October 27, 2007
A cat comes back, this time at half the price.
The original introduction of the double-action, high-capacity Cougar pistol by Beretta was awaited with great anticipation by many. It was 1994, and the Italian firm's full-size 92F had proven to be quite popular among law enforcement and the military. Still, the gun was too big and bulky for many, so it only made sense that a more compact Beretta semiauto loader would generate a great deal of interest.
The problem was, too much interest was generated on the part of the Italian firm. Beretta began to advertise the new gun almost a year before it was made available to the buying public. In the beginning, the ads pumped up people for the gun. However, by the time the gun became a reality, many shooters had gone on to something else.
This was unfortunate, as the more compact Cougar had a more ergonomic grip than did the model 92, while the manual of arms was almost identical between the two guns. At one point, my former agency almost adopted the Cougar but opted for the Smith & Wesson Sigma instead. Too bad. If we had selected the Cougar, we probably would have had it in service for more than a year, which was the length of time the Sigma was in play before many malfunctions resulted in the gun being pulled from service and returned to the factory.
As the years went by, Beretta attempted to breathe some life into a decent but somewhat expensive gun but could not really grab a foothold in the market. It developed a spring-loaded decocking version, a DA-only version with a long, revolver-like trigger as well as a .45 ACP with half the grip cut off, calling it a compact and supplying a magazine with a full-length grip extension. This last model always left me scratching my head, as the grip was either the same as the original or too short to be of use€¦hmm.
I shot these new models at various trade shows and writer events, but the fact is, I did not find any of these updates to be very exciting, though Beretta did introduce a true compact version a few years back that I thought was interesting. This being said, when Beretta silently allowed the Cougar to slide into discontinued oblivion I was not really surprised. Some of the time--no, most of the time--the original is the best.
When I heard that the Cougar was going to be reintroduced by Stoeger Industries, a Beretta subsidiary and the parent company to such fine firearms as Benelli, Franchi and Uberti, I was a bit perplexed. I could not help but wonder why they would travel down a path that had already proven to be a failure. The answer is, Stoeger will produce the gun in Turkey with the same high quality and precise tolerances as the Italian version but at half the price. With an MSRP listed at $349--meaning you will probably be able to buy it for around $320 at a gun show--the Stoeger Cougar could prove to be one of the industry's "best buys" for a service-grade defensive pistol. The question is, Will the gun offer the same level of reliability as the original?
According to Stoeger media representative Cristie Gates, "By building the gun in Turkey, we can offer the gun at the same high quality as before but at a greatly reduced price point. We think the Cougar design is a sound one, and we are very excited about bringing back this excellent pistol at a price that most everyone can afford."
I admit that my interest was piqued, so I asked for a test and evaluation gun to see for myself. As I previously stated, the agency I retired from came quite close to adopting the Cougar, so I became very familiar with the pistol and how it functions.
I admit that I liked the early guns. The design is unique due to the fact that it is a short-recoil, locked-breech system that uses a rotating barrel. When the gun is fired, the recoil impulse pushes the slide and barrel to the rear. After a short movement, the barrel is revolved by cam action against what is called the central block tooth, which is best described as an angled protrusion on the top of the locking or central block. This block rides on the recoil spring and guide rod inside the frame, turning the barrel as it moves back and forth. This unlocks the barrel, allowing the fired case to eject and then chambering a new round.
This rotating design keeps the barrel in alignment with the target, potentially creating a more intrinsically accurate firearm. The barrel is throated and the frame relieved so that the chamber will accept a wide variety of bullet styles, reliably keeping feed malfunctions to a minimum.
My test gun was the F model in 9mm, which incorporates an ambidextrous safety/decock lever on the rear of the slide. When the lever is pushed down, the hammer is decocked, while the trigger action is rendered inoperable. According to the instructional manual, a G Model (spring loaded, decock lever) and a D Model (DA only) will be offered, but as of this writing they are not available. The trigger action is a double-action/single-action mechanism with a long first trigger followed by short triggers thereafter due to the slide cocking the hammer.
I'm not going to kid you, the first double-action trigger is long and heavy--12 pounds according to my trigger scale. However, the single action is a very manageable four pounds with a reset distance of just over a quarter-inch. Like many modern semiauto loaders, the Cougar has a safety device that blocks the forward travel of the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled completely through its cycle.
