• The USP began as a rigorously tested pistol for SOCOM that was adopted by the Navy SEALs called the Mk 23 Mod 0 chambered in .45 ACP.

  • The USP was originally released on the civilian market in .40 S&W in 1993 at SHOT Show. Releases in 9mm and .45 ACP came soon after and the USP Compact was introduced in 1996.

  • The full size version is bigger than even a 1911 but includes a dual spring recoil mitigation system that makes it a soft shooter, even chambered in .45.

  • The military version of the German-made pistol went through the most intense testing trial of any handgun in history.

Before I ever shot a handgun, I wanted a USP. Heckler & Koch's early 1990s entry into the U.S. law enforcement and military market quickly wormed its way into my boyhood mind.

Navy SEALS carried it. SWAT Teams. Border control. Special operators the world over. I remember first reading about it in Guns & Ammo, at the newsstand in the mall, while my mom and sister shopped for sneakers. The testing that went into the USP—and its older military brother the Mk 23 Mod 0—was the stuff of gun legend: submerged in saltwater, jammed up with sand, frozen to -40 degrees, heated to 150, a bullet lodged in the barrel, then shot. The USP kept on shooting.

For a decade, whenever I closed my eyes and thought, “pistol” the USP is what came to mind. It was—and still is for many like me—the very definition of a combat handgun.

SOME HISTORY

In 1989 the 9-year-old me was reading gun rags and saving up money for a pellet gun. HK was scheming a way into the holsters of American cops and soldiers. Their idea was to provide a Universal Selbstlade Pistole (Universal Self-loading Pistol, or USP) to police and military in a variety of sizes and calibers, capable of digesting any available ammunition including +P and +P+.

While the gun was in R&D, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) announced their Offensive Handgun Weapon System proposal – the first ever SOCOM small-arms initiative where all four branches of the service would issue an RFP, procure, test, buy and distribute elite firearms and equipment for their very best operators. Before 1991, this just didn’t happen.

The military’s ask and HK’s plans for a new U.S. service pistol dovetailed beautifully. What would become the Mk 23 Mod 0 pistol – a Desert Eagle-sized 45 with included suppressor and laser/light system – was turned over to SOCOM for trails in August 1992. To date, it is still the hardest-tested pistol in the world and the trials included all sorts of unconventional abuse.

At SHOT Show in 1993, the less beefy civilian version of the Mk 23, the USP, was unveiled in the then trending .40 S&W. Much of what was learned in the Mk 23 development went into this gun.

The single action/double action (SA/DA) design of the USP soon proved as immune to harsh treatment as it’s SOCOM parent. In February 1993 the .40 S&W USPs went into production in Germany, where they’re still made. The 9mm USP9 showed up a few months later. Two years following, in 1995, what most consider the pinnacle of platform was released, the USP45 chamber in the platform's original cartridge, the .45 ACP.

With that SA/DA design, de-cocking lever, a potent recoil dampening system, and 12-round flush magazine capacity, many of the glossy pubs the 15-year-old me was reading dubbed the USP a 1911 killer.

heckler koch usp and federal ammo
The Heckler & Koch USP was originally released in 1993 on the civilian market in .40 S&W. Variants in 9mm and .45 ACP followed soon after.Michael R. Shea

THE DESIGN

HK developed the first polymer pistol in the 1970s, with the VP7 and P9S pistols. Fiber-reinforced polymer was worked into the USP design from the beginning.

The poly frame is stiffened with molded-in stainless steel at four touch points where frame meets steel slide. The short-recoil mechanically locked breech works very much like a Browning Hi Power and the controls were taken directly from the Government Model 1911, with the very German tweak of a paddle magazine release on the trigger guard. Some love the paddle release, some hate it—I’ve gotten used to it.

The safety also functions as a decocking lever (HK calls this assembly the control lever). If the hammer is cocked, the safety can be pushed all the way down, past safe, and the hammer drops without firing a round, taking the pistol effectively from SA to DA. It’s possible to carry this way, with the hammer down and safety off in DA mode – Glock style, some say. This could be made doubly safe by carrying with the safety on, or the USP can be carried cocked and locked, just like the 1911.

