What’s Now, What’s Next In This Year’s Pistol Market

Top handgun manufacturers are stepping up their game with new models that have lots to offer the competitor, plinker and defensive shooter alike.
What’s Now, What’s Next In This Year’s Pistol Market

For those who have not attended SHOT Show, the massive industry trade show typically held in Las Vegas, it has to be seen to be believed. You can’t cover it all, and we didn’t: what we did, however, is work the show and associated events to see what’s new and what the current trends appear to be. While there will be some manufacturers we omit, it’s not intentional — the show is just that big.

Fortunately, the four-day convention is preceded by Media Day at the Range, which is where we started our coverage. Originally limited only to credentialed members of the press, Media Day is now open to certain retailers as well, and gives attendees an opportunity to actually get their hands on new guns before the show, and, better yet, shoot them. We’ll start with guns that caught our eye at the range, and move on from there into other models and trends.

Hands On                     

Rock Island Armory’s .22 TCM cartridge has been well received, and the company continues to expand the line of pistols that chamber the 2,000+ fps bottleneck round. While it’s very easy to be snobby about the M1911, the Philippines-based maker produces some excellent pistols at a very reasonable price. We’ve seen one of their guns, which retails in the $600 range, do 1.5-inch groups at 25 yards from the Ransom Rest, which would be superb from a gun costing five times that much.

In addition to its original hi-cap (18+1) M1911 in .22 TCM, Rock Island Armory now offers single-stack M1911 pistols for it, in both full-size and Commander-size variants, some of which come with accessory rails. Wisely anticipating that many people might be skittish about purchasing a pistol in a nonstandard caliber out of concern for future ammo availability (9mm AE, anyone?), the TCM is readily convertible to 9mm with a simple barrel and recoil spring change, and 9mm barrels now come with all .22 TCM pistols.

Rock Island also introduced a Glock conversion for the TCM that shoots a .22 TCM cartridge called the TCM9R. Designed to have less bullet protrusion from the cartridge case, it has a shorter overall length so that it will fit into the smaller frame window of a 9mm — as opposed to the generous length of an M1911 frame — which comfortably accepts the significantly longer .38 Super.

Among Rock Island’s other introductions was the Baby Rock .380, a scaled-down M1911 that shoots .380 ACP. Designed with a bit of a flare at the bottom of the frontstrap that helps it fit the hand very well, it’s a bit larger than the Colt Mustang and SIG P238 size mini-M1911 pistols in .380. The size, however, makes it easier to handle (mini .380s can be quite unpleasant to shoot) and gives it added capacity.

Rock Island wasn’t alone: Browning, as part of its Black Label line that is less sporting than defense-oriented, has introduced a powered-up version of their .22 LR M1911 in .380 ACP. A reduced-scale M1911 around 85 percent the size of a Government Model and complete with working grip safety, the Browning rimfire is an excellent training tool and was something of a departure when it comes to little guns that often discard some of the classic M1911 features. Other than Spanish maker Llama, there really haven’t been any other M1911s that were made on a reduced scale but slavishly maintained the features of the big gun. Adding a .380 to Browning’s down-sized line now makes the training pistol a valid option for concealed carry.

Glock continued its trademark variation of a proven theme with the introduction of the optics-ready MOS longslide models in 9mm, .40, 10mm auto and .45. Equipped with standard fixed sights, the Modular Optic System consists of an interchangeable plate system designed to serve as a mounting point for a broad range of current optics including the popular Trijicon RMR and others. Numbered from 00 to 04, the 00 plate is the cover plate, and each of the other numbered plates is designed to accept a specific optic. As the slide-mounted optic trend (which was led by the CORE pistols from Smith & Wesson) grows in popularity, it will be interesting to see if Glock incorporates this feature into its more traditional duty-sized pistols such as the G17 and G22 instead of the competition and tactically oriented G34, G35 G41 — and the newly introduced 10mm G40.  

A little off the beaten path, we saw two pistols from Korth: one a roller-locked M1911 variant, and the other a short 9mm revolver. A high-end German gunmaker best known for its beautifully crafted revolvers, which tend to start around $6,000 and go up to the price of a decent home or a very, very nice car, in the last couple years it has begun expanding more into the mainstream.

