Double-Column 45 ACPs: CZ, H&K, and FN Shoot It Out
Consistency marked our test of the $779 CZ 97B, the $780 FNH USA USG, and the $1099 HK 45C pistols. Pluses: The CZ is big and strong, the USG held 15+1 rounds, the H&K has a slim grip.
Not all 45 ACP pistols are built to feed from a single-column magazine or be ignited by a full-time single-action trigger. In this test we will evaluate a trio of pistols that feed from double-column magazines and trigger systems that can alternate between offering a double-action first shot and single-action-only operation. Our three pistols are the $779 CZ USA 97B, Heckler & Koch’s $1099 45C, and FNH USA’s new $780 FNP USG pistol. The CZ 97B is an older design finding its beginning with the CZ75 pistol. But its full-length dustcover and 10+1 capacity of big 45 caliber ammunition gives it modern appeal. The HK 45C is a refinement of the USP design. Like the FNP45 USG, the HK 45C includes features that reflect input from military and law enforcement studies.
In every test accuracy and reliability are a must. But in the case of guns that feature both double- and single-action operation the task of charting accuracy is more complex. Our accuracy data reflects firing from support single-action only, but we also wanted to know how quickly and accurately these guns can be fired from the hammer-down position. Or were they limited to cocked-and-locked carry? In addition we asked how safe and secure was the decocking process, and how safe and secure was the manual safety? Would hammer-down first-shot double action prove to be a realistic carry option? Or would such condition be relegated to "off duty" administrative handling, such as when placing the gun in a night stand or desk drawer?
With rain in the forecast we chose to test indoors at the famous Top Gun Handgun Training Center in Houston (topgunrange.com). With a corporate event scheduled for late afternoon we were able to set up our shooting bench for the balance of the day.
Our test ammunition consisted of 230-grain Hornady TAP hollowpoints, Black Hills remanufactured 185-grain jacketed hollowpoints and handloaded rounds featuring Sierra’s 230-grain FMJ bullet number 8815. We drove the Sierra bullet with a moderate load of Winchester 231 powder and Winchester primers. Accuracy data was collected firing single action only from a distance of 15 yards. Support was supplied by a Caldwell Rock Jr. pistol rest, and we aimed at Caldwell’s 3-inch Orange Peel circles (battenfeldtechnologies.com).
Our next test was to determine how quickly and easily each gun could be fired beginning with the first shot double action. Standing 7 yards from a Hoffners ABC16 Action Target (hoffners.com), we began with hammer down. Upon an audible start signal we engaged the center mass A-zone with a first shot double action followed by a second shot to this same point of aim fired single action. Our third shot of continuous fire was fired single action at the cranial pocket, or B-zone. This test was repeated for a total of 10 separate strings of fire. We recorded elapsed time, accuracy and took careful note of each gun’s handling and response. We experienced no malfunctions with any of the pistols during our tests, so when it came to grading these pistols on the Report Card, our job was that much more difficult. Here is what we learned.
CZ USA 97B No. 01401 45 ACP, $779
In our March 2009 issue we tested CZ’s SP01 Phantom that featured a polymer frame inspired by CZ’s World Championship 9mm pistol. That pistol, the CZ75SP-01, is widely regarded as being based on the 45-caliber CZ 97B. Shooters like the CZ 97B platform for its all-steel construction and full-length dust cover that helps control recoil. The long dustcover also extends frame to slide contact. The CZ design is opposite to most pistols with the frame rails wrapping up and over the slide. Weighing in at 36.2 ounces, the CZ97B was the heaviest of our pistols. The overall impression we garnered from this pistol was that of strength.
Accuracy from its 4.8-inch barrel was enhanced by the addition of a screw-in bushing at the tip of the slide. But this didn’t complicate field-stripping. Removing the top end began with shifting the slide rearward about 0.30 inch to line up the faint breakdown marks in the frame and slide. Then the slide stop pin was pushed out from right to left. The tight-fitting slide-stop pin was an aide to lockup, but it only took one deft blow from the bottom of a CZ magazine to unseat it. The bushing unscrewed easily (a wrench is supplied), and once the collar for the recoil spring was removed, the barrel lifted out.
