Toward the end of each year, I survey the work R.K. Campbell, Roger Eckstine, Ray Ordorica, Robert Sadowski, Gene Taylor, John Taylor, Tracey Taylor, and Ralph Winingham have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns, accessories, and ammunition the magazine’s testers have endorsed. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year’s worth of tests and distill 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 we roll high-rated test products into long-term testing, I keep tabs on how those guns do, and if the firearms and accessories continue performing well, then I have confidence including them in this wrap-up.
Kel-Tec CNC Industries of Cocoa, Florida, brought out the PMR-30 chambered in 22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire in the last year. It was a gun influenced by Swedish designer and Kel-Tec founder George Kellgren’s Grendel P30 22 Magnum autoloader. We tested the Kel-Tec PMR-30 No. 408320267 22 WMR, $425, in the November issue. Made in the USA, these pistols are very hard to find. Although the MSRP is $425, the going price on Auction Arms is $525 because of the short supply and high demand.
The PMR-30 adjusts between locked breech and blowback operation depending on the pressure of the cartridge. It uses a double-stack magazine of a new design that holds 30 rounds and fits completely in the grip of the pistol. The trigger is a crisp single action with an over-travel stop. The manual safety is a thumb-activated ambidextrous safety lever. The slide locks back after the last shot, and a manual slide-lock lever is also provided.
The slide and barrel are made of 4140 steel housed in a 7075 aluminum frame. The grip, slide cover, trigger, mag release, and safety levers are glass-reinforced Zytel nylon, much like other Kel-
Tec pistols. Other features include dual opposing extractors, heel magazine release, dovetailed aluminum front sight, Picatinny accessory rail under the barrel, urethane recoil buffer, captive coaxial recoil springs. The PMR-30 disassembles for cleaning by removal of a single pin.
The 22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire, more commonly called 22 WMR, 22 Magnum, or simply 22 Mag, is a rimfire rifle cartridge introduced in 1959 by Winchester. On MidwayUSA.com, we found 32 offerings of 22 WMR for sale from in bullet weights of 28, 30, 33, 34, 40, 45, 50, and 52 grains. We tested ten 22 WMR samples in the Kel-Tec for function and reliability and initial accuracy testing and encountered no function problems with any of the 10 brands. In Ballistic Technology’s wax-like Handgun Bullet Test Tubes (Brownells.com, #100-002-900, $28), we were able to accurately measure penetration, retained bullet weight, expansion, and wound-cavity size. A Remington PSP cartridge punched 15 inches deep in overall penetration and created a 60-ml wound channel. Our testers said the PMR-30’s fiber-optic orange rear sight dots and green fiber-optic front sight dot gave it an advantage.
Two niggling points: The PMR-30 has a European-style or heel magazine release, which we didn’t like, and the double-stack KT mag required some finesse to load properly.
Our Team Said: Hopefully, production levels will increase because everyone we showed this gun to liked it. Everyone who shot it loved it. Gun buyers switched from revolvers to semi-auto pistols to go from 6 rounds to 12 or 15. Some are flocking to the Kel-Tec to go from 15 to 30 rounds. We hope to see a shorter barrel and shorter-grip version of the PMR-30 in the coming years.
In a January 2011 test, we looked at a 6+1 380 Auto pistol, the $575 Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380. The Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380 makes use of many modern advancements, including a narrow synthetic frame and two-stage laser built in to the dust cover. The receiver of the Bodyguard 380 was rock hard, and the front side of the grip offered a finger groove directly below the trigger guard. Only one magazine was supplied, but it was fit with a base pad that added one additional finger groove. Smith & Wesson shipped the Bodyguard in a black zippered case that suggested the pistol can be carried concealed in what appeared to be a daily planner. A flat basepad was also supplied, which was intended to make this pistol even more concealable.
During our initial run through with the Bodyguard, we noticed the sights were dovetailed into place front and rear. Despite their small size, they managed to produce a very clear, totally usable sight picture. The magazine-release button was operated from the left side at the lower rear corner of the trigger guard. Once the release was pushed, the six-round magazine ejected smartly. To ward off accidental ejection, the button was partially shielded and required a firm push to release.
The slide-stop lever, safety, and takedown latch were each located on the left side, but we did not find this confusing. It felt natural to operate the slide stop with the tip of the thumb and the safety with the inside edge of the thumb at the first joint. The laser, manufactured by Insight Technologies, offered a membrane-style push button on each side of the pistol located immediately in front of the trigger guard. It can be pressed from either side or pinched between the thumb and index fingers. Pressing it once turned on a solid red beam. Pressing it again activated the strobe, producing a pulsing beam.
The frame rails and firing mechanism were separated from the forward portion of the frame by a steel cross member. Just forward of the cross member was the compartment that held the laser unit and its power source, two No. 357 watch batteries. Smith & Wesson recommends changing the batteries annually. We found our laser beam to be dead on, but tested the adjustment mechanism for precision. The adjustment screws proved dependable, but they required a fine touch.
Our Team Said: The presence of a thumb safety, two-stage laser unit, thin, rigid frame, and great sights make the Bodyguard 380 the Cadillac of micro pistols we’ve tested so far.
Long ago someone put a shoulder stock on a handgun so he could do a better job of shooting it without becoming a skilled pistolero. The shoulder stock holds the gun steadier than the hands alone can hold it, thus some immediate handgunning success was possible. Our shoulder-stocked test gun reviewed in the January issue was the Browning/Inglis, supplied to us by Collectors Firearms in Houston (CollectorsFirearms.com), $1650 with walnut stock, Collectors’s counter price.
