Lightweight Carry Options: A 9mm, a .40 S&W, and a .45 GAP
Glock’s new $640 Model 37 excels with a brand-new round. Smith & Wesson’s titanium $812 4040PD opens new doors, but the $550 FN P9 comes up short.
One question Gun Tests readers continue to ask is, “What is the best gun for me to carry?” For obvious reasons, we can’t answer this personal question because there are too many variables that are specific to each gun owner. But a variation of the question, “What’s the best cartridge for carry?”, prompted us to set up an apples-and-oranges test of three guns chambered for different rounds.
Given the choice, few people want to carry the biggest, heaviest gun they can strap on. For that reason, we recently chose to test three of the newest lightweight guns with full-size grips and a minimum of 5.5 inches of sight radius. We further narrowed the field to pistols that utilize polymer or untraditional-alloy metallic frames. But we didn’t limit choice of cartridge, since it’s our feeling that several pistol rounds can defend you effectively, but only if gun and ammunition are considered together.
From the standpoint of power, we insisted that the muzzle energy produced by all three test guns should be well above the 300 foot-pounds mark, enough to deliver a formidable blow.
In this multi-cartridge/multi-gun test, we were eager to find out more about the $640 Glock 37, which is chambered for a 0.451-caliber bullet called the .45 Glock Auto Pistol, or .45 GAP. Compared to the .45 ACP, the .45 GAP uses a shorter, redesigned case, and Glock recommends that the GAP not be shot in ACP chambers. Next up, FN has revamped its RSS49 polymer pistol in 9mm, creating the new $550 FN P9. Completing our test trio was the $812 Smith & Wesson 4040PD, the company’s first semi-automatic pistol to use a titanium frame.
Each of our guns presented questions. Only a trip to the range would provide the answers.
From the outside there is little or nothing to distinguish the 37 from the well-known 17. Upgrades have mostly come in the form of refinements to the Glock’s ergonomics. The 37 features finger grooves, a palm swell, and mild but effective checkering molded into the polymer frame. Beneath the dust cover is an equipment rail with Picatinny fittings. The slide release has been reshaped from the original design to provide better access while remaining smooth and snag resistant. The top end features three-dot sights, rear-only slide serrations and an external extractor that protrudes noticeably when charged, providing an effective loaded-chamber indicator.
The Glock pistols break down to top end and receiver without having to remove a pin that could be easily lost. After dropping the magazine and clearing the chamber, the shooter presses the trigger to relieve the striker. Next, he retracts the slide about 0.25 inch or until the first slide serration is even with the rear of the frame. The best way to do this is to make a fist around the front of the pistol with the fingers over the top of the slide and the thumb below the dust cover against the outside of the trigger guard. With the slide retracted as above, use the thumb and index finger on your free hand to pull down on the slide-release levers located on each side of the frame directly above the trigger guard. The slide is then free to move forward and off the frame.
Inside was a linkless barrel with polygonal rifling and a guide rod assembly with a captured flat-wire spring. The primary contact points between slide and frame are two pairs of steel “skates” inlaid into the polymer rails fore and aft. Replacing the top end requires that you simply slide the top end back on to the frame. It will automatically latch once the slide is pushed all the way to the rear.
Of our seven choices of .45 GAP ammunition available at retail, two featured 185-grain JHP bullets and one was topped with a 200-grain TMJ bullet, (totally jacketed, i.e. no exposed lead). The four remaining rounds weighed in with 230-grain bullets. Keeping in mind that 230-grain bullets are commonplace in .45 ACP loads, we found this wasn’t necessarily the ideal choice for .45 GAP. As explained in
Our best groups and most consistent rapid-fire session came when we loaded the 37 with 185-grain loads that would likely produce high-energy stopping power. The 230-grain JHP Winchester Ranger “T” law-enforcement round recoiled the most, and we felt that it was the extra control required that limited accuracy. The other two Winchester 230-grain rounds, a classic roundnosed FMJ slug and the WinClean truncated cone bullets, were more accurate but would still not be our first choices. We liked the accuracy and shorter shot-to-shot times we produced firing the Winchester STHP silver-tip hollowpoints the best. The most power and accuracy we were able to generate from the Glock 37 was with the Speer Gold Dot GDHP ammunition loaded with bullets weighing 185 and 200 grains respectively.
The 4040PD .40 S&W is actually about a year old, having been introduced at the 2003 SHOT Show. Just like the Glock 37 is a variation close to the manufacturer’s standard design for pistols, the main difference between the 4040PD and the S&W 3913 is the use of titanium to provide the lightest metallic frame possible.
