April 25, 2016
Impressed with the German Walther P38s encountered during the Second World War, military thinkers were already leaning towards the trend of faster, lighter rounds. So when the U.S. military began showing interest in replacing the M1911 as its standard service arm, Smith & Wesson tasked Joseph Norman, one of its engineers, to develop a 9mm handgun incorporating aspects of the German sidearm.
The result was the S&W Model 39, an aluminum-framed 9mm double, single-action handgun. Feeding from a removable, single-stack 8-round magazine, the new S&W only held one round more than the M1911 it sought to replace. What makes the gun particularly interesting, is that it was the first double action autoloading pistol ever made in the United States. Unfortunately for Smith & Wesson, right around the time they managed to fully gear up production, the U.S. Army changed its mind about replacing the old handgun.
The design might have died off if not for renewed interest from the U.S. Navy, who wanted a modified version capable of accepting Browning Hi Power double stack magazines. Dubbed, the Model 59, the new handgun became a dedicated suppressor host for Navy SEALS in Vietnam under the moniker, "Hush Puppy." There, its robust construction and excellent accuracy were used to great effect in infiltration and clandestine missions.
After the Vietnam War, S&W continued production of the Model 59 under several names changing the caliber and build material until, in 1999, the final variant of the nearly 50 year old design was discontinued.
However, thanks to the early auto pistol’s rugged design and proven action, several companies and countries have adopted and adapted the Model 39 into modern handguns. The Korean military uses one right now manufactured by Daewoo known as the K5. It’s a great handgun, but not terribly modern. Thankfully, Lionheart Industries of Washington worked with Daewoo to redesign the pistol for the American market. The result? The Lionheart LH9 MKII.
Chambered in 9mm, this locked breech, magazine-fed all-metal semi automatic pistol shares more with the Model 59 than just classic good looks. The Lionheart LH9 uses the same bushingless, flared and lugged barrel to ensure proper alignment and lockup. Unlike the Smith & Wesson pistol it so closely emulates, the Lionheart LH9 features two locking lugs on its barrel like an M1911.
Under the hood, the Lionheart LH9 is more than simply a beefed-up S&W Model 59. In fact, it could be argued that it’s the next evolution of the double, single-action trigger system. Lionheart’s pistol uses what the company refers to as the “Double action+” or “Triple Action” trigger. To understand its importance, one must fully grasp the difference between double and single action setups.
Double action only (DAO) handguns refer to setups where pulling the trigger performs two actions: priming or cocking the hammer, and releasing it. Single action only (SAO) pistols are those whose trigger performs the singular action of releasing the hammer. Most firearms today use double/single action trigger setups. These are where the firearm uses the heavier, longer double action pull for the first shot and shorter, lighter pull for all subsequent ones.
Lionheart employs a much less common trigger configuration called “Double Action+." Interestingly, a shooter can run a triple action pistol like a double/single action one and never realize the difference. This is because the shooter needs to take an additional step to activate the new capability. Once the hammer is cocked on the Lionheart LH9, a shooter can push the hammer forward rendering the next trigger pull slightly heavier than a single action one but markedly lighter than the standard double action pull.
If this sounds way too complicated for you, think of it this way. Standard operating procedures for many people who carry a double/single action pistol like a SIG P226, is to chamber a round then use the decocking lever for safety reasons. Instead of using that decocker, simply take the shooting hand’s thumb and press on the back of the hammer to allow it to safely drop.
Being a departure from the norm, it’s obviously not going to be a big hit with every shooter. Thankfully, the entire thing is optional. Shooters can manually lower the hammer on the gun to render it in a state like a DA/SA handgun, or use the thumb safety to carry it like a SAO pistol in condition zero. So even if you think it’s a gimmick, it’s hard not to appreciate having more options on a pistol.
While the trigger system is the star of the show, the rest of the gun is still great. It’s obvious the engineers at Lionheart Industries overhauled several aspects of the design to appeal to modern shooters. Where the S&W handguns featured the antiquated slide-mounted safety lever, the Lionheart LH9 does away with this in favor of a frame-mounted thumb safety. It operates like a traditional M1911 thumb safety and is easily actuated without shifting the firing grip. Also, it’s fully ambidextrous and low profile enough to not snag when the Lionheart LH9 is drawn from a holster.
Other great features on the pistol include aggressive diamond-checkered polymer grip panels that are as effective as they are attractive. To the front and aft of the panels the front and back straps are vertically serrated, giving shooters a more positive grip on the pistol when wet or oily.
Forward of the grip is the disassembly lever that doubles as a slide catch/release. Further forward is one of my favorite additions to the design: a railed dust cover. Modern gunners take them for granted, but rails on handguns were relatively uncommon until the last decade or so. The first generation Lionheart LH9 had no rail, but recently Lionheart introduced its MKII model which incorporates the rail into the frame itself. Further supporting Lionheart’s push towards mission adaptivity.
Even still, the Lionheart LH9 MKII still feels anachronistic for the 21 century; the result of combination of eclectic design choices. It uses an all-metal frame and slide isn’t striker-fired, though, nor is it double action. It features fantastic modern low profile iron sights and railed dust cover but also futuristic polymer grip panels. Stranger yet, this odd combination has been growing on me since I picked it up at my FFL.
The Lionheart LH9 ships in a nylon zippering soft case with one magazine, a cleaning rod and an instruction manual. The handsome case is perfect for transporting the handgun to and from the range, and has space for a few extra magazines in addition to the two it ships with.
I took the whole setup and four varieties of 9mm ammunition to my range and pitted the Korean-American hybrid gun against my MGM plate rack and a few more practical steel targets. When using the pistol in single action mode, the light trigger made quick work of the six plate targets as well as the IPSC paladin-style ones from 25 yards.
The double action pull predictably made engaging small or distant targets more difficult, but still very much within the realm of the handgun’s capabilities. This was true with all grains of ammo tested, ranging from standard 115gr FMJ to Hornady Critical Defense 147gr defensive type. Speaking of which, across the 500-round case of ammo fired through the test gun, the only malfunction was a dud primer. Which is obviously unrelated the Lionheart LH9’s functionality.
The Double Action+ or Triple Action pull was interesting. It’s difficult to master initially as the trigger jumps a large portion of the distance needed to drop the hammer with very little effort. If a shooter treats the trigger like one found on a DAO hammerless revolver, (pushing through the entire trigger pull in one firm, but rapid motion) it’s less disruptive than the standard double action pull, and more than accurate enough to defensive use.
Another immediately noticeable aspect is the recoil, or rather the lack thereof. The Lionheart LH9 MKII’s nearly 27oz weight does an incredible job of soaking up the already mild recoil of 9mm ammunition. This made rapidly engage steel plates an absolute breeze with the Lionheart LH9 and factory ammo.
Another aspect that greatly assisted in the pistol’s excellent accuracy are the sights. These Novak-style low profile post and notch irons consist of a blacked-out rear sight contrasting with a white dot post. Another feature that helps a shooter place rounds more precisely, is the wave-pattern engraving on the top of the slide. This is done to refract light and reduce glare to make a shooter’s sight picture more crisp.
For many shooters, the Lionheart LH9’s lack of a polymer frame will be a deal breaker, which is truly sad. They’re missing out on one hell of a handgun. Shooters willing to try something new will find a solid, light kicking dependable pistol with a fair price tag and a ton of desirable features. If a shooter is in the market for an all-metal handgun, but doesn’t want to spend a fortune or sacrifice modern conveniences found on newer guns, they own it to themselves to give the Lionheart LH9 MKII a try.