This gun appeared to have been a wartime manufacture. Its exterior surface had never been finely polished, and the Parkerizing showed blemishes here and there. The edges were all free of finish, yet still relatively sharp. The grip panels were black checkered plastic. The left side of the grip had a lanyard ring at the bottom. The tangent sight’s “ladder” had mottled bluing or Parkerizing on it, making it hard to read. The magazine had a spring clip formed into its bottom to make it easier to get it apart for cleaning. We had to clean out some grit and grease before loading it, and then found its spring was too weak to permit reliable feeding. We used a commercial magazine for our tests.
The Canadian-made stock for the Hi-Power was carved out of lovely figured walnut. It was dated 1945 and marked “Made in Canada.” It also had a spring clip and a short strap for securing it to a pistol belt. The gun fit it perfectly, and the lid kept the gun from rattling by means of a spring that pressed against the rear grip strap. The butt portion of the Hi-Power’s stock was large and curved and tended to stay on the shoulder much better than that of the Mauser. But the stock fit the gun loosely. The gun could shake a degree or two sideways, though it was held very securely to the stock.
Takedown was just like any Hi-Power, though the recoil spring was a good deal stiffer than one on a commercial Hi-Power on hand. On reassembling the Hi-Power we gathered up the loose-fitting but gorgeous stock and took it and the gun to the range. We first tried 147-gr Black Hills FMJ and got mediocre groups, with and without the stock. The impact point didn’t change much with the addition of the stock. The shots landed 4 inches low and about 2 inches to the right with the tangent sight at its lowest setting.
We then tried the Winchester BEB 115-gr fodder and it did about as well, which is to say groups in the 3- to 4-inch range at 15 yards. Our best group was 2 inches with the 147-gr ball, without the stock. We then tried pressing the gun to the side to minimize the looseness of the stock and fired one group of 1.7 inches with the 115-gr ammo, but then we fired several more a good deal larger. We concluded the stock was not helpful to trained shooters at combat ranges, but might be valuable for area fire at extended ranges. The tangent sight had markings to 500 yards.
Our Team Said: We concluded the Inglis was an excellent example of a war-issue Hi-Power, and its stock made it that much more desirable. If you want a gun that will make smaller groups, there are better choices, but if you must have one of the stocked wartime Hi-Powers, in all original military condition, with matching numbers, we thought this one was a fine example for a reasonable price.
Paper-punchers want to burrow down into the details of target-grade 1911 pistols to see what target sights, very tight slide-to-frame fit, and better trigger and barrel can produce in terms of accuracy. In the February issue, we tested the target-sight-equipped Kimber’s Eclipse Target II 45 ACP, $1160, with Federal’s 185-grain full-metal-jacket semi-wadcutter and the Cor-Bon 230-grain Performance Match. We also used a handload worked up just for this project, using the Oregon Trail 180-grain SWC.
The Eclipse was attractive and distinctive, with polished stainless flats and dark top surfaces. The Kimber exhibited excellent fit and finish. Trigger compression was a smooth, clean, and creepless 3.5 pounds. The pistol came out of the box running with no failures to feed, chamber, fire, or eject. The Eclipse had front-grip-strap checkering, which proved to be an advantage when firing long strings. Because the Eclipse featured an ambidextrous safety, it suited both left- and right-handed shooters.
The wonderfully rugged, well-designed adjustable sights of the Kimber featured tritium inserts, making it suitable for all-round personal defense. A generation ago, a 1911 with target sights would not be seen in a uniform holster, but times have changed. Modern adjustable sights are rugged enough for duty. These sights were like Bo-Mars in the most competent manner. The Kimber sight used a dovetail attachment far superior to the dated Colt-type attachment, in the view of our team.
The pistol’s single best string was a 1.25-inch group fired with the Cor-Bon Performance Match offering. The Eclipse was the most consistent pistol with all loads tested.
Our Team Said: This pistol is a solid performer suited for use with a wide spectrum of loads. There was nothing fragile about the pistol—it was well fitted and ambidextrous, and the front-grip checkering and night sights set it apart from the crowd.
When we reviewed the Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm, $333, in the April issue, we saw early that it was all business-like flat black, slim, and easily concealable. It was a bit too big for most trouser pockets, but would fit most overcoat pockets. The PF-9 came with one magazine and two types of floorplate. One was flat for better concealment and easier pocketing, and the other had a finger ledge for a better grip. We tried both and preferred the flat one. The fixed sights gave an excellent picture that we thought could be improved by widening the rear notch. There were three white dots. The rear sight was adjustable for windage, and by shimming for elevation. An Allen screw secured it. Both the front and rear sights were polymer, as was the trigger and, of course, most of the frame.
The integral grips had a coarse checkerboard pattern that provided excellent traction, and the front and rear grip straps had vertical serrations. The magazine release was a steel button that was not easy to hit accidentally, but let the mag come out easily when intentionally pressed. The gun could be fired with the magazine removed.
The PF-9 was smooth all over, with almost no protrusions. The sides of the slide were rounded at the front for easier holstering or pocketing. Everything about the gun was slim or flat. There was no mechanical safety lever, but it had an inner hammer-blocking mechanism. The left side of the gun had a takedown pin that protruded less than a sixteenth of an inch, and a slide stop that stuck out a bit more. The slide stop had a small, neat ledge cast into the frame, or getting bent from misuse. The rear of the slide had good serrations, easily grasped for chambering a round. There was a rail under the muzzle for a light. Unfortunately, this rail had a slot with sharp edges that could indeed catch on clothing. We would trim the edges with a sharp knife if we owned the gun, something that would take less than a minute.
