Test Report on Compact Kel-Tec .32, .380ACP and 9mm Handguns
Photos & Story
by R.K. Campbell
I began this gun evaluation with two thoughts in mind.
First, everyone is not a gun person. Some good folks feel the need for a personal defense tool but are only vaguely interested in handguns and not in sport shooting at all. The handgun is a tool, akin to the spare tire in their vehicle.
Second, many shooters do not fire their handguns often. A simple, less complicated system may suit their needs better. Beyond question a single-action handgun in the appropriate caliber is the best personal defense handgun for a skilled operator, but there is also a need for a pistol for the average person to handle well.
Overall, I believe that the Kel-Tec line of handguns (Kel-Tec CNC Industries, PO Box 236009, Dept. GWK, Cocoa, FL 32926; phone: 321-631-0068; on-line: www.kel-tec.com) offers a good product at a fair price. Each is light, easily concealed, and simple to operate. While the smaller versions chamber cartridges many regard as ineffective, the pistols have in their favor the fact that they are quite neat and compact for the caliber. If you are to carry a .380 then by all means carry a light and handy pistol.
The Kel-Tec line has been around long enough for experienced shooters to get a good handle on the pistols. While I can give them a clean bill of health, the pistols have experienced areas of concern that should be addressed. First, let’s look at the basic design. Like the Glock and other popular modern pistols the Kel-Tec features a polymer frame. However, the Kel-Tec can more rightly said to be a steel pistol action imbedded in polymer.
The pistols as a rule have embryonic but snag-free sights. The .380 and 9mm pistols are locked breech designs. In other words, the slide and barrel recoil together. This is par for the course in the 9mm but unusual in a .380 caliber pistol. This should make for greater strength and the ability to handle heavier loadings.
The pistol is a double-action-only. The trigger is used to both cock and fire the piece. A long press of the trigger brings the hammer back to full cock and releases the hammer, firing the pistol. The slide does not cock the hammer for a subsequent single action shot, the hammer rides down with the slide. The trigger action is the same for each shot, a long press. The trigger is usually quite smooth and fairly lightin the 6-pound class. There is no manual safety or firing pin block, but when the slide cycles, the sear catches the hammer and the hammer does not bear against the firing pin when at rest.
The slide is stepped in the manner of the Browning High Power, allowing a slightly more compact forward profile. The slide is practically snag-free. My example showed an improved extractor and ejector. I have never experienced an extraction problem, but some early pistols had an ejector that tended to bounce cartridges directly into the face of the shooter. A shortening and smoothing of the ejector cured this problem, but the modern pistols seem free of this defect.
A concern with early pistols was reliability. Many writers reported the pistols would fail to operate reliably in a 50- to 100-round test. I believe that at least in some cases a lack of lubrication may have been at fault. The Kel-Tec needs to be properly lubricated, and the pistol sometimes needs a break-in period. With experience with half a dozen pistols of the type, it seems that about half have a break-in period. This is not a drawback, as many expensive pistols, especially 1911 types, require a break-in as well. Usually the pistol will begin to function reliably after 50 rounds of full power ammunition. I have found Fiocchi ball ammunition in .32 ACP and .380 ACP is loaded a bit hotter than some, and usually use this ammunition in breaking in a new small caliber pistol. Results are good with this combination.
Another warning is that the pistol must be gripped firmly in order for the action to work. Like the Glock pistol, I am sure some short cycles are the result of the shooter not gripping the pistol strongly enough. I mention the Glock because the Glock is another high quality polymer pistol that is sometimes limp-wristed. Hold the pistol firmly, keep the piece lubricated, use good ammunition and the Kel-Tec will function. As for longevity, the pistol is well made of good material and should last for many years. But I am unaware of any high-round-count pistols. My personal .32 caliber example has fired perhaps 350 rounds and the 9mm I have used for some time is nearing 2,000 rounds without a malfunction, even during the first firing.
