Kel Tec P-3AT, the be-all, end-all test, Part I

Much to my surprise, as well as the surprise of others, I actually placed fourth in the 2015 Kilted To Kick Cancer drive. This left me with a lovely prize package which included a brand new Kel Tec P-3AT. Ironically, I’ve been wanting a micro pistol for several years now, but had not gotten around to picking one out and buying it. Jennifer and I were still debating the pros and cons between micro 9mm versus .380 ACP. The .380s are typically a little smaller, but we’re never in a great hurry to add a new caliber to the household. As we didn’t already have any .380s in the stable, I was leaning more in the pocket 9mm direction. However, KTKC made the decision for me.

Needless to say, I’m pretty stoked about the little pistol. I’ve been told that Kel Tec’s quality is spotty at best, and I’ve handled a few of their guns that in my eyes, had some glaring failures. I had largely written them off as a “not for me, but maybe for you” type of company. That was before I received the P-3AT. Upon receiving it, I was immediately impressed with the overall quality of the gun. Although diminutive, it felt solid. Within its limitations, which I’ll point out below, this gun does not feel like a hunk of junk, but a very well-built tiny pistol.

To build a pistol as small as possible, it is necessary to simplify, and this pistol is no exception. It honestly has fewer parts than anything else I shoot. It is true that it has no safety, save an internal hammer block. The slide does not lock back, either on an empty magazine or by manipulation. The sights are rudimentary and machined directly in the slide. The trigger pull is long, and the reset is nearly to the point of full trigger release. Those that want a .380 with a good trigger should look to Smith & Wesson’s BG380 or Glock’s Model 42. That being said, the Kel Tec’s trigger is smooth and even, if a little heavy and a lot long.

Whenever I pick up a new defensive firearm, I like to shoot it a lot for several reasons. 1) Many gun models have a “break in” period in which they just need to be run so everything settles in for future reliability. 2) It’s essential to establish a gun’s reliability before you put it into defensive service. There’s nothing louder than the “click” when you expect a “bang.” 3) I like to familiarize myself with the machine. The Kel Tec’s sights and trigger have proved to be perfectly usable, but no gun is going to do you any good if you can’t hit what you’re aiming at.

So on Friday, prior to even cleaning and lubing the gun, Jennifer, Isaac and I went to the range and put some lead down range. Included in the KTKC prize package were 250-rounds of ball ammo donated by Richardson Reloading. So we shot 150-rounds plus a 25-round box of Hornady Critical Defense. The Richardson ammunition seemed to cycle the action a little more slowly, and I did get a few failures to feed which were easily corrected with a good rack of the slide. By contrast, the Hornady made authoritative balls of fire, and cycled the action robustly. Subsequent conversations with Cody Richardson revealed that he loads his ammo toward the lower end of SAAMI numbers, and that some manufacturers use 9mm recoil springs in their .380s. Without confirming that this is the case, I’m assuming that it is so, and that even though the Richardson ammo is great stuff, the Kel Tec likes to run cartridges that are a little hotter. I’m looking forward to running the additional 100-rounds once I’m confident the gun is really broken in.

At the range, every round went bang. As I stated above, a few rounds didn’t want to strip from the magazine, as though the slide had short-cycled. At five yards, it was clear that Jennifer and I have not been practicing often enough, but we did manage to make fuzzy holes in our paper targets. The gun is far more accurate than I expected it to be, and the minimal sights are very usable, even if they take a little more work than some others, or a laser, for that matter. I was shocked at how very shootable this gun is. Even with the Hornady’s sound and fury, I found it to be very comfortable to shoot. Isaac complained that he wasn’t confident of his grip due to the diminutive size of the frame, but it was comfortable for both Jennifer and me. Being able to put all of ones fingers on the grip frame is something that affects every individual different, so your mileage may vary.

The Torture Test

There are bloggers around the internet who have been performing a 2,000-round, no cleaning, no lube test on several pistol models. It has come up in conversation with friends that it would be interesting to perform such a test on a mouse gun such as Kel Tec’s P-3AT. Just how durable are these things anyway? Search engines failed to provide a documented test like this for this model. Kel Tec has a lifetime warranty on their guns, so they presumable believe them to be durable enough for it.

Several years ago, Jennifer and I got a last-minute invite to a defensive pistol class for which we would need about 1,000-rounds of .45 ACP. We wound up ordering from Ammunition to Go, who were able to get us our ammo cheap and fast. So, when we started talking about this torture test, I reached out to a few online ammunition retailers, including Ammunition to Go. They were fascinated with my proposal and seemed eager to facilitate the test. It looks like they’ll have 2,000-rounds of Magtech .380ACP delivered to me by the end of the week.

