Gun Review: Remington R51

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Remington’s newly announced R51 is a modern version of the old Remington Model 51 [above], released in 1918 and discontinued some time around 1927. This is Remington’s second “updated” pistol after the 1911 R1, and I get the distinct impression they’re slowly working their way through the old designs and re-releasing the good stuff with modern machining and metals. Not that I’m complaining; there are a number of discontinued designs that I’d love to get my hands on (H&K P7 and the BHP spring immediately to mind) and the Model 51 is a fine choice for resurrection . . .

Remington Model 51 (courtesy wikipedia.org)

The original Remington Model 51 relied on a unique type of action created by John Pedersen, a designer best known for the “Pedersen Device” that turned a bolt-action Springfield 1903 rifle into a semi-automatic magazine-fed pistol caliber rifle with a simple bolt change. Like the original, the latter day Model 51’s barrel remains fixed in place. After ignition, the breech block slides slightly backwards before tilting down and out of the way, imparting enough momentum to the slide to carry it through the reloading cycle.

There are two benefits to this operating mechanism. First, it allows for a lighter recoil spring (the breech block is separate from the slide and less force is required to cycle the action). This makes the R51 easier to rack than a normal firearm – a good thing for women and older shooters. Second, as the recoil spring is placed around the barrel, there’s no need for a separate recoil spring guide rod. This accounts for the gun’s thin design and lowered bore axis. The end result: a flatter shooting gun with less felt recoil.

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The original Model 51 was pretty slick in its own right, but Remington has gone the extra mile to modify the R51 for concealed carry. They’ve rounded everything on the gun – including the rear sights — which means the pistol can slide freely out of a holster or pocket. The only exception is the forward end of the R51’s rear sight; it’s squared off to allow the shooter to rack the gun on a belt or other surface one-handed. The magazine release is recessed into the frame, giving the side of the gun a very smooth surface with no protruding controls. Remington also added some streamlined cuts in the slides that reduce weight and make it blend in better in a pocket or other flat carry position.

Not all of these improvements are actual improvements, though — the recessing of the magazine baseplate is a carry mod too far. The magazine’s baseplate sits flush with the surrounding metal, making it nice and smooth. But when you try and insert the magazine into the gun with the palm of your hand – like a normal reload – you have to physically press the magazine into the gun until the magazine catch clicks. Otherwise the gun won’t run.

The original R51 had a manual safety in addition to the grip safety, but the retro-mod R51 goes without. Instead the gun ships with only the 1911-like grip safety found on the original; it’s practically impossible to hold the Remington R51 without engaging the device. It’s my favorite kind of safety feature: one I don’t have to think about. On paper, then, the Remington R51 is a solid win. On the range . . .

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Pull the trigger on a live round and the first issue rears its ugly head: the Remington R51 is painful to shoot, even with light loads. Granted this is a common complaint for wafer-thin compact 9mm handguns, but I was expecting the smoother stylings of the R51 and the lighter recoil of the Pedersen action to eliminate some of that discomfort.

The R51’s grip safety area (located right where the webbing of your hand grips the gun) has two jagged ridges along which the safety rides. These ridges focus the force of the recoil on an extremely small area of your hand. Combined with the R51’s low bore axis . . . for the first time in years I was getting slide bite. The left side of the R51’s slide rail contacted my hand when the gun cycles. By the end of the range day, my admittedly oversized hand looked like someone beat it with a hammer. [NB: RF was having the same issues with his mid-size mitts.]

Smaller firearms that are painful to shoot aren’t anything new. Airweight .357 Magnum revolvers continue to fly off the shelves nationwide (a fact which boggles my mind). But it’s a bad thing, not a good thing. Owners are far more likely to practice their marksmanship and tactics with an easy shooting carry gun than with a personally punishing firearm. There are other, even more important concerns . . .

At the Remington SHOT Show booth, I discovered that the R51’s trigger had no perceptible reset. The trigger’s take-up and break were exquisite, but there was no tactile feedback when the sear had reset and the gun was ready to fire again. The guys at the booth claimed this wasn’t a bug. Out on the range you won’t even notice it. As they say in The Land of Hope and Glory, pull the other one it’s got bells on.

Running the gun, I found myself constantly pulling the R51’s trigger short of the reset – especially when trying to shoot quickly. Judging the reset point is difficult, and it seems to take ages to get the trigger ready for the next shot. In the video above you can clearly see my finger moving backwards and nothing happening. I had to mentally condition myself to touch the trigger guard with my fingernail after every round, which increased my shot-to-shot split times.

Guns & Ammo’s writer said he was quicker with the R51 shot-to-shot than with his other guns. Unless he’s benefited from some specialized training, I don’t see how that’s possible. Even after shooting more than 500 rounds and plenty of dry firing I was still pulling the R51’s trigger before it reset. Having that much movement in my trigger finger also didn’t help with my accuracy. It added more lateral movement in the shot pattern than with any other gun I own.

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Speaking of accuracy, the R51 gets it done. This 2-inch five round group was shot from the five yard line. Saying that, I regularly see one ragged hole out of either my Wilson Combat 1911 or the FNS-9. The R51’s offer better [off-hand] accuracy than some other compact guns I’ve tested recently but it’s not top of the pops either.

The R51’s low bore axis and lighter slide did indeed reduce felt recoil and allowed me to get on target quickly. There was another pleasant surprise: the R51 wasn’t that much more painful to shoot with +P 9mm ammo, and recoil with +P isn’t any stouter than normal ammo. Relatively speaking, at least — the +P loads were no more painful than any other rounds, yet still painful to shoot. It’s also entirely possible that my hand was too numb from pain at that point to know the difference. I tested the gun using standard American Eagle 9mm rounds and a broad smattering of hollow point ammunition to ensure that standard self defense loads would run in the gun.

