February 03, 2023
It has only been relatively recently that you’ve seen Glock “clones” on the market, simply because Glock’s patent had not expired, and they showed a willingness if not an eagerness to send “Cease and Desist” letters threatening lawsuits to anyone who produced any product which even remotely resembled a Glock, whether it was a toy or airsoft gun.
When it comes to innovation, Glock has been their own worst enemy. Their pistol is “perfection,” after all, and that’s not just a slogan, a lot of people at the company (including those at the very top) believe it, which was why for years in the Glock Annual magazine you couldn’t find photos of any pistols which even sported aftermarket sights, much less the custom triggers, grip mods, etc. that were becoming popular everywhere. Steve Jobs was famous for his “reality distortion field,” and the executives at Glock practiced something similar. So, Glock put themselves behind the curve. It has only been since their patent death grip has expired, and they’ve lost serious market share to both competing designs and far better Glockish pistols than what they themselves were putting out, that they’ve freed themselves of at least some of their bureaucratic inertia. Still, the tiny incremental improvements Glock has made to their pistols (forward slide serrations after thirty years of us begging, a trigger pull on the Gen 5 guns which actually, for the first time, is as light as they’ve claimed, etc.) fall far short of what you’re seeing with the many Glock-pattern pistol manufacturers on the market.
Shadow Systems XR920 Elite
I first heard of Shadow Systems in 2018 and was hugely impressed by their pistol that I tested (the now-discontinued SS9F). They were doing things that no one else was, and that were a substantive functional improvement to the design. They continue to produce impressive pistols. Over the years they’ve changed the models and the features they sport. They currently have five different models ranging from subcompacts to full-size, with an extended compensated model planned for later this year.
The Shadow Systems XR920 Elite pairs a full-size grip with a compact slide. This combination has proven to be very popular, whether you’re talking the XR920 or the Glock 19X—the full grip allows complete control, and the shorter slide is lighter, which tends to reduce felt recoil a small amount and provides a different recoil impulse that some people prefer. Shadow Systems states that this pistol was created due to a request from law enforcement. This 9mm pistol has full 17+1 capacity but is, as they say “quicker out of the holster” as it has a shorter four-inch barrel. For comparison, the original Glock 17 has a 4.49-inch barrel, the G19 a 4.02-inch barrel, and the longslide Glock 34 has a 5.31-inch barrel.
To show how things have changed, in 2018, Shadow Systems was doing their work on factory Glock frames. Now they have their own frames and slides, and are not constrained by other companies’ limited imagination. For testing, I was sent two versions of the XR920 Elite, which differs slightly from the standard XR920. One version is black with a four-inch barrel, and the other is FDE (Flat Dark Earth), with an extended threaded 4.5-inch barrel. Back in the day, an extended threaded barrel meant “suppressor ready,” but with an optics-ready polymer-framed high-cap 9mm, these days it’s far more likely that threaded barrel will end up wearing a compensator. More on that in a bit.
Let’s talk the standard black model first. The slide is machined from 17-4 stainless steel with a black nitride finish. This is about the best steel you’ll find in a pistol slide, and between the stainless steel and the corrosion resistant finish it will handle a ridiculous amount of abuse. While this is a “Glock pattern” pistol, if you hold up the slide of the XR920 to a standard factory Glock you’ll see huge differences, much like you’d see comparing a 1970s GI .45 to a modern custom 1911. Shadow Systems didn’t just carve some new angles into an otherwise factory slide, it has (externally) been completely redesigned. There are angled cocking serrations front and back. Unlike a factory Glock slide, which is boring and soulless, the slide of the XR has some style and character. All but one of Shadow Systems’ pistols are optics ready, and I’ll get to their interesting patented mounting system in a bit.
As for the difference between the XR920 (or XR920 “Combat”) and the XR920 Elite as seen here, the Elite sports angled cuts on the top of the slide forward of the ejection port, and window cuts on either side just below. If you wrap your hand around the front of the slide to rack it, you’ll find those angled cuts on the top very functional. The window cuts (of course) look very cool, especially if you’re running a barrel that’s a different color than the slide. Functionally, they also slightly reduce the weight a little, and less reciprocating weight usually translates to less felt recoil. I’ve heard some people decry cuts like these, saying that the openings will let in dirt and make the pistol more likely to jam. And they’re not wrong, enough dirt will jam any pistol, and more holes let in more dirt.
