The German firm of Heckler & Koch (H&K) began production of a number of innovative guns shortly after World War II. While the company does have antecedents that extend further back, the first guns wearing the block “hk” logo are fairly recent. Among European handgun factories, H&K was the first to innovate with new and different manufacturing techniques and advanced designs. Its considerable reputation began with pistols such as the P7, VP70 and P9S. The company also had great success with its longarms, principally the MP5 submachine gun. With that solid reputation for cutting-edge innovation established, it is no surprise that the arms industry watched closely when H&K introduced the USP pistol in 1993. A version of that pistol—in the three most popular chamberings—is the subject of this report.
At that time, pistol makers all over the world were locked in a fierce battle to produce the ideal 9 mm Luger service pistol, a struggle comical enough in its intensity that it prompted gunwriter Bob Shimek to call it the “Wondernine Wars.” The conflict lay with the various companies building a gun that could be sold at a competitive price, but that was durable and reliable in rough service. Most of all, the gun was sold to an exceptionally fickle market that often changed its viewpoint about the various features in the operation of the many different models offered. When many makers positioned their controls on the left rear of the slide, vociferous critics wanted them on the receiver. The left-handed minority wanted at least a bilateral option—if not a completely left-hand-friendly gun. A more fiercely fought battle was over the nature of the trigger system—single-action (SA), double-action/single-action (DA/SA), double-action-only (DAO) or some unusual combination thereof. As time wore on, the more popular guns had controls on the receiver and DA/SA lockwork. In 1993, Heckler & Koch introduced the USP—Universal Service Pistol—a gun that could give you any trigger system you wanted and accommodate a right- or left-handed shooter to boot.
There are 10 basic USP operational lockwork variants, including a choice of right- or left-hand positions for the operating lever, and even some choice in what the lever does. This happened by means of carefully engineered, modular lockwork. Changing lockwork to make another variant requires the substitution of different parts within the same gun. There are also full-size and compact USPs, a long-slide gun, three different chamberings (9 mm Luger, .40 S&W and .45 ACP) and the specialized versions called the Tactical guns reviewed here.
As factory-provided for this article, the H&K USP Tactical pistol is a recoil-operated semi-automatic with a full-size magazine and right-hand DA/SA operation. In .45 ACP it is a noticeably larger gun than the 9 mm and .40 S&W versions. The USP .45 boxes at 8.64″x5.90″x1.26″, while those in the other two chamberings are, of course, smaller. In the hand, the butt circumference is enough greater for the .45 as to rule out use for those with small hands, however, most shooters can handle the 9 mm/.40 S&W with relative ease. These are service pistols, with features optimized for SWAT personnel who will likely carry them in drop-leg holsters. If you like the Tactical version of the USP, but need a smaller piece for concealment, H&K offers several shorter and lighter models. The extensive use of polymer in USP construction keeps the overall weight down—the .45 ACP weighs 32 ozs. with an empty magazine. But, as an old-timer once mentioned to me: “… them autos are a lot heavier when you load ‘em up.” The capacity of the USP .45 is 12 in the magazine plus one in the chamber; 13 .45 ACP cartridges weigh 8 ozs. Old Gus was right.
Two features stand out on the USP Tacticals. One is the barrel, which extends forward of the front end of the slide by a little more than a half inch. It’s threaded, but those threads are covered by a knurled protector. Obviously, the USP Tactical is set up from the factory to accept one of the many sound suppressors on today’s market. Such devices are extremely useful on the pistols of SWAT and military spec ops units. They can be useful for private citizens, too, most of whom have never fired a firearm inside a house or other building. The noise and muzzle flash generated from discharging a firearm, especially in a defensive indoor situation, can be extremely distracting. And even outdoors at the range, suppressors can help prevent hearing damage. Since 1934, suppressors have been regulated and taxed. More jurisdictions are beginning to see the value of the suppressor, so things are looking up. As an adjunct to the USP Tactical in the home-defense role, they would be hugely useful.
Heckler & Koch wanted to cover all the bases with the Tactical, so the firm additionally equipped the gun with sights that are much higher than other guns in the company’s extensive lineup. Since suppressors take the form of a tube screwed onto the muzzle, the tube is often big enough to block the shooter’s line of sight, and high sights are necessary to see over the suppressor. Also understand that the high system used by H&K is also fully adjustable for windage and elevation. This is necessary for a suppressed handgun, because the device can affect point of impact.
