CCW Gun Battle Royale
Three Single-Stack 9MMs Go Head To Head
By Nick Saiti
There was a time when drivers only had two choices: a car or a truck. But time goes on, evolution does its thing, and automakers herd consumers toward new classes of automobiles that didn't previously exist. Today's plentiful subcategories of vehicles might confuse the masses, but products have also been tailored to perfectly fit individual needs. We now have hybrids, luxury compacts, ESVs, sport luxury midsize crossovers... and the list keeps getting longer. Meanwhile, we're still at the rental counter trying to figure out the difference between economy and compact class.
Just like automobiles, handguns require increasingly specific monikers and designations to sort them out. The 9mm singlestack carry gun has seen a major influx as of late. The popularity is for good reason, as these guns are made for deep concealment without sacrificing on caliber. For eons, 9mm was considered an inferior cartridge, but advances in technology have made the little bullet better, stronger, and faster. This class of handgun is the culmination of progress in ammunition development, shootability, and concealability. So when presented with such a crowded field, how does one go about making an informed carry gun purchase? Aside from trying out a multitude of firearms yourself, you have to narrow down the choices with some empirical data. We decided to pit three single-stack 9mm carry guns against each other until only one is left standing. Picking the prettiest one won't cut it, and it's almost impossible to test the lap times of a handgun. A couple of basic shooting drills were in order. The basis for the "comparo" are fundamental skills like the draw, transitions between targets, and recoil management.
THE TEST TRACK
The Bill Drill is shot on one target at 7 yards. The shooter draws the gun from a "surrender" hand position and puts six shots on target as quickly and as accurately as possible. This is our first drill, testing the draw and efficiency of recoil management. The point is not to just pull the trigger as fast as you can, but to track your sights during the six shots and watch them as they lift. The other drill we chose is El Presidente. Like the chicken or the egg argument, this exercise has been around for so many years it's hard to tell which came first - the drill or the gun itself.
"El Pres" is done with three targets set at a distance of 10 yards spaced out laterally with about 1 yard between targets. The shooter starts facing up range, turns, then draws. He or she engages each target with two rounds each, then performs a reload, and engages each target again with two rounds each. For many competitive shooters this is one of the first drills you learn. El Pres, with all its moving parts, might be a bit much for consistent repeatability. One dropped reload and we would have to start over. We decided to use the target setup, but simplify the drill, instead shooting each target with two rounds each from a normal ready start position. This would still test the draw, repeatable shots, and transitions. We like to stick with the K.I.S.S. Principle.
Keeping track of time is easy enough, but we needed a method to record the points. Since the drills used USPSA-style targets it's only natural to score them accordingly. For those of you unfamiliar with the USPSA system, it uses what's called a "hit factor." Basically, this number equates to how many points are scored per second. There are four scoring zones on the USPSA target: A is 5 points, B and C are 3 points, and D is 1 point. Add the number of points scored on the targets and divide that by the time it took to shoot them. The hit factor is not that complicated once you understand it.
Once we had the test tracks set up, we moved on to the drivers. We sought out a range of skill levels to provide more useful results. Our first driver was Stephanie, a mounted police officer with the Phoenix Police Department. As our baseline shooter, she knows how to break a shot, but doesn't get to shoot as much as the others. Next, Aaron is a member of the Phoenix Fire Department, considers himself an amateur shooter, and gets to the range a little more than the average Joe. Finally, this author is a world-class competitive shooter and instructor.
To get a good baseline of the skill levels involved, we used a pair of "control" guns. Nearly every shooter has at least handled a Glock 17 once in their life. You can't beat a full-size 9mm. Besides, that was the first gun that fell out of the RECOIL vault. On the other end of the spectrum is the Ruger LCP II, a pocket-sized .380 ACP. The smaller the gun, the more challenging it is to shoot, and the LCP is about as small as you can get. These two guns were brought in to test the difference, if any, between the size of the gun and ability to put rounds on target.
