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F-35 First Red Flag Performance

The F-35A is at its first Red Flag! And we’ve gotten some reports of how it’s doing.

First, a little review. Red Flag is the most advanced aerial combat exercise in the world. In a given year, there are several Red Flags, operated out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. There, the US Air Force and US Navy squadrons join with squadrons from other NATO and Non-NATO allies to engage in a series of realistic training exercises. They have the full suite of AWACS support, and air combat is staged against the Aggressors, instructor pilots who fly F-15s and F-16s and are trained in a wide variety of foreign flight tactics.

The Aggressor pilots are the best dogfight pilots in the world. That is literally all that they do. Their job is to be the nastiest guys in the sky, to catch pilots making mistakes in training where there’s a nice debrief so they can learn from their errors. Beats the Hanoi Hilton.

And the F-35 is, of course, the next fighter of the US Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy, the Israeli Defense Forces, South Korea, Australia, and a whole lot of others. It’s a huge, complicated, advanced program. And it’s had its share of problems as well as its share of detractors. And it was my pick for Borgundy’s Fighter in the Procurement Games. Despite the problems, I stand by that decision.

So with all that in mind, let’s see how it did. Keep in mind, this is only one Red Flag exercise. Small sample sizes can lead to problems. But it’s the data we have, and given the questions, it’s worth commenting on now.

As befits USAF doctrine, the F-35 has been primarily tasked with strike and SEAD missions. The USAF has F-22s for air combat. And the F-35 has done great. They didn’t lose any fighters on day one of the exercise when they engaged enemy air defenses, which is not something that usually happens. The Aggressor Team had to revise their exercises to be more complex and difficult in order to make life more difficult for the ‘Blue’ team (the good guys with the stealthy fighters). These tests are only interesting when they are hard.

But let’s talk about dogfighting. Nobody else has Raptors, so the rest of the world will need the Lightning II to be ready to mix it up, and the F-35 got some dogfights in. We do not know any of the specifics of the engagement–range, circumstances, rules of engagement, simulated loadouts, etc. But we do have a final score. 15-1 in favor of the Lightning. Questions abound, of course. What were the rules of engagement? What were the circumstances? Were these all WVR? BVR? We do know that the Aggressor pilots have had a lot of experience dogfighting (and mostly losing) to the F-22, so they may have been a little more ready for the F-35 than one might otherwise expect.

Pilot impressions of the Lightning II continue to be positive. The situational awareness is better than anything else in the sky, and unsurprisingly, pilots love being able to see and know more. No complaints about the aircraft have emerged. Also, it’s done great on the flightline. No F-35s have missed a sortie for maintenance problems, and the planes report a 92% mission readiness rate. Most legacy aircraft have a 70-85% mission readiness rate.

So despite the problems, many of which do not affect the -A variant, we can see that the Lightning is doing well in unscripted exercises. It’s a very good sign for the program.

And no, we do not expect the program to be cancelled as part of President Trump’s review.

HK 433 First Look

HK has released a new rifle!

Okay, it’s for armies. More specifically, it’s for the Bundeswehr. It seems a lot like a G36 version 2.0. Let’s take a look.

hk 433

It’s a 5.56 rifle, with an adjustable folding stock. The stock looks an awful lot like what was on the canceled XM-8. Or the SCAR. It’s got a charging handle mounted forward like on a G3. There’s a negative mounting system, which is HKlok1. Mag release is available in a G36 type paddle or the AR-15 type button. Bolt release is at the front of the trigger guard, again like the XM-8.

Larry Vickers has a source saying this rifle was designed for the Bundeswehr because the HK 416 was too expensive.2 Or something.3 And, I guess it’ll be cheaper to make than a 416. But let’s break it down.

Does this change our choice to go with the HK 416 in the Borgundy Procurement Games? Nein. To be honest, other than being the cheap version of the 416, the 433 does not impress me. The HK 416 is HK’s take on the AR-15 platform. It’s got some ambidextrous controls, a heavier barrel, nicer handguard, and that short-stroke gas piston system, but it’s still mostly AR-15. And I’m really not seeing improvements anywhere over the basic AR-15 design, unless you start with exotic ammo or require a bullpup layout.

