The Worlds first Assault Pistol

By Barry Johnson.  



I have sitting before me a SOCOM Mk 23 pistol and I am, quite literally stunned. The reasons for this are many fold and will become apparent as you read this article, but the overall effect is wow! Before it arrived I think that I had read almost every article and book about this weapon and studied numerous photographs, from the first prototypes right on up to the final production pieces, but nothing, I can assure you prepares you for the real thing.

Most of the material was from the States; magazines like Guns & Ammo and Handgunner, etc. Make no mistake about it, these are quality journals whose staff are some of the most respected men in the business, but I cannot help feeling that they have missed the point somehow. You see, they all kept talking about size, weight, width and concealability and almost all bemoaned the shear bulk of the gun. I believe this attitude has also (to a much lesser extent) crept into the thinking of the special forces units that the weapon was designed for, probably because most of them read the aforementioned publications and respect (rightly so) the opinions of the journalists (many of whom are former soldiers and law enforcement officers). So in this article I intend to try and redress the balance a little. 

First and foremost let me state from the beginning that I think we all got of on the wrong foot with the SOCOM Mk 23 for a very simple reason. The handgun, be it a semi auto or a revolver is and always was a defensive weapon. It was intended to be used either as a back up for a larger offensive firearm or as a last ditch moral booster. In the case of police officers, security personnel and private citizens, as something to have if all the planning went out of the window and one needed to defend oneself. It has to be said that as far back as the wild west and right on up to the present day there have always been men and women who have demonstrated some remarkable fighting skills with handguns, from the old time gunfighters to the modern military hostage rescue and black operations troops who employ them; but the handgun has always been designed as a weapon for self defence. 

Since the Sixties various manufacturers and custom shops have been marketing and selling products that they have developed to enhance off the shelf weapons to make them more user friendly, reliable and accurate. It started with custom safeties and extended magazine and slide releases then went onto high quality barrels that made the guns more accurate, better and improved sights, magazines and grips, more durable finishes and materials, and in the past fifteen years or so torches and lasers to enable night fighting and hostage rescue. In short, they have been subconsciously evolving the handgun into a primary offensive weapon so that it can be used in tight, confined spaces like bunkers, aeroplanes, lift shafts and from the inside of vehicles with maximum effect. All the designers at Heckler & Koch have done (at the behest of the US Special Operations Command) is look at what they required and at what was currently being offered by a multitude of sources and combine the requirements and current thinking into a state of the art weapon, thereby introducing the worlds first out of the box assault pistol, the H&K Mk 23 SOCOM, or to give it its official title, The Offensive Handgun Model 0. In other words a weapon that is designed from scratch to initiate an action and then to finish it, whilst keeping its user alive and from harms way. 

Well thatís enough of a history lesson, lets take a look at the gun itself and address some of the remarks already made about it.

On opening the stout cardboard box you are greeted by the sight of the pistol itself, one spare magazine, a bilingual operators manual in English and German, two spare Ď0í rings and a factory test target. This target was shot at twenty five meters at the factory from a rest. The five shot group measures one and a half inches across, with four of the rounds in one ragged hole ĺ  of an inch across!.

To be fair the first impression most people have is the weapons size, which one cannot deny, is large. It has been compared to a Desert Eagle and it has to be said that the two guns dimensions are roughly equal, but there the similarity ends. A lot has been written about this, mostly bemoaning the fact that a Desert Eagle has double the range, and in 44 Magnum two and a half times the muzzle energy of the SOCOM, but the former was never intended as a serious combat handgun, more as an interesting sporting weapon for those turned on by the idea of a semi automatic magnum. Furthermore the Desert Eagle has nowhere near the service life or the reliability of the Mk. 23 and is quite a bit heavier, so more unwieldy.

