Road Testing the STAR 9mm Largo

By R.K. Campbell

Someone asked a few weeks ago why I like to do articles on inexpensive military handguns. The answer was with three kids and various other responsibilities most of the handguns I’ve purchased are just such pistols. But sometimes we get more than we expect. This has been the case with Star pistols. Most of us are familiar with the various commercial Star pistols. These include the Star BK and BKM single action 9mm pistols, the Star PD .45 and the Firestar pistols. But the most interesting of all to us are the 9mm Largo military pistols. As a rule, these pistols are reliable, robust in action, and accurate enough for the task at hand. The two versions most commonly encountered in this country are the Model A and the Star Super. Each has its points of interest and while the Super is meant as an improvement over the Model A, either is an excellent single action auto pistol.

The Model A is simply a type of clone gun of the Colt 1911. In some ways, it may be characterized as a transitional pistol. The Model A incorporates the swinging link and Browning tilting lock of the 1911. Later pistols such as the Browning Hi Power and the Star Super used angled camming surfaces, doing away with the link. The Star pistols do not use a grip safety. To many, this is seen as an improvement.

The Super is a Super Star in many ways. The pistol has a slightly lengthened grip frame which greatly reduces hammer bite. We have fired several early model Star pistols in 9mm, 9mm Largo and .45 acp and they do often show hammer bite of differing severity. The problem is not one of severe recoil but of sharp edges biting tender flesh. The Super has a more comfortable grip frame although it appears little different at a glance. There are a few mechanical differences involving the safety and plunger tube location as well. As rule, Model A grips will fit a Super but not vice versa. Our Super has a set of Pachmayrs that have been ‘customized’ to fit the Super by a previous owner, while the Model A sports the nicest grips we have seen on such a handgun. The Super also has a magazine safety, which the early Stars do not. This safety effectively blocks the pistol from firing if the magazine is removed. Some like this feature, others do not. I do not feel it makes any difference in general gun handling. Safety is between the ears! There have, however, been several instances in which the existence of a magazine safety has aided an officer whose gun was taken by a gun grabber. By actuating the magazine release, the magazine will drop enough to actuate the safety. The Smith and Wesson pistols are often highly touted for this feature. But another pistol, a single action design, also shares this feature.

The Browning Hi Power offers cocked and locked carry and a magazine safety. So does the Star. However, there are other differences as well. It is not widely realized but the Browning Hi Power can be carried, if desired, on half cock with the safety on. This would be an unusual carry mode and half cock is never recommended, but this carry is available. Either Star pistol has the same system as the Browning with an additional feature. The Star pistol can be carried hammer down with the safety on. This would mean the pistol would be slow into action, but perhaps this mode of readiness has some merit. For instance, most of us keep the single action auto ready chamber loaded and hammer down at ready at home. Flicking the safety off may not greatly decrease speed into action in this case, (Chamber empty ready is a viable option that should be considered in a house gun).

Many of these options are theoretical in application. For all practical matters, the Star pistols may be handled in the same manner as the Browning Hi Power. The Super has an added option that is sometimes popular with European makers. A loaded chamber indicator is added. While this feature may be welcome to some, it doesn’t take the place of a press check before entering a bad situation.

The main advantage of the Super over the A is a significant one. The Super does not have a swinging link as does the Colt 1911. The Super unlocks via angled camming surfaces. The Super Breaks down via a takedown lever on the right hand side of the frame. This is a superior system that maximizes the single action pistol.

The Super has a 5.25 inch barrel versus the 5 inch barrel of the Model A. The Super is an overall superior handgun. Yet, tactically, there is little if any difference in the pistols.

We have used both pistols at length and formed several conclusions as to their viability as combat handguns. Each appears quite reliable with good ammunition, and robust in action.

The Super is more likely to strike to point of aim with service loads. Typically, at 25 yards, the Model A will strike about two to four inches high with 125-138 grain service loads. The Super has a different but similar sight picture and may strike closer to the point of aim.

As far as feed reliability, the ability to function with various bullet styles, each seems to be the same but we have the impression the Model A is superior in this regard. We realize that Star pistols are very individual in feed characteristics. We have purchased a 9mm Luger version of the Model A. We were unable to get the gun to feed modern Hollowpoint ammunition even after a barrel throating and polishing. Conversely, a stock appearing Model A in .45 acp digested each and every load even including the 200 grain Speer ‘Flying Ashtray’, a litmus test of feed reliability.

