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HK USP: Universal Service Pistol [Review & Range Test]

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By Trampas Swanson

Perhaps one the most prestigious names in the world today for top quality military, law enforcement and civilian firearms production is the German defense manufacturing company of Heckler & Koch GmbH also known around the world by their initials, HK. Rising from the post WWII ashes of a dismantled Mauser plant, HK was officially formed 1949 to manufacture machine tools. By 1956, it had already morphed into producing military grade firearms for the German infantry. By the 1970s, civilians were learning the joys of HK products geared for recreational and hunting applications as well as law enforcement.


For the avid firearms enthusiast, shooting one of their submachine guns, polymer framed pistols, precision rifles or even their game changing 40mm is the direct equivalent to driving a fine touring car from their German automotive counterpart, BMW. For over 60 years HK has led the industry with cutting technology such as pioneering the use of polymers in weapon designs and the use of an integral rail for flashlights on handguns. HK also developed modern polygonal rifling, well-known for its high level accuracy, increased muzzle velocity and barrel life. HK constantly strives to continue being a leader in the firearms world by investing strongly back into their research and development program annually. With the motto, “No Compromise”, this is one manufacturer that does not accept being second place in any industry category. One such product from HK that has towed the line for their sales and been a huge platform for marketing growth has been the Universal Services Pistol or better known to shooters as simply the HK USP.


With development starting in 1989 up until its release in 1993, the USP by HK was developed as a direct replacement for the long standing striker fired P7. (Yes, there were striker fired pistols before the Glock!) Moving away from the cutting edge striker fired technology they were instrumental in developing, the USP is a polymer framed hammer fired full-sized service pistol perfect for military and law enforcement application. During its development, the .40 caliber platform was starting to make its entrance into the market which gave HK the perfect chance to take full advantage of a growing trend. Unlike some manufactures that start with the military standard 9mm platform and build from there, HK decided to make the world’s first pistol designed around the higher pressures of the new .40 caliber round. By making the specs strong enough to handle the stronger platform, offering the USP in 9mm would be an easy transition. Soon after, a slightly thicker frame followed bringing the .45 ACP traditionalists into the polymer frame pistol world.


For those who are looking for an easy to conceal, lightweight pistol, the USP .45 ACP is not going to be your first choice. From the ground up, the HK USP is a battle ready, full size pistol that shoots more like a target pistol than a common service handgun. Measuring 7.91 inches of overall length, the USP offers a 4.41 inch barrel with a 6.34 inch sight radius. The overall height of the pistol measures 5.61 inches while being 1.26 inches at its widest point. Having carried a 1911 often while out and about in the woods hiking, fishing and hunting, the polymer frame is a good bit lighter weighting 31.49 oz. with an empty magazine and 40.92 oz. when fully loaded with Federal 230 grain hollow point ammunition.


Building off the success of the original USP, HK produced a series of model variants consisting of both smaller and larger frames, threaded and unthreaded barrels, and true match grade, compensated barrel versions of their flag ship pistol. Even the US Navy benefited from the USP design in the form of a much larger version titled the Mark 23 Navy. Below are listed every model under the USP banner since the original Universal Service Pistol was released.

  • USP Compact
  • USP Compact Tactical
  • USP Tactical
  • USP Expert
  • USP Match
  • USP Elite
  • USP Combat Competition
  • Mark 23 US Navy SEALS
  • P8 German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr)

Have It Your Way

One commonly mentioned feature about the USP platform is the large number of factory options you can have the pistol configured in. Like Burger King, you can literally “have it your way” as the slogan goes. With 10 individual variants, the end user can select from right or left side manual safety / decocker, no manual safety / decocker, single / double action, double action only, and a verity of other features including hammer spur and no spur. The most common offering of the USP is fully loaded set up for the right handed shooter in the Variant 1 configuration. Below I have listed the complete line up of options offered by HK.


  1. DA/SA with de-cocker and manual safety, on the left hand side of the frame.
  2. DA/SA with de-cocker and manual safety, on the right hand side of the frame.
  3. DA/SA with de-cocker only, no manual safety, on the left hand side of the frame.
  4. DA/SA with de-cocker only, no manual safety, on the right hand side of the frame.
  5. DAO with manual safety on the left hand side of the frame.
  6. DAO with manual safety on the right hand side of the frame.
  7. DAO with no control lever.
  8. DA/SA with manual safety only, no de-cocker, lever on left hand side of frame.
  9. DA/SA with manual safety only, no de-cocker, lever on the right hand side of frame.

Another interesting feature of the HK USP is the company’s easy system of dating their pistols. Along the left side of the slide, in front of where the serial number starts, there is a pair of letters each ranging between A – K. Each letter corresponds with the last two numbers in the year’s manufacture date. Unlike most companies, who require a lengthy email or paid request letter, HK makes finding your pistol’s year of manufacture as easy as going down the list A, B, C / 1, 2, 3 using the following list.

