November 2012

Three More Small Nines: Ruger, Kel-Tec, And Sig Sauer Complete

A balky trigger put the P-11 a step behind Rugerís well-mannered LC9. A difficult takedown process put the P290RS in third.

The idea of a backup pistol is an old one, going back to the days of flintlocks. Modern shooters want something more useful than a single- or double-shot pocket flintlock, and there are lots of modern pocket pistols available, particularly in semiautomatic persuasion. We’ve been looking at small 9mm pistols over the past year or so, and this month we’ve added a few more to the list. These three are the new Sig Sauer P290RS ($758), Ruger’s LC9 ($443), and the Kel-Tec P-11 ($377). Some time back (April 2011) we wrung out a Ruger LC9 against the Kel-Tec PF-9 (which Ruger apparently copied), and the Kel-Tec won. We wondered if the ten-shot Kel-Tec P-11 would do as well as the slimmer PF-9.

From left are the Ruger LC9, Kel-Tec P-11, and Sig Sauer P290RS, together with the test ammo. All three guns gave decent results during our rapid-fire testing from 7 yards. If it had a better trigger, weíd have picked the Kel-Tec. We still prefer the PF-9 Kel-Tec to any of these three.

These three test guns were all DAO, which means you can’t cock them to get a light trigger pull. You simply have to heave on the trigger until the gun fires. This does nothing for helping you put your shots where you want ‘em, so that tends to make these guns best suited for close-range work. In short, we had our work cut out for us during our 15-yard accuracy testing.

All three guns locked their slides back after the last round. The Sig and Kel-Tec could drop their hammers a second time if the first strike failed to fire the round. Ruger’s design required working the slide to eject the unfired round and load a new one, which tactically might be the better solution. If you have a bad round, get rid of it instead of beating a dead horse. We tested with Black Hills’ 147-grain JHP, Cor-Bon’s 110-grain Pow-R-Ball, and with the Ultramax 115-grain RN lead-bullet loads. In addition we tried several unreported types of ammo. Here’s what we found.

Sig Sauer P290RS-9-BSS 9mm Para, $758
This gun felt like a brick. It was heavy and blocky with little to redeem it, at first look. The letters RS stand for ReStrike, which means if a round fails to fire you can press the trigger again and give it a second whack. This is one of the changes from the earlier design of the P290. Other changes were reshaping the slide stop, adding some overhang at the back of the frame to help prevent hammer bite, changing the contouring and shape of the magazine-release button, making the release button lower, and adding a finger-groove lip to the magazine.

As noted, our initial impression of the Sig was that it was mighty heavy, far more so than the other two test guns. That massive slide weight helped to cut recoil and tended to make it the least punishing of these three guns on the hands of our testers. Despite that, we never felt like we had a good grip on the gun. With its 6-round magazine in place, it didn’t sit well in our hands. Our next impression was that the trigger could not be made to break by giving it a squeeze with the trigger finger in a natural position. That problem was solved by pressing the trigger while making a conscious effort to use only the tip of the trigger finger. Then we could make the gun fire. The pull was 8.8 pounds.

Two magazines shipped with the gun, one holding 6 and the other 8 rounds. The latter had an extension that gave better control of the gun. With the 6-round mag in place, we could get only two fingers onto the grip, and as noted, the Sig’s grip was not the least bit comfortable. We thought the top-heavy gun sat too high in the hand. Putting in the 8-round magazine with its grip extension transformed this gun from an oddity to a serious contender, we thought. With the longer mag, we could get our whole hand onto the grip, and our control and accuracy were much improved, especially in rapid fire. However, this made the gun too big to stick in the average pocket. Ruger, on the other hand, gets essentially a full-hand grip with its shorter grip by having a longer front extension to the magazine bottom.

The gun’s finish was matte black all over. The metal appeared to be Parkerized, but Sig calls this finish Nitron. It is an exact copy of the tone and dull finish of Parkerizing, but appears to be more durable. The sight picture was excellent, and both front and rear sights were made of steel. There were tritium inserts, too, but the front one was found to be damaged when the gun arrived, so the gun would need to go back to Sig for a new insert. For $828 you can get a laser-mounted version of this pistol. Ruger has a similar laser option, but as far as we can tell, Kel-Tec does not have a laser sight available. One of the aftermarket suppliers may have one, though.

From left, Cor-Bonís (now Glaserís) Pow-R-Ball with 100-grain ball-end soft nose; Black Hillsí 147-grain truncated-cone Subsonic JHP; and Ultramax 115-grain lead RN. We also tried many other non-reported rounds. The guns handled them all perfectly.

