Walther P99 9x19mm Pistol
By David Tong
Mythical Agent 007 of the Ian Fleming novels started carrying a 1931-vintage PPK in .32ACP early in Sean Connery’s tenure and it continues into the present theatrics. Said pistol was described by “Q” as hitting as hard as a “brick through a plate glass window.” Yeah, right. Not even the stalwarts who carry such a diminutive round in a pocket pistol these days would claim it has much stopping power, no matter what trick hollow point bullet it launches. Some 30 years later, the world had changed, both in the real world and at Pinewood Studios, London. New actors, new stories, new bullets and a new pistol.
The German firm of Carl Walther Waffenfabrik of Ulm has always been known for complex, expensive and innovative handguns. Their polymer-framed entry into a highly competitive police market was the late 1996 introduction of the P99. Designed by a team headed by a former Steyr and Glock design engineer and of conventional architecture for this type of handgun, this Glock inspired pistol uses a modified Browning tilting barrel short recoil operating system and is striker fired.
The P99 was the first striker-fired design that incorporated a traditional, long-stroke “double-action” first trigger pull, with single-action follow-up shots. When one loads the pistol, it is ready to fire single-action. However, normally one would de-cock using the top slide button for a double-action first shot if not immediately shooting or if re-holstering. That long stroke but very smooth first pull weighs less than nine pounds by my calibrated finger’s guesstimate. This pull is much lighter and smoother than any of the production hammer fired DA autos on the market. This is undoubtedly due to the less stout striker spring and its straight-line motion, versus the 10-12 pound hammer mainspring on a more conventional design.
I prefer to pre-stage my single action trigger pulls and the P99 is a delight when fired this way. The reset distance is approximately 1/10th inch and is both audible and tactile. The reset is as short as the Smith & Wesson 3rd Generation, shorter than the Glock and approaches that of the 1911. These three designs are traditional favorites in this regard. Accurate rapid fire is thus quite easy and controllable for the experienced shooter. Single-action repeat shots, when fired after releasing the trigger fully forward, produce roughly 1/2” travel before hitting the sear tripping point. Then one is rewarded with an extremely crisp, 4.5 pound pull.
The 99's second-strike capability is unique for a DA/SA service pistol. In the event of a defective primer, if a round fails to detonate first try, one simply squeezes the DA pull again (true double action). While most experienced pistol handlers would simply execute a tap-rack drill to dispose of the faulty round, the 99 at least gives one this option before requiring it and it remains the only striker fired service pistol with this ability.
An unusual feature is the decocking button. Spring loaded and located to the left front of the rear sight on top of the slide, it allows the pistol’s striker to be lowered safely and places the double action trigger pull at your disposal. It also stays out of the way and keeps your holster profile slimmer and more comfortable that most decocker designs.
One unique feature of the original P99 is that if one wishes to bypass the DA pull, one need merely to retract and release the slide roughly 1/4” to cock the striker and begin shooting single action. The resultant SA trigger pull has one oddity about it, though. If one cocks the striker by racking the slide 3/8”, the trigger remains in the fully forward position, even though the striker is now pre-cocked for a SA shot.
When you press rearward through the lengthy slack to fire the shot, the trigger will remain to the rear approximately 3/8” from the end point of travel. The trigger is then held in this position by a small molded-in shelf visible on the left side of the trigger. When the trigger is in this rearward location, it allows the start of the actual SA trigger press that is approximately 1/2” in length.
I might opine that the cocked SA pull with the trigger fully forward is a viable carry option for a person familiar with the arm. While some would be horrified at this prospect, I gently remind those them there are hundreds of thousands of satisfied users of the Austrian pistol that has a quite similar and even shorter trigger stroke of similar weight and leave it at that.
The Ergonomic Package
The P99 was the first of the polymer pistols to feature interchangeable back straps, in three sizes, to accommodate most hands. These are retained by a roll-pin that must be removed with a pin punch and a small hammer, but are thus very secure. The pin can also be used as a lanyard loop through an access slot at the insert’s bottom.
It also has a somewhat unusual ambidextrous magazine release. The mag release pivots off the rear root of the trigger guard. To drop the mag, either index finger simply pushes downward at the front of the low profile levers. This unusual arrangement may actually be an advantage, in that there will be little likelihood of a more ubiquitous Browning/Luger style button being pressed inadvertently, but takes a bit of getting used to.
The rest of the layout is sure to please most pistol shooters. The grip angle is 110-degrees. Small rounded and raised nubs on the sides of the frame and rear strap afford a good grip without being unnecessarily abrasive, while the rounded finger grooves on the rounded front strap do the same. Molded on both sides of the frame are slight depressions where the fingertips of your shooting hand will go when grasping the pistol. One’s thumbs and index finger also have nice molded-in depressions for comfort, while the web of your hand is accommodated by a smooth radius area similar in idea, if not exactly in execution to that of the Czech 75.
