Gun Review: Lionheart LH9 – Take 2

LH9 1

A few months back, Nick Leghorn reviewed the Lionheart LH9 9mm, which is a modern update of the South Korean Daewoo K5 military pistol. Nick ended up giving it a dismal one-star rating, going so far as to declare it “unsafe.”  Since I had some experience with the Daewoo K5 as a result of my time overseas working with the ROK army, I simply could not believe that this update of a classic military pistol could deserve that kind of rating. Could the entire ROK military have been wrong in adopting a pistol that’s unsafe? And then keep using it for 20+ years? Nah, fat chance. So I asked Nick to send the gun to me so I could take a second look . . .

Here at TTAG, our mission is to tell the truth about guns. And yet on matters of personal preference, we can only provide our opinions. American orator Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) once said that “[t]ruth is one forever absolute, but opinion is truth filtered through the moods, the blood, [and] the disposition of the spectator.” After spending a couple of months with the LH9, I’m in almost complete disagreement with Nick’s take on this pistol. In my estimation, the Lionheart is superb: an upgraded, improved version of the excellent Browning Hi-Power and S&W 39/59 series pistols on which it’s ultimately based. 

 LH9 2

My first thought about the Lionheart LH9 when I saw it for the first time? It’s a drop dead sexy gun with great ergonomics, based on a pistol with a proven record of military service. What’s not to love? Shown above is the LH9 alongside my personal ROK Special Forces beret (presented to me by the ROK Special Warfare Command), my engraved Gerber Mark II, (an informal unit-level award), and my old Gen I Gore Tex jacket that I wore during my tours in country. The LH9 is a looker, right?

Some Americans can be funny about foreign-made guns, especially if the country of origin isn’t Germany or Austria. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some OFWG redneck type say something along the lines of: “If it ain’t designed by Samuel Colt, John Moses Browning, or John Garand, it ain’t worth owning.” To those knuckle-draggers, the thought of owning a Korean-made pistol would be downright treasonous.

But I’ve never been afflicted with such shortsightedness. Quite the opposite, in fact. When I was in the Army (circa 1990), it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the Korean Daewoo K2 rifle was an advancement over my Colt M16A1s and A2s. The “Woo” basically takes an M-16 lower and mates it to an upper featuring an AK-47 style long stroke gas piston and an FN-FAL gas regulator. Brilliant! Why blow hot, dirty gas into the bolt carrier group if you don’t have to?

Oh, I know…because you love taking an extra 2-3 hours to clean all the carbon and junk out of the action, right? In addition, the piston/tappet rod allows the buffer assembly to be drastically shortened, which, in turn, allows for a folding stock. Accurate and utterly reliable, the Daewoo K2 is an impressive weapon system.

LH9 3 copyright Kish Kim

 

LH9 4 copyright Kish Kim

Likewise, I was envious to see my Korean counterparts toting their (then) new K-5 pistols. My issue Beretta M9 (aka: 92F) was a beautiful pistol, but it was needlessly large and bulky. It featured the kinda-lame Walther P38 style decocker and a painfully long first shot double action trigger.  In contrast, the K-5 was compact and featured a 1911-style safety that allows the pistol to be carried holstered in Condition 1. The K-5 reminded me of my first pistol, my beloved Novak custom Browning Hi-Power. The ergonomics were similar, and the K-5 featured a slim front end that made it point very quickly and easy to conceal.

Perhaps the biggest irony surrounding the K-5: though made in the ROK (aka: South Korea), it’s heavily influenced by American designs. Let me explain:

Parental Family Tree:  Browning Hi Power & Walther P-38  S&W 39 / 59 Daewoo K5  Lionheart LH9

LH9 6 copyright Adams guns

The genesis of the Lionheart LH9 ultimately stems from the Browning Hi-Power, a gun that was based on John Moses Browning’s last pistol design. Engineers at Fabrique Nationale Herstal finished the design of the Hi-Power after Mr. Browning’s death in 1926. Released in 1935, the Browning Hi-Power took the world by storm, and became the most widely used 9mm in the world over the next 60 years. In my extensive travels around the world (over 70 countries), I can confirm that there were few places I visited where Hi-Powers were not represented in the arsenals of the police and military. Even today, the Browning Hi-Power is still one of the widely issued side arms for police and militaries around the world. They show up everywhere.

