Way back in the 1980s a company called GLOCK introduced the Model 17 9mm pistol. It had, of all things, a polymer frame. Now I’m not technically savvy enough to tell you the difference between polymer and plastic but, in my opinion, too many people jumped on the “oh my gosh, a plastic gun!” bandwagon and talked negatively about such a design. Almost thirty years later it seems that the polymer frame design has not only become accepted but is often preferred because of how much lighter it makes the weapon. The Glock Model 17 has been joined by twenty other models (available in the U.S.). Nearly every other major manufacturer of firearms has a product line that includes polymer frames. Across the span of the past couple decades I’ve owned more than a few and I thought it might be fun to take a look at them.
This is the gun that I wear almost every day. While I’m a huge fan of the Government Model 1911 and the .45ACP cartridge, that 1911 get heavy to carry each day on your belt. Yes, I can but I choose not to. Instead, I give up one round of capacity and carry this Kahr CW4543. It’s smaller, more convenient to carry, a lot lighter (and therefore more comfortable to have on my belt all day) and it fits in some of the holster designed for my 1911. The ultra-thin single stack polymer frame obviously contributes to the lightness and comfort.
A striker-fired weapon, the secret to the slimness of the Kahr is its patented extraction and ejection system. The recoil is very manageable (although it is more noticeable than that of my 1911). Carrying it loaded with a six round magazine plus one in the chamber and carrying a spare magazine gives me a total of 13 rounds of .45ACP out and about. I will sometimes carry a second spare magazine upping the total to 19. Is that enough? I’m sure we can all envision scenarios where it’s not. Statistically speaking though, the average gunfight takes what… 3 rounds? 4 rounds? I consider 13 enough given that I’m specifically trying to avoid conflict situations and I’m not getting involved as a by-stander unless it’s unavoidable.
Glock Models 17 and 19
Behind my Kahr CW4543 and my Springfield Armory 1911, my Glock Model 19 9mm is my favorite carry gun. For many years it was my primary off-duty gun. I’ve had mine – a second generation model – since the early 1990s. As I mentioned earlier, the polymer frame of the Glock handguns was once what people made fun of and considered a weakness. Decades later we’ve learned to know better and the strength of this design – credited to Glock – has caused a shift in design throughout the industry. No, Glock wasn’t the first company to use a polymer frame but they were the first to introduce it in an accepted duty-size combat-purposed handgun (that I can recall).
Carrying 15 rounds of 9mm ammo in each magazine, this mid-size handgun carries as much as many full-size duty weapons. And, if you feel the need for more you can exercise one of two options:
- You can purchase and install “+2″ floorplates on your magazines which increases the capacity of those 15-rounders to 17 rounds each, or
- You can use magazines for the Glock Model 17 (17 rounds a piece) in your Glock 19 (or Glock 26 but I no longer own one of those)
Since the Glocks (all 9mms anyway) all measure the same in the frames from the front of the trigger guard to the web of the backstrap, different size guns – the 17, 19 and 26 – will all fit in the same holster. The same goes for the .40S&W caliber weapons in the same frame size: Models 22, 23 and 27 and the .357Sig sizes as well: 37, 38 and 39. With that much versatility of carry and three different calibers all in the same frame size, the strength of the design we loved to hate in the mid-1980s has really come into its own.
The Glock Model 17 that I have now is a fourth generation Glock. The grip has a smaller circumference than those of the first three generations and has two additional backstrap “fillers” you can add on if you need more grip to fill your hand. The magazine release is larger and more pronounced (read “easier to find and push”) and the grip texture has been changed. I like the new “RTF” pattern but some aren’t such big fans.
We originally purchased this cool little weapon to teach my youngest son how to shoot. Being a ten-shot .22lr handgun, and with the grip size fitting the caliber (it’s just big enough to hold the magazine), it was perfectly sized for smaller hands. Recoil on the .22lr being what it is (all but non-existent), it was a good choice for a first time shooter – especially a younger one. The weapon was delivered with two barrels, one about 4″ and one closer to 6″ with an adapter that goes on the slide for securing the longer barrel. It also came with two magazines so that reloading can be practiced as well. Two things about the weapon are of concern to me; I consider them bothersome but (obviously) not unsafe:
- The manual safety does not decock the weapon. With it on you obviously can’t pull the trigger to lower the hammer. So if you’re shooting, have rounds left and want to decock the weapon to put it on safe, the only way you can do it is to put your thumb between the hammer and the firing pin, pull the trigger and then gently lower the hammer to rest.
- The magazine release is an ambidextrous lever located at the bottom rear of the trigger guard (as compared to being a push-button release in about the same position). While I take no issue with it, it’s the only weapon I have with such a magazine release and I’ve used the push-button type for so long that I have to remind myself to push down on a lever instead.
Other than those two items – one of which I consider a definite safety concern and the other a matter of convenience – it’s a very handle and serviceable weapon for training and plinking. I suppose it would do well with target competitions if all you’re doing is punching holes.