The 4040PD was entirely matte black with tasteful graphics. Weighing just 24 ounces, this pistol carried well and seemed to fit everyone’s hand. Appearance may not rate scientific or technical rating, but liking how a gun looks is always a good thing. The 4040PD is a compact pistol with 3.5-inch barrel but the same grip frame, action and lockup design can be found in larger pistols with barrels longer than 4 inches and in the subcompact lineup of Chief’s Specials.
The 4040PD is a traditional double-action pistol with a combination decocker and safety lever located on the left side of the slide only. A right-side-only lever was not available, but the installation of an ambidextrous system is possible, making it more amenable to left-handed shooters. The decocker operated when it was pushed downward from 9 o’clock to 7 o’clock. Left in the down position, the trigger is deactivated. First shot double action fire was possible only after returning the lever to the 9 o’clock position. It was not possible to return to single action manually without moving the slide back and ejecting a live round. We find this regrettable. The addition of a hammer spur would make this gun more versatile and effective.
An additional safety deactivated the trigger when a magazine was not in place. The sights were the Novak three-dot design. The front sight was dovetailed into place, as was the rear unit, which we found to be exceptionally smooth in structure and clear in the view it provided. The rear unit was adjustable for windage only, with a set screw to hold its position. The extractor was mounted externally, but would not protrude to indicate a loaded chamber. However, the shooter can see through a small hole at the rear of the barrel hood to check if the chamber has a shell in it.
The grip of the 4040PD was exceptional. The rubber grip that wraps around the back and sides was a Hogue product, and it formed an effective profile from all angles. The front strap of this pistol offered about a 1-inch-long patch of checkering that felt just right. The single column seven-round magazine concluded with a base pad that added a finger stop. The magazine-release button (left side only) was small, but it worked fine.
Removing the top end required removing a slide stop. With the top end off, we found that the frame rails covered the rear 3.5 inches of the frame with the remaining 2.5 inches serving as a dust cover. The barrel connected via linkless design, and the guide rod operated inside two coiled springs, one inside the other. The barrel was slim, but its bulbous muzzle locked up with the shroud when in position to fire.
Replacing the top end was a little tricky. There were three levers to push downward and out of the way of the slide, the last of which required a screwdriver to press it down. Also, the magazine was sometimes stubborn about seating.
We measured the trigger pull to weigh 12 pounds for double action and 7 pounds for single action. This may sound like a heavy trigger, especially on the single-action side, but in both modes of fire the action was smooth and we didn’t seem to notice the weight of the trigger one way or the other.
During our break-in session of approximately 150 rounds of odd lots of factory ammunition, we discovered that for some reason Federal Hydra-Shok ammunition was not very accurate in our 4040PD. For some reason it just never seemed to hook up. Also, we suffered five failures to ignite rounds from Aguila and Winchester. The ejected rounds showed evidence of weak hits on the primer. We think the light hits were caused by the gun not going fully into battery. We took the gun apart and made sure it was fully lubricated. This problem did not return.
Repeating the test 10 times for a total of 30 rounds, we ended up with a 20-shot group in the center mass A-zone measuring 6 inches at its widest point. What we really liked about this group was that it was easy to distinguish 10 separate pairs of hits. Five of the pairs were located within one half inch of each other. The 10-shot group in the head (or B-zone) formed a 5-inch group, with two shots spoiling a much tighter array of hits. Overall we thought this was a very good performance.
During our 25-yard benchrest session, we continued with the Winchester 165-grain ammunition and added two more rounds for testing the 4040PD. They were the Speer Gold Dot hollow points and +P hollowpoints from Black Hills. Each round featured a 165-grain bullet. Our best performer was the Winchester USA 165-grain FMJ round followed closely by the Black Hills JHP ammunition. Group sizes averaged out to the 2.5-inch range. But we did notice a pattern.
When the gun was at its full 7+1 capacity, the overall pattern of hits usually consisted of a pattern of five hits close to point of aim and three hits printing about 1 inch below. To isolate a mechanical reason for this, we tried different ways of loading the gun. We tried firing the first shot off target to set the lockup via ignition, experimented with different magazines, and loaded the mags to different capacities. We could not find a reason for the pattern, but we concluded that most shooters should be able to hold a group of 3 inches or better at 25 yards from a rest with the rounds we tested. Above all, we found the 4040PD easy to control. Muzzle flip was almost nonexistent. Instead, we felt the entire gun move upward. In fact, we couldn’t figure out why this 24-ounce gun loaded with some of the hottest .40 S&W rounds we could find was so comfortable to shoot. We mentioned before that the trigger felt much lighter than it actually was. This should have been a clue. We think that the ergonomics, a product of the frame angle and narrow single-column design, along with the excellent Hogue grip, combined to make this gun one of the friendliest .40 S&Ws we’ve ever shot.
