Sunday, August 16, 2009

Exceptions in an Exceptional Pistol: The HK P7

Not long ago I acquired a Heckler and Koch P7 PSP pistol. This pistol has intrigued me since I first read about them in the early nineties. I of course was drawn to its unique design and what I though was the most superior way to carry a chambered round.

What caught my attention most however was that a few police agencies in the United States adopted this pistol during a time of the high capacity 9mm. The P7 pistol holds only eight rounds in its magazine. The common 9mm semi automatics of the day held between 13 and 17. At the time I was somewhat young and more foolish and I thought that capacity trumped most anything else in a pistol. This made me think that the P7 must be an exceptional pistol to have such a diminutive capacity yet still be adopted by police agencies.

During the time of transition in law enforcement from revolvers to the semi automatic pistol in the eighties, it became apparent that even design changes in the traditional for the time semi automatics was in order for them to be better suited to police work. Police department training procedures and politics dictated that the pistol must have a simple manual of arms and be safe to carry with a round in the chamber. Nationwide police agencies generally adopted double action pistols. For the most part these double action pistols were DA/SA such as the Smith and Wesson 59 series.

During this time the Glock pistol made its emergence into the American market. Basically the Glock is a double action only pistol. It is safe and nearly indestructible. The one drawback to it is there is no manual safety so if the trigger is pulled and there is a round in the chamber the pistol will fire. Same thing goes in the hypothetical situation of something getting into the trigger guard and pressure is put on it then the gun can fire as well. This is not a serious drawback but the user has to exercise some caution when holstering and unholstering the weapon.

Single action pistols have been neglected by the various law enforcement agencies for reasons that have never really been fully explained to me. The manual of arms of such weapons does make them slightly more complicated to learn on. Also the visually cocked hammer on a pistol that has a round chambered is said to make some uncomfortable whether they are the ones carrying the weapon or not. I do know there are still plenty of agencies out there fielding a 1911 type pistol and in Ed Lovette’s book The Snubby Revolver he states that CIA operatives were trained on the Browning Hi Power while he was a training officer with the agency.

Enter the HK P7. This pistol really is in a different league among nearly all pistols of yesterday and today. This does not in any way make it better than any other pistol but it has some characteristics, for better or worse, that many other pistols do not share.

There are many characteristics of this pistol that have to be listed first and then elaborated upon. These are: grip angle, bore axis, rifling, fluted chamber, gas system, accuracy, trigger pull, sights, magazines, magazine angle, feed from magazine to chamber, squeeze cocker, take down, and the different P7 variants.

One of the reasons people seem to like the P7 so much is the grip angle. This is not as big of a thing as all the P7 fans would like you to believe. The P7 shares a grip angle with many other pistols. The 110 degree angle of the grip has been used by many pistol makers in the past and continues to do so until this day. This is not to say the pistol does not have a good grip angle it is just that it is not such a big deal when put into this perspective. HK advertisements in the past said the gun pointed as naturally in your hand as it is natural to point your finger. This is probably an overstatement but I believe the theory behind it to be spot on. Of course the theory is also spot on with the other pistols as well. Nonetheless, of all the pistols I have shot this one seems to point the easiest. This could be more a function of how the gun balances which we will get into later.

The bore axis of this pistol is one of the lowest of any gun past or present. With a high grip on the gun you can put your palm swell nearly in line with the bottom of the bore of the barrel. This is a great aid in recoil control and follow up shots. The venerable double tap comes faster than ever with this gun. Added to the fact that the gun is chambered in a very controllable caliber which will be talked about later.

Like most HK pistols this one also sports polygonal rifling. This alone does not make the pistol any better than any other polygonal rifled pistol such as the other HKs, Glocks, and Kahrs, as well as some others. The polygonal rifling does increase velocity by better sealing the gases from the burning powder behind the bullet. This increase in velocity may be as high as 100 feet per second.

