Even though it’s been out of production for more than a decade now, strap on Heckler & Koch’s P7M8 and many gun people will know what it is. They’ll strike up a conversation about the unusual looking gun or want to tell you a story about one they own. And that’s exactly what happened when I used one in a writer’s event a few months ago at Gunsite Academy located near Prescott, Arizona.
What is it that draws people’s attention? The P7M8 is a unique design with a lever for the front strap that when squeezed in a normal firing grip, cocks the gun. It’s very unusual and is designed not to fire unless the grip is pressed. When released, the gun decocks, eliminating the need for an external safety. But the P7M8 also has a firing pin drop safety that is meant to prevent the gun from firing if dropped, and unless the cocking lever is pressed, the sear cannot engage the firing pin to fire the gun.
Because of this unique mechanism, the gun requires some practice to manipulate properly under stress. I did not think that was going to be the case when I took it to Gunsite, because the conventional wisdom was that as long as you gripped the gun properly and pressed the trigger, the gun was pretty much foolproof. But that’s not entirely true. More about that later.
Many readers will remember the Summer Olympic Games that were held in Munich, Germany in 1972. A group of mid-eastern terrorists invaded an athlete dormitory and held several Israelis hostage. Eventually, some of the terrorists were killed along with all the Israeli hostages. German police ended the kidnapping but expressed dissatisfaction with the handguns they had to use.
As a result of these complaints, Heckler and Koch of Oberndorf, Germany began working on a design and came up with a new handgun to replace the ones in use. That new gun was the PSP, a single stack 9mm Parabellum pistol with the unusual squeeze cocking mechanism. The PSP was adopted by the German police. The gun was sold to some other law enforcement agencies around the world and was eventually produced for the commercial market. In 1981, it was also offered for sale to the US public as the P7M8 which featured a few design improvements making it just slightly different than the PSP.
The New Jersey State Police adopted the P7M8, and according to a friend of mine who is a retired Border Patrol supervisor, the Border Patrol also had a number of them. The most significant difference between the original PSP and the P7M8 is that the magazine catch for the P7M8 was moved from the heel – which was the customary place for it in Europe – to just behind the point where the trigger guard meets the front of the grip. And because when firing many cartridges in rapid succession the gun becomes very hot, a heat shield was added to the P7M8 just above the trigger. It helps but does not completely solve the heat problem.
It’s the action that causes the gun to get hot. The P7M8 is a gas retarded, recoil-operated – or blowback – action. Because gas is fed through a small hole, or port, in the barrel where it creates pressure in a gas cylinder, the cylinder and the area where it is situated just above the trigger heats quickly.
Where most guns with a gas piston and a cylinder use the gas produced when the cartridge is fired to move the slide or bolt to the rear to eject the spent brass and begin cycling the action, the P7M8’s gas retarded action uses that gas to prevent the slide and the attached piston from moving to the rear until the bullet has left the barrel and the gas pressure has been reduced to a safe level. Only then is recoil enough to push the piston into the cylinder and send the slide rearward ejecting the spent brass.
But despite the number of rounds fired at Gunsite, there was enough time between drills for the P7M8 to cool slightly. The gun got warm, but not too hot to handle. Admittedly though, the P7M8 is not the usual type of gun shot by students at Gunsite, although contrary to the belief of many, Gunsite does not mandate that all handguns be 1911s. All safely functioning handguns chambered in a serious fighting caliber, whether a semi-automatic or a revolver, are welcome. So, when the chance came up, I selected the H&K P7M8. I was curious about how this special gun would hold up. And it did well.
Even though the squeeze cocking mechanism is set up to be instinctively activated when a normal grip is applied, it proved to require some training and repetition to master. Heckler & Koch’s engineers and designers did an outstanding job on the P7M8 though, and the gun is nearly foolproof.