The 10-round magazines did not drop freely. Pressing the magazine release would only loosen them from the frame. A leaf spring running along the inner rear wall of the magazine well held the magazine in check. The purpose of this design was to retain the magazine so it can be manually removed and stored for reloading before it can fall to the ground and get lost or filled with debris. This would be ideal for IDPA competition that often requires this technique in competition but can either be of benefit or liability depending on circumstance. We have seen CZ pistols that were modified to drop the magazines. This required removal of the leaf spring and sealing off the back of the magazine well with a straight piece of steel.
The firing system on the 97B did not offer a decocker, but it did include a left-side-only thumb safety. We found operating the safety awkward. We think it would have helped if the contact area offered more of a platform. We would also have liked a relief in the left side grip to channel our thumb to the magazine release. But shooters with larger hands will probably not be bothered by any of this. But we know several CZ shooters who have added an ambidextrous set of levers and raise the lever to Safe from the right side using the outside of their outstretched trigger finger.
For safe carry the hammer can be locked back by raising the safety lever, or the hammer can be lowered to the safety notch for first shot double action. The process of such manual decocking is covered in the owner’s manual. Page 20 of the CZ owners manual under the heading "Engaging the Safety Mode" reads, "With thumb and index finger of the other hand hold the hammer firmly, (Figure 6), pull the trigger and release the hammer slowly and gradually until rests on the firing pin stop." Holding the hammer and pressing the trigger may not be for everyone. If the hammer is slippery or the hold careless, the result can be an accidental discharge. This is why the function of decocking has on most dual action pistols been turned over to the pressing of a lever that does the job for you.
Here are some insights on safely decocking the hammer of the CZ 97B. When grasping the hammer don’t merely pinch it on both sides. You can place the free-hand index finger across the face of the hammer and still grasp it with the thumb before pressing the trigger. When pressing the trigger think of it as a button or switch you press once and release. Don’t ride the trigger. Simply press it until it clicks and cease contact with the trigger. Now you can concentrate fully on lowering the hammer. Remember that the hammer will only drive the firing pin if the finger is on the trigger.
We practiced decocking our CZ pistol without ammunition in it dozens of times before attempting our transition drill. As a self-defense gun, the reality of it is that most defense guns will be charged to the loaded safe position and left that way for quite some time. So manual decocking may not be something you do very often. The other option of course is to leave the hammer back and safety on. When holstered, safety can be enhanced by a thumbreak strap or a holster that offers additional material that supports the safety lever in its up position. If that makes you squeamish, then by all means purchase the new $974 CZ97BD model with mechanical decocker and as a bonus, tritium night sights.
But in our trigger transition test the CZ offered the best performance when compared to our two other guns, both of which featured mechanical decockers. Firing a first shot double action with hammer lowered to safe position presented very little difference in feel to the single-action trigger. The fastest drill we recorded with the CZ landing all hits in the required zones was completed in 1.59 seconds. Neither of our other guns was able to perform this drill with comparable accuracy in less than 2.0 seconds. Firing the first shot 0.76 seconds after the start signal meant our elapsed time between first and last shot was 0.83 seconds. Firing this drill with the hammer back and safety on was actually slower unless the shooter’s hand was large enough to obtain a good firing grip and easy command of the safety.
Firing groups from the bench single-action only, our CZ97B was a very close second to the HK 45C. Each of our pistols was remarkably consistent with each choice of test ammunition. The CZ posted average size groups of 1.9 inches, 1.7 inches and 1.7 inches for our Black Hills, Hornady and handloaded ammunition respectively. The Black Hills 185-grain JHP rounds were the most powerful overall when fired from the CZ pistol. The CZ97B is a bit old fashioned and required learned techniques for best operation. But its simplicity was matched by outstanding performance.