The P7 pistol has a unique feature I have not heard about in other pistols. This feature is the small flutes that run through the chamber. These flutes are a design feature that aid in the ejection of the spent casing upon firing. The gases in the barrel leak back and go down into the flutes that are stationed all the way around the chamber walls and work to “float” the casing out of the chamber. There are videos that show a P7 without its extractor firing one shot after another. Indeed the extractor is only included on this pistol so you can remove a cartridge from the chamber without having to fire it. This feature does leave soot marks on the outside of your spent brass which has no effect on the ability to reload them.

The magazines for the P7 are very high quality. They have a superior follower design that will not bind if uneven pressure is put on it. This is similar to other HK factory magazines I have seen for some of their other weapons including rifles. I once had a batch of HK magazines for AR type weapons and they exhibited similar exterior robustness as well as the superior follower. The P7 magazines are not just run of the mill stamped steel. These magazines have proven extremely expensive to buy spares of but all scarcity aside you get what you pay for.

On the topic of the magazines it should be noted that the P7 uses the most untraditional method using a different angle of insertion for the magazine into the magazine well than the grip angle. The magazine is inserted more perpendicular to the bore than the grip sits. This can be cumbersome at first for the first time P7 shooter when inserting magazines. I found myself adapting to it quite rapidly though and no longer have any problems. The reason behind this is to make feeding to the cartridges from the magazine to the chamber more reliable. This allows the cartridges to not sit laterally staggered inside the magazine and then be fed into the chamber. As well the magazine sits quite high in relation to the chamber so the cartridge does not have to make as abrupt of changes in angle during the feeding process. This is where different types of hollow points can get caught up on the inner workings of the feed ramp or the chamber throat. This can be avoided somewhat if a round is fed with more straight of an angle into the chamber. Add that to the fact that this gun is also of the fixed barrel design and that makes the feed ramp transition to the barrel and chamber much more smooth and consistent than on the traditional unlocking barrel designs.

Easily the most distinctive feature of the P7 is the cocking lever. It does give the gun the look of having a very awkward grip. This is not the case however when using the pistol correctly. As has been outlined earlier the pistol has a good grip and grip angle. The cocking lever is the device that must be pressed to deploy the pistol. It is what cocks the striker and decocks the striker upon release. It allows the slide to be cycled manually to chamber a round but not have to decock anything afterwards. When a magazine is fired dry the slide will lock open and upon inserting a fully loaded magazine all that needs to be done is to press down the cocking lever to release the slide and chamber a fresh round and commence firing. It can instantly upon pressing take the gun from a safe condition to a ready condition quickly and without undo manipulation of levers and just as quickly you can release the lever and make the pistol perfectly safe for reholstering. It is also the part that needs to be manipulated in the very unlikely event of a primer not igniting on a round. You would have to let off on the lever and then immediately squeeze it again and press the trigger to try and get that primer to ignite. Odds are it still is not going to fire anyway and a more standard malfunction drill will have to be employed.

The cocking lever is the one piece of the P7 pistol that garners the most scorn. It is the primary cause of all the differences between itself and all other pistols. I find it quite nice and easy to manipulate as you are supposed to be squeezing the grip of the pistol when firing it anyway. I suppose letting off on it before reholstering could take some practice and when inserting a full magazine. Cases of police officers being disarmed of their P7 have been reported. In some cases the assailant could not manipulate the weapon properly to fire it as intended. No doubt they did not press the lever down to fire.

The take down of the pistol is exceptionally easy for me. I have heard reports of others having problems and still others reporting it takes getting used to but other than that it is fine. I think it is one of the easiest designed including Glocks and Sig Sauers as well. Still there are always differing experiences. It is a fixed barrel and therefore there is one less component part. The gas piston is attached to the slide and the gas cylinder is a permanent part of the pistol frame so they are not separate parts. All told including the magazine there are a total of 4 component parts. They are the slide assembly, recoil spring, frame assembly, and magazine. Detail stripping is out of the question for me as I have heard they are quite complicated underneath and I am not going to try on that front. To take down you simply pull back on the slide about an inch while pressing the takedown button located on the left side of the frame just above the valley of the grip and then lift upwards on the slide and it will come off from the front of the frame as is typical with many blowback designs.

