Reader Sean G. writes:
“You bought a KEL-TEC?!?”
I’m sure that’s the first thought running through the minds of many TTAG readers when they read the title. It was certainly the reaction a few of my friends had, as well. To be completely honest, it was even in the back of my mind when I plunked down my money for a brand new Kel-Tec P32 at my LGS.
We’ve all heard horror stories about some Kel-Tec products, So why buy one? In a word, curiosity. The P32 has always fascinated me. At 6.6 ounces and 0.75” wide at the grip, it is purportedly the thinnest and lightest pistol in production today. Ideal for concealed carry. It is also unusual in that it uses a locked-breech rather than a straight blowback action, a rarity in mouse guns.
Also, the reviews I ran across on various Kel-Tec boards were overwhelmingly positive for the little gun, with many of the opinion it was the best pistol Kel-Tec makes. When my FFL offered several of them at very competitive prices, it seemed like a good time to roll the dice and pick one up for myself.
Out of the several pattern combinations available, I opted for the model with the blued slide and gray frame. Not so much for aesthetics, but for the fact that particular color combo was available for $232, about $20 less than the other models offered. Nobody buys a Kel-Tec for its looks, and the extra Jackson paid for a box of range ammo. I left my LGS feeling pretty pleased with the deal.
Once I got it home, I field stripped the P32 and gave it a good once over. My first impressions of the pistol were mostly positive. Build quality is better than I expected. There are no obvious tool or machining marks inside or out, and the slide is nicely blued. This thing is built for concealed carry or backup gun use.
The polymer grip looks and feels a little “industrial”, but sturdy. The seam where the two halves of the grip are attached is noticeable, particularly along the trigger guard. On a $500 gun, I’d consider it a serious cosmetic flaw. In a pistol that cost me less than half of that, I can give it a pass.
Admittedly, there are a few areas where gun’s budget price is matched by budget design features. Plastic roll pins abound, and while the slide locks back after the last round, there is no manual slide stop. The mag release is a traditional button release, with the other end of the release mechanism protruding from the right side of the grip when activated. It works well, but feels a little sticky and cheap, even for its class.
Ergonomics are a mixed bag. The design of the P32, like its slightly bigger brother the P3AT, keeps the back of the slide well away from even the largest of hands. I have large (read: fat) hands and had no trouble establishing a proper grip without fear of being kissed by the slide (Look ma, no slide bite!).
That joy is somewhat offset by the fact that the slide itself is quite small, and doesn’t offer a lot of purchase even with fairly pronounced rear slide serrations. Racking the weapon is not at all difficult, but clearing a malfunction under duress could prove challenging.
The grip, like the rest of the P32, is narrow and short. I am able to get a not-quite-two-fingers grip with the standard 7 round magazine. It rests in the hand well for its size, but an extended 10 round magazine with a nice grip extension is also available from Kel-Tec for around $24.
It gives the P32 a bit of a Frankenpistol look, but it also affords a full three-finger grip to almost any size hands.
The checkering on the grip is quite aggressive, and might not be to everyone’s taste. I felt it provided a solid, positive-feeling grip on the pistol, but I have read stories of owners smoothing the pattern out a bit with high grit sandpaper in order to make it more comfortable to hold. In any case, there are a number of aftermarket grips and sleeves available from Hogue, Talon, and the like to meet most anyone’s “textural preference.”
As for the sights, well… a pocket pistol’s sights are going to be on the minimalist side, in keeping with the design’s need to be snag-free. The P32’s sights are about as minimalist as it gets.
Maybe if I was still 20, I could pick up the miniscule, all black rear notch and front post sights quickly enough to make effective use of them. My aging Gen-X’er eyes found them of only limited use at the range for slow aimed fire, and of almost no benefit for quick reaction drills. Still, this is not a target pistol, but a “Get off me!” gun, so I can’t fault the P32 too much on that point.
The P32’s first day at the range was a light workout, basically just to make sure the gun ran properly. I eschewed the advice on many Kel-Tec forums to give the little pistol a “fluff and buff”, preferring simply to clean and lube the gun beforehand. I brought along the single box of Armscor 71gr FMJ I’d purchased with the pistol.