Anyway, size is a comparative in the world of handguns, for example a four inch barreled Ruger Security Six .357 Magnum is only five millimeters shorter than the SOCOM and is slightly wider at the cylinder. It also sits much higher in the hand and felt recoil is substantially worse, yet it is still carried and used by a number of professionals in the world today. Again on the subject of width the Sig P226 series of weapons is only three point eight millimeters narrower than the SOCOM but is one of the most popular concealed carry guns in use on the planet (The P228 being my personal favourite); users including the FBI, the SAS and the covert arms of British Intelligence.

As any plain clothes operator will explain, all the mid size weapons like the Browning High Power or the Colt M1911 A1 are, at best, only casually concealable. They are fine if you want to stroll down the street or stand and pretend to read your paper on the corner without attracting attention to the fact that you are carrying a firearm, but woe betide you if you decide to go and sit on a bar stool in a dodgy pub or go for a dance at the local IRA disco. For this sort of thing you have to go to something like the PPK in an ankle holster. In short the SOCOM was never intended as a concealed carry weapon, but was designed from the outset to be worn in a military type holster either on the hip, leg or as part of some ballistic armour setup. Though for those of you who are six feet six and getting on for twenty stone of pure muscle I have been reliably informed (by dwsuk!) that the Uncle Mikes shoulder holster designed for the Desert Eagle will fit it just fine. 

On lifting the gun from its box I was pleasantly surprised by its weight. Could this be the cumbersome, ungainly thing of which I had read? A quick look at some reference material told me that fully loaded with a twelve round magazine, the MK. 23 was only three hundred and fifty grams heavier than an unloaded M1911 A1. Now I donít know about you but considering what the SOCOM is capable of, I would consider that an excellent deal in anyoneís language. By the way three hundred and fifty grams is about the same weight as two loaded Colt 45 magazines, in other words, negligible. Also one has to consider that the sort of people that will be using the SOCOM pistol are the kind that are quite capable of doing a hundred press ups without breaking into a sweat and on average can cover thirty to forty miles a day on foot over some very nasty terrain and then pull your arms off for fun. 

As to the weapon being cumbersome I find this to be absolute rubbish. Yes the size does take a little getting used to if you are used to GP35ís or Glocks, but once you get used to it handles like a dream. Unloaded the weapon does seem a bit top heavy but that is because of the polymer frame which is very light, but when one inserts a loaded magazine the balance is perfect. The grip angle helps also, being seventeen degrees, the same as the Colt M1911 A1. I find that it naturally points to the target from the draw and that the sights line up without a second thought. The gun can be grasped in any of the standard shooting stances, can be maneuvered in tight spaces just like any other pistol and can be fired one handed if necessary without difficulty, so no problems there. 

So what is so good about the SOCOM after all this alleged moaning? 

Well, first of all is build quality As soon as you handle the SOCOM and start to field strip it you will soon begin to realise why Heckler & Koch are amongst the world leaders in the field of combat small arms. The slide is made from molysteel and milled using the latest CNC technology to very exacting tolerances, with no tool marks or blemishes whatsoever. The Maritime finish that is used on the slide, barrel, magazine and some internal parts of the pistol has a toughness unlike any that I have ever seen on a military weapon. It is impervious to the effects of the elements and can survive prolonged immersion in salt water. German combat divers have had the Mk 23 for a number of years now and the guns show no kind of wear to the Maritime finish, which by the way is a closely guarded secret at H&K. 

Looking at the slide you will notice the thickness of the slide walls and the overall no nonsense stout construction. This in no small way helps contribute to the SOCOMís long service life. For example the standard service life of a Beretta 92F before depot maintenance is five thousand rounds of Nato 9mm, and for the .45 M1911 A1 the number is fifteen thousand rounds of 230 grain Ball before it needs a visit to the armourer. The Mk 23 on the other hand is recommended for depot inspection only every thirty thousand rounds, and that is with +P 180 grain Teflon bullets! Next up is the barrel, which again is of molysteel and CNC machined. The muzzle end is threaded for a suppressor and about an inch from the bore is the infamous ĎOí ring. This looks like a flimsy bit of green rubber that just happens to be hanging around, but it is in fact one of the main features of the SOCOM. It is made from something extremely tough called Elastometer and with routine maintenance has a service life of twenty four thousand rounds, but just in case the gun comes with two spare anyway. What the ĎOí ring does is form a seal between the barrel and the barrel bushing of the slide and this, coupled with the exact fit of the breach block and ejection port go a long way to contributing to the pistols excellent accuracy. Another function of the ĎOí ring is to stop the suppressor from jiggling around on the end of the gun, which Iíve experienced on other suppressed pistols with a browning type lockup, and which can be very off-putting when bringing the weapon to bear on a target, and can also halve the life of the weapon in question. 

