September 2008

Upgraded Handguns: Two Forties and a Super 38 Super

Kimber’s $1010 Pro Carry HD II 38 Super is a laser. Springfield Armory’s new $749 XDM is not just pretty. The $1100 Sig Sauer SCT should bolster fans of traditional double action.

In this test we will evaluate three handguns for self defense that we would regard as enhanced versions of more basic models available from their manufacturers. First up is the Sig Sauer P229 SCT, an $1100 40 S&W that "improves" on the $929 base model P229 in a couple of important areas. The P229 SCT is about a $200 upgrade of the model P229 that is popular with law enforcement in 357 Sig and 40 S&W. The SCT Super Capacity Tactical pistol offers upgrades in the form of a TruGlo tritium fiber-optic front sight, front cocking serrations on the slide, and a supply of four 14-round magazines. The standard magazines for the P229 pistols carry 12 or 10 rounds of 40 S&W or 357 Sig.

Kimber Pro Carry HD II 38 Super

Clockwise from left to right, our three test pistols offered three solid options for self defense. The $1010 10-round Kimber Pro Carry HD II 38 Super might be our first pick. It shot to point of aim, producing the smallest groups that varied little on average from 1.5 inches across. But we had to change recoil springs to operate reliably with anything but the hottest ammunition. Was that a deal breaker? You decide. The $1100 Sig Sauer SCT Super Capacity Tactical is a P229 with little more than an oversized magazine and a trick front sight that offered enhance visibility in bright or dim light. But it was ormidable. We wished it were full-time single action because once past the double action first shot, our accuracy improved vastly and the gun cycled quickly. The $749 Springfield Armory XDM housed the most ammunition, 16+1. It had an adjustable grip, which we’re not sure the XD pistols really need.

Next is Springfield Armory’s $749 XDM, wherein the letter "M" does not stand for "mystery." Instead, Springfield’s website explains that this gun contains several M-nomenclature upgrades from the base model XD, including Major Grasp Serrations, Model Contour Frame, Max Reach Magazine Release, Mega Capacity magazine, Mega-Lock Texture, Melonite Finish, Minimum Error Disassembly, Minimal Reset Trigger, Multi-Adjust Rail system, Multi-Use Carrying Case, Match Grade Barrel, and interchangeable Mould-Tru back straps. These "mupgrades" come in a gun chambered only for 40 S&W, and they create a $200 premium for the XDM over the standard XD40, which costs $543.

Kimber was among the few manufacturers that believed the onslaught of high-capacity 9mm handguns could be beaten back with a traditional American design. The lowest-priced 1911 we could find on the website was the $815 Custom II. This is a full-size 45 ACP. The Pro Carry series is based around a full-size grip capable of housing full-length seven- or eight-round magazines, but with a shorter 4-inch barrel. The lowest MSRP for a Pro Carry we found on site was an $850 45 built on a matte-black alloy frame. The Heavy Duty HD model is constructed of stainless steel with satin finish. Our Pro Carry HD II was one of the few Kimber models available chambered for 38 Super, and it runs $1010. Are the upgrades worth the extra money? If the answer is not obvious, then at least we will try to explain the purpose of each upgrade and leave it to our knowledgeable readers to decide.

How We Tested

For test ammunition we chose two jacketed hollowpoint defense loads and one full-metal-jacket general-purpose round. For the Kimber 38 Super they were 130-grain FMJ +P rounds from MagTech and from Cor-Bon, +P rounds topped with hollowpoints weighing 115 grains and 125 grains, respectively. Our 40 S&W ammunition was 165-grain FMJ and 180-grain JHP rounds from Winchester USA and Black Hills 165-grain JHP EXP rounds.

Our first order of testing was to fire each gun from support. Our physical setup consisted of a solid bench with a pile of rectangular sandbags to support the gun. Our shooter was seated but stretched out over the bench so that his arms were fully supported. Due to the variation in the sight radii, we opted to test-fire at 15-yard targets.

Our second test was designed to help us evaluate each gun for speed and consistency. The FMJ rounds were used exclusively for this test. We set an IPSC metric target at a distance of 15 feet. The IPSC metric target loosely represents a human silhouette with 6-inch by 11-inch A zone to represent the center of the chest and a 6.4-inch by 6-inch head area. Our drill was to fire two shots into the central A zone and one shot into the head as fast as we could. Our start position was facing the target standing with gun in both hands pulled back towards the chest. The muzzle was angled slightly upward. In testing the Sig Sauer we began with hammer down first shot double action. The Kimber began with hammer back safety on. Upon an audible start signal from our CED electric timer we pushed toward the target picking up the sights and began to fire. We recorded the elapsed time of 10 separate runs and noted the placement of the hits on target. We did not practice this test before recording data. We just jumped from one gun to the next. We hoped this test would show us what was necessary to maximize the potential of each weapon.