50 rounds later, I was nicely surprised. The P32, launching a little .32 ACP round, is quite pleasant to shoot. The double action only trigger is light (five pounds) and very smooth, though the pull is long and the reset is all the way out. Felt recoil was very light with the standard capacity mag, even for a relatively mild round like .32 ACP, and almost non-existent with the extended grip. The dual recoil spring and locked breech action helped keep the pistol on target and made follow up shots easy. I had zero malfunctions.
The first post range session cleaning, on the other hand, was a little troubling. This little gun gets dirty quick. After 50 rounds, the inside of the slide and grip frame were positively sooty. Running my finger along the inside of either left my finger tip black with carbon buildup. Fortunately, this little gun cleans up just as quickly, and with a little Ballistol and some elbow grease, the P32 was again pristine in about five minutes.
Thinking the issue might partly be with the Armscor ammo, I opted to try some different brands of 32 ammo for my next range session. I’d long heard and read that European .32 ACP is loaded hotter than most American brands, and tends to be a bit cheaper, to boot. So, I purchased some GECO Red Box 73gr FMJ’s from AIM Surplus for less than $10 a box, and several hundred rounds of Fiocchi 73gr FMJ from Bud’s.
The second trip to the range found the Kel-Tec as willing as before. It ate every round happily, enjoying the GECO and the Fiocchi equally well. I could feel a difference in the performance of the ammo. Both were quite comfortable to shoot, but definitely felt “warmer” than the Armscor, with the Fiocchi being maybe just a hair warmer than the GECO. Both burned more cleanly as well. After a 100-round session, the P32 needed a bath, but wasn’t as dirty as it had been from just the 50 rounds of Armscor previously. I made it standard practice from that point on to do 100-round sessions each time, followed by a quick cleaning.
The P32’s accuracy is satisfactory for a pistol in this class, though it does take some practice. The long trigger and the pistol’s light weight make it easy to pull one’s shots off the original point of aim. My general clumsiness and subpar fine motor control likely make this more of an issue for me than for some others, but it is there. Once I got used to the trigger, however, I was able to get decent self-defense groups even with my modest skills. To illustrate that point, I shot two drills at seven feet, a third at five yards, and a couple at seven yards.
The first close-in drill was a one handed “point and shoot” exercise at 7 feet. I fired three quick groups of three without aiming, keeping my weak-side hand free to fend off a hypothetical attacker. I repeated the exercise with slow aimed fire, shooting off-hand.
The point and shoot groups were unsurprisingly a good deal looser than the aimed ones, but not too bad.
I also performed several drills at 5 yards and 7 yards. I was satisfied with the P32 at 5 yards, with consistent hits in the 10 ring. I did have one or two flyers – my fault, not the gun’s – reminding me not to get sloppy on the trigger. At 7 yards, my groups were still decent, though they did open up noticeably.
Seven yards is probably pushing it for a gun like the P32, though I do believe it is capable of more accurate fire. I may have to slap on some aftermarket sights, or even splurge on the laser grip, and give a follow up report at some point.
Not everything about range time with the P32 was as enjoyable as shooting it. Mag changes can be a little frustrating. The mag release pops the magazines out with authority, but those with large hands will have to adjust their grip.
My hands usually blocked the bottom of the standard seven-round magazine, and once I somehow managed to partially block the back of the mag release on the right-side grip. Not a big deal at the range, but not something one would want to fuss with in an actual DGU. A paddle-style release wouldn’t solve all these issues, but would be a welcome improvement.
On the final day of range testing, I put the P32 to the test. I fired as many FMJ rounds as I could through it, while purposely limp-wristing every shot, in hopes of causing a malfunction. I even threw in a wild card with some exotic ammo. I’d picked up a box of Underwood +P Extreme Cavitators, reviewed here at TTAG by Jeremy S. The ammo has a rep for hitting hard for its size, but also of being prone to hanging up and not feeding due to its unusual bullet shape.
With FMJ, the P32 was once again almost boringly reliable. I managed to cause one malfunction on the last round of the second to last magazine I fired. With a dirty gun and a wet noodle grip, I had a single failure to eject. I cleared the brass easily and finished with the final magazine without issue.
With the Extreme Cavitators, the jury is still out. The first round loaded and fired flawlessly. The second round, unfortunately, rim-locked in the magazine and resisted all efforts to clear it. I ended up having to disassemble the magazine when I got home in order to get the damn thing unstuck. I hope to do a follow up test with the Underwood rounds to see if it will feed in the pistol. For now, I’m putting the blame on sloppy loading on my part, and the inherent perils of a semi-rimmed self-defense round.
