February 2009

Three Small 9mm Pistols Redux: Sig Sauer, S&W, and Ruger

We retest a trio of self-defense 9mm semiautomatics to see if recent modifications, factory recalls, and the passage of time have improved the handguns, or simply made them older.

This month we take a look at three combat pistols that have graced our pages previously, to see if they improved from our previous evaluations. Since last reviewed in December 2007, the Ruger SR9 ($525) was subject to a massive safety recall. Despite its double-action design, the gun could go off when dropped, if the manual safety was not engaged. As a result, Ruger redesigned the entire trigger group. The most visible change was a twin-blade trigger, rather than its original single-blade design. The recall process was far from smooth, and was chronicled on our sister website, www.gunreports.com. We recently looked at the Sig Sauer P250 in the two-tone option back in April 2008. This time we had the Black Nitron No. 2509005 version ($699). Both models recently received a trigger-bar upgrade, said to increase its lifespan from 20,000 to more than 50,000 rounds. The last gun in our trio was the Smith & Wesson M&P Compact 9mm No. 209304, $656. A gun in this series posted a poor grade back in April 2007 when it failed to feed the last round from the magazine, locking open in the process. Other M&Ps had fared well in other tests, so we wanted to look at the Compact once more in hopes Smith & Wesson had fixed what ailed the gun.

Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Ruger

Last reviewed in December 2007, the $525 Ruger SR9, right, is retested here with a redesigned trigger group. The most visible change is a twin-blade trigger rather than its original single-blade design. Left, we evaluated the two-tone Sig Sauer P250 in April 2008. This time we had the Black Nitron version, $699, which recently received a trigger-bar upgrade. The Smith & Wesson M&P Compact 9mm, $656, posted a poor grade back in April 2007 when it failed to feed the last round from the magazine, locking open in the process. This time, it just didnít shoot very accurately. Oh well, thereís always next time.

In the process of the doing the reviews, we found another test could be performed: both Sig Sauer and Smith & Wesson had initial problems requiring factory attention. As a result we could now rate their responsiveness to resolve each gunís problems.

How We Tested

Our testing led us to the friendly confines of Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine, Texas. BPSís indoor pistol range was ideal shelter to perform all testing. Because all of the guns were designed for self defense, all of our shooting was done standing, without a rest. For our accuracy testing, we shot Hornady 9mm 147-grain jacketed hollowpoints; Sellier & Bellot 9mm full-metal-jacket 124-grain rounds; and Remington UMC 9mm Metal Case 115-grain ammo. To collect accuracy data, we fired five-shot groups from a standing rest at 7 yards. To capture velocity data, we used a Chrony Beta chronograph with the first skyscreen set 10 feet from the muzzle.

Accuracy ratings were done at 7 yards using a slow, controlled trigger press. Then we aggressively attacked the targets with multi-round firing at 7, 15, and 25 yards. As we moved through each of our disciplines, our guns began exhibit different personalities and problems. Hereís what we learned:

Ruger SR9 9mm, $525

The Ruger SR9 has been the subject of considerable consternation in the shooting community. Introduced with significant fanfare, along with inventory on distributors shelves, the SR9 represented a significant evolution in the Ruger product line. Its subsequent safety recall left new owners frustrated with its missed deliveries and infrequent updates. Our own experience with this process is chronicled on www.gunreports.com. Once we received our re-fitted model, we set about determining if the SR9 would improve on its original "B-" rating.

The SR9 is a double-action only, striker-fired pistol, but features a slim design that is reminiscent of a 1911 design. The grip is long and thin, making it capable of handling a 17-round magazine. The magazine featured viewing holes to determine round counts and fit flush to the bottom of the grip. A ten-round version is also available to those unfortunate souls living in more restrictive locales. Cocking serrations are located on the rear of the polished slide, with a matte finish gracing the top of the slide to reduce glare. There are small ambidextrous thumb safeties on each side of the frame, as well as an ambidextrous button-style magazine release. Our two left-handed testers appreciated their inclusion in the SR9ís design.

