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The Looks of HK Pistols

No fashion statement here: HK's colors match the gun to the environment of the mission.

The Looks of HK Pistols
HK's colorful triad takes advantage of the nature of polymer frames.

Who says a polymer gun has to be black? HK has announced a limited run of its USP pistols with polymer frames in one of three colors: tan, green or gray. The colors are designed to blend in with desert, jungle or urban environments.

Those of you who haven't been paying attention may have missed the introduction of the Universal Self-Loading Pistol (USP) back in 1993. HK, using its experience with earlier polymer pistols--notably the VP-70 and the P9 series--brought out the USP in 9mm and .40 S&W. Since many Americans view .45s as the only real handguns, the .45 ACP version followed two years later.

The USP was offered with nine different trigger-mode options. You could have a dizzying array of safety and trigger packages, from DAO to traditional double action to cocked-and-locked, to combinations. I don't know how well that has gone for HK other than making inventory stocking a real problem, but what was right was the basic package: a durable, reliable, accurate handgun.

In the interests of keeping Handguns readers up to date on all things new and cool, I prevailed upon HK to send me a representative sample of the colorful USP series of pistols. The color frames are not yet available in 9mm, but .40 and .45 fans have a whole new set of toys to play with. The variations currently offered are these configurations: Gray: USP .45 and USP .40 Compact; Green: USP .45, USP .40, USP .40 Compact and USP .45 Tactical; Desert Tan: USP .45, USP .40, USP .40 Compact and USP .45 Tactical and the Mark 23. Suggested retail prices for the color-frame models are the same as the black-frame variations.

Let's review the HK family of pistols in order from small to large, covering the features as we go.

Compact USP

As compacts go, this one isn't very compact. I'd hate to have to be working in a hot climate, in light clothing and issued the Compact USP. There are a lot of pistols that are smaller, but not all of them hold 12 rounds of .40 S&W. (The compact sent to me had a pair of ban-era 10-round magazines.) The grip is very comfortable, with molded checkering front and back and a stippling-like pattern on the side panels. With standard .40 ammo it was almost sedate in recoil. With the hottest ammo it felt a bit harsher, and the squarish profile of the tang started to become apparent. As a uniform sidearm, the Compact's size is convenient and comfortable.

The Compact I received was in gray, and I had to wonder what gray looks like in Germany. In one of my earlier careers, I learned to use a printing press and become more aware of colors. My first impression on pulling the Compact out of its carry case was that this gray has blue in it. Just out of curiosity, I pulled out a Pantone Matching System (PMS) color chart. PMS charts tell you what base colors to mix, and how much, to get a particular color on the chart. With a little bit of work I was able to get a pretty close match, and PMS 428 was it. The mixture calls for five-eighths part black, three-eighths part reference blue and 32 parts transparent white. A definite, if subtle, blue tinge shows up in many kinds of light, but it disappears under fluorescent lighting.

Standard USP

The full-size USP and the Compact are not just "chopped and channeled" versions of each other; they are different in proportion, shape and contour. First, the slide is longer, both in the barrel-length direction and in the slide behind the ejection port. The triggerguard is larger. The grip portion of the frame is larger and not as comfortable as the Compact to hold and shoot. The Compact is smaller in circumference, and I find it to be more comfortable to shoot despite its smaller size. Also, the magazines are not interchangeable. The Compact was shipped with steel magazines while the Standard had polymer magazines. Neither would fit in the other, and despite its larger size, the Standard held one more round of .40 than the Compact did.

The hammer of the Compact is flush with the slide while the Standard has a knurled section, making it possible to thumb-cock the larger pistol. (I can't imagine why I'd want to, but it was possible.)

The Standard came to me in OD green, which comes closest to Pantone 4485. That ink color is created by mixing 14 1/2 parts yellow, 1 1/2 parts ruby red and six parts black. Yellow and red, to get green, and darkened with some black--go figure.

USP Tactical

Unlike the two .40s that came in hard-plastic cases, the Tactical came in a zippered nylon case. Inside, the case has pouches for a pair of magazines, a suppressor, a laser aiming module and the pistol. The suppressor and laser are not HK-made items, so you'll have to contact a manufacturer for those. The case is a transport system, not a tactical case, and getting the pistol or any components out of it is a range event, not an operational event.


The Tactical is available in both .40 and .45, and of the two I would pick the .45, which is what HK sent me in Desert Tan. While the Standard USP is bigger than the Compact, the Tactical is much larger than the Standard. The Tactical slide has the same forward length as the Standard, is longer in the rear and is wider, taller and heavier.

The Tactical barrel protrudes from the slide. In keeping with the Mk 23 origins (the Tactical is a scaled-down Mk 23, to be more normal in size like the Standard), the muzzle is threaded for a suppressor, and the barrel lockup right behind the muzzle features an O-ring for greater accuracy.

The sights are large. The front is a "billboard" reminiscent of the front sights seen on bull's-eye guns, and the rear is an adjustable--both set in standard HK dovetails. At first I thought to myself, This could benefit from a low-mount sight installation. Upon further inspection, I wonder if there is room in the top of the slide for a low mount while still being able to clear the firing-pin tunnel. A low mount may not be possible--not that any HK owner would subject his pistol to the care of anyone other than an HK-certified armorer.

As I've pointed out, the Tactical is big. For that size you get a .45 that holds 12 rounds and makes nails look like fragile tools. Tan for HK seems to be Pantone 466, a mix of a half-part ruby red, a half-part process blue, 11?8 parts yellow and 131?8 parts transparent white.

Mk 23

The Mk 23 is a pistol designed by a committee (excuse me, an "Offensive Handgun Weapon system"--you cannot sell anything to the Defense Department unless it is a "system"). The specifications as laid down were impressive: It had to have a service life of 30,000 rounds of .45 ACP+P ammunition. It had to have match accuracy. It had to hold 10 rounds (later increased to 12), and it had to be capable of accepting both a suppressor and a laser aiming module. As a 1911 aficionado and an IPSC shooter, I am amused that the committee did not spend so much as five minutes considering that the 1911 could have met all requirements (as many have).

This thing is huge. It makes the USP Compact look like an ankle gun. My test-fire crew spent a lot of time fondling the Mk 23, and all came to the same conclusion: The grip is too big. But if you are going to make a polymer-framed gun that holds 12 rounds of .45 ACP, you'll end up with a big grip. The triggerguard is large enough to get three fingers in there, not that you'd need them to pull the trigger.

One thing that can be said about the HK modern trigger system on the USP models is that it is uniformly nice. The Mk 23 in particular, in single action, was very useable. I've shot a lot of matches in the past with custom guns whose triggers were not as crisp and clean as the Mk 23 had right out of the box.

Magazines for the Mk 23 and the Tactical use the same tubes. The Mk 23 magazines will lock into the Tactical but not the reverse. The baseplates on the Tactical magazines strike the Mk 23 frame before the tube can lock in place. If you want to use your HK 45 magazines interchangeably, you'll have to install Mk 23 baseplates on them.

The safety on the Mk 23 is worthy of that overused superlative in the modern era: unique. The trigger action is both a double action and a single action. The safety is an ambidextrous lever that blocks the action only in single action. If you are using it as a double-action-first-shot pistol, the safety lever won't move up. Once you have it cocked, you have the option of either engaging the thumb safety or using the separate decocking lever to lower the hammer--that's right, both a single-action thumb safety and a separate decocking lever. When the thumb safety is on, the decocking lever doesn't move. I've seen a lot of handguns, and I don't recall any other that has this combination.

Considering the specifications laid down by the committee, HK did a superb job with the Mk 23, superb enough that it won the contract and provided the government with a truckload of handguns larger than some compact submachine guns.

As much fun as trying to match the colors was, all it proves is that color-matching is an art. Trying to get an ink color, which will coat paper, matched with a color that is suffused throughout a polymer resin is like comparing apples and oranges.

All the USP models and the Mk 23 had two things in common: a lanyard loop in the bottom rear of the frame and a mechanical lock built into that lanyard housing. Lanyards are one of those old military features that are new again. In scrambling over destroyed buildings, through thick jungle or when completely exhausted, if some necessary piece of military equipment isn't securely attached to you, it is likely to come up missing.

As for the mechanical lock, it is one of those things necessitated by attorneys and legislators. The HK method needs a special two-pronged key to turn it and won't go on by itself. So if you never knew it was there and never used it, you'd never notice it. If you do need it or want it, drop the magazine, and look in the mag well, toward the backstrap. There you'll find a round button with two holes in it. Use the key to turn the button so the holes are vertical, and the hammer is blocked. With it locked, you can't work the slide or cock the hammer.

Enough of the overview--how do they shoot? As you'd expect an HK product to shoot, they are utterly reliable and with superb accuracy. Lacking Ransom-rest inserts for them, I had to content myself with shooting off the bench for accuracy. All the HKs shot as well as some custom guns I had with me on the same range session. The Mk 23 was particularly accurate, and I was able to shoot several groups under two inches at 25 yards using plain old ball ammo. (Hey, I'm no Ransom rest. Two inches at 25 yards with iron sights and blasting/non-match ammo is really good.) The 100-yard gongs were not safe from any of them, the Compact included. A clean trigger break on my part would always lead to a satisfying "clink" from downrange.

For such large guns, the HKs all rolled in my hands more than I like. More than one test-fire volunteer commented on the muzzle rise, particularly in the Mk 23. Archimedes, once he got over the shock of firearms, could tell us why in a moment: It was the length of the lever arm. The axis of the bore on the USP pistols is higher than on other pistols. The Mk 23 in particular has a bore that looks like it is a foot and a half over your hands. With more leverage, the USPs can pivot more. It's not that the recoil is harder, or even objectionable, just that you'll see a lot more muzzle action than you're used to.

I happened to have a selection of 1911s and a Browning Hi-Power along on the same trip, and the differences were noticeable. Later, one of my fellow club members showed up with his French MAB-15, and it also has a higher bore than Browning pistols do. In shooting it, we noticed that it has as much muzzle rise as a 9mm, as the Compact USP did as a .40.

I am not picking on the USP. The fact that the muzzle rises higher does not mean it kicks harder. And for fast shooting, you will spend more time aiming than in recoil recovery anyway, so muzzle rise doesn't matter.

The longer barrel of the Mk 23 also gave us more velocity than any other pistol along that day. If you're starting with +P ammo, the longer barrel of the Mk 23 is going to boost the velocity even more. Even standard ammo ended up delivering near bowling-pin-load velocities, and the +P ammo was hotter still.

Which would I select? Of the offerings sent me by HK, I think I'd have to give the nod to the Tactical in any kind of practical shooting competition. The size and mass dampen recoil, the magazines give good capacity, and you can't beat the accuracy or reliability. For the size and caliber of the .40s, I found the bulk a bit much for the Compact to be compact, and the recoil of the Standard felt the same as the Compact. If I were going to carry one on duty, I would consider the Compact as a great uniform duty gun. None was small enough to tempt me into concealed carry.

As for the "utility" of putting a suppressor on a handgun, were I in the position of going after very bad people using a suppressor, I'd much rather attach a can to an M4 or an MP-5 than turn the already large Mk 23 into an even bigger gun.

And the color? I'd go with OD green. The gray, as I mentioned, is just a little too blue for me. Desert Tan is not a color I can get into. But OD green? I can go for that.

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