November 17, 2023
Press the trigger on a loaded pistol and the gun should fire. When properly aimed, you should expect to strike the intended target. Actualizing this concept for a purpose in the hands of an individual is a challenge addressed by many since the invention of the hand cannon.
The XD pistol was first seen in Guns & Ammo’s January 2002 issue. Since then, Springfield Armory has offered the market a multitude of variants, evolving the platform and satisfying the different needs of American shooters. That history took me to the HS Produkt factory in Karlovac, Croatia, in June 2021. There I surveyed multi-axis machines, robotics, investment casting, and hammer-forging, as well as the manufacturing of the XD and Hellcat models. Unexpectedly, I was introduced to a watershed moment. Every innovation and design improvement had led to this.
CEO Dennis Reese stood at the head of a long conference table topped with historical firearms in a room filled with executives, engineers and media relations. Reese began, “Building a gun is relatively easy, but building a great gun is a challenge. When we look for a firearm component, we’re looking for a partner. We’re looking for the best, and one of the greatest relationships through the last 20 years is the one we have with HS Produkt.” It was then that I was handed a prototype of the Echelon. Looking it over for the first time, I realized that there wasn’t just one feature that made this pistol unique. It’s the combination of the chassis system, the modular design, the optic system, feel of the slim grip and trigger press, and the layered texture for each control and touchpoint.
The Echelon was designed first as a full-size pistol for range enthusiasts, home defenders, competitive shooters, as well as security and law enforcement professionals. The feature list for a pistol of this type looks like this:
- Dependable reliability.
- Intuitive simplicity, meaning that it’s easy to operate and maintain.
- Ergonomic, slim grip with an aggressive, functional texture.
- Crisp-feeling 4- to 5-pound trigger with a short take-up, defined wall, and definitive reset.
- 2- to 2½-inch groups for five, five-shot groups fired from a benchrest at 25 yards using defense, duty, or match ammunition.
- Safety, where a redundant sear not involved with trigger function aids in preventing unintended discharges.
- Adaptability through modularity, and acceptance of accessories and optics.
The Echelon is not an extension of the XD. In fact, I predict the Echelon may eventually phase out the XD-M line. Dimensionally, the Echelon feels refined. It does not accept XD magazines, fit in XD holsters, or share parts. Critics of the XD grip safety will note the absence of it on the Echelon’s backstrap, too.
Get A Grip
At its core is the Central Operating Group (COG). It’s more than just a chassis; it is a self-contained action lacking a barrel, slide, sights, magazine, or grip. It has a serial number, which is also found on the slide and barrel. However, the COG is the component that the BATF considers a firearm. The assembly supports the flat-face trigger with safety lever, the transfer bar, ambidextrous slide-lock levers, the ejector, the primary sear, and a secondary sear that serves as redundant safety because it is not actuated by the trigger’s movement. (This also means that the additional sear does not affect the feel or increase the weight of the trigger.)
The COG can be removed from the grip module — and Springfield Armory created a COG removal video — but it isn’t a procedure you’ll want to repeat often. This shouldn’t be an issue for most users since gun owners generally set up their firearms once and then let them be. However, if Springfield Armory designs grip modules with different shapes, sizes and colors — or the aftermarket beats them to it — shooters may want to watch the video and teach themselves how to remove the chassis. Once you’ve got the feel for the process, it’s not difficult.
The standard grip module is considered a “medium” fit, and there are three interchangeable backstraps included. Small and large frames can be purchased separately. For now, you can have them in any color, as long as it’s black. Interestingly the three included backstraps will fit any grip module. A standard lanyard loop was designed to be integrated into the base of the grip for easy attachment, which support law enforcement and security officers whose job requires a lanyard retention system.
The three backstraps are also small, medium, and large, but each cleverly feature an integrated armorer’s punch. As soon as I discovered them, I contacted Springfield Armory and suggested that they make these into different punch sizes or with Torx and Allen-head drivers to tighten screws that secure optics to the slide. It would be nice to have a field-expedient tool that could fix a loose optic.
Wrap your hands around any of the grip modules and backstrap sizes, and you’ll note the slim and contoured feel. Most hands will like it. They’ll also like the “Adaptive Grip Texture,” as Springfield Armory calls it, which feels non-abrasive at the touch but tackier when you squeeze it. This texture surrounds the grip and appears on touchpoints such as the shelves for the thumbrest and trigger-finger rest above the triggerguard, as well as on the magazine release button and basepads for the magazines. (Even the almost flush-fit 17-round magazine has a basepad with a little texture on the front and sides.)
It’s worth noting that we especially liked how engineers shaped the sloped shelves above the triggerguard, and for the left-side takedown lever to integrate competition-inspired “gas pedals.” These areas can be used to minimize muzzle rise during rapid fire, as index points to obtain a consistent grip, or as a resting place for an idle trigger finger.
The magazine-release button and stubby slide-release lever fall into place and are easy to reach due to the slim profile of the COG and grip module. They don’t have to be reversed to be considered “ambidextrous” because they are truly bilateral parts. This aspect lends to an understated theme; the Echelon doesn’t scream, “Hey, I’m a pistol everyone can like!” It just is.
Borrowing from advancements in maximizing cartridge capacity, the 9mm Echelon features an all-new magazine. Of course, it was designed to be durable and reliable for duty use, and it wears a blacked-out scratch- and wear-resistant coating, but the most impressive part is that the shorter magazine carries 17 rounds. The second magazine holds 20 rounds, made possible by the extended basepad (included). Of course, if you live in a restricted area, reduced-capacity 10-rounders are an option. Witness holes on the spine provide visual status updates on capacity when loaded.
