First look: 21st century semi-autos

First look: 21st century semi-autos

Mayer, Scott E

If new handguns shown at the 1999 SHOT Show are any indication of what to expect for the next century, we have a lot to look forward to. In the revolver market, we’ve already seen titanium guns from Smith & Wesson and Taurus Int’l. The semi-auto market hasn’t been content to sit on its hands, either. Here’s a first look at what the future holds.

WITH so many new and innovative handguns unveiled and announced this year, it’s hard to know which to look at first. Beretta, H&K, Kahr, Ruger, SIG Arms, Springfield, Inc.-the list goes on-all have something new. Two discreet-carry pistols that really caught my attention, however, were Kel-Tec’s P32 and Vektor’s CP1. Why?

Because both makers took conventional wisdom and threw it out the window. In stark contrast to how things ought to be, Kel-Tec makes its robust little .32 ACP with a locked breech, while the sleek 9×19 mm Vektor CP1 uses a gas-retarded blowback design. Excuse me, but aren’t .32s supposed to be blowbacks and 9 mms locked breech designs?

KEL-TEC P32 ACCORDING to George Kellgren, president of Kel-Tec, by using a locked breech, his company is able to make the P32 much lighter than its contemporaries because it doesn’t need a heavy slide like blowback pistols. Empty. the P32 weighs a scant 6 1/2 ozs.-that’s about half the weight of a stainless steel Seecamp. But design isn’t the only factor that gives the P32 its feathery attribute, it’s also the materials from which it’s made. The frame proper is an aluminum block pinned into a black polymer grip frame. At its widest point, the P32 is 3/4″ thick, but the grip is only .7″ wide. I didn’t find it the least bit uncomfortable, nor did shooters with hands bigger than mine.

Contained within the grip frame are a separate steel ejector, trigger, trigger bar and concealed hammer. A coil extension spring pinned in the base of the grip powers the hammer. Pulling the trigger draws the trigger bar forward. The bar engages the hammer and rotates it back against the tension of the spring. As the hammer reaches its rearmost position, the trigger bar releases the hammer and immediately presses the hammer block forward allowing the hammer to fall, striking the rebounding firing pin. As the bullet leaves the barrel, the slide and barrel are propel led rearward together. After about 1/4″ of travel, the barrel cams down and unlocks from the slide by the action of a kidney-shaped cut in the lower block riding down the assembly pin. The empty case is extracted and ejected at the rear of the slide’s travel. During the rearward movement of the slide, the hammer is disengaged and follows the slide forward until it catches on the hammer block. which holds the hammer away from the firing pin. but partially cocked. Since the slide partially cocks the hammer, trigger pull is noticeably lighter than that of Kel-Tec’s earlier P11 . From the factory, P32 trigger pulls run between 5 and 6 lbs. In sacrifice to the lighter trigger pull, however, the P32 does not have second-strike capability.

There is no disconnector and no external safety. There is also no passive firing pin safety beyond a heavy firing pin retracting spring. The low-mass firing pin lacks the weight to strike a cartridge’s primer should the P32 be dropped on its muzzle.

Barrel material is hardened SAE 4140 carbon steel. The slide is of this same alloy and has a flat, milled sighting plane that ends in a small white dot at the muzzle to present a front sight. The rear sight is a milled-out section at the rear of the sighting plane with a white dot painted in its middle. There is no notch in the rear sight, and aiming is by stacking the front sight dot on top of the rear sight dot and aligning them on the target. On the range, I found it worked quite well and allowed me to easily obtain decent-size groups at a realistic distance of 7 yds.

My sample came with the optional pocket clip, as found on the current crop of tactical knives. It’s attached to the right side of the grip frame to facilitate slipping the pistol into the waistband. Clipping it in my pants pocket left the grip hanging out and vulnerable to theft. Securing the P32 in my waistband didn’t work too well for me, either, as I found it time consuming to retrieve the gun. It does offer ultimate concealment, however. Balance between accessibility and concealability is probably the best you’re going to find if the P32 is carried as a backup.

