Single-Action High Capacity Pistols
December 19, 2017
When cartridge firearms reached a state where they could be depended on, their capacity was pretty limited. Then again, everything was. You went to hunt, or fight, with a rifle that held five rounds at most, unless you took the Queen's shilling. Shotguns held a similar amount. And handguns? A Colt Single-Action Army held five (no-one carried the hammer down on a loaded chamber unless they had a gunfight to go to in the next few minutes), and the others held six.
When the 1911 came out, it held a useful extra round or two. Savage had pistols that held more, as their advertising statement of "Ten shots quick" bragged, but those were .32 or .380, and even then, shooters felt they were a bit...marginal.
Then, in the Flapper Era the French decided to upgrade their small arms. Actually, they had been doing it since the end of The Great War, but it took a while for them to get around to pistols. The result was the Browning Hi Power.
But before we dive back to the future, let's consider our needs for daily carry. We want something that is compact, but not too small to handle well. Micro guns are just too difficult to shoot to be any fun, and when the balloon goes up, you'll always wish you had something bigger. Compact, but not so small, and holding as much ammo as possible. Five or six shots was fine as your on-board ammo supply before automobiles had electric starters (Cadillac, ca. 1912), but today we want more. A dozen or more is a nice figure, don't you think? And they have to be at least 9mm Parabellum, or else we're just kidding ourselves. We have candidates for that post, many of them, but here are the high points of almost a century to work with.
As originally envisioned by John Moses Browning, the Browning Hi Power was going to be a real step up. His prototype was a pistol the size of a 1911, but it held 17 rounds of 9mm Parabellum. It also used a unitized breechblock in the slide, one that could be removed without tools. Want a match trigger pull for target use? No problem. Back to a service pull? Ditto. Trigger pull gone haywire? Just pull out the old, slap in a new, and motor on.
Alas, John Moses died before he got too far, and then things got even stranger. The French wanted changes—they insisted on changes—and Fabrique Nationale (FN) made them. Then, after years of that, the French went with a puny .32 they had complete control over, and left FN in the lurch. No problem, FN simply offered it for sale on its own, and the world loved it.
The resulting P-35 is a 13-shot magazine 9mm Parabellum pistol that sold like hotcakes. When the Germans rolled into Liege and took up ownership, they continued production (even increased it) for their own use. Meanwhile, FN staff had managed to get outta Dodge with blueprints, and the Inglis plant in Canada set up shop to make the P-35 there for the war effort.
Once WWII was over, FN cleaned up the mess left behind, and proceeded to market the P-35 to the world. Between the P-35 and the FAL, FN pretty much armed every military (and many police) establishment that was not beholden to the commies. Unless a given country's army was forced to accept American aid (and small arms) or was under the heel of the Soviets, it almost always opted to buy FN. Many of the P-35s were made to take shoulder stocks, something we do not often see here, stateside.
When I visited the Belgian Army Museum vault in Brussels some years back, the Curator proudly showed me a row of gun safes they had just bought from someplace "formerly behind the Iron Curtain." The safes were to hold their P-35 collection, and since they had one of every model, marking, country and police establishment, it took a lot of safes.
The P-35, or, as it is known in some circles here, the BHP, had an early time in the sun in International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) competition. But unfortunately, what we all found back then (and the FBI found as well), was that it wasn't up to the tsunami of ammunition that practical shooting called for. In practice, it was possible to simply wear out a BHP in a couple of years, where a 1911 would shrug off the same annual volume for a lifetime.
FN solved that problem with the adoption of the MkIII with its cast frame for its .40 S&W chambered version, but by then it was too late to gain back market segment. The BHP also has an advantage over others: the grip. If you take the blocky military-style grips off of a BHP and put on a set of Navidrex or Craig Spegel grips, it becomes not just ergonomic, but alluring to hold. Shooting a BHP in practical competition is like using a Ducati in motorcycle racing. You'll certainly be different, you may win, but the numbers are against you.
OK, first quibble out of the way: the Glock is not a single-action pistol. Except, if, from the start, Gaston Glock had equipped the G-17 with a thumb safety that was as easy to use as that of the 1911, would anyone care that it used a striker and not a hammer? No, so stop squawking.
The Glock, when it came out, changed the axis of the planet. It was utterly indestructible, held a gratifying amount of 9mm ammo, and, while it wasn't a tack-driver, it was accurate enough. (People gush about the accuracy of their box-stock Glocks, but I've never seen it.) And, it was not expensive. What it was, was ugly. When the Glock came out, the firearms world was still in the "blued steel and walnut" era, with some minor inroads by stainless steel. Plastic? Matte black? And plastic magazines? Who does this Austrian think he is?
The Glock proved itself unstoppable and completely soul-less. You can literally go down to a Sears store (if your town still has one) and find nail drivers with more character, panache and style than a Glock. That is part of the attraction for some; that, and the utter interchangeability. This was explained to me by a SEAL of my acquaintance, who was talking about the Glock knife, but it applies to its pistols as well: "Patrick, if you drop a custom knife off the boat, you'd be tempted to dive after it. You drop a Glock, you shrug it off. You can replace it for twenty bucks, who cares?"
Thus, the attraction for many: the Glock has no character, each is identical to the next, and it can be replaced with money. A custom 1911 takes time (and a brilliant pistolsmith) to replace, should you lose it.
Glock has moved on from the 17, never abandoning it, but adding calibers, models of various sizes and capacities. The exemplar here is the second Glock to be unveiled, the G-19. The G-19 holds 15 rounds of 9mm, and is small enough to be handy, but big enough to shoot well.