Neither of our Stars would feed the CCI Blazer 124 grain Gold Dot load as issued. One jammed on the feed ramp about every other round, the other was more insidious. We experienced three feed ramp jams per fifty rounds. A thorough reliability test is a must! One Star was throated and the problem not completely cured. The other was simply fed different loads.

With full metal case loads function was good. With personal handloads and those supplied by American Custom Ammunition, feed reliability was perfect. At this point, we should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the 9mm Largo cartridge.

Also known as the 9mm Steyr, this cartridge was developed close after the 9mm Luger. The Case is longer, resembling the .38 acp or .38 acp Super cartridge. However, the Largo does not have the semi rim of the .38 acp. The Largo headspaces on the case mouth, while early .38 auto’s headspaced on the cartridge case semi rim. The .38 developed a reputation for poor accuracy due to this headspace design. Modern .38 acp Super pistols headspace properly on the case mouth. In power, the .38 acp and the 9mm Largo are similar. For instance, we clocked a 138 grain Spanish arsenal load at just over 1140 fps from the Largo. The .38 acp fires a 130 grain bullet at some 1050 fps. (Nominal) The .38 acp Super, developed in 1927 and chambered in the Colt 1911, is a distinctly more powerful round than either. While modern loadings are seldom as hot the original, .38 acp Super clocked a full1300 fps with a 130 grain bullet.

We are told some Largo loads were loaded to full .38 Super performance but we have not had the opportunity to test or clock any of these. In the past, shortages of 9mm Largo ammunition have led to steps in manufacturing or adapting ammunition that were good and bad. Some shooters found it was possible to fire the 9mm Luger cartridge in this gun. A few surplus houses actually advertised the Astras and Stars as accepting 9mm Luger, .38 acp Super ammunition. There is a grain of truth to these statements. Of the three, 9mm Luger loads are easily the most dangerous for use in the Largo. The 9mm may feed, fire and eject but the case can also fall into the chamber. The extractor will snap OVER the case, resulting in a dangerous situation if the round fires. Some Largos have short firing pins and will not fire a round in this case, others will. A far better solution is to purchase a 9mm Luger caliber barrel from Federal Arms.

9mm Largo ammunition is now available from CCI Speer and American Custom. American Custom loads ammunition to several power levels, depending upon customer choice and specific firearm. Surplus International LLC has recently imported the last remaining store of Spanish 9mm Largo ammunition as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the Largo will not accept the .38 acp or Super out of hand. In most cases the breechface must be opened to .405 in order to accept the wider case head. This was an excellent expedient for the handloader. Mild .38 acp factory loads could be safely fired in the Largo, as well as hand loads using .38 acp brass.

But what about the .38 Super? More than a few enthusiasts found the stock guns would use .38 acp and .38 acp Super loads- this is very individualistic. But the .38 Super is stronger that most 9mm Largo loads by a considerable margin. We aren’t talking “blowup”, although this is a possibility. We are sure wear is greatly increased. Most who have done such conversions have modified and polished the breechface and fitted heavy duty WC Wolff gunsprings to the Largo. Our Super would not function as issued with .38 Super ammunition , but the Model A functioned flawlessly. Recoil was certainly increased but not objectionable. Pressure signs were normal, which is surprising. We don’t recommend such use of the Largo but the single box of Black Hills loads we fired worked fine in our Star. This is NOT the gun to work up maximum handloads in search of magnumizing the .38 Super. 115 grains at 1300 fps is nothing to sneeze at.

A problem with the Stars is that each gun fired high with service loads. We will be able to address this problem to an extent, but hits at long range require considerable concentration on elevation.

Ballistic testing was about what was expected. The standard 9mm Largo 124 grain load penetrated to about thirteen inches with expansion to .54 caliber. The Black Hills .38 Super load is far superior, but is loaded hotter and really a different caliber. This load penetrates about eleven inches of gelatin and expands to a plump .68 caliber. Other fast 115 grain bullets tend to fragment to about eight to nine inches of gelatin.
Is there an advantage inherent in the 9mm Largo over the .45 acp or 9mm Luger? When loaded to mimic the .38 acp Super, yes. During penetration testing our .45 acp loads generally stopped in car doors. In rear skin in one example most .45 loads stopped short. The Remington Golden Saber .45 Penetrated both rear skins on one occasion and made a dent in the car behind our test subject. The Black Hills .38 Super and handloaded 124 gr. XTP loads were superior. Penetration was outstanding, qualifying the Star pistol as an excellent special purpose pistol. I would not fault any officer who carried a Star as backup in his patrol car. Years ago, Chief R. E. Cogdell and I used .41 and .44 Magnum revolvers for this purpose but we eventually realized they are not ideal for this use.

