July 2003

Subcompact 9mm Pistols: Our Pick for Concealed Carry and Combat

We determine the strengths and weaknesses of Kahr’s $600 P9, Springfield’s latest XD, $490, and the $640 Glock Model 26.

A friendly Practical pistol match is the best way to test your skills with your carry gun. We think the Glock 26 would be a blast to shoot in competition, and Hoffner’s Minimalist holster ($45) will fit all the Glocks, big or small.

Can the somewhat contradictory natures of concealed-carry guns and combat sidearms be reconciled in a single product that’s low-key but still quick to target? We certainly hoped so when we tested three 9mm subcompacts, because a concealable piece that the shooter can’t easily bring into play is next to useless, and the combat piece that calls undue attention to itself or that’s uncomfortable to carry isn’t a good solution either.

For the sake of this article, we define a combat gun as one that can be used at close or medium range and has the capability to be drawn, fired, and reloaded quickly. Also, it must be no smaller than 9mm Parabellum and must be constructed so that clearing a jam is easy and quick. A combat gun should offer a sure grip for deploying the weapon and for maintaining control of the gun.

On the concealable side, we were looking for a gun that was lightweight and as flat and small as practical.

We recently tested a trio of subcompact polymer 9mm semi-automatic pistols to see how they met, or failed to meet, both the combat and concealment criteria. Glock’s model 26 has been the smallest 9mm pistol in the company’s stable for years. Now Springfield Armory has shrunk its Extreme Duty, or XD, pistol to compete. Kahr, on the other hand has not changed the basic dimensions of that company’s classic steel pistol, but the company did render its design on a lighter polymer frame.

Let’s find out how effective and versatile these guns are:

Glock 26 9mm Parabellum, $641


The Kahr and Springfield Armory pistols in this test share the Glock’s use of polymer, its magazine design, and simplified operation and maintenance. The model 26’s magazine is small but still holds 10 rounds. The grip is short, and most adults will find there is not adequate space for the pinkie finger, we believe. Shooters who have larger hands will likely find they also don’t have a place for their third fingers either. But given the easy impulse of 9mm ammunition, we did not find the reduced grip area to be a problem during repeat fire. However, the small grip didn’t offer a sure and quick draw handle for all shooters. Elements that contributed to missed draws included the size of the shooter’s hand (including girth of fingers and palm); the holster design and position of carry; and the shooter’s familiarity with his equipment.

Once out of the holster and pointed toward the target, the gun’s operation is simple. Press the trigger and the gun will fire. There are no intermediate safeties that prevent ignition so long as the trigger is engaged. Both the Glock and Springfield XD pistol have a safety lever inside the face of the trigger itself that must be compressed for ignition, but all three of the guns (loaded) will fire for anyone who picks them up and squeezes the trigger. Knowing how to operate a thumb safety is not necessary. One additional safety feature is a raised area on the externally mounted extractor that acts as loaded-chamber indicator. (Left-handed shooters must cant the gun for visual confirmation.)

Shot-to-shot control of the Glock was surprisingly good, in our view. We liked the way the trigger reset with a distinct “click” sound. The rearward movement of the trigger was not too short or too long, and felt natural for a hinged design.

Even the hardest recoiling of our test ammo presented little or no control problems. We found that felt recoil and accompanying muzzle flip was the product of bullet weight more than velocity or muzzle energy, an opinion we formed by firing five different loads of very different designs.

The 9mm cartridge, even in small guns, won’t wear out most shooters, but it can disturb the sight picture, which affects shot-to-shot times. We noticed the most recoil, manifested as muzzle flip, using the heaviest bullet in the test, a 147-grain subsonic jacketed hollowpoint round from Black Hills. Even so, the Glock shot this round into five-shot groups in the 2.5- to 2.7-inch range at 25 yards. Normally, we test compact guns at 15 yards, but at that range we found these pistols printed five-shot groups of less than 2 inches, so we moved them back to see how they would do.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

Four of our five test rounds were designed for self-defense, but we also tried a 115-grain full metal jacketed round from Denel, PMP of South Africa. Only the Kahr pistol shot this round well, and although it was pleasant to shoot it did not match up well with either the Glock or Springfield XD. The Glock showed a preference for higher-velocity rounds of traditional design. While performance with the high-velocity frangible ammunition was satisfactory at 25 yards, the best overall performance from the bench was achieved shooting the Black Hills 124-grain JHP+P round from the Glock 26. Shooting an overall best single group of only 1.6 inches helped us achieve an average group size of less than 2 inches with this combination.

Our two selections of frangible ammunition from MagSafe, including the Mini Glock Load, fired groups averaging 3.5 inches from the GL26. The 64-grain MagSafe Stealth round recorded muzzle energy of 540 foot-pounds fired from the Glock 26. This was the most of any gun-and-ammunition combo in this test. (In fact this is actually greater energy than the Speer 165-grain GDHP .40 S&W ammunition we fired from 5-inch pistols in the June 2002 and January 2003 issues. However, muzzle flip was minimal, and there was little more felt recoil than the 115-grain Denel PMP target rounds. Just more noise.