To its credit, the R51 didn’t seem to have any issues with liking one brand of ammunition over another. It malfunctioned equally with all of them.

I know people who think that disassembling a GLOCK for cleaning and maintenance is too much work. The R51 is not the alternative carry gun they’re looking for. Disassembling Remington’s carry piece is almost as “challenging” as changing an M1 Carbine’s extractor. No one will intuitively understand that you need to grab the R51’s barrel and pull it forward to get the slide free, and getting an American male to read the instruction manual is about as likely as Robert bagging his latest supermodel crush. But they really should [read the manual].

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When you re-assemble the R51 you must slip a small tab on the slide stop of the gun underneath this little spring. You must insert it perfectly parallel to the slide. If you tilt the slide stop upwards by as little as a 1/16th of an inch, if it rides above the spring, the gun will malfunction. As Robert found out it might even refuse to feed. Not to put too fine a point on it, replacing the slide stop properly could be the difference between life and death in a self defense situation.

At the Remington booth, a display model failed to return to battery a couple times. The guy running the display admitted that the gun was improperly reassembled. A different gun cycled perfectly. The fact that Remington’s own sales reps – the guys specifically trained on the use of the gun – didn’t re-assemble the R51 properly tells you that the design is fundamentally flawed.

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The R51’s user manual only mentions this critical step in a small sentence at the very end of the instruction, accompanied by a not entirely educational picture [above]. With every other gun on the market, if you re-assemble the gun incorrectly a quick function check will show you the error of your ways. An incorrectly re-assembled R51, however, will still pass a function check even with the slide stop installed incorrectly. There’s no way to test the R51 to ensure that it’s properly assembled (dry fire, function testing, or visual inspection) short of firing about 100 rounds through the gun. The first sign that something is wrong with the R51 will be when the gun suddenly stops working in the middle of a string.

So a new shooter could buy an R51 and shoot it without any problem (save a bit of palm pain). At some point, he or she will break down the R51 to clean it. They reassemble the gun incorrectly and holster it without realizing their mistake. In a self-defense scenario they now have less rounds available than they thought and a gun that stops working “for no reason.” Not good.

[I emailed Remington and suggested that they include a simple orange piece of paper in the box, tied to the gun, alerting people to this issue, instructing them on how to properly assemble the gun. They plan to release a YouTube video on the subject.]

Following the release of this review, Tim from the Military Arms Channel confirmed all of my results and more. According to him, even when the gun is absolutely 100% assembled correctly, it still fails to fire, fires out of battery, and fails to feed with alarming regularity. I know Tim, and his reviews are the only ones I trust outside of TTAG. So when he says there’s a problem, there’s a problem. These are not features you want in a concealed carry handgun.

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Unfortunately, that sleek design seems to be indicative of the main issue with the R51. While the gun looks awesome, both the ease of use and range performance leave something to be desired. It almost feels like the gun is half finished, with just a couple of tweaks required to make it into a rocking awesome gun.

The R51 had enormous potential to be a really cool gun. I wanted it to be a really cool gun. And it still could be! But there are a couple very minor design changes that need to be made to get it to that point: an idiot-proof slide stop, followed by adding a tactile reset to the trigger. Finally, making the back of the gun a little more comfortable during recoil would round things out. But Remington doesn’t seem interested in making those changes.

Compared to the competition, the R51 doesn’t deliver. It’s roughly the same dimensions as a Glock 19, but harder to field strip and re-assemble properly and serves-up half as many rounds in the magazine. The SCCY CPX-2 is cheaper, smaller, more capacious (holds three more rounds) and easier to maintain. In fact, there isn’t a single reason to buy the Remington R51 over any of the other guns in the compact 9mm category (other than marketing) and at least one good reason to avoid it altogether.

As much as I’d like to mend fences with the Freedom Group, I call this gun an epic fail.

Specifications:

Caliber: 9mm Para, +P rated
Barrel Length: 3.4 inches
Overall Length: 6.6 inches
Width: 1 inch
Height: 4.6 inches
Weight: 22 Oz
Capacity: Ships with two 7-round magazines
MSRP: $420

Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category. Overall rating is not mathematically derived from the previous component ratings and encompasses all aspects of the firearm including those not discussed.

Accuracy: * * * *
For a sub-compact $420 handgun, it’s not bad at all.

Ergonomics: * * * * *
Holding the gun in my hand, it feels pretty great. It slides beautifully into a pocket or a holster, too.

Ergonomics Firing: *
It hurts your hand, and there’s no tactile trigger reset. I’m not alone — Robert agrees.

Ease of Maintenance: * 
Honestly, I’d rather detail strip my 1911 than field strip this thing. It’s a pain in the butt to take apart and put back together. Worse, it’s very easy to get it wrong without realizing what you did.

Reliability: * 
The gun doesn’t even run when you assemble it right.

Customization: *
There is exactly one holster available so far, but give it time. Given how hard Remington is marketing this thing there will be plenty of new stuff available soon. And hopefully two of those things will be a replacement trigger and slide stop.

Overall Rating: *
It’s a great concept, but there are serious design flaws that shouldn’t be acceptable in a modern firearm. For a gun that’s being marketed to new shooters and people with a freshly-printed concealed carry license, it’s way too easy to re-assemble the gun incorrectly — and even when put together right it still doesn’t work. Add on top of that the painful shooting experience and people won’t be likely to put much time into practicing with the gun. It has a lot of potential, and all it would take are a couple design changes to fix the issues.