The TEC-9: A Paper Tiger

In the realm of ineffective and inefficient firearms, the TEC-9 certainly dominates. The gun is plagued with a whole host of issues and faded away without much fanfare from the gun community. While the TEC-9 might not have been the best gun, you wouldn’t know that by its seemingly frightful reputation. The TEC-9 was once the star of the gun world, and not in a good way. It became the symbol for a bad guy gun, but in reality, the TEC-9 was a bit of a paper tiger. 

The History of the TEC-9 

George Kellgren designed the gun that became the TEC-9 in 1984. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because George Kellgren is also the man behind KelTec. Kellgren initially designed the weapon as the Interdynamics MP-9, an open-bolt submachine gun designed to be affordable and effective. The MP-9 didn’t attract any buyers, so a U.S. subsidiary was established to produce a semi-auto-only handgun variant known as the KG-9. 

Intratec model advertisements
Intratec made tons of different models of the TEC-9.

K was for Kellgren, and G was for Garcia, Kellgren’s partner. The ATF whooped in and demanded some changes be made to the KG-9. This was an open bolt pistol, and the ATF found it too easy to convert to full auto. For some, that was a selling point because new SMGs could still legally be made but required an ATF tax stamp. Most full auto TEC-9s you see in media are converted KG-9s. 

The polymer lower receiver required a metal serial number tag. The next model was the KG-99. Eventually, George Kellgren left the company, and in August 1985, Interdynamics became Intratec. The KG-99 became the TEC-9. The TEC-9 and its various offshoots would be produced from 1984 until 2001. 

The Ins and Outs of the TEC-9 

“Crude” is probably the best way to describe a TEC-9. No one would ever pick one up with the idea that this was a high-quality weapon. The sights are crude. The ventilated barrel shroud looks crude. The finish is crude, the ergonomics are crude, it’s just crude, and I’m tired of saying that word. I’ll give credit where it’s due and will say the use of a polymer grip and lower receiver was ahead of its time for 1984. 

The TEC-9 looks scary, but it really isn’t.

The TEC-9 series are direct blowback guns with unlocked breeches. For the end user, this translates to a gun with some very hefty recoil. While your average TEC-9 weighs about three pounds, it has more recoil than a Glock 17, which is also a 9mm handgun. Blowback designs incorporate heavy bolts and springs to delay the opening of the bolt. This creates a hefty mass being pushed rearward, which creates more recoil. 

The heavy spring makes it tough to charge and difficult to fix malfunctions. The sights across the top are, well, sights, and I don’t have much else to say about them. The magazine sits forward of the trigger, and magazine capacities ranged from 10 to 50 rounds, but 32-round magazines were the most common model. 

intratec catalog with tec-9 variants
Intratec produced a ton of different guns, including the TEC-22.

The charging handle sits on the left side of the gun and doubles as the gun’s safety. It’s ridiculously simple, and it’s no wonder the TEC-9 has been used so extensively by the DIY gun crowd. The TEC-9 is more or less the most modern incarnation of the famed STEN gun. Simple, cheap, and crudely made. 

Gun Control Swings Hard

The best thing the TEC-9 has going for it is the memorable layout. The magazine sits in front of the trigger, and the ventilated barrel shroud makes the gun stand out. The somewhat extreme look of the gun in that era triggered some emotional feelings toward it. There were a few high-profile shootings where the gun was used, and that was all it took. It became public enemy number 1 for the gun control lobby. 

The TEC and the MAC were the scariest pistols of the era, regardless of their effectiveness.

What didn’t help the image of the TEC-9 as a criminal’s favorite gun was the advertising. Garcia and Navegar, the holding company for Intratec, made some interesting choices. They advertised the gun as “Tough as your toughest customer.” 

There is also a rumor they advertised the gun as fingerprint-resistant, but I can’t for the life of me find that ad anywhere. You’d think it’d be famous enough to catalog after that very line made it into the film, “Runaway Jury.” All I can find is an advertisement for the TEC-KOTE finish that describes it as resistant to body perspiration. 

California banned the gun by name in 1990, but they just rebranded it as the TEC-DC9 and swapped a few small features to produce a ‘new’ model and get around the ban. In 1994, the TEC-9 and its many variants were subsequently banned by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. Intratec responded by creating the AB-10. AB stands for “After Ban,” and it essentially removed the offending, mostly cosmetic, features to allow it to be sold. 

The TEC-9 has been banned by name in numerous states outside of California, including New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. 

The Pop Culture Effect 

In the 1990s, the TEC-9 was the bad guy gun for movies and TV. Just watch any episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. There must have been a couple of million TEC-9s in Texas because every bad guy had one in the show. The same goes for Miami Vice, where the gun was commonly used by bad guys. 

mimi vice scene with tec-9
Miami Vice loved the TEC-9 (IMFDB)

Nearly every action movie or show in the late 80s and 90s featured the gun. This includes the A-Team, Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, Bad Boys, and many others. From my memory, the only time a good guy wielded a TEC-9 was in Big Trouble in Little China. 

Pop culture influences people’s perceptions, and the constant use of the TEC-9 by bad guys made it the bad guy gun. Regardless of the fact, it was remarkably efficient as a firearm design. 

The TEC-9 In Real Life 

I own a TEC-9, specifically a TEC-DC9 with a removable barrel shroud. It’s easily one of the most unreliable guns I own. I’ve tried every fix and solution I can to make the gun work, but it just won’t run. This is why the TEC-9 is a paper tiger. I’m not the only one to experience issues with my TEC-9. In fact, it’s a pretty common problem with these guns, and numerous YouTube videos exist to document the difficulties. 

While the TEC-9 looks intimidating with its large size and distinct shroud, it’s still just a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. It’s functionally no different than any other 9mm pistol. If anything, it’s worse than standard 9mm handguns. 

The recoil throws the gun up and off-target with every shot, and the big bolt makes tons of sight movement as it travels back and forth. The sights suck, and the gun isn’t quite accurate. The best way to reliably run the gun is to single-load one round at a time into the chamber. It’s easier than dealing with the constant complicated malfunctions when using the magazine. I’ve never gotten more than four rounds to fire in a row. 

If I were going to a gunfight and got to pick the gun my enemy was armed with, I’d make it rain TEC-9s. The gun has a fearsome appearance, and media and pop culture certainly attempted to make it seem to be more than it is. It’s just a paper tiger. 

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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