While the sights on the Glock pistol offered a white dot up front and a white outline in the back, our attention under controlled press at the bench was on the edges of the wide front sight. Under rapid fire, the white outline of the rear notch seemed to disappear once we found the dot on the front sight. The grip is shockingly short, but due to the finger grooves and palm swell, the gun can be controlled adequately. Devotees of holding the front of the trigger guard with the weak-hand index finger might like the squared-off design, but we found two problems here. First, the trigger guard is long, extending our finger too far from the rest of our grip for a sure and balanced hold. Also, with the short barrel we could see how one could easily get the finger in front of the muzzle under a stressful draw.

Speed of acquisition for this pistol requires access to the grip and the ability to snatch it with the middle finger and thumb. Reloading is fast, but the act of dropping the magazine will require some practice. For smaller hands the gun will have to be rotated to place the thumb on the release and middle finger directly across from it so that it can be depressed in a straight line. The release is a rectangular button that fits nearly flush to the grip at its rear surface, hence the need for rotation. Still, care must be taken not to trap the magazine with the pinkie, or another finger will not be able to fit on the grip. The gun’s weight is moderate, and even though this gun is wide, there should be more than one way to conceal this pistol.

In ease of deployment, we would rate the Glock as adequate. Sight acquisition was very good. The gun was easy to retain, even with the short grip. The gun was accurate in a controlled press as well as fast shot to shot. We were able to hide the gun easily and manipulate the slide easily.

Springfield Armory XD 9 Subcompact 9mm, $489


Since taking over the production facility in Croatia, Springfield Armory has transformed the HS9000 pistol from a weapon of promise to a legitimate contender to the throne now held by Glock. The Extreme Duty, or XD, series is now available with three different barrel lengths and a variety of finishes. Our 3-inch-barrel subcompact had an olive-drab-colored frame with black slide. A single-lug accessory rail is molded into the dustcover. Capacity is 10+1, and with magazine in place, there is enough room for most people’s pinkie finger.

Springfield’s bid for top polymer pistol includes some interesting design features culled from other pistols. First, there’s a trigger with integral safety, but it feels much different than the Glock mechanism. The trigger on our GL26 had a smooth sweep with noticeable arc-like movement. The XD trigger offered a brief take-up to a solid stopping point, at which there is a clearly defined break. While the Glock might best be operated with constant forward-and-back movement similar to a double-action revolver, the XD trigger encourages taking up the slack followed by a smooth press. This is one feature that makes XD mimic the handling of a Browning 1911 pistol. Another is the grip safety, located in the beavertail area. Firing this pistol requires a full hold, not just a finger inside the trigger guard.

The magazine release is ambidextrous and easy to operate with thumb or trigger finger, making the XD almost left-hand neutral. The magazines themselves are polished and seamlessly constructed. The slide features a three-dot sight system, wherein both front and rear sights are dovetailed into place. Both the Glock and the XD come with rear cocking serrations, and each gun seemed quite willing to submit to the pinch pull method of resetting the slide in case of a jam or incidental lock back. Even the Glock at $150 more does not offer a dovetailed front sight or equipment rail.

Two additional safety features standard on the XD include a chamber indicator, which pops up when loaded and can be felt with the weak hand stroking across the top of the gun. However, unlike with the Glock, the shooter can visually confirm the gun’s loading status without changing grip or turning the gun from side to side. Another visual reference is the striker, which protrudes from the rear of the slide when the gun is cocked. Actually, this is not the striker but a separate chrome pin that indicates that the gun is cocked and ready to fire.

The XD fieldstrips much like a SIG. To separate the top end from the frame, remove the magazine, clear the chamber and lock the slide back. Rotate the slide release clockwise to an upward position. Next, release the slide lock and move the slide forward. There will be a moment of resistance in which the striker-status indicator protrudes from the rear of the slide. Press the trigger and the slide is now free to slide off the frame.

The XD9 subcompact is heavier and provides less sight radius than the GL26. We wished the sights were giving us more information. The XD might have benefit from a narrower front blade or taller sights, such as the ones found on the Kahr. Despite gusting winds, the XD proved that under poor conditions it is capable of shooting 3-inch groups with nearly any ammunition.

Like the Glock, we would call this a combat gun with good concealment capability. The XD was heavier than the Glock by 5 ounces, but the XD had the edge when it came to a speed reload and also slightly on the draw. However we found that both the Glock and Springfield XD weapons compromise deployment by placing a limitation on grip area. To some degree this also effects the ability to reload quickly. But the compromise in grip size is inherent in the subcompact designed for concealment. Familiarity with equipment is the only answer and this means practice.

