April 2006

A Trio of Pocket .380 ACPs: Steer Clear of NAA’s Guardian

Instead, depending on your needs, pick the slightly larger but fully functional Beretta Cheetah. Also, we loved aspects of S&Wís PPK, but it didnít work during some parts of our test.

In a life-threatening situation any firearm is better than none, and a small, pocket-size gun is often more likely to be carried than anything bigger. The Beretta 85 FS Cheetah ($575, above) was a busy-looking handful, but all the controls worked well.

Whether or not the .380 ACP cartridge is your cup of tea, it exists in large numbers of available handguns today. Some of today’s most modern ammunition make this cartridge a better one than it was, say, 30 years ago, but we would still not consider it for a main defensive weapon because we feel there are better caliber choices. Even the .45 ACP can be had in small packages.

We decided to look at a few of the .380 pocket pistols available, never mind the relative worth of the cartridge. After all, in a life-threatening situation any firearm is better than none, and a small, pocket-size gun is often more likely to be carried than anything bigger. We got a PPK Walther ($543), now being made in this smaller configuration by Smith & Wesson. The tiny North American Arms Guardian ($449) was the choice of one of our testers, despite the gun’s being DAO. And the somewhat larger Beretta 85 FS Cheetah ($575) was also put up for consideration. Do these little .380s kick? How accurate are they? How easy are they to shoot fast? In this evaluation we looked hard at each gun’s ability to make fast and reasonably accurate hits, but as always, we shot ‘em for group.

We tested with two types of hardball, CCI’s Blazer and Brazilian Magtech, both with reloadable brass cases. We also used Cor-Bon’s 90-grain JHP loads. We also tried a few groups with Federal’s Personal Defense Hydra-Shok 90-grain JHP and Miwall’s 88-grain JHP but didn’t include these in the official results.

For the rapid-fire evaluations, we began with the gun in hand, and from a range of seven yards, brought the gun up and placed a shot onto a sheet of paper 8.5 by 11 inches in size. This was repeated until we got a good feel for each pistol, shooting each gun in the double-action mode. Then we tried each gun with two fast shots, which meant the Walther and Beretta were fired DA/SA, but of course the NAA Guardian was DA for both shots. We used these tests as a simple but practical evaluation of each gun’s “combat” potential. We recommend the reader do similar testing if he buys such a gun with self defense in mind. Here’s what we found.

This little stainless, all-steel DAO pistol held the same number of shots as the PPK. Some of us would have seriously considered the Guardian if we were in the market for a strictly back-up pocket gun, so we thought it would be a fair comparison to the other two tested here. The Guardian appeared to be well made. The manufacturer noted on its website that the frame was made by Kahr Arms, and it is so marked. Thing is, once you take the gun apart for cleaning (an easy task) you realize that the frame is actually most of the gun. It included an integral barrel, all the firing mechanism, the reversible latch mechanism for the two magazines (made in Italy), and the grips. This seems to indicate NAA made just the slide. However, no matter who made it, workmanship looked pretty good everywhere. One blemish was at the muzzle, which had sharp edges extending forward from the rifling process.

Takedown and reassembly were not too hard. With the gun clear, press and hold down the button on the right rear of the frame, grab the slide, pull it slightly rearward and lift. It all comes off forward, and out falls the slide spring. Reassembly required some care with the spring and its rod, and then you had to press the takedown button slightly while also pressing the trigger to move the hammer out of the way. It was easier than it might sound here.

The gun had no controls other than a trigger, magazine release, and takedown button. Load it, pull the trigger to make it work, and that’s it. Safety is in the hands of the shooter — as always. The slide didn’t stay open after the last shot, and the gun could fire with the magazine out. The double-action-only (DAO) pull was decidedly stiff, and stacked constantly toward the back. It took a hefty pull, about 9.5 pounds. The sights were tiny, and though they gave a decent sight picture, we wanted much bigger sights. The sights gave us the intent of this little pistol: point and shoot at close range. After [PDFCAP(2)], we qualified that to real close range. We tried the Guardian slowfire from a seated rest at 15 yards, but our results were poor, with some groups close to 10 inches. Other groups completely failed to hit our too-small target paper. We moved up to 7 yards and shot, and got 3- to 4-inch groups, but some of the bullets struck partially tipped. Three shots of Cor-Bon clearly showed this tipping, but we noticed it with all the ammo. Fast shooting at close range was much slower than with either of the other two pistols. The long, hard trigger pull was not easy to use, we found, though that would become easier with practice. Double shots were an even bigger problem. We were not at all happy with this gun in its intended role, fast shooting at close range.

