ARCUS 98DA 9x19mm Pistol

By David Tong

Photo by David Tong.

The 45-year-old Bulgarian firm ARCUS builds a wide variety of automotive components such as shock absorbers, as well as machine tools and exercise equipment. Their foundries are capable of casting both non-ferrous and iron ingots. They were originally established as a defense contractor and supply fuses for artillery shells and aircraft bombs, up to 40mm grenades, and manufacture both shoulder-fired low velocity grenade launchers and handguns.

They build the Model 94 pistols, essentially a copy of the single-action Belgian FN Hi-Power pistol with some contemporary styling cues. This pistol had the same length, height and width of the P-35. Grips and magazines, as well as most internal parts, were interchangeable. Century Arms was the former importer. Though still manufactured, it appears that importation ceased around 2007.

It has been replaced in the U.S. by the model 98DA, which as the suffix suggests means it is now capable of double action first shot firing. The pistol is also available in a so-called “compact” version, the model 98DAC, with a shorter 4” barrel and frame. This uses the standard 13 round magazine and butt length of the P-35. The pistols are also imported into the U.S. by Century Arms and are intended as high value, low cost service pistols. This, as we shall see, may be a disservice due only to their relative obscurity in the U.S.

Initial observations

They come packaged in a cardboard box with a photo of the pistol on it, as well as a spare magazine and blued steel cleaning rod wrapped in protective oiled paper. The arm is an interesting mix of the old Hi Power and newer DA designs.

Manufactured in their ISO 9001-2000 / 14001-2004 compliant facility and NATO-type approved for military use, the Bulgarian military and state police use it as their official sidearm. Several sources claim that it is also now the official service pistol of the Iraqi military and police. ISO certified manufacturing means, inter alia, that there is management integrity and manufacturing consistency with concurrent process review for accuracy to blueprint dimensions.

Constructed of CNC machined steel forgings, the pistol’s outward appearance is influenced by the older FN design. If one is familiar with the P-35, one can see the slide stop and thumb safety lever’s shape, the plate ejector that acts as the hammer’s left bearing surface, the pressed in, frame mounted barrel unlocking cam, the magazine release, split front and rear frame rails and the general outline of the slide is classic FN.

On close examination, there does not appear to be any use of castings or MIM. Even the slide stop and thumb safety lever appear to be machined forgings. There are no plastic pieces on the firearm, save for the rubber over-molded nylon one-piece grip.

Differences include a squared trigger guard that is partially serrated, wide cocking serrations, angular cuts to the slide top, flat surfaces on both the dust cover of the receiver and the bottom of the slide and more straight, rather than radiused, surfaces overall to decrease machine time. (Most all training schools advise against the use of the squared trigger guard, because it diminishes the support hand’s grip.)

Internally, the 98 dispenses with the “up and over” system of the single-action P-35s trigger lever pushing against the slide’s “see-saw” like sear trip lever. The more conventional internal stirrup follows the right interior of the magazine well and acts upon a sear that engages a double action sear and single action notch on the underside of the hammer.

The unlocking cam was simplified from the P-35s oval shaped version to a cylindrical shape. It is also secured with a cross pin. Thus, it is a replaceable part in case of breakage under long use.

A firing pin safety has been added to better protect against accidental discharge if dropped. There is also a half-cock notch.

The exterior of the pistol is well finished with no sharp enough edges to gouge skin or leather and no tool marks worth mentioning. Internally however, the pistol is not as well or completely machined. No more than necessary mill cuts are seen in the magazine well area, as well as the interior of the ejection port and the bottom of the slide that overrides the hammer on recoil. None of these surfaces affect function.

There is a Woodruff key slot cut out of the bottom rear of the frame with a cross pin that allows easy use of a retention lanyard, a good thing for a combat pistol for military or tactical use. The magazine well edge is broken, but not beveled. This is not a huge concern with a tapered top double column magazine, as they can be inserted quickly without issue.

While I understand that many people have issues with hammer bite on the P-35, I am not fond of the ARCUS solution. This downward angled tang gets in the way of the draw from a holster, as you have to scoop it from below and then seat your hand around the grip, rather than the more intuitive straight down grip presentation. It also raises the bore relationship to one’s arm, thus slightly increasing muzzle flip. This is probably not a factor in an all steel 9x19, although one’s grip could be higher without the odd tang.

The pistol overall is kind of “old school” in its construction techniques, materials and overall style. It reminds me of the early 1980's IPSC two-tone pistols, where hard chrome was selected for ease of cleaning and hard wearing bearing surfaces, with the matte slide and its serrated top cuts glare. Browning still offers the Hi Power Practical model that this pistol resembles.


