Subcompact Power: .45 ACP, .40 S&W, and .357 SIG Guns
The .357 SIG Glock 33 was an accurate powerhouse, and Springfield’s Ultra Compact .45 ACP handled the best. But S&W’s .40 S&W S990L had trouble feeding hollowpoints.
Recently we received a letter from a subscriber who asked us to compare a small .45 ACP 1911 pistol to some of today’s more popular options in the category of subcompact pistols. Keynotes of comparison were action design, similar size, and similar stopping power. Also, our reader wanted us to compare the speed and integrity of fundamental controls other than the trigger. A concealed-carry gun may never be reloaded during a confrontation, but you wouldn’t want to drop the magazine by accident or fumble releasing the slide.
Your competition or hunting gun may be the love of your life but a powerful subcompact pistol is the one you are likely to spend the most time with. In this test we’ll get up close and personal with three pistols small enough to blend in with your lifestyle and powerful enough to preserve it. The Springfield Armory Ultra Compact 1911A1 PX9161L, $952, represents the traditional .45 ACP single-action single-stack pistol. The Glock polymer pistol is another very popular option. The Glock 33 No. PI3350201, $599, is chambered for .357 SIG, which offers .357 Magnum power in a controllable high-capacity platform. Smith & Wesson’s SW990L in .40 S&W is also a polymer pistol with a double-column magazine, but distinguishes itself from the Glock pistol by utilizing a Walther design. Our SW990L No. 120233, $729, like the others, employed approximately a 3.5-inch barrel, and all three were specifically designed for concealed carry.
How We Tested
For accuracy testing, we shot the guns from a sandbag rest at targets 15 yards downrange. Each gun was tested with one full-metal-jacketed round and two choices of jacketed hollowpoints.
We also tried a rapid-fire test to evaluate fast action handling and target acquisition. This test was based on a Hoffner’s Training Academy Elite Team drill (www.hoffners.com/). The drill was structured in the following manner. With three targets placed 4 yards downrange, we positioned the shooter in front of the center target. The desired point of impact was anywhere inside of an 8.5 by 11.0 inch square. The shooter began in an aggressive ready position holding the gun pointed straight ahead at the left hand target with the sights lowered just enough to increase the shooter’s field of vision. Upon audible start signal, we engaged each target with one shot before returning to the first target to re-engage, adding another shot to each target. We also tried this drill firing with one hand. We kept track of hits and elapsed time, but primarily we wanted to know more about operating these guns under pressure. Let’s find out what each gun had to offer.
The Springfield Armory 1911A1 is currently the only surviving pistol in the Ultra Compact lineup. We tested two versions of this pistol in our February 2000 issue, when a ported barrel was among the options. Today’s Ultra Compact is all but a miniature of the Springfield’s full size "Loaded" models. Firing from a 3.5-inch bull barrel, upgraded features included Novak night sights, a lightweight hammer, aluminum match trigger adjustable for overtravel, ambidextrous thumb safeties, memory groove beavertail grip safety, and checkered wood Springfield Armory logo grips held in place with Torx screws.
This all-stainless-steel pistol had a two-tone finish with the sides being polished and a matte texture applied to the top of the slide and the underside of the frame. The front strap also showed the matte finish that gave it a shadowed appearance. We would have preferred checkering for a better grip. The mainspring housing at the rear of the grip was cut with vertical lines. The trigger could be rendered inoperable by a key-operated lock integrated into the mainspring housing.
Give this gun a quick look and you could mistake it for a larger 1911. Of our three test guns it was the only one that allowed the shooter to take a full grip. Three six-round magazines were supplied, but capacity was not necessarily limited to six shots. We found that seven- and eight-round magazines, such as those available from Bill Wilson (www.wilsoncombat.com/) worked reliably. This gave the Ultra compact nearly the same capacity as our other test guns. To test reliability, we filled magazines with as many as eight different rounds. We experienced no malfunctions during our tests.
One difference we were able to spot between our 2006 Ultra Compact and previous models was the guide rod. Earlier models used a short guide rod and a recoil spring that fit into a reverse plug. One had to be careful not to kink the spring during assembly. The current model features a steel plunger type assembly, similar to the ones found in our Smith & Wesson and Glock pistols. However, the Ultra’s larger primary recoil spring was not automatically captured. To keep the recoil assembly as one unit during disassembly, a takedown bushing was supplied.
The takedown bushing was made of plastic and resembled a piece of pipe that had been cut in half along its length. To disassemble the Ultra Compact, we first removed the magazine, cleared the chamber, and locked back the slide. The inner portion of the guide rod unit was exposed protruding from beneath the barrel. The takedown bushing was then applied, snapping on to the guide rod. When the slide was released, the spring was captured. This shortened the overall length of the guide rod/recoil assembly. With the top end removed and placed upside down on a bench, the guide rod and springs, along with the reverse plug, were lifted out as a unit. The barrel was then removed by shifting the link forward and sliding it through the front of the slide.