Although all the various rounds fired and the empties all got out of the gun, no two casings landed anywhere near each other. Some went right, some left, some over our heads and others seemed to just dribble out of the gun. But they all got out. No one would want this for a plinker, even with free ammo. The Guardian didn’t have noticeable accuracy, was not easy to shoot, and was not at all fun. Its trigger bit us, especially with the flat-bottom magazine. The extension magazine was more comfortable. The extension helped keep the gun from rotating upward in recoil, but the other mag let the gun turn, and then it pinched the dickens out of our trigger finger. Another item was that those with longer fingers had to shoot the gun with the outer bone of the trigger finger, and take care to not place the finger too far into the guard. As the finger wrapped around the trigger, the fingertip would contact the frame and bind the trigger motion, and the gun would not fire. Accordingly, most of us were not pleased with the NAA Guardian.

Because we had what looked like tipped bullets from the NAA Guardian, we decided to try it at 25 yards, shooting at a 4-foot square of paper with a central aiming point. We shot two-handed offhand, carefully, and shot two shots of each type of ammo. The first two were CCI Blazer, and only one hit the paper. The other struck 14 inches low and left, and left a hole that was not round. Next up were the two Cor-Bon loads. One struck close to the point of aim but the other was 18 inches off to the right. Of the final pair, one struck 12 inches high, the other 16 inches off to the right. Only two of the five holes appeared to be the clean, round perforations we got with subsequent testing with the PPK and Cheetah. In short, we have no use for this little pistol.

[PDFCAP(3)]
One difference between the PPK, only just recently available in the U.S. thanks to S&W, and the PPK/S, is that the PPK has a shorter grip, which has no back strap. The grip panels form the rear of the gun, unlike with the PPK/S, which has a steel back strap. The penalties are one round of magazine capacity, and less room for big hands. All our shooters found they could get three fingers on the PPK’s grip with the extended magazine. With the spare flat-bottom mag, the little finger went under the grip, much like with a Colt Single-Action Army. But in practice it didn’t seem to matter which magazine was used. The gun felt and shot the same with either one, and our shooters had no great preference for the extension. This was not the case with the NAA Guardian, as discussed above. We found a big design difference between an older “Interarms” PPK/S and our PPK when we examined them side by side. The new gun, made under Walther license by S&W, has a longer extension to the frame above the gripping area, a sort of beavertail to protect the web of the hand. This highly significant change is long overdue on this pistol, in our opinion, some of us having been gouged by the slide on earlier examples. S&W has also extended the back strap on the current PPK/S.

We thought this little gun was extremely attractive. It’s also available in stainless. The flat lines were complimented by the alternating matte-black finish of the top of the slide, and the glossy panels of the sides of the slide and frame. The frame and slide and all inner parts we checked were steel except the grips, which were black checkered plastic. Fit and finish were exceptionally well done, and the white-filled lettering gave the gun a classy look. A slight blemish was the rough finish of the laser-etched “SMITH & WESSON” over “HOULTON, ME USA,” on the right side of the slide beneath the Walther banner. This name was not white filled.

Controls were standard for a PPK Walther, a double-action first shot, but with no way to carry the gun cocked and locked because the safety dropped the hammer. The DA pull was smooth but heavy at about 11 pounds, and the SA pull reasonably light and very consistent at 4.9 pounds, with a touch of creep. The sights were small, but offered an excellent sight picture. Both the driftable rear and the integral front sights had a red dot, which we found to be not all that visible except in good light. We’d have liked tritium, but would not like to pay the usual extra C-note to have someone fit ‘em. None of the guns had “night” sights. The upper edge of the Walther’s ejection port had a razor-sharp edge, but almost all the rest of the gun was well deburred or beveled to avoid cut fingers or holsters. The sharp front edges of the rear sight needed to be rounded.

