The PMK versus the Bersa

 

by R. K. Campbell

Photography by R. K. Campbell

September 12th, 2005

 

 

 

I enjoy firing a variety of handguns and I will give house room to a handgun that does not have a clearly defined purpose.   Numerous examples exist of the one hand gun have interesting mechanical features or historical significance. I would never consider some of these personal defense weapons, nor use them for hunting.  In an in-between position are various small semi-autos.  I enjoy firing, disassembling and examining the handguns but cling to my various snub .38s and 1911 type pistols for personal defense.  Recently,  I tested two better examples of the .380 auto pistol out of curiosity.   Beginning almost as a lark,  I came away with an appreciation for this genre.  No, I wonít retire my Charter Bulldog .44 but in certain situations these stylish pistols have much to recommend.

In this day of compact 9mm pistols, we may ask, why anyone would consider a .380 auto? The fact is, these pistols have desirable features to many people.  Everyone has a preference.   The racy and picturesque small semi autos have a certain suave faire than quite a few shooters are willing to pay for.  Many are satisfied with the fit and feel of these pistols and find them the perfect size for their personal comfort level.  The blowback pistols commonly chambered in .380 ACP are less expensive to manufacture than locked breech 9mm types, resulting in lower prices across the board than the low-end locked breech 9mm compacts.  Yet, these pistols are inexpensive, not cheap.  Some may even call them little gems. 

I elected to test two pistols that are in the same category as far as self defense handguns go.  I hope anyone considering a purchase of either will gain something from this information.  Both have similar dimensions and the performance of either is comparable. Both are first shot double action autos. A long pull of the trigger cocks and fires the pistol. After the first shot, the slide recoils and cocks the hammer for single action fire. The handguns are the Bersa Thunder and  FEG PMK .380.  We will refer to each as the Bersa and the PMK for simplicity.  Both are in the same price range.  I have seen examples for sale from $199 to $249 or so in reputable shops.  This is a good price for a quality handgun of any type.  I think that these handguns are popular with many shooters as they have a reputation for reliability and low maintenance, and I wished to confirm these perceptions.  First, I did a little sizing up of the two pistols. Here is what I found:

 

Pistol Weight Overall Length Barrel Length
Bersa 23 oz. 6.6 inches 3.5 inches
PMK 21 oz. 6.1 inches 3.2 inches

 

The PMK is a clone of the Walther PPK.  The pistol resembles the PPK outwardly, but is not as refined.  Still, the pistols performance was comparable to various PPKs I have fired and owned over the years.  The PMK has a longer and more comfortable grip tang than the PPK, an important improvement. The Walther is known for biting the hand of the user, and  the PMKís slight alteration in the grip frame neatly solves that problem.   My example is finished in a matte blue.  I have seen examples polished in a bright blue equal to that of practically any make, but some users will prefer the low profile finish.  For those who find the James Bond mystique attractive, the PMK fits the bill.  However, the PMK has Walther-like drawbacks as well as appearance.  When the last round is fired, the slide is held back by the follower in the magazine. There is no slide lock, the magazine must be removed to lower the slide.  This dates the design. Another drawback is a very stiff double action trigger.  The weight was off the scale, but I estimate it at sixteen pounds, perhaps more.  As a comparison,  a smooth SIG runs about twelve pounds, a Beretta thirteen to fourteen pounds and much smoother than the Walther types.  A CZ can be delivered with an eleven pound double action trigger compression.  Pulling a sixteen pound trigger against such a light handgun, without the leverage of a large grip,  is not conducive to good accuracy.  The double action trigger should be considered a point blank range option.  That limits the user of this handgun.

The single action trigger broke at five and one half pounds, with some creep. The PMK uses the standard Walther safety. After loading the gun, the safety is pressed downward to lower the hammer safely. The PMK may be carried safety on or safety off. The safety is quite stiff in operation.  Fit and finish of the handgun cannot be faulted, especially considering the modest price. 

The Bersa is a more original design but obviously owes much to Beretta's influence.  The pistol shows good fit and finish throughout.  Like the PMK, the Bersa features a ring hammer.  However, the Bersa has a slide stop that is superior to the jam open hold open of the PMK.  The safety of the Bersa works in the same manner as the PPK, down drops the hammer safely and the down position allows safe carry.  If the gun is carried in a proper holster, you may wish to carry either pistol off safe for speed into action and simplicity. The Bersa has very little travel in the trigger before beginning a smooth double action compression. This is as smooth a trigger action as I have ever used,  no matter the price of the handgun.  The double action trigger is a very smooth ten pounds.  This allows the user to have an expectation of quickly drawing the pistol and making a good hit at conversational range.  The single action trigger broke at four pounds, smooth and light. The Bersa features a small trigger stop. The Bersa features a grip tang that comes over the web of the shooters hand comfortably.  I expected this handgun to be comfortable to fire, and I was correct.

