December 2009

Best-In-Class Firearms 2009: Handguns, Rifles, and Shotguns

Which firearms offer can’t-miss combinations of performance and value? We look back at the previous 12 months of evaluations in Gun Tests and tell you what we would buy.

Every December I survey the work Ben Brooks, Roger Eckstine, Ray Ordorica, Joe Syczylo, Gene Taylor, Kevin Winkle, R.K. Campbell, and Ralph Winingham have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns the magazine’s testers have endorsed without qualification. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year’s worth of tests and distill summary recommendations for readers, who often use them as year-end shopping guides. These "best of" choices are a mixture of our original tests and other information I’ve compiled during the year. After the magazine’s FFLs sell high-rated test products to readers, I keep tabs on how many of those guns do over time, and if the firearms continue performing well, then I have confidence including them in this wrap-up.

This is our third year of letter-grade scoring, and all the guns in this compilation are "A" or "A+" choices. —Todd Woodard

BEST IN CLASS: PISTOLS

Smith & Wesson M&P #209001 9mm, $679

Reviewed: May 2009

Our Team Said: It had a decent trigger, clever design, perfect function, and interchangeable grip inserts that all added to the package. The gun had ambi slide releases, not often seen. We thought its accuracy was satisfactory for its intended use.

While many of us prefer full-caliber cartridges in full-size pistols, there are many reasons and many mandates to pack a high-capacity 9mm handgun.

Our first impression of the S&W M&P 9mm was that it felt extremely comfortable in the hand. It was well balanced, not too heavy—at least without a magazine full of 17 heavy-bullet loads—and was pleasantly devoid of extraneous controls and levers. We note S&W also sells a version with a thumb safety, along with a host of variants in 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45 ACP, and with longer or shorter barrels or grips, and in a variety of colors. One even has a pink grip insert.

Our test gun came in a large case with two different grip inserts to make the handle larger or smaller. We liked it as it was, so we left it alone. The sights were fixed, and excellent in all respects. There will be no cut hands here from stovepipe drills. The sights had white dots and again no tritium inserts.

The matte-black slide was stainless, and the polymer grip was hefty enough that the gun didn’t have a top-heavy feel even when empty. The frame had a light rail beneath the muzzle. The controls were very simple. The trigger action was the prime safety on the gun. Don’t touch the trigger and the gun can’t fire. Pressing on the trigger first unlocks it so it can travel rearward, and then it releases the striker to fire the gun. It won’t shoot with the magazine removed, at least on our version. After the last shot is fired the slide stop locks the slide back. The slide lock is ambidextrous, another nice touch rarely seen on pistols.

Inside we found some extremely clever use of multi-bent sheet metal, bent for strength and various dual purposes here and there. The slide spring was captive, so no tiny parts went flying as you took it out, another nice touch.

The gun works, and works well. In fact, we felt we were looking at the future of all auto-pistol design and production as we looked inside this very clever Smith & Wesson handgun. It was mighty impressive design, to our eyes. Reassembly was straightforward.

The trigger was pleasant, not too heavy, and worked well in fast shooting. The pull was identical for all shots, but if a round had happened to misfire you would have to eject it, rather than drop the striker again. On the range we found the M&P to be just as comfortable to shoot as it was in the hand. Felt recoil with the heaviest loads was insignificant. That’s what a comfortable grip can do for you, and the M&P had a great grip.

There were exactly no problems with the gun.

Wilson Combat CQB 45 ACP, $2550

Reviewed: April 2009

Our Team Said: This is not our first association with Wilson’s CQB. We hope it’s not our last. These are very-well thought out, professionally made handguns produced by someone who really does know what he’s doing. They may not be the prettiest, nor the most accurate, but going into this test we knew we would be immensely surprised if the CQB failed to do exactly what it’s supposed to do. Long story short, we were not surprised.