The M1911, which comes in .45 ACP, incorporates the roller-lock technology usually associated with HK-pattern rifles and the more obscure but solidly build CZ52 pistol. Technically a form of delayed blockback, the roller lock is typically quite strong, and its inclusion on the M1911 provides an interesting mechanical variation for those to whom most M1911s have started to look the same. The Sky Marshal 9mm was designed at the request of a law enforcement agency who wanted a 9mm revolver that did not require moon clips. Accordingly, the Sky Marshal’s short, 9mm-length cylinder (which fits in a suitable short cylinder window) has a unique extractor system that can extract the rimless 9mm cartridges without the customary clips. While this does eliminate the all-at-once reloading of the moon-clip revolver, it might fill a need for some users.

Ruger’s line expansion includes a 3-inch version of the well-received LCR polymer-framed revolvers (look for a full review in these pages), as well as the LCP Custom variant of its endlessly popular LCP .380, which features an improved trigger system. By altering the travel and using a lightweight alloy trigger, the modifications greatly improve the feel of the LCP’s trigger pull. A slightly higher-cost option, it makes the pistol surprisingly easy to shoot well. Individual results may vary, but we were able to get a majority of the rounds in the magazines onto a steel human silhouette target at 100 yards.

The Ruger 22/45 Lite also has some minor aesthetic variations this year. Built using the proven Standard/Mk III action, the 22/45 substitutes a grip angle that corresponds more to the Government Model .45 for those who are less comfortable with the raked-back, Luger-like grip angle of the Mk III. Doubtless a response to the efforts of Tactical Solutions — a well-known, top-notch manufacturer of lightweight receivers for the Ruger .22 pistol and other rimfires — the Lite has an alloy receiver with a rifled steel liner. A series of gill-like lightening slots run down the side of the receiver, exposing the barrel liner inside, which gives the gun a sleek, racy look, and it’s topped off with a 1913/Picatinny rail for mounting optics.

Although not new (it was introduced at the NRA convention last year), Walther’s CCP compact 9mm was on display at SHOT. Available with a matte black or stainless steel slide and utilizing a gas-delayed blowback system, the slim, single-stack Concealed Carry Pistol fits the hand beautifully. The one we shot had mild recoil and marks a significant departure from the conventional wisdom in mainstream pistol design. While gas-delayed blowback has its advantages, only a couple of pistols have ever made it into mass production. This includes the short-lived Vektor and the HK P7, the only gas-delayed pistol that’s ever been commercially successful. In light of this, the fact that the CCP is still in the market bodes well for it. If they all shoot like the one we shot, it should do very well. We were impressed enough to give it a harder look, so we’ll be requesting a test gun for an in-depth review in these pages.

Strolling The Aisles

Once we hit the show floor, we gravitated towards the M1911, which remains as popular — if not more so — than ever. For those unfamiliar with boutique maker Cabot Guns, the story is worth a brief retelling. When Penn United, the Pennsylvania-based high-precision manufacturer, found itself in the slowdown in 2008, it decided to take on a new project as something of a morale builder. Wanting to showcase the skills of the American tradesman, Penn United unsurprisingly decided to use the manufacturing technology they use in the aerospace and medical industries to build an M1911.

The resulting pistol, which was introduced in 2011 under the new company Cabot Guns, is unquestionably the most precisely made M1911 we know of, and it manages to capture the unicorn of complete parts interchangeability, which is unheard of on the M1911 platform. Unfortunately, the price reflects the build quality, and retail typically runs $6,000 and up.

In an effort to make the all-American brand more accessible, Cabot has introduced its “S-Class” M1911 that will retail around $3,600. Available in both Government and Commander lengths, the S-Class also comes, like the original C-Class, in both right- and left-hand versions. While the original C-Class will remain in production at its current price point, the S-Class is built with some hand-fitting and therefore doesn’t have the complete no-fit interchangeability of the pricier gun. That and a different level of surface prep allows Cabot to deliver a pistol with the precision of the higher-end guns, but priced right where you expect a high-end custom M1911 to fall. Along with the introduction of the S-Class, Cabot is also beginning to build a dealer network, so interested parties take note.

Those who have been paying attention will have noticed a major resurgence at Colt over the past several years. Far from the earlier malaise of a few decades ago, Colt has come back with a vengeance, producing some of the best-quality M1911s it’s ever made: We’ve seen production guns shoot groups as small as 1.5 inches at 25 yards.

