[FIREARM REVIEW] The Heckler & Koch USP Compact: Any Way You Want It

H&K USP .45 Compact Variation 1, DA/SA with Safety, right-handed.

Many of the popular self-loading pistols available today are commercial versions of military sidearms. The H&K USP (Universal Self-Loading Pistol) was designed as an outgrowth of H&K’s response to the US SOCOM (Special Operations Command) “Offensive Handgun Weapons System” program, launched in 1991. H&K submitted the Mk. 23 Mod. 0, a .45 ACP, polymer frame, full-size pistol with an accessory rail on the dust cover, threaded 5.8″ barrel, extra high adjustable sights to accommodate a suppressor, and a level of strength and durability far in excess of contemporary service pistols. Capacity was 12 rounds in a double stack magazine. A special, dual coaxial recoil spring assembly was included to help dampen operation noise and increase durability. The first pistols were issued in 1996, along with a suppressor and a laser aiming device. The Mk. 23 is in service with Navy SEALs to this day.

H&K Figure 2

H&K Mk. 23 Mod. 0 SOCOM as issued to US Navy SEALS. Laser Aiming Module is not pictured here.

If you really want one, you can buy a new Mk. 23 for $1,860 or thereabouts, for the gun only. The suppressor and laser are extra. Why so expensive? First, H&K is in the business of providing “no compromise” firearms for military and law enforcement. One way of looking at “no compromise” is “price is no object.” The iconic H&K MP5 sub-machinegun  in 9mm goes for about $18,000 a copy. I have had the privilege of inspecting and firing the MP5, and everything about it is of the highest quality. Like every H&K product, it is over-engineered, and built to last.

The claims of durability are not simply advertising hype. As part of the SOCOM OHWS program, the Mk. 23 was subjected to 30,000 rounds of +P, followed by 6,000 proof rounds of even higher pressure. The pistol took all this without damage or excess wear. Further, the pistol was function tested at temperatures of -40ºF and +150ºF. It kept on functioning through mud, sand, dust, rain, and salt water. It was dropped six feet onto concrete, landing on the hammer. The gun did not go off. The gun withstood firing through a barrel obstruction and kept on working. When SOCOM adopted the Mk. 23, they had a special purpose handgun they could count on under the worst possible conditions.

OK, so back to civilian concealed carry. The USP and USP Compact are built of the same materials to the same basic design. The subject of this review, the USP Compact, is reduced in size to allow concealed carry. The quality and durability are still there. Needless to say, the gun is not cheap. A new USP Compact in .45 ACP with night sights can be ordered online for about $880. This is still expensive, but is competitive with other premium pistols such as the SIG Sauer. Here are the specs (click to expand):

H&K USP Specs Table 1

H&K USP Compact Specs

Here we have a reasonable size, concealable handgun, available in 9 mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and .357 SIG.

General Impressions and Operation

My comments here will cover the .45 ACP version, since I have owned and used this pistol for the last 17 years. At the time I purchased mine new, night sights were not an option, so I sent the slide away to Trijicon, Inc. to have a set of their all-steel tritium 3-dot sights installed. Similar sights are now available as a factory option. The USP .45 Compact has a single-column magazine which holds 8 rounds. The frame is lightweight polymer with steel inserts, similar to the Glock and S&W. The slide, machined from bar stock, is finished with an anti-corrosion treatment which also resists wear very well. Fit and finish are outstanding. All surfaces are smooth and flat. Corners are crisp and straight. There are no mold marks on the polymer frame and no tool marks anywhere on the slide, even on the inside. Ergonomics are outstanding. The grip fits my hand perfectly and the grip angle is conducive to natural pointing. Your mileage may vary. With a full magazine, the weight is directly over the firing hand. The trigger guard is generously sized, allowing sure handling while wearing gloves. Further, there are no sharp edges anywhere which could cause discomfort while firing or cause wear and tear on covering garments while concealed. The surfaces of the frame are textured to insure a good grip. The controls can be operated (in my case) by the firing hand without shifting my firing grip. The steel magazines are rugged and well finished. The plastic base plate serves as a rest for the little finger of the firing hand.

The action of the USP Compact is like the conventional DA/SA with some important enhancements. On the left hand side of the frame near the top of the grip is a lever which resembles the thumb safety of a 1911 or a Hi-Power. H&K calls this the “operating lever.” After inserting a full magazine and releasing the slide with the generously sized slide release, pressing the operating lever downward will de-cock the hammer. The lever then returns to the center position under spring tension, just like the de-cocking lever on a SIG. Pressing the lever upward will put the pistol on safe. You can have your choice of carrying cocked and locked, like a 1911, or with the hammer down and a round chambered. Further, after de-cocking the hammer, you can put the gun on safe by moving the lever upward. In this condition, you can retract the slide to load or unload the piece. The 1911 and Hi-Power lock the slide when the safety is engaged. To unload, you must disengage the safety.

