In September of 2015, the United States military announces the opening of the XM17 Modular Handgun System competition. Aiming to replace their aging fleet of Beretta M9 service pistols, which had been in service since the late ‘80s, the MHS competition looked to bring the Big Army’s sidearm into the 21st century, with a lengthy list of required features the then-current M9 couldn’t satisfy. These included, among other things, a railed dust cover for the mounting of aiming devices, a threaded barrel to support suppressor attachment, and a modular design that allowed the fitment of alterative fire control groups, pistol grips, and magazines.
When the dust settled, of the 12 pistols were submitted from six nations, the US military eventually landed on the P320 MHS offering from Sig Sauer to fulfill the role of the new M17 pistol. However, the conclusion of the MHS competition hasn’t stopped the various competitors from finding commercial buyers for their respective offerings, with the successful Sig P320 M17 and Glock’s G19X being obviously two of the most talked-about. But while the Glock and Sig offerings were relatively open secrets towards the tail end of the competition, FN’s offering remained a mystery, and it’s only with the release of this; the 509 Tactical, that we can finally see what one of the world’s most storied gunmakers thought the world’s most powerful military should be carrying on their hip in the world’s most dangerous places.
The 509 Tactical
In order to create FN’s unnamed MHS competitor, FN’s engineers began with the FNS Compact, and made a variety of slight revisions to make the new gun slightly more competitive. Those included scalloping out the top of the grip area and texturing it, changing the beavertail radius to make it more ergonomic, and altering some of the texturing on both the front- and back-strap. Inside, minor revisions to the recoil spring and barrel assembly looked to increase the reliability of the pistol, but overall the changes were very minor and definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary. In fact, the existing 509 and FNS guns are so similar that 509 magazines will work in FNS’, and both FNS and 509 slides will fit their irrespective frames… although they won’t lock back, feed ammunition reliably, nor fire.
And from that mysterious MHS competition gun, we get this: The 509 Tactical. Now, FN claims the 509 overall represents a slight improvement over their MHS entry and the 509 Tactical is the most improved of all, sporting an oversized ambidextrous magazine release, an oversized slide stop, a threaded barrel, massive suppressor-height sights, and an optics kit. In the United States, they also come with both 10- and 24-round magazines, but of course here in Canada you just get three 10-round magazines.
Unboxing the 509 Tactical
One thing worth mentioning is the manner in which the 509 Tactical is delivered. FN doesn’t do many things in half-measures, and the kit that comes with the 509 Tactical is no exception; inside a non-descript FN-branded cardboard box is a nice soft-sided padded nylon case, and inside that case is both the gun itself and a downright surprising amount of other stuff. First off, you get a second straight backstrap to replace the standard curved on, which has the effect of sort of turning a very Beretta M9-esque (or Sig P320-esque, if it’s not too soon to say so) grip profile into something far more 1911-ish. The only bummer is that replacing the backstrap requires a pin punch, as the back strap is held in by a roll-pin, which feels decidedly old-world in 2019.
Otherwise, you get a low-power recoil spring assembly for use with subsonic or other low-power ammunition, some very thorough documentation (the owner’s manual is 71 pages long and all 71 pages are in English), a terrible cable lock, and a big plastic sheet compartmentalized into various pouches holding a myriad of optic adapter plates and a variety of screws. Which brings us to one of the FN 509 Tactical’s party features: The optic mounting system.
FN pioneered optic-reader commercial pistols with their FNX-45 Tactical pistol, and they’re quite proud of the new system they’ve concocted with the FN 509 Tactical, which does away with adapter plates… sort of. While many of the systems out there require that you bolt an adapter plate to your pistol and then screw the optic down to that, the 509 Tactical uses a system of MRD (Micro-Red Dot) plates and inserts that allow the optic to be screwed directly into the slide. The cast MRD plates are designed to interface with your chosen red dot’s recoil lugs, and the molded plastic inserts serve to merely to lift the optic up to obtain a degree of co-witness with the suppressor-height sights. The key difference between this and most other systems is that there are only two fasteners being used, meaning there are less fasteners to work loose or otherwise cause problems. And when you’re not running an optic? Well, FN has chosen to fit the slide with a cover plate that has two serrated ears on either side of the rear sight in order to allow for easier one-handed manipulation.