The HK P7 has a gas system that works to delay the rearward slide movement during the firing cycle. This is one of the most well known features of the pistol even by people that are otherwise quite ignorant about them. This gas system works by a cylinder that is fixed to the frame of the pistol and piston that is fixed by a pin to the front of the slide that upon the firing of the cartridge fills the cylinder with gases and works upon the piston to force the slide forward for a split second. The pressure on the piston is relieved once the projectile has left the barrel and the gases can bleed off and the normal cycling process can commence. The reason this system is needed in this gun is because it is a fixed barrel blowback system. Blow back systems really can only be used on lower power cartridges of which the 380 or 9mm Makarov may be the practical upper limit before the slide weight has to be increased proportionally to the cartridge which can make handguns get really heavy really fast such as the Hi Point line of pistols. Since the P7 is a 9mm and the limit of the blowback design is pushed, the gas system must be employed to delay and slow down the slide movement thus making the pistol light for a blowback design. If you were to get technical (and you bet HK does) this is considered a delayed blowback system.

The fixed barrel designs have always been what most would consider to be more accurate than the Browning designed system of recoil and locking and unlocking barrels such as is seen in the 1911, Glock, many Sig Sauers and many others. Indeed the P7 is a very accurate pistol inherently and practically. The P7 can shoot excellent groups at 25 yds from a rest making it one of the most inherently accurate defensive and combat pistols that I know of. The sights are high visibility and regulated to point of aim and point of impact from the factory. They are regulated so you will hit the part of the target that the front sight is covering rather than the point directly above the front sight. This can take some getting used to but I honestly see no practical disadvantage to it. Combine all this with the P7s service length sight radius as well as comfortable grip angle and you also achieve excellent practical accuracy. This gun is easy to hit the target with. The trigger is nice as well because it is a single action trigger. This may be the only gun you can carry with the striker uncocked but still able to fire the gun single action only.

This is where the HK P7 breaks down the classification rules of firearms. It is one of only a handful of delayed blowback pistol designs as well as a pistol that can be carried uncocked with a round in the chamber yet still be able to fire single action.

Lastly there are a number of different P7 variants. These are the PSP, P7, P7M8, P7M13, P7M10, P7K3, P7M7, P7PT8. The P7M7 and the P7PT8 will not be discussed here as the P7M7 was never in production and there are too many unverified stories out there on it and the P7PT8 was only a training weapon. The original design was the PSP, or Police Self-Loading Pistol. There is some distinction between the PSP and the P7 but are for our purposes here the same pistol. Basically the PSP is what was first built and the P7 is the end result of the German police pistol trials and what HK eventually built for them. This is the type that is most common in the United States and the type that I possess. It has a European style heel magazine release and a smaller trigger guard than the other variants. These were nearly all German police trade in pistols that were subsequently imported into the US. The P7M13, P7M10, and P7K3 will not be discussed in detail here because of their rarity and because the purpose of this is not to differentiate between all of them. The P7M13 is a high capacity 9mm P7 with a magazine capacity of 13 rounds. Other than that it is very similar to the P7M8 described below. The P7M10 is a 40 caliber weapon with a magazine capacity of 10 rounds. Other than that it is similar to the P7M13. The P7K3 is a three caliber set based on the P7 frame. Calibers include 380 ACP, 32 ACP, and 22 Long Rifle. They include barrels for the 380 and 32 and a whole different slide assembly for the 22. The 380 and 32 barrels are retained by a barrel nut unit since they cannot be permanently attached like the 9mm variants.

The P7M8 is the Americanized version of the P7. It is the same pistol with a few subtle differences. First is the magazine release behind the trigger guard. This works by levering it downward to release the magazine. This brings up the point that P7 PSP magazines will not work with P7M8 pistols and vise versa. The second major difference is the size and shape of the trigger guard and the noticeable heat shield in the top area of the trigger guard. There are other more subtle differences but they will not be discussed.