NRA’s Assistant Technical Editor, Glenn Gilbert, fired the Kel-Tec P32 for accuracy with the results shown in the accompanying table. He also extensively function fired it with hollow-point and full-metal-jacket ammunition. I gave it a good workout on the range, too, and we were both impressed with the little gun. The only hiccups during the shooting were with Federal FMJ ammunition. Several rounds, but most often the last in the magazine, would chamber normally, but not let the slide go all the way into battery. A smart rap to the back of the slide would usually close it. Kel-Tec identified this problem with earlyproduction guns like mine and fixed it. It seems the magazine was being held too high, and the slide was dragging against the feed lips. The added resistance prevented the slide from riding forward unhindered when chambering a cartridge. New Kel-Tec P32’s have a lower magazine catch, which holds the magazine slightly lower to eliminate this malfunction.

Thin pistols, even in mild calibers, can be uncomfortable to shoot because the recoil energy is concentrated on a small section of the web of the hand. I found that the double, nested recoil springs did a credible job of helping reduce felt recoil, and I had no problems in this regard. Gilbert is left-handed. and kept getting bitten on his thumb’s knuckle by the sharp corner of the belt clip.

Kel-Tec’s P32 is not the smallest pistol in the world. It’s not the lightest one, either. But as a backup gun, there’s probably not another one out there as small, light and flat It’s pleasant to shoot, and chambered for a caliber on the high end of cartridges that are minimally powerful enough for self-defense.

“WOW!” This is rad. I like this grip!” Such was just one of the first impressions generated by the Vektor CPI when it arrived at NRA. Though the Vektor CP1 has been in production since 1993, availability has been limited mainly to African and European markets. My first look at the CP1 was when representatives from the importer, Vektor USA, came to visit NRA Headquarters late last year. The CP1 had not been approved for importation then, so they were only able to show photos and drawings of the gun. Early this year, importation was approved. and the CP1 is now available through distributors and wholesalers such as AcuSport and Zanders.

One look inside the CP1 pistol suggests it was designed by someone who knew how to make best use of current manufacturing techniques and materials. There are virtually no sharp corners or edges on the CP1. and it rivals some “meltdown” custom dehorning jobs I’ve seen on other pistols.

The slide is CNC-machined from a solid billet of EN24 carbon steel and finished with one of Vektor’s two proprietary finishes. The first is called QPQ, for “quench-polish-quench.” This matte black finish is chemically heat-treated and hardened. A brushed stainless steel look is achieved with Vektor’s other finish, an electroless nickel nitride treatment. Both are scratch- and corrosion-resistant.

An ergonomic, injection-molded, black polymer frame contains a minimal number of simple, essential firing elements, though some of the multiple safety mechanisms are more complex. After molding, the grip frame is boiled to cure, then reheated and expanded with special tools so the metal parts can be inserted. This locks in the metal inserts.

Just like the vaunted H&K P7 pistol, the Vektor CP1 features gas-retarded blowback operation. Gas-operated firearms typically use gas pressure to unlock and operate the action. Conversely, the CP1 uses gas pressure to help keep the action closed. When a cartridge is fired, propellant gas passes through a port immediately in front of the chamber, and enters the stainless steel gas block cylinder below the chamber. This gas impinges on a piston hinged to the front of the slide. imparting forward pressure against the slide to keep it closed. All the while, gas pressure in the barrel tries to blow the slide back to operate the action. Once gas pressure against the piston drops, blowback functioning occurs. Thus, there is no need for an overly heavy slide or recoil spring.

A large, tubular extension of the gas block Vektor calls the “saddle” serves to position the cold hammer-forged, stainless steel barrel. The barrel is pressed into this cylinder and pinned into place resulting in a rigid, fixed barrel. Rifling is four-groove, polygonal with a 1:10″ right-hand twist.

There are no parts inside the grip save for the magazine release. As with the KelTec, the magazine release button is in the M1911 position behind the trigger. The triangular button lies essentially flush with the frame, and partially obstructed by the molded-in thumb rest where it could be difficult to operate. I also found that the heel of my hand tended to keep the magazine from falling free, even when the release was properly depressed. Vektor USA has heard these complaints, too, but points out that the CP1 is intended as a carry gun, and that extending the magazine release compromises its snag-free contour. Further, the large magazine floorplate is part of the total package that makes up the CP1’s compact, sleek profile. There are left-handed magazine releases available, and I’d probably opt for one and use my trigger finger to work it like I do with my H&K USP.