The modular design of the internals, means these controls can be switch around for left-handed shooters, and different trigger groups can make the pistol DA/SA or DA only. All told, there are nine trigger configurations over three calibers: 9mm, 40 S&W and 45 ACP—a range of options you'll find with a number of HK's hammer-fired handguns like the P30.

the left side of a heckler and koch usp
A profile shot of the full size H&K USP.Heckler & Koch

Under the slide, is a polygonal barrel and HK's proprietary two-spring recoil reduction system. When fired, a captive outer spring compresses into a heavier second internal spring, which helps take stress off the frame, and reduce felt recoil.

Without the need for adjustment, it can cycle everything from light loads to +P+ ammunition, and it works very well. The slide and all metal components, inside and out, are corrosion treated, right down to the nickel roll pins. The barrel, frame, and slide are all serialized.

All the USPs have a non-standard accessory rail, though there are aftermarket adaptors to convert it to a more conventional Picatinny rail.

The more recent HK45 pistol has a picatinny rail and the gun is, mechanically, nearly identical to the USP45, except USP uses a double recoil spring while the HK45 uses a single flat spring. The ergonomics, and aesthetics, of the HK45 is much more modern (and are basically an enlarged version of the 9mm P30), keeping up with the look and feel of 21st century handgun design – slender, finger grooves, everything textured, and an extremely ergonomic, and customizable, grip.

By comparison the USP feels blocky, though many (myself included) prefer this. The size of the older USP has another advantage, too. The HK45 holds 10 rounds to the USP’s 12, though 10-round USP magazines are available for state’s with capacity restrictions.

Enter the USP Compact

heckler koch usp compact handgun
The USP Compact was introduced in 1996 and includes a bobbed hammer that's flush with the slide when uncocked.Michael R. Shea

The USP Compact is identical to the full-sized USP, except smaller, without the patented recoil reduction system, and a bobbed hammer, which makes cocking the hammer with your thumb not possible. The hammer, when uncocked, is flush with the slide to make the pistol more snag-free in concealed carry situations.

Over many thousands of rounds, the only part of the USP known to ever wear out are the springs, which run less than $5. The pistol itself, however, is far from inexpensive, and this is the main gripe against the USP and most of HK's guns in general.

The USP and USP Compact MSRP runs around $1,000, depending on options. In the real world, they can be had new for around $800. It’s not uncommon to see them go for $600 used.

Magazines, trigger kits, and other HK accessories are expensive, too. This does not surprise or offend me. As a kid when I’d ogle some hot car like a Porsche zipping past us down the highway, my dad often said, “But do you know what those spark plugs cost?” As with most German engineering, you have to pay to play. HK is no exception.

heckler and koch usp compact handgun
A profile shot of the USP Compact. The control lever acts as a manual safety and a decocking lever.Heckler & Koch

HANDS ON - USP Range Test

According to one HK engineer, Federal Ammunition had an early 1990s USP in their gun room that they used for proofing loads. They returned it to H&K for a checkup almost 20 years later. In all that time, the recoil springs had been replaced, but nothing else. The pistol was in fine operational shape. Curious, the HK engineer asked how many rounds had been through that particular handgun. The answer: a little over 297,000.

Myself, and a small team of shooting buddies, didn’t shoot our USPs quite that much. After so many years of me dreaming about this German powerhouse – then forgetting about it for a spell, remembering it again, nerding out on the Internet, repeat – I finally spent some time with one this year. Two, actually.

In July I requested a USP45 and USP Compact 45 for T&E work from Heckler & Koch. After some back and forth, they sent me two guns from their show inventory, not having them in regular media rotation. Both USPs were the standard Variant 1 models: SA/DA with the manual safety/decocking lever on the left side, for right-handed shooters.

Over a four-month period, seven shooters, with varying degrees of expertise, put somewhere north of 1,000 rounds through both guns. There was not a single failure to fire, jam, or any kind of malfunction. This cannot be said of the Glocks and SIGs that I tested in the same time frame.