We decided to take a look at some of the higher-priced 45s to see what gives. The test guns were full-size 1911s in 45 ACP caliber, one of which was Wilson’s CQB, $2550. We tested with four types of ammunition, Black Hills’ hardball, Federal 185-grain Hi-Shok JHP, Cor-Bon 230-grain JHP, and with cast-lead, 230-grain round-nose Ultramax. We tested during a severe winter in Idaho, and thus had trouble achieving this gun’s full accuracy potential. Better conditions would have given better results.

This one was all black. We’ve seen and liked the two-tone versions, all of ‘em with Armor-Tuff finish, which is mighty durable but which will show slight wear over time. The finish was dead-flat dull, exactly what you want on a serious handgun. The sights were fixed, very hand-friendly, contoured for quick acquisition, gave an outstanding picture, and had tritium inserts. The gun shot to its sights perfectly with most of the test ammo.

The grip frame had fine checkering in front, slightly less-fine checkering on the mainspring housing, checkered grip panels of a black hue called Diamondwood, non-ambi safety, and a beveled mag well. New CQBs come with a soft range bag and two magazines. You no longer get the fine ear muffs Wilson used to provide with every gun. You can customize your CQB somewhat as you order it, but for us, there’s precious little need to change anything about the basic CQB.

We believe the Wilson CQB is one of the standards by which all other combat 1911s can be judged. It does not have the slick features that distinguish some other handguns. There are no serrations at the back of the slide or along the slide to cut glare, but with its dull finish it hardly needs them. The gun’s price has risen steadily over the past few years, and that will keep them out of the hands of some. We believe they’re pretty good guns that have just about everything done exactly right. In fact our only complaint is their high cost, but all of these test guns were costly, to put it mildly.

A very minor point of contention is the stainless barrel bushing. While the gun is slick on all its corners to avoid holster wear, the edges of the barrel bushing are razor-sharp. You can fix that yourself with a file and won’t need to reblue, because the bushing is stainless. Another point: the trigger is black coated, but was already showing wear on its side, which looks tacky. Why not just leave it white? The trigger pull was a crisp 3.8 pounds, which was just about perfect, we thought.

BEST IN CLASS: RIFLES

Browning X-Bolt Medallion No. 035200227 7mm Rem. Mag., $1019

Reviewed: November 2009

Our Team Said: The Medallion was a beautiful rifle that inspired confidence with each shot.

Lockup was accomplished by three visible lugs forming an A-pattern, which had us wondering why this rifle was referred to as an X-Bolt. According to Browning the term X-bolt does not refer to a physical attribute such as the shape of the bolt or a pattern formed by its lugs. It was more a matter of marketing a rifle with a collection of extra features, including the new X-Lock Scope Mounting System. The X-Lock was a two-piece mounting system consisting of CNC-machined scope rings with an integral base that bolted directly to the drilled and tapped receiver of the X-Bolt rifle. Made for Browning by Talley, a widely respected name, each mount connected to the receivers with four Torx screws. The X-Lock mounts proved to be an excellent fit. It felt like we didn’t even have to tighten the bolts completely for a secure fit. The X-Lock mounts are available in a variety of heights and colors fit for both 1-inch and 30mm scopes. Cost of the X-Lock system was $60 from www.browning.com.

The X-Bolt Hunter Medallion cut a slender profile with tapered barrel and a glass-like finish upon its stock. We learned throughout our tests that the sleek finish was as durable as it was refined. The fore end offered wraparound checkering that was decorated on the bottom but only covered about halfway up the sides of the stock. Above the fore end the 26-inch barrel (with 1:9.5-inch twist) was separated by a gap about four dollar bills thick that ran all the way back to the receiver. Checkering also graced the sides of the pistol grip. The safety consisted of a sliding lever located atop the pistol grip. Currently there are no left-handed X-Bolt rifles, but the safety was easily accessible to both right- and left-handed shooters. Furthermore, the forward edge of the comb was relieved on each side and a matching contour was carved into the bottom of the butt stock. Quick-release sling swivels were in place front and rear. A cushy rubber buttstock measuring about 0.8 inch thick at its center was in place. This was Browning’s Inflex Technology butt pad. The Inflex recoil pad did a good job of moderating recoil, but we still preferred to wear a shoulder pad for added protection.

