(This is a reader-submitted review as part of our gun review contest. See details here.)
By Matt M.
It worked. It just worked. She pointed right and her sights worked like magic, putting a little black dot at their sharp tip every single time. My hand fell into place with every draw, my wrist locking just under the slide like Swiss clockwork. Austrian, actually. The gun seemed like an extension of my body, made just for me at the factory. Don’t you love that feeling?
So much of the tacticrap deposited on forums would hold some weight given a little perspective. GLOCKs are the best gun for everyone… with large enough paws and a Grip Force Adapter for those perforating the ceiling. 1911s point naturally in all hands… depending on your grips and mainspring housing. Revolvers are vastly superior to autos… provided a modicum of taste.
So let’s get something straight from the get-go: if your hands feel like SICs point high and GLOCKs are of the devil, Steyr’s pistols are not for you. If, on the other hand, you dream of shooting double-stack Lugers with Fr. Gaston in fields of M1911A1s, listen up: these babies deserve serious consideration.
THE GUN’S ORIGINS
We members of the GLOCK clan are a weary bunch. We love our Tupperware and it treats us well, but there’s always something missing. Even if we end up keeping the stock configuration, all of us have been seriously tempted to mess with the trigger, swap out parts, and otherwise customize our guns in a way that HK groupies aren’t. It only took three generations of perfection to get a rail, four to get adjustable backstraps, and five for Gaston to lop off the hated finger grooves (even then, only at the pleading of the constabulary waffles at our FBI). We love the one true wondernine and trust it like no other, but a GLOCK will always have the panache of a tool set that’s served a garage for three generations.
Wilhelm Bubits felt our pain when he left GLOCK for Austria’s “other” arms manufacturer, Steyr-Mannlicher, in 1997. His brainchild was to be the perfection of Perfection™, everything the GLOCK was with everything it lacked. Unfortunately, our great hope was entrusted to a company with abysmal marketing when exchange rates killed exports to the US.
No one bought it or spread the word. No one put it to the test like Gaston’s guns and technical difficulties took a long time to iron out. The sights were cool but otherwise no one really cared. The gun languished for a decade.
But Steyr kept at it for seventeen years, with the (C)ompact, (M)edium, and (L)arge frame models now well-tuned in their second generation. They can also be had brand new for less than $450, a price that my friend Harry couldn’t resist. For your pleasure, I won him over to let me take it for a spin…
THE GUN ITSELF
If you take the Tupperware out of GLOCK, your only alternative is some sort of ray-gun. Seriously: SIGs, Springfields, Sigmas… Tupperware; M&Ps, CZs, Rugers… ray guns. While the L9-A1 has lost the loony-laser-look of its first iteration, the Steyrs have always had an angular space-age appeal. Thanks to the big rail on the dustcover, a confused cop once came up to my lane asking if I was preparing a Taser for my cardboard companion! The Steyr is a GLOCK adorned with geometrical intrigue exuding a futuristic power. Put differently, it makes the GLOCK elegant by comparison. When you hold the L9, you know it is best understood as “machine”.
You guessed it: she’s chunky, but it’s not as bad as it seems on paper. Consider the GLOCK, which widens from a 1” snout to a 1.18” bulge over the trigger guard… you know, right at the beltline when carrying IWB. The L-A1 series is only two hundredths of an inch wider than that bulge, the width evenly distributed over the full length of the gun. Believe it or not, Hickok45, the Steyr is closer in size to a 9mm GLOCK than their mammoth .45, the GLOCKs are just a little easier to re-holster.
What blew me away was the slide, the secret to Steyr’s legendary recoil management. The “low bore axis” I’ve fallen in love with has little to do with the bore, which rides about as low here as in my trusty G17: it’s the low center of mass. A full ounce lighter and close to .2” shorter than it’s Austrian parent, Steyr slides hang tight and soft like a clawed cat sleeping on your arm.
You don’t realize how far this pistol was ahead of its time until you get inside. Unlike most plastic fantastics, Steyr has been rockin’ full-length milled slide rails since 1999; this ain’t no stinkin’ stamped chassy. The pistol seems to be tightly fit between factory tolerances and I imagine the angled rails also contribute to the fantastic accuracy we’ve experienced. Look at the slides, GLOCKsters: one of these recoil spring retainers won’t be bending when you drop it nose-first and it ain’t the one with the $600 price tag.