There are drawbacks to the P7 as well. There is no good without a little bad as well. Shortcomings include: strangeness of cocking lever, magazine availability, no night sights, capacity, maintenance, holster availability, heat buildup, availability and expense of the P7 (not made anymore).

The main drawback has to be the strangeness associated with the cocking lever. It takes more force to move the lever than it does to hold it there. If not trained properly it is not inconceivable to think that someone under stress would forget to squeeze the gun first before firing.

Even though the sights are of the high visibility type they never came from the factory with luminous night sights. Buying aftermarket sights and fitting them to this pistol is a most unwise idea as the sights on the gun have been carefully regulated at the factory and any modification to them will almost always result in point of aim and point of impact issues. The only solution left is to ship the slide of your pistol to a company like Trijicon or Meprolight and have them install their luminescent capsules into the existing sights on the pistol. This is a much more expensive option than just switching out the sights.

The P7 does not have a high capacity magazine. Only holding 8 rounds it was comparatively low capacity even for its time. Of course there are the standard arguments against high capacity but the P7 is still a low capacity pistol by the standards of today and by its size and weight to capacity ratio . This was remedied with the P7M13 but this caused an unnaturally wide grip that is noticeably more uncomfortable than the standard capacity grips of the P7 and P7M8.

It can be argued that since the P7 has the extra feature of the gas delayed blowback system that there is extra maintenance involved. This is true. You have to clean the gas cylinder and piston in addition to the normal cleaning areas. The piston will always have a layer of fouling that will need to be cleaned thoroughly with a rag or a toothbrush saturated in solvent. However you do not have to clean the cylinder all the time and the factory manual only says you need to clean it every 500 rounds. Some say you do not need to clean it ever. Most of the sources I have used state that it should be at the very least brushed and swabbed with solvent every 200 rounds and to never use the scraper because it will only enlarge the size of the gas cylinder leading to malfunction. Nonetheless it is another maintenance area that needs attention.

The aftermarket for P7 pistols is lacking, as they were never immensely popular pistols like Glocks or Beretta 92s. Holsters can be purchased from custom makers at prices that are comparable to any gun manufactured. Another problem is that the P7 and P7M8 holsters are not entirely interchangeable since the M8 has a larger trigger guard. Many P7 owners claim they can get by with an M8 holster for their P7 though. There is also not much area for a holster to grab onto the P7. The gun is composed primarily of its grip and there really is not much barrel sticking out past the trigger guard as opposed to other pistols. This means holsters have to be either very precisely made (this claim is refuted though with P7 users carrying their P7 in M8 holsters) or it must have a thumb break on the holster. And the design of the pistol does not make it easy to just put in the waistband. I know that generally speaking this is not a good practice but this would be one of the safest pistols to use this method with.

Since the pistol has the gas delay system it has a portion of the gun under the barrel that is directly exposed to heat. This is the gas cylinder and piston. Since the gas cylinder is located just below the barrel and chamber, the heat it absorbs is transferred to the area directly above the trigger. This is right where your finger rests when shooting. It is only a real problem when at the range and you are really going through rounds. I have rapid fired 4 magazines (as many as I have) and though the pistol was hot I felt I could have fired a few more before I got scalded. Some people advocate getting two guns for range work. I say that is silly but if you have the means go right ahead. In the end it is a practice problem not a defensive handgunning problem.

In general P7 pistols of all variants are quite pricey compared to the common alternatives such as Glocks or Springfield XDs. A standard PSP will fetch 600 dollars or more depending on condition and number of magazines. I think that you get a whole lot more than what you pay for given the amount of engineering and quality that is inherent in all P7 pistols. Looking at it from a pure cost perspective I think that if you were to account for inflation the average American buying one today is probably paying less than what the German police did for them back when they were new. On the issue of expense the magazines for the PSP are almost prohibitively expensive. They are fetching around 90 dollars right now. That and they are no longer produced so they are becoming harder to come by. P7M8 magazines are much less expensive even though the gun that uses them is more expensive. The M8 magazines are still being sold by HK at as well as through CDNN.