The action was accented by a gold-colored trigger. This was Browning’s adjustable Feather Trigger. We left it at its factory setting of about 4.75 pounds. Removing the bolt required pressing inward on the release lever located on the left side of the receiver. The bolt was mirror-finished chrome and showed virtually no wear points at the conclusion of our tests. The bolt could also be removed with the safety on by pressing the Bolt Unlock Button located on the bolt lever itself. The button was inconspicuous and did not interfere with the Medallion’s styling. It blended nicely with the flat contour that ran along the right side of the receiver.

The Medallion fed from a three-round removable box magazine of polymer construction.

At the range we learned that the X-Bolt Medallion was consistent when firing the Winchester 150-grain rounds, but much more accurate firing the heavier 160-grain bullets found atop the Federal ammunition. The Federal Vital Shok ammunition fired a 0.8-inch group on the way to a computed 1.1-inch average. The Federal Classic ammunition kept all groups within the 1.1-inch to 1.3-inch range. We think the free-floated barrel on the X-Bolt helped it maintain accuracy throughout the extreme heat.

Marlin 980S 22 LR, $298

Reviewed: December 2008

Our Team Said: All in all we liked this rifle, but if we owned it we’d do a trigger job and then go looking for the load that gave best accuracy. In our experience bolt-action 22 rifles have distinct preferences in that line. We could be quite happy with this Marlin as our only 22 rimfire rifle. It can do it all, and won’t rust in the process.

Bolt-action 22 rifles are among the most basic and useful of all firearms. They are fine trainers and excellent tools for a variety of uses limited only by

the imagination of the owner. We’ve seen ‘em used for just about anything, and about the only constant is that decent 22 bolt rifles generally have long and useful lives.

In one comparison, we looked at a new Marlin Model 980S. It had iron sights,a detachable magazine, and the receiver was grooved for "tip-off" mounts. Also, it had a black synthetic stock and stainless barrel and action.

We tested it with CCI Velocitor HP, Federal Classic round-nose, Eley Match EPS, and Remington Yellow Jacket HPs. We installed a 12X Leupold in tip-off rings, using the grooves in the Marlin’s receiver. Best groups were with Federal Classic, at 0.9 inch on average.

The street price of this little rifle was about $250, averaging three sources. The Marlin’s black synthetic stock had excellent checkering, and the stainless metal had a finish that would shame many costlier rifles. The trigger guard was synthetic, and seemed to be very sturdy. The only thing we didn’t like about this rifle’s looks was that the magazine hung down like an afterthought. We found it took two hands to remove the magazine, which we considered to be a safety feature.

The next thing that caught our eye was the bright-orange front-sight insert. This, we found, stood out well against nearly any background. We wished for a good aperture rear sight to use with it, but one is not offered. Instead the rear sight was the old "buckhorn" type with stepped wedge for elevation adjustments against the spring of the sight leaf itself. A button on the wedge made this an easy process. Windage was by drifting either the rear or front elements.

The stock had a molded-in buttplate that was integral with the stock. This gave a clean, uncluttered look that we liked. In fact, the overall look and feel of this rifle was that of a full-size big-game rifle. The trigger pull was stiff but clean on the break. The Marlin had clearly marked Safe and Fire positions to the rocking lever at the right rear corner of the action. Bolt removal was by pressing the trigger, a feature shared by all three rifles. Extraction was by two opposing sprung fingers.

The rifle’s magazine (shown at right) required some dexterity to load. It held seven rounds. The magazine fit solidly and securely into the rifle. The rifle fed all rounds well and ejected them forcefully.

There were no failures to feed, fire, or eject.There were exactly no problems with the gun.

