HK’s Euro-Raceguns: The Elite and Expert
By Al Paulson
Heckler & Koch decided to develop a pistol suitable for international competition in the realms of IPSC (International Practical Shooting Competition) and other so-called “practical” competitions. Developed with the help of several internationally successful competitors, HK’s first foray into this field produced a pistol called the USP Expert, which was introduced in 1998. The new pistol delivered superior accuracy by combining the best features of the USP Match, USP45 Tactical, and the Mark 23 in chamberings that included 9x19mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. HK subsequently stretched the 9x19mm and .45 ACP variants of the Expert to create the USP Elite, which features a 6-inch barrel. Both the Expert and Elite accept high capacity magazines (18 rounds in 9mm). The slide is contoured in a distinctive fashion forward of the frame to reduce weight and improve balance. Thanks to the U.S. ban on large-capacity magazines, and the fact that these guns are optimized for high-cap magazines, the Expert and Elite are not imported through normal channels. They do sometimes trickle in as GI bring-backs, however, as we shall see. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to borrow both 9x19mm Expert and Elite pistols for a hands-on evaluation.
The general design characteristics and accuracy of the 9x19mm Expert and Elite pistols are compared in Table 1.
HK Expert Pistol
The USP Expert has been performing very well indeed among European IPSC shooters, thanks in large part to its inherent accuracy and large-capacity magazines. The USP Expert features hexagonal polygonal rifling with a right hand twist rate of one turn in 250 mm. Polygonal rifling provides a better gas seal than conventional land-and-groove cut rifling, less barrel fouling, and longer barrel life. The Expert employs the now recognized and accepted O-ring bushing system. The barrel on the USP Elite features the Mark 23’s type of elastomer O-ring just behind the muzzle. The O-ring provides an interface between the barrel and slide that significantly improves the weapon’s accuracy. While this might seem like a weak link in the system, the O-ring has a demonstrated lifespan in excess of 20,000 rounds. Simply oil the O-ring after cleaning the weapon and replace if necessary. The pistol will function normally without the O-ring in a life and death emergency, but shooting it without an O-ring will eventually damage the barrel/slide interface. Specifically when shooting without an O-ring, the groove in the barrel will hammer at the slide’s muzzle opening, so extended shooting without the O-ring will permanently damage the slide.
The 9x19mm Expert accepts 18-round magazines, while the .40 S&W variant takes 16-round magazines, and the .45 ACP Expert takes 12-round magazines. The speed of magazine changes is enhanced by a beveled, extended magazine-well that HK Oberndorf calls a Magazintrichter in German. That literally means “magazine funnel”, but HK Oberndorf officially calls the mag well a “Jet Funnel” in English. The Jet Funnel can be removed, so residents of the United States can use restricted capacity 10-round magazines. I have no doubt that reducing U.S. competitiveness in international IPSC competition by limiting magazine capacity makes all our American children quite safe from latent psychopaths and terrorist sleepers. I’m also sure this legislation makes congressfolk sleep more soundly at night. My fellow Americans: let the joy of your sacrifice gladden your hearts as you abstain from the Elite’s wonderfully evil and efficient 18-round magazines in favor of the righteous and legally mandated 10-rounders that force you to plummet from First Place to 300th when competing overseas. All American practical pistol shooters must make this one small sacrifice. For the children.
Presentation of the HK Elite from the holster is facilitated by the fact that the rear of the slide has been milled down to lower the profile of the large, adjustable match rear sight. The rear sight features micrometer adjustments for windage and elevation. Balance is facilitated by the long slide, which also gives a long sight radius of 7.5 inches. Accuracy is not only enhanced by the aforementioned O-ring in the barrel, but also by a match grade single-action/double-action trigger. An ambidextrous safety enhances safety and performance in events where the shooter must engage targets with the weak hand. An extended slide release lever and an ambidextrous magazine release facilitate rapid magazine changes. Other nifty features include an extractor that also functions as a loaded-chamber indicator, HK’s patented recoil-reduction system that is standard in full-sized USP variants, and an adjustable trigger stop.
The trigger stop limits trigger travel after the sear releases the trigger. This enhances practical accuracy. Adjustments can be made with a 1.5 mm socket wrench that is supplied with the pistol. Turning the setscrew in the trigger clockwise will reduce overtravel, but care must be taken to ensure that the screw is not adjusted so far that the trigger stop prevents the trigger from functioning in both single action and double action modes.
