Heckler & Koch VP9: Gun Review
This striker-fired pistol is one of the best on the market, and has now proved it can stand up to heavy shooting for years.
Iconic German gunmaker Heckler & Koch (HK) invented the striker-fired platform with their unique squeeze-cocked P7 in the 1980s. Then they company tossed the striker concept to the wayside for 30-plus years while the handgun world slowly evolved, and then firmly established their own, modern versions of the platform. Finally, in 2014, H&K released a modern interpretation of a striker-fired pistol, accompanied by much hype in the industry. Would the very creator of the striker-fired design release something so different, people would lay down their Glocks, M&Ps, and XDs to have one? The initial suggested retail price of well over $700 reflected the company’s confidence. Not unlike Glock, H&K had opened a plant in Georgia to make the VP9 and other models, bolstering somewhat the shop-at-home argument. The VP9 is also made in Germany, where it is designated as the SFP9, but guns for the American market are assembled in their Columbus, GA factory because of import restrictions into the U.S. Design and Construction A collective “hmph!” was heard from some Walther aficionados when the VP9 was unveiled. Its overall appearance, especially the angle and cut of the grip, is strikingly similar to Walther’s PPQ. And the VP9’s trigger is near the top of the striker-fired stack, a trait most agree its Walther siblings share. The other seemingly copycat trait was the European, or paddle-style magazine release. However, all these features appeared on the hammer-fired DA/SA H&K P30 pistol, released in 2006. The PPQ wasn’t released until 2011, so who borrowed from who?
One of the most innovative features of the VP9 and its predecessor, the P30, that is unequaled in the polymer pistol market: the elaborate modularity of the grip.
The distinctive hump, often originally associated with the Walther P99, on the backstrap disappears with all but the largest backstrap attachment. There are differently sized side panels too; which can be mixed or matched between three sizes. Many people struggle with too much or not enough to hold onto with the palm or fingers. This system solves that, provided a number of combinations allowing the shooter to find the best fit for them.
The aggressive-looking front end includes an integrated accessory rail. Atop the slide is a three-dot steel sight system with a windage=adjustable rear sight. Considering the price, HK lands these sights in the cheesy category. They’re clearly visible and easy to use in daylight. At night, the phosphorescent sights glow to the extent they were exposed to light in the last hour or so. After a sunny day on the range, the rear sights glow brightly—too bright—at night.
The front sight, in most cases having been in the darkness of a holster, emits only a faint glow. It’s the opposite of what’s needed for fast, precise shooting in a dark environment. They’re better than no night sights at all, but HK would do well to be one of the brands that honors customers with higher quality tritium night sights.
In another quirky nod to user-friendliness, the rear of the slide has a vertical notch on each side. Included with the gun are polymer inserts for these slots, which create “ears” of a sort to aid in racking. I’ve run my VP9 with and without the inserts, and can’t tell that they make any difference. I leave them in because they keep dirt from accumulating in the slots, and other VP9 owners I know do the same.
On the back of the slide, where a hammer would be on the P30, is a cocking indicator that shows a red dot inside the circle if the striker is cocked.
Seeing as how I see the California requirement of a loaded chamber indicator as silly, I find the VP9’s answer to this requirement amusing. There’s a sliver of red on the extractor mechanism, so skinny it’s pretty much as visible holding the empty gun at just the right angle to the sun as when the chamber is loaded. But it covers the requirement. Bravo, H&K.
The 15-round metal magazines are made in-house. They drop free in gloriously easy fashion, something I must have in a range gun. Lower-capacity mags are also offered for those in restricted states.
You get two mags with a new VP9; but getting more is pricey, as they start at $45 and there aren’t any cheaper third-party options out there at the moment. However, the mags are usually easy to find and are the same mags used for the H&K P30.
The barrel on the VP9 has polygonal rifling, which, according to HK, boosts muzzle velocity. When we put some rounds downrange with a chronometer, Sig Sauer 365 V-Crown 115 grain jacketed hollow point averaged 1,166 fps. With Federal Syntech 124 grain, the VP9 clocked an average muzzle velocity of 1,051.0 fps.
Now that my own VP9 is around the 5,000-rounds-fired mark, the two included mags and one extra I bought have performed well. It’s a little disappointing that H&K only designed the full-size VP9 to hold 15+1 in 9mm chambering when other brands’ full-size 9mm models, like the Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0, pack in at least two more.
Field stripping the VP9 is easy and is accomplished by rotating the takedown lever downward while the slide is locked open. Once rotated, simply close the slide and press the trigger. Sure, some companies tout alternatives to pressing the trigger during disassembly, but safe gun handling solves any risks associated with that.
Bring on the Variants
A number of early reviewers of the VP9 remarked that the heavier-than needed components of the action foretold a plan to release the VP9 in .40 S&W. They were right. The VP40 was the first of numerous variants to come onto the scene.
In addition to this new caliber, HK released the VP9 in a series of new colors. Tan, gray, and olive frames, with blued slide and black controls, are now offered. Incidentally, my own copy is in original black. However, in bright sunshine, the frame appears a deep brown color.