The grip configuration of the Cougar is best described as a straight backstrap with an indent for the web of the hand. I like this grip, as it fits a wide range of hands even though it houses a double-stack 15-round magazine.
Being able to grip any pistol correctly is essential for accurate shooting, especially when your life is on the line. Whether or not you agree with the concept of point shooting, it is important to be able to fit the gun in your hand so that it is in alignment with your arm so you can point it straight at the target. If the gun is cocked to one side or the other, the gun will not be a natural extension of your arm, thus getting it on target quickly and naturally will not occur and your potentially life-saving shot will go wide of the target.
The grip is long enough to get the entire shooting hand wrapped around it without having the pinky finger hang off the end. I do not like guns with such short grips, as it makes them difficult to grasp solidly during the draw while also making it difficult to rapidly insert a magazine without pinching the hand. While the middle finger is the primary gripping finger, the ring and pinky fingers help cam the muzzle down during recoil, reducing flip and allowing the gun to get back on target faster for follow-up shots. The front- and backstraps have vertical serrations, while the plastic grip panels are lightly checkered to aid in a secure grip.
Other features of the Cougar include a reversible magazine-release button and three-dot combat sights. The magazine button is recessed into the grip to stop inadvertent activation and releasing of the magazine, but for those of us with short thumbs, the gun must be either turned or flipped to access the button. If the gun were mine, I would relieve the plastic grip panel behind the button to solve the problem.
The stock sights are adequate, but any decent combat pistol is better served with a set of tritium night sights. My test gun was easily equipped with a set of Ameriglo sights, which are quickly becoming my preferred night-sight system. The tritium inserts are bright and easy to see, while the white rings that allow the sights to be seen in daylight are covered so that they are not scrubbed away during routine cleaning of the firearm. The addition of the Ameriglo sights was a serious, but inexpensive, improvement to this budget gun.
As good as the reintroduced Cougar looks, only a trip to the range would tell the whole story. I decided to test accuracy in two ways: benchrested at 25 yards from a Hornady Delta Rest and rapid fire at seven. Since the Cougar is intended to be a police/military service pistol as well as a personal defense gun for the legally armed citizen, shooting it fast at close distance makes sense.
The drill was to draw from the holster (a Comp-TAC Kydex paddle holster), fire six rounds as fast as I could see the sights and reset the trigger. I learned a long time ago that the sights should establish the trigger cadence, and that is exactly what I did. For me, that is a shot-to-shot time around a quarter-second.
All shots needed to stay within the eight-inch Primary Neutralization Zone (PNZ) of the DST Target as supplied by Law Enforcement Targets (www.letargets.com). The PNZ Target Series emphasizes hits to the high chest region, where the most vital body organs are located.
Let's face it: Handguns, regardless of caliber, are not very effective regardless of caliber. Incapacitation is a direct result of where your hits are delivered and how many hits can be delivered. Thus, the seven-yard drill from the holster has some legitimacy. The benchrest 25-yard drill was a result of my personal curiosity to see if the rotating barrel that stays in alignment with the target does offer greater accuracy. The results of the accuracy test are seen in the accompanying chart.
Without a doubt, the Stoeger Cougar is plenty accurate for its intended purpose. The close-range accuracy was certainly affected by the long first trigger press of the DA/SA action. Many consider this a "safety" against involuntary discharge, and a legitimate argument can be made for this mode of thought. At the same time, working through the long first trigger and then "picking up" the short trigger does take some effort to master.
Think for a moment what occurs when a fast shot is attempted with a long first trigger action. Pressure is applied with the trigger finger to the rear. The more leverage that is applied to the rear, the more likely the muzzle will be taken out of alignment with the target.
Add to this the tendency of the lower fingers to apply pressure, which can also take the muzzle off target, and it is easy to see how most people, who are moderately trained, perform better with a short action and consistent triggers. A trigger like the HK LEM or SIG K-trigger would be a real improvement for the Cougar, but it would also raise the reasonable price of this gun.
Will the Cougar make it this time around? I think that it has a very good chance. It is currently available in both 9mm and .40 S&W, making it an appealing choice for law enforcement officers as well as basic academy cadets who might have to buy their own gun upon entering the academy.
It will be interesting to see where Stoeger takes the Cougar line. The design and feel of the gun is already quite good. To my way of thinking, forget the current D and G models and come out with an LEM-style short-action DA-only design. If Stoeger can keep an inexpensive price point on a gun like that, then we would really have something.