June 2012

Practical Match Pistols: Pro9, P30L, and G34 Gen4 Compete

The Smith & Wesson Pro9 and Heckler & Koch’s P30L are match gun candidates with real potential. Glock’s G34 Gen4 redefines Safe-Action. We give the nod to the European imports.

In the February 2012 issue, we tested five high-capacity semi-automatic 9mm handguns that were aimed at the Practical Shooting competitor. Practical Shooting evolved from experimentation with handguns used for self-defense. One characteristic that separates Practical Shooting from other organized pistol competition is that the scoring takes into account the amount of time it takes to deliver the required number of shots for each course of fire. So, fast-action gun handling, as well as quick, precise shots becomes an integral part of the shooter’s score. In this test, we’ll pay particular attention to features and components that make the guns faster and easier to operate, as well as more accurate.

Glock G34

We think the Generation 4 changes to the Glock G34 make it a better all-round pistol if not a better choice for Practical Shooting competition. By reducing the grip to SF (Short Frame) specifications, we were able to hold the gun more efficiently. Two more backstraps were supplied to increase the distance between the web of the hand and the trigger. The application of blunted pyramids to the surface of the grip was another welcome addition, in our view. Internally, the Gen 4 used a multi-spring recoil guide rod that is not interchangeable with Gen 3s. We thought its action was smooth and consistent, but this component may have to prove itself to competitors who change recoil springs to match the impulse of handloaded ammunition. Last, we thought the dot disconnector added a greater sense of feel to the trigger, making it more consistent, therefore safer.

Our February roster included two guns that were specifically prepared for competition by CZCustom.com of Mesa, Arizona. In this test the guns were not as specialized. But the $1108 Heckler & Koch P30L V3 is one of the guns favored by HK’s official Practical Shooting team, and Smith & Wesson team shooters use the $670 M&P 9 Pro Series pistol. To date, most Glock shooters use the Gen 3 version of the G34 as tested previously. In this test we’ll try using the new $649 G34 Gen 4 pistol to see what effect the Gen 4 features may have in making it a better choice for competition.

Each pistol was tested for accuracy from the 25-yard line by firing from a sandbag rest. Test ammunition was the same as used in our previous test, including new manufacture (red box) 115-grain FMJ, and 124-grain JHP rounds from Black Hills Ammunition. We also fired 147-grain flatpoint FMJ rounds from Federal American Eagle. One of our guns offered a single-action trigger, so we took advantage of this option and shot groups of record with the HK P30L single action only.

To learn more about the match potential of each pistol we set up two action tests. Our “field” course of fire was the same one used in our February test, consisting of picking the gun off a table top and firing at two IPSC Metric targets 21 feet downrange spread 15 feet apart. The shooter was centered between the two targets and the catch was that the gun was fully empty with pistol and loaded magazine lying next to each other. The shooter began with hands placed flat to either side of the gun and magazine. Upon an audible start signal from our CED8000 shot recording timer, our shooter loaded the gun, and moving from left side target to right side target, fired two shots to the center mass A-zone (a 5.9-inch-wide by 11.2-inch-tall rectangle). The shooter then reengaged from left to right but this time with only one shot to the head areas which measured about 6-inches square. Inside the head area was a 4x2-inch rectangular A-zone surrounded by B-zone values. We also carried over our “double-tap” test but with different rules. We still wanted to know how fast we could deliver a quick pair of shots, but we also wanted to know how fast the guns could be reloaded in situations where the chamber was not yet empty nor the slide locked back. We added the reload because the HK pistol utilized ambidextrous paddles rather than side-mounted buttons such as those found on our Smith & Wesson and Glock pistols. The target for this test was Caldwell’s plastic-coated 8-inch Bullseye TipTop targets which overall measured 8.5x11 inches and were punched for loose-leaf storage. Figures from our double-tap test reflected the elapsed time between the first and second shot after we had raised the gun from about a 45-degree angle from the horizon. And the amount of time it took us to reload, acquire the sights and fire, then the elapsed time between the final two shots.