I would not recommend a pistol with slide cutouts as a duty weapon for police or military—especially not military, where you might have to navigate jungle, sandstorms, or mud, but on a carry piece for a private citizen, where the worst the pistol is likely to suffer is lint and dust from your holster/shirt/underwear, I don’t see a problem. Take the pistol out of the holster every day or two and blow the lint out. You should be doing that anyway.
The iron sights are standard height. The front sight is made by Night Fision, and sports a bright green ring around a tritium insert. The rear sight is plain black and serrated. Personally, I prefer a square profile rear sight to the angled corners seen on this model, but these are great day/night sights that you will not need to swap out. The barrel is 416R stainless steel with a spiral fluting on the outside that reduces weight a bit but, far more importantly, looks cool. You know what looks even cooler? The optional bronze TiCN (titanium carbonitride) coating available for the barrel. As seen here, the barrel just has the standard black nitride finish—again, nitride over stainless will last forever, and is exactly what you want on a carry gun. The barrels all have traditional lands and grooves so they’re safe to shoot lead and/or coated bullets through, unlike the factory polygonally rifled barrels.
Glock added a second pin to their locking block with their third-generation pistols, as those chambered in .40 S&W had a tendency to break pins. Glock has gone back to the single pin for their Gen 5 pistols, the vast majority of which are chambered in 9mm. For those Gen 5 guns chambered in .40, they feel their beefier recoil system and slightly stronger frame will prevent those historical problems. But the two-pin design isn’t a bad idea, as it provides increased strength, and that’s what you’ll see with the XR920 Elite.
Things are changing in the world of polymer pistols, and it is the smaller companies keeping up. For instance, almost nobody is doing hand-stippling any more, it is too time and labor intensive. They’re using lasers to texture the grip, or producing their own injection-molded frames with aggressive texturing nearly the equal to hand-stippling. You’ll find the latter on the XR920. In photos the texturing on the frame looks unremarkable. Heck, in person it looks unremarkable. It’s only when you put your hand on the gun that you discover that it is 95% as aggressive as hand stippling, with a fine texture that won’t chew through any covering garments.
The trigger guard is thinned and squared off, and the front of it is textured if you wrap a finger around the front. Above the front of the trigger guard on either side you’ll find another textured area, with a ledge at the bottom. Shadow Systems calls this a “recoil control ledge,” and it’s where you should be placing the thumb of your support hand while shooting. At the front of the frame is the standard Glock-pattern accessory rail with its single slot. At the rear of the frame you’ll see a beavertail big enough to keep even those guys with massive mitts from getting slide bite, while not being obnoxious. The magazine release button is polymer, with angled vertical serrations, and is reversible.
The pistol sports an interchangeable backstrap, and three sizes are supplied with the gun. The size medium (neutral) is installed on the pistol at the factory, and it provides a backstrap and grip angle similar to a S&W M&P, less angled than the small/low backstrap (a grip angle close to that of a 1911) but not as angled as the large/high backstrap, which is similar to the Glock factory grip profile. Shadow Systems says they are great to fit the gun to your NPOA—if you don’t recognize that acronym it means Natural Point of Aim.
To swap out the backstrap, you only need remove the roll pin at the bottom of the backstrap, and Shadow Systems provides a push pin for doing just that. They also provide a magazine well which attaches to the frame via that roll pin. It is modestly sized, intended more for carry than competition. It adds no length to the gun, as the magazine protrudes further than the magazine well, and adds less than a quarter inch in width, while providing a substantively larger target for the magazine, so I see no downside to its use. Provided with the pistol are two 17-round Magpul magazines. These work perfectly when new, but in my experience do not have the longevity of Glock factory magazines with their metal liners. Magazines are inexpensive, and invaluable. Buy extras.
The trigger itself is aluminum, with a safety lever in the front and a flat face. Shadow Systems lists a trigger pull of 4.5–5.0 pounds on their pistols. The trigger pull on the black XR920 Elite came in at 5.5 pounds and was a bit gritty. The trigger pull on the FDE model was 4.75 pounds and much crisper. Don’t think this is unusual—if you’ve got any experience with Glock-pattern pistols, you’ll know you can throw identical trigger components into two guns and get wildly disparate trigger pulls. The trigger and internal slide components are all standard Glock dimensions.