Takedown of the Sig for cleaning was nearly impossible. The manual blithely tells you to clear the gun and then pull the slide back and push out the slide-stop pin. They don’t tell you it takes many pounds of force to pull the slide back, which you then have to hold while you remove the cross pin. You’ll need to use either a vise or a third hand to drive out the pin. We used a vise, and still had the devil of a time taking this gun apart. Even with the gun in a vise, the slide must be held back (another hand?) and then two hands are used to hammer out the pin with a suitable drift. Or you can pull on the gun with one hand and press hard on the pin with the other hand and hope the cross pin comes out before your hands give out. We think this takedown procedure is lousy, one of the worst we’ve seen. It’ll be cursed by all owners of this pistol. If the gun is hard to take apart, it won’t be properly maintained, and that can lead to many problems.

Sig makes a big deal out of its replaceable grip panels, and while it’s nice to have your initials on exotic-looking grip panels, they do nothing for the control of the gun. In a proper grip there’s going to be air between your fingers and the side panels. But it might be nice to have a change of appearance available, or a different texture on the side panels to make it easier to drag the gun out of your pocket.

On the range the gun shot groups from 3 to 5 inches at 15 yards. We shot the Sig for accuracy with the 6-round magazine in place to keep it on equal footing with the other two guns. With the DAO triggers on these guns, accuracy may be there, but it’s very hard to prove. Our best group was fired with Black Hills’ Subsonic 147-grain JHP, at 3 inches. Four of the shots were in 1.5 inches. Rapid fire, the Sig was easy to shoot, and from 7 yards we could easily keep them inside a 6-inch circle no matter how fast we shot. All three guns could do that, by the way. There was no obvious advantage to any one of them, though the Kel-Tec was a bit slower to shoot repeat rounds because of its heavy trigger.

We found it necessary to keep the right-hand (firing hand) thumb high or we’d jab it with the nail of our trigger finger. This was because of the awkward position of our trigger finger. We did not think the grip angle was conducive to natural pointing. It pointed too low for our shooters. Different hands may not have our problems. Even with the extra weight of the Sig over the other two guns it was hard to avoid having our grip shift slightly from recoil, and commonly we had to reposition our hand for consistency during our accuracy work. But for rapid-fire work our grip was much harder and our hand stayed in place fairly well. The Sig alone of this trio was capable of dropping its locked-open slide with the thumb catch to pick up a round from a loaded magazine. The other two guns had to have their slides partially withdrawn to chamber a new round after running the mag dry. The P290RS ran perfectly, with no failures of any sort.

Our Team Said: We didn’t really like the Sig, but you might. The make has a reputation for good workmanship and decent accuracy, but you sure pay for it. This gun cost well over twice the price of the Kel-Tec. Is it twice the gun? We don’t think so. The ergonomics of this one left us in the lurch with one exception. With the 8-round magazine in it, we could get all our fingers onto the grip, and that gave us superior control. However, as noted, there goes your concealability. In light if its extra cost, extra weight, and our intense dislike of its grip, we’d pass on it.

Ruger LC9 Model 3200 9mm Para, $443
Ruger’s LC9 was slim and trim, with a single-stack magazine that held 7 shots. Only one mag came with the gun. The overall look was pleasing, mixing a matte-blued slide with a glass-filled nylon frame having essentially the same finish color. There was molded-in checkering on front and back straps and on the side panels.

We thought the Ruger’s slim grip was the most comfortable to the hand, and it also had the best sight picture. The sides of the windage-adjustable rear sight tapered to a narrow flat top, and the three white dots made lineup fast and efficient. The gun also had the most pleasing trigger pull. It broke at 5.8 pounds, and was long, but smooth and easy. It made accuracy testing easiest of the three. The magazine was easy to load, easier than that of the Sig.

The front sight was steel, dovetailed and contoured nicely into the slide. The rear sight was adjustable for windage and held in place by an Allen screw. This screw let us down halfway through our testing, and our shots drifted drastically to the right. We tightened the sight and had no further problems with it. The impact height of all our test ammo was just fine, as it was for all three guns. We thought all three types of test rounds from all three guns struck close enough to the center of a 5-inch bull at 7 yards.

The Ruger’s takedown was similar to that of the Kel-Tec PF-9, which Ruger copied, and of the Kel-Tec P-11. Clear the gun, and then press down on the “door” to the Ruger’s takedown pin, located on the left side of the frame. Push the slide slightly back to align the pin with its tunnel and, using a suitable tool like one of the two keys that come with the gun, press out the pin. Ease off the slide and the rest of the takedown is identical to that of the K-11. Inside the Ruger, we found excellent workmanship throughout. Nothing to be ashamed of here. Reassembly was easy. This field-stripping procedure is so much easier than the Sig’s that there is no comparison, and the Kel-Tec’s was even simpler.

