Many of the products you purchase were designed by engineers, but heavily tempered by the demands of the finance and design departments. “Make us a product that does X, but we need the total cost to be under Y and it has to fit in this shell made by the art department.” But the Heckler & Koch P7 seems to have avoided those constraints. In my considered opinion, it’s result of giving some talented engineers free rein to create the absolute best, safest, most technologically-advanced pistol ever. At least, the best possible pistol for a police officer or other “gunfighter.” The P7 has many notable design features, including many “firsts,” some of which have never been duplicated and some of which have become ubiquitous. Despite being out of production, this is why it’s still the best pistol ever made and why you need one. . .
The P7 is what 007 should have been carrying for the last few decades. Functionally it’s a great spy gun, but it’s also the pistol I would pick above any other to pair nicely with a tuxedo and a high-end timepiece. Add a set of Nill grips and fuhgeddaboudit. The P7 is elegant, classy, and civilized, but also highly efficient and effective. Every last detail and feature was designed to make it more effective in a gunfight.
H&K’s P7 may or may not be one of those things where the end result is “more than the sum of its parts,” but its parts alone are pretty darn impressive. In no particular order, here are the features I know of that set it apart from other pistols…or did in 1976 when it was designed. Disclaimer: I’m not a historian and I’m writing from memory as I lack the time to research anything at the moment, so please consider everything you see below as though it has an asterisk reading “as far as I know” following it.
Likely the most notable feature on the P7, and the one that earned it nicknames having to do with “staple gun,” the P7’s striker is only cocked when the textured steel cocking lever on the front of the grip is depressed — i.e. squeezed inwards.
The backstrap is also partially textured, which I note mainly because it’s not a standard texture you see every day on a steel gun:
It takes somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 lbs (depends on how you measure) of force to squeeze the cocking lever into the grip — it’s basically a moving front strap — but only about 1.5 lbs of force to keep it depressed, which means once it’s squeezed you don’t notice it with a normal firing grip. This fully cocks the striker, so the trigger is a true single action with the sole duty of releasing the striker.
Release the cocking lever and the striker immediately and safely decocks. Keep it squeezed and the action of the slide re-cocks the striker after each shot, so it operates just like any other single action pistol — to be crystal clear, you do not have to release and re-squeeze the cocking lever for each shot, although doing so can allow you to strike a stubborn primer subsequent times.
The normal procedure is to squeeze the lever as you take your full firing grip, and then pull the trigger to fire. However, it also works in reverse: pull the trigger then squeeze the cocking lever to fire. This makes it more foolproof in the stress of a gunfight.
Also aiding your chances in a protracted gunfight, the squeeze cocker doubles as a slide release. When the P7’s slide locks back on empty, you’ll naturally release the lever as you drop your spent magazine and insert a fresh one. Squeezing the cocking lever again sends the slide home with the pistol already cocked and ready to rock and roll. Alternatively, you can drop the slide by pulling back on it and letting it go.
There is no external slide release lever other than the cocking lever. However, there is an external slide stop should you want to lock it back manually; it’s the little tab circled in the photo below.
That lever is only on the left size, and is really the P7’s only firing control that isn’t fully ambidextrous. Many people — including P7 owners — don’t even realize it’s there, actually. Regardless, an otherwise completely ambi pistol was ahead of its time.
The squeeze cocker system, which was first seen on the P7 and is, as far as I know, still completely unique to the P7, provides an extraordinary level of safety. The P7 is at least as safe to carry with a round chambered as any pistol with a manual thumb safety — and it was quite hard to find a semi-auto pistol sans thumb safety at the time the P7 was designed — yet is arguably quicker and more intuitive to make ready to fire. Despite that intuitive nature, rumors abound that multiple law enforcement officers’ lives have been saved by this unique operating mechanism. Basically, the criminal won control of the officer’s firearm, but couldn’t figure out how to fire it.