Our first test shooting was done with 147-grain Black Hills FMJ, and the recoil was definitely pronounced. The Kel-Tec wanted to shoot high and to the left with that load. Before we changed the sight setting we tried some 115-grain BEB Winchester, and it printed just above the point of aim at 15 yards, exactly where we wanted it. We had not yet shot the Kel-Tec for accuracy, but were very eager to find out how well the gun did in rapid fire. We fired several two-shot bursts and learned it had a fine trigger for such work. We had no trouble whatsoever with resetting the trigger, no matter how fast we shot the Kel-Tec.
We essentially had no problems at all with the Kel-Tec PF-9. We had one failure for the slide to lock back on empty with the first magazine-full through it, but that never happened again. Like the P-3AT 380 Kel-Tec, the lower-front edge of the trigger was notably sharp, and it pinched us. We would round it if we owned this gun. The recoil of the heavy-bullet load made the trigger give us a nasty bite on the finger from the flip, no matter how hard we held the gun down. The PF-9 also kicked our palms, but then, it weighs very little, so that is to be expected. The trigger pull was smooth and easily controlled in slow fire. The impact of the Kel-Tec PF-9 changed more with different weight bullets, so be sure to get it centered with your ammo of choice.
Our Team Said: We think this is one mighty fine 9mm handgun, but it is not for the recoil-sensitive person.
In this test we paired full-sized 40 S&W pistols with a compact version of each pistol. Devoid of safety or decocker levers, our $952 USP and $991 USP Compact Variant 8 pistols each utilized a full-time double-action trigger referred to as the LEM, aka Law Enforcement Module. Full-size pistols are often tested for accuracy from the 25-yard line. Most forums test compact pistols from 15 yards. We decided to split the difference and test the guns from the 20-yard bench.
The HK Universal Self-loading Pistols include several features that indicate they are fighting pistols first and target guns second. The oversized trigger guards were meant to accommodate a gloved finger. The indentations found on each side of the magazine well were designed so that the magazine could be ripped from the receiver. The ambidextrous magazine-release levers were designed to be impervious to accidental discharge. The sides of the grips were flat and thin with stippling on the sides and checkering on the frontstrap and rear surface of the grip. All of these features were evident on our 4.25-inch-barrel full-size and our 3.58-inch-barrel compact.
The full-size USP arrived with two polymer-bodied 13-round magazines. The compact model came with two steel-bodied 12-round magazines complete with basepads that added a lip for the pinky finger.
What made these two test pistols special was the full-time double-action trigger that does away with the side levers we are used to seeing on the USP models that serve to both decock the action and lock the hammer safely in its rearward position. Nevertheless, both pistols showed a relief as a tell-tale sign that a lever used to be there. The full-size pistol even showed a white line on both sides of the frame that was no longer necessary. These subtle vestiges were evident because the USP design is modular and can accommodate any one of nine different trigger systems. Our pistols operated with the LEM Law Enforcement Module triggers. With the LE module in place, movement of the slide set the hammer away from the firing pin, which was safely blocked from moving forward by impact. Once a round was chambered and the action was cocked, movement of the crescent-shaped trigger consisted of a takeup requiring about 4.5 pounds of pressure. The distance the trigger was pressed corresponded to the distance the hammer traveled rearward to its stopping point. Breaking a shot required about 8.5 pounds of pressure for the full-size USP and only about 7 pounds of pressure for the compact model. These were two of the best definitions of double-action-only we’ve tried.
The receivers, or grip frames, of the HK pistols were exceptionally light, 6.8 ounces for the bigger gun and as little as 6.5 ounces for the compact.
Transfer bar, hammer assembly, ejector, and a pair of small steel inserts front and rear for slide contact were just about all that was evident once the top end was removed.
At the range we found it easy to get a clear sight picture from the combat sights that were dovetailed into place front and rear. Both pistols arrived with the same sight package, which featured three white dots. From the bench the USP Compact was not as accurate as the bigger gun, but it was more consistent by showing less favoritism between loads.
The USP Compact felt more maneuverable but provided only slightly quicker times in rapid-fire shooting. Our shooter reported that the cycling speed of the USP Compact was fast enough to challenge the shooter’s ability to respond to a fresh sight picture. Muzzle flip, although pronounced, was over quickly. The lighter trigger on our compact pistol was also most enjoyable. Hits on our action target showed a more compact group at center mass than was achieved with the bigger USP, with just a couple of hits straying to the edges of the A-zone.
Our Team Said: This battery proved to be a sure winner, but if we had to choose only one, we think the USP Compact would be our do-everything, go-anywhere choice.
There is something reassuring about a big-bore pistol in the pocket or on the belt in a holster. Professionals going in harm’s way appreciate the design and power of a big-bore autoloader. So do armed citizens. Big-bore handgunners demand reliability and a certain amount of accuracy from their choices, which we found in the Colt Defender 07000D 45 ACP, $910, which had a 3-inch-belled barrel, high-visibility sights, full-length guide rod, and efficient beavertail safety. Trigger compression was rated the best of the group we tested in July, with average compression running at 4.5 pounds and very clean. The pistol never failed to feed, chamber, fire, or eject.
The Hogue rubber grips supplied with the pistol were not popular. Finger-groove grips tend to stretch an average-size hand in firing drills. We shot the pistol as supplied initially, but then changed the grips out for a set of Ahrends custom Tactical grips and reevaluated. The Ahrends grips were at least as comfortable as the Hogues, but gave a much better feel. (Ahrends Tactical Grips list for $50 to $60 at Brownells.com).
When firing the pistol, the beavertail grip safety made for comfort and greater speed into action as the hand is funneled into the grip. As might be expected, recoil was the most noticeable of the three pistols tested, as the Defender weighs a mere 22 ounces. The effect was startling to the uninitiated raters. One, used to the Glock 26 9mm, has never fired a big-bore pistol. The good handfit and low bore axis certainly helps, but this is not the pistol for a beginner. Just the same, we cannot think of a means of making the pistol easier to control. Either get a heavier gun or a lighter load. Interestingly, if you did not lock the wrists, the pistol’s action slowed and you could actually feel the slide working, and the difference was noticeable as the heavy spring rocked the slide back.
