What's the Best Subcompact 9mm on the Market?
August 12, 2013
With all the subcompact 9mm pistols on the market today, choosing the right one for you can be a truly difficult decision.
The expansion of concealed carry reciprocity across the country has triggered a competitive market among firearm manufacturers. Companies are racing to engineer smaller guns without sacrificing the features and effectiveness of a full-sized platform.
By nature, subcompacts are unforgiving in nearly every sense of the word. A short sight radius, truncated barrel and reduced grip area amplify the slightest operator error. Making each shot count requires some practice, especially when magazine capacity is typically half that of full-sized guns. What seem to be small differences can often give one pocket pistol a significant advantage. So I set out to find the best subcompact out there today.
After firing a majority of subcompacts on the market, the best advice I can give—especially if it's for concealed carry—is to avoid buying based on brand loyalty. Just because a particular brand makes your favorite full-sized 9x19 doesn't guarantee its subcompact will follow suit.
Each of the subcompact candidates considered were magazine-fed semi-autos—but that's about all they shared in common. The top contenders included a spectrum of hammer- and striker-fired guns with a variety of trigger actions and safety mechanisms.
In choosing the best subcompact 9mm on the market, there are numerous factors to consider: how the gun feels in your hand, reliability, concealability, type of action, magazine capacity, safety features and overall value.
Based on this set of criteria, the new Springfield Armory 9mm XD-S takes the crown as the best subcompact 9mm on the market. Overall value and concealability give the XD-S an edge over the honorable Smith & Wesson Shield and Glock 26 Gen 4 as the best all-around offering. There's something to be said for a carry gun you enjoy training with, and every time I leave the range with the XD-S, I'm hungry for more.
What it Has
One reason the XD-S is the best subcompact 9mm on the market is because of its extensive list of standard features. Included in the kit are a holster and double mag pouch, replaceable backstrap, chamber flag, bore brush and replacement rods for the fiber optic front sight.
Then there are its single-stack magazines—two of which come standard and fit flush with seven rounds, while a nine round extended magazine is available from Springfield and extends the overall grip length by an inch. The magazines fit in most standard 1911 mag pouches, and they're also slim enough to slip in a pocket and travel unnoticed. Compared to the competition, dimensions of the XD-S magazines are most similar to the Ruger LC9 and SIG P938, which are thinner than the Shield and nearly twice as slim as the Glock 26.
The XD-S sports a set of steel three-dot sights with a bright fiber optic front sight that enables the fastest daytime target acquisition among its competition. Tritium night sights would be more desirable on a carry gun, but very few subcompacts come standard with tritium sights—with exception to the SIG P938, which costs roughly $225 more than the XD-S. Many aftermarket sights fitting the full-size Springfield XD will also fit the XD-S. Some options available from the Springfield Armory Custom Shop include—Trijicon HD Night Sights and Heinie SlantPro or Ledge sights with tritium inserts.
Most people who carry concealed will also benefit from the XD-S' lack of an external safety selector. The grip safety—combined with a safe trigger mechanism and a responsible trigger finger—are more than enough to prevent accidental discharge. Ride the XD-S in a quality holster that isolates the trigger from getting snagged on clothing and you have a very safe and effective weapon system.
Interestingly enough, the replacement backstrap actually reduces the grip size, compared to the Glock 26 Gen 4, on which the replacement straps make the grip larger. I also found the smaller backstrap slightly decreases the grip angle, but with hands large enough to palm a basketball, I prefer the extra surface area on the standard-sized backstrap. Difference in size between the two backstraps—especially in terms of showing through clothing while carrying concealed—is trivial, so carry on with the size that feels most comfortable in your hand.
The versatility of an integral Picatinny rail for attaching accessories is an added benefit left out by the other subcompact 9mm candidates. Folks who carry may choose not to use the rail, in which case it can simply be ignored. But since its big-bore brother—chambered in .45 ACP—has been on the market for the past year, lights and lasers such as the Crimson Trace Laserguard and Viridian C5L are available now to fit the platform.
In terms of features, the XD-S sets the stage as the new standard for what people should expect to get out of the box in a striker-fired subcompact. As with all firearms, however, features take a back seat to how the firearm performs.
What it Does
The XD-S is addicting to shoot. When I first took it to the range, it was 102 degrees and I was in direct sunlight. Once I started shooting, it might as well have been a cool, spring afternoon—it was just me and the XD-S, and we didn't stop until flawlessly burning through 300 rounds of ammo. I've shot it twice since, and unlike many subcompacts, I can't wait to get back to the range and run it again.
After shooting the XD-S, I'd confidently recommend the gun to just about anyone who's shot a semi-auto before. For such a lightweight gun, it's a soft recoiling, smooth shooter—even with some of the hotter +P ammunition. The aggressive grip texturing made it easy to grasp firmly even with sweaty palms in the blistering heat, and the deep-cut rear slide serrations were a much-needed feature.
The nine-round extended magazine makes recoil even more manageable, and allows for precise follow-up shots. Carrying with the extended mag might be undesirable, but it's certainly possible. The best option for concealed carry is to have the flush-fit, seven-round mag in the pistol, and the nine-round mag as a backup.
While the XD-S is not completely impartial to left- and right-handed shooters, it does sport an ambidextrous magazine release. The release button makes a distinct "click" when dropping the magazine from either side of the frame. However, I find it difficult to release the nine-round magazine so it drops free, similar to the Smith & Wesson Shield and Ruger LC9. Their rubber extension pads tend to grab on the palm of my hand to keep from clearing the mag well.
The XD-S is surprisingly accurate for a subcompact with a 3.3-inch barrel. I'm able to effortlessly shoot tight groups on paper at 7 to 10 yards, even in fast shot sequences and with double taps. At distance, the XD-S—like many subcompacts—leaves a bit to be desired, but it's still certainly capable of popping two-liter bottles from 30 yards. We used Federal American Eagle 124-grain FMJ, Barnes 115-grain +P TacXPD, Hornady 124-grain Custom XTP and Hornady 115-grain Critical Defense ammunition during testing.
Part of the XD-S' accuracy has to do with the barrel and bright fiber optic front sight post. But the rest is in the trigger, which is tuned more like a competition trigger than any striker-fired subcompact I've ever shot. Its consistent 5.5-pound pull is very similar to the Glock 26, which I find to perform notably superior than the Shield's trigger. For a factory trigger, over travel is almost non-existent. A short, crisp reset also contributed to quick follow-up shots and reliable double taps.
Overall, the XD-S sets an example for other subcompacts to follow. Packed with features right out of the box, you'll be hard-pressed to walk out of the gun shop with a more complete package for the price of $599. Combine those features with a reliable, smooth-cycling semi-auto that shoots as accurately as the person pulling the trigger, and you have a recipe for the best 9mm subcompact on the market.