After WWII, the U.S. Army toyed with the idea of moving to a 9mm to replace the 1911.  Smith & Wesson was anxious to score a big government contract and developed the X-46 in response to Army solicitations. Inspired by the Browning Hi-Power and the Walther P-38, the X-46 attempted to take the best features of both designs and incorporate them into one pistol. The Army ultimately dropped the project, however. Nonetheless, Smith and Wesson continued development of the X-46 into the Model 39, in an effort to attract law enforcement sales.

The Model 39 utilized the tilt-barrel locking cam system of the Hi-Power and combined it with the double action and decocker features of the P-38. The Model 39 eventually evolved into a number of different generations of Smith and Wesson handguns, including some with aluminum alloy frames (e.g., Model 59, Model 459, Model 5903, Model 6906, etc.).

LH9 8 copyright kish kim

The Daewoo K5, which is the standard issue sidearm of the South Korean defense forces, is based on the S&W 39/59 series of pistols. The Korean Ministry of Defense and Daewoo Precision Industries designed and tested the K5 over the course of four years starting in around 1985. It’s a combat-proven sidearm currently being carried by South Korean soldiers in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Lebanon.

LH9 9

Daewoo Precision Industries is a turnkey Colt factory, built by Colt in the 1970s as the South Korean Arsenal. Daewoo has produced millions of licensed M16s, as well as M203s, M60s and other American Mil-Spec weapon systems. They eventually developed their own designs, which are widely regarded as improvements to the host guns on which they’re based. Much of the machinery that’s used to manufacture the LH series, such as the drop forge, is Colt’s original tooling.

The K5 was imported into the U.S. in the 1990s under the name “DP-51.”  Importation stopped when the Daewoo conglomerate was dismantled by the Korean Government in 1999. The weapon proved to be light, highly ergonomic, and well balanced. The DP-51s had a well-earned reputation for reliability and accuracy. The only common complaint that you hear about them today is the lack of parts and magazines. However, that’s been addressed by Lionheart Industries. Also, you can use S&W 59 series mags.

Improving a Proven Design: Enter Lionheart Industries

Lionheart Industries was founded in 2011 to import and manufacture innovative firearms and accessories. Lionheart is not a subsidiary of Daewoo, but an independent American owned company with exclusive import and distribution rights in the U.S. market. According to Mr. Josh Whi of Lionheart, they chose to work with Daewoo due to the high quality and innovative nature of their firearms.

Lionheart has taken the proven K5 design and upgraded it with modern features. They started by adding more aggressive serrations on the slide. Mr. Whi told me that it took many attempts before they settled on the current depth and spacing between serrations that they felt was optimal for grip, without being too sharp or abrasive. I think they got it right.

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Next, they changed the old spur type hammer to a rounded commander style hammer, which harkens back to the original Browning P-35. This was done so that the hammer could be easily manipulated and operated with confidence. In my opinion, the commander style hammer is more comfortable to carry, less prone to snagging and easier to conceal than a spur hammer, making it a welcome addition.

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The original K-5s/DP-51s featured a black oxide slide coating and anodizing on the frame. The look of the original finish left a bit to be desired, so Lionheart choose to use a Cerakote finish for the LH9. Not only is it attractive, it comes in various colors and its ceramic base allows a semiautomatic pistol to function without much lubrication. Cerakote’s durability, corrosion and chemical resistance is well known in the firearms community.

LH9 12

Lastly, the grips have been improved. Lionheart tested three different designs before settling on the signature polymer “diamond grips.” The legendary designer behind Surefire, Paul “PK” Kim, designed these grips. They’re not only functional, but their unique patterns stand out compared to standard checkered grips.

One important thing they thankfully did not change: the full size LH9 is still compatible with S&W 59 series magazines and the LH9C (compact) takes S&W 69 series mags. The Korean-made OEM factory magazines are high quality steel with polymer bases.  The finish of the magazines is not nearly as nice as the Mec-Gars made for the S&Ws, but they are functional and rugged.