The interchangeable grip inserts only vary the length of pull to the trigger, because the base frame shape dictates the upper and lower contours. The area of the grip inserts where the web of your hand goes is quite rounded, maybe too much so for recoil comfort. Something perhaps a tad flatter in profile might reduce felt recoil, but would also likely increase grip girth. Full marks though to Walther for offering this as a first for any polymer framed pistol. They precipitated all other manufacturers of pistols of this type to do the same.
The barrel-to-slide fit is good, the barrel quality is up to Walther's usual high standards and there is a fully supported chamber of standard interior dimensions. I noticed only a slight fore-aft play when the barrel was in firing position in the stripped slide. There is little side-to-side play between slide and frame and virtually none when pressing either on the muzzle within the slide, or on the barrel hood pressing down while the pistol is in battery.
The P99's barrel and slide top contours are also different from other striker fired pistols. The barrel and slide have three mating surfaces, rather than the usual single flat one locking the two parts together during the recoil phase. This allows for a more narrowed and angular slide contour and possibly aids carrying comfort.
The tapered shape that results also calls one’s eyes to the larger than average sights, making them easier to acquire. These sights are much larger than those of a Glock, S&W M&P, or Springfield XD, making them more likely to snag on clothing when carried concealed.
Long defunct Interarms of Alexandria, Virginia, imported this early example of the P99, as they were the longtime distributor of the German firm’s wares. This first generation gun differs from later models in its trigger system, its proprietary rail versus the later Picatinny dust cover rail, the then-fashionable hooked trigger guard versus the current rounded one and narrow width and smallish rear slide grasping serrations.
The pistol was originally equipped with the Clinton-era neutered ten-round magazines, instead of standard capacity fifteen-rounders. First generation guns sold elsewhere in the world were equipped with now somewhat rare sixteen-round magazines.
The pistol examined also has 12-year-old Trijicon self-luminous sights that are due for replacement, although still visible. The rear sight is windage-adjustable via a slotted screw on the right side, but is a slightly sloppy fit in its mating surface cut in the slide.
The interior of the pistol brought few surprises. The very thin slide rails, a la Glock, which act as residue cutters and require little lubrication, appear to be molded into the frame. The barrel’s unlocking wedge is removable via a roll pin, as well as the trigger’s pivot pin.
The trigger drawbar is powered by a coil spring that operates in tension rather than compression, while most of the smaller action parts are manufactured of steel stampings powered by very small music wire springs. They all must be quite reliable, but don’t inspire immediate confidence in the traditionalist.
The underside of the slide is similarly unremarkable for something of the modern idiom. It is surprisingly heavy for something so hollow and the striker spring is far heavier in weight than the prevalent G19’s.
The author previously owned a much later manufactured P99AS. The “AS” moniker designates an Anti-Stress design that returns the trigger to a position nearly as far forward on single-action shots as it rests on the DA first shot. This was the most common current version available in the US. This trigger was somewhat problematic to use, because of this unnatural per shot return placement. I much prefer this first generation trigger.
P99's are also available in three other versions. The second is the double-action-only QA, or so-called quick-action variants, but this precludes the second-strike capability and functions much like the Glock Safe Action with a slightly pre-cocked striker while at rest. This version dispenses with the decocking button. The second option is a DAO trigger of some 8.5lb. This has been discontinued. The third version is the P99C compact, which is available in the current two trigger variants.
The chamber appears to be of a fully-supported type, in that the case head web area does not have a deep feed ramp incursion, nor does it have a “loose” fit when placing a loaded factory round in the stripped barrel. The chamber itself is centered in the breechblock area of the barrel, with thicker walls all around than the popular Austrian brand. One thing that was interesting is that, while Walther does not recommend the use of +P ammunition in the P99, the pistol has a very stout captive recoil spring system that makes the slide unusually stiff to retract for a 9mm pistol. The recoil spring is of the Glock pattern, of flat stock over a plastic guide rod that removes as a unit and is also not under much spring tension while doing so. I suspect that firing out of battery incidents with this pistol design, due to that recoil spring weight, would be very rare.
The feed stroke of the 99 is sort of old school, in that the release of the round from the magazine places the meplat of the bullet directly into the integral feed ramp, rather than largely bypassing it as in some other designs. However, this does not appear to be an impediment to reliability.
I can understand why the company greatly enlarged the size and width of the cocking serrations in later iterations of the pistol. When racking these 1st generation guns, I would use the overhand, rather than the slingshot method to ensure a firm grip, especially with a full magazine in place.
The slide’s cross-section adjacent to the breechblock area is also quite a bit thicker than a Glock, although the ejection port is quite large. One can just see the spot heat treatment of the forward top of the port that hardens it for its use as the locking abutment for the barrel through the finish.
My brother once owned a P99 chambered for the .40 S&W round and we both found it rather unpleasant to shoot. While the .40 round may offer some slight advantage in stopping power compared to 9mm +P, it is my view that it is best fired in a heavier handgun to soften the felt recoil pulse, especially in rapid fire.