A charging handle out front is going to get in the way of lights and lasers that you might mount. Which are increasingly popular for night operations. Frankly, there’s no good place for the charging handle. The AR’s might not be ideal to get to easily, but it’s out of your way the rest of the time, and the rifle is designed to minimize the number of times you have to run the AR-15 charging handle in the absence of a malfunction. And when you do, you won’t smash your knuckles on an optic or have to fish around your laser/IR illuminator unit.

The choice of HKlok is increasingly suspect. First, I’d still support picatinny rails, for most military applications, because there are so many picatinny-compatible accessories in the inventory. And if you were going to go with a newer, lighter ‘negative mounting’ method, the right answer is Mlok. Because it’s gotten more industry support faster, and it’s also available as an option on a number of Colt Canada’s latest rifle offerings. Plus, it’s also used on the HK CSASS handguard that won the latest US Army semiautomatic sniper rifle competition. Unless they want to lock themselves out of a ton of future aftermarket offerings, HKlok doesn’t make sense to me.

The other thing that’s bothered me is that this looks an awful lot like HK’s take on the FN SCAR design. Which is fine, I guess, except that the HK 416 keeps beating the FN SCAR in procurement competitions. So why bother trying to compete again with a loser? You’re winning with the 416. Don’t split the baby. Don’t split the production capacity. Stick with the 416 everyone likes.

I guess it’s an upgrade on the G36. But I still don’t see why it’s worth the bother. I suppose being a freaking special snowflake and wanting a Different Gun Because It’s Different transcends national borders.

  1. It’s like Keymod, but backwards. 
  2. No really. Too expensive. Nevermind that the French bought it. Seriously, the Bundeswehr is just sad and pathetic these days. 
  3. Maybe it looked too American? Maybe they couldn’t stand using the same rifle as the French? Even if it’s made in Germany and actually good. 

SIG P320 X-Five SHOT Preview

Covering one of the things I didn’t get to talk about while SHOT show was running. Let’s look at SIG’s new P320 X-Five. They’re really on a roll lately, aren’t they?

The P320 X-Five is SIG’s attempt at making a competition ready firearm out of the box. Sort of like what Kimber did for 1911s in the early nineties, they put a lot of much-desired modifications into the gun at the factory, saving you hassle and money. At least if they got it right. Let’s see what they did.

The X-Five has a new frame, with a different grip. I like this grip better, at least judging by looks. Granted, I haven’t held one. But it looks like it has good texture and the kind of shape you can really bear down on. The frame is also weighted, to get the balance right and improve recoil management. Recoil is absorbed by weight, which is why lots of competitors like frame weights. This one comes with some right out of the box.

Moving up the gun, the trigger has been worked over at the factory to be better, and it’s got a flat-face trigger shoe. Sounds good. Apparently it’s really nice, though I’ll have to judge that for myself.

The slide has been lightened with the usual coffin cuts. Fun. Plus, a bull barrel has been fitted. So there’s weight to try to absorb recoil force, but the light slide should return to battery quickly. Provided one has a good grip.

Sights are from Dawson Precision, so they should actually be good. You can remove the rear sight, which is attached to a cover plate, and mount a Romeo 1 mini red dot instead if you prefer.

With the P320 X-Five are four 21-round factory extended magazines, right in the box. That’s good.

Here, we see SIG trying to release a package to be out of the box ready for competition. I like to see this sort of thing, and it looks like they’ve done a good job. Of course, a lot of this stuff is hugely personal, so we’ll see what people think of a bunch of decisions made for them.

Extra: MHS comes with JHPs

I don’t usually do this, but this is worthy of an Extra edition.

The MHS contract, won by SIG, also includes a contract for ammo. Ordinarily I would yawn. Okay, great, the US Military has a new ammo supplier. To paraphrase The Who, here comes the new ammo, just like the old ammo.