To get more handling experience, we set up a rig for concealed carry competition consisting of Hoffner’s Minimalist holster and Quad-Packer mag pouch, (713) 957-1200. The Minimalist holster ($45) fits all of the Glock and Springfield XD pistols regardless of size, and the Quad-Packer ($75) holds four magazines, available in single or double-stack models. We found this combo to be fast, secure and legal for CHL carry as well as practical pistol competition.

Kahr P9 9mm Parabellum, $599


The P9 is a single-stack or single-column magazine-fed pistol. This means the grip is taller and thinner than either the Glock or Springfield Armory pistols. As described by Kahr, the P9 is a mechanically locked, recoil-operated pistol with an automatic striker block. The trigger is double-action only. We were warned that there were no safeties beyond the striker block. If you pull the trigger, regardless of grip, the gun will fire.

This gun is narrow and snag free and conceals easily. At only 1.25 pounds, it was the lightest of our trio. The primary magazine holds seven rounds, and an extra magazine with an extension offers 8+1 capacity. Like on the XD and Glock 26, the extractor was externally mounted, but there was no loaded-chamber indicator.

As found on the XD, the Kahr’s sights are dovetailed into place front and rear. The front sight displays a white dot, but the rear notch offers a vertical white line much like the SIGs. Otherwise, the Kahr P9 is decidedly different from the other two test pistols.

First, the slide runs on a combination of metal rails set inside the dustcover, a molded polymer section above the trigger and two metal inserts on either side above the rearmost portion of the frame. In the Glock, contact is basically four metal points set into the frame. Similar to the Kahr P9, contact between the frame and slide at the rear of the XD is also steel on polymer. We also found that the P9 is requires more lubrication than the Springfield or Glock pistols. Our Kahr arrived bone dry. Indeed, most guns are shipped with a minimum of lubricant to prevent making a mess inside the case. Some polymer pistols can get by with so little oil that they can be shot for a time without initial lubrication, but not so with the P9. In fact we broke the gun down at the end of the test and even noticed some wear on the polymer section of the rails.

Our first impression was how hard it was to break down. The drill is much like a 1911 pistol. Whereas the Glock field-strip was unload, show clear, offset the slide to the rear pulling down on the locks, press the trigger and slide off the top end, the Kahr required the removal of a slide stop. We found the slide stop to be held tightly in place, and we had to fight a very stiff recoil spring as well. In terms of clearing a jam with a pinch pull (rear cocking serrations are provided), the narrow slide is easy to grab, but you had better be able to overcome the spring tension. Removing the top end and pulling out the guide rod, we discovered the reason for this tension to be a recoil spring as long as those found on full-size pistols. The springs in the magazines were also very tight. It took several reloadings until we could put all seven rounds into the seven-rounder and all eight into the eight-rounder. Also, the lips of the magazines were unfriendly to the fingertips. In fact until this gun was fully oiled and all its muscles flexed, our P9 would not feed reliably. At precisely 50 rounds of fire, our P9 pistol decided it wanted to be the perfect pistol and did not malfunction afterward.

The Kahr P9 operates with a hinged trigger, but compared to the Glock its action is longer and more vague. However, the sights were the clearest of all three guns. This translated into accuracy with the Denel and MagSafe 64-grain load.

We would rate the Kahr P9 higher as a concealment gun than as a combat gun for several reasons. We think it’s more difficult to shoot offhand than the Glock or Springfield pistols. The GL26 and XD’s triggers are much easier to pull, in our estimation. The Kahr’s trigger also slows down rate of fire. As well, this gun was very difficult to reload under pressure. In fact, we had a difficult time simply removing the magazine because the release does not open readily and the magazines do not drop free.

In terms of concealment, however, the P9 beats both the GL26 and XD, especially in a rig such as the Galco Belly Band. Hiding it should be almost as easy as hiding a derringer, but the P9 offers much more power and accuracy than the pocket gun.

Gun Tests Recommends
Glock 26, $641. Buy It. This pistol covers nearly every base a subcompact 10-round pistol can. It is accurate and easy to shoot. The light recoil of 9mm minimizes the faults of a limited grip area. We think it’s a good combat piece with hideout capability as well. Shooting it in concealed-carry practical matches should be a lot of fun.

Springfield XD 9 Subcompact, $489. Buy It. Of the three pistols tested here, the XD offers the fastest handling, in our view. Hideout capability could be limited by its weight, and we’d change out the sights to better suit the shorter sight radius. Otherwise, the XD 9 subcompact offers one of the most well proportioned reductions in size from a full-size model we’ve seen.

Kahr P9, $599. Conditional Buy. If concealment were the only grading standard here, the P9 would have gotten a much higher rating. Indeed, this is a very good hideout gun for close personal defense. However, should a reload be necessary, we think that chore would be difficult to execute.

 

Also With This Article

Click here to view "CZ USA's Model PO1."


Click here to view "Galco Underwraps Bellyband."