The P99 is well machined, showing only very fine tool marks inside or out. These are no more noticeable than fine surface grinding. There are no plastic flashings to remove, nor sloppy mold lines on the frame. The steel parts in the pistol are finished in Tenifer, the German-developed and very corrosion resistant process whose use was pioneered by Glock. Like most modern pistols, the P99 is hardly a thing of beauty. (Actually, it is exceptionally ugly. -Editor)
The butt, so comfortable to grasp, also shows the usual German attention to detail. If one looks at the rear strap behind the magazine, you’ll note that it curves to meet the rear of the magazine well. The magazine’s floorplate also slopes upward to the backstrap, rather than being parallel to the bore, slightly enhancing concealability. Thus, it is more of a semi-round butt design that makes the pistol both more comfortable, as well as easier to conceal, an important point in today’s widespread CC marketplace.
It is also sealed from foreign object debris without the purchase of an aftermarket butt plug. The parts count is also low at 38.
Minuses include the slightly complex trigger options, the unusual magazine release, the odd placement of the decocking button, proprietary parts with no aftermarket support and a proprietary accessory rail unsupported by the aftermarket. I think the P99 is pretty thick for an inside waistband carry, though manageable for the thinner amongst us. Spare magazines are expensive, around $45 street price each, even though the pistol itself is reasonably priced in today’s devalued dollar world.
It requires the trigger to be de-cocked before field stripping can commence and the serrated bi-lateral panels that must be pulled down to lower the barrel locking wedge are somewhat slippery to use. Stripping the pistol is quite similar to the Glock. Remove the magazine and clear the chamber. Decock. By wrapping your fingers over the slide ahead of the rear sight and your thumb on the upper frame (with your shooting hand), rack the slide rearward approximately 3/32”, pull down the serrated plastic panels to release the barrel and remove the slide group by running it forward off the receiver group.
The pistol is somewhat tall. The slide is wide, at least 1/8” thicker than the already thick SIG P-226. Its saving grace is that the frame is no wider and it is flat in profile, while being about seven ounces lighter overall than that pistol.
The pistol may become slippery if your hands are wet or sweaty, so perhaps the latest P99 version, called the PPQ, with its Glock-like trigger and stippled surfaces would be more secure. Finally, racking the slide requires above average strength when executing this over a fully loaded standard capacity magazine.
(Editor's Note: Contrary to the usual Guns and Shooting Online handgun testing protocol, contributing writer David Tong did no bench rest accuracy testing with the P99 and recorded no 25 yard group sizes for this review. We realize that shooting offhand at very short range at large targets, only five yards in this case, provides no useful information about the intrinsic accuracy of any handgun.)
My first re-acquaintance firing of the pistol was gratifying. I placed ten rounds into an area that I could cover with my palm at five yards, offhand. The fine single-action pull and fast reset made it great fun and I consider it better than any other polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol out there for the above reasons.
A more extensive firing session at my gun club two days later brought no surprises. The ammunition fired included Sellier & Bellot 115 grain ball, PMC 115 grain ball and Federal 147 grain JHP. Approximately 150 rounds were fired in both slow and rapid fire and there were no malfunctions of any kind.
My final group was fired using a combination of the Federal 147 grain and the PMC 115 grain ball ammo from an aftermarket Pro-Mag magazine not known for reliability. The resulting 15 shots fired at five yards produced 14 hits within the 3.5”x2” eye box of a silhouette target, with the 15th shot being less than ½” low. Again, there were no malfunctions.
A second range trip with some Russian steel-cased/Berdan-primed ball caused two failures to fire out of 50 rounds fired. A second pull of the trigger detonated the primer correctly. These were judged to be ammunition, not gun, malfunctions.
Of all the modern service pistols the author has fired over the past 20+ years, the P99 is the easiest to manage the DA to SA trigger transition and has the least disturbance to aim during the striker fall of any pistol of that type. My friend, a retired 5th Special Forces veteran and his wife both commented on the ease of shooting, feel of the weapon, and accuracy. They now want to purchase one.
In the grand scheme of things, Walther is in the market with a pistol that appears to be a combination of existing features from other designs, as well as some unique ones, at a far more affordable price point than the other German manufacturer’s offerings. Engineering wise, or perhaps for marketing reasons, the firm decided on some unusual features to distinguish their pistol from the norm.
The P99 didn’t sell in great quantities, possibly due to the dollar/mark relationship of the 1990's that caused a rapid rise in its MSRP, as well as greed by the original importer, who charged nearly $1,000 for it. It has been all but replaced by the very similar PPQ, which resembles a Glock even more that the P99 and is now priced similarly to that pistol. With a slightly different control layout than any other pistol that might be off-putting to some, its combination of accuracy, compact size, corrosion resistance, feel and trigger pull is appealing to the romantic technologists among us.
Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.