To operate the gun, apply a normal amount of force to the grip which compresses the cocking lever. Then press the trigger, which on the test gun, broke at just over three pounds. If the lever is continually pressed as the gun cycles, the gun will recock and be ready to fire with another trigger press – as long as ammunition remains in the gun. Pressing the trigger again causes the gun to go through the same cycle until the magazine is empty in which case the slide remains locked to the rear signaling the shooter that a fresh magazine is required
But even if the cocking lever is not pressed before the trigger is pressed, the gun still works. Holding the trigger to the rear and then pressing the cocking lever fires the gun, although more force is required to press the cocking lever. H&K calls this a double-action mode. Single action is the label used for squeezing the cocking lever first and then pressing the trigger. But if the operator really messes up and squeezes the cocking lever at the same time as the trigger is pressed, the gun still fires. Pretty ingenious.
The cocking lever also helps during the loading process. When inserting a fresh magazine while the slide is locked to the rear, the slide can be released to move back into battery and feed an unfired round into the chamber by simply squeezing the cocking lever. While it is also possible to release the slide by pulling it slightly to the rear and letting it go, pressing the lever is slightly faster.
But if the shooter relaxes his or her firing grip and allows the gun to decock during the firing cycle, it can cause a problem. In that case, the shooter could allow the trigger finger to let the trigger move forward, then squeeze the cocking lever before pressing the trigger again. Everything will then work normally. But if the trigger is continually held to the rear or pressed before the gun is cocked, firing the gun will require a harder press of the cocking lever which may slow things down and result in a less accurate shot. So practice in operating the gun is a smart undertaking if it is going to be used to protect one’s life. But in fairness, every gun is a little different and requires some getting used to before the shooter is competent with it under stress. That’s why training from a place like Gunsite is invaluable.
H&K did not equip the P7M8 with a separate loaded chamber indicator but did build the extractor so that it functions as one. When a round is in the chamber, the extractor protrudes about 1/16 inch to provide an indicator that the gun is loaded. But it is smarter to retract the slide slightly to visually check and feel for a chambered round. That takes some training, but if it’s dark, checking by feel is the only way the shooter can be sure a cartridge is in the chamber.
To make the gun even more reliable, H&K built the P7M8 to function with a broken extractor. The company cut little flutes or grooves into the wall of the chamber so that when the gun is fired, hot gas finds its way between the case and the chamber wall, tossing the case out of the gun. The P7M8’s extraction is smoother with the extractor, but if it fails, the gun still works.
Aiding in the gun’s reliability is the angle of the magazine in relation to the barrel axis. Although the grip angle is 110 degrees, which is the normal angle between the axis of a person’s fist when clenched and the index finger when pointed at an object – this makes the ergonomics of holding the gun and pressing the trigger better – the magazine sits almost perpendicular to the barrel which orients rounds such that cartridges must negotiate a much shallower angle when being fed into the chamber. This reduces the likelihood of a feeding malfunction, and in fact, to my knowledge, the particular test gun has never experienced a failure to feed.
Magazines have a capacity of eight rounds – that’s what the M8 signifies. Magazines have witness holes so the shooter can easily see how many rounds are left, and the magazine well is beveled to facilitate fast magazine changes. When the magazine is released, a lever on each side of the grip is pushed towards the base of the magazine, they drop freely away. And with the lever style release on each side, the shooter can drop a magazine with either the thumb or the trigger finger. It’s a nice feature.
The only other control besides the cocking lever, magazine release and trigger is the slide catch which is an unobtrusive slide located on the left side of the gun directly behind the trigger. It extends from under the grip panel and can be a little difficult to activate, but with practice works well. To lock the slide back, with either the trigger finger for left-handed shooters or the thumb for right-handers, press the sliding catch rearwards while retracting the slide. It actually works well and because of its design, will not be inadvertently activated during shooting like so many slide catches can be.
Lastly, there is the takedown or disassembly button. It’s not really a control because it doesn’t perform any function during the firing process. Its only purpose is to facilitate disassembly. After making absolutely sure the gun is unloaded and the magazine removed, the button, located at the left rear of the gun just below the slide, is pressed inwards while the slide is pulled all the way to the rear. At the same time, the rear of the slide is lifted upwards, away from the frame until it disengages. Then, holding it carefully, the slide is allowed to move forward until it clears the muzzle and can be separated from the frame. Next the recoil spring, which surrounds the barrel, is removed.