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Various sight options are available for the LH9. I tested two different slides, one with fixed sights and one with genuine Novak Lo-Mount 380 sights with the optional big dot tritium. The stock LH9 ships with black wide-notch rear sights and white dot front sight. Having the single white dot on the front allows for quick target acquistion and the superb accuracy that Novak’s is famous for. For customization, fiber optic sights as well as brass and gold bead options are also available through Lionheart and Novak.

Comparison to Smith & Wesson Pistols

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The photo above shows the Lionheart LH9 compared to two Smith & Wesson pistols: an all-steel Gen-3 (Model 5906) and an aluminum-framed Performance Center version of the Gen 3 Model 6906, known as the “Recon 9.” The family genetics should be fairly obvious from the photo, particularly in regards to the 5906. The Lionheart LH9 features a more rounded palm swell, a feature originally found on the Walther P-38. See Photo Below. I find the shape of the LH9’s grip feels very similar to modern SIG-Sauers and Walthers.

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So my question to the naysayers is this: if the S&W pistols get high marks – and they do – shouldn’t an updated version of the same pistol that drops the decocker in favor of a 1911-style safety also get high marks? The only real difference is the safety and the “Tri-Action Trigger” (aka “Double action plus +” trigger). But more on that later.

A Closer Look at the Internals

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The LH9 is slightly more complicated to disassemble than the modern Wonder-Nines like a Glock, Steyr, Caracal, or Walther PPQ and PPX.  The process is similar to disassembling an HK USP. But it’s easier than taking down a 1911.

Once pulled apart, the operator is rewarded with a full-length steel guide rod, a forged slide, and a hammer-forged, chrome-lined 4150 steel barrel. That steel is the same used in mil-spec M4s which are rated for full-auto fire. Yes, everything about the Lionheart is first class.

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The LH9 continues to use the original Browning design of dual annular locking lugs with corresponding slide indentions cut into the underside of the slide. This locking system is more expensive to build as compared to the modern breechblock design, but those who appreciate the classics will enjoy this feature.

The “Double Action+” Action

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In his review, Nick seemed to like everything about the Lionheart except the “Double Action plus+” action and the small-ish manual thumb safety. When I read his complaints about the action, I was surprised, and his conclusions didn’t mesh with my recollection of the merits of the system.

What I love about the Daewoo K5 (and by extension, the Lionheart LH9) is the flexibility it offers. Want to carry it in condition one like a 1911? Check. Want to carry it hammer down on a loaded chamber, safety off, relying on the heavy DA trigger as a safety? Check.

But the big disadvantage of a traditional double action system has always been that first shot heavy trigger pull. Most shooters can’t hit their first shot with double action. As discussed below, the Daewoo “Double Action plus+” system bridges that gap. But before turning to that mode, let me state that the LH9 double action trigger pull is one of the smoothest I’ve ever felt. Better than either of my SIG Sauers, my HK USP-T or my old Novak Hi-Power. The only DA gun that’s in the same league is my $1200 S&W Performance Center Recon 9, although TTAG writer Chris Dumm’s SIG-Sauer 250 has an near flawless DA trigger as well.

As Nick noted, you can use the “Double Action plus +” system a third way: by loading the pistol, racking the slide, activating the manual safety, and then pushing the hammer forward on a loaded chamber. That moves the trigger forward to the same position as if it were not cocked. (Note: Although not mandatory for operation, Lionheart advises users activate the manual safety first before operating the weapon in any of the three modes.)

Once so configured, the operator only needs to lightly pull the trigger back ½ inch, and the hammer will snap back under spring tension. At that point, the trigger is in the same position as a two stage single-action trigger; continuing with the pull a short distance more reaches an obvious wall. Another three pounds of force trips the sear and fires the pistol.

Though the pull will be as long as a traditional DA trigger pull, at no point do you need to use heavy, accuracy robbing 10+ lbs. of force. Also, note that contrary to what the bubbas will tell you out in internet land, you don’t have to pull the hammer back using the trigger. You can just as easily use your hand to re-cock the hammer. Thus, this system is flexible, and provides all the benefits of single action (accuracy + speed) with the safety of double action (longer trigger travel).

