September 25, 2023
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Behind The Scenes, Gunwriter Edition—picture the gunwriter in his natural habitat: sitting behind his desk at home, clad in a stylish Hawaiian shirt but having neglected to put on pants, cup of strong coffee at hand, banging at the keyboard like an epileptic monkey, only drooling a little, frantically trying to meet the required word count for an article by his deadline. And he gets an email from a manufacturer: “Hey, we’re sending you a new top secret gun.” And…that’s it. No details about the gun, just the name. In this case, let’s say the manufacturer was Springfield Armory, and the new gun was the Echelon.
Said drooling, overcaffeinated, pantsless gunwriter would immediately forget about his looming deadline and start wondering what the ‘Echelon’ was. ECHELON of course is the name of the signals intelligence surveillance program in use by America and its allies to spy on enemies foreign and domestic. ‘Echelon’ also means rank, as in ‘upper echelons.’ An echelon is a diamond-shaped military formation of troops, ships, or aircraft. Looking up all of that was no help, and arguably a waste of time for our intrepid keyboard warrior, but got him thinking—was Springfield’s Echelon a new version of an existing model? A completely new design? Flights of fancy ensued—was it a steampunk lever-action shotgun? Maybe an ultra-high-end AR? A phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range? All of my guesses turned out to be wrong—the pistol you see before you was a complete surprise to me, and I mean that in the very best way.
The Springfield Armory Echelon is a polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol that is a complete departure from Springfield’s XD/XDM pistols. Currently, it is only available in one size, with a full-length grip and a 4.5-inch barrel, and chambered in 9mm, although there are four different variations based on sights and state-restricted magazine capacities, one of which has an extended, threaded 5.28-inch barrel. The flush, standard capacity magazine holds 17-rounds, and the base model pistol ships with one 17- and one extended 20-round magazine. Unloaded, with an empty 17-round magazine in place, it weighs 26.5 ounces according to my scale, although the official weight from Springfield is 23.9 ounces.
First, I want to make something clear—this is not a “Glock clone.” While it shares a rough silhouette with the Glock 17, the Springfield Armory Echelon does not have the same dimensions, and none of the parts are even close to being interchangeable. The Echelon won’t fit into any holsters meant for the Glock, unless they are the kind of loose, stretched-out nylon gunbucket you shouldn’t be carrying anyway and wouldn’t want to introduce to your mother.
Second, as far as I can tell, from a design and manufacturing standpoint, Springfield did everything right with the Echelon. They’ve had some missteps recently—a few of their SA-35 Hi-Powers had extraction issues. Some of their Prodigy 2011-style pistols suffered from bad MIM-parts that saw them breaking thumb safeties. While it is the public that will be final judge of the Echelon, as near as I can tell from my examination and testing, the combination of looks, price, features, and performance of the Echelon should be a home run for them.
The Echelon has the same kind of low bore that made the Glock such a success, a completely modular and removable trigger group like the SIG P320, and an evolutionary new optics mounting interface that I think will become the standard against which all others will be judged. The 4.5-inch barrel is hammer forged with a 1:10" twist. The barrel, slide, and stainless-steel magazines all have a black Melonite (nitride) coating. The barrel and slide have a matte finish, whereas the magazines have a more glossy finish and are slick to the touch. And since I mentioned the magazine, and already have stated that the Echelon won’t fit into Glock holsters, let me give you some more fitment news—the Echelon magazines have a ‘different’ width.
Old-school (SIG P226/Beretta 92/CZ 75) metal double-stack magazines are generally 0.81" thick. Polymer Glock magazines are 0.90" wide. The Echelon’s magazines are exactly in the middle of them at 0.86" thick—which makes them almost the same dimensions as S&W M&P magazines. In fact, visually, they look a lot like S&W M&P magazines, but the resemblance is purely superficial. But this means that any magazine pouches made for the M&P mags will fit Echelon magazines perfectly.
Aftermarket Glock clones are often differentiated from factory models by the improved texturing on the slides, as that is one consistent, historical weakness of the Glock design—slides that are far too slick. The Echelon slide, on the other hand, is aggressively contoured in ways that are both functional and stylish. There are flat-bottomed angled slide serrations front and back that work great. The front of the slide sports what Springfield calls a ‘trench cut’—the slide narrows, giving you a shelf just forward of the chamber for increased grippability. You’ll also see that the very rear of the slide is flared for a similar ledge. Everyone has different tastes, but I think the end result looks good while being extremely functional. The Echelon version that was sent to me has the “basic” sight set which is $40 less expensive than the version with three-dot tritium sights…and I feel this is the superior sight setup.
