Guns We Miss: The HK P7

Introduced by Heckler and Koch in 1976 as the 9mm PSP (Polizei-Selbstlade-Pistol, for “police self-loading pistol”), and subsequently dubbed the P7, this handgun was and is unique. It developed a cult following almost immediately. Teutonic quality in build, BMW-like in both performance and cachet, this radical design was only produced for about a quarter century.

Overview of the HK P7

The HK P7 was gas operated via a tube under the barrel. Its extremely low bore axis reduced muzzle jump. I found it extremely reliable with most American ammunition except super-light bullets going super-fast, like the Glaser Safety Slugs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. With those it would feed, but wouldn’t necessarily cycle after the shot. Those rounds turned the P7 into a semi-semiautomatic.

The P7’s most distinctive feature was its fire control mechanism. It was a squeeze-cocker: striker-fired, its striker was at rest and its trigger floating dead until the shooter’s hand depressed the lever on the front of the grip frame. This cocked the striker, with an end protruding from the rear of the slide as a cocking indicator, and now the trigger was alive — with one of the crispest, sweetest trigger pulls ever found in a service pistol, since the trigger mechanism had been relieved of any cocking mission. The original PSP came with a butt-heel release, its lever exposed; HK soon offered a sleeker second generation with the grip reshaped to protect the lever. I opted for the upgrade with my early specimen and never regretted it.

Mas Ayoob releasing magazine on H&K P7 pistol
Author demonstrates butt-heel release on his PSP, updated to next generation before the M8 with ambi side mag release.

Developed for German police, the HK P7 got a huge boost when it was adopted by the elite GSG-9 counterterrorist unit. In the US, it got another adrenaline hit of sales when New Jersey chose the M8 for their state troopers. The original PSP and P7’s butt-heel release was anathema to American cops accustomed to the side-button mag release of the Colt 1911, the Browning Hi-Power, and the S&W 39 that was adopted by the Illinois State Police, the first troopers in America to go auto from the traditional service revolver. NJSP was roughly tied with Connecticut, which chose the Beretta 92, for the second state police agency to transfer the service revolver from the police armory to the police museum, circa 1983. The NJSP instructors at the Academy at Sea Girt told HK they’d adopt it if they could re-design it so the support hand didn’t have to rip an empty magazine past the butt heel release. Unable to install an American-style release button due to the squeeze-cocker design, HK came up with an ambidextrous flipper behind the trigger guard. This became what I believe to be the most popular version of the pistol, the P7 M8, the latter figure connoting its magazine capacity. The Jersey troopers loved everything about it, except that occasionally the seat belt crossing the holster would hit the flipper and drop the magazine. More than one trooper there told me the protocol became “Put vehicle in park, unfasten seat belt, use thumb to check that magazine is still in, exit the vehicle.” But they loved it despite all that, for its endearing qualities of shooting, not to mention its sleek, comfortable ease of plainclothes/off-duty carry.

The higher capacity S&W Model 59 had led the charge to “high-capacity wonder-nines” and some looked askance at the eight-round magazine of HK’s strange-looking 9mm. NJSP addressed that issue by issuing four spare magazines in a quad pouch. Utah’s state troopers took a different approach: they waited until HK came out with a fat-gripped version with a double-stack 13-round magazine, the P7 M13.

Over the years HK made the clunky 10+1 .40 caliber P7 M10 and the smaller P7 K3 in .32 ACP, .380, and .22 LR. They even made half a dozen prototypes of the never-offered P7 M7 in .45 ACP.  However, the single most popular by far was the original 9mm 8+1 configuration. For a deeper dive into the mechanics of the P7 series check out Ian McCollum’s Forgotten Weapons entry, here:

The inherent accuracy of the fixed, polygonal barrel combined with superb barrel-to-grip angle, low bore access, and easy trigger to make the P7 eminently shootable. I once won an IDPA match in the Enhanced Service Pistol division shooting it against longer barrel 9mm 1911s with super-light triggers, but my own experiences in that regard pale in comparison to some others. The European IPSC Championship was won at least once with a P7 (in the hands of Siegfried Huebner if I recall correctly). When I shot on Team HK under team captain John Bressem back in the early 1980s, our star shooter was Bruce Gray ( Bruce had tricked out a P7 with a recoil compensator and his own trigger enhancements, and he kicked a lot of butt with it at Bianchi Cup.