The bore of the SOCOM has polygonal rifling which makes it more accurate because a better gas seal is achieved between the jacket of the round and the internal surface of the bore, it also makes it a lot easier to clean. Teflon rounds will have no adverse effects on the bore if routine maintenance is carried out. 

Now we come to the recoil spring/buffer assembly which is not dissimilar to the ones you can find on the USP. It sounds more complicated than it actually is, for as far as the operator is concerned it is just a one piece assembly that simply lifts on or off the weapon for cleaning purposes. But this does not do the thing justice because this very simple component helps give the Mk 23 its long service life and makes felt recoil a little more friendly with standard ammo and a lot more friendly with the +P Teflon rounds, with up to a thirty percent decrease in felt recoil by the user. 

Last, but by no means least comes the frame assembly. This is constructed of something called injection moulded glass fibre reinforced poly(a)mide, but not having a degree in chemistry, or in fact an anything in chemistry, I prefer to call it polymer (and even then Iím showing off). Basically it is light as a feather and at least as tough as most steels around, you could probably run it over in a tank with no adverse effects. This has metal inserts moulded into the top portion of the frame in two places, at the rear of the frame for the rear slide rails and at the mid way section to form the locking block/recoil spring housing and slide rails. The grip area of the frame is a one piece moulding that has pebbled side panels and chequered front and rear strap that give a firm slip free grip that works well with sweaty or wet hands. The only other bit of metal on the frame is the serial number plate which is finished in the white and can be found in the same place as on the Glock pistols. 

The working parts of the frame come in two groups; internal and external. The internal working parts are manufactured from stainless steel and again show no tool marks or sloppy fitting and obviously have been built chunky to last a lifetime. The external frame parts are made from the usual high grade molysteels and finished using some form of chemical coating that, I must say, is not as durable as that of the rest of the gun. I have no idea why the designers at H&K chose to do this instead of using the excellent Maritime finish, as on the rest of the pistol. Iím sure there is a reason, but maybe not a good one. A better touch is the hammer, whose cocking spur is covered in hardish rubber, which makes for a very positive manual cock with slippery hands and would, I imagine help if you were stupid enough to drop the thing onto a hard surface. 

Well, thatís the Socom in pieces, what is it like all put together? 

As stated before it is big. So what? The Mk 23 is intended for specialist Green work, it is not intended to be slipped inside James Bonds dinner jacket or be pulled out of a ladies garter. Despite its size I think it handles very well and is no more difficult to master than any other gun doing the rounds at the moment. 

The controls are conventional enough and very easy to master with the slide release and ambidextrous safety where you would expect to find them. In front of the safety catch on the left side of the frame you will find the decocking lever and at the rear of the flared trigger guard are the ambidextrous mag releases that need to be pushed down to release the magazine. But, and this is a big But. Why donít the engineers at H&K please go and measure an average human beings thumb? I must admit that I have visions of them taking the measurements of an Orangutan by mistake at Hamburg zoo and then going back to the factory and inventing the magazine release for the USPís and SOCOMís. I have larger than average hands, but try as I might I cannot press the mag release of the SOCOM with the thumb of my firing hand without radically shifting the gun in my grip. Instead I use the middle finger of my firing hand to dump the magazine using the mag release on the other side of the weapon. With practice this is fast, but I would still prefer a Colt/Browning type mag release. While I am on the subject they could also make the selector levers on the MP5ís a bit longer too, especially on the old SEF trigger groups. 