Henry Lever Action Frontier Model

No. H001TV Octagon-Barrel 17 HMR, $550

Reviewed: September 2009

Our Team Said: We liked the octagonal barrel of the Henry, we appreciated the trigger, we enjoyed the lack of rattling present in the loaded gun (as opposed to some tube-fed attempts), and with the Henry’s smooth action and more than acceptable accuracy with 17-grain ammunition we ended up impressed. It did everything we could ask of a lever-action 17 HMR.

The Henry impressed us with its dashing good looks right out of the box. The medium-stained walnut stock was far better figured than average, the bluing was dark and rich, the lever action was buttery smooth, and its trigger was a very light and crisp 3.5- pound break. The heavy octagonal barrel made it look like a real gun, not a Tinkertoy, and the gold "Henry Repeating Arms" barrel lettering set off the gun nicely. Though traditional, the buckhorn iron sights are a long ways away from our favorites, and we half-expected the Henry to be a bit of a pain to scope up. We were wrong, though, finding that a set of Millett 1-inch Angle-Loc Windage Adjustable 3⁄8-Inch Dovetail High Rings ($20) mounted our Sightron SII 2.5-10x32mm scope quickly and with no hassle. The Millett rings gave us plenty of clearance to cock and decock the hammer manually and also required no removal of the factory iron sights. Though the 11-shot Henry tubular magazine was not exactly enough to "shoot all day," it was the best magazine capacity of the tested rifles.

We had breezy 8- to 12-mph range conditions, so we decided to do our shooting at a laser-verified 50 yards. We discovered that the Henry didn’t care for the 20-grain ammunition, shot the 17-grain Hornady rounds well, but was at its best with the Winchester 17-grain ammunition, shooting several consecutive groups inside one-third of an inch—groups we easily covered with a dime. We hadn’t thought that our 17 would be as ammunition-sensitive as 22 Long Rifles tend to be, but we were wrong about that as well. For whatever reason, the Henry told us it liked to be fed the Winchester ammunition the best.

We went over the Henry closely, trying to be as picky as possible. We really couldn’t find much to carp about. We did find one section of the forearm wood, the very end pointing toward the muzzle, that was not sanded smooth. It was hard to spot, and we considered it so very hard to discern and in such an unobtrusive area we initially didn’t bother to call Henry to avail ourselves of their lifetime warranty. We think that for most consumers, it would go completely unnoticed or would not be worth a phone call.

Henry Repeating Arms President Anthony Imperato refers to his company’s lifetime warranty policy and customer service policy as "Extreme Customer Service." Since the forearm did have a minor finish flaw, we contacted Henry, described the small cosmetic issue, and sent along a photograph to show precisely what we were referring to. Without hesitation a brand-new replacement forearm was overnighted to us that was finished perfectly. Henry made good on its warranty and customer-service pledge.

The only annoyance we could come up with in use of the Henry is what would be expected with any lever-action shot off our Caldwell Fire Control rest—we had to cant the gun to cycle the action.

BEST IN CLASS: Shotguns

Benelli SuperNova No. 20115 MAX-4 HD

Camo 31⁄2-inch 12 Gauge Pump, $599

Reviewed: September 2009

Our Team Said: The Benelli shot flawlessly, comfortably, swung smoothly and steadily. Our only initial peeve was the trigger, promptly attended to by Benelli at no charge. It is an outstanding 31⁄2-inch slide-action waterfowl gun.

Even though standard-length shells and the guns that shoot them can certainly get the job done, we cannot deny the appeal of shotguns that will shoot 31⁄2-inch shells, in part because they will shoot nearly any 12-gauge shotshell out there. One of these guns is the Benelli SuperNova No. 20115 MAX-4 HD Camo 12 Gauge Pump, $599.

The SuperNova weighed right at 8 pounds unloaded and with a choke tube installed. Benelli is not known for its trigger quality, and the tested SuperNova was no exception—the trigger broke at 7 pounds and not particularly crisp.

The SuperNova’s stock was shim-adjustable for cast and drop. Having the stock easily adjustable for drop and cast with the included shims is an excellent addition—and something included on no other slide-action shotgun made today that we are aware of. Where the original Nova pioneered an over-molded, one-piece receiver and buttstock, the SuperNova, with its shim-adjustable ComforTech stock, is far better. Elsewhere, the Benelli’s action was buttery smooth. Also, we found the Benelli to be nicely balanced, and smooth swinging.