The front sight has a tritium insert. If you’re new to this, let me explain—tritium is a radioactive element that A. Won’t give you cancer (according to the U.S. government itself, and when have they ever been wrong?), and B. Glows bright light green, usually for at least ten years. It is in a metal cylinder inside the steel front sight. Around the tritium is a ring of highlighter-yellow photoluminescent paint. The ring is very visible in all lighting conditions, but if you take it from a brightly-lit area to a dimly-lit area (or hit it with a flashlight beam for a few seconds), that ring will glow for a few minutes, increasing the visibility of your front sight.
The rear sight is steel. It has a U-shaped notch around which there is a white semi-circle—nestle the circle of the front sight in the U of the rear sight, and pull the trigger. This is both quick and instinctive, exactly what you want in a combat-style sight. On the other hand, the more expensive three-dot tritium sight setup on the other version is far less functional, in my opinion—like with almost all factory sights, the dot on the front sight is the same size as the dots on the rear sight, which means it looks smaller than the dots on the rear sight to the eye when you’re aiming, which is the exact opposite of what you want. The front of the rear sight is flat, so you’ll be able to rack it one-handed on a hard surface. What if you’re one of those people who feel iron sights are outdated and antiquated and belong in a nursing home, eating gruel with a spoon? You’re in luck! With the Echelon Springfield Armory has introduced their Variable Interface System (VIS—which probably not coincidentally is Latin for power), which allows you to directly mount to the slide nearly any optic on the market.
Direct-mounting optics to the slide is generally thought to be better than the alternatives as there are fewer parts and/or less opportunity for flex/breakage. The VIS accomplishes this via several screw patterns and the use of steel pins. When you take off the protective steel slide cover, you’ll see the slide is cut for direct-threading of optics mounting screws, but you’ll also see other cutouts. Those are for indexing pins that either lock into optic bodies, or allow the lugs in the bottom of various optics to lock into the slide.
Using optics screws and the pin sets provided by Springfield, the slide allows direct fitment of the Trijicon RMR/SRO, Leupold DeltaPoint Pro, Holosun 507C/508T/509T, Shield RMSc/SMSc, EOTech EFLX, and the Swampfox Kraken. Springfield also sells adapter plates for the Aimpoint ACRO/Steiner MPS, and the Burris Fastfire 4. Depending on your optic, you should be able to see your sights through the window, for that dead battery eventuality. Most people don’t care that almost everybody misuses the term “ambidextrous” (and civilian, and decimate, and…hold on, let me get a grip on my grammatical pet peeves). Anyway, ambidextrous means being able to use both sides equally. What the Echelon has is bilateral controls—there is a slide release and magazine release on both the left and right side of the pistol. The slide stop/release is a steel lever that is small and juts out ninety degrees from the side of the gun. For as small as it is, it seems to work very well as a slide release, something you can’t say about the Glock piece.
The magazine release is a steel oval button with texturing identical to that found on the polymer grip. The buttons on the left and right side are identical. When you push the magazine release, inside you’ll see it pivots a steel piece which locks into the front of the magazine. The function of the magazine release isn’t as clean as I’d like, but I never had any magazines hang up while I was working the gun. At the front of the pistol, you’ll see a four-slot MIL STD 1913 “picatinny” rail for mounting weapon lights. As this is a full-size, “duty size” pistol, all the standard weapon lights from Surefire, Streamlight, etc. will fit. As part of my testing, I mounted a Surefire X300U to the pistol which offers 1,000 lumens and probably dreams of being a light saber. The Surfire X300 series are the most popular weapon lights on the market, and it sure looks like the trigger guard of the Echelon was specifically designed to match the contours of the X300.
As for the rest of the contours of the pistol, they seem very well thought out. First, the texturing: it doesn’t look like much in photos, and because of that Springfield Armory on their website has an extreme close up that shows the raised bits on the grip are pyramidal in shape—they call this their Adaptive Grip Texture. In use I found it to be moderately aggressive, not as rough as stippling, but rough enough that my hand didn’t slip while shooting. I still wish it was more aggressive, but bear in mind the stippling and checkering on my carry guns chews up my shirts, so I like it a bit rough.