The USP seems immune from malfunctions associated with "limp-wristed" shooting, which can result in serious jams in other semi-auto pistols.

They also just feel different. They’re heavier, with a monolithic quality that very much reminded me of a good automatic watch, a Breitling say, that’s unapologetically large, but every square millimeter of that size was thought about, discussed, and designed. Many like to knock HK for over-engineering. This is a positive in my mind, assuming the engineering works flawlessly.

The complicated nature of the action doesn’t concern me, so long as it works 100 percent, because part of the fun of such a product is understanding how it works, breaking it down, learning how to repair it, and make it better.

heckler koch usp shot group
The USP45 shoots very well and the recoil is noticeable less than that of the Glock 21 in .45 ACP.Michael R. Shea

Accuracy and Handling

The USP45 shoots very well. The recoil is noticeably less than a Glock 21. (I’m not picking on Glock, which I also like and shoot very much. It's just a familiar gun that many shooters know very well.)

The USP controls, aside from the paddle release, are very natural to run. The bore axis is high, but not as high as the SIG M17/P320 I’ve also been shooting of late. There’s plenty of slide length on both the USP and the Compact to hold a good, consistent line on target. It’s a sweet shooter, and lived up to my boyhood imaginations.

I primarily shot five loads through the USP and USP Compact – three from Federal, two from Hornady. The full-sized USP grouped best with Horandy Critical Defense 45 Auto 185gr FTX. The compact shot Federal Hydra-Shok DEEP 45 Auto 210gr best. Of all the 45s I shot in a long range week with my shooting friends, the full-sized USP with the Horandy loads had the best single group at 15 yards with 2.185 inches. (Caveat: none of us are expert pistol shots.) The full-sized USP group averaged 2.84-inches at 15 yards and the Compact was a smidge bigger at 3.14-inches.

A Big Ol' Gun

I had some new shooters and some with more experience on the line. While everyone joked about the size of the USP – it is that big – everyone shot it well, relative to experience. This, I believe, is a testament to the recoil reduction system that noticeably drops felt recoil.

Some writers have said that it reduces the bite of a full-power 45 load by 30 percent. I don’t know how to verify that, but it sounds and feels right. The USP barks, as all 45s bark, but after the initial shock our new shooter was confidentially handling this big sidearm. Again, this could not be said of all the guns we ran during this four-month test window.

In SA, the USP had a trigger pull average weight of 5 lbs. 5 oz.. The Compact came in at 5 lbs. 9 oz., while both guns had an even 12 pounds in DA. Don’t like those numbers? HK makes several trigger kits. Many say that the Match Trigger Module is the finest non-custom trigger available for a polymer pistol, though I have not tried it myself.

The USP is big. Bigger than a Glock 21. Bigger than a 1911. This means that if you aren't wearing an OWB holster on a gun belt and open carrying, It's mostly a home defense gun. This begs the question: why would a civilian need such a stomper, beyond the obvious joy of shooting it at the range, and the obvious cool factor?

We talked about this much and I settled on a specific use case. I very quickly adopted the USP as my truck pistol. With a round in the chamber, hammer down, safety on, without a holster, I kept it in my truck for several weeks, concealed and snug fitting under the center console, which pinched the gun, so to speak, between the large console/arm rest and seat. I know guys who tote holstered 1911s in this way. (The USP with more rounds and more possible conditions of readiness, I would argue, is a better platform for this kind of off-body carry, though the 1911 is slimmer.)

As to drawing the USP on a possible carjacker, I imagined the pistol having a kind of Crocodile Dundee effect: “You call that a gun? This is a GUN.”

Jokes aside, the full-sized USP fit right into my roll heavy approach to automobile transportation. The USP Compact is a different size altogether (see specs below) and is very possible to conceal on one’s person, especially in fall or winter clothing.