Before test firing the handguns, I field stripped each for initial lubrication. The PMK was more difficult to field strip. It features the standard Walther type disassembly in which the trigger guard is unhinged from the frame and the slide is then pressed to the rear and tipped upward to free the slide. To replace the slide, reverse the action, making certain the trigger guard remains unhinged or the slide will not return to itís original position. The Bersa features a simple latch on the side of the frame that is turned down to release the slide. The slide is then moved to the rear and pulled off the barrel forwards after unlatching at the back.  The PMK design shows its age with a more complicated take down.

I lubricated each handgun carefully, making certain the long bearing surfaces were well covered and adding a drop or two around the slide and barrel juncture. I added a good squirt into the trigger action of the PMK in hopes the action might smooth up with use, but this proved wishful thinking.  I had on hand a good selection of ammunition of several types, including ball ammunition and modern hollow point loads. When choosing ammunition for a handgun that is underpowered for defense, reliability must come first.  As power goes down, shot placement becomes more critical. A light gun with low recoil has much to recommend if it is easy to use well.  The majority of firing was undertaken with Fiocchi ball ammunition, an affordable and accurate choice.  I also had on hand a handful of the popular hollowpoint loads, including the Winchester SXT and Silvertip and the Hornady XTP.  Also, I had fifty rounds of hand loads for each handgun.  The .380 is a wonderfully economical handgun to handload.  Only 3.5 grains of clean burning Hogdgon HP 38 will push a Sierra 90 grain JHP to well over 950 fps, with typical Sierra accuracy.  Thatís economy.

I elected to fire the PMK first.  I had the pleasure of having on hand a very nice belt holster from High Noon holsters.  Of first class leather,  with the distinctive gold nylon thread that is a High Noon trademark, this is a very nice holster. Designed for the  PPK, this holster fit my PMK perfectly.  I loaded the first magazine, racked the slide, decocked, and holstered my pistol, safety off.  I squared myself to a seven yard silhouette and prepared to draw and fire.  I drew the PMK smartly - the little pistol slips into the hand quickly.  The front sight came on target and I pulled the trigger--- and pulled--- and pulled.  Finally, the trigger broke and I sent a shot outside of the X ring into the far shoulder. Not acceptable.  The gun was cocked now and I aimed for the X-ring.  The remainder of the ball rounds went into a single ragged hole.

I thumbed more of the Fiocchi ball into the magazine and considered my next move.  I could either hold on the target and try and move the trigger slowly but smoothly or bring the  pistol to the target and than quickly pull the trigger while attempting to keep the sights on target. This is such an issue I hesitated to follow through with the rest of the test until I resolved the problem of controlling such a heavy trigger.  Neither technique worked for me, then I remembered the Master technique. This is a technique developed years ago, during the dawn of the issue of double action pistols to peace officers.  It is not the easiest to master but might be faster than thumb cocking for the first shot.  I drew the gun and just after my hands met in front of my belt buckle in a solid two hand hold, I began trigger compression.  Just as the front sight came on target I broke the shot. After some acclimation I began to see improved results,  but this is not a tactic that can be used successfully without practice.  I also practiced drawing the pistol and cocking it as it came on target - NEVER cocking the hammer while the PMK was in the holster! In the single action mode, the pistol was enjoyable to fire, with a tendency to place all of the rounds into the X ring.  The pistol proved capable of feeding all JHP styles including my handloads.  But the long double action trigger press dogged my shooting. 

The Bersa was a different story.  I didnít have a suitable leather holster but used one of the handy plastic holsters from Fobus. This proved acceptable as a range holster and certainly is a good option for those hard to fit handguns. I loaded the Bersa and stood ready to draw and fire.  As I decocked the Bersa, I found the controls not as stiff as the PMK.  Holstering the piece, I took a deep breath and shot my elbow to the rear, cupping the pistolís grip in my hand and bringing the pistol on target.  As the front sight lined up with the X-ring, I pressed the trigger in a sweeping arc to the rear. I almost fired before I intended to, there is such as difference in the trigger action!  The smooth double action press of the Bersa allows a high hit probability.  I decocked the action and fired a run of two magazines, decocking and firing each shot double action.  I was rewarded by a well centered group in the X-ring.  The pistol proved smooth and accurate to a first shot.  In the single action mode it was no problem to center each shot in the X ring.  Overall, excellent performance.  The Bersa fed everything I could stuff in the magazine.

