Gun History: The Heckler & Koch P7 Pistol and the N.J. State Police

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The Heckler & Koch P7 pistol. (imfdb.org/)

After falling down a rabbit hole on the web, as I do so often, I came upon a weird little episode of gun history involving a unique pistol that isn’t made anymore, and my home state, specifically the New Jersey State Police (NJSP).

Now, this is by no means a full account of history, but just what I could piece together from various forum posts and such.

Trading Revolvers for Semi-Autos

(top) A Smith & Wesson Model 10 HB revolver was akin to what most law enforcement officers carried in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, they had begun switching to semi-auto, magazine fed handguns like the Beretta 92FS (bottom).

(top) A Smith & Wesson Model 10 HB revolver was akin to what most law enforcement officers carried in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, they had begun switching to semi-auto, magazine fed handguns like the Beretta 92FS (bottom). (imfdb.org/)

Indisputably, the NJSP troopers were issued Heckler & Koch P7M8 (and some P7M18) pistols and they carried them for a good number of years. How a state police force in Jersey ended up carrying one of the most expensive production handguns in the world at the time that were made in Germany is interesting in itself.

This post indicates that, like many police forces in the 1980s and 1990s, the NJSP decided that if they continued to carry six-shot service revolvers, they would continue to be outgunned by violent criminals. The post includes a quote from The Police Marksman, Volume IX, No.1 from January 1984 that says:

“The New Jersey Division of State Police began looking for a handgun with greater firepower following the December 1981 murder of Trooper Philip Lamonaco, whose empty service revolver was found near his body after conducting an apparent routine motor vehicle stop on I-80 near the Pennsylvania border. Trooper Lamonaco had been hit eight times from a 9mm handgun that was fired 13 times.”

The FBI came to a similar realization a few years later in the aftermath of what has become known as the “1986 FBI Miami Shootout,” in which FBI agents faced off against a pair of serial bank robbers and murderers—and the feds didn’t fare so well. During the intense firefight, two FBI agents were killed and five others were wounded. The two suspects were also eventually killed.

The investigation afterward put partial blame for the FBI casualties on the lack of stopping power exhibited by the agents’ service handguns. Some were armed with 9mm semi-autos, but most were using revolvers. One robber, William Matix, was armed with a Smith & Wesson Model 3000 12 gauge shotgun. He fired one round and was cut down by six bullets. But his partner, Michael Platt, was armed with a Ruger Mini-14 in .223 with multiple magazines. He kept shooting and fired at least 42 rounds from his rifle, three rounds from an S&W M586 revolver, and three rounds from a Dan Wesson .357 revolver, despite being shot 12 times.

So the FBI decided all agents should be armed with higher capacity, magazine fed, semi-auto pistols that are far easier to reload under fire than revolvers with higher capacities. The feds went on a circuitous route through the 9mm, the 10mm, the .40 S&W, and then back to the 9mm before settling on a caliber, but field agents were never issued revolvers again.

The incident also contributed to a lot of law enforcement agencies at various levels across the country switching from revolvers to semi-autos.

Going German

(left) After the infamous Miami Shootout, the FBI switched to the 10mm S&W Model 1076 while the NJ State Police adopted a slightly earlier model of the HK P7M13 in 9mm shown here (right).

(left) After the infamous Miami Shootout, the FBI switched to the 10mm S&W Model 1076 while the NJ State Police adopted a slightly earlier model of the HK P7M13 in 9mm shown here (right). (imfdb.org/)

While the FBI really went for it and initially chose the Smith & Wesson 1076 in 10mm Auto when they retired their wheelguns, the NJSP went with something a little more unconventional, at least on this side of the pond: the HK P7.

According to HKP7.com, Heckler & Koch produced the P7M8 variant of the pistol pretty much for the NJSP, because the gunmaker needed a large enough contract to justify changing the magazine release design. The original P7 had the mag release at the heel of the grip until 1997, as so many older European pistols did. This was something American shooters and law enforcement have never liked. Ever. Some of the first prototypes of the M8 went to the NJSP for testing.