Nope. Nope nope nope.

The MHS contract with SIG is not only for P320s and associated parts, not only for plain old 9×19 mm FMJ rounds, but also for 9×19 mm jacketed hollow points.


Can I get an ‘amen’ from the people of the gun?

Hollow points are significantly more effective than FMJ rounds at stopping people. It’s still a pistol bullet, so it’s still a lousy choice. But it’s much better with hollow points.

No sane pistol trainer recommends FMJ rounds for carry.

No police department that I’ve heard of in the United States still issues FMJ. They all issue hollow points.

It’s about damn time our army followed suit.

Okay, peanut gallery. I hear you. You’re probably yelling something about the Geneva Conventions. And you’d be wrong. It was the Hague Convention of 1899 that outlawed hollow points, not the Geneva Conventions.. Specifically, the third additional declaration of the Hague convention of 1899. Which was not signed by the United States. And we’ve been using “Open Tipped Match” ammunition for a while now, which are hollow points, except they say something else on the box, and are Totally Not designed to expand when they hit people. Or so says the Office of the Judge Advocate General. Any expansion is, incidental. Also shut up, because terrorists didn’t sign the Hague Convention either, so we’re not fighting a signatory power. I love lawyers.

Oh, and it’s not like any of the high and mighty European powers cared about the second additional declaration in the Hague Convention of 1899. You know, the one banning the use of projectiles that spread poisonous or asphyxiating gasses? In a war between signatory powers? Well, I’m pretty sure World War I counts as a “War Between Signatory Powers”, and you all were totally using projectiles designed to gas people. Phosgene shells, chlorine shells, lewisite shells. Hypocrites!

And I don’t understand the prohibition anyway. War is hell, said William T. Sherman.

MMQB: MHS Decision Analysis

Last week, we reported that the US DoD chose the SiG P320 as its new handgun. So let’s take it apart Monday Morning Quarterback style.

First, is this an improvement? Yes, but with caveats. From a shooters perspective, given the choice between a new M9 and a new P320, I’ll take the SiG every day of the week. I like the ergonomics of the P320 better. I like the trigger better. The P320 is one of the new crop of striker-fired pistols that’s been designed to try to compete with Glocks and M&Ps, both notorious for mediocre to lousy trigger pulls by having a good trigger. Plus, it’s a striker fired trigger, and I prefer that to a double action trigger. Also the P320 doesn’t have a slide-mounted safety/decocker. I would prefer one control or the other (i.e. a safety or a decocker, but not both) mounted on the frame. Plus, the P320 is a modern, polymer-framed design, so it’ll require less lubrication and maintenance. The P320 is also equipped with sight dovetails, and comes with decent night sights out of the box. In any case, it’s a lot easier to order/mount tritium sights on the P320. The M9 does not have sight dovetails for the front sight, limiting the changes you can make. Well, without drilling, and I doubt the DoD is going to do that.

There are two caveats here. First, I’ve tried to be as kind to the M9 as I can. The ones in the inventory are mostly ill-maintained and worn out. They’re in need of spring replacements, locking block replacements, and a bunch of TLC. The M9s in inventory are pretty much EOL.

Second, in the grand scheme of things, pistols are relatively unimportant arms. So I might like some more cost analysis, but I think the M9s are too abused to be salvageable in a cost-effective way. Which means the alternative to this sort of winner is rolling in M9A3s to the existing contract. And I don’t think ignoring more recent developments is in any way a good idea. Plus, the DoD wanted a striker-fired design, and wrote the rules accordingly. Good for them.

Okay. So let’s look at the chosen P320 itself, viz.