The trigger guard on the SOCOM is rather large and deep for a pistol, but is designed that way so as to allow the use of Arctic or abseiling gloves and dry suits by the operators. The strange flares at the rear of the guard, just in front of the mag releases are protective ears that are there to prevent the accidental dumping of the magazine. The double action trigger pull is a little heavy for a handgun, but again in sub zero temperatures or after prolonged exposure in the sea the hands are going to be less dexterous than usual, so it makes sense to have a heavier double action pull. However at nearly thirteen pounds it is by no means insurmountable and the action is very smooth with no creep or stacking. The single action breaks at nearly five pounds and is smooth and crisp enough to let you get headshots at fifty meters with ease. The sights on the gun are excellent, the long slide allowing for a longer than usual sight radius that obviously helps with the accuracy. Both the fore and rear sights ride high on the slide, this is so that it is still possible to get a good sight picture when using the suppressor. Tritium inserts are available to replace the bright white plastic ones supplied with the SOCOM, but I find these work fine in most conditions except in near total darkness. 

The magazine is very sturdy and is finished in the same Maritime coating as the slide and barrel. It is designed to carry twelve rounds of ammo and works very reliably with that amount, so there is no need to only load ten as a precaution against jamming because it is not going to happen. When the mag release is pressed the magazine jumps clear of the weapon very positively for a quick reload. By the way .45 calibre USP magazines will not fit the Mk 23 pistol, in fact not one of the USPís components will interchange with the SOCOM, including the torch mount, so donít even try. There are a number of torch/laser mounts now on offer for the SOCOM, from the simple, but superb Surefire 3-6 volt torch mounts right on up to the Wilcox Industries LAM (laser aiming module). The latter has now been standardised as the module for USSOCOM and incorporates a high power torch, a red dot laser and an invisible spectrum laser for use with infrared night vision devices. 

There are currently two types of sound suppressor for the SOCOM. One is made by the Swiss firm of Brugger & Thomet (who are now contracted to make all of H&Kís sound suppressing equipment) and the other is manufactured by Knights Armament of California. Of the two the Knights is said to be quieter, giving a sound reduction of twenty six decibels dry and thirty four wet (after having been immersed in fluid), while the Swiss unit gives a reduction in sound of eighteen decibels dry and twenty eight wet. However, it must be said that environmental conditions such as temperature, altitude and humidity can affect any suppressors performance so the information above can only be taken as a guide. The two units both weigh just under three hundred grams and are both a little short of eight inches long, though they are quite dissimilar in appearance. The US military has taken on board the Knights unit, while outside of the USA the Swiss unit seems to be easier to get hold of (Knights will not export from the USA Ė dwsuk). One interesting thing about the Brugger & Thomet unit is the fact that the recoil booster on the suppressor can be fine tuned to a specific gun so that it can affect accuracy and also shift the point of impact, though, of course if put on a different weapon it will have to be re-calibrated. The American unit does not have this capability but is said to enhance accuracy anyway. 

Well thatís it. To sum up the H&K Mk 23 pistol is the most reliable, most accurate combat pistol in use anywhere in the world today. Period. Nothing can touch it as far as strength, dependability and accuracy are concerned. It is also a .45 ACP that is cleared to consume a steady diet of +P Teflon tipped ammo that will penetrate Kevlar and other types of ballistic nylon, at ninety degree angles the Teflon round could go through up to half an inch of rolled armour plate. It has a magazine capacity of twelve rounds, plus one up the spout and comes with a spare magazine as standard. It is designed to take accessories such as a laser, a torch and suppressor to enhance its mission capabilities and range, and in the hands of a professional special forces soldier is probably the most deadly, most advanced combat handgun on the planet. Oh, and I nearly forgotÖÖ.it is quite big.

NOTE from dwsuk: If you want a SOCOM they are available but are VERY expensive at about £1800. Try Conjay Arms.