For me, it felt best in a Bianchi #100 IWB with a small-of-back carry, under a down jacket or vest –without the jacket or vest it printed some – or in a Sticky holster in the pocket of a heavy coat, like a Carhart jacket. Mind you, in my home state of New York one needs to be especially sensitive to printing or the quick lift of clothing and flash of steel. Bend over to grab a can of beans in the Walmart, and the wrong person eyeballs your sidearm, and you will be talking to a police officer very quickly. In more reasonable states, like H&K USAs home base of Georgia, this is less a concern. If you can successfully conceal a 1911, you can conceal a USP Compact all day long.

Let’s not forget, concealment is a civilian problem, and the USP was not designed for civilians. Lumped together with its big brother, the HK Mk 23 Mod 0, it is certainly the greatest, most bomb-proof, tested, proven go-to-war pistol of the modern era. That enough should be reason to own one. For me, I tend to think about the worst-case scenarios. If the world falls apart and I have to make for high ground with only one pistol in hand, I hope it’s an HK USP45.

USP VARIANTS:

  • Variant 1: Double action/single action with "SAFE" position. Control lever (manual safety/decoking lever) on left side of frame.
  • Variant 2: Double action/single action with "SAFE" position. Control lever (manual safety/decocking lever) on right side of frame.
  • Variant 3: Double action/single action without "SAFE" position. Control lever (decocking lever) on left side of frame.
  • Variant 4: Double action/single action without "SAFE" position. Control lever (decocking lever) on right side of frame.
  • Variant 5: Double action only with "SAFE" position. Control lever (manual safety) on left side of frame.
  • Variant 6: Double action only with "SAFE" position. Control lever (manual safety) on right side of frame.
  • Variant 7: Double action without control lever (no manual safety/decocking lever)
  • Variant 8: Double action without control lever (no manual safety/decocking lever)

SPECIAL VARIANTS FOR GOVERNMENT AGENCIES:

  • Variant 9: Double action/single action with control lever (manual safety/no decocking function) on left side of frame.
  • Variant 10: Double action/single action with control lever (manual safety/no decocking function) on right side of frame.

Heckler & Koch USP Specs

Caliber 9mm x 19 .45 AUTO .40 S&W
Overall Length 7.68 in. 7.91 in. 7.68 in.
Overall Height 5.31 in. 5.61 in. 5.31 in.
Overall Width 1.26 in. 1.26 in. 1.26 in.
Barrel Length 4.25 in. 4.41 in. 4.25 in.
Sight Radius 6.22 in. 6.34 in. 6.22 in.
Without Magazine 27.20 oz 31.29 oz. 28.96 oz
Magazine 1.69 lb 3.49 oz. 1.82 lb
Magazine Capacity 10/15 Rounds 10/12 Rounds 10/13 Rounds
Triggery System SA/DA, DAO SA/DA, DAO SA/DA, DAO
Trigger Pull 20 N (SA) 20 N (SA) 20 N (SA)
Trigger Pull 51 N (DA) 51 N (DA) 51 N (DA)
Sights Fixed Fixed Fixed
MSRP (variant depending) $979-$1,149 $999-$1,199 $979-$1,149

Heckler & Koch USP Compact Specs

Caliber 9mm x 19 .45 AUTO .40 S&W
Overall Length 6.81 in. 6.81 in. 7.09 in.
Overall Height 5.00 in. 5.00 in. 5.04 in.
Overall Width 1.38 in. 1.38 in. 1.38 in.
Barrel Length 3.58 in. 3.58 in. 3.78 in.
Sight Radius 5.31 in. 5.31 in. 5.63 in.
Without Magazine 27.20 oz 27.52 oz 28.16 oz
With Empty Magazine 1.60 lb 1.71 lb 1.76 lb
Magazine Capacity 10/13 Rounds 10/12 Rounds 8/10 Rounds
Triggery System SA/DA, DAO SA/DA, DAO SA/DA, DAO
Trigger Pull 20 N (SA) 20 N (SA) 20 N (SA)
Trigger Pull 51 N (DA) 51 N (DA) 51 N (DA)
Sights Fixed Fixed Fixed
MSRP (variant depending) $999-$1,199 $999-$1,199 $1,049 - $1,249