  1. A-0
  2. B-1
  3. C-2
  4. D-3
  5. E-4
  6. F-5
  7. G-6
  8. H-7
  9. I-8
  10. K-9

(For example, if your pistol has the letters, KH, the year of manufacture would have been 1997)

Life with the USP

Since my early days in my law enforcement career, I have had a strong respect for the famous German quality found in HK products. Although I carried and willingly trusted my life and the lives of others on my Glock model 21 service pistol chambered in .45 ACP, I privately owned a 1999 produced HK USP also chambered in .45 ACP. While both pistols were similar in size and polymer frame (HK capacity 12+1, Glock 13+1), the issued Gen 2 Glock pistol did not offer the features I wanted for home defense such as a light rail. The concept of a pistol mounted light was just trickling down from military application into the law enforcement field and civilian ownership.


With the HK’s steel magazines and manual safety / decocker lever, the USP was just far better quality than the Glock that shared my household. On the range, I remember thinking how easy it was to shoot the Glock with its consistent trigger pull although I had always shot the USP well despite its single action / double action trigger pull. Both performed very well and helped to make me one of my department’s top shooters from day one of taking my oath to serve and protect. Before Glock-loving readers burn down the 1800G&A building or fill our email accounts, I will go on record by saying Glock has been able to level the playing field in recent years with the Gen 3 and Gen 4 line of pistols across the board. Even these loyal shooters are forced to acknowledge HK has been at this level since the start!

Range Time

Recently while working with Heckler & Koch on a separate project, I decided to dust off my HK USP .45 sitting in the office safe and spend some time together on the range once again. I loaded up my eye & ear protection along with a couple hundred rounds of ball and hollow point ammunition before I headed off to our training grounds affectionately named “The Swamp.” Since everyone is very aware of how accurate the USP platform is, I wanted to focus on combat and failure to fire drills.

Upon my arrival at the training ground, I was met by my business partner and fellow outdoor writer, Craig Reinolds, who helped set up steel and paper targets for us to get to work. Along with friend and fellow LE retiree, Mike Daughtridge, we began putting the HK USP through its paces. Starting first with running 2-2-2 drills, I was slapped in the face with a reminder of the very few drawbacks I could ever find with HK products in the form of the magazine release. As a long time shooter of American designed firearms, the USP’s paddle style mag release built into the trigger guard’s lower portion made for an awkward grip change in order to cleaning engage the release. While this isn’t an issue with a bit of training, it does throw a curve ball to my standard method of operation when it comes to 90% of the guns designs I regularly test.


Aside from the awkward magazine release, the only other drawback to me about the USP would be the Double Action pull consisting of a 10.4lb first shot and 5lb follow up trigger pull. Having not shot the USP in a while, this did take some getting back used to. At one time, I never thought twice about the difference in trigger pull on firearms like the USP or Beretta’s M9 series, but with more and more pistols arriving on the market for testing with striker fired actions and consistent pull weights between first and additional shots, my finger tends to have to relearn the “touch.” Once a few I went through a few magazines, the feeling of the trigger came back to me and it was GAME ON!

As I mentioned earlier, my favorite thing about HK’s USP series of pistols is the fact they shoot more like target pistols than service pistols. This has been true on my personal .45 ACP version as well as both the 9mm and .40 caliber versions I have shot in the past. With a design clearly influenced by the classic 1911, HK infused the traditional with modern technology in order to produce a 30% more recoil-absorbing frame to aid in its accuracy.


On steel, moving from plate to plate is relatively easy with the three dot night sights installed on the USP. These sights line up quickly and due to how softly the pistol recoils, they are fast to reacquire after each shot. The comfortably contoured grip of the frame keeps the pistol from riding up in the hand and allows the shooter to shoot fast double and triple taps from the draw. From a rest, 1 inch groups are very much a reality at 20 yards all day long with quality ammo.

Final Thoughts

Often heralded by fellow shooters as a “Glock Guy” due to my daily carry of the small framed pistols, the truth is that since day one of owning a the HK USP, I have said, if HK made their pistol with a Glock trigger, I would never own another semi-auto pistol other than theirs. As is, I am not a fan of the long pull associated with single action / double action hammer fired pistols. With the recent testing of their re-entry into striker-fire market with the HK VP9 that may be a future reality!

As expected from a top quality name such as Heckler & Koch, the standard USP retails around $900 the .45 ACP version and roughly $50 less for the 9mm and .40 caliber offerings. This MSRP is slightly higher than its Glock counterpart, but with the well-known quality and recent price hikes by Glock, the gap is closing each year in price while the HK continues to lead in accuracy, ergonomic comfort and quality. If you have never shot one of these fine pistols from HK, I strongly urge you to do so. In my opinion, the Universal Service Pistol is one of my top 10 handguns of all time to shoot if you are an avid firearms enthusiast!

Trampas Swanson

Born and raised in eastern NC, started shooting firearms at age 6, and life long hunter. Retired Deputy Sheriff serving as a supervisor and SWAT sniper unit with a background in narcotics and crime scene investigations task forces. Now living in Florida as a husband, new father, local gunsmith, firearms instructor and freelance writer for various firearms publications.

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