The overall build quality of the Supernova is extremely well done. The camo finish was without flaws, attractive and well-applied. The smooth way the barrel extension locks into the receiver screams quality and expert machining. The molded-in ridges on the stock felt good in the hands, offering a comfortable and functional gripping surface.

The more time we spent with the SuperNova, the more we liked it. If you want to remove the trigger group, the appropriate punch is built in to the magazine cap. If you want to unload your SuperNova without cycling all the shells through the magazine, the magazine cut-off is built into the forearm. What is so good about both of these features is that when you don’t use them, you’ll never know they are even there.

Our only little gripe was the 7-pound trigger; just too heavy for our taste. We asked Benelli what the spec was for Nova triggers. The reply was "5-8 pounds." So, our trigger was well within factory specification—not remotely a warranty issue. Still, when we asked, Benelli customer service said they would see if they could lighten it a bit. We decided that we would take Benelli up on the offer. Benelli turned the gun around promptly; the trigger as received back from Benelli USA breaks at 6 pounds on the nose. Not as light as we would have liked, but still a noticeable improvement and an appropriate trigger for this class of gun. The Benelli customer service response added to what we already felt was a superlative gun for the money.

Browning Silver Hunter Twenty No. 011350605 3-inch 20 Gauge, $1079

Reviewed: April 2009

Our Team Said: We really liked the handling of the Silver: it was quick without being whippy, light to carry yet easy on the shoulder. The entire gun has a nice, neutral balance to it as opposed to the slightly nose-heavy feel of the Beretta. The Browning was balanced so well, in fact, we found it easy enough to shoulder, swing, and drop doves with—with one hand.

There has been some confusion as to what the "Silver" action is and is not. In 20-gauge format, the Browning "Silver" is identical to recent 20-gauge "Golds," retaining the speed-loading feature that sends the first shell inserted into the bottom of the receiver instantly into the chamber of the shotgun when the shotgun is empty, bolt-open condition. We used and appreciated this feature constantly, never having to take our eyes off the sky in the dove field, for example. It is equally handy on the skeet field or in the duck blind.

At the patterning board, we found that the factory Improved Cylinder and Modified tubes gave generally consistent patterns with our Winchester 1-ounce No. 71⁄2 shot and both Federal and Winchester 15⁄16 oz. No. 5 loads, but the patterns turned splotchy and less even with the factory Full choke Invector Plus tube.

The wood of the Browning Silver was typical Browning Grade I walnut, darkly stained, with the forearm and buttstock evenly matched in color and tone. We found it attractive but plain, essentially straight-grained with very little character. Browning has done a very good job with its metal finish work in recent years, and the Silver is no exception with its evenly applied, deep rich blue, which is more black than anything. As a whole, the Silver is muted but well finished. Initially, we had concerns about the Silver’s silver receiver, as prior chromed or polished-silver receivers have generated enough glare and shine in times past to be irritating. We were pleased to discover the receiver had a frosted, matte finish that didn’t pull our eyes away from the matters at hand.

The Silver Hunter with 26-inch barrel weighed in at 6.75 pounds. Right out of the box, the Browning’s trigger break was heavier than the entire gun at over 7.5 pounds—we shot it anyway, but the heavy trigger pulled us off clays, making smooth swinging and proper follow-through a chore. A quick phone call to Browning, and we were advised that Browning’s trigger-weight spec runs 5 to 6 pounds on field guns, and they’d be happy to take care of it for us. Off went the Silver to Browning in Arnold, Missouri, where Browning turned it around the same day. It arrived back with a 5.75-pound trigger break. As we had previously noted in our Browning BPS 20-gauge test, even though the trigger was still heavy on the Lyman calibrated electronic trigger gauge, the wide trigger face of the Silver made the trigger seem substantially lighter than it really is. We didn’t even notice it when shooting and hunting.