The SR9 uses a 4.1-inch barrel, again mimicking a 1911. It was clear that Ruger wanted to attract 1911 aficionados, along with double-action fans. The barrel length contributed to a good sight picture and enhanced accuracy in our tests.

Like other pistols in its genre, the SR9ís frame is glass-filled nylon. The SR9 makes allowances for different grip sizes through the use of a reversible rubber backstrap. One side of the backstrap had a flat profile, again mimicking a 1911. The rubber insert could be removed by pulling a mounting pin, reversed, and reinserted to feature an arched profile. Our testers were evenly split on which grip size was comfortable, but all agreed that they liked the versatility of its clever design. Above the beavertail effect of the grip was a small ambidextrous safety lever. When in the up/safe position, a white dot was visible on each side of the gun. Likewise, when the safety was in its down/off position, the shooter could see a red oval on each side of the slide. Forward of the trigger guard was a single-slot rail, capable of handling an Insight M6X laser/light, and a Surefire X300 light we happened to have in inventory.

A visible loaded-chamber indicator protruded high above the slide when a round was chambered. This feature was the best among our trio as both a visual and tactile confirmation of a chambered round.

The rear of the slide featured a striker indicator, which was visible when the gun was cocked. The indicator would move to the rear as the trigger was pressed, and subsequently disappear into a hole as the trigger broke and the gun fired.

The SR9 offered both windage and elevation adjustment on its rear sight. This was accomplished by turning a small screw that moved the sight up and down. A set screw could be loosened on the top of the sight, and the entire unit could be manually moved left or right. The two small dots on the rear sight were mated with a similar white dot on the tall front sight.

Unlike our previous review, this test team liked the factory-furnished magazine loading tool, particularly since Ruger had sent an additional (third) magazine to fill. (All SR9 owners were sent an extra magazine and an embroidered cap when their re-worked guns were returned. We appreciated the sentiment.)

We next moved to the focus of our testing, the refitted trigger. Ruger made the decision to abandon its original single-blade trigger in favor of a twin-blade design similar to those found in many double-action pistols, including the Smith & Wesson reviewed later in this text. Ruger claims the new design lessens the amount of overtravel and shortens the reset point for the fire-control group.

However, they failed to address what we feel is a shortcoming in SR9ís design. Ruger chose to adopt a magazine disconnect, which will not allow the gun to fire a chambered round if a magazine is not locked in place. It is purported to be a safety feature, protecting the shooter from an accidental discharge. In some circles it is also viewed as a defensive device, allowing the user to potentially "dump" the magazine to prevent the gun to be used against them if involved in a struggle (e.g., a police officer attempting to subdue a subject). Our testers wanted to make use of every round available in a gunfight, and proper gun safety takes care of the loaded chamber issue. More important, this "feature" can potentially damage the gun. The SR9ís ownerís manual states that the gun should not be dry-fired if a magazine is not in place. This is because the striker of the SR9 will drag across the striker block, damaging both in the process. Ruger engineering assured us it would take over one hundred cycles to render the gun seriously damaged.

The redesign did not address this issue, and it gives us pause as to why they did not. We would be concerned about buying a used SR9 without breaking it down to make sure the previous owner actually read the book.

We began checking the trigger by using a Snap Cap to protect the trigger assembly and cycled the action to test the trigger pull. Our impression in this test was that trigger pull seemed heavy. An average measurement of 9.6 on our trigger gauge confirmed our opinion. Our shooters felt two distinct areas of creep as they pressed the triggeróbest described as "crunchy" spots by our testers. We were disappointed in this result, but we pressed forward with test firing.

Our testing began from the 7-yard mark, using a controlled press from a standing position. We fired multiple three-shot groups using all three of our test munitions to glean the SR9ís accuracy and gauge how the new trigger performed. The new twin-blade trigger did indeed have less over-travel than its previous iteration. The gun also delivered good accuracy with an average grouping of 0.9 inches with the 147-grain Hornady loads. We found that we could manipulate the trigger through the two rough spots and still break the shot accurately through controlled press. The SR9 also delivered the best velocity compared to our other competitors, averaging 1014 fps through our chronograph.