Kimber Pro Carry HD II 38 Super, $1010

If the United States military had adopted the Browning 1911 pistol the same year it was invented, we would be talking about the Kimber Pro Carry HD II as being a 1907 rather than a 1911-style pistol. It was a simple pistol of black and silver. The black rubber grip offered traditional checkering. Before touching it you might think it was wood.

The sloping low-drag rear sight was black. It had a set screw to assure stability after being adjusted for windage if necessary. The front sight was long and sturdy, as was the large dovetail in which it was seated. The faces of both the front and rear sights were grooved to disperse glare.

The outer surface of the skeletonized hammer was also blackened to this same end. The magazine well was beveled, and the rear strap/mainspring housing was checkered. The front strap of the grip frame was left smooth. The surface of the beavertail grip safety stuck out from the backstrap. This was important because the series II designation meant that there was an extra safety wherein the firing pin would not be released unless the grip safety was completely compressed. Its operation was flawless and went unnoticed to our shooters. The thumb safety was left side only. Cocking serrations on the slide were deep and functional, (rearward only).

The Pro Carry HD II did not have an externally mounted extractor as found on earlier Kimber models. The trigger was a competition-style ventilated trigger adjustable for overtravel. Its crisp break seemed lighter than the 6 pounds it registered on our gauge. The 4-inch bull barrel looked bigger than normal because it had the outer dimensions of a 45-caliber barrel but the bore was naturally much smaller because 38 Super bullets range in diameter from 0.355 inch to 0.356 inch across. The smaller bullets also increase mag capacity to nine rounds, and three magazines were supplied.

Take down of the bushingless system with bull barrel and full-length guide rod did not require a wrench but some method of capturing the recoil spring was necessary. First, we pulled back the slide to align the slide-stop pin with the relief in the slide. We needed to hit the end of the pin from the right side with the grip of a screwdriver to free it before pulling it out. With pin removed we slid the top end off the frame. Holding the top end upside down we pushed the guide rod forward until a tiny hole in the guide rod appeared. Here we inserted the supplied takedown pin.

With the recoil spring captured, the assembly could be pulled out from beneath the barrel. With the barrel link rotated forward, the barrel was free to exit the slide through the muzzle end. The bull barrel locked up on its outer diameter at the front of the slide. Beginning about an inch from the muzzle, the outer diameter of the barrel was shaved down to reduce weight. This reduced mass helped the barrel move more quickly in and out of lock.

In our initial tests we learned that the Kimber fed hot Cor-Bon loads efficiently and accurately. But we had some stoppages with less powerful rounds failing to fully enter the chamber. These were the only malfunctions we experienced throughout our tests of all three pistols. Our evaluation was that the recoil spring was simply too heavy.

We checked with Kimber’s Custom Shop and learned that the 38 Super models are shipped with 18-pound recoil springs. This weight recoil spring was chosen to best suit heavy defense loads, which are most likely to be carried in this type of pistol. For our staff, tuning a recoil spring to specific ammunition was nothing new. Indeed, competing in a practical match firing full power loads on a Saturday followed by a steel challenge where the lightest loads are best on a Sunday is a typical weekend. We had no trouble adapting a lighter recoil spring to accommodate all three of our test loads. Slide movement was clean, ejection was consistent, and we saw and felt no evidence of the slide impacting the frame with an excessive amount of force. Nonetheless, we had to mark down the Kimber for the malfunctions, though we understand why the gun came shipped as it was.

Another adjustable aspect of the 1911 is choice of grip panels. Currently, the rage in polymer pistols is to supply interchangeable grip panels for the back strap or sides. Sig Sauer’s new P250 even offers a variety of grip bodies. But a change in grip panel on the 1911 has always afforded a marked difference in control to the individual. The grip panels on our Kimber were wide and created a generous oval shape over its rectangular grip frame.

Targets placed 15 yards downrange proved little challenge for the Kimber Pro Carry HD II. The supplied sights read easily. We averaged about 1.5 inches for all groups fired. Point of impact was precisely where we aimed. Available power in terms of muzzle energy peaked at 485 ft.-lbs. from the 115-grain Cor-Bon JHP rounds. Our range ammunition produced 367 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. But we actually did not perceive that much difference in recoil or control between the two rounds. If there is more powerful ammunition available, this gun can handle it.

