We are truly living in the golden age of handguns, as this week’s test model will attest. When most of us think of Fabrique National Herstal (FNH), also known as FN Herstal and FN America (FN), we think of rifles. From the legendary FAL, aka the right arm of the free world, to today’s M240 and M249 machine guns, FN is a brand most often associated with heavy-hitting military hardware. That would also include the SCAR series if you are young, the newest kid on the block for battle rifles. To be fair, FN also produced the Browning Hi-Power, which historically has very few peers. But in the modern era, we mostly think long guns.
That, however, would be a tragic mistake. FN has actually been making polymer pistols for some time now, in what I would consider predictable FN architecture. You see, with all the above-mentioned machine guns, FN is pretty much a single-source supplier for the DOD. Less well known than the belt feds, they have also pretty well thumped Colt on the M-16/M-4 family of weapons. You may have carried an FN in your service career and not even realized it, the Colt name being so synonymous with the weapons. FN actually started supplying M-16’s in 1988 and bested Colt again in 2013 for the M-4 contract.
So back in 2005, when SOCOM first asked for a new handgun, FN developed an entry. This was the famed Joint Combat Pistol solicitation, that unfortunately ended up going nowhere. It did, however, give us our first FN handgun in decades. That contract specified a gun chambered in 45 ACP, and when it evaporated, FN released its model to the public as the FNX.
In 2011, the Army was once again toying with replacing its handguns, this time with a 9mm. FN once again put their engineers to the task, and the FNS striker-fired handguns were born. And once again, the DOD decided to pause the project.
Finally, in 2015, the military decided it was serious about replacement, and put out yet another solicitation. This would be the famed Modular Handgun System competition. A lesser company might’ve decided to sit this one out. Or just enter an older model painted tan, one of the specifications of the contract. But, that is not the style of FN. Building on the FNS models, with some notable improvements, we got the 509 series.
While SIG SAUER may have eventually gotten the MHS system contract, I can tell you who actually won. Us consumers. A DOD contract is not always nabbed by the best product, but every company that participates brings their absolute top design. The 509 may have been a dark horse contender, but now having shot one, its likely what I would have picked.
My test model is the 509 Compact MRD. While I usually prefer to get my hands on the full-sized model first, the 509 Compact MRD brings everything I like in a pistol to the table. The first thing of note is that the 509 ships with 2 magazines, a 15 and a 12 rounder. The 15 actually has a built-in plastic sleeve, that acts as a grip extension. This gives the 509 Compact MRD what I call a hybrid gun feel, a shorter slide with a full-length grip. Much like a Glock 19X or a striker-fired “Commander”, this is what I prefer these days for most things. The magazines are steel and feel in a word, sturdy. Like they actually put more metal in them than most steel magazines have. It is confidence-inspiring, and a bit of weight I can live with.
When you pick the 509 Compact up with that extended magazine in it, you already know you have a shooter on your hands. The gun just feels good, which is not something to be taken lightly. Experience has taught me that the initial feel of a gun is usually correct, and this one didn’t disappoint. It sounds like some voodoo to say you know how a gun will shoot before you ever dent a primer, but the intuition is generally on point.
The grip is nicely sized for a 9mm, out of the box. It ships with 2 replaceable back straps if you like it a bit bigger or smaller. The grip features three unique textures, which blends well, but creates questions. Above the magazine release is a pebble-like surface, high lines per inch on the sides of the grip, and large-sized but low lines per inch texturing on the front and backstrap. Why? Absolutely no idea. But it works extremely well. It equates to a very aggressive feel in the hand, without being uncomfortable.
The gun features true ambidextrous controls out of the box with both slide lock and magazine release. For most guns, that means you can flip the mag release around to fit your preferences. This one works from either side, without being obtrusive. The mag release is steel, finely checkered, and on the larger size compared to most competitors. It is hard to miss on a rapid reload drill, very much a positive point.
The trigger is the star of the show on the 509. Rather than copy the market leader, FN innovated here. While it does feature a passive trigger safety, it isn’t a tiny lever in the middle of the trigger shoe. Instead, the entire trigger face is smooth, and the lower half pivots to disengage the safety. This looks a little odd when you dry fire, but works out nicely at the range. It basically contorts the trigger from curved to flat as you take up the slack, and is unnoticeable by your 3rd round. This allows you to appreciate just how great FHN made a striker-fired trigger. The break weight is similar to most other factory guns, 5.5 pounds. But…. the FN slack to mechanical stop is incredibly short and smooth. It breaks clean, with zero creep. This alone makes it easy to be fast and accurate with the 509.
The “MRD” in 509 Compact MRD stands for modular red dot. As in, it is out of the box red dot ready. FN has a patent-pending low profile optics mounting system, with adaptors for 10 popular red dots included in the box. We were not able to test this feature fully, as the COVID-19 crisis has limited some inbound supply. (Even for us. That’s how you know the struggle is real.) But, we did learn a few things just by taking it apart. The key, as I see it, is not only the low depth they have managed to seat the adaptor plates into the slide. That is cool, but it isn’t everything. The best takeaway is big, beefy screws to hold it together. You can tell this was created for military trials just by that. Small metal- break. Big metal- no break. I am looking forward to testing this more in the future, but it is a very solidly put together system.
Because it is red dot ready, our test model also came with absolute co-witness height sights. Commonly known as suppressor sights. These are also, as the kids say, chonky. The front and rear are both dovetailed in, again no tiny screws to snap. The rear has a flat face, with a big enough shelf to absolutely ensure one-handed racking success if you need it. The sights are black front and rear, maybe the one disappointing bit of the entire gun. I really like fiber optic fronts, but the rods do break. FN seems to have erred on the side of durability, and I can’t really fault that. I normally shy away from guns with suppressor height sights, because it is difficult to find holsters. FN solved that too though. One is available right here, from their internal store. (So is a 24 round factory magazine, a nice touch.)
The slide features large cocking serrations fore and aft, a distinct cut to set their gun apart at a glance. The slide also features relief cuts down the front 2/3rds, which again makes a visual difference, if a minor one in weight. Not skimping on machining, the slide also has a thin ridge cut on the center top of the slide. Whether for appearance sake or for aligning the front sight during installation, it again makes for a distinct look. The ejection port has angled surfaces that I have never seen on anything else. In theory, it would make single loading easier. Mostly it just adds curb appeal, but I can’t say I dislike it.
The internals of the gun look a lot like any other striker-fired gun. With perhaps one notable exception. Despite the small size of the gun, the metal used here is, once again, beefy. With the Army durability test in mind, you can tell this gun was engineered to go the distance. The recoil system is a double spring, and the barrel is classic FN cold-hammer forged.
Looks are all well and good, but none of it matters if it won’t perform. How did that go, you ask? Quite simply, amazing. The low bore axis tames recoil, while the extended rear of the frame keeps you from getting “Glock bite.” The texture of the frame performs a balance of grip and conceal-ability I would have to call perfect. And oh that trigger. With the first magazine, I was running this gun like it was an old friend. Perhaps an old friend with a turbocharger. Speed and accuracy are easy with the 509 Compact MRD, the highest praise one can give a pistol.
If you are looking for a new gun, I can highly recommend the 509 Compact MRD, and by extension, the 509 family.
FN has a winner on their hands here, and I think we can expect the popularity of this weapon to grow. But you will have to get your own. My cameraman said this one isn’t going back to FN, a very rare Off The Reservation endorsement in dollars. If he hadn’t beat me to the punch, it would be staying with me.