We then moved to action testing. We got the gun in a ready position, manipulated the manual safety to the fire position, and fired five-shot groups at 7, 15, and 25 yards. We discovered several things about the SR9 through these tests. First, the smallish safety levers were difficult to manipulate without changing oneís grip in the process. Their low-profile design precluded us from riding the safety with our thumb. This would have permitted us to transition into firing more quickly, our testers said.

This is also where the heavy trigger pull of the SR9 seemed to work against us. Our groups opened up to a 3.1-inch average at 15 yards. This was still very acceptable in our view. Also on a positive note, the trigger creep we felt during our controlled press was not nearly as noticeable in our speed drills.

Reliability was excellent, with the SR9 digesting hundreds of rounds of whatever we fed it without a single malfunction.

Sig Sauer P250 No. 2509005

Black Nitron 9mm, $699

After first looking at the Two-Tone P250, we found ourselves handling the Black Nitron version this time around. As of this writing only the compact frame, mid-size grip versions are available, although the folks at Sig Sauer say the .40 S&W version is in the works. There has been a recent update to feature a heavier duty trigger bar. This is said to extend the lifespan of the gun from 20,000 to more than 50,000 rounds. We decided that this second model warranted us to put the gun through another round of testing. Our results were markedly different this time around.

The P250 is a double-action-only model whose configuration is markedly different than any other gun weíve tried because of its modular construction. Aimed for sale to law enforcement, the gun consists of three components: a polymer grip module, a subassembly that includes the trigger, hammer, locking block, and frame rails, and, last, the slide, which houses the barrel and recoil assembly. Field-stripping was straightforward; the slide is locked back and the takedown lever is rotated backward. The gun comes apart.

This modular concept allows police departments to tailor grip sizes to fit a variety of officersí hands, while keeping the basic gun specifications throughout the organization. The P250 can also be changed to different calibers by simply swapping barrel assemblies. The trigger subassembly is the only part that is serialized and registered as a weapon, allowing tremendous versatility in swapping components when all the modules are eventually released. We look forward for some mix-and-match testing as other frames and calibers are released, but for now we will have to focus on the 9mm mid-size, compact frame model.

Our P250 featured a textured pattern on the grip sides, along with ridges on its front and rear straps. Indents were present on each side, which served as index points for the thumb and forefinger. These were set up to be ambidextrous, along with slide-release levers on each side of the gun. The magazine-release button can also be removed and swapped to the other side of the P250 for all your southpaw needs. The front of the gun featured an accessory rail with three crosshatches, which permitted the use of a full-size pistol light. The Sig also came with a blackened stainless-steel slide and night sights.

This Sig Sauer model is all business with its blackened metal and plastic frame. This look was further downgraded when some of the black finish was rubbed from the barrel during our tests. Our main requirements, however, are that a gun shoot when we compel it to do so, and that it hit what we aim at. The P250 does a very good job at doing both these chores. It claimed the best average overall accuracy with 0.9 inches at 7 yards with Hornady ammo. Our action drills also found the Sig Sauer more accurate overall, claiming first place with an average grouping of 2.9 inches at 15 yards.

This Sig Sauerís trigger is very different than other double-action pistols. The exposed hammer begins to move rearward as soon as the trigger is pulled, incorporating a rather large stroke before it is released. This permits a significant amount of control over firing, and allows the operator to release the trigger and safely lower the hammer. Our trigger pull measurements registered a consistent 6.3 pounds of pressure. The P250 cannot be reset to fire until the trigger returns fully to its original position. Our testers found this to be among the smoothest double-action they had ever tried, even impressing a hard-bitten 1911 user.

After our initial inspection, we moved to target range for our shooting tests. Right away a problem emerged. The P250 would not lock back after our first series of three shots rang up in our controlled press exercise. This continued at a rate of over 90% throughout the rest of our tests. This malfunction did not represent a safety issue in its truest sense; we always treat a gun like itís loaded. However a fighting gun that does not indicate it is out of bullets could be fatal.