    ·        Type: DA/SA service pistol

    ·        Overall length: 8”

    ·        Barrel length: 4.7”

    ·        Height: 5.5”

    ·        Weight, empty: 33.5oz

    ·        Safety: Frame mounted manual thumb, automatic firing pin lock, half cock notch. Thumb safety locks slide when “on” as per P-35

    ·        Magazine: Blued steel, 15+1 9X19. All SAAMI and CIP ammo can be used

    ·        Sights: Steel, 3 dots, dovetailed rear for windage. POA/POI for 25m

    ·        Finishes: Matte blue, or matte blue slide over hard chrome plated receiver

    ·        Stocks: Pebbled rubber with finger grooves over front strap

    ·        Accessories: Factory website shows a .22LR conversion unit as well as walnut and plastic grip options (unsure if U.S. available)

    ·        2012 MSRP: $530

Ergonomics and Function

Compared to a plastic-framed pistol, the 98DA initially feels heavy. It is some eleven ounces heavier than a Glock 17. It is heavy enough that many may not consider it a good choice for concealed carry.

The double-action trigger pull is atrocious. At 16 pounds, there is approximately 5/8” of trigger travel before a notable increase in pull weight and roughness begins and the overall pull length is nearly an inch.

Fortunately, like the famous Czech 75, one can dispense with the DA pull (except perhaps for home defense use when one awakens from sleep or to give the mainspring a rest) and use it in Condition One. The SA trigger pull is approximately six pounds, with about 1/8” of take up and reset of about 1/3”. It came from the box with notable creep, but this wore-in quickly after I thoroughly cleaned the pistol and applied some Tetra Gun Oil.

The pull then became reasonably clean and shootable. This is not terribly different from a current P-35, either. Due to the weight of the mainspring, I found it impossible to hold the front sight still when the hammer crashed down. The hammer also lacks the usual drilled lightening hole and consequently the slight additional mass adds to ignition reliability, but slows lock time a tad.

The barrel is of two-piece construction. The breech area is silver soldered onto the tube and forward area of the chamber. The barrel bushing is likewise silver soldered to the slide, similar to the FN product.

The frame and magazine body have been lengthened by 1/2” to gain two additional rounds compared to the P-35. The magazine’s dimensions are equal to that of the Beretta or SIG, but are proprietary to the ARCUS. Including the stripped magazine, there are only 49 parts to the entire pistol, comparing favorably to nearly everything except a Glock.

Dropping a round into the stripped barrel revealed only a very slight amount of movement in the chamber when wiggled and case head support appears quite good. The barrel is entirely hard chrome plated for wear and ease of cleaning and the feed ramp appears to mimic the flat one of the latest Mk III P-35 for feed reliability. The six-land, left-hand twist barrel’s conventional rifling will accept cast lead practice bullets with aplomb.

Since the safety lever acts only to lock out the trigger, standard precautions must be taken to lower the hammer from full cock. Typically, I place my left thumb over the hammer spur’s serrations firmly and move the hammer back slightly beyond the single action notch. After this, pull the trigger to allow the thumb to lower it down to the rest position. The safety, as in the P-35, only operates when the hammer is at full cock, so the ARGUS is a throwback to when operators were actually expected to understand how to do this safely, without a dedicated switch.

I hand cycled 15 Speer Gold Dot 124 grain JHP rounds though the pistol and followed the slide down into battery each time, instead of simply releasing it. I did this twice and the pistol fed flawlessly in this dry system check. The magazines feed release places the bullets directly into the barrel's feed ramp.

CIP pressure standards for the 9x19mm are hotter than the U.S. SAAMI MAP, and NATO-specification ball is hotter than the usual commercial grade practice ammo. With its well-supported chamber, small ejection port and steel forged construction, I suspect that the pistol will be quite safe.

The DA trigger pull weight is directly attributable to the pistol’s military origins. Hard primers are the rule and not the exception in issue ammunition and heavy springs are also the way the original P-35 dealt with the situation. If one is going to shoot the pistol with commercial grade ball and JHP defense ammo, I suspect that a 2 pound lighter mainspring from Wolff would make a huge improvement in both trigger pulls.

The manufacturer claims that the pistol should shoot to the point of aim at 25 meters, so after a magazine to confirm function, I fired the pistol from a sandbag rest to confirm this. Due to my smallish hands, I’ve never been hammer-bit by a Hi-Power, so if this pistol were mine, I’d remove that frame tang.

While the pistol does not come with an accessory rail, I think that the flat bottom of the dust cover ahead of the trigger guard could be drilled and tapped to mount a short section of 1913 rail and give the user a way to mount a flashlight or laser-aiming device. As it is unlikely that aftermarket night sights will ever become available for the Arcus, due to its low sales volume, the fringe illumination would make the sights visible in poor light and better identify one’s target in a defensive situation.

This is not a pistol bought for bragging rights, collecting, or pride of ownership. It is a hard use tool. It appears to be durable, ergonomic and reliable at a price point nearly untouchable in today’s new handgun market.

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Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.