The USP Tactical receiver is made of molded polymer, which allows the designers to shape the gun in an ergonomically sound manner. At the front and back of the butt section, there are panels of traditional checkering, while each side gets a large panel of a stippled surface. The result is a gun that stays firmly in a shooter’s hand. A fairly deep pocket for the web of the hand and a near straight-to-the-rear trigger pressure also contribute to the USP’s shootability. At the junction of the trigger guard and frontstrap there is a nicely shaped relief for the middle finger of the shooting hand. There is also a magazine catch that has already been copied. It is a bilateral paddle that pushes down to release—not inward. The trigger guard flares out to protect the paddles from inadvertent dropping. I found that magazine changes were easier to do with the trigger finger than the thumb. The dust cover area, forward of the trigger guard, has the now commonplace accessory rail, which also has an embedded metal serial number plate. Finally, note that the bottom of the receiver has two small features that help immeasurably in gun handling. On the lower edge of each side, there is a semi-circular recess. In the unlikely event of a feedway malfunction, these relief cuts allow the shooter to grasp the magazine and forcefully rip it out of the pistol. Also, the lower rear contour of the butt section extends downward, behind the rear edge of the magazine floorplate. This is an effective contact reference point for speedy magazine changes.
USPs have a conventional slide lock on the left upper side of the receiver. Farther to the rear, there is a lever—pivoted at the rear—that is the heart of the USP versatility. In the firm grasp of a right-handed shooter, the lever falls under the thumb. This is a readily accessible location that can make the gun a real tactical gem. Our sample guns all had the lockwork variant that I feel is the most useful for right-handed shooters. Assume that a USP-armed shooter is at the firing line or in a tactical situation where he is preparing to shoot. With an empty gun, he inserts a loaded magazine, draws the slide fully to the rear and releases it. This chambers a round and leaves the external hammer cocked. He can shoot by pressing the trigger with about 4 lbs. of static pressure—single-action.
In the alternative, he can flip the lever up and lock the trigger in place. It is exactly the same thing that happens in the much-beloved M1911. The gun can be safely carried, holstered and handled in just the same way. That is, with one exception—the USP slide can be racked with the safety on, while the M1911’s cannot. But that’s not the complete picture. At the point where our shooter has inserted a full magazine and racked the slide, he can also move that lever down. The cocked hammer drops and the cocked trigger pops forward. To fire, the shooter has to sweep the trigger through a long arc and about 11 lbs. of pull weight to fire the first shot in double-action mode. The lever has three positions: up to safe, down to fire and farther down to decock.
When the configuration was first announced, it drew criticism. Some felt that a shooter carrying in cocked-and-locked mode could inadvertently decock if he carried the downward movement too far. That is possible, but I don’t see it happening often. Heckler & Koch engineers have built the gun with a very definite detent that creates a stop to the motion. To continue, even greater pressure must happen. Personally, I think if I were carrying the gun, I would ignore the double-action mode and simply go cocked-and-locked. The single-action pull on all three USP samples was very good, breaking right around 4 lbs. with some slight creep.
The USP trio was impressive to handle, shoot, describe and generally investigate. They are strong, soundly engineered pistols that would be good choices for many roles. In this light, think about the USPs as home-defense guns—particularly when mounted with powerful SureFire lights. A home-defense gun is not typically carried (concealed or otherwise), so weight and bulk are not issues.
Generally speaking, I was impressed with the latest USP renderings from H&K. Taking them to the range, my favorable impressions increased significantly. To be succinct, the H&K USPs are exceptionally accurate guns. In the American Rifleman protocol, we fire each gun at 25 yds. and produce five consecutive, five-shot groups using three different kinds of commercial ammunition. In this shoot, I fired three chamberings, so my testing resulted in 45 groups. Of those 45 five-shot clusters, only 16 were over the two-inch mark. The average overall group size was 1.81″.
Serving well in myriad roles, the USP’s from H&K provide a sturdy platform with reliability and accuracy to boot—they are shooters.