Our initial reaction was to reach for a second magazine to verify if an out of tolerance fit was the problem. There we encountered another issue: no second magazine was there! Sig Sauer made the marketing decision to only enclose a single magazine with its $699 gun. We continued on with our testing, since the malfunction did not affect our accuracy tests, and good gun safety dealt with the unloaded verification problem.

We found the P250ís smooth trigger gave us a refined control in our accuracy tests, ringing up our best score. Our testers noted that was easy to handle the Sigís recoil. Some muzzle flip was noted, but none considered it excessive.

Our testers had more good things to say about the P250 as they moved through our action tests. After spending some time getting used to the trigger, they found it easy to stay on target through multi-shot drills. The gun did require some practice, as the triggerís long stroke made for a different feel than most of our testers were accustomed to using. A negative comment was made about the triggerís reset point, which was not as clearly defined compared to other double-action guns, including other Sig Sauerís. All testers praised the P250ís smoothness in shooting, however. The P250 also handled hundreds of rounds without a failure to feed, but persisted in failure to lock back.

Our next measurement came in the form of factory support. Sig Sauer was notified of our problem, and the P250 was sent back to the factory for repair. Its replacement arrived in approximately 1.5 weeks. We then called the factory, unveiled our secret identity, and inquired about the nature of our problem. Apparently some recent models had a problem with an out-of-tolerance slide stop, and as always seems to be the case, we got the only malfunctioning gun into our nit-picking hands. Another trip to the range confirmed the factoryís diagnosis, as we experienced no other malfunctions. We still have a problem with Sig Sauerís frugality in furnishing a single magazine with a $699 gun, however. We also noted the steep $43 price tag for additional magazines on the Sig Sauer website.

Smith & Wesson M&P Compact 9mm

No. 209304, $656

Our original experience with this member of Smith & Wessonís M&P (Military and Police) series of pistols was far from favorable. Numerous malfunctions plagued the gun, including the unfortunate tendency to lock back when there was a round left in the magazine. This was the opposite from what we experienced with the Sig Sauer P250, but still likely to put you in a world of hurt in a gunfight. Other models in this series have fared well in other tests, so we wanted to give the gun another chance.

The M&P semi-automatics are full-time double-action striker-fired pistols with stainless-steel slides. The trigger is hinged as part of a safety system. There is also a cutaway at the top of the barrel to visually check for a chambered round.

The M&P is designed to be fitted to an individual user. They arrive with three removable backstraps, designed to accommodate a range of hand sizes. The gun is also lefty-friendly, with an ambidextrous slide release and a reversible magazine catch. The front slide of the M&P is contoured for easy holstering, and a small Picatinny-style rail is present for a compact pistol light.

The bottom of the M&Pís backstrap is actually a tool, which is used to remove the top end of the gun. It is removed from the receiver by twisting it 90 degrees to the left or right. The pointed end of the tool is used to reach inside and pull the sear deactivation lever away from the mainspring side of the magazine well. The slide latch located on the left side of the frame can then be rotated and the top end removed.

The M&P 9C also arrives with two magazines. One has a flat basepad designed for more concealment, holding ten rounds, and the 12-round model incorporates a finger groove. All of this gear comes stowed within a padded, lockable case.

We next measured our M&Pís trigger a full pound heavier than its advertised 6.5 pounds, but didnít find this weight objectionable in our shooting tests. Unfortunately, it was after we took the gun to the range that our objections did begin.

Our concerns began when we saw our groups trending high and right during our 7-yard controlled press session. At 15 yards, we saw the groups near the edge of the target, 6 inches high, and 3 inches right. They also scattered over a spread of some 4 inches. This warranted a return to the Smith & Wessonís factory to see if they could correct the problem. Two weeks later our gun arrived back to us, with a note that indicated the gun had received a new front sight, and that it now "met factory specifications."

Another trip to the range confirmed that the "high and right" condition had been reduced, but the gun was still grouping over 4 inches at 15 yards, no matter what ammo we tried. We feel the factory specifications need to be tightened, and as a result, only a slight improvement in its grade could be given.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Ruger SR9 9mm

Sig Sauer P250 No. 2509005 Black Nitron 9mm

Smith & Wesson M&P Compact 9mm No. 209304

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD