December 09, 2020
Subcompact pistols have been in high demand since states started issuing concealed carry permits, and over the last two decades the number of compact handguns on the market has increased dramatically. Despite this increase in the number of subcompact pistols, most of these guns follow a familiar recipe regarding design and function. Once you’ve shot one subcompact striker-fired 9mm it seems you’ve shot them all.
Because of these similarities it takes a lot for a polymer frame 9mm subcompact pistol to stand out in this crowded field, but that’s exactly what Heckler & Koch’s VP9SK does. And this striker-fired German accomplishes this by combining refined engineering with the best materials and modern machining to create a compact pistol that looks, feels and shoots as good or better than anything else on the market.
At the most basic level the VP9SK is quite similar to competing striker-fired subcompacts you’ll find in the pistol case at your local gun shop. The HK utilizes a recoil operation system with a Browning-type modified linkless locking mechanism. The steel slide rides on a polymer frame. There’s no mechanical safety but a multitude of passive safety devices including a firing pin block, trigger latch safety, loaded chamber indicator and a disassembly safety.
The VP9SK is also similar in size to competing subcompact pistols. With its 3.39-inch barrel the HK has an overall length of 6.61 inches and a height of 4.57 inches, and that makes it slightly larger than the Glock G26 and significantly larger than the new micro-compact carry pistols like the SIG P365 and Springfield Hellcat.
What sets the HK VP9SK apart from other subcompact and micro-compact 9mms, though, is build quality. From magazine to muzzle the HK is well-constructed using the best components. The tolerances are tight: There’s no slop in the slide, and every piece is neatly and precisely fit to the next piece.
These guns are subjected to both National Institute of Justice and NATO testing, which include pressure and drop tests, and the slide bears the proof marks of those evaluations. HK does its own independent testing on these guns, and test pistols run 10,000 rounds without stopping. In fact, many of the gun’s components and design elements are shared with HK’s P30, a pistol that managed 91,000 rounds without a single mechanical failure.
HK guns begin with precision machined components. The VP9SK I tested came with HK’s Hostile Environment nitride-finished slide with deep, forward-angling slide cuts fore and aft. The side-mounted extractor is beefier than what you’ll find on competing carry guns, and the extractor doubles as a loaded chamber indicator. When the extractor claw clamps down on the base of the cartridge, the extractor extends slightly from the right side of the slide. The portion that extends is painted red, so you get a visual and and tactile indicator of the VP9SK’s condition.
Disassembly requires rotating the takedown lever on the left side of the gun 90 degrees, and with a pull of the trigger the slide, barrel and captured spring assembly can be removed. The VP9SK requires none of the wiggling and finagling during disassembly you’ll encounter with cheaper counterparts. Everything breaks down smoothly and easily because the components fit together properly.
The interior of the HK slide is the cleanest I’ve seen, totally free of machine marks and blemishes. The VP9SK’s 3.39-inch cold hammer forged barrel features polygonal rifling with 1:9.8 right-hand twist and six grooves.
You’ll spot clever engineering touches throughout this gun. Inside the slide there’s a rotating, spring-operated firing pin safety that contacts a tab on the bottom of the firing pin and prevents the gun from firing unless the trigger is pulled. There are slide releases both on the left and right side of the gun, and both extend far enough from the gun that they are truly functional.
A New Magazine Release
Traditionally, HK pistols have utilized paddle-style mag releases located on the rear of the trigger guard, and I’m a fan of that feature because paddle mag releases are fast and easy to access, serve right and left-handed shooters without modification. Plus there’s no chance the magazine can be dropped should someone attempt to grab the gun from your holster.
Alas, the U.S. shooters traditional push-button mag releases on their pistols. The VP9SK I tested was one of the push-button mag release models, but it’s easy enough to remove the release and swap it to the right side of the gun for southpaws.
In fact, doing most anything on this gun is simple thanks to what is certainly the most detailed operator’s manual in the world of compact carry pistols. That may not seem like a major selling point—that is, until you’ve tried to make heads or tails of a poorly-written manual or, worse yet, turned to the digital gun experts on Youtube.
The VP9SK’s front and rear three-dot sights come with photoluminescent paint that is visible in just about any light. Both sights are dovetailed into the slide, and both feature sturdy bases and streamlined profiles. The front sight is interchangeable with posts ranging from 5.9 to 6.9 mm and the rear sight is drift adjustable. The HK VP9SK is available with night sights for an additional $100.
Two polymer tabs—HK calls them charging supports—fit into slots machined in the side of the rear portion of the slide, and these supports are held in position by the rear sight. What these sights offer a bit of extra width at the rear of the slide to make cycling the action easier. There’s a three-slot Picatinny rail on the dust cover.