I settled down to weighing down a man sized silhouette at ten yards.  I would fire all of these rounds single action, and this would even out the guns' performance,  factoring out the long and heavy double action first shot of the PMK.  I emptied several magazines from each gun, firing as quickly as I could pull the trigger.  The pistols are very controllable.   Firing Fiocchi ball for record,  I simply ate the X-ring out of either target.  In this test, the pistols were comparable, with little to choose from in performance.   I fired a handful of rounds from the Bersa double action as a test and found that I could center punch a target quickly at ten yards in the double action mode.  This would not have been possible with the PMK.   I was beginning to see that the concept of a high quality, accurate and controllable .380 auto may have some merit.   At this point each gun had fired one hundred rounds each. There were no failures to feed, chamber fire or eject. 

I settled down to fire a number of groups at fifteen yards, to test for absolute accuracy.  I felt that 25 yards is unrealistic for a compact semi-auto pistol, and the limits of small sights and my eyes were respected.  Small frame fixed-barrel semi-autos can be surprisingly accurate.  I have fired numerous Walthers and SIG P 230 type handguns that were practically as accurate as service pistols.  The performance of the two .380s in this test were not disappointing.  Either is more than accurate enough for defense, even for precision shooting at moderate range.  This is important in a small caliber defense gun.  It also makes practice more enjoyable.

 

Accuracy charts,  five shot groups at fifteen yards/ Group in inches

Load Bersa PMK
90 grain Sierra JHP/HP 38 2.5" 2.4"
Fiocchi 95 grain ball 2.0" 1.9"
Fiocchi 90 grain JHP 2.25" 2.5"
Winchester SXT 90 grain JHP 1.8" 2.4"
Black Hills 90 grain XTP 2.0" 2.5"
Hornady 90 grain XTP 1.8" 2.65"

 

When it comes to personal defense loads,  we must have adequate penetration. With that in mind, ball ammunition is sometimes chosen in the lighter calibers.  However,  a number of JHP loads offer sufficient penetration in a frontal shot, although a transverse shot might be another matter.  Notably, the Fiocchi load, at 1,030 fps, was consistently faster than competing loads,  offering good expansion in limited testing in wet newsprint.  The XTP bullet used in the Black Hills load and the Hornady product offered a good balance of expansion and penetration.  The Winchester SXT was the most accurate.   I wouldnít fault anyone who chose any of these JHP loadings. Shot placement is what will carry the day in this caliber.  I am none too enthusiastic considering the .380 ACP cartridge, but we can see the cartridge and the guns that chamber it are accurate, reliable and controllable.

Which gun would I choose? They are both well worth their modest price. Each is reliable, accurate, and well fitted and finished.  But the Bersa has the more modern features,  a superior slide lock and take down,  and the Bersa trigger is not simply nice...it is superb. The PMK trigger action is rough.  Unless you are willing to spend money on adroit gunsmithing,  the Bersa wins this contest hands down.   Those who like the classic Walther styling may disagree and may ignore the double action trigger.  Thatís fine, itís your hide but for overall utility the Bersa is my choice.  Now, if I can just find a .22 version of the pistol to compliment my center fire...

R. K. Campbell

 

 

 

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

The PMK is a handsome handgun with classic styling, and reliable as well.

 

 

The PMK is Walther-like in appearance, but has a superior grip tang extension that cures the problem of Walther hammer bite.

 

 

This is the PMK in the fully cocked or single action mode. Much greater accuracy is possible in this mode.

 

 

When the PMK or the Bersa recoils, the barrel is stationary. This is called blowback action.

 

 

A comparison of defense cartridges (left to right): the .380 ACP, 9mm Makarov, and 9mm Luger. The 9mm Luger is by far the more powerful.

 

 

Despite a dated takedown system the PMK field strips easily enough.

 

 

A modern locked breech semi auto such as the Kel Tec can chamber the powerful 9mm Luger cartridge but remain a very compact, lightweight handgun. This makes the decision to carry a .380 auto one based not on power but on handling features and perhaps the flatness of the pistol.

 

 

This bright finished Bersa has given excellent service. The author carried this pistol as a hideout, loaded with Cor Bon ammunition. The action is quite smooth and the pistol accurate enough.

 

 

The Bersa has a busy look, with both the trigger draw bar and a take down lever exposed, but it is a very sleek design in other ways.

 

 

When the Bersa safety is off a red dot is exposed. The safety was positive in operation. The slide lock is a superior feature to the PMK as the PMK simply jams the magazine follower into the slide to lock the slide.

 

 

The Bersa is relatively compact and offers good reliability and accuracy.

 

 

The Bersa was carried in a Fobus plastic holster for the duration of this test. The holster gave adequate retention and good speed.

 

 

The Fobus holster offers a solid belt loop design that proved capable to keeping the gun and holster combination in place during rapid presentation of the pistol from the holster.

 

 

The Uncle Mikeís shoulder holster is a perfect home for the Bersa. Light, comfortable and long-wearing, the Uncle Mikeís holster is a good bargain.