We fed the Browning a variety of 20-gauge shells, and it eagerly gobbled up and properly ejected every shell we fed it, with no failures to feed, fire, or eject. Our testers found the Browning to be a soft shooter, even though it came equipped with a fairly hard rubber butt pad. Nevertheless, we felt that the slight amount of weight and the pad did some good, but the gas action of the Browning just did a good job of lengthening the recoil pulse.

BEST IN CLASS: Revolvers

Taurus Judge No. 4510TKR-3BUL 3-Inch

45 LC/410-Bore, $620

Reviewed: August 2009

Our Team Said: As a trail or self-defense gun, the Judge has a lot going for it. As a last-ditch effort in the courtroom, we strongly suggest any judges planning to pack it make some practical pattern tests before they carry this gun loaded with 410 shotshells into any courtroom.

The Taurus Judge, a 45 LC- and 410-shotshell-chambered revolver, might fit into many individuals’ self-defense schemes with its powerful, simple operation. The Judge bears that name on its barrel, and it’s supposedly destined for those judges who pack iron in the courtroom. The Judge is catalogued in the Taurus line as the Model 4510, and there are several versions. Some are blued steel, others are stainless, and there are versions that accept longer 3-inch 410-bore shotshells. There are also Judges with 6.5-inch barrels. In this review, we tried out an Ultra-Lite 4510UL with a 3-inch barrel.

We liked quite a few aspects of this five-shot revolver. The Judge featured a pleasant, glossy, all-black finish with aluminum-alloy frame and Taurus’ wonderful, recoil-absorbing rubber grips, called "Ribbers." The front sight held a red-plastic insert that let it stand out fairly well against most backgrounds, as long as there was good overhead light. The rear sight was a square notch milled in the frame that, we thought, could have been cut a bit wider to make it easier and faster to align the front sight for more deliberate aim. The hammer and trigger were case hardened, and gave a reasonable DA pull and a workable, if slightly creepy, SA pull of around 5 pounds.

Fit and finish and lockup were excellent. We liked the feel and balance of this revolver, and thought it had adequate weight, especially with those excellent grips, for the power it had. In case you’re wondering, hot 45 LC loads give more recoil than 410 shotshells. The Judge has an imposing appearance with that 2.6-inch-long cylinder.

We tested with only two types of 45 Long Colt, Blazer 200-grain JHP and Black Hills 250-grain flat-nose cast lead bullets. And we tested with the only 2.5-inch 410 available in this location, Winchester Super X, which was loaded with half an ounce of #4 shot. Serious patterning on a 4-foot-square paper gave a better indication of the usefulness and range of the Judge with shot. At 3 feet the pattern diameter was 1 foot. At 6 feet it was 18 inches, and at 12 feet from the muzzle, the pattern diameter averaged 34 inches. In all cases they were fairly well centered at the point of aim. We’d guess the maximum range for shot loads from the Judge would be 10 feet.

The Judge did very well with 45 LC loads. Our best group was 1.6 inches for five shots at 15 yards, with the 200-grain JHP Blazer ammo. Black Hills’ cowboy loads averaged less than 3 inches at that range. Now, that’s 3 inches at 45 feet.

Personally, we prefer the idea of 45 LC loads for self-defense shooting. The Judge might just fill a perfect niche for you as a powerful, compact revolver.

OTHER NOTABLE PRODUCTS IN 2009

Guncrafter Industries 50 GI Conversion, $595

Reviewed: July 2009

Our Team Said: The cost was reasonable, we felt, in that you’re getting something you can’t get any other way. If you have a Glock 21 or 20 and have a hankering for more usable power without going to a magnum blaster, this conversion might be just right for you.

Rather than a bang-up, hot and heavy blaster, the 50 GI is a throwback to older times when big bullets traveled at low velocities and got the job done at least as well as any small-caliber, high-velocity round. This conversion set consisted of a slide, barrel, captive slide spring, and magazine in a hard plastic case.

