By Austin Knudsen
I identify with enthusiasts who can’t afford a Wilson Combat, SIG, H&K or a GLOCK; I was once a college student with Glenfiddich tastes on a Milwaukee’s Best budget. Even though my financial circumstances have improved, I still strive to find the diamonds in the rough. I stay away from the Hi-Points or the Bryco/Jennings ultra-low-priced, pot metal handguns. I tend towards handguns manufactured overseas that are clones of existing, proven, established pistol designs. Which brings me to my latest acquisition: the Arcus 98DA.
This all-steel beast is made in Bulgaria. It’s basically a beefed-up, uglier Browning Hi-Power with a double action/single action trigger system dropped in.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Browning Hi-Power. I love its significance in history. The P35 was John Moses Browning’s last design (though his protégé arguably had more of a hand in its design than JMB). It was the first high-capacity 9mm pistol, arguably the perfect amalgamation of the 1911 and a double-stack 9mm. And the Hi-Power was only pistol fielded by both Axis and Allied troops during World War II.
There’s a lot of history and design to love. On top of all that, Hi-Powers are dead sexy. This custom Hi-Power from Nighthawk Custom being, perhaps, the ultimate example.
I hate the Hi-Power because of they’re no fun to shoot. The stock triggers suck. The ring hammer found on most versions bites the web of my hand and makes me bleed. The sights and safety levers on most examples are tiny and ridiculous, a problem FN didn’t rectify until the MkIII (I exclude the target sighted versions). And I’ve never shot nor owned a Hi-Power that could be called especially accurate.
But wait! There’s less!
Thanks to its magazine safety, Hi-Power magazines don’t drop free. (The safety’s activated by a plunger connected to the trigger mechanism which presses on the magazine when it’s inserted.) The only way FN could make mags drop free: add a mousetrap-looking spring on the bottom of the magazine itself, which makes the magazine fly out of the mag well when the shooter presses the release button.
All of brings us to the Arcus 98DA Hi-Power clone.
Fielded by the Bulgarian military, the 98DA is an all-steel, full-size pistol chambered in 9mm. The finish is an economical (read as “cheap”) Parkerized flat dark gray. It sports decent three-dot fixed sights, similar to the MkIII Hi-Power sights currently offered by FN. The rear sight is drift adjustable, and the front sight is, to my surprise, dovetailed into the slide.
Inside the gun, tool marks are evident everywhere. That’s not surprising, given the price point on the Arcus — I bought mine for $250 — and doesn’t affect the pistol’s functioning.
No tool marks can be seen on the outside of the gun, except for a couple on top of the rear sight.
There are a few differences between the 98DA and the Hi-Power. First, the 98DA’s grip is longer; therefore the magazine is longer and holds more rounds (standard Hi-Power mag capacity is 13 rounds; the 98DA mag holds 15). That also means Hi-Power grips and magazines can’t be interchanged with the 98DA.
The 98DA trigger guard is squared off, as opposed to the Hi-Power’s. A welcome difference: the addition of a beavertail on the rear of the 98DA’s frame to prevent hammer bite.
The most obvious difference is the 98DA’s trigger system. The Hi-Power utilizes a single action trigger with a thumb safety, just like the 1911. On the 98DA, however, those clever Bulgarians figured out how to shoehorn a double action/single action trigger system into the Hi-Power designed. Unlike most modern DA/SA action pistols (Beretta, SIG, H&K, third gen S&W), there’s no de-cocking mechanism on the 98DA. Instead, it has a 1911-style thumb safety and can be safely carried cocked and locked (as shown above).
Operationally, the best comparison to the 98DA is the CZ-75. You can carry it double action. However, to do so (remember, no de-cocker) the shooter must chamber a round, grasp the hammer firmly with the off-hand thumb and forefinger, press the trigger and carefully lower the hammer and release the trigger…all while pointing the gun in a safe direction. Not quite as handy as simply flipping the de-cocking lever present on nearly every other double action/single action pistol, but it can be done.
I’m not sure what problem Arcus was trying to solve with this trigger system. The Hi-Power has functioned for 80 years without the need of a double action trigger. I guess Arcus added a second-strike capability in case of a dud primer, but I’m not sure the system is worth it. I just ignore the double action entirely and treat it just like a single action Hi-Power or 1911- the way God intended.
Carrying and Shooting the 98DA
This thing is a heavy beast. The 9mm cartridge doesn’t kick much anyway, but in this full-size, all steel pistol, the 9mm is an absolute pussycat. The gun feels good in the hand, and the imitation Hogue rubber wraparound finger groove grips fill the hand well.