In our action tests we did manage to push one shot out of the A zone just left of center. But our elapsed time was faster on average by almost 0.20 seconds per run. Fastest run of the day with all hits in place was performed in 1.24 seconds with the Kimber pistol.

Sig Sauer P229 SCT 40 S&W, $1100

Key elements of the P229 series are a high-capacity compact alloy frame, stainless-steel slide, and traditional double-action trigger system with decocker. The wide frame was smoothed by the application of a plastic grip that wrapped around the rear of the grip frame. Save for the necessarily square edges of the accessory rail, this gun was snag free in its design. The slide release, decocker, and takedown lever were left side only and fit evenly into the profile. The mag release was feathered into the contour of the grip panel on the left side but can be changed to the right side if so desired.

The namesake upgrade for this pistol concerns the Super Capacity’s magazine payload. Sig stuffs more rounds in the mags by applying an oversized basepad that adds about 0.6 inches to their overall length.

The sights were also upgraded, with the rear sight offering two tritium modules that supply their own illumination independent of ambient or residual light—that is, they glow without having to be charged. The front sight provided a glowing green dot powered by both ambient light and a tritium module. A length of the fiber-optic filament was left exposed to available light through an opening atop the front sight blade. In this way the fiber gathered what light was available and concentrated it at the edge facing the operator. A tritium module located at the forward edge of the fiber also supplied illumination, which became apparent in the dark. The fiber optic was easy to see, but its glow did not dominate the sight picture. For finer accuracy we were able to read the edges of the front sight as well. However, the unit itself was long, so there was a tradeoff in a reduction of sight radius. The one outright gaff on our Sig Sauer product was that the front sight was not seated flush against the top of the slide.

Takedown was easy, and to begin the process, the shooter removes the magazine and works the slide, visually checking to see that the chamber is empty. To continue takedown, lock back the slide and rotate the takedown lever downward until it locks. Release the slide lock and remove the slide from the frame. Underneath is a guide rod surrounded by a multi-filament spring. Push the guide rod forward and pull it out. The spring was not captured but stayed with the guide rod. The barrel can now be lifted from the slide. There were no other loose parts. The frame seemed remarkably light compared to the top end.

All current P229s share a three-slot Picatinny accessory rail along the dustcover. Besides the addition of the accessory rail we could not help but notice some small changes in the basic P229 design. Compared to a P229 purchased by one of our staff in 2001, the plastic grips of our SCT were thinner along the sides by the tiniest margin. Nevertheless, this flattened the contour of the grips and offered a more squared feeling to the hand. In gripping the SCT we felt more pressure at the front and rear of the grip. This helped us index the gun more easily, making it possible to feel when the bore was facing straight ahead. There was also much less gap between the grip panels and the rear of the magazine well. This made snagging the edge of the magazine during a reload less likely.

Our bench session was performed single action only. We found the 5-pound single action trigger to be predictable and tight. Firing the Winchester rounds, we landed five-shot groups that averaged about 2.0 inches across. But, loaded with the Black Hills 165-grain JHP EXP ammunition, the gun printed a 1.0-inch group. In fact, only a single 1.7-inch group expanded our average group size to 1.4 inches. It was as if this round was made for the Sig Sauer.

Our action tests underscored the difference between a single-action-only pistol, a full-time double-action pistol, and a traditional double-action pistol. Our fastest single run took 1.49 seconds to complete, and we had three shots out of the lower A-zone low and to the left. This underscored the need to stabilize the pistol in the hand and maintain a consistent grip throughout the transition from double to single action. We had to be careful not to overpower the double-action shot and push the gun toward the weak side and avoid the temptation to readjust the grip for the single action shots. Of note was that our shots to the head area were markedly more accurate than those delivered by our other test pistols.

Springfield Armory XDM XDM9212HCFP 40 S&W, $749

Until lately, Springfield Armory has been content to import the Croatian-designed and -manufactured XD essentially in its original form. The first model, the XD9, was a 4-inch Service model chambered for 9mm. The first variation was a subcompact. The next change was to offer XD pistols in a variety of calibers. Then, the slide was stretched to create a Target/Tactical model. Since then, we’ve seen the frame enlarged to accommodate 45 ACP.

But even with the addition of thumb safeties, the XD was still recognizable as the original design. The XDM represents a greater departure from this path of evolution. In our view, the XDM is an attempt to get one step ahead of the competition and create a uniquely American polymer pistol.