The incorporation of the USP’s recoil-reduction system should come as no surprise because the Expert is very similar to the USP9 (which was introduced in September 1993). Both are chambered for the 9x19mm cartridge. While these pistols feature a polymer frames and hammer-forged barrels, they are basically pistols of traditional design adapted to modern materials and manufacturing processes. They operate by a using a modified Browning short-recoil, locked-breech system that is a well-established linkless design. The dropping barrel locking system is similar to the design of the Ruger P90 and SIG-Sauer P266, among others. In the locked position, a large block above the barrel’s chamber engages the ejection port in the slide. The P35, on the other hand, uses Browning’s locking grooves milled into the barrel and slide to lock the breach during the high-pressure phase of the action cycle.
Upon ignition, combustion gases simultaneously push the bullet down the barrel and the empty case backward against the breech face. I realize that’s a penetrating glimpse into the obvious, but we do need to begin at the beginning. This rearward force pushes the slide and barrel backward for about 3 mm (0.1 inch) until a lug underneath the chamber engages a hooked locking surface at the rear of the guide rod, which is a part of what H&K calls the recoil/buffer spring assembly. As these angled surfaces fully engage, the rear of the barrel is pulled downward, which causes the locking block above the chamber to disengage from the ejection port. The slide then continues its rearward movement to complete the extraction, ejection and reloading sequence.
The innovative recoil/buffer spring assembly is a particularly interesting aspect of the engineering found in the Elite, Expert and other USP variants. It actually works coming and going. The robust guide rod has two captive springs: a full-length recoil spring and a short, smaller diameter buffer spring just in front of the hooked locking lug at the rear of the guide rod assembly. The latter spring buffers the barrel as it unlocks from the slide. This can reduce measured recoil by as much as 30% with +P ammunition, although the relatively high axis of the barrel in USP variants tends to exaggerate felt recoil.
Other similarities between the Elite and USP9 with the Browning’s 9mm Hi-Power and his older .45 ACP M1911A1 include a grip angle identical to the M1911A1, and the placement of the slide release, magazine release, and control lever in the same relative place as each of these older pistols. On Browning pistols, this control lever functions as a safety: UP for SAFE and DOWN for fire.
The control levers on most USPs work in a similar fashion, although there are ten basic variations on that theme. Table 2 lists nine of the ten variants based upon published HK data and my own guess as to the tenth. The precise control lever function employed for so-called Variant 8 is not listed in official HK literature I’ve seen.
Note from Table 2 that Variant 1’s trigger and safety system features a SA/DA trigger with a safety lever on the left side of the grip. The control lever has both a safety and decocking function. Safety markings are on the control lever, and a white index mark on the frame points to which feature is engaged. Pushing the lever fully upward engages the safety and index mark points to a white S for SAFE. The slide can still be manipulated (a round can be loaded) with the weapon set on SAFE. Push the lever down and the index mark points to a red F for FIRE. To decock, simply push the lever below the F position to drop the hammer. Both the Expert and the Elite are supplied overseas with spare “detent” plates that allow the user to convert the safety lever to DECOCKING operation only with no safety engagement.
The Expert and Elite incorporate several additional safeties. The hammer system features a lever that rotates upward when the trigger is pressed; this action depresses the spring-loaded firing spring safety and allows the striker to move forward. The pistol also incorporates a passive disconnector safety.
The USP Expert also differs from its Browning heritage because the Expert’s magazine release differs from Browning designs in that it does not take the form of a push button, but rather a small lever that is pushed down to release the drop-free magazine. For most shooters, this represents better human engineering than Browning’s button on the M1911A1 and P35, especially when the operator has gloved hands. I have small hands and must shift the grip of the firing hand in order to manipulate the magazine release with the thumb. Most operators with small hands manipulate the release with their trigger finger, which does not require shifting the hand on the grip and has the additional benefit of ensuring that the finger is off the trigger and outside the trigger guard during the magazine change.
The injection-molded polyamide frames of HK’s Expert and Elite pistols are reinforced with microscopic glass fibers that constitute 15% of the frame’s material. This polymer has a better tensile strength than aluminum and it’s lighter than steel. Polyamide also resists chemicals, high temperatures, and corrosion. Four short steel rails (two on each side) are molded into the polymer frame to guide the slide much like a Glock pistol.
A key feature of both the Expert and Elite frames is the modular, oversized beveled magazine well that facilitates magazine rapid magazine insertion under stress. Unfortunately, honest citizens of the United States cannot use the wonderful 18-round magazines intended for HK’s 9mm Expert and Elite pistols thanks to mindless, feel-good provisions of the infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Public Law No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796), which banned the manufacture of magazines with a capacity greater than ten rounds for private ownership. While the presence of the Jet Funnel prevents the use of HK’s 10-round magazines, HK Oberndorf was thinking ahead and made the extended magazine-well modular and easily removable, so that 10-round magazines could be used in the Expert and Elite in the States.