The Specifics

As the gun has already had 175-rounds put through it, I plan to give it a thorough cleaning with Hoppes #9 and whatever canned spray stuff I can get my hands on, and light lubrication, probably with Breakfree CLP. I will continue to carry the gun as my EDC as long as I’m still confident in its dependability. The moment it begins to act funny, or when we witness that something is broken or worn, I intend to pause the experiment and contact the manufacturer. I’m going to try to get in a few hundred rounds per session, and strip the gun for inspection, without cleaning or lubricating it, until the 2,000-round mark or catastrophic failure, whichever comes first.

Conclusion

These tiny pistols, in 9mm and smaller calibers are widely regarded as “disposable” pistols. They are generally seen as the gun that you carry when you can’t carry a gun, but if you shoot them too much they’ll fall apart on you. I’m really looking forward to challenging that stigma, as I don’t feel like they’ve been given a fair chance. In my short time with it, this little pistol has exceeded all of my expectations. Prior to this, I would have assumed out of hand that such a torture test would be insane. At this point, though, I’m not so sure. I will proceed, and proceed with appropriate caution. So, stay tuned and let’s take this journey together.

7 thoughts on “Kel Tec P-3AT, the be-all, end-all test, Part I

  1. A friend of mine i the local PD carries one; had some issues with it and sent it back; he uses it as his everyday ccw now (off duty) and has had no issues with it. seems to like it well enough

    Hope that helps.

    SC

  2. My father has owned on of these for about 5 years now. He likes the size for ease of concealment, and says the recoil is manageable to below average for such a small pistol. I do not know exactly how many rounds he has put through it, but would put it in the 750-900 range. AFAIK, he has not had any problems.

    As for a holster, while the gun did come with a pocket bag, my father obtained and modified a quality Blackberry branded cellphone holster with extra-strong closure magnets. I can vouch: it takes conscious effort to open that holster. While he does have a CCP, the wiley old man carries ‘concealed’ in plain view.

    • I’ve been carrying one in a similar setup myself for about 8 years now, except my case is an old hewlett packard holster. I cut a spacer out of wood to hold the gun firmly in the case. It starts under the barrel, is cut out for the trigger guard, and buts against the grip. I can move it to either side of the case to make it right or left handed compatible. The only issue I have with the P3AT is the magazine release; it really needs a guard because it’s way to easy to bump, either in the pocket or in a holster.

  3. I’m actually excited to have found your blog article about the P3AT.

    I bought one a couple of years ago (oh heck, it has been over 5 years now!) and ran a couple hundred rounds of ammunition through. I try to shoot it occasionally still, but finding the ammunition locally is problematic.

    Curiously, the hollow-point “defensive” ammunition I found does not feed as reliably as the cheaper solids which I planned to use for “practice” ammunition.

    Frankly, I’m not sure that the more expensive “defensive” ammo is a good choice. I need to try some other brands to see if they feed better.

    As for carry options, I never considered a belt holster. I did get a pocket holster which was designed to reduce ‘patterning’ and make the from-the-pocket draw smoother. I was disappointed in the holster; in dress pants, it is so bulky that it prints more than a loose pistol wood, and in denims the pocket is too tight to be usable.

    My solution was to get one of those belt-clips that you screw onto the side if the pistol, using an existing (grip) screw hole.

    This works very well! I can clip it on the belt, but I’ve found that it rides comfortable inside-the-pants with the clip only gripping the top of the denim. The bulk of the pistol is covered by the trousers, and only about a quarter inch of the slide shows above the belt. (Obviously, it needs a shirt to cover that bit of slide for social occasions.)

    I alternate it with other carry pistols, depending on the circumstances, but this is the one “for when you wouldn’t be carrying if it wasn’t an option”.

    Thanks again for your contribution, I’ll be following your story.

    • Thanks Jerry! As I probably already mentioned, the Hornady Critical Defense runs in this gun as though it was made for it. I am really curious as to how well it will expand. Lucky gunner included this loading in their big ammunition test, but they shot it out of a Glock 42, which has a longer barrel. Who knows whether this thing will generate enough velocity for proper expansion? Since I have been a professional holster maker, I simply can’t have a carry gun without a holster. I understand why others do it, but I’m not going there. I’m glad to read that you’re looking forward to the rest of the test!

  4. Pingback: SayUncle » Kel Tec P-3AT, the be-all, end-all test

  5. Bought mine years ago. Made a shoulder carry pouch out of an Uncle Mike’s dual mag pouch. I alternate Dynamite-Nobel loaded hollow points and Spanish flat nose exposed lead tip sub-gun ammo in mine and haven’t had any failures in the times that I have fired it. The Spanish stuff does make a serious fireball..

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