Now for the good part. An H&K armorer can swap out various fire control parts in the field to give you any one of nine different actions for the USP. You’re left handed? No problem. There is an operating lever available for the right hand side of the frame. You like DAO? You want single action like the 1911? You want de-cocking only like a SIG? You want a safety? You want no safety? There are nine different variants for USP fire control. You can have your piece any way you want it! Either the factory or a qualified H&K armorer can set it up for you. Here are the nine variants:

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.

Most full-sized USPs and Compacts are encountered in Variant 1, a versatile configuration for a right handed shooter. I prefer to carry cocked and locked in the style of a 1911. In addition to the manual safety, there is a passive firing pin block which prevents the firing pin from moving forward unless the trigger is retracted fully to the rear. There is no magazine disconnect safety.

H&K Figure 3

The H&K USP Compact stripped for cleaning. Note the dual-coil coaxial recoil spring assembly and the bobbed hammer.

Takedown for cleaning is simple. Retract the slide, push out the slide release lever and remove the slide and barrel assembly in the forward direction. The recoil spring assembly can then be slightly compressed and removed, which allows the barrel to be lifted out. The barrel fits in the slide with no play whatever. Rifling is right hand twist, described as “polygonal” without any sharply defined lands and grooves. This probably contributes to the longevity of the barrel.

Carrying and Shooting

In an OWB belt holster, the USP Compact is comfortable to carry. A high quality, heavy belt should be worn in order to support the weight of the piece. The recoil seems to me to be less than other .45’s due to the polymer frame and dual recoil spring. Bore axis is also low, which reduces felt recoil. All controls are of ample size and are easily operated. The magazine release deserves mention. Rather than pressing a button inwards, you grasp an ambidextrous latch at the bottom rear of the trigger guard and press or pull slightly downward. This latch can be operated easily with either the trigger finger or the thumb of the firing hand.

My experience has been one of complete reliability with both factory ammunition and hand-loads. Some of my loads for bowling pin competition would qualify as +P+, but I have never had any problems with feeding, firing, or ejection. The feed ramp is integral with the barrel and highly polished, which insures feeding even with the gaping Speer 200 grain “flying ashtray” JHP. Accuracy is excellent, better than I can hold and certainly adequate for defensive purposes. The anti-corrosion finish is effective. I have carried in coastal locations and on boats and have not had any trouble with corrosion.

Some Negative Points

Although I like the H&K USP Compact, I am by no means a fanboy. The pistol has a couple of drawbacks. First, the accessory rail on the dust cover is not a MIL-STD-1913 “Picatinny” rail, but rather an H&K proprietary design. You will need an adaptor if you want to mount most lasers or illumination devices. The pistol comes with two magazines. Only one of them has the extended baseplate. The other is flat. Extra magazines can be tough to find and are relatively expensive. Finally, since the H&K is not as common as the Glock, SIG, and other brands, it is more difficult to find a popularly priced holster. Custom leather is available with no problem. In light of the excellent quality, durability, and ergonomics, I don’t consider any of these flaws to be a deal breaker.

H&K Figure 4

The author’s personal H&K USP 45 Compact in a Kramer Belt Scabbard holster, made of horse hide.


If you want a high quality, accurate, reliable sidearm which will probably last for your lifetime and the lifetimes of your children, the H&K USP Compact will fill the bill. It has great ergonomics and low recoil compared to other pistols of the same caliber. Finally, if you are either left handed or prefer an uncommon mode of operation, the H&K USP series is an excellent choice. Stay safe.


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About the Author

Constantine is a semi-retired business owner and consultant who lives in the Northeast US. He is an NRA Endowment Life Member and an NRA Certified Instructor. He enjoys all shooting sports as well as big-game hunting. Licensed to carry in over 30 states, he has carried daily for over 20 years and has instructed many novice shooters in firearm safety and basic shooting skills. His EDC (most of the time) is a Rock River Arms custom 1911 loaded with Federal 230 gr. HydraShok JHP. This is carried in a Mitch Rosen USD II Slimline IWB holster on a Mitch Rosen belt. A Chris Reeve Sebenza 25 and a SureFire LED flashlight round out the system.

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