The sights were rated the best of the group, and the pistol was easily the most accurate tested, with a singular 2-inch 25-yard group capable of a service pistol. However, most of the groups were larger, and it takes a seasoned shooter to get the best from this pistol.
Our Team Said: It was the most accurate in a three-way test, but it was difficult to control unless you have time in with the type. The Colt’s sights are first class.
The year 2011 marks the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of the John Browning’s most successful pistol, and in the September issue, we tested an affordable version of the design, the Springfield Armory $939 Range Officer. The introduction of yet another 1911 from Springfield Armory isn’t surprising; the company has essentially built its formidable reputation on 1911 pistols.
It featured a 5-inch barrel on a full-size frame, offering a flat profile checkered mainspring housing below an enhanced grip safety, with a smooth front strap. The overview on the Springfield-Armory.com website reads that one of the goals in designing the Range Officer was for it to be acceptable in many different styles of shooting competition. The idea was to offer the same quality of more expensive models but keep the price in check by including only the most necessary parts.
In our view, the R.O. came with the single most helpful upgrade already in place. That would be the fully adjustable rear sight. Mounted deep in a dovetail and staked into the top of the slide, it blocked out plenty of light and offered clear relief. For those considering carrying the Range Officer in a belt holster, it will be difficult to find leather with a retention strap that will reach across the big rear sight blade. Thankfully, the R.O. arrived with an open top belt slide holster plus a matching double magazine pouch. Formed from a non-marring plastic, the holster was tension adjustable.
The Parkerized finish was not pretty but it seemed to be quite durable and unwanted glare didn’t have a chance. The magazine well was aggressively beveled and the detent on the thumb safety was even more crisp than the one found on the Ruger. We liked the placement of the side plate that carried the thumb safety on this pistol. The plate rode higher on the frame and further away from the web of the shooter’s hand.
At the range we learned there is no substitute for a good sight picture and a consistent trigger. When shooting on the move during our photo sessions, we were able to consistently hit the Evil Roy target shot after shot. The Range Officer shipped with two blued-steel 7-round magazines that functioned flawlessly. The Range Officer also functioned with the 8-round magazines we had on hand.
Our Team Said: The team said its appearance was understated, but if you know what you are looking for, you’ll see the value.
In a March test, we paired full-size and small-frame revolvers, with one of the latter being the $575 Ruger Lightweight Compact Revolver LCR-BGXS with Hogue boot grip. The LCR was the first revolver to connect a polymer lower with an aluminum frame. The lower, or grip frame, housed all parts of the triggering mechanism sans the firing pin. The upper frame housed the cylinder and the barrel. Another unique feature was the cut of the steel cylinder. The rear half maintained a full diameter to support ignition pressure and provide for locking lugs. But the forward half of the cylinder was reduced in mass to a collection of five tubes arranged in a pentagon. The LCR utilized Ruger’s proprietary press-button cylinder latch, but this time the ejector rod played a part in lockup with a detent at the forward tip. The ejector rod was short, but we never had any problem ejecting spent shells. The release latch worked without being sticky, but when the cylinder was swung back into place, it didn’t always pick up the proper index right away. Nevertheless, pressing the trigger cued up the next chamber without fail.
Two distinct features separated the LCR-BGXS from the other Ruger LCRs, and the code says it all: Boot Grip, XS sight. Our fear was that the Hogue Boot Grip, designed for maximum concealment, would leave too little room for our hands. And we weren’t sure how quickly we’d adapt to the front sight. Listed as standard size, the tritium dot seemed large and perched well above the sight rib. How would these parts coordinate?
With the Hogue Boot Grip in place, the trigger was closer, and we were able to put our index finger further across the trigger. Those with larger hands and longer fingers had to be more conscious of keeping the index finger no further across the trigger than the first joint. Otherwise, we found that the Boot Grip, though small in appearance, provided plenty of usable grip area. In fact, we grew to prefer it over the original grip because it allowed us to get the highest possible hold on the gun.
From behind the grip, the front sight was a big ball. In both dim light and sunshine, we found the XS front sight very easy to pick up. Our first shots were fired with the top of the ball leveled across the rear notch. This resulted in shots hitting well below our point of aim. The correct point of impact was achieved by centering the round front sight directly atop the notch in the rear sight. Indeed, simply pinning the big dot on the desired point of aim was the natural way to shoot and also the most accurate.
Our Team Said: With the boot grip encouraging a high hold, we found it easy to initiate a natural aim with our forearm leveled in a traditional point shooting stance. We were also able to pick up additional feedback from the luminous front sight. This makes the LCR-BGXS a good tool for close encounters.
The International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association (IHMSA) recently instituted a new division aimed at attracting more shooters competing at a maximum distance of 100 yards or meters. The rimfire arm of the Practical Hunter division is open to 22 LR handguns only with open sights, optical, or red-dot scopes. Competitors can shoot from any safe position they choose, including prone. New shooters may use a sandbag or mechanical rest to support the gun. In an August evaluation, we reviewed some of the guns that would be a good choice for competing in IHMSA’s Practical Hunter rimfire division, picking Ruger’s New Model Single Six Hunter, the smallbore brother to the New Model Super Blackhawk Hunter single-action revolver. The Hunter is a convertible model that comes with two cylinders, one for chambering 22 LR and the other for 22 Winchester Magnum Rifle.