At the range, firing from a sandbag rest we tried
In our action test we learned that the Ultra Compact 1911A1 differed from our other guns in at least two aspects. Its narrow profile made it very easy to point the gun. Resting the stronghand thumb on top of the safety helped us lock in our grip, especially when shooting with one hand. Given the shorter takeup in the trigger and the shorter overall travel, moving from target to target required more sensitivity in terms of prepping the trigger. Working the trigger as we rushed the sights on to the target required some restraint, even if we wished the trigger was a little bit lighter. Holding the gun with two hands, we engaged the three targets from left to right with one shot each, then returned to the far left-hand target to re-engage. Recoil was surprisingly mild. Our elapsed time varied little, and we averaged 3.9 seconds for the six shots. We had one miss barely off target, which the operator called as he failed to prep the trigger and suddenly overpowered its 6.5 pounds of resistance. Firing strong hand only, our runs were about 0.8 seconds slower.
Smith & Wesson’s SW990L series are polymer-framed double-action-only pistols designed and produced in collaboration with Walther. It is patently different than the SWVE or SWGE pistols, the forerunners of which were referred to as the Sigma. According to the Smith & Wesson website (www.smith-wesson.com/), the only way to distinguish one SW990L pistol from another in print is by item number. Our SW990L, item number 1120233, was a 3.5-inch-barreled subcompact chambered for .40 S&W with a windage-adjustable rear sight. Three alternate-height front-sight blades were supplied for changing elevation.
Our pistol also arrived with two backstraps. One offered a large palm swell and the other was nearly flat. The straps were held in place by a roll pin and did not interact with any internal mechanisms. Once installed the fit of each backstrap was seamless. Two eight-round magazines were supplied. One had a flat basepad, and the other featured a basepad that added a third finger groove. Magazine release was ambidextrous and resembled the paddle design of the Heckler & Koch pistols that require a downward motion. The grip showed a deep contour on both sides that led to the trigger. Inside the trigger guard was a scallop that reached upward to the tip of the trigger. This could serve to prevent extra material from a shooters glove from getting underneath or behind the trigger. The only other control lever on this pistol was the slide release found on the left side just below the slide. The takedown levers found on each side were flush fit with the frame.
Field stripping required removing the magazine, clearing the chamber and pulling the trigger to decock the weapon. Then, shifting the black Melonite-coated slide about 0.3 inches to the rear while pulling down on both levers simultaneously, the slide was free to move forward off of the frame. With the top end removed, we saw that slide-to-frame contact consisted primarily of two pairs of short metal rails seated in the polymer frame front and rear. We also noticed that the firing mechanism looked very complicated. The two-spring recoil assembly found underneath the slide closely resembled the Glock unit.
Safety devices on the SW990L were limited to the release of a striker safety activated during the rearward stroke of the trigger. Our pistol did not have a magazine disconnect and would fire without a magazine in place. There was also a chamber-loaded indicator that consisted of the externally mounted extractor that changed position when a round was in place. The rear of the extractor would hinge inward, leaving an indentation in the slide which we thought was more obvious to the fingertip than to the eye. When the slide was moved back and the gun was pre-cocked, the rear edge of the striker was visible from the back of the slide. It was painted red for added visibility.
The SW990L is a double-action pistol and we could see the striker being moved rearward to full cock as we pulled the trigger. The area where the striker was visible was countersunk to prevent impact with the striker. The smooth continuous action of the Smith & Wesson trigger did not signal to the shooter that any action beyond loading the striker was taking place. To the shooter the only obvious safety was the weight of the trigger that presented 9 pounds of resistance.
Checking results from our bench session showed that the SW990L was capable of at least one sub-2-inch group with each of our chosen test rounds. Power generated by the Winchester 165-grain SXT hollowpoints was tops, averaging 356 ft.-lbs of muzzle energy. Both the Winchester USA 165-grain FMJ rounds and Hornady’s 180-grain TAP FPD rounds produced about 335 ft.-lbs. However, we were greatly disturbed when our SW990L suffered a 2 to 3% failure to feed rate with each of the hollowpoints we tried.
In our action test we used both the magazine with the added finger groove and the one with the flat base pad. Naturally, the extra finger groove helped acquisition, but in terms of control we didn’t find as much difference as we would have predicted. Holding the gun with two hands our runs averaged out to about 4.11 seconds with one miss. Shooting strong hand only, our first shot was nearly as fast, but overall elapsed time increased to 4.54 seconds with again, one miss. As a defense gun, our pistol was limited in choice of ammunition. But the overall design offered concealment in such alternatives as belly bands or garments such as the Holster Shirt, (item number 40011, $40 from www.511tactical.com/). The Holster Shirt is a Lycra undershirt with two holster compartments located beneath each arm. We thought that the trigger was heavy enough to prevent accidental discharge in most circumstances but smooth enough to help the shooter fire with confidence.
