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Three things are required of a defensive handgun, regardless of what it costs.

First and foremost, it must be reliable. A sidearm in which the owner lacks confidence is more likely to be left at home, where it’s of no use at all in crisis. It can have all the bells and whistles that one could ask for, but it if doesn’t go bang! when it needs to, it is not going to fulfill its intended function as an emergency survival tool.
It must be durable. Defensive sidearms might spend their functional lives in some pretty rotten places, including dirty pockets or purses, sweaty hands, or crummy, “el cheapo” holsters. Environmental conditions can cover the spectrum from hot and dusty to cold and wet, which can include snow, rain and sleet. They might get dropped, say, in a muddy puddle or on the pavement. But they mustn’t break.

It must be reasonably accurate. It needs to deliver a bullet on target in a spot where a violent attacker is most likely to be disabled or shut down completely. A pistol that doesn’t shoot straight could become more of a problem than you think. (Keep in mind Workman’s first principle: “A bullet that misses the target is going to hit something else.”)

For this article, I obtained four compact 9mm pistols and ammunition from Hornady, SIG Sauer, Browning, Double Tap, Black Hills, Remington, American Eagle, Colt Defense and Armscor. My trigger finger got quite a workout, and I discovered several things about these pocket-sized pistols that elevated their worth, along with a couple of things that might need improvement.

THE FEROCIOUS FOUR

Four compact 9mm pistols proved their worth during a Pacific Northwest evaluation. Clockwise from the top right are the Kel-Tec PF-9, Ruger LC9s, Taurus PT709S and the Taurus PT111G2.

Four compact 9mm pistols proved their worth during a Pacific Northwest evaluation. Clockwise from the top right are the Kel-Tec PF-9, Ruger LC9s, Taurus PT709S and the Taurus PT111G2.

The four pistols tested were a Ruger LC9s, Taurus PT709FS, KelTec PF-9 and a Taurus PT111 Millennium G2. All of them retail in the $300 to $375 range—a price spread that is not going to break a budget. Much to my surprise, a couple of these guns, when matched to a particular load, proved to be surprisingly accurate at gunfighting distances out to 7 to 10 yards.

I shot more than 1,600 rounds through the four pistols, experiencing three failures to fire in two different guns—the Kel-Tec and the Taurus 709FS—which I attributed to hard primers. That happens occasionally, and after a reset of the action in both guns, those cartridges discharged.

Both Taurus pistols, which are striker-fired, have the advantage of going to double-action for a second pull on the trigger for such events. These failures happened well into the test, which took several visits to the range in late afternoon, sometimes shooting until it was dark enough to require range lights. I shot in dry weather, in the rain and in cold temperatures. I purposely did not clean any of the pistols during the testing.

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A pistol that will work under these conditions is going to work anywhere and with virtually any commercially available 9mm ammunition.

For the record, some of these loads seemed pretty hot for compact handguns. I noticed the sharpest recoil came with the Black Hills 115-grain +P; and all four guns also got a jolt from the SIG Sauer 115-grain V-Crown. On the other hand, the Remington 124-grainer and American Eagle Syntech 115-grain TSJ load with the red coating on the bullet were both comfortable to shoot, even though the Syntech delivered velocities of more than 1,000 fps consistently.

DEFENSIVE ACCURACY

Accuracy varied with all of these loads from all four guns. Over the course of my shooting, as my hand got more familiar with each pistol and its trigger idiosyncrasies, I actually got a few small cloverleaf three-shot clusters; but I never managed to shoot an entire string of five rounds without throwing at least one shot. Then, there were some loads that simply did not agree with a particular pistol, although I did manage to keep strings within 3.5 inches and most in smaller groups.

My targets were all set at 10 yards. I shot for accuracy off a rest with a two-hand hold. One should never expect target pistol accuracy out of a small, defensive handgun. What does count is to be able to put everything into the black, and all of these pistols did that consistently. You won’t win at the Olympics, but you could win a gunfight. What’s more important?

As noted earlier, each pistol seemed to perform better when matched to a particular load. The Syntech was the most consistent out of all four, along with the Hornady Critical Duty 135-grain ammunition. (Nevertheless, you will need to do your own evaluation, because “your mileage may vary.”)

The four test pistols with samples of all the ammunition the author used up in several range visits. All four pistols handled everything, including +P rounds.

The four test pistols with samples of all the ammunition the author used up in several range visits. All four pistols handled everything, including +P rounds.

All in all, what I found were four moderately priced, compact 9mm pistols that can be carried discreetly and that will do the job when the need arises. They all met the three requirements of reliability, durability and accuracy. And, they are affordable.

It’s difficult to say that one of these guns is better than any of the others, because they all have good qualities. There are also one or two things I might change. However, to pick a winner, two things give the Taurus PT111 G2 Millennium a slight edge: It comes with a spare magazine, and it has an adjustable rear sight. Running a close second by a nose is the Ruger LC9s, which does fit my hand a little better and is slightly smaller, with a fl atter profile.

With that said, these four are all good pistols and will fill someone’s individual needs.

Which one would I carry? Well, thanks to their affordability, light weight and diminutive size compared to my usual sidearm, I’d probably carry all four.