Unlike most striker-fired guns, the firing pin or striker assembly on the P7M8 can be removed for cleaning. To do so, the gun is checked to make sure it is empty. Leaving the gun assembled and while pointing it in a safe direction, the cocking lever is partially squeezed until the rear of the firing pin is flush with the rear of the firing pin assembly. Next, the assembly is rotated a little less than 90 degrees clockwise until it begins to move rearward, out of the slide. Continue squeezing the cocking lever which pushes the assembly further to the rear where it can be removed. To replace it, reverse the procedure. The striker assembly should not be disassembled further.
The 4.13-inch long cold hammer-forged barrel with polygonal rifling is semi-permanently pinned to the frame and does not move, making the gun more accurate compared to one with a tilting barrel. The recoil spring surrounds the barrel, and because no recoil spring guide rod is needed, the barrel and slide are lower to the frame and the shooter’s wrist, reducing recoil leverage which in turn reduces muzzle flip. Recoil is just a bit more than with a tilt barrel gun, but the lower bore axis seems to offset that.
The P7M8’s slide is rounded on the top, which along with its single stack, thin design, makes it easy to carry discreetly. The gun sports white dot sights that are adjustable for windage by drifting. Originally, front sights of different heights were available to adjust elevation, but it is a good bet they are now hard to get because the gun is out of production.
Since the barrel has polygonal instead of conventional rifling, cleaning is pretty easy. But don’t fire lead bullets because they tend to lead the barrel and will deposit lead in the gas port causing the gun to malfunction. Instead, use full metal jacketed bullets without an exposed lead base. Basically that means it is best to use hollow points. And the owner’s manual says bullets weighing 100 grains or more should be used. H&K cautions against firing ammunition designed for submachine guns which is probably because that ammo is loaded to higher velocity and pressure. It is also probably best to avoid +P ammo.
Periodically carbon build-up inside the cylinder must be removed. To do this, H&K originally supplied a reaming tool and bronze brush that will not scratch or gouge the cylinder. It is best not to scrape carbon off the piston because it doesn’t affect the function and the piston is designed to be self-cleaning.
The P7M8 has a lanyard ring at the heel, and guns came from the factory nickel-plated or with a very nicely done blue finish. Since the gun is no longer manufactured, it has taken on somewhat of a cult following and prices have risen above original prices which were already fairly high due to manufacturing costs.
And also because the guns are no longer manufactured, obtaining a holster can be difficult and the owner may need to find a custom holster maker. If the maker doesn’t have a P7 or a mold, the owner may have to leave the gun with the holster manufacturer for a while. But there are at least two manufacturers that will make P7 holsters. At Gunsite, I used a Kydex holster made by HAWG Holsters, but if a leather holster is wanted, Desert Gun Leather will make one. Both manufacturers make high-quality goods and will work with customers.
There are other variations based on the P7M8. The P7M13 used a double stack 13 round 9mm magazine and the P7M10 also used a double stack magazine but was chambered in .40 S&W. It held 10 rounds. The P7K3 was chambered in .22 LR, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP and was convertible to any of those calibers. The variations are rarer than the P7M8, so used prices are naturally higher.
HECKLER & KOCH P7M8
|Barrel length:||4.13 inches|
|Overall length:||6.73 inches|
|Weight:||1.75 pounds without magazine|
|Sights:||three-dot, drift adjustable|
|Action:||recoil-operated, blow-back, gas retarded, semi-automatic|
|Capacity:||8 round magazine|
|Price:||out of production|
The gun is quite remarkable, making it an eye-catcher and fun to shoot. Despite its age, it’s an advanced design that is still a viable self-defense gun. If you ever have the chance, shoot one. And if you want one, watch the listings on GunsAmerica.