While I will get to the trigger system in a second, I want to remind you that, like the SIG P320, the trigger group is the serialized part in the Echelon. Which means the “frame” is actually just the grip module. There are small, medium, and large-grip modules, and the grip modules have interchangeable backstraps. What ships from the factory is the medium-grip module, with the medium-sized backstrap installed. After handling the pistol for a while, I installed the large backstrap—not because I needed a fatter grip, but I wanted an aggressive grip angle closer to that of a Glock. With the L backstrap installed the Echelon doesn’t quite have a Glock grip angle, but it’s close. I will point out that none of the backstraps alter the reach to the trigger, so the Large backstrap doesn’t feel much larger, it mostly just changes the grip angle. I’m assuming the Large grip module will have a longer reach to the trigger, but they’re not out yet as I write this.
There is texturing on the front and underside of the trigger guard, which is squared off with a bit of an outward curve at the corner. The reason why this pistol won’t fit into any Glock holsters can be found on the frame—er, grip module—just above the front of the trigger guard. There, on both sides, the polymer sports an outward curve on which you can rest the thumb of your support hand. In fact, the takedown lever is both curved and textured to match the profile of the polymer and give you more real estate for your support-hand thumb. Replacing the backstraps is pretty simple and doesn’t require tools. They click into the back of the grip module with the slide locked back the magazine out, reach inside the magazine well with a fingertip and find the square at the back of the well, about halfway up. Push that in, toward the backstrap, and on the outside push/pull down on the backstrap. It will slide right off.
The magazine well sports a moderate bevel. There are relief cuts out the outside of the magazine well that mate with angled textured spots on the sides of the magazine base pads to allow you to more easily strip stuck magazines from the gun. There is also texturing on the front of the magazine basepad, which shows me they paid attention to the little details with the Echelon. The magazines have numbered index holes in the rear. The extended 20-round magazine has a grip extension, but you won’t need it—the grip is more than long enough for everyone to fit their entire hand. Now it’s time to get to the trigger group—or what Springfield Armory calls the COG—Central Operating Group. It is the serialized part in the Echelon, and when it’s in the gun you can see the serial number through a narrow window at the top right side of the grip module, forward of the slide stop. There is a matching cutout on the left side of the grip, but there you’ll see SI (Springfield Inc.) Geneseo, IL.
The COG chassis is stainless steel, and it pulls out of the grip module without tools, and while it’s not difficult, the process is…quirky. The first few times you will likely be a bit frustrated as you’ll be wiggling and fighting with the gun until you figure it out. Once you remove the magazine and take off the slide assembly (no trigger pull required), you’ll need to remove the takedown lever. This involves spinning it in various ways, as you’ll be working against a spring-loaded lever. Once you’ve got that out, you can remove the COG by lifting on the slide stops, pulling the COG forward, and working the trigger a bit so the safety lever on it clears the grip module. Springfield has a three-minute “COG Removal” video, and you’ll likely be tracking that down and watching it a few times. Once you figure the process out, it takes only a few seconds. The stainless steel COG chassis is what sports the short rails on which the slide rides. In size they are similar to the classic Glock rails. Slide-to-frame-to-barrel fit on the Echelon seems at least as good as the average striker-fired gun on the market. Once you take the COG out of the grip module the only thing left inside it is the magazine release.
As I write this, Springfield doesn’t have a listed trigger pull for the Echelon, but my contact over there told me that the trigger pull should be between 4.5-five pounds. The trigger pull on my sample was 5.0 pounds on the dot and relatively crisp, with a short reset. It is not match grade, but it is definitely shootable, and in my opinion a bit better than the average Glock/M&P trigger pull. In character, the trigger pull on the Echelon feels more ‘metal’ than that of a Glock, and crisper, and reminded me of the SIG P320 trigger pull. According to Springfield, the critical components inside the COG are machined tool steel, which I’m glad to hear. The trigger itself is polymer, with a flat, nearly straight face. There is the ubiquitous safety lever on the face of the trigger, as well as a striker safety inside the slide.
This isn’t a Glock clone, and the folks at Springfield also want people to understand it’s not a SIG P320. The P320 had some trouble a few years back for failing drop tests, and Springfield specifically states that the Echelon has been tested to exceed SAAMI drop test parameters. The COG features a second sear designed to help prevent unintentional discharge in the event it is dropped, a steel tab that actually blocks the trigger if the safety lever isn’t depressed. The recoil spring guide rod is polymer and full length. The recoil spring is flat wire, and captured. I didn’t discover any surprises while examining, disassembling, and shooting the Echelon. The only thing that surprised me was how Springfield seems to have done everything exactly right, and it makes me wonder how long this project has been in development.