Trigger time. Note well how the action is a little different here. The sear is angled, gently sliding off the striker in a crisp 4.5lb trigger pull with lightning-fast .1” reset. The go-pedal itself is broad with a generous and smooth trigger-safety. If you’re familiar with Ruger’s American Pistol, it has the same mechanism, break, and feel with the comfort and speed someone forgot to throw in the pot; anything else would be un-palatable!
In fact, with a trigger this good, I had to take this loaner gun out to the range. Multiple times. I swear I’ll get it back to you Harry! For your enjoyment, I gathered together half-a-dozen species of 9mm ammo and headed off to the range with a young Air Force reservist, a middle-aged gun-guy, and an arthritic grandpa eagerly looking forward to hand surgery.
THE GUN IN ACTION
The first thing that hit us on the range was how easy the gun was to disassemble… after we read the manual. Using a key or your finger, depress the circular safety enough to slide the lever down, pull the trigger, and catch the slide; no sore fingertips. Oil the usual suspects, rack the slide, and everything resets. Our two fathers were impressed by the little lock as well, activated by a hard push and ninety degree turn to the right which all of us agree should never activate by accident.
Of course, the sights were different, but all of us eventually warmed up to them. Think of the speed of an XS Big-Dot blended with the precision of traditional target sights. Unlike the Trijicon HDs on my G17, our eyes didn’t have to choose between using the big orange dot for SHTF salutations or the black post-and-notch for reaching out to touch someone. Focus on the target and bring that sharp white tip to your desired point of incision. Have your subconscious confirm that said triangle is more or less within the white outline. Pull trigger. Trying to swat mosquitos at 100 yards? Focus on the three sharp points just as you would a 3-dot system.
Unfortunately, nothing comes for free. Forgive my accuracy—the range was 94 degrees—but notice the pattern: my shots spread right to left. None of us had problems with horizontal strings, but lateral precision was difficult. Unlike XS Big Dots, Jean Doe won’t have much difficulty shooting accurately, slowly or at speed, but unlike Trijicon HDs’, Jean can expect similar performance at any pace. Here’s a pretty typical ten-round target from twenty feet going about ninety rounds a minute; compare it to my 20@20’ slow-fire, again, in that still, humid, 94 degree indoor range.
That said, precision wasn’t impossible. Our wounded grandfather went to town at a cooler range. While I lost a few of his targets, here are some of his first shots at six yards:
So, how did she handle? Everyone was impressed by the low recoil and immediate shot-to-shot recovery. The Luger-like grip angle locked everyone’s wrist high and tight, just under the bore. Our eldest thought it was as light-recoiling as any 9mm built around the .40 S&W (namely the M&P Pro), while my middle-aged friend thought it was remarkably softer than the average wondernine. Air Force was just happy to be shootin’ guns. It was a fun pistol easy to shoot well fast, arthritis didn’t rear its ugly head, and we gradually fell in love with the sights.
On the flipside, we did not like the size of the grip. Scroll up to that picture of the original Steyr pistol. Notice the contour where the grip meets the slide? Pretty thin. Look at the pictures of our L9. Notice that contour? What contour? You mean the contour of a two-inch diameter pipe? Exactly.
For all the oblong humpiness of the GLOCK, its texture digs into the palm forcing the muzzle up and out. For those blessed with long hands, the large backstrap on Gen4 guns offer lateral control via the blade effect with horizontal control via grip angle. Such was the old Steyr, but the A1s have an aesthetically pleasing texture tacked onto the sides of a porky grip, the front and back straps frustratingly smooth but for an obnoxious seam smack in the middle. Why on earth didn’t Steyr keep the old width? They were ahead of their time… why no adjustable backstraps? What the heck, guys? While a mountain bike inner tube pleased everyone’s mitts, the gun’s superior ergonomics could have been just perfect with a little more thought back at corporate.