The Hunter featured all stainless-steel construction with a set of black-laminate Gunfighter style grips. One of the reasons we chose the Hunter was its 7.5-inch barrel with flat-top rib. It had an adjustable V-notch rear sight with vertical white line in the center. The front sight featured a brass bead on the front blade, which was notched into place from the muzzle end. Ruger supplied scope rings ready to fit the integral mount machined into the top rib at no extra cost. The rings were 52mm high and suited for a 1-inch-tube scope. Other height rings are available, as well as rings for 30mm-tube scopes. Not having to modify or remove anything from the gun to mount a scope is a big advantage, in our view.
The New Model Hunter is a very substantial looking handgun. The monolithic top rib and long barrel made it a dead ringer for its centerfire brother, the 44 Magnum New Model Super Blackhawk Hunter. The Super Blackhawk weighs about 7 ounces more, but is only about 0.4 inches longer. This means you could compete in two divisions with nearly identical guns. Actually, since our Single Six Hunter came with an extra cylinder for shooting magnum ammunition, this would make it eligible for IHMSA’s centerfire classes as well.
The Hunter offered side-gate loading that prevented the hammer from being pulled fully rearward but allowed the cylinder to rotate clockwise. Another safety feature was the transfer bar, which only stayed between the hammer and the firing pin when the trigger was pressed.
Shooting from a rest, we had to take the ejector-rod tab into account, but there was plenty of room beneath the long barrel. The rear sight did not require adjustment from dead center, but we did lower the point of impact by turning down the screw on the tang that was mounted flush with the top strap. As is customary with Ruger revolvers, windage adjustment required a second screwdriver of very small gauge.
Fired standing offhand, we thought the 45-ounce Hunter felt balanced. With the grip enveloped in both hands we had no trouble keeping the front sight steady.
From a prone position, the relatively short grip allowed us to put the base of the hands in solid contact with the ground. This meant the sights were quite low, and it took some care to align our eyes. With a scope in place well above the gun, the sight picture would be much easier to acquire. The 4.5-pound trigger press did not have what we would call take-up, but we did experience a short distance of smooth, grit-free compression. We found the trigger to be consistent and predictable.
If we were concerned about accuracy when firing 22 LR rounds, we shouldn’t have been. From the 25-yard line, we were able to land groups measuring less than an inch across with all three test rounds. This actually exceeded our efforts with the 22 WMR ammunition that we tried.
Our Team Said: Accuracy was tops and reliability was flawless. We liked the trigger, and integral rings took the headaches out of scope mounting.
The Smith & Wesson Governor, $679, is a six-shot revolver with scandium-alloy frame and matte-black finish made to compete against the popular Taurus Judge.
Like the Judge, the Governor handles 2.5-inch 410 shotshells plus 45 Colt cartridges. The Governor also chambers 45 ACP ammunition, which the Judge does not.
Our first and lasting impression of the Governor was that it was much heavier than the Taurus Ultra-Lite, and the weight distribution made the Gov feel a lot less handy, poorer balanced, than the Judge despite the Smith’s slightly shorter barrel. In fact, we first thought the S&W had a steel frame. The Smith has six chambers instead of five, and that might be significant for some folks. The bigger cylinder does make for a bulkier handgun, though.
The matte-black finish was all business. The workmanship was excellent, and the lockup, dead tight. The 2.7-inch barrel was inserted into an alloy shroud, the shroud taking the front sight and having all the cuts for the ejector, front “lock,” and the contouring for looks. The firing pin was fixed in the frame, just as with most modern Smiths. The sticky rubber grips had finger grooves that for once we liked.
The left side of the frame had a hole for a key lock just above the latch. The hammer was well serrated for easy one-hand cocking. The trigger was smooth faced to aid DA work. The SA trigger pull was typical Smith & Wesson, about as good as a trigger gets. It broke at 4.3 pounds. The DA pull was very heavy, on the order of 14 pounds.
The Governor had a tritium insert in its front sight. The S&W front blade was dovetailed into the barrel shroud, which made it possible to change the impact point if needed. The rear sight was a notch in the frame, a common S&W practice, that mated well with the front.
The Smith’s cylinder was locked by the classic, normal frame lock at the rear, and by a stout detent button at the front, which required a push to open. The long cylinder needs something to secure the front to prevent gaping and resultant bullet shaving. The lockup of the S&W Governor was tight. S&W did a clever bit of machining on the back of the Gov’s cylinder. This consists of a recess that lets full- or one-third-moon clips rest there, far enough into the back of the cylinder so it can close. That gives a versatility advantage to the Smith. As with any gun, if you are clever enough to have a good store of proper ammo, most will say isn’t really an issue. However, we consider it to be an advantage in that the Governor can handle 45 ACP cartridges (45 Auto Rim will not fit).
We noticed the velocities of all the 45 ACP and 45 LC loads were much lower from the Governor than from handguns that don’t take 410. Winchester’s BEB 185-grain 45 ACP ammo, for example, averaged 590 fps from the Governor, yet this load comes out of a 1911 at over 800 fps. Also, 45 LC loads were significantly lower out of the Gov than from the Judge. When it came to 410 shotshells, our first attempt with the Gov was at 3 yards, which gave a pattern with #7.5 shot that essentially fit onto a sheet of 8.5-inch x 11-inch paper. At 5 yards from the muzzle, the pattern with the Governor spread to about 18 inches. This was far superior to what we got with shot loads from the Judge, which would spread to about a foot at only 3 feet range. If making good patterns is your wish, you may want to go with the Governor.
Our Team Said: The costly scandium-alloy frame is perfectly finished inside and out, and the guts of the gun look like classic S&W stuff, top-notch work throughout.
Despite the long-standing availability of the AR-10, 30-caliber semi-automatic rifles continue to be less popular than the 5.56mm/223 Rem. AR-15 little brother. But just like the high-capacity 9mm pistol led to the popularity of more powerful high-capacity handguns, we’re still interested in finding a good 30-cal carbine. We found one in the SSK Industries 300 Whisper AR-15, $1300.
