a section of the striker that protruded from the rear of the slide. The striker was shielded from hitting the primer by a blocking device, controlled by a hinged piece within the trigger face.
The XD was the largest pistol in the test. This meant more weight and a larger grip with which to control recoil. It also meant a longer sight radius for easier alignment, although we felt that even the short sight radius of the HK was plenty (especially with its excellent sights). However, we thought the Springfield’s longer slide, with its greater mass and range of motion, offered additional reliability over a wider range of ammunition than anything shorter or lighter. A case in point was the firing of the 46-grain MagSafe ammunition. While recoil was more akin to that of a .22 Magnum Rimfire, we never suffered a moment’s doubt as to its reliability in the Springfield. At the same time, the heaviest-recoiling rounds we had with us were easily controlled.
Accuracy from the ultra-fast MagSafe round was consistent, averaging 2.4 inches for all groups fired. This so far outclassed the ability of the other two pistols to handle this round that we didn’t bother firing the MagSafe 84-grain Defender in the XD. Usually, defense rounds are punishing to shoot, but the 46-grain MagSafe SWAT was the lightest in recoil of any round we’ve tested in recent memory. This same pistol is also available with a ported barrel, but with this pistol we didn’t think porting would be necessary.
The Winchester loads in the XD produced the only sub-2-inch groups of the test. While our best average (2.1-inches) was with the 165-grain Winchester round, the Springfield’s best group measured only 1.4 inches with the 180-grain Q-load.
We thought the Springfield XD was more likely to be carried in a holster than in a pocket or purse, as with the other two test guns. Certainly the XD is lighter than most pistols and a very good candidate for civilian or plainclothes concealed carry, but of the three guns, we feel that the XD was the best choice of the three for a duty gun for uniformed police.
Gun Tests Recommends
Glock GL23, $641. Buy It. The Glock has been successful long enough not only to attract specifically designed cartridges (as per FBI requirements), but also a long list of aftermarket hop-up parts as well. While some shooters still cry out for a mechanical safety, others rejoice in the Glock’s simple design and short, consistent trigger. We think each year’s Glock is better than the last.
Heckler & Koch USP LEM Compact, $821. Conditional Buy. USP’s LEM works on the assumption that a long trigger is a safe trigger, much like that of a double-action revolver. However, we feel the LEM system limits crossovers from other types of pistols. Training, of course, is the answer for best results on any new system. While the LEM’s night sights justified some additional cost, we’re not sure the gun’s higher price was fully warranted.
Springfield Armory XD40, $489. Best Buy. We can’t think of another handgun selling for under $500 that offers so much. We got accurate fire from a short, consistent trigger, an extra safety that won’t slow you down, plus big, clear sights and a mag release you can find quickly. We thought it was a most practical pistol.