There’s a few things I like, and one thing I really don’t. Let’s start with the positives: it’s a good design. The DoD wanted modularity, and even though I’m not sold on this being all that useful, they did and got it. And it is cool from an engineering standpoint. I like that the pistols are finished in something FDE colored: guns are a pretty good spoiler of camouflage if they’re colored black as they usually are. So that’s a small thing, but a nice one. The full-size pistol has an installed factory extended mag, and that’s good too. Not a lot of extra length for five more bullets. That’s a tradeoff I’m cool with in a service/duty pistol. And there are flush fit ones for when you don’t want the extra length. Finally, if we look closely at the rear sight, we’ll note that it’s mounted to a large plate. This is removable, and can be replaced with a SIG Romeo 1 mini red dot, or something else with the same footprint. That looks like some planning ahead for once. Red dots are a much nicer sighting system than irons, and it’s really good to see the idea getting traction out of the box in a big contract.

Now, the negative. You guessed it: that manual safety. I don’t like it. I don’t think factory standard striker-fired triggers benefit from one, and it’s one more thing to screw up. If you think otherwise, well, at least it’s ambidextrous and sensibly mounted to the frame. Still. Not needed.

Finally, the thing everyone’s probably wondering: Why not Glock? By all accounts they were part of the downselect.

Well I don’t know. Rampant speculation time. First, that safety I don’t like. If the DoD required one, or wanted one enough to give more points to the design with one, that’d be a good reason. The manual safety on the MHS winning P320 looks reasonably well thought out, if you like such things. I haven’t seen the guts though. Historically, adding a manual safety to Glocks hasn’t ever worked out well. The designs have been awkward. So that’s a possible reason.

Possibility two is a lower bid. Either SiG wanted the contract more, and was willing to go lower, or maybe they had production capacity to deliver faster. I don’t know. But economics is something else that’s good.

Finally, modularity. The P320 is modular, and the DoD really wanted that. The P320 is more modular than the Glock. Those are points in its favor.

So, did the DoD do badly by not picking Glock? Nope. Setting aside any particulars, both Glocks and P320s are good designs. Bet between the two, you can’t go wrong. I’d probably decide based on who could bid lower and deliver faster anyway.

Finally, what does this mean for shooters? Will SiG dethrone Glock in terms of popularity? Well, the future’s hard to figure. So…maybe? But probably not anytime soon, if ever. We can expect some Glock design improvements, to take care of things like that trigger, because competition drives innovation. Plus, we can expect SiG to gain a lot more aftermarket support, which is always great. So this is nothing but good for us shooters.

Also, the pistol the US Military issues doesn’t have any bearing on what pistols I buy, like, or carry. It didn’t before, it won’t now.

Modular Handgun Winner: P320

It’s official, per the US DoD’s press release. The massive contract for an M9 replacement has been awarded, and the winner is SiG with their P320.

I guess this shows you how good my prediction was. Oh well. It happens. You can’t get all the analyses right, and I read too much into the deep-sixing of their competition team.

I would like to congratulate SiG on winning the contract. They could use some good news of late, and it appears they’ve got it. I would also like to congratulate the US Military on their new pistol. They wanted modular, and the P320 is the ultimate in modularity.

While the P320 isn’t my top choice for new 9mm pistols, it’s still a fine firearm. It would make a great project gun. And I like it a lot better than the M9.

Way to join the striker fired future, US Army.

Perhaps I should get one of the customized Bruce Gray P320s. He’s got a great trigger package for them.

Hudson H9 Range Report

I’ve got some data for you from Top Men in the field. First, here’s the design overview and analysis.

Range impressions were good. In general, people were happy with the trigger. It’s nice. Of course, it will take some getting used to, like any trigger (good or not). But they seem to have delivered on their design goal of “Crisp, 1911-like trigger” in a striker-fired design.

The gun is also very low recoil and very flat shooting. Our shooters really liked it. That’s another design objective accomplished.

Further things for the plus column: while the grips are not interchangeable with existing 1911 grip panels, Hudson has contracted VZ grips to make them. So options should be available pretty quick.

One other note, this likely a negative. The patent design shows a large number of small parts. So disassembly might be a royal pain. We can’t judge reliability from that, though, so don’t.

These sorts of range expos are not good for judging a pistol, but they can help build excitement and optimism. Check and check.

One more thing. Mags appear to be based on those for the S&W 5906. Which is a strange choice for magazines, as that pistol is no longer in production. It should keep some costs down though. And for all I know those get the grip angle they wanted better than other magazines.