The P7M8 was a strange looking pistol that was also unconventional in design. It’s a bit diminutive for a duty pistol, but despite its lines and size, HK did actually design it with European police forces in mind. It was simple, accurate, easy to carry, and chambered for the NATO standard 9mm Luger.

The gun feeds from an 8-round magazine (the P7M13 version used a 13-round mag) and has a conspicuous cocking lever on the front of the grip that’s unmistakable. If you need a reference point, it’s Hans Gruber’s gun from Die Hard.

That cocking lever must be squeezed before the trigger can be pulled and the gun fired. The lever actually cocks the firing pin in the striker-fired action. When it is released, the action is de-cocked. Therefore it also acts as a safety, meaning there’s no need for a manual safety, and no need to train troopers to disengage a manual safety when they draw, which was a concern for many agencies when switching to semi-autos.

(top) The NJSP had custom leather holsters for the P7 pistols with D-rings made to go wit their old-school Sam Browne belts. You can still find some on eBay (bottom).

(top) The NJSP had custom leather holsters for the P7 pistols with D-rings made to go wit their old-school Sam Browne belts. You can still find some on eBay (bottom). (Reddit and eBay/)

For the gun nerds: the internals are pretty neat too. It’s a blowback action that uses a unique gas-delayed system that draws gas pressure from the fired cartridge from a small port in the barrel to slow down the rearward motion of the slide. The gas engages a piston inside a cylinder located under the barrel that opposes the rearward motion of the slide until gas pressure declines when the bullet leaves the barrel. Then the slide is allowed to move backward, open the breech, and eject the spent casing.

This means the gun has no locking mechanism, so it’s a bit less complex than other designs, and the barrel is fixed to the frame and doesn’t move during the firing sequence, making it quite accurate.

So, as of 1983, all NJSP troopers began carrying P7 pistols in holsters that were specially made for them, inscribed with the NJSP logo, with D-rings included for attachment to their old school Sam Browne belts, which they still wear today.

Apparently, from what I can tell, the P7s were great pistols, the troopers liked them, and they continued using them until sometime around 2000 when they were literally wearing out, and after a tragic incident in 1997 brought the reliability of the aging pistols into question.

Trooper Scott Gonzales’ pistol jammed during a gunfight with a mental patient. He was killed while attempting to clear his pistol.

Looking For a Replacement

According to HKP7.com, the NJSP decided that, instead of ordering replacement P7s, they were going to switch to a different handgun and cancelled their contract with HK. Price may have been a factor, as the P7 was notoriously expensive.

The NJSP elected to replace their aging P7M8 pistols with the new Smith & Wesson SW99 in 9mm, which is a cousin to the Walther P99 due to a licensing agreement. There are slight difference from the P99. The SW99, unlike the P99, was offered in .40 S&W and .45 ACP.

The NJSP elected to replace their aging P7M8 pistols with the new Smith & Wesson SW99 in 9mm, which is a cousin to the Walther P99 due to a licensing agreement. There are slight difference from the P99. The SW99, unlike the P99, was offered in .40 S&W and .45 ACP. (imfdb.org/)

The agency held a trial that included pistols from Beretta, the Glock 17 and 19, the HK USP, the SIG Sauer P226, P228, and P229, and others. Astonishingly, according to an AP story published on March 5, 2000, the agency chose the 9mm Smith & Wesson Model 99, also called the SW99.

They issued the polymer-framed handgun to about 500 troopers in 2000, and some problems showed up almost right away.

Now, the SW99 was a weird version of the Walther P99 that was produced during a time when S&W was importing Walther’s handguns and the two companies were intertwining for various projects. This was one of them. It was essentially a P99, but with a few different parts and a different frame shape.

The AP story says the NJSP recalled hundreds of the pistols because they were jamming or otherwise malfunctioning during training. “There were enough malfunctions during the transition that it raised serous concerns among the union members,” said a troopers union leader in the story.

Just for an idea how expensive the P7 was, this ad from the '90s shows an HK USP going for $715 while a 9mm P7 costs $1,141 and the .40 S&W version has a price tag of $1,350.