The "M" upgrades listed on the Springfield website include changes all over the gun. To wit:

Probably the biggest change from the original XD would be the interchangeable Mould-Tru back straps. Three backstraps were supplied. Backstrap 1 comes closest to replicating the original XD profile. Backstraps 2 and 3 supplied a medium and large palm swell, respectively. The backstraps were connected by a hook that fit into the frame at the top and a roll pin at the base of the grip. A suitable punch was not supplied. Neither the mainspring, nor any other moving parts were exposed without a backstrap in place.

We began our accuracy tests with Backstrap 3 in place. Immediately, we noticed that the XDM landed its shots at 12 o’clock on our 4-inch bullseye instead of at 6 o’clock where we held our sights. The quick answer to this problem is usually to install a taller front sight. But we also noticed that the rear-sight unit was not completely flush with the top of the slide. The XDM sights were a lower-mount, more snagfree design than the original, but we are not sure they are any better than the original. Looking for a reason why our hits were too high, we compared the grip angle of the XDM against the original XD. It was the same. Taking a closer look at our technique, we noticed we were having trouble holding the front sight level across the rear sighting notch. Changing to the flatter Backstrap 1 helped our shooter bring the front sight down. Our hits were now dead center at 15 yards, about 2 inches high. Although each of our test rounds was markedly different, the XDM delivered an average five-shot group measuring about 1.8 inches across.

The upgrade we liked best was the Minimum Error Disassembly. This meant that removing the top end no longer required pressing the trigger. Empty the gun, lock back the slide, rotate the slide latch and pull the top end off the frame. To this we say, thank you very much.

Major Grasp Serrations refers to cocking serrations forward and aft. This is not new to the XD lineup, but the XDM serrations are wider apart and seem bigger because the shelf-like contour running along the base of the slide has been eliminated. There is no longer a need for a pass-through notch for the takedown latch. Overall, the slide has been sculpted to be more appealing.

The Model Contour Frame refers to the area above the ambidextrous Max Reach Magazine Release. This area has been sculpted as if to lead the index finger to the trigger. Since the trigger finger should not rest on the frame we feel this is mainly cosmetic. But it does help make the new magazine release button more prominent without creating undue fear of accidentally dropping the Mega Capacity magazine. The magazines (two were supplied) held 16 rounds of 40 S&W. Springfield implies that such high capacity should alleviate the temptation to move down to a smaller caliber just to carry more rounds.

The M montage credits the Mega-Lock Texture for the non-skid grip of this pistol. We did find it easy to hold on to, but we think the long thin handle, necessary to fit the high-capacity magazine, was the real reason.

The finish on an older XD9 we have suffers from holster wear. The XDM’s new Melonite Finish is a "salt bath nitriding process" used to blacken the slide. This should make the black models more wear resistant, but the stainless steel slide should fare even better.

We could not substantiate any difference in trigger reset between our old XD9 and the XDM’s Minimal Reset Trigger. We tried comparing the trigger reset of the two models by using a caliper. With guns empty, we pulled the trigger and racked the slide while still holding the trigger all the way back. We put the backstrap and the trigger inside the calipers like a vise. We slowly spread the calipers. Our XD9 reset after it traveled about .25 inches. So did the trigger on our XDM. Perhaps our method was too crude to be of value.

However, our XDM was a consistent performer throughout our action tests. It was not the fastest, but it was the only pistol to place all shots inside the head area of the target or in the A-zone. Average elapsed time was about 1.58 seconds, edging out the Sig Sauer P229 SCT.

The Multi-Adjust Rail system offered three cross hatches instead of two. The Multi-Use Carrying Case was an attaché case of much better quality than the typical gun box. It had points for a pad lock and the snap latches were shielded from catching on anything that could pry them open. The edges of the case had Picatinny rails so you could connect your tactical light while you picnic atop the case. Meanwhile, the XDM would be on your belt in the supplied paddle holster. A magazine pouch, fit with Picatinny rails along its edges was also included in this package.

The XDM touts a Match Grade Barrel. What this usually means is either a superior manufacturing process or simply greater quality control. But the quality of a barrel can be rendered irrelevant if it is not fit properly. Not only can improper fit lead to inconsistent accuracy, but also malfunction. Our XDM ran without any sign of a problem. In terms of accuracy the XD/XDM design does have its own inherent limitations. Metal-to-metal lockup between the frame and the slide is limited to contact with a breech block. The barrel has lockup points at the front of the slide and on the outside of the chamber. The polymer frame rails serve more as guides rather than points that can provide a precision fit.

Still, in its rundown of M-features, Springfield ignored what we believe is the best new XDM upgrade: The slide release is now much easier to work with the strong-hand thumb than the original. This was completely ignored, so we’ll supply the copy for Springfield’s website: Much Easier to Release Slide Release.