Soon after the release of the VP9 came a Tactical version. It adds a threaded barrel and high sights to accommodate a suppressor or red dot optic. The VP9 Tactical has a barrel length 0.6 inches longer than the VP9.
Following suit with industry norms, a compact version of the VP9 was released in 2017, with a 3.39-inch barrel, as compared to the VP9’s at 4.09 inches. It has a 10-round flush-fitting mag, but will accommodate the 15-rounder too.
It comes with a flat-flooprate magazine as well as one with a pinky extension. The compact VP9SK also adds light blue to the existing array of color choices. In all other aspects, it’s like the original VP9, and can make a great concealed carry handgun, especially for those used to the controls of the full-size gun.
In an apparent nod to popular demand, 2018 saw the addition of a standard pushbutton mag release to the standard VP9, which many American shooters prefer.
As I’ve used this gun around many old and new shooters, some have reacted with disdain for the paddle mag release. This should put any such complaints to rest, as well as make the already ergonomically sound gun even easier and more intuitive to operate for some.
A Regular User’s Three-Year Perspective
I regularly switch between the VP9 and another striker-fired range gun with a pushbutton magazine release. This has not presented a problem in “forgetting” which gun is in my hand, nor has the paddle interfered with fast reloads.
The trigger on the VP9 is, in my estimation, on the line between “very good” and “excellent.” There is a quarter-inch of slack on the first shot before the wall. Reset isn’t 1911-match grade short, but it’s on the short side. The average break on my VP9 happens at 4 pounds, 13.4 ounces of pressure.
In fact, this is what H&K attempted to accomplish with the VP9 design: a striker-fired pistol with a trigger that felt more like a single-stage trigger.
The criticism I have of this trigger is something I didn’t discover until running it on a 70-round course of fire from 25 yards, where there’s time to really feel it. There is a bit of roll between the wall and break. It’s only about 1/16 of an inch, but it’s enough to interfere with concentration when shooting for precision. Don’t get me wrong; I think this factory trigger is among the best in the striker-fired arena, where the vast majority of models I’d classify as being “good.”
It’s easy to be accurate with the VP9; it’s a consistent performer, especially with the right ammunition. The factory states that point of aim equals point of impact at 25 meters with this pistol. In a recent ammo comparison, shooting from a supported bench position at 25 yards, the gun produced nearly identical five-shot groups, with one—Sig Sauer’s 365 V-Crown 115 grain—being centered. Federal Syntech 124, laid down a group four inches high—a counterintuitive result considering the respective bullet weights. As with any firearm, the take-home message is know your gun and how your chosen ammunition interact with each other. For human center-mass size qualification targets, I’ve never had to adjust my hold with the VP9. But for bullseye shooting, ammo makes a difference.
This gun ran well for the first 3,000 rounds, often in dusty conditions. Malfunctions are such a rarity with the VP9 that I cannot recall ever having one that I didn’t purposely set up.
In the hands of beginner shooters, the smooth trigger can be a bit of a surprise, however this gun is both forgiving and reliable. That is to say, it rarely malfunctions when a shooter neglects to stiffen the wrist joints—this I’ve seen with a VP9 owned by a student who shoots large quantities of ammo on a sporadic basis. In terms of running despite shooter error, I would cautiously describe the VP9 as even more reliable than any Glock, having spent plenty of time around both.
There was a day, somewhere between the 3,000 and 3,500 round mark, when I noticed the slide looking a little uneven as viewed from the rear. On a break, I field stripped the VP9, and was taken aback when the recoil spring quite literally popped out of the slide and flew away. It was then I noticed the polymer guide rod and the less-than-simple construction of the recoil spring assembly. A tiny piece was missing, lost forever in a sea of gravel.
It’s rare today to find a customer service rep as responsive as the one who answered the phone at H&K’s Georgia office the next day. I described what had happened, and the person on the other end adopted a tone that let me know I wasn’t the first one with this complaint, though she cheerfully jumped to “let’s get this fixed for you right away” when I asked about what had happened.
I was asked to return the remaining parts of my original recoil spring assembly, and was promised a free replacement upon receipt. It was only three days until a new, steel, guide rod and spring were in my hands. The pistol hasn’t missed a beat since that day.
Wear and Tear
I thought by now, given that I roll around on the dusty ground with some regularity wearing the VP9 with the grip not only exposed, but sticking out in my favorite offset holster, that the modular grip panels would accumulate ugly dirt tracks on the seams and maybe even come loose. They haven’t. When the pistol is at its dirtiest, I’ve never needed to remove the panels to make it look clean. It’s hard to find such a solid fit with modular gear, but HK made it happen.
In perhaps the best news of all, the VP9’s price has fallen since it first came onto the scene. New VP9s can be obtained in the mid-$500 range or a bit more depending on location. If you’re looking for a gun that fits most any hand, and has above-average performance and reliability, the VP9 or one of the guns in this series might be a perfect match.