Just for an idea how expensive the P7 was, this ad from the ’90s shows an HK USP going for $715 while a 9mm P7 costs $1,141 and the .40 S&W version has a price tag of $1,350. (Reddit/)

The story then says the 500 troopers who were issued the guns “will go back to using a different brand of 9mm until the problem is solved,” which doesn’t seem like a good fix, but OK. It also says, “The problems came up during training in early February. Smith & Wesson experts were unable to determine immediately whether the weapons were defective or had been used improperly by troopers. The state has a $2.1 million contract with Smith & Wesson for 2,600 guns.”

So it seems the NJSP blamed S&W, and then S&W blamed the ammo and the training, and then later, the extractors on the guns.

Regarding the contract, an NJSP press release dated March 14, 2001 says the agency contracted with S&W to purchase 3,200 handguns for $1.3 million—which is a bit different than what the AP story says, and that, even at that date, only 431 Model 99 handguns had been issued. Those troopers would turn in their SW99s and get back their HK P7s.

An article from GunWeek says that S&W believed an extractor swap would solve the stove-piping and FTF problems the troopers were seeing in training. They modified the ejectors on 3,300 SW99 pistols in an attempt to solve the issue, after it was determined the ammo being used wasn’t the problem.

The SIG P229 M11-A1, the modern version of the P229 with upgraded features. It was adopted by the NJSP after they had serious problems with the SW99. The P229 is still a favorite of law enforcement.

The SIG P229 M11-A1, the modern version of the P229 with upgraded features. It was adopted by the NJSP after they had serious problems with the SW99. The P229 is still a favorite of law enforcement. (SIG Sauer/)

Things get a little weird around here, because some sources say HK told NJSP they couldn’t produce enough P7 pistols to re-arm the entire force of about 3,000 troopers at once with new guns. There was apparently a replacement order of about 400 P7s delivered around this time so that the NJSP could trade out their most worn-out pistols, but HK still said they couldn’t handle an order of 3,000 pistols, though the P7 would go on to be produced until it was discontinued in 2008.

Whatever happened, the aging P7 was not going to be the sidearm of the NJSP going forward.

The contract to arm the 3,200 state trooper who needed working handguns ultimately went to SIG for the P229, which they should have probably chosen in the first place.

But even that didn’t last very long. About a decade later, in 2017, the NJSP sued SIG Sauer for $2.5 million alleging the 3,000 P229 pistols it bought from the gunmaker jammed frequently and were “virtually inoperable.”

The story says the agency tried to work with SIG to address the issues, but after the state spent $1.8 million on the P229s and almost $900,000 on holsters and other gear for them, they wound up switching to the Glock 19, one of the pistols they trialed and rejected almost 20 years earlier. The NJSP currently uses the Glock 19 Gen 4 pistol in 9mm.

The NJSP switched to the Glock 19, and that's what they still carry today.

The NJSP switched to the Glock 19, and that’s what they still carry today. (Glock/)

The Fate of 3,000+ Traded-In HK P7M8s

So what happened to those thousands of P7M8 pistols the state troopers traded in for new P229s?

Well, it’s a typical N.J. story. Around the time the guns were finally retired, there were reports in the local press about a few NJ police trade-in guns that had been recovered at crime scenes. Even though these incidents and firearms weren’t related to the NJSP, it was decided that the traded-in P7M8s would be warehoused instead of sold, and they were eventually melted into slag.

Today, all variants of the P7 are collector’s items, with average examples going for $2,000 to $3,000 on GunBroker.com. I’ve even seen some special edition models in mint condition selling for nearly $5,000.

The thousands of guns the state destroyed sometime after 2008 were undoubtedly worth millions of dollars. If the well-used sidearms were even in OK condition (the lowest price I’ve seen them go for is about $2,200, so let’s say $2,000 each), the lot of 3,200 pistols might be worth as much as $8 million if they were sold today, though of course, having 3,200 additional guns out there would lower the current prices some.



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