FYI, after several hundred rounds through the black pistol, and the application of a little lube, the trigger pull became slightly crisper and a quarter-pound lighter. Inside the slide, you’ll see the striker and the striker safety plunger have a TiCN finish. Between the striker safety and the lever on the trigger the XR920 is drop safe. Shadow Systems uses a full power striker spring in their guns, so light primer strikes are not an issue. Unloaded, with an empty magazine in place, the black XR920 Elite weighed 21.1 ounces according to my digital scale. The FDE pistol with the extended barrel weighed in at 21.5 ounces.
Now to the slide cut—this pistol is “optics ready.” It comes delivered with an aluminum cover plate in place on the slide. Remove that, and you’ll see the slide is ready for direct mounting of most optics. Provided with the pistol are three polymer optic spacers and three sets of screws. The spacers go behind or in front of your optic (depending), but the optic itself is directly attached to the slide with the provided screws. This is as secure as it gets. The pistol is built to accommodate optics using the Trijicon RMR, Leupold DeltaPoint Pro, and Vortex Viper/Docter footprints. With most optics, you’ll be able to see the iron sights in the lower third of the window. I decided to mount a Leupold DeltaPoint Pro to the slide, which has a very tall body. You can’t see the sights through the window of that optic.
The FDE pistol is otherwise identical to the black gun apart from the FDE Cerakote finish and the threaded barrel that’s half an inch longer. Full length grip, with a compact slide…. Complete honesty here—this is the exact opposite of how I think a concealed carry gun should be constructed, but I completely understand why many people disagree—they love the improved control of a full-length grip. And, after all, this was built as a duty gun, not a concealed carry piece. But let me explain my position on the design of concealed carry guns—it is the grip which prints under clothing, so a compact grip (sporting a 15+1 capacity) would be a better choice. And a longer slide isn’t harder to hide (it’s already tucked inside your pants) while providing a longer sight radius, so pairing a compact frame with a full-length slide provides the best of both worlds in a gun meant for concealed carry. In fact, if you feel the same way, Shadow Systems sells a pistol with a compact grip and a full-length slide, it’s called the MR 920L.
My FFL is Double Action Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Madison Heights, MI, and they’ve politely suffered my patronage for the better part of twenty-five years. Al Allen owns it, and his son Joe quite often gives me very colorful quotes about the guns I get in for testing (many of them so colorful I can’t use them). For most of the last year, Joe’s carry gun at the store has been a Shadow Systems pistol—an MR920 (compact frame and slide) with an extended threaded barrel onto which was attached a Suarez International Street Comp, wearing a Holosun optic, carried appendix.
Extended threaded barrels work just as well for mounting compensators as they do suppressors. In fact, I suspect that’s why some people want the shorter top end, because they plan to attach a compensator to their red dot-equipped pistol and want the overall length the same as a standard slide. Which leads me to this bit of historical trivia, combined with a minor rant (you’re welcome).
People, as a general rule, are criminally ignorant of history. Many of the young Glock fanboys have never heard the term “carry comp.” It came about in the 1980s, when the professionals were carrying customized 1911s chambered in .45 ACP and pushing the envelope of the design, including exploring ways to reduce recoil. The “carry comp” was one result—it paired a shorter Commander-length slide with a compensator that brought the overall length of the top end to roughly that of a Government Model. Carry Comps were tried, evaluated, and went away, for several reasons—the low-pressure .45 ACP round didn’t pair well with comps which need high pressure to work, carry comps were significantly more expensive, and the slight reduced muzzle rise shot-to-shot was found to be pretty much irrelevant once you stepped out of the competition arena and entered the real world.
Modern Glock/clone aficionados have rediscovered the carry comp, but for completely different reasons (far worse ones, if you ask me). The guys putting comps on their carry guns are doing that almost exclusively on carry guns equipped with red dots—and I’m on record as nearly the lone voice in the wilderness saying that’s generally a bad idea, as the disadvantages of a red dot on a carry gun in my opinion outweigh the advantages. But why are they putting comps on those guns?