J.D. Jones, owner and proprietor of Ohio-based SSK Industries (SSKIndustries.com), invented the 300 Whisper, which fires 30-caliber bullets weighing as much as 240 grains from a modification of the 221 Fireball case. Our test gun was a gas-impingement AR-15 carbine with a standard DPMS lower, fixed stock, and 6-pound production-grade single-stage trigger. The receiver was marked “.223-5.56 model A-15,” and there was a forward bolt assist on the right-hand side. Our test gun utilized a 1:7.5-inch twist 16.5-inch stainless-steel heavy barrel. The receiver featured a Picatinny rail, and no front sight was supplied. The fore end consisted of a free-float aluminum tube with a cutout to provide access to the gas valve. The valve was marked L for low-velocity ammunition and H for high-velocity rounds.
If you failed to see the unobtrusive gas port adjustment, the SSK Industries 300 Whisper AR-15 appeared to be nothing special. Once we had the chance to fire the 300 Whisper, we realized that it was at least two weapons in one, or maybe two cartridges in one. With the 208-grain Hornady ammunition, the sensation was more like firing an air rifle. We were actually more aware of the recoil buffer spring than the blast itself.
This round was measured by our chronograph to be moving at 1022 fps. From the 50-yard bench we printed groups measuring between 0.6 and 0.8 inch across. We had a similar experience shooting the Cor-Bon 220-grain rounds. Average velocity was about 1044 fps and accuracy was identical, except for one lowly 1.0 inch group. Both of these rounds were fired with the gas valve in the “L” low-velocity position. We happened to have a large screwdriver with us, but a coin was all that was needed to turn the gas valve into position. We think a screwdriver was the better tool because the valve must be fully seated to provide the desired amount of gas. In terms of cycling we never had any difficulty or malfunction. But we did have trouble getting the bolt to lock back. According to the manufacturer, this could be caused by a short stroke or a worn magazine. SSK Industries recommends Tango Down and MagPul PMags. Ours arrived with a 20-round MagPul. We tried replacing it with another MagPul PMag, and that cured the problem. But we had to take care to seat the magazine properly.
With our gas valve turned to the high-velocity position, we fired the Cor-Bon 125-grain and Hornady 110-grain rounds. Average velocity was 2119 fps for the Cor-Bon rounds and 2345 fps for the Hornady bullets. We should note that according to our chronograph, each of our four factory test rounds produced an average velocity within a few feet per second of the velocity printed on the box. This was a rare treat. Five-shot groups firing the Hornady 110-grain ammunition measured about 0.5 to 1.3 inches across. But the Cor-Bon 125-grain rounds topped our factory rounds, producing five-shot groups that varied as little as 0.4 to 0.7 inches across.
We also fired a handload supplied by J.D. Jones himself. The bullet was a Hornady 169-grain hollowpoint boattail. Velocity was 1898 fps on average, and we managed groups that ranged in size from 0.55 inches to just less than 1.0 inch across. For this load we used the high-velocity setting. But aside from the dedicated subsonic ammunition, choice of the high and low settings could in some cases be left up to the shooter.
Since our SSK AR-15 was capable of greater accuracy than our other carbines, we shot some groups from the 200-yard bench. We chose the 110-grain Hornady rounds primarily because they moved the fastest, and we thought they would maintain stability longer than the others. For this shoot we visited American Shooting Centers in Houston’s George Bush Park. We set our windage to deal with the 12-mph wind, which was blowing at one-half to full value without letup. The wind didn’t seem to have as much effect on the bullet’s path as we had expected, and the results were five-shot groups ranging from about 2.1 inches to 2.6 inches across.
Our Team Said: The 300 Whisper will allow you to put a 30-caliber bullet downrange with less effort, noise, and recoil than that of a 223 round. Firing subsonic ammunition, it was hard to believe the lack of recoil, yet the same gun could be used to fire rounds producing more than 1300 ft.-lbs. of energy.
If you’re a shooter who likes to talk about options for shooting small targets at great distances, then include a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 22-250 Remington that we evaluated in the February issue. The $1391 Kimber 84M Longmaster VT is part of the Kimber 84M series rifles that feature a Mauser claw extractor, and all actions are aluminum pillar-bedded, save for the heavier caliber models that are constructed with glass bedding along with the pillars. We measured the Longmaster VT to be 45.7 inches long from the recessed and dished crown of its barrel to the slim, tightly fit rubber buttpad. Barrel length was a full 26.0 inches and its gauge was thick, 1.05 inches in diameter at the muzzle. The matte-stainless barrel incorporated six deep flutes that covered all but 6 inches of barrel length. The robust stock was a laminate with a bold grain pattern, and the barrel was floated, leaving a narrow gap about the thickness of four $1 bills. The pistol grip was nearly vertical, and the palm swell completely filled our shooters’ hands.
The comb of the stock was raised and nearly level with the bore line. The left side was rounded, and the right side was edged, decidedly favoring the right-handed shooter. The action was drilled and tapped for a scope mount and blued, as was the bolt handle. The Longmaster VT stored rounds in an internal magazine with a dropaway floor plate released from inside the trigger guard. Capacity was five rounds but most of our shooting was performed by loading rounds one at a time, which the Kimber was happy to accommodate. The Longmaster VT utilized a three-position Model 70-type safety wherein the central position locked the trigger but allowed the bolt to be pulled back.
The trigger face was wide and offered the shooter a very comfortable radius. Along with the palm swell these features served to relax the shooter’s hand making it easier to focus on bringing together sight picture and trigger press. The crisp single-action trigger on our Kimber rifle felt lighter than its measured 4.0 pounds. The trigger was adjustable, but Kimber recommends the user refer such to a qualified gunsmith. Viewed from the side, the amount of trigger movement was almost too small to measure.