Heckler & Koch P30L

The Heckler & Koch P30L is available in four variants. We shot the Variant 3 (V3), which operated with a double-action first shot followed by single-action-only fire. Other key aspects included rechargeable luminous sights and an adjustable grip consisting of three complete sets of side panels and backstrap. The unique ambidextrous magazine-release paddles enabled our test shooter to eject the magazine very quickly using his middle finger, but this design will accommodate other methods as well. The HK P30L produced the best accuracy both at the bench and during our field test. But we might have been able to shoot the P30L faster with a simpler trigger arrangement. Based on results shooting the HK USP LEM pistols in our June 2011 test, we might prefer the “light” LEM trigger found on the P30L V1 for competition. We’d choose the V2 with standard-weight LEM trigger for carry.

In addition to judging match potential, we also wanted to know how they would relate to non-competitive or beginning shooters. The good people at FortTexas.us training helped facilitate this test, and we asked them why our test guns might or might not be included in their “dirty dozen,” a house collection of 12 different handguns that students are welcome to try to learn firsthand what type of pistol might fit them best. Here’s what we found.

Glock G34 Gen 4 9mm $649

In the Gen 4 pistols, the manufacturer has chosen a mild grid of small pyramids with the tops flattened to enhance its non-skid properties. This was after several runs of grip frames with full pointed spikes were offered to law-enforcement personnel. For those who typically wore gloves on the job, the sharper knobs were fine. But body contact while holstered did present a problem. We found that the blunted spikes were a real improvement over the texture on our Gen 3 pistol and did not make concealed carry uncomfortable nor did the gun grab on to fabric.

One of the frame variations that Glock has tried is the short-trigger-reach frame, or SF for “short frame.” But, rather than produce two different models of short and standard size frames the Gen 4 pistols now come with two alternate panels that attach to the backstrap. Without either panel in place, the G34 Gen 4 is essentially an SF pistol.

The extra panels slide on to the frame via two contour lines that, when exposed, appear perfectly natural to the eye. At the top of the backstrap beneath the web of the hand sits a pin inside a relief. This is actually a placekeeper, which is replaced by a larger pin necessary to hold the alternate panels in place. The two panels are marked M for medium and L for large. They didn’t change the angle or contour of the back strap so much as they added distance to the trigger.

The magazine release on the G34 Gen 4 differed from our G34 Gen 3 by not having the same-style oversized magazine release. It didn’t protrude as much from the side of the frame, but was longer front to back. However, the Gen 4 magazine-release button can be changed to the other side of the pistol, making the gun more appealing to left-handed shooters. There were magazine catch lugs on both sides of the body of our three supplied Gen 4 magazines.

Internally there were two more changes from the Gen 3 pistol. Whereas the Gen 3 operated with single flat-wire spring captured over a polymer guide rod, the Gen 4 system consisted of three round wire springs over two reciprocating rods. There was a short, closely wound spring to the rear and a small-diameter spring hugging the forward part of the guide rod encased in a tube. The forward section was completely surrounded by a larger recoil spring. The other internal modification was referred to as a dot disconnector by a Glock representative we spoke to on the phone. Indeed, at the tip of the disconnector, the surface is punctuated with a dot not much different than if you were to make an indentation with a hammer and punch.

At the range found that we liked the G34 Gen 4 best without any of the alternate backstraps in place. We could feel the frame contour pushing the web of our strong-side hand comfortably as high as it could go into the beavertail beneath the top end. This should eliminate the cost of grip reduction for all but the most picky competitors. We sort of missed the big oversized magazine release and thought we might be losing some speed as our thumbs searched for the magazine release. But the SF grip reduction did give us a head start in reaching the release button by reducing what many consider to be the most important circumference found on the grip of a pistol. That is the line formed by the middle finger as it curls beneath the trigger guard and meets the thumb. How much more help the shooter needs to quickly access the release button is a matter of individual ergonomics.