Avidity Arms PD10

More fun from SHOT. The Avidity Arms PD10 is another relatively new arrival. Avidity Arms is a small outfit, who have been working with Rob Pincus.

The PD10 is a roughly Glock 19 sized, single-stack 9mm pistol. It’s polymer framed. It uses 9mm 1911 magazines. On the one hand, this was almost certainly chosen to avoid magazine development and testing costs, so the final product could meet their target price point. Magazine development (like any part of pistol development) is expensive, and a single-stack, Glock 19 sized gun isn’t going to be in the running for any police or military contracts in the 21st century. Note that this does mean the grip is going to be somewhat longer than on a Glock 19, to accommodate a standard 1911 magazine.

It also raises some objections from me. I understand 9mm 1911 magazines are relatively common. But when you hear “9mm 1911”, you don’t think “paragon of reliability”. You probably think “unreliable”. Maybe “Jam-O-Matic”. 9mm 1911s have a well-deserved reputation for being difficult to get running right. The magazine is a part of this. I’m skeptical of using these in a pistol and getting a reliable result. Good 9mm 1911 magazines are also rather expensive, which bodes badly. Part of the problem with 1911 reliability is people buying cheap, crappy mags, discovering that they jam a lot, and blaming the platform. Ol’ Slabsides has a bunch of nostalgia value to back it up. This doesn’t. Also, with a 1911, you can at least buy a known good pistol while you mess around with magazines.

Problem two with 9mm 1911 magazines is that they tend to come in ‘full size’ lengths. Why is this a problem? Because that means you’re getting a ‘full size’ pistol. It’s a lot harder to scale a design down than it is to scale a design up. Want a bigger version of your pistol? That’s easy. A smaller version takes a lot more testing. I bring this up because small single-stack 9mms are selling really well right now. The M&P Shield, Walther PPS, and Glock 43 are all extremely popular. They’re all small. Considerably smaller than a G19 as far as length and height goes. For most of the gun-buying public1, I don’t really see the appeal here.

The PD10 seems to come with decent sights out of the box. They’re metal, at least. I don’t know what the sight picture looks like. The front dovetail is an M&P type, and the rear dovetail is a Glock type. I don’t know why this wasn’t designed to take M&P sights (front and rear dovetails) or Glock sights (front screw and rear dovetail). Picking a common sight mount is a good choice, but it really should be a common sight set.

And, of course, there are all the questions of reliability and company longevity that come with something new. Like I said with the Hudson H9, probably best to wait and see how this shakes out. In the meantime, the SiG P239 is a known reliable single stack 9mm pistol. Consider that if you’re in the market for a 9mm single stack that’s bigger than the M&P Shield.

1.) Fishbreath will be along in a moment to tell you about small-handed people who need pistols too.

M&P 2.0 Range Reports

Alas, I am not (yet) an important member of the Gun Media to warrant getting my hands on weapons that are so new as to be unreleased yet. But I have friends who are. Let’s look at what Top Men think of the M&P 2.0. My overview of the design can be found here.

Our sources really liked the new grip texture. They said it was good enough to not require modification out of the box. Your mileage may vary, since everyone’s tastes are different, but that’s a big improvement. The stock M&P 1.0 pistols have pretty slick grips.

The trigger was always going to be the $64,000 question. And our sources say it’s much improved. Likely totally redesigned. It’s got a very “Apex-like” feel, with much less of a mushy feeling, and a crisper reset. It also felt lighter than an M&P 1.0 trigger. They also got some time on a Performance Center version which had an even nicer trigger and a red dot. This version performed very well.

Accuracy at distance, even with wind, was good. Small sample size, but this is a good sign that S&W has fixed the accuracy issues. We can certainly hope.

I’m hoping S&W gets its act together and makes a good pistol. Competition drives market improvements. Also, note that the M&P series is second only to Glock in terms of aftermarket support, and whoever’s in third place doesn’t come close. M&Ps have a pretty decent lineup of accessories and training aids. So it’s good if they can keep their product solid.