The FN P9 pistol replaces the Model 49RSS 9mm pistol that we evaluated in the May issue. The P9 is a traditional double action pistol with polymer frame and steel slide. The P9 carries with it some of the features shared with the model it has replaced.
The grip frame still has a pleasant shape and molded in checkering, but the accessory rail has been reshaped to conform to Picatinny specifications. The slide release has been reshaped to make it easier to operate. The top end is still removed by turning a lever, much like the Sigarms pistols. The slide-to-frame fit can still be rejuvenated by replacing the sub frame inserted into the receiver. The sights on the P9 are the same as those found on the model 49RSS, and these three-dot sights dovetailed into place did a good job of helping to align the gun.
The P9 is all black with hammer, magazine release, and breakdown, slide release and decocker levers contrasting silver. The P9 is shorter and a little bit wider than its predecessor but it remains a handsome pistol nonetheless. Capacity is still 10+1 using stainless steel magazines, but the barrel length has been reduced to 4.0 inches.
The big difference between the older model and the P9 is the change in firing mechanism. Previously, a striker was used for ignition. We noted that during controlled press situations, we felt the striker was not being activated properly. Failures to fire were the result. In the P9 FN has chosen another design that reminds us of the Sigarms pistols. Ignition is now controlled by a hammer and firing pin. The hammer can be decocked via ambidextrous levers and returned to single action simply by thumbing back the hammer.
We encountered no malfunctions during our test, which consisted of plinking, trigger-transition drills and a 25-yard benchrest session. The trigger pull weights were measured as 3.5 for single action and 11 pounds for double action. We found the action to be smooth and enjoyable.
The only problem we encountered was that firing all but the hottest variety of ammunition resulted in empty cases being thrown directly back at the shooter. This can be a real problem. In the real world we don’t wear eye protection or a hat, so sustaining an injury to the eyes was possible. One other mechanical shortcoming we found was that the decocker was difficult to use with the strong hand. We think it is important that safety features are simple to use and do not discourage the shooter from taking advantage of them. We found it preferable to decock the pistol with the thumb of the weak hand.
With the smooth trigger action of the P9 we breezed through the DA to SA trigger test from 7 yards. We used 115-grain FMJ ammunition from PMC for this test. Our A-zone pattern of 20 shots fired in transition from double to single action measured 9 inches across. We saw the pattern shifted to the left so perhaps our right handed shooter was overpowering the trigger. In the B-zone, our 10-shot group measured a tight 3 inches across. We found the sights easy to work with, and we liked the single-action trigger.
To collect accuracy data from a sandbag rest, we fired three different 9mm rounds that in the past have stood out in terms of accuracy, reliability, power and economy: 124-grain Speer Gold Dot hollow points, Winchester USA 115-grain FMJ rounds, and 115-grain hollowpoints form Zero Ammunition. But our enthusiasm for the P9 did not carry over from the 7-yard line to the 25-yard range. We could barely get our P9 to shoot a group. The Winchester ammunition was measured charitably to a series of 4-inch patterns, and when the Zero rounds proved to be not much better, we were incredulous. Similarly, we printed only one decent group with the 124-grain Speer ammunition.
To explain this poor accuracy performance, we checked for visible flaws in the barrel and side-to-side slide-to-frame fit. Neither seemed to be the cause. Pushing down on the slide, we noticed that the space between the frame and slide was very easy to close. This gap was measured to be approximately 0.028 inches. Perhaps this was the problem, but such movement in some pistols, especially polymer-framed ones is not unusual. In the case of the Glock 37, the gap is at least as wide, but the fit was nearly solid.
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In some ways, this test was made more complicated by comparing guns chambered for different cartridges, but in reality, choosing the gun/ammo combo we liked best really wasn’t that hard. All three of our rounds do fine duty as self-defense picks, so it came down to how the guns performed in the hand — the way it usually does.
Glock 37 .45 GAP, $640. Our Pick. The most impressive aspects of the Model 37 and Glock’s new .45-caliber ammunition were moderate blast and recoil. Also, we did not experience a single malfunction. Furthermore, even with its 8.5-pound trigger, we did not find shooting this gun and ammunition combination to be tiring or abusive, despite delivering energy on par with a variety of .40 S&W and .45 ACP ammunition.
Smith & Wesson 4040PD .40 S&W, $867. Conditional Buy. We really like this gun despite our desire to make small changes, such as adding a spurred hammer. The 4040PD is a stylish gun that is powerful yet remarkably comfortable to shoot. The use of titanium makes it high priced as well as high tech, however.
FN P9 9mm, $550. Don’t Buy. We’d like to recommend this gun. It is a smooth operator that offers 10-round capacity. But its accuracy left us wanting.