Another factor and perhaps the finishing factor is that the P7 pistol, in any variant, is no longer produced by HK. This is because of its extreme expense, lack of market, and focus on more fashionable and profitable designs. Nonetheless there is still a healthy supply of P7s in the United States and that should sate the P7 fans for at least awhile until the P7 is relegated to the realm of the collector making the use of these pistols unwise at best.

First of all night sights: With these great weapons comes a few drawbacks. Because of the high degree of care in which the P7 was made, the sights have been regulated very precisely. The accuracy you are achieving is a direct result of 3 things. First is that it has outstanding inherent accuracy. This means if the pistol were to be fired from a machine pointing at exactly the same spot each time the pistol will hold awesome groups. Not unlike firing a rifle from a benchrest. It has no place in the real world except for testing accuracy.

Second the gun has good practical accuracy. This is how easy the gun is to shoot accurately. Generally a gun with a long sight plane, such as guns with long barrels, will have better practical accuracy. Also, the gun has easy to align and has high visibility sights in the ages old three dot pattern. Though this pistol does not have the longest sighting plane, such as a 5" 1911 or a large long barrelled revolver, it does have a long sight plane proportionally to the overall size of the gun.

Third the sights have been carefully regulated at the factory. Those sights are aligned so the gun will shot to point of aim. Remember this though, the sights are regulated so point of impact is underneath the front sight as opposed to just above the front sight. It is a European idea that theoretically made for better combat shooting. Simply cover the target with the front sight and shoot. I tend to agree with it being a better idea in that regard but it makes target shooting a little harder and transitioning to other guns that do not have 3 dot sight systems is a little bit problematic.

There are aftermarket night sights available for the P7. They are not recommended to to install though because they interrupt the precise fitting of the sights to each individual pistol that happened at the factory. There have been plenty of incidents reported that changing sights will affect POA/POI. All is not lost though. You can, and indeed HK recommends this as well, send your slide assembly to a company like Trijicon or Meprolight or C-More and they will drill out the sight dots and install their luminescent nodules into those holes. Presto you have night sights. It is unfortunate you must desecrate a fine piece of firearm like the P7 to get night sights. I am a huge fan of night sights yet I would never consider doing this to my P7.

There are a few areas of the P7 pistol that are both good and bad to the user and one of those it the caliber. The 9mm Luger has been around for a century and still continues to shine. Some consider it adequate and some do not. It is a simple matter of personal preference on this one. It is a readily available and low cost cartridge comparatively speaking and with modern bullet design and propellant technology I see no reason why it cannot be considered a serious manstopper. It has been doing that job for longer than 3 of my lifetimes.

Another complaint of many is the weight of the P7 pistol. There are two perspectives you can use to look at this. It is true that by modern standards this is a heavy pistol for its size. It was designed and used before the heyday of polymer components in pistols. On the other hand I do not think there is a pistol out there that combines a service length barrel and a full size grip in so small of a package. I find it has both a good and bad size to weight ratio. If looking at the perspective of size then this is a plus but looking at it from weight it is bad.

The polygonal rifling has never been friendly to cast bullets and it is also conceivable that the lead could cause undo fouling in the gas ports and even the gas cylinder. It is best to just stay away from unplated bullets in this pistol.

This is not the end all be all pistol. It is not for everyone. It is different enough that it does not lend itself well to the more popular pistol types. It does however lend itself well to revolver shooters. I am a revolver shooter most of the time and when I acquired my P7 I found the transition to be quite easy. I am not averse to the heel magazine release either as I have never gotten used to the button or lever types behind the trigger guard. There is of course a simple solution to the heel magazine release and that is the option of the P7M8. The design of the pistol would, at least theoretically, make it more reliable than the average pistol of today. There are accounts of this pistol firing several thousand trouble free rounds. I can say that mine had a malfunction in the first 20 rounds I put through it. In the end I firmly believe it was faulty ammunition which brings up the point that no matter how good the design is there are other factors in play in real life that even a good design cannot overcome.