Gun Review: Kel-Tec PF-9 (Take Two)

After reading Don Gammill, Jr’s PF-9 review, I was compelled to get my hands on a PF-9 for myself.  What was the source of this compulsion? I can’t say precisely, but I’m sure it had something to do with the considerable bulk of my other 9mm (a full-size Ruger P-95) and the marginal caliber of my other carry gun, a .380 Makarov.

I’ve been looking for a small carry gun in a caliber that I already shoot and reload. Since I’m not a fan of subcompact .45 ACPs with small magazines and big recoil, this narrowed my choices to the .357 Magnum and 9mm Parabellum. I’ve shot some very small Kahr 9mms and came away impressed, and I’ve always liked Ruger’s SP-101 in .357 Magnum. I came within a hair (not really a hair, more like a hundred bucks) of buying a 3″ SP-101 last month, but I didn’t. It was beyond my modest budget. Just like a weekend in Vegas, it’s a good idea for me to know my limit before I go to a gun store, and to stick to it.

I checked out dozens of snubnoses and subcompacts at a gun show a few weeks ago, and then I read Don’s review of the Kel-Tec PF-9. Warts and all, his review sealed the deal for me. I sold the Makarov to free up some funds and some real estate in my gun safe, and I ordered the PF-9 from an online retailer for $259.

It arrived in the tiniest hard pistol case I’ve ever seen, and I was pleased to discover that I’d received a higher-priced Parkerized pistol for the bargain-basement price of the standard blued model. My next two impressions were “OMG, that’s f***ing tiny!” and “Don wasn’t kidding about that trigger reset.” But I remain amazed that $259 plus shipping and transfer fee actually gets you a ‘real gun’ in a major caliber. The PF9 has all the bits you expect in a real gun: visible and adjustable sights, a slide that stays open after the last shot, a magazine release where you expect to find it, and even an accessory rail.

But not all of these ‘real gun’ bits are not quite what they seem. The adjustable sights are snag-free and easy to see, but on my pistol they don’t have enough adjustment range. The slide release lever is only a ‘slide lock’ to hold the slide open after the last shot. Magazine retention is solid (no accidental drops) but the mags don’t drop free. The accessory rail is mil-spec, but it’s too short to accept most lights or lasers. In these details, the execution of the PF-9 falls a little bit short of its expectations.

Size and Weight:

Kel-Tec advertises the PF-9 as the ‘thinnest, lightest production 9mm in the world’ and I have no reason to doubt them. It is exactly half the weight of my Ruger P-95 9mm with exactly half the firepower as well.

It is amazingly flat and thin. It makes many compact .380s like Bersas and Walthers seem both cumbersome and portly by comparison. It’s shorter, thinner, and 10 ounces lighter than a Walther PPK which holds fewer rounds of a lesser caliber. My .380 Makarov, an ugly Soviet sister of the Walther PP, was an absolute pig by comparison.

The PF-9 conceals very easily; easier, in fact, than a J-Frame S&W, the gold standard of a deep-concealment handgun. In a low-slung belly band holster, it completely disappears under a pair of Levi’s and a t-shirt. When the weather gets hotter, I have few doubts that it will conceal perfectly well under cargo shorts and a tank top. This particular method of carry doesn’t allow for a very rapid presentation, but it demonstrates that you can carry the PF-9 anywhere the law allows.

Go ahead, take off your jacket! Reach for that can of soup on the top shelf, with your strong hand! Lean over and try to ‘print’ the PF-9 against your clothing! Trust me, nobody will notice.

Ergonomics:

I agreed with Don’s critique of the PF-9’s overly-aggressive grip texture, so before I left I fashioned my own Hogue-style grip wrap from a  short section of bicycle inner-tube. The result is a soft, slightly grippy surface which softens the texture of the grip. It doesn’t bulk out the grip, and on my black-framed gun (no great beauty to begin with) it doesn’t even look too unsightly.

Even with my homemade Schwinn/Hogue grip wrap, however, the PF-9’s recoil is snappy. This should be no surprise from a 9mm that weighs barely a pound fully loaded, and is actually milder than I had expected. I’ve shot .40 and .45 subcompacts, much heavier than the 13-ounce PF-9, and positively hated their recoil. The PF-9 recoils much like a steel-framed .38 snubnose; it’s not a creampuff but it’s not a punisher. Well, not too much of a punisher.