To mount our scope we followed the recommendation of the manufacturer and used Kimber’s two piece Leupold-style mounts and rings. We found that the Kimber Longmaster VT will shoot 100-yard sub-MOA groups with just about any ammunition you can find. The Kimber produced a best overall average group radius of .40 inches firing the 45-grain Winchester rounds. Prone from the 200-yard marker, we fired three-shot groups utilizing both the 45-grain rounds. The Winchester rounds formed one 0.7 inch group, but 1.1- to 1.3-inch groups were the norm.
Our Team Said: The Kimber Longmaster VT performed as well as many “sniper” rifles that typically sell for two or three times as much.
The operational concept of carrying a carbine that shoots the same round as your handgun makes a lot of sense, as we showed in a test of the Kriss Super V Vector CRB/SO Civilian Carbine 45 ACP, $1895, in August. The Kriss Vector CRB/SO is an ATF-approved, 38-state legal (folding stock), 16-inch barrel semi-auto firearm, sharing the same Super V operating system as the SMG.
The CRB/SO Basic Kit we tested contains the CRB/SO civilian semiauto model, folding stock, custom flip-up/lock-down sights, two Glock 21 13-round magazines (where legal), custom cleaning kit, grip storage module, vertical foregrip with dry storage, slingpoint attachment bracket and custom cable lock. Elsewhere, the Fire Control switch has a Safe/Fire selector and offers ambidextrous use. There’s also a custom-designed magazine extension kit that will add 17 rounds to the Glock 21 magazine, taking the mag capacity to 30 rounds, and the mags will still fit the Glock 21.
With the stock folded, the gun’s overall length is 25.9 inches; with the stock extended, it measured 35.1 inches. The 16.25-inch barrel had a shroud to protect the shooter’s hand from a hot barrel, and on top, the maximum sight radius was 11.0 inches. With a 30-round magazine inserted, the gun’s overall height was 13.25 inches. Length of pull with the stock extended was 12.5 inches. Maximum thickness with the stock folded was 3.9 inches, a substantial increase above the maximum thickness of just the action, 2.4 inches. Unloaded, but with a magazine inserted, the Kriss tipped the scales at 7.9 pounds. With a loaded 30-round mag, it went 9.4 pounds. There were no handguards. Trigger-pull weight was 6.3 pounds. The Kriss warranty is good for the lifetime of the original owner.
Kriss claims the Vector will shoot consistent 6-inch groups at 150 meters. We only tested with the supplied sights at 50 meters and shot some groups near the company’s claimed 1.4-inch standard for that distance. The Kriss shot the best groups or tied for the best groups with all three test ammos we used.
We liked that Kriss chose the Glock magazine because that brand is available, affordable, and reliable. We had 14- and 30-round magazines, but we could only fit 29 rounds into the larger-capacity magazine.
The skeletonized stock was comfortable to shoot, even when folded. The front and rear sights were both of the flip-up design and clamped onto the milspec rail. The rear sight was windage adjustable, with small and large apertures. In order to adjust the elevation, the height of the front post would need to be adjusted by using a required, but not supplied, sight-adjustment tool. We felt that this was a poor design choice or that the tool should have been supplied.
Elsewhere, the front sight post was wider than we like. The trigger was heavier than we would have liked, but it broke cleanly and reset quickly. Surprisingly, there are a lot of accessories available for the Kriss. The MagEx G30+SL kit comes with an Uplula loader/unloader, and if we were getting a Kriss, we’d consider the $100 extension parts kit and loader. The MagEx G30 Glock 21 Extension Kit is $36.
Our Team Said: Holding a 45 ACP polymer carbine on target as fast as you can pull the trigger is a feat for any gun. In our view, the Kriss delivers what it promises.
One of the major reasons hunters choose a 20 over a 12 is the former’s smaller frame, weight, and recoil. Though they may already own a 12, many field sportsmen wind up reaching for their 20s because the smaller gun is easier to handle. One lightweight low-cost polymer-stocked shotgun we wouldn’t mind schlepping around North Dakota to shoot pheasants was the LSI/Hatsan Escort PS-20 HAT00115 3-inch 20 Gauge, $399, evaluated in the January issue.
The Escort Magnum 20-bore we tested was made by the Hatsan Arms Company in Izmir, Turkey and imported by Legacy Sports International of Reno, Nevada. LSI supplies a five-year warranty for the Escorts it imports. Our test gun came with nickel-chrome-moly 26-inch barrels with a hard-chrome-plated bore and outside black chrome finish. The ventilated barrel rib was scored with C-shaped grooves along most of its length as a glare-killer, and the muzzle was threaded to accept screw-in choke tubes, and three (Full, Modified, and Improved Cylinder) came with the gun. Of course, the 3-inch magnum chamber and choke tubes for both guns were proofed for steel shot, and all sporting Escorts include sling-swivel studs, a choke-tube wrench, and migratory waterfowl plug. For a working gun, the studs were a helpful addition.
Examining the black-anodized aircraft-alloy receiver, we noted a trigger-guard button safety and a big grooved cut-off button for loading single rounds.
Milled into the top of the Escort’s receiver was a 3⁄8-inch dovetail rib for accessory sights. The gas-operated semiauto came with two stock-adjustment shims and three cushioned rubber recoil pads in what the company calls small, medium, and large girths. The Smart Valve Piston gas system is rated for 7⁄8-oz. to 2-oz. magnum shotloads, and didn’t require changing valves to operate.
