The Best Pistol-Caliber Carbines

What is the best pistol-caliber carbine?

Increasingly popular in the past 20 years, pistol caliber carbines or PCCs offer a lot of benefits to the user and few drawbacks, making them the go-to choice for many in a wide variety of roles.

From plinking to competitions, these little wonders give you an unreal bang for your buck.

Introduced in 2003 by the storied Italian gunmaker, the CX4 took the company’s past experience with wildly successful 9mm sub-gun platforms like the MAB 38 and M12 and updated it for the 21st Century.

The compact polymer-stocked CX4 was so futuristic, in fact, that it is often seen more in sci-fi shows than on the range but don’t let that fool you – the fact this it is a solid performer that is both accurate and reliable.

Best of all, it uses durable and inexpensive Beretta 92 (M9) magazines.

One of the country’s leading manufacturers of AR-15s, it can easily be argued that CMMG has picked up the 9mm AR torch that Colt dropped when the latter company shied away from commercial sales of their SMG in a semi-auto platform and only offered it as the tax-stamp-required LE6991 SBR.

CMMG’s Resolute, in 100, 200, and 300 series models, brings a 9mm AR-style PCC capable of taking either Glock magazines or Sig P320 double-stack mags, all using the company’s radial delayed blowback action.

For those wanting to go smaller, see the CMMG Banshee, which really shortens things up, no stamp needed.

Side-folding adjustable stock, 16.2-inch barrel, a pedigree that includes one of the coolest modern SMGs, what more is there to say about CZ’s Scorpion EVO 3 Carbine?

Simple and reliable, this 9mm PCC Czechs all the boxes. See what we did there?

While their handguns get a lot of knocks, Ohio-based Hi-Point has been cranking out a homely but effective blow-back action carbine since 1995 that has won hearts and minds from coast-to-coast.

Hi-Point carbines ready for some action
Hi-Point carbines ready for some action

Updated from an original “Planet of the Apes” configuration to something more contemporary, Hi-Point currently produces them in probably the widest PCC caliber range of any maker including .380, 9mm, .40S&W, .45ACP, and 10mm Auto.

Further, coming in at under $300 with a transferable lifetime warranty, they have been the people’s champ for decades.

Little wonder Hi-Point cranked out 39,500 carbines in 2018 alone!

Florida-based Kel-Tec was best known as a maker of inexpensive handguns until they moved into the rifle market with their SUB2000 PCC platform in 2001.

Now, with the gun in its second generation, the handy little Kel-Tec carbine one of the lightest on the market at just 4.5-pounds and folds in half for easy storage– a feature nobody else can touch.

While the standard SUB2000 runs 9mm Glock magazines, there are also multi-mag options and an availability in .40 S&W as well.

With their innovative delayed blowback operating system, the pistol-caliber KRISS Vector looks unusual but has almost no perceived recoil or muzzle climb, with many users comparing it to shooting an airsoft or pellet gun.

KRISS Vector - a fantastic PCC
KRISS Vector - a fantastic PCC

In PCC format, the KRISS Vector CRB with a 16-inch 4140 CMV barrel is offered in four calibers (9mm, .40 S&W, .45ACP, and 10mm) that has a 47-state compliant adjustable stock while still coming in at under 32.5-inches long overall. All variants use Glock double-stack mags for convenience.

On the downside, you have to pay to be the cool guy, with the “good deal” price on these bad boys usually running around $1,300… if you can find them.

PSA continues to give us what we ask for, and their PA-9 PCCs offer reliability and affordability. These come with a 10.5″ chrome moly steel barrel in 9mm with a 1/10 twist with a PSA 9″ Lightweight M-Lok free-float rail and a bird cage style A2 flash hider to keep the unwanted fireworks at a minimum. Upper is a US-made billet 6061-T6 Slick side AR upper which is nicely hard coated in anodized black, because why not? 

Lower is a forged 7075 T6 aluminum with more hard coat and engineered to use 9mm Glock-style magazines.

As usual, PSA offers great value in their products, and their PA-9 is perfect for plinking, range fun, home defense, or a car gun (if you’re so inclined).

Ruger stopped production on their Police Carbine offering in 2006 as the company’s companion P-series pistol line was ending.

With their ear to the ground for what the public wanted, however, Ruger introduced an updated Pistol Carbine in 2017, ready to work with either the magazines from a Ruger American pistol or those of Herr Glock’s.

Featureless models are also California-compliant, which is a big deal as there are 13 million gun owners behind the lines in that West Coast state.

Billed as “industry-leading” when it comes to PCCs, Sig Sauer’s MPX line of carbines has been on point when it comes to competition use and Team SIG’s Lena Miculek has used one to win her last four PCC Nationals championships. 

It is easy to see why these guns are so successful as they have a gas-piston action, 5-position telescoping/folding stock, carbon fiber barrel, and Timney single-stage trigger right out of the box for snappy trigger pull.

For those with a taste for something less high speed, there are bone stock models while the MPX K and MPX Copperhead pistols offer something for those wanting to go more compact.

What is a PCC?

From the very start of the age of firearms, going back to the days of matchlocks and portable “handgonnes,” early muzzleloaders split into two schools of thought: long-barreled guns best suited for working at range and shorter-barreled varieties small enough to be carried in a belt and used quickly at short ranges.

These respective guns continued to evolve into rifles and pistols, with their ammunition evolving along similar, purpose-driven lines that largely made them incompatible with each other as rifles fired heavier bullets with a bigger powder load while handguns, due to their size, typically went smaller on both accounts.

These differences continue today.

