I should start off by admitting that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the .357 Mag. cartridge. It was the first full-throttle revolver round to join my shooting set years ago and has remained a favorite ever since. Despite being more than 80 years old, the team that designed it (Elmer Keith played a key role) succeeded in creating a cartridge which has only improved with time. Today, the .357 Mag. can be found in compact snub-nosed concealed carry revolvers as well as full-sized wheel guns for duty use, competition and hunting. The cartridge performs well from bolt-action and lever-action carbines, making it a solid choice for hunting small and medium game at moderate ranges.
But what about semi-auto pistols chambered in .357? Because this cartridge is fairly long, rimmed and generates a relatively high level of pressure (35,000 psi Max), it has remained for the most part a revolver and rifle round. But there are at least two semi-automatics that have gone into full production. One is the beefy gas piston operated Desert Eagle pistol, which is currently manufactured by Magnum Research here in the United States.
The other one is the Coonan, a recoil-operated semi-auto pistol based on the M1911 so many American shooters know and love. Built here in the U.S., it was my understanding that this pistol (using a design that predates the Desert Eagle) went out of production in the mid 1990s. But lo and behold, at SHOT Show a couple of years ago, I learned that Dan Coonan, the original designer, had since teamed up with Dave Neville and Gordy Davis to form Coonan, Inc. In 2009, they brought back the original 5" barrel version of the pistol, calling it the Classic. In 2013, the company launched a compensated version featuring a 5.7" threaded barrel with a removable muzzle break. But not too long ago, the Coonan Compact version started shipping. After looking over the specifications for this new gun, I just had to give it a try.
The Coonan Compact, like the Classic version, contains several components that are interchangeable with the 1911, but much of the pistol is composed of proprietary parts. To make this pistol easier to carry concealed, 1.2" was shaved off of the overall length of the slide, reducing the barrel to 4" instead of 5". The grip frame was trimmed down to accept a 6-round magazine instead of the 7-round version. As a result, the pistol is 3 ozs. lighter than the Classic with an unloaded weight of 39.30 ozs.
The frame, slide, barrel and appointments are constructed of stainless steel. The version tested for this review has a natural stainless brushed finish on the flats with a matte finish on the rounded edges and appointments. The classically styled slide is topped with a set of blued steel low-profile 3-dot sights. Both sights are dovetailed into the slide with the rear sight being drift adjustable for windage. The long, external ejector is supported by a coil spring, instead of a leaf spring, for improved reliability. The linkless 4" barrel is flared at the muzzle instead of having a removable barrel bushing. The recoil assembly consists of a full length stainless steel guide rod, fitted with a single 24-lb. spring housed in the frame’s full-length dust cover.
Those familiar with the 1911 and its controls will feel right at home with the Coonan. The extended slide catch, thumb safety and checkered round button magazine release are all located on the left side of the frame in typical 1911 fashion. A beavertail grip safety protects the shooting hand from the rounded, skeletonized hammer.
The aluminum trigger is housed in a generous squared off trigger guard that leaves plenty of room for the trigger finger to maneuver. Unlike standard 1911 triggers, which move straight back into the frame, the Coonan trigger pivots from the top. The trigger pull was smooth and clean with a slight take up in the trigger before a crisp break. Coonan advertises that their unconventional, but comfortable to work with, triggers leave the factory operating at between 4 to 4 lbs. 8 ozs. of trigger pull.
This pistol's trigger cycled at 4 lbs. 6 ozs. of trigger pull. The grip frame is noticeably longer from front to back, as are the magazines, in order to make room for .357 Mag. cartridges. The front strap and mainspring housing are smooth and free of any texturing. The grip panels are smooth walnut, with the Coonan logo engraved on each, and held in place with standard screws. The Coonan Compact ships with two 6-round stainless steel magazines with red polymer followers.
Although the 5" barrel Classic model can be modified to cycle .38 Spl. ammunition by swapping out the recoil spring, the Compact version is strictly a .357 Mag. only pistol. The 24 lb. recoil spring is optimized for use with 125-gr. to 158-gr. jacketed bullets launched at standard velocities. Reduced power .357 Mag. ammunition, like cowboy competition loads, will not cycle the slide properly. The pistol will chamber and fire .38 Spl. but it does not generate enough energy to work the action.
While preparing the Coonan Compact for the range, I took some time to bench check the magazines with various loads. A couple of years ago, while working with a Desert Eagle chambered in .44 Mag., it turned out that several loads I had on hand wouldn't fit into the magazine resulting in their elimination from the ammunition test set. But with the Coonan magazines, everything I had on hand within the prescribed bullet weight range fit perfectly, including Hornady's unusual (for revolvers) polymer-tipped LeverEvolution 140-gr. FTX. Out of curiosity, I pulled out the heaviest rounds I had on hand, including Federal Premium's 180-gr. Swift A-Frame, and Double Tap's 200-gr. flat nose hard cast loads. Every single bullet type I could find fit into the magazines without any hang-ups or binding.
At the shooting range, the Coonan Compact demonstrated the positive handling characteristics one would expect from a high quality, production custom 1911 but with more get-up-and-go than a .45 ACP. All of the controls worked flawlessly. Although the pistol's weight grows to about 45-ozs. when fully loaded, it feels well-balanced in the hands. The sights are useful and easy to see. Both magazines locked in tightly and dropped free when the magazine release was pressed. Even though some of the grip frame's dimensions are slightly larger than average, the grip proved to be comfortable.
It should come as no surprise that firing full-power .357 Mag. ammunition from a relatively compact semi-automatic pistol will result in a vigorous level of felt recoil. However, it was a real pleasure to find out how manageable and enjoyable the pistol could be. With the hot and heavy hunting loads the recoil was stout, no doubt about it. When firing defense grade loads topped with lighter bullets, it felt more like shooting a .45 ACP loaded with +P ammunition. There was still a good solid push-back from the pistol but at a level that would allow an experienced shooter to enjoy a full practice session at the range.
Spent cases flew several yards when ejected. For those who like to reload, the brass fired from the Coonan shows a little malformation around the case mouth, but not so much as to prevent the cases from being reused.
This pistol ran reliably with all of the ammunition it was fed from start to finish. There were no malfunctions of any kind. So far the pistol looked good, ran reliably and was fun to shoot. That left checking the pistol's accuracy. Once again, it did not disappoint. Coonan says their pistols are capable of producing 2.5" or smaller groups at 25 yards. I was able to meet that claim with a 2.43" 5-shot group using Black Hills 125-gr. jacketed hollow points, which was the smallest of the test. The Black Hills load averaged 2.80” at this distance from a bench rest, followed closely by Federal 158-gr. jacketed hollow points at 2.81” and Remington UMC 125-gr. rounds at 3.00”.
Shooting the Coonan Compact was simply some of the best fun I've ever had standing behind a semi-automatic pistol. This gun provides the va-voom of shooting one of my favorite Magnum revolver cartridges with the handling characteristics and reloading speed of a 1911. The accuracy is top notch and the price is in line with other high quality, custom production pistols in its class. It provides a level of stopping power that's hard to argue with. For those who are willing to pack a steel-framed pistol, the Coonan offers an ideal level of flexibility for personal protection, home defense and adventures in the great outdoors.