Additionally, this system allows you to chamber a round without the pistol ever being capable of firing it. The operator can also clear various types of jams with increased safety. Pulling the trigger does absolutely nothing unless the squeeze cocker is also squeezed, and there’s no hammer or striker that can drop either by operator error or mechanical failure.
On the downside, this whole mechanism is complicated and expensive. It is not advisable for the end user to ever consider detail stripping a P7, as it’s like a dang Swiss watch inside. The cost of the machining, parts, assembly time, etc is not particularly appealing and is the number one reason the P7 wasn’t more popular while it was in production and why it is no longer manufactured today. It was always an extremely expensive pistol compared to the alternatives. I should mention that, despite the intricacy and quantity of parts involved, the P7 is highly reliable and durable and met the requirement of an at least 10,000-round service life.
Gas Retardation System
H&K claims it’s gas retarded, but I think it’s pretty smart. Sorry to do this, but to prevent this post from being exceedingly long and to allow me to get back to new infant care (also falls into the “happy wife, happy life” school of thought), I’m going to direct you to my recent Walther CCP review and, specifically, to the 4th section entitled “How It Works.” Everything except for the last paragraph applies 100% to the P7 as well. In fact, the diagram there is of the P7. Once again, the P7 did it first, and with the exception of a few obscure pistols that were total market failures, this gas-piston-delayed blowback mechanism hadn’t appeared on any other firearm until the CCP, which was released just a couple weeks ago.
Now, the P7 does look just slightly different inside and if you drop down to the end of the CCP review, you’ll find more side-by-side photos of the P7 field stripped next to the CCP for comparison.
110º Grip Angle
According to HK, if you point at something with your index finger your hand will form a 110 degree angle (I guess in relation to your forearm). Therefore, the angle of the P7’s grip is 110 degrees and shooting it is as intuitive and as natural as pointing at your target, which also assists in coordinating your eyesight with the rest of your body motion.
Although the grip angle is 110 degrees, the magazine insertion angle isn’t. HK designed the magazine to insert at a much squarer angle — almost perpendicular with the slide.
This has two primary benefits:
- More easily aligns the top round in the magazine with the chamber. It’s pretty much pointing straight into it. Although the P7 dislikes ammo with a particularly long overall length (which means most 147 grain fodder), it should feed anything under the sun that’s closer to normal OAL spec, meaning basically any 124 grain or 115 grain ammo ever. Ashtray-sized hollow point? Sure thing.
- The magazine ends up farther rearwards than it would if it followed the grip’s angle, which means there’s room for a longer barrel given the same slide length.
We ‘Mericans don’t generally like “European-style” magazine releases, whether it’s paddles on the trigger guard (did HK invent that?) or a heel release on the butt of the grip, but the first version(s) of the HK P7 employed a heel release. I happen to think it’s pretty quick and easy to use in the P7’s case, plus it has the benefits of being equally accessible by either hand (ambidextrous) and allegedly being less likely to depress accidently when carrying the pistol in a holster or when shooting.
In keeping with the “gunfighter” theme, a heel release better facilitates tactical reloads. That is, retaining the empty magazine instead of dropping it to the ground. Depress the heel release with your support hand thumb and the magazine pops into your palm, allowing you to strip it out the rest of the way in a controlled fashion and, presumably, retain it. The protruding lip on the front of the magazine’s baseplate allows you to forcibly strip it out should there be some sort of jam.
There is no magazine disconnect safety. No “sitting duck effect,” as HK referred to that in its marketing material.
The P7M8, designed with the U.S. market in mind, added an ambidextrous thumb-activated magazine release in the standard (for us) location. The P7M13 received a wider frame to accept a staggered-round magazine, and mag capacity was upped from 8 to 13 rounds.