A Universal Key
Springfield Armory enhanced the Echelon design by integrating optics. As many of us know, sorting through adapter plate combinations and reading charts to identify proper screw length and thread-pitch combinations can be like deciphering hieroglyphics. Understanding footprint compatibility and mounting plates is unnecessarily complex. Some optics sit too high when mounted and introduce a failure point by requiring two screws to mount the plate to the slide, and then two screws used to mount the optic to the plate. Concealed beneath the Echelon’s optic coverplate is a different approach to mounting red-dot sights.
Officially, Springfield Armory is calling it the Variable Interface System (VIS), but I heard someone refer to it as a “universal key,” which is a term that I think is descriptive and to the point. It is a direct-mount system that allows users to attach more than 30 optics directly to the slide without adapter plates. Not having an adapter plate, it is low profile too, which complements the pistol’s low bore axis. A movable, self-locking pin set is used to mirror an optic’s footprint, making VIS unique.
If you prefer iron sights, the Echelon has those, too. The Tactical Rack U-notch rear sight and a tritium front night sight with luminescent ring are standard. It can also be ordered with a three-dot tritium configuration.
Besides the one-handed technique of using the rear sight or optic, the traditional method of racking the slide by gripping the front or rear is aided by aggressive, angled serrations. They are deeply machined and offer a strong, tactile purchase. If no optic is installed, and the coverplate is, the rear serrations carry over the top of the slide. The serrations also guide to relief cuts in front of the ejection port and at the rear of the slide. These offer positive index points to assist shooters with charging the slide or performing a press check of the chamber.
Dryfiring the Echelon reveals the best non-custom striker-fired duty trigger you’ll find on any chassis-based design. Out of the box, the trigger measured 4 pounds, 15 ounces. One thousand rounds later, it still averaged 4 pounds, 15 ounces, from 10 pulls. The trigger pull felt more like 4 pounds even, largely due to the short takeup. Despite the two different sears, the Echelon trigger offers a clean takeup, crisp wall and short reset. The reset, however, is not so short that you should worry about unintentionally snapping off an unintended discharge when releasing the trigger slowly; it is simply well-defined and positive.
Using a PACT timer, I managed .20- to .23-second splits between shots during rapid fire. Faster splits would require a lighter trigger, but as it is now the Echelon exceeds SAAMI drop-test parameters and is duty ready.
1,000+ Rounds Fired, Zero Malfunctions
Accuracy standards were already met when I first grouped the Echelon on HS Produkt’s indoor range. A couple days later I shot the same prototype further at a Croatian army training range. Still in development, the frame was a 3D-printed sample, which should not have been as reliable as it was. Even the magazines at that time were mock-ups. However, that experience demonstrated that its reliability was isolated between the relationship of the slide and internal chassis. Two years later, Guns & Ammo’s production sample proved just as flawless, reliable, and accurate.
G&A sourced 500 rounds of law-enforcement-only duty ammo, as well as 500 rounds of training and self-defense ammunition. An active police officer was part of G&A’s testing, too, as well as staff. With or without a 1/2x28 threaded barrel installed — the threaded barrel also adds $60 to the retail price — the Echelon will group between 2 and 2½ inches with almost any grain weight when supported on a bench at 25 yards. To verify reliability, we shot the Echelon using the broadest range of 9mm ammunition including the super-fast and unusually lightweight Novx 65-grain polymer-copper-molded self-defense projectile and Winchester’s latest duty round, the 147-grain Ranger One, the LE version of Winchester’s Ready Defense, featuring a blue polymer insert within a bonded jacketed hollowpoint. Even with mixing each magazine with various grainweights and power factors, the Echelon ran perfect.
Worth noting is the Echelon’s incredible controllability. Ergonomics centers around the low bore axis, which reduces felt recoil and hastens recovery between shots. Control is aided by the adaptive grip texture and slim profile that supports a complete wrap-around grip. The textured index points enhance the intuitive repeatability of a proper grip.
Even as I write this, testing continues. Some may define a perfect pistol as one that shoots laser-accurate from 25 yards, or has a grip that presents sights to a target like pointing a finger. The Echelon isn’t that, but it has been perfectly reliable. The only fault we found with the Echelon was with the accessory rail. Perhaps a more minor issue, it can flex when attempting to mount slide-on type accessories. The SureFire X300U-A models, for example, were difficult to attach. The solution was to use clamp-on, T-slot accessories having crossbolts for lugs such as the SureFire X300U-B, X300U-T and X400. Beyond our struggles mounting a light, no criticism was leveled against the Echelon.
Many will use a review of the Echelon to delve into the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C., which resulted in the Theban defeat of the Spartans. Military historians cite the battle as the first use of an “echelon” tactic, though the word evolved much later from Latin scala to the 18th-century French word for ladder, échelle. More important than a history lesson, though, is to know that Springfield Armory’s Echelon is signaling the future of handgun design.
Springfield Armory Echelon
- Type: Recoil operated, striker fired, semiautomatic
- Cartridge: 9mm
- Capacity: 10+1, 17+1, or 20+1 rds.
- Barrel: 4.5 in., hammer forged, 1:10-in. twist; 5.28 in., threaded (optional)
- Overall Length:8 in.
- Width: 1.2 in.
- Height: 5.5 in.
- Weight: 1 lb., 7.9 oz.
- Finish: Melonite (steel)
- Grip: Interchangeable module and backstraps, textured black polymer
- Sights: Tritium/luminescent (front), Tactical Rack U-Dot (rear), optic ready
- Trigger: 4 lbs., 15 oz. (tested)
- Safety: Internal striker block, secondary sear, trigger lever
- Accessories: Backstraps (S, M, L), handgun case
- MSRP: $679 (tested)
- Manufacturer: HS Produkt, Croatia
- Importer: Springfield Armory, 800-680-6866, Springfield-armory.com
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