smith and wesson 5 inch pistol

The $670 M&P Pro 9 with 5-inch barrel is Smith & Wesson’s most popular model for Practical Shooters. American made, its profile draws heavily from the Browning 1911. We thought the Pro 9 was about as close to race ready as you can get over the counter, but serious shooters would likely concentrate on redefining the trigger break. This can be achieved without making the trigger dangerously light. Another tool of the trade is the CED8000 shot recording timer, with instant split-time display and data storage so you can refer to past performance. “Shoot” is an invaluable guidebook for all types of shooters, but especially for women interested in shooting like a professional. The author is premier shooting athlete Julie Golob, who leads Team Smith & Wesson. It’s $17 from Skyhorse Publishing.

When we first got our Gen 4, we oiled the gun but not the guide rod. The first few rounds of light 115-grain FMJ rounds failed to completely cycle the slide. We dropped the magazine, cleared the chamber, recessed the slide about one-quarter inch, pulled down on the release lugs and stripped the slide from the frame. The recoil unit was easy to take out and install, but we made sure to lubricate it with moderately light BreakFree oil, beneath the small rear spring, inside the support tube, and the outer surface of the support tube. After lubrication was performed, there were no malfunctions of any kind. Shot total for the session was approximately 400 rounds.

We thought the action of the recoil assembly was very consistent. But shooters who prefer to tune their guns to the strength of dedicated match ammunition may have to wait for the aftermarket specialists to develop a guide rod for Gen 4 pistols wherein the strength of the recoil assembly can be adjusted.

From the bench, our G34 Gen 4 shot the best overall groups of the test loaded with 115-grain FMJ rounds from Black Hills Ammunition. Average group size was 2.1 inches center to center for both the 124-grain and 147-grain ammunition. But the Glock was the only pistol in the test to produce sub-2 inch groups with each choice of test ammunition. This performance was comparable to results from our earlier test of the G34 Gen 3.

In the double-tap test we were pretty much hammering the trigger, even though a 10-yard target is not exactly the broad side of a barn. It was during our field test that we began to appreciate the little dot in the disconnector. With our hands locked into the grip, we were able to concentrate more fully on trigger press as we slid the sights into position. Indeed, we were wondering why our Gen 4 felt more consistent. Whereas our G34 Gen 3 pistol with 3.5-pound connector produced a trigger pull that we measured at about 4.5 pounds of resistance, our Gen 4 model arrived with a heavier connector, producing a trigger pull weight of about 6.5 pounds. There is always talk of trigger jobs that lighten the resistance of a trigger, but we found that the Gen 4 trigger was utterly predictable and consistent in its take-up, break, and reset. We think this not only made the gun faster and more accurate at speed but safer to handle as well.

Over the course of ten runs of our double tap/reload/double-tap test, we were able to drop from an elapsed or split time of .38 seconds for the first pair, a 2.14-second reload and a .37-second pair to a score of .26 seconds, 1.88 seconds, and .27 seconds, respectively. Our final runs (numbers 7 through 10) were within a few hundredth seconds of this score. Best overall split time was .25 seconds and our fastest reload took 1.71 seconds.

In the field test, picking up the gun, loading, and firing an accurate first shot took 2.48 to 2.88 seconds. Overall elapsed time ranged from 5.88 seconds to 6.33 seconds. The middle of the two targets showed 15 A-zone hits, and 5 C-zone hits. The head areas showed a combined total of 3 A-zone hits and 7 B-zone hits.

Our Team Said: What we gave up in the lighter trigger of the Gen 3 pistol we think we got back in control of the Gen 4. The grip frame provided greater stability, in our view, and felt recoil seemed more consistent, too. Together, this helped us dedicate more concentration to sight picture and trigger control. Non-competitive shooters might prefer the added sight radius of the G34’s longer top end, but its sister gun, the service length G17 Gen 4, would be a more practical choice for everyday use.