The P7 has a pretty darn long barrel — 4.1″ — considering the pistol’s very compact size. In part, this was possible because the striker block is quite compact (note barrel lengths & striker block lengths in the comparo pics on the CCP review). Additionally, moving the grip forwards under the slide, which also created a beavertail without adding length to the rear, was possible without subtracting from barrel length due to the magazine inserting at a more vertical angle up and toward the extreme rear of the grip. Here’s one of the photos from the CCP review, showing the length of the striker blocks and also the relative location of the breech faces and ejection ports:
Polygonal rifling has been around since the days of cannons on horse-drawn carts, but the P7 marked the first time that it was used on a pistol. GLOCK made it mainstream, but HK did it here first.
The benefits of the P7’s fixed, cold hammer forged barrel with polygonal rifling are:
- Accuracy. This is mostly due to the barrel being fixed, rather than relating to the rifling. A fixed barrel is inherently more accurate than a barrel that moves every time the firearm is fired. Some folks claim that polygonal rifling is more accurate, but I don’t think that’s true. However, it can become true since conventional rifling wears down but…
- Polygonal rifling is extremely durable. Lacking protrusions, edges, and hot spots like conventional rifling and not requiring the rifling to actually cut or press into the bullet’s surface increases service life. If you go to a GLOCK certified armorer course, they’ll show you factory GLOCK barrels that have fired 100,000+ rounds that look brand new, whereas the rifling on a conventionally rifled pistol barrel would almost certainly be worn completely away well before then. Considering conventional rifling degrades and moving barrel locking mechanisms loosen up, the P7 is more likely to retain its same level of accuracy over a longer service life.
- Polygonal rifled barrels have a higher tensile strength.
- Polygonal rifling is typically easier to clean with less copper fouling and stuck or burned-on carbon fouling. However, non-jacketed ammunition should not be used. Doubly so for the P7 (and the new Walther CCP), as bare lead ammunition will occlude the gas port.
- Polygonal rifling creates a better gas seal. Less combustion gasses escaping around the projectile mean higher velocities for a given barrel length. In the case of the P7, it also means a more effective gas retarded blowback system.
- There’s no question a fixed barrel is ideal for adding a silencer. Although some folks claim the P7 action doesn’t like being suppressed, intuitively I think it seems like a good fit. HK did, in fact, make a factory P7 version — the P7M13SD — for German special forces with an extended and threaded barrel plus a suppressor. Regardless, the fixed barrel means no booster device necessary and no increased wear or other reliability issues with moving barrel locking mechanisms.
The P7 will reliably extract and eject fired cases even with a broken extractor or with no extractor. In fact, the only purpose of the extractor on the P7 is to make ejection consistent, which it does with aplomb. Thanks to the operating system basically evening out the slide’s recoil speed regardless of ammunition power level, the P7 ejects empty brass more consistently than basically any other pistol I’ve shot. If I’m shooting in one place, I expect to find the brass stacked in a neat little pile 10 feet away.
How does it do this, you say? Well, the chamber of the P7 is fluted. HK didn’t invent this (SVT-40, as far as I know), but until the P7 it had only been seen on rifles (I’m counting the MP5 as a rifle). Combustion gas and pressure is redirected between the chamber walls and the cartridge case, and the case is floated out of the chamber. Think air hockey.
In addition, you may notice in the photo above that the part of the chamber preceding the fluted area is of a larger diameter. The P7’s chamber is somewhat on the loose side. This helps the pistol accept a broader range of ammunition, whether slightly out of spec or dirty, etc. On the downside, the flutes and the “stepped” chamber aren’t kind to your brass, so the P7 probably doesn’t win points with reloaders:
I almost forgot: the extractor also doubles as a loaded chamber indicator. At least, that’s what the HK marketing material and Operator’s Manual will tell you. I can’t say I have any clue what they’re referring to, as there is no discernible difference whatsoever in the position of the extractor on the few P7s I’ve seen whether there’s a round chambered or not.
There’s nothing physically special about the 3-dot sights on the P7. They’re steel, dovetailed into the slide, and have crisp, white dots. What is special, however, is that the Heckler & Koch P7 was the first firearm to have the 3-dot sight layout that eventually became the most common pistol sight style in the world.