FNH USA FNP45 USG No. 47938 45 ACP, $780
The FNP45 USG was the highest-capacity gun in the test. Two 14-round magazines with flat basepads arrived with our USG plus an additional magazine with rounded basepad set to hold 15 rounds. Each magazine body was buffed for fast handling and added resistance to collecting grime. Despite its 4.5-inch barrel and full-size stature, the USG made 15+1 rounds of 45 disappear. Unloaded weight was 29 ounces, and we really liked the military green frame that FNH refers to as Flat Dark Earth. The slide was black as were complements of the trigger, the ambidextrous magazine release buttons, and the ambidextrous safeties, which doubled as decocking levers. So were the slide latch on the left side and the slide release latches available from either side.
The frame offered a four-slot accessory rail on the dust cover, and beveled edges were molded into the magazine well. We found molded checkering on each side of the grip to be effective, as were the horizontal lines in the front strap. The backstrap was interchangeable with one alternate panel. Both panels offered horizontal lines. One panel was flat in profile, while the other provided a mild palm swell. Our staff was unanimous in choosing the flatter profile for our tests.
The gun was beefy and wide, but in the hand the USG felt smaller than its square profile and 1.56-inch maximum width. The slide was topped with snagfree sights that carried three white dots. The dots were boldly countersunk to keep them clean, but the excess depth made them appear as though they were night sights, but that was not the case. The rear unit had no sharp edges and a narrow taper. Its rear face was lined to reduce glare.
Removing the top end required the least work of our pistols. Lock back the slide, rotate the slide latch and slide the top end from the frame. Changing out the backstrap was even less demanding. A 1/16-inch punch was supplied to press into a small hole in the backstrap and release the locking tab. The panel slid off without effort.
Operating the FNH USA USG pistol brought us quickly to several conclusions. First, whenever the slide was locked back, it was more efficient to pull the slide to the rear and let it forward than it was to try to press down on the tiny release levers. Second, there was no fear whatsoever of accidentally decocking this pistol. The thumb of the strong hand, be it the left or right hand, had immediate access to the safety/decocker lever. The USG sat deeply into the grip, so the edge of the hand outside of the first knuckle fit neatly beneath the safety-decocker lever on the opposite side of the pistol. There was plenty of room to move the lever to the down off-safe position, but there was no danger that it would be moved further downward and decock the pistol accidentally.
Next, we found that the slide could be worked with the thumb safeties activated and held in the upward position. This meant that mechanically, the safeties were deactivating the trigger but not locking the action of the slide as it did in the CZ pistol. The HK 45C also allowed the slide to move freely with the safety on, but the trigger was locked. The FN pistol not only left the slide free to move but also the trigger was able to swing freely all the way back to the frame. Advantages to this design may be the ability to load the chamber or perform a press check more safely.
Firing the pistol in transition from double to single action was smooth but sluggish, in our view. The circumference of the grip limited the ability of most of our staff from getting a really strong purchase of the trigger when it was resting in its double-action mode. This was reflected in several 3-second elapsed times during our transition drill. Larger hands would have little trouble, in our view, but we found the safety to be so accessible and efficient we think this gun will most likely be carried cocked and locked, hammer back ready for single-action only fire.
From the bench our USG delivered 2.2-inch-wide groups with whatever ammunition we tried. This was not as tight as the other pistols but the gun seemed to thrive best on heavy ammunition. It soaked up recoil, and we enjoyed shooting the Hornady 230-grain TAP +P high-pressure loads in the FN more than we did from our other pistols.
The FNH FNP45 USG proved to be a formidable high-capacity weapon. It did a great job of hiding a big pile of ammunition, delivered it comfortably and offered a true mechanical safety. Simplified field-stripping and low maintenance add currency to this recommendation.