Smith & Wesson M&P 9 Pro Series 178010, $670

The first time we handled a Smith & Wesson M&P pistol we thought it represented a concerted effort to bring the ergonomics of the Browning 1911 pistol to the polymer side. Indeed, grip profile was at first a huge issue with polymer pistols, and the M&P went a long way in showing what could be done. The M&P 9mm Pro Series pistol features a 5-inch barrel, and it stands tall and thin. Once in our hands, we knew right away that we would be able to point the M&P, press the trigger and execute a reload with ease. To promote the M&P series and access the creativity of some of America’s top shooters, Smith & Wesson started hiring star shooting athletes such as Julie Golob, formerly of the United States Army Marksmanship Unit and author of the acclaimed book “Shoot” from Skyhorse Publishing.

The M&P Pros Series top end was finished with fancy cocking serrations to the rear and a reduced mass underlug up front. The front sight was dovetailed into place and consisted of a rectangular frame holding a medium-gauge stick of light-gathering filament. The filament was a bright green, but the vertical edges of the support frame were visible so we could aim precisely as well as quickly. The rear sight was also dovetailed into place and its rear face was slanted rearward over the back of the slide. This maximized sight radius, and the angle prevented glare from reaching the shooter’s eyes. The polymer grip frame offered an accessory rail, but what helped make this gun race ready was the beavertail that extended more than half an inch beyond the rear of the slide. Overall, the web of the shooter’s hand was locked in more than 1 inch beneath the top end.

The grip frame was fashioned to include an integrated magazine well. At the bottom of the rear strap was an extension piece that acted as a key. Twisting it a quarter-turn in either direction allowed it to be pulled free. This unlocked the back strap insert. Three inserts — small, medium, and large — were provided. Each one completed the rear face of the grip and blended with the side panels. The largest panel partially filled in the beavertail as well as adding the greatest amount of palm swell to the sides. We chose to shoot with the smallest panel for the least distance to the grip and the flattest side-to-side profile.

The magazine release offered a knurled texture and was marked by a contour that acted at once like a guide and as protection from accidental discharge. The trigger was a crescent shape. It was hinged at its midpoint, presenting a safety block. We could push rearward on the upper portion of the trigger shoe and its movement was locked. Once the lower portion was pressed so that it straightened out (flexed might be a better word), the trigger press was able to proceed. We wouldn’t call it mushy, but aftermarket parts, such as the replacement sears and springs from ApexTactical.com, focus on making the S&W trigger crisper.

Takedown of the M&P pistols begins with removing the magazine and clearing the chamber. Then, lock the slide back and rotate the takedown latch 90 degrees. Release the slide, press the trigger, and the slide should be free to move forward off the frame. The M&P recoil system consisted of a flat-wire spring captured over a steel guide rod. The rear of the unit was the color blue to speed recognition of which end should butt against the barrel feet.

At the bench the sight picture was clear, but we would have liked more feedback from the trigger. We did manage to shoot a 1-inch-wide group firing the Black Hills Ammunition 124-grain JHP rounds, but for the most part we felt disconnected from the results in relation to what we saw as we tracked the shots. Nevertheless, we were able to produce groups that measured no larger than about 2.6 inches across with each choice of ammunition.

Our first run with the M&P in the double-tap test took 4.07 seconds. The initial split time was .37 seconds, the second split time took .41 seconds. The reload spent 2.11 seconds. By the third run we were able to cut reload time to 1.92 seconds. Thereafter, the reloads took less than 2.0 seconds. Our fastest total time was 3.67 seconds, with split times of .30 seconds and .36 seconds, respectively. We noticed that split times for shots after the reload were always slower for each pistol in the test. This was because our first shots were taken from an optimal grip and stance prepared before the start signal. After the reload our recovery to shooting grip was less refined. Regarding the M&P especially, we noticed that our shooter tended to move the gun in his hand a little more than with the other pistols, so getting back on point might have cost some time.