A mousetrap spring powers the simple, rectangular hammer. A half-cock notch serves as a safety mechanism to catch the hammer in the unlikely event that it slips from the sear. Like the hammer, the sear has a mousetrap spring to return it after releasing the hammer. A trigger bar in the right side of the frame connects the sear to the single stage, single-action trigger.

A Glock-like safety feature in the CP1’s trigger blade blocks the trigger from going back unless intentionally depressed. A small metal pin passes through the polymer trigger blade and protrudes from its left side. Depressing an extension on the face of the trigger retracts the metal blocking pin. freeing the trigger to move rearward. Its use is completely natural.

A trigger-blocking manual safety level in the front of the trigger guard constitutes the primary safety feature. When pressed into the front of the trigger guard to the “safe” position, the button lowers the slide stop into a notch on the safety catch plate. This plate extends back under the gas cylinder and into the trigger blade. Disengage the safety like you would an M1 Garand rifle by putting your finger into the trigger guard and pressing it forward. This action is unnatural at first. but it’s easy to get used to.

Yet another safety feature is an ingenious passive firing pin block. This block consists of a V-spring pinned inside the top rear of the slide at one end and a forked tab extending down from the other end. Normal spring tension presses the forked tab down around the firing pin so it can’t go forward to strike the primer of a chambered cartridge. When you pull the trigger, the hammer flies forward and its top edge compresses the V-spring, sweeping the forked tab up and out of engagement from the firing pin.

Another neat thing about the CPI is its price. With a suggested retail of $479, I wondered how Vektor could make, import and sell a well-made gun for that price-especially since the South African government doesn’t subsidize the manufacturer to keep the price artificially low. Vektor USA’s Mike Danforth explained that, currently, a favorable exchange rate exists between the U.S. dollar and the South African rand. Further. polymer is inexpensive, the design simple and the factory accustomed to churning out high volume.

Firing the CP1 yielded good results, but turned up some problems, too. All types and styles of bullets tested had a respectable degree of accuracy and reliability-so long as they weighed 147grs. Accuracy and reliability deteriorated as bullet weight decreased. Lighter bullets with a round-nose profile, including hollow-points, worked better than truncated-nose bullets, or hollow– points with a flat-nose profile. These occasionally jammed against the top of the chamber during feeding.

Like the H&K P7, the CPI gets hot during extensive shooting sessions. This is to be expected when you have hot gas blowing into the front ofthe frame. After 50 rapid shots, I had to be careful not to touch the dust cover. While the polymer frame dissipates heat quickly, the front half of the steel slide remains hot. Also, this type of gas system is dirty. It’s so dirty that Vektor includes a T-shaped tool for cleaning the gas chamber. Even so. after 200 rounds without cleaning, I had no malfunctions attributable to piston fouling.

Ergonomics of the CP1 make it a natural for point shooting. Perhaps the biggest proponent of point shooting was the late Col. Rex Applegate. I remember having lunch with him several years ago during which he explained the excellent ergonomics of the old .22-cal. Whitney Wolverine. Profile of the Vektor CP1 is very similar to the Wolverine, and I believe Col. Applegate would approve.

My hat’s off to Vektor USA for having the courage to introduce not only a new 9 mm pistol, but one that is radically different from your garden variety “wondernine.” In the CPI, the company has combined an action similar to the legendary P7’s with the racy profile of the Whitney Wolverine. Add to that a Glock-like trigger. Garand-style safety, completely snag-free design and a low price. Now you see why this pistol caught my eye.


While Kel-Tec’s P32 and Vektor’s CPI are perhaps the most unusual pistols we have tested recently, they are not the only all-new handguns we have plans to review in coming months. Look for articles and reviews on Fabrique Nationale’s Forty-Nine and Steyr’s new M-series. Also, Ruger has a potent new Super Redhawk revolver in .454 Casull and Colt’s is offering a multi-caliber. shoot-anything revolver called the Survivor that we’re looking forward to testing.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 1999

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