Although most shooters don‘t realize it, striker-fired pistols are actually nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around for a bit more than 100 years.
However, what is new about them is the extensive use of polymer frames, whereas the early versions were all steel and labeled as being “hammerless.” The first of the so-called “modern” striker-fired, polymer-framed generation was the Glock G17, which first appeared in the mid-1980s. It was an immediate success, but most of the gun manufacturers apparently didn’t expect it to be successful and abstained from producing their own versions for nearly three decades.
They were, of course, wrong and finally realized that the Glock had started a revolution in pistol design. They hastened to get their share of the market, which, by then, was totally dominated by Glock and continuing to grow. Indeed, by 1995, the Glock had become the most prolific military and police pistol in the world, with nearly 75 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the world carrying them. The rest is history; and by the turn of the 21st century, the Glock had become an icon like the Thompson submachine gun or M16 rifle.
Then came the U.S. military’s recent interest in replacing its aging Beretta M9s with some form of striker-fired 9mm pistol. Entries from Glock, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Fabrique Nationale (FN) and CZ were considered, with the SIG P320 ending up being the final selection. While the actual “testing” remains shrouded in secrecy, the other competitors— offerings from Glock, S&W, FN and CZ—were dismissed one by one, leaving the P320 as the final selectee.
Unfortunately, the P320’s selection immediately fostered intense controversy, which became even more intense when allegations surfaced that it would often discharge if dropped. Although SIG denies it, at the time of this writing, a number of videos are circulating on the Internet wherein the subject P320s did, indeed, fire when dropped.
Having already tested the P320 against the Glock G17 Gen5 myself, I can only say that I hope the problem is located and rectified, because the mere suggestion of its existence has caused a number of prominent law enforcement agencies to cancel its adoption. I can state with some degree of authority that when I became aware of the supposed problem, I initiated some drop-testing of my own P320, but no discharges occurred.
So, what about the FBI’s new Glock G17 Gen5, the S&W M&P9 2.0, FN 509 and CZ P-10C? Is the P320 really superior, or was there some other reason for its selection? The answer is probably that the extremely low per-gun price offered by SIG was more tempting than even the most cynical government examiner could resist. Still, claims that the testing was flawed continue to be voiced, and, as this is written, no clarification from the U.S. military has been forthcoming.
TESTING VIA THE ASAA HCM QUALIFICATION COURSE
Thus, I decided to conduct some testing of my own—much simplified in comparison to that conducted by the U.S. government, but, I believe, more to the point. To me, a simple feature-by-feature physical analysis, followed by running all five pistols through the extremely difficult American Small Arms Academy Handgun Combat Master Qualification course, is quite indicative.
Because of its difficulty level, the course immediately brings out not only flaws in operator techniques, but the design flaws of each gun, as well. Specifically, the shooting portion of it encompasses—
- Stage 1: Standard single-target engagements from arm’s length to a full 50 meters
- Stage 2: High-speed presentations
- Stage 3: Small targets
- Stage 4: Responses to the left, right and rear
- Stage 5: Multiple targets
- Stage 6: Ambidextrous shooting
- Stage 7: Hostage situations
- Stage 8: Angled/partial targets
All these functions must be performed in extremely fast time frames. Each handgun will earn a score out of a maximum of 400 points, requiring 90 percent (360 points) to pass.
Physical examination of each gun shows right away that all five are high-quality pistols, designed with the tactical shooter in mind. All are mechanically reliable in any reasonable combinations of environmental conditions and will feed and function with all but the most bizarre JHP bullet designs. They all feature high-visibility fixed sights, with various forms of white dots or outlines in their front and rear sights for lowlight shooting. They also feature the ability to access and remove a stuck magazine, ambidextrous slide stop levers and flared magazine wells for quick speedloading, and some form of roughened grip frame for better grip adhesion under wet conditions.
And, to top it all off, all five guns come from the box with a rugged wear- and corrosion-resistant finish and offer either an ambidextrous magazine release system or at least a reversible one.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? On the surface, at least, it is, especially when compared to most pistols as they come from the box. However, there is one additional element that, although typically overlooked, exerts great influence on performance: ergonomics. Another phrase for ergonomics is “human engineering.” And make no mistake: Humans, usually under conditions of great stress, must be able to access and use these guns to deliver quick, accurate fire on an adversary at close quarters.