Hudson H9

It’s being teased, and it’s coming at SHOT, so let’s talk about it. The Hudson H9. Or, what happens when a 1911 and a Glock get drunk one night.

It’s a striker-fired, metal-framed, double-stack pistol. It’s got a sliding trigger, which should feel good. It has an ambi slide release, may have an ambi safety variant (prototypes had one, all the teaser shots don’t), and a conventional rotating takedown lever. And it’s got a weird front end. It appears (and patent drawings seem to back up this) that the really low dustcover and bizarre front end is to put the recoil spring assembly and rotating take-down lever in front of the trigger rather than above it. This would lower the bore axis, which would lower the recoil vector to be more in line with your hand.

And now, a brief aside to step into one of the many minefields of gun discussions, bore axis. Bore axis is how far the center of the barrel is from the web of your hand. It’s also commonly either overblown into “GUNZ WITH A HIGH BORE AXIS ARE TEH UNSHOOTABLE!!1!” or ignored with a “GIT GUD, N00b!!!!” As usual when morons get to keyboards, both parties should be ignored. Clearly, physics tells us there is something to bore axis worth thinking about. It’s why we try to get a grip as high as possible up on the gun. To be closer to the recoil force vector. That works. Every reasonably good pistol shooter knows that works. So all things being equal, a lower bore axis is better. But it’s not a huge deal, because even guns that commonly are called out for a “high bore axis” are still pretty shootable. A higher bore axis will put more emphasis on your recoil control technique in your grip, if you care about fast follow up shots. It’s a thing, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of pistol design.

So a super low bore axis, because we’ve moved some important operating components out of the way, is going to be good for quick follow up shots and gamer-ness. Sweet. Plus, that metal (steel?) frame is going to soak up recoil like a sponge. Again, great for the gamers. And sliding triggers feel really good, and are easier to push straight back to the rear, all other things being equal. Presuming it’s not a stupid-heavy trigger, that should also be great.

Oh, and it’ a proper double-stack, single-feed magazine. You know, like a Glock, or just about any other full-size pistol that isn’t a 1911 these days. It’s a rather fat looking magazine too. List capacity is 15 rounds, at least according to the website. I was hoping for more before going to extenders, maybe 20. Oh well. I’ll live.

From an engineering standpoint, this thing looks like a real winner. So let’s talk outstanding questions:

  1. ┬áMagazines. They’re a new design. Are they reliable? Will they be easy to come by? What will they cost?
  2. Sight Dovetails. Is this a new design, or something established. Hopefully it’s a standard dovetail so we don’t have to wait to see if the pistol is popular before looking for other sight options.
  3. Grip panels. Basically everything I said about dovetails. Are these a new grip panel design? Grips are a bit cheaper to fab, I think, so maybe those designs will come quicker if this is a new thing.
  4. Reliability. Hello 800 lbs. gorilla in the room. Have you done your homework, Hudson? Does this damn thing run and run and run? Or do we have an heir apparent to the Throne of the Feedway Stoppage?

So on the one hand, color me skeptical. On the other hand, I don’t know Hudson’s financial backing or engineering team. So I don’t know what kind of backing we’re looking at. On the one hand, pushing the envelope has gotten us things like Kel-Tec, makers of impossible-to-find vaporware guns, Boberg nonsense that pulls bullets apart, and the ‘recall all the things’ Caracal.

On the other hand, let’s also not forget that Glock was once revolutionary and weird for trying to make a frame out of plastic, and look where it’s got them.

There are a lot of ‘revolutions’ in the gun world that have gone nowhere. And a few that have taken off, and some that just kinda hang around unnoticed. We’ll see what this one brings.

As for my opinion of the H9, well, I am a cynical sort. I’ve already got a lot of really nice pistols. I’ll wait for the initial reviews and reserve judgment. I do like flat-shooting guns, but I generally don’t like being a beta tester. So we’ll see.

See more on range reports from SHOT here!