Initially, we’d intended to mount a new Shield RMS we brought in for this test, which shares the same mount with the J-Point micro red-dot that FN purports the 509 to work with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and although the material included with the gun gave clear instructions on which MRD plate and insert combination to use for a J-Point mount patter, the recoil lugs were simply in the wrong place. We’ve since noticed various sites selling replacement MRD plates no longer list any of them as being compatible with the J-Point. A bummer indeed, but there’s no reason to think FN (or any aftermarket supplier) won’t remedy this, since it’s simple a matter of making a new MRD plate with the correct lugs.
We won’t beat around the bushes: The 509 Tactical is well made gun. Very well made. In fact, we’d say it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries, and yes we’re including both Glock and Smith & Wesson in there. So what’s that mean? Well, let’s focus on just one part as an example: the slide stop. On all three, the slide stop is a relatively simple stamped affair, with slight serrations having been pressed into each slide stop to increase grip. But that’s not the whole story. On an M&P and Glock, the slide stop is constructed from 18-gauge sheetmetal. That’s just 0.048” thick. On the FN 509 Tactical, the slide stop is 17-gauge sheetmetal; measuring 0.006” thicker. What does that extra six thousands of an inch get you? Well, obviously the FN 509’s slide stop is slightly more resistant to torsion, but that extra thickness also gives FN’s production engineers the ability to press slightly larger and deeper serrations into their slide stop than the competition can get away with.
And that story is echoed all over the gun. The takedown lever’s serrations are cut rather than pressed like an M&P’s (and let’s not even get started on Glock’s take down lever/switch/thing). Casting lines on the frame are less obvious. Pins are better fitted and less roll pins are used. The slide markings are all precisely cut, rather than stamped, and the steel superstructure contained within the frame is the both slightly beefier (to our eyes anyway) and better finished than you find in most other popular striker-fired pistols.
The responsibility for feeding the 509 Tactical falls to the included 10-round magazines, which are a simple design limited in capacity by way of a stamping technique that also involves cutting the magazine body fore and aft around these stamped portions on the left and right. These cuts are done to ensure people can’t simply drill out the stamped portion in a very illegal attempt to regain the magazine’s standard capacity, but it is a bit of a bummer for the average law-abiding gun owner to be continuously reminded that their new FN’s magazine bodies have had their integrity pre-compromised to deter criminals. Also, while we like the orange followers in the 509 mags, it’s somewhat strange to see that FN opted for a matte finish when 1) the Beretta M9 they were initially trying to replace has had a longstanding and well-publicized issue with sand and dust causing undue friction with the matte-finished Beretta standard issue magazines, and 2) that the FNS that preceded the 509 featured nicely polished magazine bodies. We’ll admit though, in Canada where this is strictly a competition and range-use toy, we’re splitting hairs there.
Finally, we arrive at the parts that matter most to the average pistolero; the sights, barrel, and trigger. The sights are very “fighting gun” oriented, with Trijicon suppressor-height Bright & Tough Night Sights, which normally run just over $150 a set. These steel sights feature a large white ring up front surrounding a green tritium tube, while the rear is an unadorned, un-adjustable setup with two green tritium tubes on either side of the substantial notch. These aren’t sights designed for surgical shooting, they’re designed for quick acquisition in any conditions and reliable service, and in that they succeed.
The barrel is 4.5” long and features a 1:10” right-hand twist with six grooves. The feed ramp is long and comes out of the box very well polished, and the chamber is more fully supported than either a S&W M&P9 or Glock 17’s. At the opposite end, the crown has been slightly recessed, and is surrounded by a 1/2×28 threaded portion that is protected by a nicely knurled thread protector. Oh, and that thread protector is fitted with a viton o-ring that keeps the protector from unthreading during firing by simply keeping a degree of pressure between the protector and barrel, sort of like how the nylon portion of a nylon lock nut works.
Which brings us to the trigger. It is a letdown. After roughly a thousand rounds through the gun, we’re still getting a pull between 8.2 and 8.8 pounds. That’s pretty heavy. And it’s not crisp, either. If you pull it slowly and deliberately, from the moment your finger begins to encounter resistance to the moment the striker releases it’ll pull through nearly 0.2” of travel; a veritable football field. The only upside is that the pull weight’s so heavy that you don’t tend to notice the squishy travel… you just give ‘er and eventually it snaps to the rear. Why? Well, although FN may not have won the MHS competition, they are still marketing the 509 Tactical to both military and law enforcement markets, and among such procurement programs heavy triggers are often considered a boon for public safety. And for those of us without such duty-centric concerns? Well, Apex Tactical has already taken the wraps off their trigger improvement kit, and if it’s anything like the trigger we’ve put in our M&Ps, it’ll be well worth the cost.