There are a few special considerations in carrying the Star pistol for personal defense. A single action pistol should be carried cocked and locked for immediate use. The Star lacks a firing pin block and grip safety. I had not realized how much I relied upon these devices until I considered carrying a pistol that does not have them. This is partly the reason my Star PD was retired many years ago. When carrying the 1911 I trust modern pistols in tightly molded holsters without a safety strap. However, there are few holsters for the Star pistol. Some tightly fitted 1911 holsters are suitable for the Star. However, due to differences in the exact location of the safety it is imperative the holster incorporate a safety strap that covers the firing pin, riding between the firing pin and the hammer.

Carried in this manner, the Star pistols are fast into action yet safely carried.

After several years of use we find the Star full size military pistols are good guns of the type. When compared to contemporaries such as the Tokarev, the French M 50 and the CZ 52 we find the Star pistols are faster into action and more powerful. In comparison to the Browning Hi Power the pistol suffers but not as badly as one would suppose. Even compared to old model Colt 1911 pistols the Star need not take a back seat.

Today, the Star Largo caliber pistols may be purchased for a fraction of the price of many other full caliber single action pistols. A few months ago, Model A’s and Supers were going for less than 100 dollars to dealers. The 9mm Luger caliber Model A is often found for about one hundred sixty dollars, and the Super has been seen in pawn shops for about one hundred thirty dollars. While care must be taken in choosing a good example, a pistol in good shape should give years of service. They are interesting pistols, well worthy of consideration whatever the budget.

Some older Star pistols may have colorful histories indeed. Spain was of course a Fascist state under Franco and many Star and Astra pistols were sent to Nazi Germany. Many Nazi’s used the 7.65mm pistol as it was a perfectly adequate short range weapon. But a few units, including the Gestapo, used the Star to an extent. After the war several German border patrol units were issued the Star. We had much rather have this gun than the later issue Walther .32 acp or the 9 X 18 Ultra.

Robert Hunnicut, editor of Shotgun News, gave us much good loading information on the Largo and told us some were supplied to Syria during the 1950’s. Perhaps the most used of all martial Star pistols were those issued to various South African units. We believe these were in 9mm Luger, but the Star was produced in 9mm Luger, 9mm Largo, 7.63mm, .45 acp and reportedly a purpose designed .38 Super. At any rate, among the most famous examples of South African pistol craft involved a South African officer whose armored car was supporting Angolan anti communist forces. The tread of the vehicle was damaged, and Cuban forces attempted to move in and attack the vehicle. While the car was equipped with a machinegun and the men carried personal long guns, the ammunition available was expended during the fight. The officer in charge turned to his Star 9mm pistol. Firing with good accuracy and rapidly changing magazines, he finally stopped the charge of Cuban troops. There is little doubt he killed more than a dozen soldiers with his pistol, but some accounts go as high as 34.

This would seem to qualify the Star single action pistol as a capable fighting pistol.

Getting the Most out of the Star-

Range Tests-

With excellent ammunition the Stars may turn in groups of three inches or less at 25 yards, more than adequate for defense. In a few cases, the results were a bit better. There has probably been little incentive for factories to develop true match grade loads in 9mm Largo or .38 acp. Our personal handloads and the custom loaded rounds were the most accurate, but by a small margin. We were aided by good single action pulls in the 5-6 pound category. The pistols may have rough bores, partly due to corrosive military ammunition.

Cast bullet loads will not perform well in pitted bores.

The Star pistols have good sights that are superior to those found on most military pistols of the time. They are not the equal of modern high visibility sights, however.

We would choose a Colt 1911 .45 auto in the most modern rendition as a primary defense weapon. But if the chips were down we had rather have this fine of Star than perhaps half of the defense weapons we see in police holsters!

If you are looking for an inexpensive second or backup handgun, consider the Star pistols. You may end up with more than one!

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N10 (July 2000)
and was posted online on March 27, 2015


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