Takedown was easy as always with the little Walthers. With the gun unloaded and the magazine out, tug down on the trigger guard and push it to the side, where it will stay. Then pull the slide back all the way and lift it, and ease it forward off the barrel. That gives access to the guts and the rear of the barrel for cleaning. Inside, the workmanship was very good, not much of a surprise in handguns made by S&W. However, in later DA-only testing, we found a serious flaw in this PPK. We had several failures to fire, while shooting double action. In each case, the primer was struck but the cartridge did not go off. This occurred with both CCI and Magtech’s ammo. This never happened with the hammer fully cocked.

In the test at at 25 yards, shooting at a 4-foot square of paper with a central aiming point, we fired the PPK strictly DA. We had two failures to fire with Magtech ammo, out of seven tries. On further testing, we had another failure to fire with CCI Blazer and another with Magtech, out of seven more tries. The offhand DA group was about 5 inches in size with one called flyer (same as we got with the Beretta), but the shots all struck about 10 inches high, bad enough that we’d change the sights to center the strikes if we owned the gun. But we would not buy this gun. We inspected it carefully, and even tried it with the taper-wound firing-pin spring reversed, because it may have been binding. The failures to fire DA continued. Sadly, we had to reject this otherwise nice little pistol. We’ll let you know what S&W has to say about it.

[PDFCAP(4)]
The all-matte-black Cheetah was a busy-looking gun, with its open barrel (like the old Model 1934), ambidextrous safety, external hammer, slide-stop lever, and the takedown lever on the right side with its release button on the left. But the controls are all easily used and understood, and fell under the fingers pretty much as we’d like to have found ‘em. The Cheetah was well made, we thought, with excellent workmanship everywhere we looked. The barrel was chrome-plated inside, a nice touch that should make maintenance easy over the years.

The ambi safety lever bears special mention. We first thought it was possible to carry the gun cocked and locked, because there’s a midpoint “notch” in the safety lever’s travel. The safety wanted to stop there, with the hammer remaining fully cocked. However, with the gun cocked and apparently locked with the safety in that halfway point, repeated cycling of the trigger caused the hammer to fall and the safety to go all the way up. To clarify, there are only two positions for the safety, all the way down to fire the gun, or all the way up, which drops the hammer and renders the gun locked. This also locks the slide, so it’s not possible to chamber a round with the safety on. Another feature was that the gun would not fire with the magazine removed.

We thought fit and the matte-black finish were excellent. We liked the feel of the black, checkered grip panels and the vertical serrations on both grip straps. But we didn’t like the small size of the finger-grooved area on the slide, that you had to grab to pull the slide to the rear. It took a hefty pull — with the safety off — to cock the hammer and chamber a round, and the safety itself also got in the way for some of us. We’d have liked a larger gripping surface. It was much easier to work the slide on a 1911, or on the NAA or the PPK than this one. We tested in extremely cold weather, and this slide hurt our fingers when we pulled on it. We found it was impossible to work it with gloves on.

Takedown was remarkably easy. Clear the gun, lower the hammer, and remove the magazine. Then press on the left-side button located just above and in front of the trigger, and rotate the right-side takedown lever 90 degrees, so it’s pointing down. This frees the slide and barrel to slip off the frame to the front. This lets you get into the guts of the alloy frame to clean it. Pull the slide spring downward away from the barrel, slip out the barrel, and clean the remainder. Not many guns have as easy a system to get the gun apart for cleaning. But reassembly was anything but easy, we found. The slide-spring rod didn’t want to go back into its hole in the frame as we pulled the slide rearward. We got around that by pulling the slide onto the gun and compressing the spring, so the guide rod stuck out the front. Then, holding the slide rearward against the spring, we grabbed the rod and fiddled it into its hole. Beveling the entryway would probably fix this, and Beretta needs to look into this, we think. We also had the devil of a time getting the takedown latch to go back where it belonged. The downloadable manual (none came with the gun) was of little or no help in this matter.