Low Bore Axis
A low bore axis — the vertical distance from the top of your hand to the centerline of the barrel — reduces muzzle flip and often felt recoil and increases overall control. Essentially, the closer the bore is to being in-line with your hand and arm, the less leverage the muzzle has to flip upwards and the more recoil feels and looks like a straight-back push. Less flip and rise means reduced sight movement, which means a reduction in the amount of time it takes the shooter to reacquire a sight picture.
Without completely changing the architecture and layout of your typical semi-automatic pistol (grip and frame on bottom, barrel and cycling slide on top), which could result in something like this, the P7 likely has the lowest bore axis anywhere.
It’s literally as low as it can be without causing severe slide bite for the shooter. Every time I fire my P7 I have grease marks on the web of my hand, but I have never been cut or abraded. This combined with the very low profile of the slide means the centerline of the bore is as low as or, likely, lower than anything before or since (the Arsenal Strike One may match it). The slide is also quite light, which further reduces felt recoil and muzzle flip.
Honestly, I’m not quite sure why this category is here. Striker-fired pistols have been around at least since the first decade of the last century. Still, it was the exception in a world of hammer-fired pistols until GLOCK, which a lot of people actually credit with the concept. On a related note, HK was the first to make a polymer-framed pistol (the VP70, which was also striker-fired), although many folks think that was GLOCK as well.
Anyway, in the photo in the “Low Bore Axis” section above, you see the back of the slide with the striker decocked. When you depress the squeeze cocker, the striker protrudes to let you know it’s ready to go.
This is a popular feature nowadays that many shooters actually credit to the Springfield XD (which Springfield didn’t even design), when in reality I believe it hearkens back to the Roth Steyr model 1907.
In a way, the P7 gives the shooter the trigger pull quality benefits of a single action, hammer-fired pistol with the safety of always having said pistol in hammer-down mode. Instead of having to cock the hammer, though, you only have to take a full firing grip.
There’s a bit of slack in the trigger, and then about 4 to 5 millimeters of very smooth creep before a crisp break with little overtravel. The trigger resets when you’ve released it that same 4 to 5 mm, and it resets with a click that you can feel. Trigger pull weight is 4.5 to 5 lbs.
The trigger itself is flat and wide, with vertical serrations on its face. It’s a comfortable trigger.
Not very exciting, I admit, but the P7’s trigger guard is quite modern in appearance. It’s undercut, oversized, and has a flat (although not vertical) front with a bit of a hook on the bottom. The front is serrated like the trigger for those who like to wrap a finger over it. Although other pistols existed with one or a couple of these features when the P7 was designed (e.g. Beretta 92 was getting there), it was still far from the norm and all of these things together was a big leap forwards. Even if finger-on-the-front-of-the-guard shooting has since gone out of style.
My recent experience with the Walther CCP reminded me of how exceptionally simple the P7’s field stripping process is. Especially for a pistol designed four decades ago. Push what today we’d call the “carry melted” button on the left side of the frame near the back of the slide, retract the slide about 1/2 inch, then lift the rear of the slide up and move it forwards off of the frame. Done.
Reassembly is the reverse, except there’s no need to press that button this time. Just pull the slide back onto the frame, lining up the gas piston with the gas cylinder, back over the rear by about a half inch again, and lower it down onto the frame. As easy as a GLOCK.