The trigger pull is long and moderately heavy, but it’s fairly smooth and it only stacks slightly toward the end. Resetting the trigger requires you to release it *all* the way forward, just like a double-action revolver. I never encountered Don’s problem of ‘short-stroking’ the trigger, possibly because I spend a fair amount of time shooting double-action with my S&W Model 686. The hammer is partially cocked by the cycling of the slide, so there is no second-strike capacity if you encounter a misfire.

As noted above, the PF-9 has remarkably good sights for such a small pistol. The front sight features a large white dot which grabs your attention when you’re raising the gun up to the target. I like it a lot, and I wish the rear sight were a little bit wider to match it. The rear sight is a well rounded snag-free unit, made of a tough polymer. It can be adjusted for windage by loosening a small Allen screw, and Kel-Tec says it can be shimmed with aluminum foil to adjust for elevation.

Accuracy:

The good sights helped the PF-9 achieve accuracy that was more than acceptable for such a minuscule gun. In deliberate aimed fire, it gave me consistent 2″ and 3″ groups, with an occasional single flier. My best 7-shot group was 1.9″. In order to zero the sights to the point of impact, I had to drift the rear sight as far right as it could go. It still shoots an inch left at 7 yards, but I can live with ‘minute of beer can’ accuracy at real world gunfighting distances.

Rapid-fire with the PF-9 is a lot like rapid-fire with a .38 snubnose, except that the sights are a lot better and you’ve got eight shots to work with instead of five.  It kept all eight shots in a paper-plate sized group, shooting as fast as I could. With so little trigger time on the gun, I was pretty happy with this performance.

Reliability:

This isn’t a range gun or a target pistol, so it damned well better go bang every time you pull the trigger. I shot through a box of Remington 115 grain FMJs, a box of Hornady 115 grain Critical Defense hollowpoints, and a bag of home-grown 124 grain FMJs. Feeding and ejection were 100% reliable with everything I shot. Ignition was 100% reliable with factory ammunition, but the PF-9 did not reliably ignite my 9mm handloads.

Spent cases showed fairly light primer strikes, and my reloads used CCI primers which are reported to be harder to ignite than other primer brands. In any event, Kel-Tec is sending me a new firing pin and spring which should solve the problem. For free. They also recommended that I clean out the firing pin channel, which I’ve done and which may have solved the problem already. It was, to put it politely, absolutely filthy.

But even if the handload problem never really resolves itself, I’ll always be completely satisfied with a defensive pistol that is 100% reliable with factory ammo. I’m favorably impressed with the overall reliability of this tiny pistol, even though I’m only halfway through the suggested break-in period of 250 rounds.

Conclusions:

The PF-9 is a lot more pistol (and, in its critical dimensions, a lot less pistol) than anything  within $200 of its price point. It’s got every advantage over snubnose .38s: more bullets, easier concealment, better accuracy, and better ballistics. It’s not as tiny as the newest batch of ultra-compact .380s, but the marginal increase in size brings lots of benefits like better ballistics, more firepower, and usable combat sights. It’s not as feature-laden as larger 9mms, but it’s much more likely to be there on your hip (or in your pocket; it fits just about anywhere) when you really need it.

In the world of full-powered deep concealment pistols, its only real competition is the Kahr PM-9. If the PM-9 is as good as the other Kahr’s I’ve shot, and if money were no object, I’d probably pick the Kahr in a heartbeat. Money IS an object for most of us, however, and the Kahr is more than twice the price of the Kel-Tec.

The Kel-Tec PF-9 represents a lot of compromises between concealment, combat power, and handling. I respect Don’s opinion, and perhaps if I’d started with a Kel-Tec P3AT I wouldn’t be as impressed with the compromises that had to be made in up-sizing that gun to a larger caliber. As it is, I’m impressed with the features it provides at a simply amazing price. If it continues to be as accurate and reliable as it has been so far, I expect I will carry it for years to come.