A Slight Detour, Para Style
In the mid-1980s, Para Ordnance came out with a hi-cap 1911 conversion frame. Take the parts off of a 1911, install them on the Para, and you had lots of bullets. They strove mightily, yes they did. But they just kept missing the brass ring. It took a couple of decades and being sold to Remington, but Para is now a piece of history.
Look At Me, CMC
In the early 1990s, Chip McCormick solved that particular Rubik's cube of a puzzle: the hi-cap 1911. The problem with the Para had been the insistence on keeping a metal frame and grips paradigm. What Chip did (actually, the designers—Chip was the business guy) was make the rails and hammer pivot section metal, because the slide had to ride on metal. Then, below that, the frame had a plastic magazine-holding portion bolted on.
The slide rode on the metal, and the hammer and other parts were all held in metal. But the magazine rode in a plastic shell, and this was the brilliant part: it did not need extra grips, as the shell was the grip.
He came out with it in 1993, as a conversion frame, and the frame sold for pretty much the cost of a basic single-stack 1911. We didn't care, it was what we needed, and soon everyone was building hi-cap STIs.
The manufacturing company actually making the frames split, got sold, was bought, and went through various stages, making custom, semi-custom, production, and low-volume specialty pistols, but you know them today as STI. The STI model that fits our inquiry of the moment is the HEXTAC 3.0 DS, a hi-cap 9mm pistol that holds 15 rounds of ammo in its magazines.
The beauty of the two-part frame design is that the serial number is on the metal, and whatever happens to the plastic part stays in Vegas. The STI has taken over aspects of USPSA/IPSC competition that call for capacity. In Open and Limited, it, or the competing SVI dominate. And the competitors who use them are more than willing to introduce the plastic parts to a belt sander, if that means it better fits their hands. No, I do not exaggerate. Belt sanders, dremel tools and soldering irons have all been used to shape the plastic grip, in the knowledge that if there is an "oops," it can be replaced for little more than a Benjamin, bolted on, and life is good again.
But, the STI, like the Para Ordnance before it, suffers from one aspect: the time of its invention. When it came out, the .45 was still king of the hill. (The .40 hadn't even been invented when the Para was introduced.) As a result, the magazine tube, and thus the frame to hold it, is proportioned for the .45 ACP, and .100" fatter side-to-side than need be. To make them work with smaller cartridges, the magazine tubes have to be grooved, with spines running down their sides. This means the grip, despite being plastic in the STI, is larger than it needs to be for a 9mm.
The Walther PPQ M2 is a 9mm, with no intention for it to be a .40, and the magazine reflects this. It is the smallest-circumference 9mm magazine to be had, and it comes from an exemplary magazine maker, Mec-Gar.
Onto this, Bill poured his collected knowledge and wisdom in 1911-making, and produced a compact carry gun that checks all the boxes and produces the highest score for that need. And it does so in a grip that is no larger than it needs to be, especially since the grips are there only to keep your hands off of the moving parts. The grips do not make the frame any larger, and thus the EDC X9 is as compact in circumference as a 9mm pistol can be, short of a belt sander.
That said, you also have to accept the current aesthetic ideal, that is, angular, aggressive, and just a bit flashy in a tactical sort of way. Not only that, but he's figured a way to attach the grips and backstrap to the frame without using a single screw.
As compact as possible, holding lots of ammo, and utterly reliable. We have arrived at the future.
Which do you need? Want? Have to have? That depends entirely on your view of the world, your idea of what is proper, and how much you're willing to spend. This is America, after all, you have choices. Exercise them.
Pluses and Minuses
Nothing is perfect, so what are the strengths and weaknesses, the pluses and minuses, of each of these?
Plusses: A known quantity, with magazines available everywhere and from everyone. It works like a 1911, so anyone who knows that, knows how to run a BHP. And the feel of the right grips? Oooooh, my!
Minuses: Unless it is a MkIII, the service life is probably not more than 50,000—100,000 rounds. That's plenty for most shooters, so a minor quibble. The factory grips need to be replaced immediately, the original thumb safety is a miserable excuse for a lever, and if you need any work done on it, the BHP requires a specialist. Building up a competition or carry-ready BHP can be pricey.
Pluses: Ubiquitous. Found in gun stores everywhere, and in every video game to be played. Inexpensive. Magazines are plentiful. Parts are dirt-cheap and easily replaced. Reliable, unbreakable, easy-to-learn.
Minuses: A miserable excuse for a trigger. It comes with plastic sights, it hates lead-bullet ammunition (bye-bye inexpensive practice ammo) and yours looks just like every other one ever made. Oh, and the grip is the grip—if you want it different, just remember you are grinding on the serial-numbered part.
STI HEXTAC 3.0 DS
Pluses: It is a 1911, so anyone who knows how to run, or work on, a 1911, can handle the STI. Competition shooters have spent more than a couple of decades and a bazillion rounds debugging the STI for you, so it will work right out of the box. Readily customizable, and the trigger is everything you'd want in a go-button.
Minuses: The grip is the grip, big enough to be on a .45, so unless you grind on it to make it smaller, it is what it is. Ditto the magazines, which will be fat enough on their exterior to hold .45 ammunition, even though they only hold 9mms.
Pluses:The smallest in grip size. Customizable, as Wilson will make it the way you want it, within limits. Great trigger, great accuracy, built by Wilson Combat, so no question about workmanship.
Minuses: Cost, as $2,900 to start is a bit steep for some. Magazines are bullet-proof, but they are sole-source, made by Mec-Gar but only available through Wilson.