I would actually prefer slimmer checkered wood grip panels, but good luck finding any kind of aftermarket grips — or any other aftermarket parts or accessories — for the 98DA. Like I said, the frame is longer than the standard Hi-Power, and aftermarket Hi-Power grips won’t fit the 98DA.
However, the gun fit perfectly into a leather pancake holster I had built for a Hi-Power a few years ago, but this isn’t a gun I’d recommend for everyday concealed carry duty. Sure, it can be done. I used to carry a full-size 1911 every day, before I had any gray hair or sense, so I know it can be done.
But after a couple hours of wearing this thing around the farm, the 98DA with a full magazine on your hip for feels like you’re packing a cinder block, particularly if you’re used to carrying a GLOCK 19. For comparison’s sake, you can see the 98DA is roughly the same size as a full size 1911.
The 98DA’s trigger pull is not great. The double action is long and gritty. I have no idea how heavy it is because it maxed out my trigger pull gauge long before the shot broke. The single action trigger isn’t much better. There is quite a bit of creep, followed by a noticeable “first stage” on my pistol’s single action. The shot finally breaks at anywhere between 5 and 5 ½ pounds. When it does break, it isn’t crisp.
While dry firing the 98DA, I found it was nearly impossible to keep the muzzle from jumping slightly when the single action trigger broke. Not exactly conducive to tack-driving accuracy. More on that below. Also, the trigger itself is just… strange. It’s too short. Maybe I’m too used to the standard Hi-Power trigger, but there is a large “gap” between the end of the trigger and the trigger guard. Just enough to bother my trigger finger after a few magazines full. This isn’t a deal breaker, but Arcus’ execution on this trigger seems a little rushed.
This pistol could also use a better chamfered magazine well. It has barely any chamfering at all. It’s really just a square hole in the bottom of the frame into which a magazine is inserted.
The problem: the 98DA’s magazines tend to catch their front lip corner on the front edge of the magazine well as you insert the magazine, and hang up the whole process. If you’re going to carry it for self-defense, I recommend some reload drills.
The one thing I thought I would love most about the 98DA- the beavertail on the tang of the frame- ended being the one thing I hated the most about it. Maybe Bulgarians’ hands are built differently than mine, but the 98DA’s beavertail is just completely wrong for me. Rather than a graceful, upswept affair a la the modern 1911, this thing dives down at an awkward angle, into the meat in the web of my hand.
After only a short shooting session, I had a noticeable mark in the web of my hand from the beavertail digging down into it.
Arcus absolutely has the right idea here: manufacturing a beavertail on a gun notorious for inflicting hammer bite on its users. But Arcus’ execution leaves me scratching my head. I suspect that all but those with the smallest hands will find this beavertail uncomfortable, if not downright offensive. And it isn’t that a Hi-Power beavertail can’t be done properly.
The 98DA beaver tail pissed me off enough that, for just a moment, I gave serious consideration to heating it up to cherry red with an oxy/acetylene torch, grabbing ahold of it with a large pair of Vise-Grips, and bending it upwards to a more useful, less offensive shape. Suffice it to say it’s uncomfortable enough that I will not be taking the 98DA out for any long range sessions.
So How’d It Shoot?
To be blunt, not great. The 98DA shot…meh. Reliability was perfect. But this is no target pistol.
For $250, you get a stone reliable full-size 9mm that’s capable of mediocre combat accuracy. I didn’t have a huge variety of 9mm loads on hand. Four different loads were accuracy tested: two factory, two handloads. The factory loads were my normal carry load, the Federal 124 grain +P Hydrashock, and PMC Bronze 115 grain full metal jacket. The handloads were: my mass-production 3 Gun load consisting of a Rocky Mountain Reloading 115 grain plated bullet in front of 4.5 grains of Bullseye; and a 124 grain lead round nose bullet also propelled by 4.5 grains of Bullseye.
I fired five-shot groups with each load, with an extra sixth round in the magazine to maintain consistent pressure on the bottom of the chamber for all five shots (if you believe in such things). All groups were fired by the author at 25 yards, seated, using a sandbag for a pistol rest. The gun tended to fire all groups to the left, indicating that the rear sight needed to be adjusted.