All five pistols feature either a rotating lever (bottom) or fingeroperated crossbar release (right) for rapid field-stripping.
This is when we begin to see true strength and weakness. For example, the ambidextrous slide lock levers of the Glock G17 Gen5, FN 509 and S&W M&P9 2.0 are virtually impossible to operate quickly, whereas those on the P320 and P-10C operate with ease. The inability to rapidly and efficiently operate slide lock levers forces the operator to reach over the slide and release it manually during a speed load, thus defeating the purpose of the procedure, because it adds a full second to the time required to complete the protocol.
The ridges around the FN 509’s ambidextrous magazine release buttons, as well as the necessity to press the button deep into the grip frame to operate it, also cause problems. Conversely, the ambidextrous buttons of the P-10C are a dream to operate, because they‘re large, ridge-free and, therefore, easy to access.
Moreover, the ridges around the levers often hinder accessing the lever to press it upward and lock the slide open when clearing a Type 3 (feedway) stoppage. The levers, themselves, need their bearing surfaces polished to allow easy release, and the ridges need to be toned down to allow better access.
Stages 9, 10 and 11 of the ASAA HCM Qual require speed/tactical reloading and clearing of Type 1 (failure to fire), Type 2 (failure to eject) and Type 3 (feedway) stoppages, with 5-point penalties for exceeding the specified overtime or for administering erroneous procedures. As a result, the inability to utilize the levers quickly and effectively caused numerous overtime penalties to be assessed. Interestingly enough, the ridges were incorporated to prevent inadvertent manipulation of the levers by those utilizing the currently popular “thumbs-forward” Isosceles grip.
Trigger pull weights also exert tremendous influence on shooting efficiency, and all five guns need some work. From the box, the P320 and M&P9 2.0 had 8.25- to 8.50-pound trigger pulls. The FN 509 and G17 Gen5 had 6.25- to 6.50-pound pulls, and the P-10C had 5.0 pounds. Of the five, only the P-10C trigger was sufficiently light to allow truly fast, accurate shooting—an issue that surfaced repeatedly with all the guns during the course. Nonetheless, trigger pull weights in the 4- to 4.5-pound range would be far better.
In the end, only the P-10C performed well enough to exceed the 90 percent threshold needed to pass the test, with a score of 365 points (91 percent) out of a possible 400. Next came the Glock G17 Gen5 with 349 (87 percent); the FN 509 with 317 (80 percent); the P320 with 288 points (74 percent); and, finally, the M&P9 2.0 with 277 points (69 percent).
WEAPON AND OPERATOR PERFORMANCE
If the P320, M&P 2.0, G17 Gen5 and FN 509 had better triggers with pull weights at 4 to 4.5 pounds, their performance would be hugely improved. Likewise, polishing the bearing surfaces of the slide lock levers of the FN 509, G17 Gen5 and M&P9 2.0 to allow them to be utilized more quickly; and also reducing the height of the ridges around the slide lock levers to allow faster, more positive access would have prevented the numerous 5-point penalties for overtime speed loading and malfunction clearing.
I had spent several days familiarizing myself thoroughly with each pistol, but I never became accustomed to the extreme roughness of the grip frames of the M&P9 2.0, FN 509 and CZ P-10C. They’re too abrasive for comfortable shooting and need to be smoothed out somewhat for best efficiency. Intensive practice and carrying of guns with this kind of roughness is tough on skin and concealment clothing. In contrast, the P320’s grip frame texture was quite comfortable, and the G17 Gen5 was at least adequate.
The grip frame texture of the P320 (left) is the most user-friendly, while the P-10C (right) is the most abrasive. The texture on the G17 Gen5 is satisfactory, but the M&P9 2.0 and FN 509 are excessively rough.
These observations are in no way intended to disparage the guns or their manufacturers. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, all five are high-quality firearms that represent the apex of pistol design. Also keep in mind that these are all “out of the box,” and simple fixes would greatly improve performance. Still, the points I’ve noted affect their performance a great deal and should be rectified if their maximum potential is to be achieved. In and of themselves, things such as polishing slide lock levers and reducing the height of the protective ridges around them, as well as reducing trigger pull weights to more reasonable levels, might seem trivial—but they’re not. They exert a pronounced influence upon weapon/operator performance and can quite literally make the difference between winning and losing a deadly encounter. When you bet your life on the gun you carry, give this some thought.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.