Heckler & Koch's USP Tactical: The Wiley Clapp Review

posted on July 10, 2022
Photos by Hannele Lahti

This article, "Teutonic Titan: A Big .45 From The Old Country," appeared originally in the January 2006 issue of American Rifleman. Heckler & Koch USP Tactical .45 production continues today, in black, and is available in 9 mm Luger. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page and select American Rifleman as your member magazine.

H&K USP Tactical left-side view FDE frame pistol handgun magazine layout centerfold text

Heckler & Koch was one of the first European makers to introduce a post-World War II .45 ACP pistol and the first to offer a double-action/single-action (DA/SA) .45. The gun was the H&K P9 and, for a long time, it was the only double-action (DA) in town. H&K was a new company in the decades following World War II, and it was not tied to traditional concepts. Therefore, it is not surprising that its products were marked with innovation in materials, construction, fire controls and many other details. Early on, H&K understood the American fascination with first-shot double-action trigger systems in semi-automatic pistols, and every production H&K .45 has had some form of DA/SA lockwork.

The pistol at hand, the USP Tactical, is a variation of the popular USP, a gun that drove gun writers daffy trying to describe its various lockwork arrangements. According to the USP’s manual, the pistol can be configured by an armorer to operate in a variety of modes with the addition of the appropriate parts.

H&K USP Tactical pistol .45 FDE color right side with pouch accessories
The padded nylon carrying case is the same color as the pistol. As much as I am a traditionalist, I have to tell you that a tan, green or gray pistol has a certain appeal.

The gun is a big, high-capacity (12+1) pistol with a host of desirable features and modern construction. A very similar, but updated, .45 pistol from H&K was chosen for use with some elements of the Special Operations Command. I found that pistol, the Mk 23, to be a thoroughly reliable and very accurate handgun.

Made with a molded polymer receiver and a machined-steel slide, the USP Tactical operates on a Browning-style short-recoil system wherein the barrel is cammed downward to unlock from the recoiling slide. Although it is a pretty big pistol, the new H&K weighs just 32 ozs. Unloaded, it feels almost top heavy. The trigger system is a DA/SA, which means the first shot fires by means of a long, dynamic trigger pull. Subsequent shots are single-action, firing with a much lighter amount of trigger pressure.

H&K USP Tactical .45 closeup safety lever red white letters tan plastic black slide metal parts gun pistol
The decocker/safety lever on the left side of the receiver is positioned to fall easily under the shooter’s thumb. As shown, the safety is off and the pistol will fire with double-action pressure on the trigger.

The most immediately noticeable feature of the USP is the color of the receiver. The polymer is molded in a medium desert tan. I could also have had the gun in a medium NATO green or urban gray. The padded nylon carrying case is the same color. As much as I am a traditionalist, I have to tell you that a tan, green or gray pistol has a certain appeal.

There’s not much doubt that this is a pistol intended for military or police use. Most police officers would probably prefer a smaller gun, and H&K has other USPs that fill the bill in that regard. However, some of the features of the USP Tactical that make it bigger are worth their weight and bulk. Take the light rail on the receiver, for example. Molded into the polymer of the pistol’s dust cover are grooves that accept the H&K Mk II UTL weapon light and give a handgunner illumination in concert with the orientation of his pistol.

H&K USP Tactical .45 pistol muzzle barrel slide metal steel black tan plastic frame accessory rail
The barrel extends forward of the front end of the slide in a manner that is not typical of most pistols. That’s because the barrel is threaded for a portion of that extension. Molded into the polymer of the pistol’s dust cover are grooves that accept the H&K Mk II UTL weapon light, giving a handgunner illumination in concert with the orientation of his pistol.

The barrel extends forward of the front end of the slide in a manner that is not typical of most pistols. That’s because the barrel is threaded for a portion of that extension. There are many tactical situations when a sound suppressor is a great advantage, and modern variants are remarkably efficient. They’re also illegal to own without proper registration and payment of the federal tax. Most states permit their ownership and use, but others do not. A suppressor screws onto the barrel of the big H&K pistol very quickly. Also, the barrel has an O-ring fitted to it in an annular groove to ensure its proper positioning in the slide.

pistol handgun plastic butt detail magazine lanyard loop
At the lower rear corner of the butt, H&K designers provided an anchor point for a lanyard or, in current jargon, a “weapon retention system.”