The 9mm, in particular, is an excellent personal defense pistol. The piece is light for the caliber, features a flush fit double-column magazine, and has good hit potential for the pistol’s size. It is a handful with +P loadings due to its light weight, but that is the nature of the beast. A good standard load such as the Fiocchi 115-grain hollow point is an excellent choice for this pistol. Good as it is, the Kel-Tec P 11 is really a belt pistol. I often carry this handgun in a Blocker strong-side holster. Speed into action is excellent and the pistol is light on the hip. For a true pocket pistol, we will look to the smaller Kel-Tecs.
.380 P 3AT Model
The new P 3AT has created something of a sensation. My friends in the gun shops tell me this is among the best selling pistols in America. It is a purposeful, affordable pistol. This .380 ACP caliber pistol is just a shade larger than the earlier .32 ACP model. The pertinent dimensions are as follows: Weight7.2 ounces (unloaded); Length5.2 inches; Width.75 inch, and Height3.25 inches.
The magazine holds six rounds. The magazine release is near the trigger guard and the grip frame is checkered for good purchase. There is no hold-open latch to lock the slide back on the last round; the engineers say there is simply no room. I inspected and lubricated the test pistol prior to firing. Having found the .32-caliber pleasant to fire, I expected the .380 version to produce a bit more recoil but nothing uncomfortable. I was correct. The locked breech system and a polymer frame that gives a bit in recoil all make for easy shooting.
Personally, I find the pistol easier to use well than the vaunted Walther PPK. The PPK has a heavy trigger action and the slide often bites my hand. The Kel-Tec had none of that. You can do more with the PPK but the Kel-Tec disappears in the pocket.
Since I have never “torture tested” a Kel-Tec pistol, I elected to fire this one about 10 times as much in a single week as the average shooter will fire the piece in a year. Five hundred rounds was the goal. I collected a representative supply of ammunition from Black Hills, Cor-Bon, Federal, Fiocchi, Hornady, MagTech, PMC and Speer. There were warnings from the manufacturer not to use steel cased or aluminum case or +P ammunition. I am unaware of +P rated ammunition in this caliber, although the Cor Bon round is quite hot.
Interestingly, a 50-round box of economy loads such as the MagTech cost about the same as a 20-round box of premium hollow points. Probably the best buy overall was the Black Hills JHP load, offered in 50-round boxes. My philosophy has always been to practice on the cheap and load the best possible defense load. Price is not always an indicator of quality but it can be a guide.
My cohorts and I fired the Kel-Tecand with only two spare magazinesuntil all of the ammunition was expended. We paused when the slide became too hot to handle. In a pistol with a slide lock this would not have mattered as much, but we had to cock the pistol with each magazine. The heat wasn’t bad until you fired 100 rounds or so quickly.
The pistol became a little sluggish in operation at about 250 rounds. I field stripped, cleaned and lubricated the pistol and we blazed through the final 250 rounds. There were no break-in malfunctions and no malfunctions attributable to the pistol.
However, there were a few problems that were ammunition related. Aluminum-cased ammunition will not feed and function reliably in this pistol. Some chambered, some did not, and the extractor design may not be compatible with aluminum cases. These cartridges cannot be used in the Kel-Tec.
Since the pistol’s sights are rudimentary, the best we could do is point and shoot at a 10-yard silhouette and that was the longest range attempted. So, I cannot comment on cartridge accuracy, only reliability and clean burning. MagTech ammunition turned in a credible performance, with good reliability. Fiocchi also turned in good results, and we went through a box of Fiocchi hollow points with perfect function. The Hornady XTP bullet is never a bad choice for personal defense, and this ammunition also fed well. Black Hill’s JHP load gave good accuracy in our best attempts at shot placement and never stumbled. Cor-Bon loads their ammunition hot, but the Cor-Bon load did not demonstrate muzzle blast out of line with the other loadings. The Federal Hydra Shock is a nice looking load, with a nickeled cartridge case. Feed reliability was good, but be certain to check your personal example out with any combat loading. The failure of the pistol to function with the aluminum-case Blazer was noted, and we had a failure to fire with about 15% of the PMC rounds. This cannot be attributed to light primer strikes, as the primer featured a strong indent in each case; we even worked one over three times. This failure would have happened with any other handgun.
