The Evolution of The H&K .45 ACP Handgun

    Heckler and Koch has had something of a spotty history with the American .45 ACP caliber. Originally, H&K -typically for a European company – was dismissive of the caliber, and felt they could not make a business case for weapons chambered in it. .45 ACP is after all, only really popular in the US and Southeast Asia. At the same time, H&K had a very close relationship with some US special units and law enforcement agencies that naturally desired weapons in that common caliber. Eventually, the dam broke and in H&K fully embraced the .45 ACP caliber with weapons like the UMP and their ever-changing polymer pistol line. Christopher Bartocci, writing for SADJ, has outlined the H&K .45 ACP pistol evolution:

    Traditionally, Heckler & Koch has been known for making some of the finest pistols and assault rifles in the industry. They have also had a major handicap that has prevented them from being as prevalent in the law enforcement and military market: the extremely higher than normal price. H&K has priced themselves out of much of the commercial and military market in the U.S. In 1989, H&K completed a study of the United States pistol market and came up with a set of criteria they would need to meet to compete with Glock, Beretta, SIG Sauer and Smith & Wesson. In September of 1989 work began on this new generation pistol. The criteria needed for this new pistol was to be affordably priced, conventional design, innovative features, reliable, durable, safe, accurate, high quality, advanced materials, large magazine capacity, low recoil, user friendly, many modes of operation and conventional locking system.

    During these early days of research and development, another pistol opportunity presented itself. In February of 1991, United States Special Operations Command announced their Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS) proposal. Much of the criteria for both pistols were the same and both pistols would use the same basic technology. The OHWS would be put through the toughest testing the world has ever seen for a pistol. In September 1991 the acronym USP or Universal Self-loading Pistol was assigned to the new family of weapons. The pistol was designed for the newly introduced .40 S&W caliber pistol. Unlike most of the other pistols in the industry, the USP was designed for this new caliber, not a 9mm pistol modified for the larger caliber. Prototype 1 was reviewed in February 1992 and the second prototype in June of 1992. In August of 1992, H&K delivered 30 OHWS pistols to SOCOM, which would eventually be adopted as the MK23 MOD O pistol. In September of 1992, the third prototype was reviewed and endurance testing began. In December, both the USP40 and USP9 completed the first half of the 20,000 round endurance testing. Upon completion, the USP design was frozen and production planning began. The USP was unveiled at SHOT Show in 1993 and in February 1993 USP production began at H&K GmbH in Germany. That same month the USP40 Variant 7 was submitted to U.S. INS/Border Patrol for evaluation. In April of 1993 the first USP40s arrived for sale at H&K Inc. for purchase, followed in June by the USP9.

    Although the USP is 20 years old, it is still state-of-the-art. H&K continues to build on it modernizing it for the changing times. The USP series pistol is in service throughout the world, although not necessarily in .45 Auto caliber. There is no doubt that the .45 Auto is America’s caliber and will be with us for a very long time. Deep rooted in tradition as well as a well backed up reputation make it one of the finest combat pistol calibers of all time. H&K has undoubtedly been on the forefront of modernizing pistols to fire this over 100 year old cartridge with the MK23, making the most advanced handgun in the world using this proven cartridge. The American market will continue to procure pistols from H&K in this caliber and by Americans I mean commercial, law enforcement as well as military. These pistols have seen service with American forces in the Global War on Terrorism as well as many other places throughout the globe including the MK23, USP45 and the USP45 Tactical models. The adaptability to any trigger variation has also put this gun on the list for law enforcement. Although not the most popular caliber abroad, the pistols in their 9mm variations are in use by the security forces of Australia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa and Spain. Also in that lineup are numerous U.S. military and law enforcement agencies.

    When visiting Alex C’s machine gun palace, I got to take a look at the Mark 23 handgun. Of all the pistols he had, that one made by far the biggest impression on me. Its comical size is endearing in a way that’s totally unique to me (granted, I have not yet seen a Mars pistol in person). Pictures simply cannot convey how huge and cartoonish the Mark 23 is; I found myself constantly picking it up, contemplating its gigantic size, and bursting into laughter.

    The USP, and its offspring the HK45 have really set the bar high for modern handguns, as well. While I feel for budget and practical considerations the Glock 19 is still the standard handgun I would recommend to a new buyer, in terms of quality the H&K line of wunderplastic pistols is very hard to beat indeed.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]