Let’s now do a walk-around inspection of this pistol. From the bottom up on the receiver, we have a magazine well with a rearmost surface extending down just below the sides. The extension contains a recess with a cross pin to create an anchor point for a tactical lanyard. Just above that, on the sides of the butt, there are semi-circular recesses that allow the shooter to get a positive grip on the magazine. Also, like other modern H&K pistols, the USP Tactical has a magazine catch in the form of a shelf that extends completely across the base of the trigger guard.

Suitable for use with a gloved hand, the trigger guard of the pistol is quite large and has a panel of serrations on its front surface. With a nicely curved backstrap shape, the pistol’s grip-section is also large and hand-filling. Since a double-column .45 ACP magazine goes into the butt, it is rather thick.

Up top, the Tactical sports a squared and blocky slide that’s finished in a dull black described in the manual as a “Hostile Environment” finish. The rear sight, mounted in the slide with a wide dovetail, is fully adjustable for windage and elevation. The slide is largely beveled angles, with a flat top and sides. Cocking serrations are cut into the rear of the slide on both sides. On the right side of the slide is a massive extractor powered by a coil spring.

H&K USP Tactical handgun pistol frame tan plastic detail closeup trigger grip texture
The frontstrap of the pistol wears another panel of molded-in checkering that matches with the backstrap. Since special Operations personnel often wear Nomex gloves when they are fighting, the checkering helps them out.

That pretty much covers what the gun looks like, so we can move on to its handling and accuracy. The key to understanding how to manage the USP Tactical is the lever mounted on the left side of the receiver, just above a right-handed shooter’s thumb. This is an ideal location, in that the shooter doesn’t disturb his grip by reaching for it. This safety lever handles exactly like the one on a 1911 Colt. When it’s in the up position with the hammer cocked, the pistol is on safe and will not fire. Therefore, the USP Tactical may be carried cocked and locked, which gives a shooter the marked advantage of a short, crisp single-action trigger pull for every shot. If he chooses to do so, the shooter can carry the pistol with the hammer down, delivering the first shot with a long, double-action trigger stroke. In a departure from the norm, H&K arranged the USP lockwork so the safety may be applied with the trigger in either double-action or single-action positions.

What happens when the handgunner has fired a couple of shots and faces the need to render the pistol safe so he can jump a fence or handcuff a suspect? He can thumb the safety up to the safe position and leave the hammer cocked. But he can also thumb the safety farther down against stiff spring pressure and the hammer safely drops. The trigger automatically moves to the forward DA position. Where that all-important lever is concerned it’s simple: up to safe, down to fire, way down to decock. To me, this is the best of all possible DA/SA systems, but some authorities have complained that a shooter could inadvertently decock when he was just trying to take the pistol off safe—i.e., he moves the lever too far. I can’t buy that one. Even for my big hands and long thumbs, the length of the decocking stroke is so great, it requires a deliberate act to accomplish.

USP Tactical .45 pistol ballistic study accuracy chart table graph measurements

I enjoyed shooting the USP tactical, finding it to be a nifty gun to manage in all kinds of shooting exercises. Like many shooters, I used the tip of my trigger finger to activate the magazine catch, rather than the thumb. The decocker/safety lever is nicely positioned for any of the several manipulations we have looked at.

Once an avid NRA Bullseye shooter, I found the big, black sights to be reminiscent of the BoMar of yesteryear. Rapid-fire shooting with a first-shot DA trigger, I found myself wishing for something a little lighter. The single-action pull broke at about 4½ lbs., which is also a bit heavy, but there was minimal creep.

Specification table for H&K USP Tactical pistol .45-cal.

I had a great afternoon of hand-held shooting from the bench to evaluate the pistol’s accuracy. Using four different commercial loads of known quality, I worked my way through a series of five consecutive, five-shot groups with each. Early on, it became obvious that the gun was a real shooter, so I took a lot of time and was careful with trigger control, breathing, sight alignment and, particularly, follow through. I had arranged the bench bags in such a way that the gun was motionless, so it became a matter of getting each shot out of the tube without moving anything. Averaging under an inch, the pistol loved Federal 230-gr. Match. It shot the other loads almost as well—enough that I can report that this is an exceptional pistol in the accuracy department.

The USP Tactical is a big, raw-boned brute of a sidearm. It sits big in your hand and takes a fat magazine of those chunky cartridges that Americans have been using for almost a century. An accurate pistol with subtly effective lockwork, this H&K is a pistol that I can recommend to you.


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