The Ruger had a small safety lever that could be pushed up when a round was chambered. The Ruger could be locked with a key for storage, as needed. Two keys came with the gun. Also, the extractor popped up to indicate a chambered round by feel or sight. On the range we got decent accuracy, made easier by the friendly trigger pull. Our best group was 2.3 inches with the Cor-Bon Pow-R-Ball. Rapid fire we were able to place our shots in the center of the 5-inch bull at 7 yards with relative ease. We could not detect any significant speed difference between the Sig and the Ruger. The Ruger seemed faster to shoot than the stiff-triggered Kel-Tec P-11.

Our Team Said: We had no problems with the Ruger at all except for the loose sight. It did what it was supposed to do every time. The recoil was a bit more noticeable than that of the Sig, as was expected, and some shooters might not like the kick, but we all thought it was by no means severe nor objectionable.
We liked the Ruger with its slim grip and smooth, relatively light trigger pull. Compared to the others here, it’s an A gun, though some of us still prefer the lighter Kel-Tec PF-9.

From the back, the curved Ruger, thicker Kel-Tec P-11, and the short, blocky Sig grips show three different solutions to the problem of how to grip a small, powerful handgun

Kel-Tec P-11 Parkerized 9mm Para, $377
Our test Kel-Tec had a Parkerized finish. The blued version lists at only $333. There is also a hard-chromed version for $390. The gun was all matte black, with an even, well-done finish. The overall look and feel were similar to the old Mauser HSc except for the P-11’s lack of a web in front of the trigger. The sight picture with its three white dots was good, but we’d widen the rear notch a bit. This would be easy because the sights are made of plastic, staked in at the front and slid into a tight dovetail at the rear. The rear blade was slanted backwards to give shadow and good definition to the rear notch, and the front was angled to let it ease out of your pocket without snagging. Further, most of the corners of the gun were rounded for easier pocket carry.

The Kel-Tec had a blocky feel because of its staggered-round magazine, which held 10 shots. Some of us liked its hand-filling grip better than either of the other two guns. There was no floor-plate extension, just an abrupt bottom to the magazine. An extension might have been a touch more comfortable but would add to the bulk and detract from its ease of concealment.

The polymer frame had serrations at the corners of the grip to help keep the gun in place, and these worked well, we thought. The integral side panels had checkering. The gun, like the Sig, had no safety per se. The only controls on the gun were the heavy DAO trigger and the slide stop, which as noted could not be used to drop the locked-open slide on a fresh round. We found it necessary to pull back on the slide and let it fly forward. There was a takedown pin which can be pried out with a cartridge rim, once the gun is cleared and the slide locked back. Once the pin is out the slide can be eased forward, the double springs can be released, and the barrel then comes out easily for cleaning. Inside we found well-made parts assembled with good workmanship. Although some parts like the ejector looked to be on the light side, they seemed to be fully up to whatever task they had to perform. Reassembly was just as easy as takedown.

On the range we had the most difficulty of the three guns loading the Kel-Tec’s magazine, but it was not all that hard. We found the Kel-Tec reluctant to shoot, because it required nearly 10 pounds of force on its trigger. Once the trigger broke and the gun recoiled, all the pressure from our trigger finger gave us a severe poke and pinch to the tip of our finger. This was extremely uncomfortable. We found a sharp edge there and filed it off, and that helped, but it didn’t reduce the force needed to shoot the gun, which measured 9.4 pounds. The trigger stacked and then required about two more pounds to break. The trigger had to be released fully to fire the next round, just like those of the Ruger and Sig. We would like to see a trigger with a lot less curve to it on this gun, if that can be arranged, and seriously reduced pull strength, which might require a bit more mass in the hammer.

The stiff trigger did nothing for our groups, but they were acceptable, we thought. We put five of the Black Hills 147-grain Subsonics into 2.5 inches at 15 yards. Shooting fast, we were able to control the gun, but didn’t much like that stiff pull combined with the too-curved trigger. We had an unusual situation with the Kel-Tec. One round failed to fire with two strikes of the hammer. On inspection the strikes were well off center. The round later fired in another gun. We then disassembled and inspected the Kel-Tec, looking for burrs or other problems that might have caused the problem. We cleaned it, but didn’t notice any obvious burrs. On testing it after reassembly we caught the empties and now all the primer strikes were precisely in the center of the primers. What happened? We don’t know, but nearly failed this gun because of that glitch. It never happened again, we hasten to add.

Our Team Said: The P-11’s combat accuracy, shooting fast from 7 yards, was the equal of the other test guns, though just a bit slower because of the great force needed on the long trigger. Once you’re used to the hard pull, it’s easy to control the gun. We also found its slightly fatter grip to be more hand filling than either of the other two, and we thought that helped our control. There were no other problems with the gun. Other than its ferocious trigger pull, made worse by that sharp forward edge to the trigger, the Kel-Tec was a great little gun.

Accuracy and Chronograph Data Chart

Sig Sauer P290RS-9-BSS

Ruger LC9 Model 3200

Kel-Tec P-11 Parkerized

Gun Test Report Card Summery