The Glock 33, or G33, was chambered for .357 SIG and operated just like its medium- and large-size brothers, (models G32 and G31 respectively). The most notable difference was the short grip, which limited the shooter to holding the pistol with only two fingers. The rear of the stubby grip showed a generous palm swell and the trigger guard was generously undercut, or generously under-molded. Beneath the short slide with standard white dot front and white outline notch rear sight was a 3.42-inch barrel and plunger-style guide rod with two recoil springs. Like the Smith & Wesson SW990L, the only operational levers along the side of the G33 were the left-side-mounted slide release and the takedown levers that were below flush with the frame. Removing the slide required moving the slide back about 0.3 inches and pulling the levers downward simultaneously. Making sure the gun is empty was critical because the trigger must be pulled to release the slide.
The outer edge of the externally mounted extractor acted as a loaded-chamber indicator by bulging outward when a round was in place. We felt this was too vague to be relied upon. The only other obvious safety was the lever placed inside the face of the trigger that released the striker block. The trigger presented about 8 pounds of resistance, so in normal circumstance, just as in the case of the SW990L, the G33 should not go off without a determined effort. Unlike the Springfield Armory Ultra Compact 1911A1, which has a thumb-operated safety that effectively turns off the trigger, neither the G33 nor the SW990L can positively prevent firing if your finger is inside the trigger guard.
Everyone’s first impression of the Glock 33 was how little grip area was available to the shooter. This also affected our ability to release the magazine. Without shifting the hand properly when pressing the release, the lever can shift through to the other side of the grip and press against the inside of the hand. Also, the magazine was likely to be blocked by the palm or bottom finger instead of dropping free. In addition we were concerned about getting a sure grip from concealment. Each of the two supplied nine-round magazines used flat base pads, and we found that it was nearly impossible to shoot the gun with a high grip. Closing the gap between the web of the hand and the undercut of the frame required a separate movement. Aftermarket basepads similar to the one found on the Smith & Wesson magazine that add a third finger groove were helpful, but each of our polymer test guns proved a little too small and top heavy for an ideal draw.
According to Bob Forker’s massive book of reference Ammo & Ballistics 3, (Safari Press), the .357 SIG is rated with a recoil factor slightly higher than .40 S&W. In practice we found that the .357 SIG was louder than either .40 S&W or 45 ACP but less disturbing to the sight picture. We think this is because the bullets common to .357 SIG were smaller and lighter, creating less torque and muzzle flip. Nevertheless, firing from the shortest barrel among our three guns, the Glock 33 produced far more muzzle energy than its competitors. The strongest of our test rounds was the Winchester WinClean 125-grain BEB (FMJ) rounds, producing 458 ft.-lbs of muzzle energy. Second was the Winchester USA 125-grain JHP (452 ft.-lbs.), and third was a new offering, Hornady’s 147-grain JHP/XTP ammunition, which rang up 419 ft.-lbs. of power. Despite the lack of available grip, we were able to find a satisfactory setup at the bench. The WinClean helped print the only sub 1-inch group in the test, but both Winchester rounds printed average size groups below 2 inches across. The Hornady rounds averaged about 2.1 inches across. Reliability was 100 percent.
In our action test we learned that due to the lack of available grip, it didn’t make much difference whether we used one hand or two. Our elapsed time for two-handed shooting varied from 4.35 to 4.52 seconds to complete the course of fire. Our strong-hand-only runs took from 4.55 to 4.63 seconds to complete. We pulled one shot left on the two-handed string for the only miss. We liked the accuracy of the G33, and our first shots after the audible start signal were almost as fast as when firing the Springfield Armory Ultra Compact, (about 0.82 seconds versus 0.79 seconds respectively). But, we were hampered by the small grip, which prevented us from quickly stabilizing the gun after recoil slowing our followup shots.
Gun Tests Recommends
Springfield Armory Ultra Compact 1911A1 .45 ACP No. PX9161L, $952. Buy It.Of our three small guns, the Ultra Compact presented the least amount of compromise in terms of grip, concealable profile and safety. The Ultra Compact was ultra reliable and showed improved recoil control over previous models. More expensive than polymer pistols, we felt the price was in line with currently available 1911s with comparable features.
Smith & Wesson SW990L .40 S&W No. 120233, $729. Don’t Buy. Reliability with hollowpoints was unacceptable, in our view. If feeding problems in an individual gun could be solved, however, we’d upgrade the rating to a Conditional Buy. Deluxe features such as adjustable sights and alternate back straps did make this gun easier to shoot. The paddle magazine release and larger base pad helped solve the problem of limited grip area.
Glock 33 .357 SIG No. PI3350201, $599. Buy It.Despite its size, the Glock 33 showed no compromise in accuracy. Recoil control was hampered by its lack of grip area, but chambered for .357 SIG, Glock’s smallest pistol produced the most power by far among our test pistols.
-Written and photographed by Roger Eckstine, using evaluations from
Gun Tests team testers.