In terms of handling characteristics, the 9x19mm USP Expert balanced extremely well and the long slide made the Expert a remarkably stable platform. Between the match-grade trigger and its trigger stop, shooting this handgun provides more of a religious experience than a shooting experience compared to other premium out-of-the-box 9x19mm pistols such as HK USPs, the Beretta M9/92F series, and the Walther P99. The Expert’s polymer frame, long and heavy slide, and the recoil reduction system—plus the small 9x19mm cartridge—make recoil a nonissue.
Since the Germans commonly use 123-grain FMJ ammunition for accuracy testing, this study used Hornady’s outstanding 124-grain JHP/XTP ammunition. Shooting the user-friendly Expert in double-action/single-action mode at 25 yards, the pistol delivered five-round groups averaging 1.5 inches. Other premium 9mm out-of-the-box pistols I’ve tested over the years generally delivered 2-3 inch groups at that distance. In terms of confidence-inspiring balance and other handling characteristics, match trigger, and outstanding accuracy, shooting HK’s 9x19mm USP Expert will raise the bar considerably for the serious practical shooter. HK’s USP Expert is the penultimate out-of-the-box 9mm target pistol in my experience.
HK Elite Pistol
Heckler & Koch did not rest on its laurels after creating the impressive USP Expert target pistol, but rather forged ahead to create the even better USP Elite pistol by stretching the Expert’s 5.2 inch barrel to 6.0 inches, which required designing a sleek new target slide. The Elite’s slide is hand-fitted to the frame to achieve maximum accuracy. Available thus far in 9x19mm and .45 ACP, the USP Elite pistol is designed to take 18-round 9mm magazines and 12-round .45 mags. Like the Expert, the Elite features a match trigger with trigger stop, and target sights with fully adjustable rear sight. The barrel employs the same elastomer O-ring as the Expert, located just behind the muzzle as an interface between the barrel and slide that significantly improves the weapon’s accuracy. Trigger and control lever functions are the same as the Expert, as is the recoil reduction system. A modular Jet Funnel speeds magazine changes, and the extended magazine-well can be easily removed to use 10-round magazines.
In terms of handling characteristics, while the Elite is 3 ounces heavier than the Expert, it balances better in my hands. That is a considerable achievement, because the Expert’s balance is wonderful. The longer sight radius of the Elite will be an advantage for young eyes and a disadvantage for tired old eyes, with one curious caveat. The longer sight radius of the Elite combined with my progressive multifocals allow me to maintain a more natural and comfortable head angle when shooting the Elite, compared to the Expert.
In terms of performance, shooting the Elite in double-action/single-action mode at 25 yards, the pistol delivered five-round groups averaging an impressive 1.3 inches with my Hornady’s outstanding 124-grain hollow point ammunition.
There is such a thing as love at first sight. A vision of graceful lines, proportion and manner that stir the soul, form a wistful smile on the face, and conjure a silent note of gratitude to the gods. Besides the all-important smile that melts your heart, there are the artistic yet functional creations of the human spirit that appear so beautiful on so many levels that you know deep in your bones that this creation approaches perfection. Somehow, when an old salt sees a truly beautiful sailboat, the seafarer knows that sailboat will function as good as it looks. When a pilot sees a beautiful sailplane, the aviator knows that aircraft will soar circles above and beyond the norm. To the seasoned mind, beauty becomes the sum of a lifetime of experience, a complex equation factoring in many variables related to projected performance in a host of real-world situations—as well as simple aesthetics. As one first handles the USP Elite, this pistol designed for practical pistol competition appears to have the graceful lines, proportion and manner comparable to the finest sailboat or sailplane. It is an artistic achievement of consequence that holds the promise of great practical performance in the real world. In terms of real-world performance, HK’s USP Elite delivers on that promise. It is the ultimate out-of-the-box 9mm target pistol in my experience.
Advanced collectors who would like to own an HK Expert or Elite pistol should contact Capital City Firearms. From time to time, they purchase NIB GI bring-backs of these pistols and offer them for sale. For outstanding holsters, cases, and web gear in use by many elite military and government organizations, contact the London Bridge Trading Company, Inc.
Capital City Firearms
P.O. Box 29009
Richmond, VA 29009
Grand Island, NE 68802
London Bridge Trading Company, Ltd.
3509 Virginia Beach Blvd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23452
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