The VP9SK’s polymer grips can be adjusted to fit the individual shooter by swapping out the included inserts that come with each of these pistols. Three rear grip profiles and three pairs of side panels (labeled S, M, and L) are included with each gun, so it’s easy to customize the gun to your hand. By simply removing the pin in the base of the grip you can slide the backstrap portion free, and doing so releases the side panels for removal. Reassemble the gun in reverse order, sliding the side panels in place, then the backstrap, and drive the pin back into position. The microtexturing on the grip is smooth and even, offering a firm hold on the gun without being overly aggressive.
Perhaps the VP9SK’s greatest strength compared to its many subcompact rivals is the quality of its trigger. The trigger face is wide and take-up is smooth and even. HK claims the trigger break on these pistols ranges from 4.5 to 5.4 pounds, and the test gun trigger broke at an average of 4.9 pounds for 10 pulls on my Wheeler gauge. It’s also quite predictable.
With a smooth take-up and a pronounced wall you can control the HK trigger better than other striker-fired and that, not surprisingly, leads to better accuracy. The VP9SK also has a short trigger travel (roughly a quarter inch) and a return travel distance that’s half that far. This trigger that promotes accuracy even when you’re shooting quickly, and it’s likely the best trigger you’ll find on any striker-fired subcompact 9mm.
The HK VP9SK is many things, but cheap isn’t one of them. With standard sights and two magazines (10/10 or 10/13 depending upon local laws) suggested retail price is $749.
When you compare that to other subcompact and micro-compact 9mms like the SIG P365 ($579), the Springfield Hellcat ($599), Glock 26 ($599) the VP9SK seems priced almost out of contention. But the HK’s build quality and attention to detail makes it a standout, and that extra initial investment is not money wasted.
There are a surprising number of accessories for the VP9SK considering this pistol is just three years old. There are plenty of replacement sight options and lots of holster options. Accessories for the VP9SK are priced similarly to accessories for other pistols that command a larger portion of the carry gun market.
At the Range
German handgun manufacturers have figured out the secret recipe for proper handgun ergonomics, and the only pistol with a grip design as good as the VP9 family is the Walther PPQ. Both guns have comfortable contours and sensible texturing, but the Walther doesn’t offer interchangeable side panels—advantage HK.
All three HK backstraps promote a high hand hold, and with the VP9SK’s low bore axis, smooth trigger and added weight (compared to other guns in this class) make it one of the smoothest shooting 9mm subcompacts on the market. Balance is excellent, and recoil pivots the pistol up only slightly in the hand. Some subcompact 9mms don’t have the weight, grip width or mass distribution to make fast follow-up shots, but the HK is excellent in this regard. Combine this with a great trigger with short reset and the VP9SK is one fast-firing subcompact.
The sights are big, durable and easy to see, and I am a fan of the rear cocking indicator and loaded chamber indicator. At the range I could easily determine the condition of the pistol without having to perform a press check. The rear cocking tabs are a nice touch, but I don’t know how much they realistically help control the slide. I tried to use them in place of a sight ledge to rack the slide. That didn’t work, and now I have a chunk missing from the corner of my work desk.
The VP9SK shoots like a full-size pistol, which means it’s more accurate and easier to control than other guns in this class. That’s a good thing. The downside of the added size, however, is that the VP9SK carries like a big gun compared to some other subcompacts. It’s not as easy to tuck inside a belt as a G26, and certainly not as easy to hide as a P365 or a Springfield Hellcat. What’s more, those really small guns offer similar capacities in a smaller, lighter package.
The VP9SK performed exceptionally well at the range. It’s one of the most accurate subcompact 9mms I’ve ever tested, producing five-shot groups at or under two inches at 25 yards. The best group measured 1.7 inches and came courtesy of Wilson Combat’s Pinnacle 115 grain TAC-XP +P load.
What’s equally remarkable is how well the HK VP9SK shot with all the test ammo. The best groups using Remington’s Ultimate Defense and Federal’s Punch measured between 2.0 and 2.1 inches, and the other two loads both managed at least one group under 2.3 inches. Normally you find at least one load in five that the pistol simply doesn’t like, but the HK shot all five rounds quite well and I wouldn’t hesitate to carry it loaded with any of the test ammo.
Reliability was, as you might expect from a pistol tested to 10,000 rounds: stellar. The only failure was a single failure for the slide to lock open after the last shot that was solely my own fault. There’s no excuse to depress the slide stop on a pistol with grips this large, but somehow I managed it.
The VP9SK is a German HK through and through. Except, that is, for the Americanized push button safety. And as clever and functional as paddle mag releases are, I understand why HK went this direction with the VP9SK. The paddle release is nifty, but I’m too many rounds into traditional American-style guns to realistically think of changing.
German precision with push-button practicality. That’s what makes the VP9SK so good. Sure, it’s in a crowded class of pistols and lots of shooters will argue their chosen brand is better, but the HK has what it takes to win. And, as Charles Noll once said of critics, “The only way you shut them up is by winning.”