Nick saw it differently. He states: “In theory, this gives you all the benefits of a single action trigger and a double action trigger combined. In reality, though, it’s more like you get all of the drawbacks of both.” Which seems like a “glass half empty” view. In my opinion, the LH9 is a “glass is full” affair. Again, opinions will vary based on personal preferences and prior training. But one thing is for sure: there’s nothing inherently “unsafe” about the action.

Drilling down on specifics, Nick didn’t like the “long but light” characteristic of the ‘third’ trigger mode. As he said, “Since the “double action +” pull is lighter than a normal double action gun’s, you need to use the frame mounted safety.” Well, yes and no. You don’t have to use the safety if you don’t want to. It’s certainly true that the third (double action+) trigger mode doesn’t offer the same degree of heavy resistance as a traditional double action trigger.  But the trigger pull will still be long, which in itself provides a degree of safety.

Certainly, a Glock with a standard 5 Lb connector isn’t any more “safe” in this respect.  I’m currently testing the Walther PPX – which has no manual safety and an even lighter DAO trigger pull than the Lionheart. My advice: if you do want to carry the Lionheart in the pre-cocked, hammer down mode without a manual safety, then you MUST always carry it in a quality holster made specifically for this particular gun that completely covers the trigger guard. Of course, you can still back up the trigger with the manual safety, as Nick points out. Again, Lionheart recommends that.

In sum, the LH9 gives you options. You can carry the LH9 in various conditions depending on the situation and shooter preference: single action with safety on, double action with safety off, “double action +” with safety on, and “double action +” with safety off. 

The Safety

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Nick’s second concern was what he described as a “small safety.” See photo above, comparing the LH9 (right) to a modern 1911A1 (left).  Nick complained that the LH9’s safety is “roughly the size of a Tic-Tac” and that “even under the best of circumstances, it’s tough to find and flip it at the range.”  Continuing, Nick wrote, “And in my opinion, the safety is impossible to use under stress. It’s simply too small to hit with any certainty when you’re hustling to take a shot.” I beg to differ.

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While the Tic-Tac comment is only a slight exaggeration, I don’t understand the complaint about not being able to find the safety. Personally, I like the smaller, out of the way, ambidextrous safety lever. Guys like Nick get used to their oversized “competition” add-ons, but all of those bigger-than-stock features diminish the ability to carry the weapon concealed. Although sufficently positive to not flip off accidentally, the LH9′s safety is designed to switch off easily and instinctively on your drawstroke. In a tactical draw, it’s a simple process to deactivate the safety as you clear the holster and bring the weapon on target. My thumb finds the safety without any problems, day or night.  Reactivating the safety requires slightly more effort, but it’s not annoyingly difficult. It’s certainly a better option than the decocker on the Beretta M9.

Thus, while it’s true that the safety isn’t as large as the oversized safeties you encounter on some modern 1911s, it’s large enough to serve its purpose. It’s certainly easier to disengage the safety on the Lionheart than it is on many other firearms; including traditional WWII era 1911s. Those of you familiar with those 1911s will know that the safety on those old guns are only about half the size of a Tic-Tac!

The Soft Case

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These days, many manufacturers are cutting costs by only providing a marginal to crappy plastic hard case with their pistols. You know, the ones that you end up ditching in your closet because they suck.  The only pistol I own that came with a really nice case is my HK USP-T, and that puppy cost me almost a cool grand. Thus, Lionheart certainly takes it to the next level with their OEM soft case. The case has a high-quality feel to it, with room for five extra mags, a box of ammo, and cleaning supplies. The case includes:

  • A small tube of FrogLube
  • 1 brass bore brush
  • 1 steel cleaning rod
  • 1 cleaning brush
  • 1 trigger lock
  • Manual
  • Warranty card

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While a case isn’t going to be the reason you buy a Lionheart, it should factor into whether you think $600 is a fair price for this pistol. Which leads to the question of value . . .

Value

When the DP-51 was first sold in the U.S. in the 1990s, the price was $325.00. Based on that price point, the perception was that the DP-51 was an ‘economy line’ gun. In reality, it was a total steal. Twenty years later, inflation has caused pistols to become more expensive. Even so, the fixed sight Lionheart LH9 retails for $615. The Novak sight LH9 lists for $715. That makes it cheaper than a SIG-Sauer, Browning Hi-Power, or HK USP, but puts it squarely in the price range of guns like the Walther PPQ, Glocks and Springfield XDs.