Yes, compensators look cool and reduce muzzle rise 25-40% (something completely irrelevant if we’re talking a 9mm pistol in a defensive shooting scenario, but I digress), but the reason for their sudden popularity on carry guns is because those shooters are losing the dot in the window of their optic under recoil. Which (more than battery/electronics failure) is the biggest disadvantage of red dot optics on pistols—they’re no faster at realistic defensive distances than iron sights, and often slower, because people lose that damn dot either on the draw or between shots. That’s why so many red dot aficionados are suddenly slapping comps on the end of their barrels, to help keep them from losing the dot when they’re shooting—that’s how widespread the problem is. Don’t believe me? Check out how many instructors pushing red dots have comps on their guns. Compare that to the pre-red dot-era, when NOBODY had them. By adding a red dot, they’ve created a problem they refuse to acknowledge, even as they slap comps on their guns to try and fix that problem. Which may create other problems, as many comps require you to install a lighter recoil spring for the gun to continue to work properly….now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Every non-Glock I’ve ever shot has sported a barrel tighter than those found in a factory Glock. The loose fit of Glock parts contributes to its legendary reliability, but they aren’t quite as accurate as some pistol designs, and some people pine for match-grade accuracy out of their Glocks. That said, “loose” factory Glocks are more accurate than 99% of the people shooting them, and improved trigger pulls will do far more to tighten your groups than a match barrel or a red dot…but that doesn’t change the fact that just about everybody making aftermarket barrels for Glocks (including Shadow Systems) make them a tiny bit tighter than factory, both externally and in the chamber. As a result, Shadow Systems recommends a 200-round break-in period.
There was some wiggle between the slide and frame of the XR920 Elite, but the barrel when in battery had no play, and when shooting I had no issues. I put over 200 rounds downrange through the black model, with 100 percent reliability. These pistols use Glock-pattern magazines, and the barrels have the same Glock feed ramp, so reliability is to be expected. While the frame and slide of the XR920 don’t have the same contours as that of a factory Glock they are in no way larger (except at the beavertail), which means it will fit into any holster meant for a Glock 19. After the requisite accuracy work at the range I got in a little practice, drawing from the holster, hammering steel and working on engaging multiple targets. I’ve got close to two decades behind Glocks, so there weren’t any real surprises. There were absolutely zero malfunctions. For a little fun I screwed a Gemtech GM-9 suppressor on the tan pistol and spent some time knocking down steel without the need for ear protection.
I love the grip angle of these pistols, and the recoil impulse. The only downside to these guns are the trigger pulls, and here I admit I’m stretching to find things to complain about, as the trigger pulls on factory Gen 1–3 Glocks hovered around seven pounds. By comparison, the trigger pulls on these guns are outstanding. But I’m still spoiled and picky. I came to Glocks from 1911s, which have the trigger pulls against which all other guns are judged. As a result, I’m very particular about trigger pulls on personal guns, but that likely is the only thing I’d want to change on this gun if I bought it for myself. The trigger pulls on my carry Glocks have averaged just under four pounds.
Glock-pattern pistols are light, which is why they’re so pleasant to carry. What makes all of them so shootable, what has made them so hugely successful, is their low bore. That low bore translates into less muzzle rise, with more of the recoil going straight back into your hand, for faster follow-up shots. Whether you’re running iron sights or a dot, leave the gun as is or get an extended barrel and thread a comp on the end, the XR920 Elite is a solid choice that looks great and performs perfectly. The best news? Because they’ve started making the frames and slides themselves, instead of having to buy Glocks and then customize them, in the past four years Shadow Systems’ prices have actually come down, and not by a little. The base price of the Shadow Systems XR920 (Combat) is $889, and the XR920 Elite is just $989.
Shadow Systems XR920 Elite Specs
- Type: Striker-fired, semiautomatic
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 17 rds. (or any Glock-pattern Magazine)
- Barrel: 4.0 in. spiral fluted stainless steel with black nitride finish, 4.5 in. extended threaded available, bronze TiCN available
- Length: 7.3 in.
- Height: 5.6 in. (w/ mag)
- Width: 1.1 in.
- Weight: 21.1 oz. (unloaded)
- Slide: Stainless steel
- Finish: Black Nitride (FDE Cerakote available)
- Grip/Frame: Polymer with interchangeable backstraps
- Sights: Night Fision Tritium green front, plain black rear (optics ready)
- Trigger Pull: 4.5 to 5 lbs. (5.5 lbs. tested)
- Safety: Trigger lever, striker drop safety
- MSRP: $989
- Manufacturer: Shadow Systems
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
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