The first test gun is one of the most popular single-stack 9mms. The Smith & Wesson M&P Shield has been selling like hot cakes since its inception a few years ago - and we'll find out why. The Walther PPS M2 9mm is the new kid. Lastly, a first-generation Ruger LC9 rounded out the comparison.
The only reason the Ruger LC9 came in third is that there were only three test guns. Before the "bashing" begins, note that this particular LC9 is a first-generation model. The importance of this fact is the exact reason it falls to last place. The trigger on this model seems to be a mash up of the worst aspects of a pistol trigger. It's a doubleaction trigger, but doesn't boast the second round strike capability of a true doubleaction gun. Besides the fact that the pull is longer than a 1970s Cadillac, it doesn't break cleanly or consistently. The trigger is so lackluster that it overshadowed all of the gun's potential. To Ruger's credit it remedied the situation in the LC9s. The "s" designation stands for striker fired, which takes care of the hammer and the long pull.
The LC9 came in at 17.1 ounces, making it the lightest gun tested. Lightweight is a good thing when carrying all day, and the gun performed flawlessly once you got past the trigger. The LC9 features a magazine disconnect which doesn't allow firing without a magazine in the gun. The LC9 performs as intended.
Most people think of James Bond when they hear the name Walther. It can be argued that the Walther PPK started the semiauto concealed carry craze. The PPS M2 is Walther's latest version of the single-stack compact carry gun. Even though you don't notice it, the PPS is the fatty of the three, weighing in at 21.3 ounces. A 4-ounce difference isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but at this weight it's roughly the same as a Glock 26 with essentially twice the magazine capacity.
The major issue with this gun was the magazine release. When Stephanie accidentally depressed the button during recoil we initially blamed a bad grip, but when it happened to me too there was something worth looking into. The previous version of the PPS had a paddle-style mag release versus the new button on the M2. The M2 lost marks specifically for this reason. It didn't happen every time, but having to be that aware of your grip position when your life depends on it is not a good thing. Imagine the magazine falling out during a gunfight. "OMG, how embarrassing!"
The fit and finish on the M2 is ahead of the curve. The front serrations on the slide are a plus and look good. The trigger breaks right at 6 pounds. Technically, it's lightest trigger of the three, but that's not saying much. Overall, it's a refined design that would be right up with the best if it would just go on a diet.
The Shield stands tall at the end, not by reinventing the wheel, but by sticking to what works. Besides barrel length and magazine capacity, this is basically a "mini-me" version of a full-size M&P. It lacks refinement and enthusiasm in that it doesn't seem to be built from the ground up as the other test subjects, but that's probably why it works so well. My OCD kicked in when the magazine didn't fit perfectly flush, so if you really want to split hairs the fit could use some attention. Other than that, it's a home run.
Even though the Shield weighs in at 19 ounces, it shoots and acts like a bigger gun. It comes with the highest capacity of the three, a whopping eight rounds. Recoil on smaller guns is not exactly velvety, but the Shield's recoil impulse is the softest of the three. The Shield won almost every test we performed. One can easily see why this is the best-selling gun in the category. It's a compact carry gun that acts like a full-size. The question to ask at the end is not which gun to buy, but how can I not buy a Shield? (Especially since Brownells is has them on sale right now, at remarkably attractive prices. – Ed.)
NUMBERS DON'T LIE
After putting the numbers together, you can discern a couple of things. First, the times from the full-size Glock 17 and the test guns were not that far off, but the smaller .380 presented a bigger gap in performance. The major downfall of the small gun was retrieving it from deep concealment (i.e. a pocket holster). Putting aside the first shot, the small gun was still more challenging to shoot quickly and accurately. Lastly, it's definitely the driver, not the car, that makes the biggest impact on performance. Put a great shooter with an inferior gun against a novice with the latest and greatest, and you get the same result over and again. You can't substitute great equipment for good range time.