The 9mm Luger isn’t a great hunting cartridge. Let’s get that out of the way up front. But it is cheap, easy to shoot, and readily available-all things we value whenever we’re evaluating a caliber. These attributes make it a great training round if you’re looking to start hunting with a handgun. It’s also a legendary self-defense round that’s been adopted by military and law enforcement agencies around the world, and it can be a capable bear defense cartridge in a pinch. So, we polled the MeatEater crew to get their thoughts on the best 9mm pieces on the market.
Jump to: The 9mm Pistols We Use
Since its invention in 1901, the 9mm Luger has become the undisputed king of handgun cartridges. It’s been adopted by NATO as well as non-NATO countries, and it offers an ideal mix of ballistic performance and magazine capacity. That popularity has spawned an enormous number of 9mm handgun options. If you’re trying to wade through the sea of polymer and steel, here are a few criteria to use:
Jump to: What Makes a Good 9mm Handgun
Sig Sauer P320 XCompact
Sig Sauer P320 Full Size
|Highlight||Best Overall||Most Shootable||Best Compact||Best Full Size||Best Self-Defense|
|Weight||24 oz||41 oz||25.3 oz||32 oz||41.8 oz|
|Length||7.4 inches||8.6 inches||7 inches||7.75 inches||8.5 inches|
|Barrel Length||4 inches||5 inches||3.6 inches||4.625 inches||4.6 inches|
|Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes|
If a handgun doesn’t go bang when you pull the trigger, it isn’t much more than an expensive (though attractive) paper weight. Even in a training gun, reliability is always the top concern. You won’t get much practice and you won’t have much fun if you’re constantly clearing jams and fixing malfunctions. Each handgun in our list is known for reliability, whether you’re in the backcountry or at the local guntry club.
“Ergonomics” is just a fancy way of saying “the gun feels comfortable when you hold it.” The shape and texturing of the pistol grip can make a gun feel like an extension of your hand or like a feisty trout trying to make it back into the river. Some handgun models are known for being more ergonomic, but this is largely a matter of personal taste. A gun that feels good in your hands might feel uncomfortable in someone else’s.
A handgun’s sights can make or break a shot. Small, dark, iron sights can be tough to pick out against a dark background, while an electronic red dot can be seen in any light condition. As with ergonomics, the kind of sights you choose will depend on your preferences and intended application. Here are a few options:
White three-dot sights are a classic design and work well enough for a day at the range. Tritium sights glow in the dark, and fiber optic sights pick up ambient light in low-light settings. Adding some color (or a blacked-out rear sight) provides contrast between the front and rear sights and makes it easier to pick up the front sight.
These days, electronic red dots are the pièce de résistance of handgun sights, and they’re great for new and veteran shooters alike. They’re also reliable enough that military and law enforcement units across the country are issuing them to their agents.
The handgun market has come a long way in the last 40-something years. Where previous generations were forced to pick between an expensive 1911 and an even more expensive Hi-Power, handguns today can be had at almost any price point. The handguns in our list mostly occupy the sweet spot between $400 to $700. If you find a handgun from a major manufacturer within that range, you can bet it’s going to function as advertised.
Most hunters care far more about rifle accuracy than handgun accuracy, but if you’re going to brag that your handgun is “accurate,” what kind of groups are you looking for?
There is no standard distance for measuring handgun accuracy, but 25 yards is probably the most common. If your 9mm can shoot a 2-inch group at that distance, you’re in great shape. A factory striker-fired pistol might shoot in the 3- to 4-inch range while a custom 1911 or revolver can get into 1-inch territory. To test your handgun’s accuracy, support the barrel and the bottom of the pistol grip on sandbags, and do your best to aim at the same spot every time.
But does handgun accuracy really matter? Outside of hunting and competition, not really. If you miss a 12-inch steel target at 15 yards, there’s a 99.9% chance it’s not the gun. For a 9mm trainer, don’t feel pressure to buy what the marketers and gun writers say is the most accurate handgun on the market. Find a reasonably priced gun from a reputable manufacturer, get yourself a good set of sights, and you’ll be good to go.
The Glock 19 is likely the most popular 9mm handgun of all time—and with good reason. The 19 pioneered the compact size category, but it still comes standard with 15-round mags (it can also accept 17 to 33-round mags). It’s famously durable, and the Gen 5 version of the sidearm features a great trigger.
“If I do my job, the gun IS going to fire and hit where I'm aiming," Jason said, adding that he also likes the gun’s ergonomics. "I've got a fairly big hand, and the Glock 19 fits it perfectly but is easily concealed when needed."
When you think of the “best 9mms,” a 1911 probably doesn’t come to mind. But don’t sleep on John Browning’s famous design in the smaller caliber. Nineteen-eleven purists may recoil at the thought of the gun being chambered in anything but .45 ACP, but a 1911’s steel frame allows it to absorb recoil like a sponge, and the crisp single-action trigger keeps shots on target.
“Almost any 9mm handgun you pick up is going to be relatively low recoil,” Cal pointed out. “My personal preference is for the 1911 model style with its simple safety and trigger.”
Note: 1911s come in a wide array of configurations. These specifications roughly correspond to a full-size model.
Any backcountry hunter will tell you that ounces matter. If you’re going to carry a handgun into the mountains, you don’t want to have to choose between a self-defense firearm and freeze-dried dessert. With the Sig Sauer P320 XCompact, you won’t have to.
“I carry the Sig Sauer P320 XCompact on all of my backcountry hunting trips,” Jordan said. “The pistol is lightweight, compact, and comfortable to shoot, making it a joy to confidently carry.”
Jordan also pointed out that the P320 is totally modular. A serialized trigger group allows users to swap out frame, slide, and barrel without buying a new gun. Plus, the XCompact comes with a slide cut for an optic and a rail for a pistol light.
The Browning Hi-Power is among the most famous 9mm pistols of all time. Invented (mostly) by legendary designer John Moses Browning, the Hi-Power is ergonomic, reliable, and a pleasure to shoot.
“The pistol feels like an extension of your hand when you hold it, and the action is still as crisp as the day it was made,” Kevin said of his 1967 Browning Hi-Power. “It shoots tighter groups with stock components than many custom-made pistols I’ve owned.”
Kevin loves the classic blued steel aesthetics, the crisp trigger, and the moderately sized grip. He also says it’s never misfired or failed to cycle a round in the years he’s had it.
“I don’t see how you could ever really build a better handgun,” he concluded.
Kevin’s Belgian-made Hi-Power will cost you a pretty penny, but there’s some good news. Gun maker FN recently announced a redesigned version of the “High Power” featuring increased mag capacity (17 rounds) and an easier takedown method. FN will be offering three different configurations for about $1,300.
If you’re looking for the bleeding edge of 9mm handgun technology, this is it. MeatEater’s Garrett Long uses this custom, full-size P320 in three-gun competitions and as a self-defense firearm in the bear woods.
“When putting rounds on target matters, my P320 is where it's at. Even in a 9mm, I'm hyper-confident with the stability and repeatability of this gun compared to a bigger caliber,” Garrett said.
The red dot allows for instant, minute point-of-aim feedback, the mag well is flared for easy reloading, and the extended beavertail helps control recoil. You’ll have a tough time finding Garrett’s custom handgun on the shelves, but Sig’s P320 Specter Comp is a damn good alternative.