Didn’t own but experienced:
When FN Herstal introduced the FN5.7 pistol, it wasn’t the FIRST pistol introduced in a long-gun caliber, but it was the first one of such introduced that was small enough to be…
- fired one handed
- have easily managed recoil
- carried comfortably on or off-duty
That 5.7mm round really sizzles and the terminal ballistics have been compared to those of a .223/5.56mm round. Using the strengths of the polymer frame, FNH managed to put 20 rounds into a single magazine (although with ammo cost that’s about $10 per magazine of ammo when you’re training or practicing). Because of the lightweight bullet and the high velocity at which it leaves the barrel, the trajectory is much flatter than traditional handgun calibers (9mm, .40S&W, .45ACP, etc) so accurate shots at longer distances are more realistic. Skilled shooters can do very well out to and past the fifty yard line; distances most folks don’t even train to with typical “duty” handguns.
The challenges I see to the FN5.7 are twofold: first, it’s not an inexpensive weapon to purchase or shoot. While weapon and ammo costs in general have gone up in recent years, the 5.7mm started out expensive and is only going to go up. Ammo can cost as little as $0.50 per round so a regular day at the range for practice and qualifications can cost you well over $100 in ammo alone. While I really like the weapon and would love to have one in my gun safe, the initial purchase cost and the on-going ammo cost is just too exorbitant for me (and many others) to absorb.
This is the duty weapon for the agency I train with and provide training to. Oddly, the lieutenants carry Sigs instead of the Beretta (they carry a more compact .40S&W weapon). The full-size PX4 Storm has a 4″ barrel and each magazine holds 14 rounds of .40S&W ammo. Adding one in the chamber gives it an overall capacity of 15 rounds which is about standard for contemporary duty use (you can also get this weapon in 9mm which holds 17 rounds per magazine OR you can get it in .45ACP and get 10 rounds per magazine). The disassembly lever, slide stop and magazine release are all in familiar places, mounted in the polymer frame. The manual safety also serves as a decocking lever and is fitted where you’d expect it in the contoured slide. The biggest difference between this and the other mentioned pistols is the rotating barrel design. While the others have tilt-barrel breech-locking mechanisms (double checking on the FN model for this), the Beretta PX4 Storm’s barrel rotates to unlock and relock the slide as it cycles between shots. That changes the felt recoil to more twist and less upward arc in your hand, and you notice the difference when you’re field stripping and cleaning the weapon. Other than that difference, however, it’s pretty standard
Smith & Wesson’s first venture into the polymer framed weapon world was their Sigma design. Not only did this cause them huge grief in potential patent violations (because Glock had patented as much as it could prior to introducing the Glock Model 17), it never really caught on. It was priced right (low dollar for a contemporary duty pistol) and it was timed right (early in the polymer-frame revolution) but Smith & Wesson had a few issues with public perception and general customer service when the Sigma was released. It just never “took off” for them. Years later they spent quite a few dollars on research and development and brought forth a totally new design: the M&P (Military & Police) pistol. Available in 9mm, .40S&W and .45ACP, the M&P has garnered quite a following and has reinvigorated Smith & Wesson as real competitors in the law enforcement market.
The polymer frame weapons hold:
- 17 rounds per magazine of 9mm
- 15 rounds per magazine of .40S&W
- 10 rounds per magazine of .45ACP
in the full size weapons.
Available with or without a manual external safety the M&P has a very comfortable ergonomically shaped grip with a decent amount of “beaver tail” to protect the web of your hand from the slide if you grip up high on your pistol. By adding a design feature, Smith & Wesson resolved the potential safety issue of having to pull the trigger on an empty chamber to disassemble the pistol. That one design change alone added to the popularity of the weapon in big ways.
Don’t own but want to:
Kel Tec PMR-30
Most adults who carry firearms professionally don’t get excited by a rimfire caliber weapon. Sure, we all appreciate the low expense / low cost availability of .22lr and .22WMR ammo, but would we consider carrying one as a primary defensive sidearm? Probably not. Just recently though, Kel Tec introduced their PMR-30. That’s Pistol-Magnum-Rimfire (PMR) carrying 30 rounds per magazine of the .22WMR (.22 Magnum) ammo. Just like the 5.7mm ammo we’ve already discussed, the .22WMR ammo is a low-bullet-weight high-velocity round that shoots flat and has little felt recoil; at least that’s true out of a rifle length barrel. Out of a shorter pistol barrel you lose the “high velocity” part with the rounds exiting the barrel at (on average) less than 1400 feet per second. Since it’s possible to get handgun ammo with heavier bullet weights (and therefore more energy) leaving the barrel almost that fast, you have to measure the benefits and loss of the lighter bullet weight versus increased capacity. What are the biggest benefits then?
Well, for one, .22WMR ammo is a lot cheaper than 5.7mm, .223 or 5.56mm. My most recent purchase of .22WMR ammo (if I remember correctly) cost me less than $10 for a 100 round box of ammo. That’s ten cents (or less) per round. Additionally, Kel Tec designed the full-size pistol to hold 30 rounds per magazine. That’s a lot of shots before having to reload but equates to $3 or less per magazine of ammo.
As has been their tradition, Kel Tec uses as much high-impact polymer as possible in the weapon design. The PMR-30 has a 4.3″ barrel and uses an European-style magazine release located at the back base of the grip. There is an ambidextrous safety and each pistol is shipped with two magazines, also made of polymer.
A Google search for this weapon revealed some for sale online priced well below $300. In today’s world of $800+ handguns, that below $300 sure does look good!
That’s my take on polymer framed handguns today. I’d enjoy you sharing any of your thoughts or observations about the same!
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