Heckler & Koch 45C 45 ACP, $1099
The HK 45C is the compact version of the HK 45, but in a side-by-side comparison it wasn’t much smaller than the FNH FNP45 USG. The HK 45C carried two less rounds than the 10-round HK 45, and its barrel is about one half inch shorter. This is a polymer-framed gun with similarities in operation closer to the FN pistol than the CZ97B. Each had an accessory rail, interchangeable backstrap and a combination safety/decocker lever. The HK offered a slimmer profile at the grip including a left-side-only safety. It was also slightly more narrow across the slide. The eight-round magazine was fit with a base pad that completed the grip with a pinky rest. In the hand the HK 45C felt small and graceful despite housing a wide-body staggered-column magazine. The HK 45C is going to fit many more hands than either the CZ or FN pistols as a result.
Sights on all three pistols were a non-luminous three-dot design. Magazine release was ambidextrous but was operated by a paddle rather than a button. The paddles were located at the lower rear corner of the trigger guard. The shooter had the option to press down on the release with thumb, middle finger, or index finger, whichever was easiest for the individual.
The slide release was available from both sides of the frame. The left-side release lever was also the slide-stop pin. To remove the top end, the shooter pushed the slide rearward to align the squared edge of the slide stop with a matching relief in the slide. The slide-stop lever on the right side of the frame showed the tip of the stop pin. Pushing it out with only the force of a fingertip enabled us to release the pin from the left side and remove the top end. Underneath we saw that the rear portion of the guide rod played a part in lockup by supplying a locking lug on its upper surface and completing the arc that held the stop pin with its lower surface. A nylon bushing rode up and down the guide rod/recoil spring assembly to act as a shock bushing.
Here is what we learned by firing the HK 45C from double action and single action. Naturally, racking the slide and chambering a round left the hammer fully to the rear ready to fire single action. Decocking brought the hammer all the way forward. This was unlike our CZ and FN pistols where the hammer, once decocked, stood away from the firing pin. The CZ’s hammer, for example, left more than 0.30 inch of space between the face of the hammer and the firing pin. The firing-pin block inside the HK pistol made its flush fit a moot point. But it did affect the nature of the double-action trigger pull. The HK’s DA pull was longer. We found that the shooter’s natural reaction was to take up the trigger and stop momentarily, "staging" the trigger and aligning the sights before ignition. The other option was to simply apply the safety and ply all shots single-action only. To aid this we would prefer slightly more platform on the profile of the safety lever. We think any concern over decocking unintentionally was unfounded because the decocking action required a downward movement that would impinge on the grip of the support hand of a right-handed shooter. (Fired right-hand only, the thumb would more likely be placed below the lever). To test the likelihood of unintentional decocking, we rode the safety lever as much as we could while shooting. This problem did not occur.
We would describe the trigger pull of the HK 45C in both double and single action to be smooth and predictable. The trigger action was not crisp but not mushy, either. We found it very easy to deliver tight groups seated or standing.
Despite firing from the shortest barrel the HK 45C produced more muzzle energy than either FN or CZ pistol when firing the Hornady TAP +P ammunition. In fact, velocity and muzzle energy produced by our test ammunition in all three guns did not show any significant difference. Evidently, a 0.40-inch deficit in sight radius compared to the other guns didn’t handicap the HK pistol either. The HK 45C was the most accurate gun in our tests, producing an average size five-shot group measuring 1.6 inches across with all three test rounds. The smallest single group measured 1.1 inches across, (firing the Black Hills 185-grain JHP), and the largest was barely 2.0 inches across.
In our transition drill we found that the double to single-action transition could be sluggish due to the long DA trigger pull. But thanks to the slimmer grip it was easier to command the trigger of the HK than it had been on the FN USG pistol. Nevertheless, we found the most accurate, if not also the quickest way, to fire the HK 45C in close quarters was to take advantage of the cocked-and-locked option.