Increasingly attuned to the market, the introduction of Colt’s eponymous Rail Gun a few years ago earned them the coveted Marine Corps contract for the first time in nearly 30 years — and that’s Colt, not competitor Springfield Armory, which showed its similar-appearing but misleadingly named “Marine Corps Operator” this year at SHOT. This year, Colt’s Rail Gun is also being offered with an alloy frame and in a shorter-barreled Commander variant.

Further evidence of how closely Colt is tracking the market comes with the introduction of several of its M1911 models in 9mm Parabellum. This includes both full-size Government Model XSE pistols as well as Commanders with both steel and alloy frames, and Colt’s more basic M1991 line (now the 01992). Although some Colt models have been available in 9mm intermittently for many years, the sweeping introduction across the product line closely tracks the trend we’re seeing of M1911s in the smaller caliber.

Attributable to a mix of factors including less recoil (an important selling point for some shooters, including many females), cheaper ammunition, and the still-contentious belief that the stopping characteristics of modern 9mm ammunition have improved to adequate levels, many of the better makers are now showing the M1911 in the lighter caliber. We saw this trend everywhere we turned, from Springfield’s introduction of the compact Range Officer in 9mm to Nighthawk’s wide variety of 9mm pistols, which in its case is perhaps partially attributable to the considerable influence of pistolsmith Richard Heinie, who has designed several of Nighthawk’s pistols, some of which come standard in 9mm.

Cans And Optics  

We also noticed the suppressor continues its meteoric rise in both popularity and respectability. Many makers now offer pistols designed to be silenced, often working in concert with suppressor manufacturers, such as Nighthawk did with its AAC collaboration a few years ago. Kimber has followed suit, teaming up with Gemtech to create an easily suppressed M1911 .45 that we shot at Media Day. It went six for six at 100 yards on a steel silhouette, which is respectable for a .45 shot by hand.

What’s most impressive, and perhaps most indicative of the change in perception toward suppressors, is the number of large gun companies offering pistols with extended, threaded barrels. While HK has been doing it for several years, pistols we saw this year include the Beretta M9A3 and a new variant of Smith & Wesson’s CORE series of M&Ps, as well as high-end M1911 makers such as Ed Brown and Nighthawk Custom. Perhaps best attributable to an increasing appreciation of the suppressor as a tool for quiet practice as opposed to equipment for an assassin, combined with the effect of inflation in reducing the impact of the one-time $200 transfer tax, there are more suppressors and guns on which to put them than ever before. If you’re not looking at this segment of the market — which includes not only suppressors but barrels, adaptors, sights, suppressor covers and cases — you should be.

The time has come for optics on pistols. Although there’s still a vigorous debate about their appropriateness on a defensive pistol, from a market standpoint, the option is becoming far more common. We saw a stunning array of factory pistols set up for mini-optics from Leupold, Trijicon and other makers. In addition to the CORE pistols from Smith & Wesson, which led the industry on this one, to the Glock MOS, we also saw optic-ready pistols from Cabot Guns, Kahr, Kel-Tec and others, including Nighthawk Custom, which offers pistols with optics and high-mounted iron sights that co-witness through the optic — a feature critical for those who make a sober assessment of the likelihood of battery failure at inopportune times.

As an aside, both optics and high-mounted co-witness sights also make the gun more usable with a suppressor, where the increased profile of the can will often “blank out” ordinary iron sights, making a sight picture problematic. Kimber, for example, offers its suppressor-compatible pistols with higher sights to avoid this problem.

Finally, don’t count the .380 out yet. While micro-9mm pistols are still popular and represent something of a maturing of the beginner concealed carry market, the .380 still seems to be popular. More specifically, the M1911-based .380 trend started by SIG Sauer still continues to spread. When SIG introduced the P238 — its version of Colt’s then-discontinued Mustang — it started a wave that led to Colt reintroducing the diminutive .380, albeit now made to visibly higher standards than the original guns, and Kimber’s creation of the Micro .380, another mini-M1911 that, like the SIG and Colt, omits the sometimes problematic grip safety found on the full-size M1911.

As for SIG, it hasn’t given up: The P238 line has expanded to include 9mm versions, as well as a .22 LR variant. Add in the slightly larger .380s from Rock Island and Browning, and the end user has a broad variety of options from which to select.


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