Nonetheless, the quality features of the Lionheart – forged frame and slide, hammer forged 4150 barrel, excellent machining, Cerakote finish, (usually a $150-$200 custom coating job), smooth trigger, Novak sights, and the proprietary grips make this pistol a great value for the money. If you can find another firearm with all that, please let me know in the comments. The only other firearm that I found that is similar is the SIG Sauer Scorpion line that cost $1000+ MSRP.

Warranty

Often, you can gather all you need to know about a pistol by looking the warranty. These days, one- and two-year warranties are common, even among well-respected gun manufacturers. In this case, Lionheart is offering a limited lifetime non-transferable warranty on its guns and is providing full parts, magazines, and servicing from their headquarters in Redmond, WA. According to Josh Whi of Lionheart: “Great customer service and customer satisfaction is very important to us.” I hope Lionheart is here for the long haul. Maybe with any luck they will bring back an updated version of the “Woo” K2.

Conclusion

In his review, Nick says, “this gun is an accident waiting to happen.” I emphatically disagree. The South Korean military has been using this pistol for over 20 years and there is no unusual history of accidents. Besides, from the external safety, the LH9 has an internal firing pin block. It’s impossible for the LH9 to fire unless the safety is off and the trigger is pulled. If you want an “accident waiting to happen,” buy an old school 1911 – before they added drop safeties.

Nick recommended that potential LH9 buyers “stick to a Glock.” But the Lionheart is so completely different from a Glock that I suspect the two guns will attract totally different buyer demographics. The LH9 is a professional grade firearm intended for users who will train regularly with their weapon. Those who appreciate the pointability of a Hi-Power or a Walther P-38 and who like to carry in “condition 1” will really appreciate the Lionheart. As will anyone who has trouble warming up to the concept of a plastic gun.

Bottom line: the LH series of handguns is a top-quality military-grade firearm which is produced without cutting corners and without regard to saving manufacturing costs. I’m hoping that the Lionheart LH9 is well-received because it’s an excellent design. In fact, I like this pistol so much I am planning on adding it to my personal collection.

Specifications:

Manufacturer: S&T Motiv (formerly “Daewoo Precision Instruments, Inc.”)
Model: LH9
Calibers: 9mm,  (.40 S&W and .45 ACP versions are in the works)
Action: Semi auto, short recoil, locked breech.
Barrel length: 4.1 inches
Barrel Twist:  6 groove, 1:13 twist
Overall Length: 7.5 inches
Weight: 28 ounces (1 lb, 12 oz.)
Sights: Many options (See Below)
Finish:  Cerakote
Capacity:  9mm = 13 or 15 rds; .40 S&W = 13 rounds
Suggested Retail Price: $ 615 (MSRP)   Novak Sights $715 (MSRP)

Ratings (Out of Five Stars):

Accuracy: * * * * *    
Outstanding, pure and simple.

Ergonomics: * * * * *
The Lionheart is a bird dog – a natural pointer. If you like the ergonomics of the S&W 5906 and the Browning Hi-Power, and appreciate the palm swell of a Walther P-38, you’ll like the LH9.

Reliability: * * * * *
I experienced no malfunctions of any kind. This thing gobbles up all types of ammo like Rosie O’Donnell does Little Debbie snack cakes.

Durability:  * * * *  
I didn’t torture test this gun and, frankly, 500 rounds is hardly enough to give much indication about the long-term durability of a firearm. Having said that, after 500 rounds I didn’t see any signs of weakness in the materials or design. The Cerakote got scratched in one spot where the external trigger bar rubbed against the frame.

Customization: * * * 
Most holsters made for S&W 59 series pistols should fit the LH9. S&W 59 series mags will work as well. Novak’s tritium, fiber optics, gold and brass beads are available for this pistol.

Overall Rating: * * * * ½
I’m thrilled with this handgun. Again, even if you don’t like the “Double Action plus +”  trigger system, it’s merely an option. If you want to run your LH9 in regular double action mode, you can. Prefer single action, cocked and locked? Nothing is stopping you.