Mas Ayoob shooting the H&K
Massad Ayoob demonstrates the low muzzle rise and soft recoil of the compact HK P7 9mm.

An unexpected bonus showed up once the HK P7 was in the field: an element of proprietary nature to the user in weapon retention situations. There were multiple reports of bad guys getting hold of a cop’s P7 but the gun staying silent when they pulled the trigger, because the gun-grabber had failed to squeeze-cock it. This bought time for those embattled lawmen to regain control of the situation.

HK P7 with dummy gun
Dummy P7 M13 made for handgun retention training by Odin Press, right, symbolizes the P7’s resistance to being fired by an unfamiliar user. Note also M 13’s larger trigger guard and side-mounted mag release compared to earlier P7.

The P7 was a polarizing thing among handgunners. They loved it or they hated it; there just seemed to be no middle ground. I was in the first camp. I appreciated its speed, accuracy, and reliability enough that I could live for a while with its idiosyncrasies. It was love at first sight love at first shot. In the end, though, we parted amicably.  The reason for the breakup was that the P7 turned out to be a very jealous mistress, and I was not the monogamous (shooting) partner it needed.

The Jealous Mistress Effect

I call the P7 a jealous mistress because it requires a manual of arms like no other. It is at its very best in the hands of someone who uses it, and it alone. We always use a firm grip to draw a handgun, and to hold one in a danger situation. This meant the P7 was cocked with a very short, light trigger pull from the moment it was grasped in its holster, an obviously dangerous situation in searches, gunpoint captures, etc. I learned to draw the P7 with my fingers like rigid claws and apply pressure only when it was time to shoot.

The takedown works by pressing the button arrowed in an accompanying photo, moving the slide slightly back, and lifting it. I saw this happen by accident with P7 shooters using the GI method (thumb toward shooter) of racking the slide. It didn’t bother me personally because I prefer the Israeli method (thumb toward muzzle/target) but it concerned me enough I had the button ground down on mine.

Pressing take down button on the H&K P7
Massad demonstrates the beginning of takedown, which occasionally happened inadvertently. Amusing to the range officers, but not the shooters!

There were other concerns. The gas tube in the dust cover area quickly developed a lot of heat in the trigger/trigger guard area. I never found it that uncomfortable in 60-shot PPC courses or 18-round IDPA strings, but I wouldn’t have chosen the P7 for a 1000-round-a-day course with Frank Garcia at Universal Shooting Academy or David Maglio at Firearms Academy of Wisconsin, either. HK addressed this with a redesign on the M8 and M13, but some still found the heat build-up objectionable.

It is said that Americans don’t read owner’s manuals. I lost count of P7 owners who came to me thinking they needed an empty magazine to lock the slide back. In fact, the slide lock lever is an inconspicuous little piece of metal behind the trigger on the left of the frame, which must be pushed straight back toward the shooter. For right-handed gunners, this is extremely awkward and tends to twist the gun to the side, “breaking the 180.” I taught shooters to put the pistol in their left hand to keep the muzzle downrange while they depressed the lever with their left trigger finger and retract the slide with their right hand.

HK P7 pistol with labels
Features included squeeze-cocking lever (1), takedown button (2), butt-heel mag release on earlier models (3), and the awkward slide lock lever (4).

Like No Other

Whether because it was too different or too expensive, the P7 is gone from the market with extant specimens available but pricey. It was a unique firearm. For this particular shooter, the parting with the jealous mistress was amicable and we still, uh, see each other occasionally.

Massad "Mas" Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics. Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct through Massad Ayoob Group,

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