It can’t all be unicorns and secret agents, right? There are a couple of criticisms already mentioned above — high price and high complication. Two others may not be as obvious:
- The gas cylinder gets hot, and if you scroll back up to the first photo in the retarded section you’ll see that there’s maybe a millimeter of steel between it and the outside of the frame, which happens to be the top, inside of the trigger guard. If you shoot a few magazines through the P7 fairly quickly, the top of the trigger guard area and the sides of the frame where you’d likely exercise proper trigger discipline when not firing can get pretty toasty as well. Dump a few more mags through it and you might even burn yourself. The P7 was not designed for competition shooting. It was not designed for blowing through ammo as quickly as possible on the range. It’s a gunfighter’s gun. A police officer, special forces, secret service, Federal police types, spook gun. Practice should be deliberate. Not fun. More, I don’t know, German. Unless you demand the ability to blast through a handful of magazines as rapidly as possible without part of the pistol getting hot, this heat soak problem really isn’t one. But it’s the biggest criticism the P7 received. Subsequent versions, beginning with the P7M8, have a polymer heat shield in the top of the trigger guard.
- The striker makes a “clack” noise when decocked. Releasing the squeeze cocker slowly does not slowly lower the striker. At some point as you let off the cocking lever, the striker is “fired.” Obviously it won’t fire a chambered cartridge, but it does slam into the striker stop (firing pin block) and make a loud click. It sounds basically like dry firing a hammer-fired pistol. Who cares? Exactly. Well, apparently if you’re a high-speed-low-drag Operator operating operationally — and, to be fair, that’s basically who this pistol was designed for — the noise can give away your position or give away your intentions, etc. If the bad guy is familiar with the P7, he knows you’ve just decocked it. If the bad guy isn’t familiar with the P7, he may believe you attempted to fire it and it malfunctioned or had no ammo. So while this criticism is technically true, it’s a bit of a stretch and it certainly doesn’t affect my enjoyment or occasional concealed carry of my P7.
The P7 has a gas chamber, even if HK was smart enough to call it a gas cylinder. Nothing German after 1945 should have a gas chamber.
Due to the high cost, out-of-production status, mechanical intricacy, and general “fanciness” of the HK P7, it can be perceived as a bit of a snob’s pistol. Heckler & Koch owner jokes taken to the next level. You know those “what’s in your pockets?” or “what’s your every day carry?” forum photo threads or dedicated photo blogs, where a lot of people just use it as an excuse to show off? To post carefully composed photos of expensive things taken with expensive cameras? I don’t have a lot of fancy crap, but if I did I’d pose it with a gussied-up (NP3+ coated with Nill grips) HK P7 and it would look sort of like this:
^^^ that photo is also an HK “history” quiz.
Most likely I forgot something awesome and noteworthy about the P7. Please let us know in the comments! Overall, I think it’s the best gunfighter’s pistol ever made. It’s deadly accurate, highly controllable, extremely reliable, quick to deploy and quick to aim, shoots softly and with minimal muzzle movement, and is one of the safest pistols ever to chamber and to carry chambered. It’s also classy and refined. Basically, it’s James Bond in pistol form.
EDIT: At Nick’s very solid suggestion, I’m adding just a bit more to this novel of an article so it can be included as an actual gun review…
On The Range
The P7 is nimbler than its weight would suggest and more accurate than its size should allow for. It’s an extremely soft shooter. Good ergos, good trigger, insanely low bore axis, good sights, fixed barrel, soft recoil, and reliable function all add up to the best pistol ever. Just don’t get it too hot.
Specifications: Heckler & Koch P7 (PSP)
Barrel Length: 4.1″
Overall Length: 6.5″
Weight w/ Empty Magazine: 30 oz
MSRP: out of production
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
Accuracy: * * * * *
Ergonomics: * * * * *
Reliability: * * * * *
Trend Setter: * * * * *
Trigger: * * * *
It’s a really excellent trigger and it’s significantly better than almost any modern striker-fired pistol (PPQ and VP9 are stiff competition). It’s a true single action trigger, though, so it could be better.
Customize This: * * *
Not a lot of options for grip panels. Nill is amazing for wood ones, but they don’t come cheap. There are aftermarket sights, but swapping them out is best left to a professional in this case. The holster market isn’t exactly flooded with decent P7 options.
Overall: * * * * *
It’s the best pistol ever. Of course it gets a 5-star rating.