I started with the lead round nose handloads. This load shoots pretty fair in a couple of my other 9mm pistols. But as you can see above, the 98DA did not like this load. It put up a nearly 6 inch group, with one noticeable high flyer.=
Next, I tested my 3-Gun steel-banging load, the 115 grain Rocky Mountain Reloading plated bullets with 4.5 grains of Bullseye. I recently bought several thousand of these RMR bullets, and I’ve been very impressed with their weight consistency. This load shoots pretty fair in my Glock 34 and Glock 19. In the Arcus? Not so much. As you can see below, this load put up a roughly 3 inch four shot group, but a fifth low flyer opened it up to almost 5 inches.
Next up, I tried the PMC Bronze 115 grain FMJ factory load. This load fared a little better, with two pronounced groups showing up. The first, second, and fourth rounds all clustered to the left in a roughly 1 inch group. The third and fifth rounds flew far right, and were nearly touching. All told, the PMC put up a 4 inch five-shot group.
Finally, I tried my 9mm carry load, the Federal HydraShock 124 grain +P. This group was fired at a Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-See target. As you can see in the picture, this load again showed the 98DA’s propensity to throw fliers. The second, third, and fifth shots all clustered nicely within about an inch. Unfortunately, the first and fourth shots went wild and opened the group up to nearly 5 ½ inches.
The 98DA deserves to have more loads tested through it, but based on the two common, commercially available factory loads and the two generic hand loads that I put through it, I can tentatively say that the 98DA is capable of minute-of-noggin accuracy at 25 yards. I call that service accuracy at best.
The pistol showed a propensity to throw fliers, which tells me the barrel lockup or the bushing fit may be a bit generous. Not surprising for a military pistol, especially at this price point. The sights provide a decent enough sight picture, but the heavy, stagey trigger really hinders accurate fire. In short, it doesn’t look like the 98DA is a $250 bullseye competition sleeper.
Specifications: Arcus 98DA
Caliber: 9 x 19 mm (9 mm Parabellum)
Action: Double/Single Action
Capacity: 15 rounds (optional 10 rounds)
Barrel length: 118.5 mm 4.66″
Overall length: 7.99″
Weight: 33.5 oz
Trigger pull range: DA – 16.87 lbs., SA – 6.75 lbs.
Finish: Blue or Duo-tone
Grips: Rubberized ergonomic, Black plastic or Walnut
Safeties: Right-thumb Manual Safety, Half-cock Safety, Automatic Firing Pin Safety, Magazine Disconnect
Sights: Fixed Three-Dot Combat Style
Complete set: 2 Magazines, a Cleaning Rod and a Gun Lock
Price: about $250
Ratings (out of five stars):
Accuracy: * *
Underwhelming The sights are actually decent for a combat pistol, but the poor trigger was a real hindrance. The pistol’s propensity to throw fliers tells me the barrel doesn’t lock up the same from shot to shot.
Ergonomics: * * 1/2
The 98DA starts with a decent ergonomic pedigree in the Hi-Power. The Hogue-ish finger groove grips feel good. The thumb safety, while not ambidextrous, is identical to the Hi-Power MkIII’s safety and is a huge improvement over the standard Hi-Power thumb safety. But he trigger is shaped strangely, and feels short. And then there’s that beavertail. I honestly can’t figure out what Arcus was thinking here.
A long, heavy double action, with no real reason for being, other than second-strike capability. The single action trigger is stagey, creepy, and inconsistent. When it does break, the muzzle jumps considerably, which doesn’t do much for accuracy.
Reliability: * * * * *
This where the “service pistol” label is justified — zero problems. The 98DA cycled and fed everything I fed it, including hollowpoints and some reloads that had not been properly full-length sized and refuse to function in other 9mm pistols.
A 1911 or Hi-Power holster should fit the 98DA. Parts and other accessories? No such luck. While there are plenty of Hi-Power parts and magazines available, none of them will fit the 98DA. Arcus makes a compact version called the 98DAC (compact) with a shorter barrel and grip, and I understand it accepts standard Hi-Power magazines and even grips, but not the 98DZ. You vill fire zees peestol as eet comes from zee factory, undershtood?
Overall: * * 1/2
This is a heavy, reliable pistol that can be had for a helluva low price. While you won’t likely find them in the display case at your big sporting goods stores, they’re around. The 98DA’s trigger isn’t great, the accuracy is average at best, and the firing system is novel. But the 98DA allows for condition one (cocked-and-locked) carry, comes with decent grips and factory combat sights, and has low recoil. Bottom line: the Arcus 98DA can fill the bill for the beer-budget shooter looking for a cheap, reliable personal defense weapon or truck gun, at least until his wallet gets a little fatter.