On the Range
It’s hard to fault a gun that has this much research and development effort behind it. We’ve been shooting this gun heavily for months now, and with one exception on a particularly cold day (-28 Celsius), it hasn’t had a single problem… and the one we did have was a simple stovepipe that could have been anything from thick lube to a case bouncing off the roof and back into the action. Without any repeatability it’s impossible to know.
Otherwise, the 509 Tactical’s dominated by a strange sort of feeling of largess. In reality it’s only marginally bigger and heavier than some of its competition, but not so much as we’d expect to feel it (it’s 2.5 ounces heavier than a Glock 17), and yet the impression is one of a big gun. For example, with the straight backstrap on it, the 509 Tactical is discernably shorter front-to-back than an M&P9 with a small backstrap fitted, but the 509 feels bigger due to the slightly wider nature of the grip and, more importantly, it’s more squared-off grip profile. It feels a bit like holding a piece of texture lumber, if we’re honest… and that’s not meant as a slight. It just is the best way we can communicate it.
Likewise, from a shooting position the 509 again feels large, with a tall Sig-like slide under a massive set of sights. And of course the controls all feel just that much larger than most other guns’… because they are. The magazine release is literally twice the size of most comparable gun’s, so you’ll never need to fumble with it, and we really like the truly ambidextrous nature of the release insofar as it can be pressed from either side. However, if you have large hands or long fingers, you might want to check one out before committing to one… even with our very medium-sized hands, we can feel our support hand’s middle finger tickling the offhand magazine release and we can entirely see someone with bigger hands struggling to keep the magazine in the gun under recoil.
In a similar vein, the slide stop is located quite far back and protrudes a decent amount, which is great is you prefer to use the slide stop during reloads. But it can take some getting used to, since it can end up riding under your thumbs quite easily, and ceases to function properly when that happens as the tightening grip around the recoiling gun usually quite easily overcomes the spring pressure trying to push the slide stop up. But that’s easy to train around.
And accuracy? Well, it’s exactly what you expect from a striker fired gun. In our hands, at 10 yards, we generally saw groups between three and five inches. Unfortunately, due to a particularly unseasonably cold winter season at our home range in Kelowna, it was hard to test the gun from a nicely rested condition but suffice to say that in our experience it shoots basically exactly as well as a bone-stock Glock 17. And while may be capable of better mechanical accuracy, and we suspect it is, the excess trigger pull weight feels like the biggest hindrance to accurate shooting with the 509 Tactical.
In terms of the red-dot mount, we did not have the opportunity to test it, as
It’s hard not to line FN firearms. They have some of the same European mystique that makes things from Steyr and Heckler & Koch just feel cooler, and if FN’s mystique is at all diminished it’s only through a greater degree of familiarity; if someone has served in nearly any western military in the last 50 years, they’ve probably handled an FN firearm, from the company’s prolific Belgian-made Hi-Power sidearms, to their Minimi light machine guns (known in this country as the C9) and FN MAG general-purpose machine guns (known here as the C6).
And they’re popular because they work. And the 509 Tactical is just the latest in a long lineage of similarly excellent guns. Are we happy with the trigger? No, but that’s perhaps the most easily rectified problem possible, and we love the rest of it anyway. The only thing that does give some cause for pause is the price: At right around $1,150 this is not a cheap gun. By comparison, a Glock 17 MOS is just $850, and a S&W M&P9 Pro Series CORE is even cheaper at $750. Both of those guns will take optics out of the box, and absolutely beat up on the 509 Tactical on price, without giving up much (if anything) in terms of real-world performance. So why are we reaching for our wallet even as we make that argument? Because the FN 509 Tactical isn’t a gun for everyone. It may not be the best gun for the guy who is just looking to try out a red-dot on a pistol for the first time to see if he likes it. It may not be for the guy that wants to open up the Taran Tactical catalog and just throw his Glock into it in burning desire to build a hot rodded race gun (a burning desire that’d be fueled by a penchant for John Wick and a probably-embarrassing amount of expendable income no doubt). Chances are good the aftermarket won’t flock to the 509 Tactical. But for someone that has a few guns already and is looking for something a bit different? A bit nicer? A bit more special? Something that comes from a storied brand, and has a story unto itself? Well, for those folks… folks like us, it’s definitely worthy of attention.