THE GUN RECONSIDERED
I’m not there yet, but I’ve almost becoming as much of a Steyr guy as a GLOCK afficianado. Harry has fallen head over heels for this all-business 21st century fräulein. The pistol is perfect for IWB carry if you’re ready with a good holster and willing to make the proper adjustments. Pay close attention to the pistol’s dimensions above: with the short fifteen round magazine, the grip is barely higher than a GLOCK 19 while a full-size combat handgun waits at your side. This is a setup begging for concealed carry if you’re into double-stack service pistols.
Long term, I’m frustrated with two things. First, while I’ve heard good things about their customer service, Steyr lacks the overwhelming aftermarket support available for GLOCKs and major American manufacturers. What do you do when your pistol finally breaks after many thousands of rounds? Will recoil springs and extractors be hard to come by? Thankfully, a full Steyr repair kit can be had for only $450.
Second, while reliability was 100%, shadows lurk on the horizon. Once or twice, our improperly sized lead reloads kept the slide from locking up that last 1%. While I can’t blame the gun for reload problems, it was disconcerting that the gun would either still fire slightly out of lockup (to no ill effect… for now) or require the slightest nudge to return to battery. Harry has dealt with this more in his L40-A1, although this is less upsetting given his choices in ammunition and the difficulties of leveraging a larger caliber into the same space. That said, we suspect the loaded chamber indicators are to blame in both guns and the problem should subside once they’ve been broken in.
Offsetting our concerns here, we were very impressed by the safety features on the gun. Normally, I hate handgun LCIs, manual safeties, and integrated locks as the garish, dangerous, and generally worthless concessions to California politicians that they are. Steyr, however, did the job right. The LCI is tasteful but effective, both visually and tactilely, everything a loaded chamber indicator should be. The lock is foolproof and confidence inspiring; both fathers were very pleased. The trigger safety was similarly perfect: no lever, no ridge, just a bar that seamlessly slides into place. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the safeties were a big plus for an already fabulous gun.
THE END OF THE MATTER
The Steyr L9-A1 is a formidable handgun and will remain one of the best values on the market until shooters wake up to smell the bacon. It’s not a small gun, but it’s everything a full-sized handgun should be. It’s perfect for home defense, better for the range, and a great option for carry. Would Harry buy this again? He did, in .40. Will I? I’m headed in that direction. This gun may not be for you if you don’t know how to order a holster online, want aftermarket parts to help a prosecutor demonize you, or hate the sights (Trijicon three-dots are my only known alternative). However, if you’re interested in what I described above, you need to give this pistol a very hard look.
Specifications: Steyr L9-A1
CAPACITY: 15 flush, 17 “plus”.
MATERIALS: Polymer, Steel w. salt-bath nitride
WEIGHT UNLOADED: 28oz
WEIGHT LOADED: 35.25oz (Fed. 9BPLE)
OVERALL LENGTH: 7.5”
OVERALL HEIGHT: 5.3
WIDTH: 1.2” (controls), 1.15” (frame)
SLIDE: .685” high, 11.75oz
SIGHTS: Trapezoidal, drift adjustable
SIGHT RADIUS: 6.7”
GRIPS: Polymer, lightly stippled
TRIGGER PULL: 4.5 lbs
ACTION: Striker fired
Ratings (out of five stars):
Aesthetics: * * * * *
Chunky, but as good as your going to get for a no-frills polymer duty-gun.
Accuracy: * * * *
Accuracy potential is huge but lateral precision hampered by sights. Thinning the grip would have helped.
Ergonomics-Handling: * * * * *
As a GLOCK guy with big hands, I found the Steyr to be a revelation; knock stars for those with smaller or Sig-destined hands.
Ergonomics-Firing: * * * * *
This gun is a joy to shoot for enthusiast, newbie, and the arthritic alike. One wonders if Steyr could do any better with a dual-recoil-spring assembly.
Customization: * * * *
You can customize Steyrs where it counts. The only real bummers are lack of spare parts, sights, and gunleather available at your local gun shop, but Steyr owners typically know what they’re getting in to.
Overall: * * * * *
Given that this gun originated nearly two decades ago, this gun deserves a perfect score. I will be disappointed if the grip isn’t modular by 2020, however, and a reintroduction of the original manual safety in front of the trigger would be a cool option for some.