 

1. Ruger LC9s

  • ACTION: Semiauto, striker fired
  • CAPACITY: 7 rounds
  • SLIDE: Alloy steel, blue
  • BARREL: 3.12 inches, blue
  • TWIST: 1:10 inches, six grooves, RH twist
  • SIGHTS: 3-dot, drift adjustable
  • FRAME: Black glass-filled nylon
  • WIDTH: 0.90 inch
  • WEIGHT: 17.2 ounces
  • SAFETY: Manual, left side
  • OVERALL LENGTH: 6 inches
  • MSRP: $479 (street: around $390)

The Ruger LC9s is a gem, and I found that it was hard to put down when I started shooting different targets, including small rubber spinners from Champion. While it shot a bit high with some rounds, it was consistent when I used a 6 o’clock hold.

I found the trigger to be smooth, and the pistol cleaned up easily. It functioned reliably and tucked easily into a vest or jacket pocket. It had a thumb safety on the left side, although the lever was rather small. There was also a trigger safety.

The Ruger LC9s is a gem, and I found that it was hard to put down when I started shooting different targets

On the down side, this pistol comes with only one seven-round magazine. However, there are two interchangeable floor plates, one flat and the other with an extension, for the little finger of the gun hand. I prefer the extended one.

With one up the spout, you’ve got eight rounds of fight-stopping horsepower in a compact package.

 

2. Kel-Tec PF-9

  • ACTION: Semiauto, DA only, bobbed hammer
  • CAPACITY: 7 rounds
  • SLIDE: Blue
  • BARREL: 3.1 inches
  • SIGHTS: Fixed front, rear drift adjustable
  • FRAME: Aluminum housed in polymer
  • WIDTH: 0.88 inch
  • WEIGHT: 12.7 ounces
  • SAFETY: No external safety
  • OVERALL LENGTH: 5.85 inches
  • MSRP: $356.36

The lightest compact 9mm I’ve ever fired, the Kel-Tec PF-9 will surprise people with its ability to digest anything you feed it. It holds seven rounds and can handle +P ammunition—although I would not recommend a steady diet of such ammo.

The rear sight is drift adjustable for windage only. There is no manual safety device on this pistol, and the trigger extends rather far forward in the trigger guard. However, this is part of the internal system featuring a hammer block that is disengaged only by deliberately pressing the trigger. The hammer cannot be struck if the pistol is dropped, because it fully recesses into the rear of the slide.

There is an accessory rail molded into the frame dust cover, and takedown is fairly simple for cleaning. This is certainly one of the most easily concealable 9mm pistols available … but don’t let the size fool you.

 

3. Taurus PT111 Millennium G2

  • ACTION: Semiauto, striker fired, SA/DA
  • CAPACITY: 12 rounds
  • SLIDE: Blue steel
  • BARREL: 3.2 inches
  • SIGHTS: 3-dot, front fixed, rear adjustable for windage and elevation
  • FRAME: Polymer
  • WIDTH: 1.22 inches
  • WEIGHT: 22 ounces
  • SAFETY: Manual left side, trigger safety
  • OVERALL LENGTH: 6.24 inches
  • MSRP: $301.52

With two generous 12-round magazines and a wider grip circumference to go along with that, the Taurus PT111 Millennium G2 is the brawniest of these compacts; it is a handful but still very concealable. Thanks to the wider grip surface, it sucks up recoil better and spreads it over a wider area.

It also features a trigger safety, firing pin block, loaded chamber indicator and manual thumb safety. Plus, it has the Taurus Security lock in the slide.

This pistol has an adjustable rear sight, roomy trigger guard and an accessory rail on the frame, and it’s fairly easy to disassemble for cleaning. It has a texture on the grip surface reminiscent of sandpaper, and this really helps grip stability in wet conditions.

Both magazines feature extended floorplates for finger support. The PT111 Millennium G2 is probably too large for ankle carry, but in a pocket, purse or good IWB holster, it’s a keeper.

 

4. Taurus PT709S

  • ACTION: Semiauto, striker fired, SA/DA
  • CAPACITY: 7 rounds
  • SLIDE: Blue steel or matte stainless
  • BARREL: 3.2 inches, stainless
  • SIGHTS: 3-dot, fixed front, rear adjustable for windage and elevation
  • FRAME: Polymer
  • WIDTH: 0.96 inch
  • WEIGHT: 19 ounces
  • SAFETY: Trigger safety, manual left side, firing pin block
  • OVERALL LENGTH: 6.24 inches
  • MSRP: $301.52

Here’s a tough, slimline, single-stack handgun I’ve tested in the past. With each experience, it is clear that Taurus has delivered the goods. The PT709S features the Taurus Security lock on the slide, and two keys come with each pistol. It also has a trigger safety, manual thumb safety, firing pin block and loaded chamber indicator.

The grip circumference may be a bit small for some people, contributing to more felt recoil with some loads. I like the adjustable rear sight. My test gun came with one seven-round, single-stack magazine.

Takedown is fairly simple, and cleanup is quick. There is ample room in the trigger guard for use with gloves. The thin profile makes the PT709S totally concealable, whether in a pocket, purse, inside the waistband or on the ankle.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.