In short, we experienced several problems with .380 ACP cartridges but none with the pistol. Whatever load you decide upon, be certain to proof the load for reliability in your proven handgun. Due to incompatibility of ammunition and failure to fire in several cases, we did not manage a full 500-round test. Still, we were able to fire 468 rounds in the pistol. This speaks well of the pistol but points out a need for confirmation of feed reliability.
Our firing impressions were good. We can draw the pistol quickly and hose down a target with seven rounds at seven yards with reliability. It is possible to carefully sight the pistol and make a hit on a man sized target at 15 yards, but where that bullet will strike the target is problematical. Interestingly, speed reloads are not difficult with this pistol. Carrying a spare gun load is never a bad idea.
Carry load selection is difficult with this caliber. The .380 ACP is more powerful than the .32, but then the .32s, .32 Magnum included, are not impressive. Often, the choice is made to purchase and carry ball ammunition. This ammunition has sufficient penetration to reach the vital organs. A jacketed hollow point bullet may open too quickly, retarding expansion, and stop short of doing vital damage. This is not as great a problem with larger calibers with greater velocity and bullet mass. I would not fault anyone carrying the ultra reliable Black Hills or Fiocchi ball ammunition. On the other hand, both the Black Hills and the Hornady XTP load seem to have sufficient penetration while offering some upset. The Hydra Shock seems to be the most reliably expanding bullet, but at the expense of penetration. The Cor-Bon loading offers reliable expansion. To each his own; the most important thing we must do is shoot straight!
When carrying the pistol, pocket carry is OK but we really need a means to stabilize the pistol. I have adopted the Graham Gunleather pocket holster for this need. This holster keeps the pistol properly oriented for a rapid draw and protects the pistol to an extent. When making a draw from the pocket, be certain never to place your hand in the pocket and then make a fist as you will not be able to draw the piece. Slide the pistol to the top with your fingers, then take a strong grip on the pistol. The pocket is snagged or pressed away from the pistol as it is drawn.
Another option is the Pocket Slipper Laser (CC MFG. Company, 13874 Graber Ave., Sylmar, CA 91342). This device fits around the trigger guard of the pistol and offers excellent utility. The pocket slipper breaks up the outline of the pistol when the pistol is in the pocket, and offers a surprisingly stable firing platform. With this additional weight, the recoil of the pistol is toned down. The addition of a Laser sight gives the user options in dim light and in firing from behind cover that are not otherwise available. This seems to be a high quality unit, with good power for the size.
In test firing the Laser sight, I fired some 100 rounds of Black Hills ball. Point of aim and point of impact did not waver and the unit remained tight and reliable. Since the Kel-Tec .380 has little in the way of sights at all, the Pocket Slipper is a particularly attractive option. Laser sights have the triple advantage of increasing hit probability, offering a deterrent to deadly action, and showing trigger compression problems in dry fire practice.
I am certain many shooters will use the Kel-Tec .380 as a primary carry pistol. This is fine as far as it goes; the piece is as good as or better than many pistols costing more and weighting considerably more as well. As for myself, the pistol on my side will more often than not be a .45 caliber semi auto. Sometimes, a scenario may dictate a Magnum revolver. But other times, when discretion is vital, the Kel-Tec will be somewhere on my body, riding comfortably unnoticed. Just in case!
A final note on maintenance! In my experience compact pistols need to be cleaned more often for reliability. There have been rumors that some solvents will damage polymer. I am not willing to torture test my pistols and you probably are not either, but Shooter’s Choice offers a polymer-safe degreaser that is recommended for Kel-Tec, Glock, and others. It works to knock grit and unburned powder from tight places, and is perfectly acceptable for steel frame pistols as well.
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