Installing this well-made unit was extremely easy. We simply took off the Glock 45 slide and barrel and

The Guncrafter slide is slightly wider than the Glock’s, 1.165 inch instead of 1.125 inch. This conversion set consisted of a slide, barrel, captive slide spring, and magazine in a hard plastic case. The sights appeared to be Glock parts. The GI parts were stainless, with a pleasing matte finish to the slide. The slide and barrel were machined from stainless forgings.

slipped on the Guncrafter unit, loaded the 9-round extension magazine and went to work. We could actually get ten rounds into the mag, but it’s not recommended. The big 50 GI rounds came in two flavors, 275-grain JHP and 300-grain flat point. The 275-grain load at a measured 905 fps (875 claimed), gave 500 foot-pounds of muzzle energy and a KO value of 17.8. The 300-grain load, our favorite, chrono’ed at 735 fps instead of the claimed 700, which gave 360 foot-pounds, and a Taylor KO value of 15.8.

The gun felt exactly the same in our hands as did the 45, same balance and essentially the same weight. With the magazine loaded, the weight and balance were again pretty close to the 45 version. On the range, we noticed a bit more pounding to the hand with the 275-grain JHP load, but it was by no means uncomfortable or uncontrollable. There were no failures of any kind, though we noted a slight sluggishness for the slide to go fully forward for the first few rounds. This went away with just a touch of wearing in.

Rapid-fire results were about equal between the 45 and 50 GI, with the nod actually going to the 50 GI.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Kramer Leather #3 Inside

The Waistband Horsehide, $132

Reviewed: August 2009

Our Team Said: At the end of our testing, our quibbles with the Kramer IWB #3 were minor, and this holster proved to be the best overall design, in our opinion.

The Tacoma-based Kramer Leather (www.KramerLeather.com) turns out a variety of

holsters and counts Navy Seals and other Special Ops groups among its customers. Most of the company’s holsters are custom molded for specific gun models, so deliveries can easily run eight weeks or more. Although Kramer works with a variety of materials, they specialize in the use of horsehide, which tends to hold its shape and is more moisture resistant than cowhide.

Our test holster was the #3 Inside The Waistband Horsehide Model. Originally designed in collaboration with Jim Grover, the #3 resembles a scabbard holster with the addition of a flange or paddle-like extension along the rear portion of the holster. This gives the Kramer model more surface area to hold it in place when drawing or holstering a weapon. Two closely-spaced belt loops hold the holster in place, and are mounted to the holster with screws or optional snaps.

During our wear tests, the IWB #3 had a different feel than the other hip-mounted holsters in our test. The holster had a smaller profile, and rested with an extreme forward tilt, and pulled the gun closer to the body. This meant the gun was not as prone to print through one’s clothes, and we were also able to wear our normal waist size pants as well. It also helped clear the gun from pinch points while sitting and driving. The IWB #3 did not allow us to tuck in our shirt, however.

Weapon retention was good, as the stiff, molded design held the weapon in place throughout our daily activities. Drawing the weapon was accomplished in a short, smooth stroke. The mouth of the holster was reinforced with an additional leather band, which allowed us re-holster with one hand.

We found the smaller size of the #3 Inside The Waistband Holster Horsehide to be comfortable throughout a range of activities. Horsehide tends to resist moisture, which benefits those who sweat.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Best In Class Firearms 2009

Smith & Wesson M&P 9 #209001 9mm

Wilson Combat CQB 45 ACP

Browning X-Bolt Medallion No. 035200227 7mm Rem. Mag

MARLIN 980S 22 LR

HENRY LEVER ACTION OCTAGONAL No. H001TV 17 HMR

Benelli SuperNova No. 20115 MAX-4 HD Camo 31⁄2-inch 12 Gauge Pump

Browning Silver Hunter Twenty No. 011350605 3-inch 20 Gauge

TAURUS JUDGE NO. 4510TKR-3BUL 3-INCH 45 LC/410-BORE

2009 Don’t Buy Guns