Unofficially, beyond hopefully doing better than just decimating Glock’s market share (which means reducing by one-tenth), a big reason for the development of the Echelon is Springfield’s desire to secure law enforcement contracts. Springfield has sold a lot of XDs and XDMs over the years to private citizens (notice how I didn’t use the term civilian—because cops are civilians too) but for various reasons police departments and federal agencies have never had much interest in the design. If the Echelon proves itself to be solid, the fact that it’s made in Croatia shouldn’t be much of a factor; the same people who can’t find Croatia on a map also can’t find Austria. The Echelon is made by HS Produkt, which makes the XD/XDM for Springfield, but also the Hellion, which is one of the better bullpups on the market, both in Hellion form and the original select-fire military VHS 2, where it has seen combat.
On my first trip to the range with the Echelon I put 200 rounds through it—every type of hollowpoint made, plus FMJ ammo. The gun ate it all, but I was surprised to discover I had one heck of a blister on the end of my trigger finger when I was done. An investigation showed me that I was riding the very tip of the trigger, which is a bit pointed, and under recoil the side of my skinny finger was getting pinched underneath the trigger. Moving my finger up just a hair fixed that, and nobody else I had helping me to test the gun (sworn to secrecy) experienced any issues. I ran the Echelon dry for hundreds of rounds beyond the initial 200, including copper-washed steel-cased Wolf ammo, at one point getting the slide too hot to touch, and the pistol worked flawlessly. The modularity of the design means that it will be easy to upgrade in the future, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t aftermarket grip modules available within a year.
I have tens of thousands of hours behind Glocks (mostly longslide G34s which weigh the same as the G17) and the Echelon is close enough to the G17 it felt very familiar to me. Glocks are so popular in part because they are surprisingly shootable for their light weight, and this is due (mostly) to their low bores. One big reason people don’t like the XD/XDMs is their high bores. A high bore will generate more muzzle rise—this is just simple lever/fulcrum physics, and anyone telling you different is either ignorant or trying to sell you something (likely a pistol with a high bore). The Echelon’s bore isn’t quite as low as a Glock 17, but the difference is miniscule (a millimeter?), and you won’t notice it until you put them side by side and pull out the calipers.
The new Springfield Armory Echelon proved itself to be completely reliable, and quite a shooter, especially with that big, highly visible front sight. My adult son really liked it and had no problems running a plate rack with it at speed. I knocked down steel, and also practiced my transitions on multiple USPSA targets. I wasn’t able to practice my draw, as the only holster available to me at the time of testing was a Safariland Level 3 duty holster meant to house the pistol while wearing a light, which means it was roughly the size and weight of a Thanksgiving turkey—great if you’re a cop, so a bad guy doesn’t snatch your gun out of the holster, but useless otherwise. But Safariland and other holster companies are working on concealed carry rigs for the Echelon, which should be available about the time you start seeing this gun in your local gun stores.
Just in case, I checked fitment in the dozens of holsters I’ve accumulated over the years, and the only one that came close to fitting the Echelon was
an open muzzle rig meant for the Ruger American Pistol made by Crossbreed. If your local gun store has any holsters for the Ruger in stock, you should check for yourself, at least until holsters made specifically for the Echelon become more widely available. Springfield Armory didn’t just design this pistol to have everything the modern consumer and police department would want; they have priced it to be competitive as well—the base model as seen here (which I feel is the superior version) has an MSRP of $679. That number is meant to directly compete with the Glock 17 and Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0 pistols, while offering equal or superior features. Springfield Armory has declared war on the competition, and whether they succeed or fail the gun buying public will be the winner as one more quality gun enters the arena.
Springfield Armory Echelon Specs
- Type: Striker-fired, semi-auto
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 17 rds.
- Barrel: 4.5 in. (5.28 in. threaded barrel available)
- Length: 8 in.
- Height: 5.5 in. (with flush magazine)
- Width: 1.2 in.
- Weight: 26.5 in.
- Slide: Steel
- Finish: Melonite
- Grip/Frame: Polymer with 3 interchangable backstraps, stainless steel trigger module
- Sights: Day/night front, white outline rear (3-dot tritium available)
- Trigger Pull: 4.5-5 lbs. (5 lbs. tested)
- Safety: Trigger lever, striker drop safety
- MSRP: $679 ($719 with 3-dot night sights)
- Accessories: One 17-round magazine, one 20-round magazine, mag loader, 3 backstraps, optic adapters, cable lock, soft case
- Contact: Springfield Armory
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.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.