In our field course test we chose to pull back on the slide to release it when executing our loading technique. We could have chosen to merely press the slide release on the Glock or HK pistols, but this would not have worked with the M&P. That’s because the release was too small and slippery to be accessed quickly. But bear in mind that the vast majority of tactical trainers teach releasing the slide by pulling it rearward rather than pressing the release. Perhaps that’s why so many tacticians refer to this lever as the slide latch rather than the slide release.

In our field course our very first shot came at 2.63 seconds after the start signal. On the very next run our first shot came at 2.36 seconds and stayed below 2.40 seconds for the remainder of the exercise. Total elapsed times ranged from 6.38 to 5.94 seconds. The lower sections of the targets showed 17 A-zone hits and 3 C-zone hits. But several head shots were missing. Some of these were found on the target, but low of the head area.

Our Team Said: Overall, we liked the natural point and handling characteristics of the M&P9 Pro Series pistol. The sights could not have been clearer, and there is no doubt as to what this gun was designed for. We were completely confident in each shot right up until the break point. At a measured pull weight of about 6.0 pounds, the trigger was certainly light enough. But we think a better-defined letoff would help the shooter stay connected over the course of follow-through and from shot to shot. Fortunately, the sport itself has helped develop aftermarket parts that address shortcomings such as this.

Heckler & Koch P30L Variant 3 Long Slide M730903L-A5 9mm, $1108

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our three-gun test was how different each gun was from the other. In the case of the Heckler & Koch, the P30L pistol actually offers four variants to choose from listed at the same price. Variants 1 and 2 have the LEM (law enforcement module) trigger, and there are two V3s; one with external safety lever and one without. We asked HK Team Captain Jason Koon which one he shoots. We learned that throughout the course of a season that includes not only Practical Shooting but the demanding Bianchi Cup and the Steel Challenge, the team is likely use all four. But Jason prefers the V3 without thumb safety. One common feature among all P30L pistols was the three-dot sights, which were dovetailed into place front and rear. The face of the rear unit matched the end of the slide, producing maximum sight radius. The three-dot sights glowed when powered up by ambient light or the beam of a flashlight. Wear this gun on a sunny range and they become blazing orbs.

The slide featured mild cocking serrations front and rear with an externally mounted extractor. Beneath the slide was a lightweight polymer frame offering several key features. The dustcover was full length beneath the 4.44-inch barrel, including a 2.5-inch-long accessory rail with five crosshatches that meet Picatinny specifications.

The decocker was located at the rear of the frame next to the hammer. Actually, the location is high enough so at first glance it appeared to be on the slide. It consisted of a small grooved rectangle that when moved, a short stroke downward lowered the hammer safely, returning the trigger to next-shot double action. This could be accomplished by releasing the support hand and stroking with the thumb or with the strong-hand thumb, preferably in coordination with re-holstering with the thumb held against the rear of the slide. Holstering in this manner not only assures that the slide will not be moved out of battery by friction within the holster, but it also makes it possible to detect movement of the hammer should a foreign object enter the holster mouth and tug on the trigger. We liked the rear-mounted decocker because it promotes safety beyond its basic function.

The HK P30 design offered ambidextrous slide lock/release levers with a generous grooved platform for contact. These levers also played a part in takedown. Moving the slide rearward about 1.5 inches aligned the left side lever so that it was capable of passing through the relief notch in the slide. The point of rotation on the right side lever exposed the tip of the cross bolt. By pushing the crossbolt about 0.2 inch, we were able to clear the notch and pull the slide free. It was not necessary to press the trigger, and the slide latch did stay attached to the pistol, so we didn’t have to worry about losing a spare part.

The P30L operated with a linkless design, and it was the rear of the guide rod that supplied the lug that interacted with the barrel during cycling. The recoil spring was a flat wire captured on the guide rod that was buffered by a 1.1-inch-long nylon tube that floated independently over the outside of the coils.