A Third Model Colt Dragoon Early Pistol Caliber Carbine Concept
A Third Model Colt Dragoon, one of the earliest concepts of a “pistol caliber carbine”

Notably, around the 1840s, the concept of a handgun that could be fitted with a shoulder stock to allow it to be more useful at range while still enabling it to be compact enough for everyday use in tight places under field conditions led to guns such as the Third Model Colt Dragoon and the Springfield M1855 Dragoon.

The “Dragoon” name in the case of these handguns refers to their use by horse-mounted infantry, a popular 19th-century idea to field units of very mobile foot soldiers in the days before the bicycle or automobile.

However, these shoulder-stocked handguns were less than popular, as their percussion-cap firing mechanisms, a short length of pull, and open cylinders (in the case of the Colt at least) often left the user’s face a little on the medium-rare side.

Nonetheless, by 1870, the widespread use of all-up cartridges started to put the practice of muzzleloaders in the primitive weapon category.

Henry’s .44 rimfire round that year pulled off a neat trick– the ability to be used in either the 15-shot Henry or 13-shot Winchester Model 1866 lever action rifles or the six-shot Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolver.

The days of the pistol caliber carbine, or in this case the revolver caliber rifle, had finally been realized. While the use of the .44 Rimfire soon died out, the concept of chambering lever-action rifles in popular revolver calibers endured and Winchester’s .44-40 and .32-20 centerfire cartridges soon found a home in just about every popular six-shooter and lever gun of the 1880s and 1890s.

A cowboy, lawman, hunter, or rancher of the era only needed a single handy belt or box of cartridges for both their rifle and handgun.

A DWM Luger Carbine from 1902
A DWM Luger Carbine from 1902. Getting closer to today’s PCC concept.

Fast forward to the 1900s and autoloading guns became viable options.

As with revolvers in the previous century, there was a concerted effort to simply add a shoulder stock to a .30-caliber or 9mm pistol to turn it into a carbine, and there were numerous models of Lugers, C96 Broomhandle Mausers, Colt Military Models, Browning M1903s and Hi-Powers that could use such a detachable wooden stock.

Once again, this proved less than ideal for several reasons and by 1921 the first dedicated carbine-sized pistol-caliber submachine guns, like the Thompson and Bergmann MP18, were on the market.

With that, the gun world diverged to a third branch, with handguns, rifles, and now SMGs heading off in their own respective directions for generations. Then, by the mid-1980s, the sub-gun branch devolved in a sense to give us the modern PCC.

Models of super sexy 9mm burp guns like the UZI, HK MP5, and Colt SMG began to be marketed in semi-auto-only variants with fixed stocks and 16-inch barrels to keep them out of the NFA’s territory and thus, tax stamp free.

The same can be said for Colonel Thompson’s legendary .45ACP “Chicago Typewriter.”

While the federal “assault weapon” ban from 1994 to 2004 put a big crimp on the sale of those early “scary” looking PCCs, new guns took up their slack such as the featureless Marlin Camp Carbine and the Ruger Police Carbine, guns designed from the ground up to use 9mm ammo, .40 S&W or .45ACP and accept commonly-found handgun magazines, such as those for the M1911 or S&W Model 59 in the case of the Marlin and Ruger’s P-series pistol mags when it comes to the Police Carbine.

Since then, the number and types of PCCs on the market have exploded– and for good reason.

Why a PCC?

A pistol caliber carbine is appealing for a variety of reasons. Using more compact ammunition than full-sized rifles, a PCC can carry more rounds for the pounds so to speak. For example, 20 rounds of 7.62 NATO weighs 17.5-ounces while 20 rounds of 9x19mm only hit the scales at 5.2.

In the hands of those lugging such a firearm around camp or the trail, every ounce counts. Additionally, due to the short length of the cartridge case, most PCCs use a simple straight blow-back action, which eliminates complex piston and gas systems, making the guns both reliable and easy to maintain.

Further, the smaller cartridges, when fired from a carbine-sized firearm, impart less felt recoil to the user than even intermediate rifle rounds, making quick follow up shots possible– setting up a PCC as an ideal platform for recoil-shy users or novice shooters and making them almost rock-steady by comparison.

This factor sometimes draws snickers on the USPSA match circuit, which has had a PCC allowance for handgun users since 2016, as the ease of use on these guns is seen by some as a “cheat.” 

Another bonus when it comes to marrying up a pistol caliber cartridge with a small carbine-sized rifle is that it makes the round inherently more accurate for the user due to the longer sight radius between front and rear iron sights – although not quite as much as a full-length long gun – while the added inches on the barrel leads to a more optimal powder burn from the cartridge, trimming muzzle blast at the same time it adds velocity to the bullet. 

In widely circulated tests, a 115-grain 9mm JHP picks up an additional 200 fps of velocity when fired from a 16-inch barrel of a PCC versus the more traditional 4-inch barrel of a full-sized handgun and even higher with +P ammo (which should be the choice for personal defense with a carbine) putting a 9mm out of a PCC into the same fps ballpark as a .357 SIG fired from a pistol.

This naturally translates to a significant climb in deliverable energy downrange.  In tests on ballistics gel, the same results are seen. 

Finally, PCCs are very compact– usually more so than even a smallish rifle-caliber AR– while providing much more real estate for accessories such as weapon-mounted lights, optics, and active lasers than a handgun in the same caliber, leading the carbine to clock in as a home defense tool for many users.

Sources:

  1. SSUSA Staff, Miculek Wins 4th Consecutive USPSA PCC Championship, June 24, 2020

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MICHAEL CRITES is el jefe around here. He writes about guns and gear.

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