We liked the smooth external surfaces, kind to hands and holsters. The sights were excellent, easy to see, and well regulated. Both the integral front square-top blade and the dovetailed, square-notch rear had big white dots, which were easy to see in dim light.

In all, the gun inspired confidence, despite its excess size for the caliber. We had no problems with it other than reassembly after cleaning, and in manually chambering a round.

When we tried the Beretta Cheetah DA only at 25 yards, all shots hit very close to the point of aim, and they all went off, which we thought were satisfying results after the failure of the other two guns. The long DA pull left a lot to be desired, we thought, but we could not reject the gun because of that.

Gun Tests Recommends
• Walther PPK .380 ACP, $543. Don’t Buy. On the range we had a pleasant time with the PPK as long as we shot it single action. In that mode, the Walther was perfectly reliable, fast to shoot, and more than reasonably accurate. Its decent SA trigger and quick DA pull made hits easy, whenever the gun fired. Some of us have never liked the DA/SA operation, but it worked here rather well, we thought. Our shots all landed 4 to 5 inches high at 15 yards, and even worse in the double-action testing at 25 yards. We would have to fix the sights before we’d be happy. Five-shot groups averaged around two inches at 15 yards. However, the failure of several rounds to fire in DA mode meant simply that this gun didn’t work as designed. By comparison, an older Interarms PPK/S had a stiffer DA pull and it required nearly a pound more effort to manually cock the hammer. We liked the PPK a lot, but S&W would have to fix its problems before we’d buy it.

• North American Arms Guardian .380 ACP, $449. Don’t Buy. This was not a particularly friendly gun, we thought. The one good feature of this tiny auto is that it can be easily concealed, and would fit almost any pocket. The gun came in a black, zippered pouch with elastic bands inside that held the gun and the spare magazine. This rectangular pouch had a spring-loaded belt clip on the outside, and an intelligently installed zipper, so it could be attached to the pants belt as a full-concealment holster and would look like anything but a gun. Maybe a cell phone? An iPod? We thought it was handy, and maybe even the best way to carry the Guardian. Would we buy the Guardian? No. We like our bullets to all strike nose first, and reasonably close to where we aimed. Our 25-yard tests killed all our desire for this gun. We thought the trigger pull was too much of a struggle, especially for those with long fingers. In a tight situation, we didn’t want to fight a balky trigger and pathetic accuracy, which would make us wonder where our shots would hit.

• Beretta 85 FS Cheetah .380 ACP, $575. Conditional Buy. The Cheetah made groups about as well as the PPK, but closer to the aim point. Fast shooting was much easier than with the NAA Guardian, but not as easy as with the PPK, we thought. The long DA pull was not as easy to control as the PPK’s. Nor did we care for the long two-stage — almost three-stage — SA trigger pull, although it broke clean when we got it all the way back. The PPK’s SA pull was more easily managed. We would not call the Cheetah a pocket gun, nor did we think it ideal in self-defense mode. It was longer, higher, and fatter than the PPK, yet held only two more rounds. There are higher-capacity versions of the Cheetah, if that’s what you want, and several finish options too.

But despite the Cheetah’s size and busy looks, we thought it to be well worth a long, hard look by anyone who wants a good reliable .380 that can do several tasks. It was accurate enough and fun to shoot, and might be an ideal one-gun pistol for the person who doesn’t want to own different guns for plinking and self defense. Handloaded ammo could give lots of low-cost shooting so you can become used to it. And with its longer barrel, the Cheetah got the most out of our hot JHP defense ammo. We might buy it, though most of us would prefer more power for a multi-purpose pistol.

-Text and photos by Ray Ordorica from Gun Tests team field and range evaluations.

North American Arms Guardian .380 ACP, $449

our accuracy tests

Walther PPK .380 ACP, $543

Beretta 85 FS Cheetah .380 ACP, $575