The trigger guard was square in the front with ambidextrous magazine release paddles located at the lower rear corner. The front strap of the grip was populated with three finger grooves, and the grip surface was covered with an effective yet comfortable knurled pattern. Both the dimensions of the grip and its contour could be adjusted to the shooter’s hand by mixing and matching a three-piece set of side panels and backstraps marked S, M, and L. Changing out the grip components was not a quick-change operation, nor was it meant to be. The side panels slipped in and out laterally from the rear. The backstrap slides up into place, capturing the side panels. A steel roll pin at the base of the grip held the unit in check. A light hammer and punch (not included) was required to remove or secure the roll pin. We found the difference between the side panels to be subtle, but choice of backstrap directly affected distance to the trigger. According to Koon, another benefit of this design is comfort. Over the course of a shooting season, he estimates firing his HK pistols more than 60,000 times. Being able to change grip panel sizes can give weary hands some relief. Koon’s regular set up is the medium backstrap with a large panel to the left and the smallest panel on the right side of the grip. We chose to test with the small side panels and small backstrap in place. From the bench our P30L was at its best firing the 115-grain and 124-grain bullets. Average group sizes were 2.1 inches and 2.0 inches respectively. The groups printed firing the 147-grain American Eagle rounds measured within a narrow range of between 2.3 inches and 2.6 inches center to center.

Thanks to the grip afforded us by the interchangeable panels, we were able to lock the gun in our hands and adapt quickly to the DA/SA transition. Our test shooter had a wide hand with only moderate-length fingers, and he found that the easiest way to drop the magazine was to drop the middle finger of the strong hand down to reach the right-side paddle. Left-handed shooters who have adapted to right-side magazine-release buttons by using the index finger will like the HK pistols. With the gun remaining vertical, the magazine ejected quickly and cleanly. Our shooter was fast enough to get ahead of the process and knock the ejected magazine aside in mid air as the fresh magazine approached the mag well. If there was any sticking point to reloading the P30L, it was the lack of any structure to help guide the magazine into place. But HK team shooters overcome this simply by dry-fire practice, said Koon. One of the traditional features found on HK handguns is the indentation at the base of the grip panels. In the event of a malfunction, the magazine could be ripped from the pistol even if the operator were wearing gloves. But we’d be hard-pressed to remember a malfunction with any of the HK pistols we’ve tested.

In our double-tap test, our first split included the transition from double to single action. Our best such split time was .43 seconds. Our reload times ranged from 1.92 seconds to 2.28 seconds, but this was still faster than expected. The paddle release was fast, and we didn’t have to move the gun very much in our hands so we could get back to a firing grip faster than when we were forced to shift the gun in our hands to reach the side button. But during some of our runs we lost time getting the fresh magazine into place. What slowed our overall time on a more consistent basis was the elapsed time between the final two shots following the reload. Our best split time after the reload took more than .50 seconds. Having begun with a double-action first shot, we think too much time was spent adjusting our grip to the rearward single-action position of the trigger. In retrospect, applying a larger backstrap to regulate trigger reach might have helped.

In the field test the first action was to load the gun so all shots were fired single action only. First shots were recorded in a range of 2.96 seconds to 2.46 seconds after the start signal. The best total elapsed time was 5.97 seconds. We scored 18 A-zone hits and 2 C-zone hits on the body of the targets. The head shots scored 6 A-zone hits and 4 B-zone hits.

Our Team Said: The HK P30L scored the most points on target, but our elapsed times were slower. The answer might be to simplify the trigger. Switching to the Variant 1 or Variant 2 pistol with LEM-enhanced DAO trigger would eliminate the transition from DA to SA and solidify the position and the weight of the trigger, thereby improving shooter concentration and physical approach. We think the Variant 2 would be a better choice for the street, and the “light” LEM Variant 1 would be our choice for competition. Side by side with the Glock, the choice may come down to striker versus exposed hammer, ergonomics, or simply a matter of cost.

Glock G34 Gen 4 9mm

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Smith & Wesson M&P 9 Pro Series 178010 9mm

Heckler & Koch P30L Variant 3 Long Slide, M730903L-A5 9mm

Gun Tests Report Card Summary