At just 6.25 pounds and 46 inches OAL, the gun weighs about right for a single-barrel 20 gauge that you carry in one hand while jogging behind pointing dogs, and the action and magazine tube contribute about 4 pounds of that total, or more than 40% of the gun’s total weight. The point of balance fell in line with the front edge of the aluminum alloy receiver. The Escort’s stock and fore-end were polymer, meaning they are strong, light, waterproof, and oilproof. The molded grip panels substituted for checkering and were very effective, our team said. The slender fore-end felt easy to hold and was long enough to accommodate both short- and long-leading-arm shooting styles. The as-delivered 14.25-inch LOP measured short for most shooters, but it was adjustable by replacing the buttpad. The drop at the tip of the comb and heel of the right-handed stock measured 1.5 inches and 2.5 inches respectively, but they can be altered by the addition of drop spacers used either singly or as a pair. Our team said this gave the Escort a big edge.
There are five different screw-in chokes that can be used in the shotgun, but only three come as standard equipment. The tube body is labeled with the constriction, and the front edges are notched to designate their choke status (Full / ), (Modified /// ), (Improved Cylinder //// ). The Modified and Improved Cylinder are good for steel shot. The Full Choke tube should be used with only lead shot.
One of the few complaints we had with the gun was the stockfit as delivered. But through a trial-and-error process, each shooter used the three buttpads and two stock shims to pretty much get the stockfit he wanted.
Our Team Said: The Escort functioned reliably, had sling swivels, a receiver milled to accept accessories, and a shim-adjustable stock. We’ve tested several guns selling for a heckuva lot more that didn’t include those amenities.
We wondered in the February issue if it were possible to have a
holster that fulfills several different jobs. One of the winners was the Classic Old West Styles Four Way Holster, $38, the most affordable leather in the test. The COWS four-way holster may be worn strong side, with a pronounced FBI cant, as a small-of-the-back holster, or as a cross-draw. To grade it on a two-way scale as we did the others, our testers concentrated upon what they deemed were its strongest uses, strong-side and SOB use.
Our Team Said: All who tested the holster found it to be a good strong-side holster. The thumb break was easily deployed on the draw. We especially liked the generous draw angle. This was a fast holster with a bit of practice. As a SOB holster, the Four Way rides at an angle that allows good concealment.
The nearly unquestioned champion of home defense is the shotgun, but many shooters want better furniture for this use, in particular a replacement buttstock. When we tested several in the May issue, we
picked the Phoenix Technology KickLite Tactical Stock, $110, as a Best Buy. This kit includes a glass-reinforced injection-molded nylon replacement buttstock, forend, screw-on shotshell holder, mounting hardware, and instructions. It fits only the Remington 870 12 gauge. During live firing, our test shooter praised the adjustable six-position AR-style buttstock’s rubber buttpad and built-in spring-loaded recoil suppression system. He said it vastly reduced shoulder battering, and the stock pointed well. He also liked the ergonomic plastic pistol grip.
Our Team Said: The Phoenix was of the cheaper units, yet it felt great to shoot and was among the easier units to install.
In a second installment of 9mm Luger ammunition testing in the April issue, we looked at higher-pressure and +P loads. Among the non +P 9mm specialty loads, we named the Black Hills 115-grain EXP, $29.99/50 a Best Buy. It was loaded to the maximum power level possible without venturing into +P category, yet the bullet expanded quickly at its velocity.
Among the +P loads, we liked the Black Hills 115-grain 9mm +P, $35.49/50. This was the single most accurate load tested. The increased velocity adds more penetration and a modest increase in
expansion over the standard pressure loads using the XTP bullet.
Our Team Said: As a defense load for those concerned with overpenetration, the Black Hills 115-grain EXP is recommended. In our opinion, the Black Hills +P load has a good balance of expansion and is affordable compared to most of the other +P loads.
In a May test we evaluated three Mil-Dot rifle scopes with variable power, with the winner being the least expensive, a $999 6-21X50mm Bushnell Elite No. 42-6245T. The scope was built on a 30mm-diameter tube with a 50mm objective lens and a reticle wherein the vertical and horizontal crosshairs were strung with evenly spaced dots (Mil-Dots). The knobs offered quarter-minute click adjustment. The magnification ring was bold, easy to turn, and offered the largest numbers from 6 to 24. The adjustment turret showed the mounted shooter which direction was up, down, right, and left, but the top of each adjustment knob was left blank. The knobs themselves were bulbous and grooved for grip. Turning the knobs offered well-defined clicks for each one-quarter MOA. The most challenging aspect of our test was to move the point of impact up 4 MOAfrom our zero after having been lowered 4 MOA and have the resulting groups land equidistant from center. The Bushnell scope was able to raise the point of impact 2.4 inches above zero after dropping it 2.4 inches downward. Given that each scope was shot under comparable conditions at the range, this was the best
performance, our testers said.
Our Team Said: With an MSRP of less than $1000, we are sure you can pay more for several scopes that offer a lot less than the Bushnell.
Multifunction devices that combine optical laser and lighting into a vertical grip platform can help keep your rifle trim and uncluttered. In September, we tested and preferred Crimson Trace’s Modular Vertical Grip MVF-515 Green, $599, and named it the Best in Class Accessory. The MVF was built upon a plastic overmolded aluminum frame that looks like a hybrid between the pistol grip shape and the traditional broomhandle look. The back of the grip has a curve that fits deeply into the palm. The ridges are augmented with a heavy-adhesive like that used on non-skid surfaces of boats. The flashlight module is rated at 150/200 lumens and is adjusted by twisting its bezel. The green laser unit was powered by a pair of CR123A batteries with a rated runtime of 4 hours of illumination or 48 hours of laser-only use.
Our Team Said: Is the green laser MVF-515 worth an extra $200? The answer is yes if you use of a laser as a sighting tool.