All in all, I was impressed with the Kel-Tec P32. It proved itself reliable, reasonably accurate, and dare I say it, kind of fun to shoot. That said, would I recommend the P32 to others? My answer to that is: maybe.
As with any product, you have to compare a firearm with the available alternatives. It’s not always enough to be good, you have to be better than the competition, or at least offer something that makes your offering stand out in the crowd.
In terms of bang for the buck, the P32 is simply outclassed. In 1999, when the P32 first came out, it was a novel design. In late 2018, there are a host of well-made micro .380’s and even a few decent micro 9’s available at the P32’s price point. Some offerings, like Taurus’s excellent TCP .380, can often be had for substantially less than a P32. .380 being absolutely a more powerful round than .32 ACP, and available in a wider variety of self-defense loadings (with no threat of rimlock), many shooters would be better served by one of those offerings.
On the other hand, the P32 could be a good choice for recoil sensitive shooters or for people with limited hand strength. Micro .380s tend to be snappy little critters, and not much fun at the range or anywhere else. Almost anyone could handle the P32, however. Racking the slide requires only moderate strength, and it is an absolute cream puff on recoil. Follow up shots are easy, and extended practice sessions are quite agreeable.
There is also the question of long-term durability. While my P32 has shown GLOCK-like reliability, it’s unknown if it will have GLOCK-like sturdiness. From what I’ve gleaned from Googling, it’s not unheard-of for a spring to fail at the 1200-1500 round mark.
That’s probably a higher round count than most pocket pistols in this bargain class will get in a lifetime, and replacement springs and pins are dirt cheap on Kel-Tec’s website, but it is something to consider. Keeping a P32 hale and healthy probably will require an above average level of preventative maintenance if one plans on shooting it often.
Ultimately, the P32 can be a good choice for an inexpensive self-defense tool. I’m certainly happy with mine. As with almost every gun, it’s not without its drawbacks, and there a lot of alternatives that might suit one’s needs better.
Specifications: Kel-Tec P32 Semi-Automatic Pistol
Chambering: .32 ACP
Magazine Capacity: 7+1 round capacity (10+1 with extended magazine)
Construction: Blued steel slide, steel barrel, aluminum frame with polymer exterior
Action: Hammer-fired, DAO, no re-strike
Sights: Integral, non-adjustable blade
Barrel Length: 2.7 in
Overall Length: 5.1 in
Overall Height: 3.5 in
Weight: 6.6 oz
MSRP: $325 (Average street price: $230- $250)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style: * *
Not hideous, but no one will never mistake a P32 for a Tomcat, that’s for sure.
Ergonomics * * * ½
The P32 is ridiculously easy to carry, easy to conceal, and comfortable to shoot. Mag changes are awkward, especially for those with bigger hands. Some might find the grip texturing too aggressive.
Accuracy * * * (* * * * in its class)
For what it is, the P32 gets the job done. It’s accurate enough at self-defense distances, but the minimal sights and long trigger pull make 80-yard gong shots highly unlikely.
Reliability * * * *
One forced malfunction out of 500+ rounds of FMJ, and a magazine issue with the Hornady EC ammo. Zero FTF, zero failures to hold open on the last round. Run good quality FMJ and keep the gun clean, and it should go bang every time.
Customization * * * 1/2
Kel-Tec offers several grip colors -none of them particularly attractive- and two slide options. A grip laser is available for $180 MSRP ($150 average street price), and there are couple of magazine options. Aftermarket vendors offer various grip sleeves, and there are a couple of outfits making improved sights for the P32.
Value * * *
The P32 is affordable and reliable, but faces a lot of competition from better regarded and more powerful guns in this price range and class. A good option for the recoil sensitive or those wanting an easy carrying BUG.
Overall * * * 1/2
I’m impressed with this little pistol. Impressed enough that I currently trust it as my “no excuses” gun. As in, no excuse not to carry. It’s not going to replace the 9mm I generally EDC, or the .38 snubbie I keep as my “truck gun.” But when I need to make a quick run to the store, or have to carry in deep concealment, the P32 and its Remora pocket holster disappear into my front pocket without a second thought.