by Bob Owens - Monday, July 09, 2012
Recently, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one of the more unique pistols made in America today—the Boberg XR9-S Onyx edition. While gun-designer/company-owner Arne Boberg describes his pistol as using a rotating-barrel locked-breech mechanism, that alone doesn't come close to describing the ingenuity of the design. The inspiration for the XR9-S was to create a pistol that delivered the downrange performance of the Glock 26 subcompact in a true pocket-pistol-size package comparable to the Ruger LCP.
The first thing I noticed about the XR9-S after opening the box was the pistol's compactness. The 3.35-inch barrel ends just in front of the trigger guard, and it was quickly dubbed the "noisy cricket" by my wife, who compared it to fictional gun of that name carried by Will Smith in the movie "Men in Black." Palm-sized but rated for a steady diet of +P 9 mm ammunition, the nickname stuck.
The next thing that jumped out at me was the pair of follower-free "backward" magazines that each carry seven rounds buried nose-down, instead of the traditional nose up position. The ultra-short length of the gun and unique bullet position in the XR9-S's magazine are due to fact that the magazine rides under the pistol's barrel. To chamber a round, you rack the slide as you would on any other semi-automatic, but what occurs inside is entirely different.
When the slide comes back, a twin-clawed lifting linkage grabs the rim of the top cartridge in the magazine and yanks it violently rearward before pushing it forward into the chamber. When the long double-action-only trigger is pulled, the empty cartridge begins moving back with the recoil—and so does the next cartridge in the magazine, pulled backward by the lifting linkage. The empty case is extracted and tossed free at the rear of the stroke, at which point the fresh cartridge has cleared the magazine and is ready to enter the chamber when the slide returns forward. It's a fascinating mechanism that really only found commercial success in the heavy machine gun designs of Hiram Maxim and John Browning.
But enough about the mechanism... how does it carry, and how does it shoot?
Carrying the Boberg was a dream. Sitting in an adapted leather IWB holster, the 17-ounce gun (unloaded) disappeared under a T-shirt, and if I'd had the pistol for a longer review period, it would have been the perfect "pocket 9" in one of the dedicated fabric or leather pocket holsters made for the gun. At least five different manufacturers make holsters for the pistol in various configurations ranging from belt to pocket to ankle holsters, so finding a holster to fit your carry style should not be a problem.
My range trip with the XR9-S was what you might call an "interesting" experience.
After teasing the RSO with the backward magazine full of 115-grain Remington UMC MC (metal case, or FMJ) I racked the slide to chamber a round. Having played with the mechanism and dry-fired the pistol repeatedly before chambering the first round, I was perhaps overconfident in the extremely light pressure needed to rack the slide, and short-stroked the first round.
Instead of lifting the bullet robustly to enter the chamber, the short-stroke lifted the cartridge exactly parallel with the bottom of the chamber and drove it forward into the chamber wall. It was a failure to feed of a kind I'd not encountered before, and it was about to get weird.
I tried to re-rack the slide, but the mechanism was jammed. I removed the magazine and started trying to free the stuck cartridge, which was a neat trick considering there is no slide-lock on the pistol (nor is it possible to add one because of the gun's design), leaving just one hand to try to poke or pry the cartridge free. Ultimately, I was unable to free the cartridge by finger pressure alone, but was able to use a tool to push the round nose-down enough to clear the chamber and the jam. After robustly re-racking the slide, the cartridge loaded flawlessly, I re-inserted the magazine and began shooting.
The XR9-S trigger is a long double-action-only affair well suited for the sort of deliberate self-defense work for which the gun was designed, with a predictable feel that tempts shooters to "stack" the trigger for precision shots (though Boberg himself says you shouldn't). There is no short reset point as there is on many pistols, and the trigger must be returned all the way forward to fire the next round.
Firing the XR9-S is a dream. The sights are very serviceable for a pocket pistol (though I might suggest making night sights standard on a pistol of this type), but what really stands out is the recoil, or rather, lack of it. Pocket 9 mm pistols have long earned the reputation of being punishing to fire, because of their light weight, short barrels and the relative power of the 9 mm cartridge compared to the "true" pocket-pistol cartridges like .380 ACP.
Recoil of the Remington UMC load felt surprisingly and pleasingly much less than expected, and I fired four magazines through the XR9-S flawlessly, without the first bit of recoil "sting" that can develop when shooting other lightweight handguns. I then shifted to 124-grain Federal Hydra-Shok personal-defense rounds. Any concerns I had as to whether the hollow-point bullet would chamber were quickly put to rest, and the self-defense load delivered an insubstantial change in recoil impulse. I fed a box of the 124-grain ammo through the XR9-S without incident, then moved to a box of higher-velocity, lighter-weight Federal Guard Dog 105-grain expanding full metal jacket (EFMJ) ammunition, which was slightly snappier than the other two tested loads, but was by no means unpleasant to shoot.
After finishing the defensive loads, I returned to the Remington UMC to finish off the box, and once again caught myself short stroking the slide. The result was another jammed round that required the use of a Leatherman to push the nose of the cartridge down and re-rack the slide after dropping the magazine. Feed from shot to shot remained flawless.
I noted that I tended to shoot the gun low (perhaps due to how I was using the double-action-only trigger), but the gun easily kept everything I fed through it at "minute-of-man" accuracy, shooting both two-handed and one-handed, unsupported. I saw no need to test the XR9-S for pure accuracy, as that is not the purpose for which the gun was designed.
Overall, the fit, finish and quality of the all-black "Onyx" edition of the Boberg XR9-S was top notch, as you would expect from a pistol with an MSRP just less than $1,000 and a street premium that boosts the actual retail price substantially higher.
The jamming of the pistol, however, was disconcerting. While it appears to be due primarily to operator error and unfamiliarity with the gun's design and function, the fact that it requires some sort of a tool to clear the kind of jam I experienced was terrifying, especially considering this is a fighting handgun designed for point-blank, last-ditch self-defense.
Would I rule the XR9-S out as a defensive weapon because of these jams? After much consideration, I don't think so. The advantages of the Boberg's light weight, low-recoil, small physical envelope, ability to handle a steady diet of +P ammunition and general suitability as a pocket pistol outweighed what I view to be primarily a training issue.
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