Developed primarily as military ammunition in the last days of the Cold War, FN Herstal's SS190 5.7x28mm armor-piercing round was designed to defeat Soviet-made body armor in combat. Now more than a dozen years later, this ammunition and the P90 submachine gun and Five-seveN pistol that fire it are growing in popularity among American law enforcement agencies.
The Five-seveN pistol and the P90 subgun were introduced to the U.S. military market in 1996, and they became popular with special units, but law enforcement greeted the guns and the armor-piercing ammo with a shrug. Then came the North Hollywood bank robbery in which a couple of thugs wearing body armor withstood the combined firepower of dozens of Los Angeles police officers firing 9mm pistols. And FN started to get a lot of phone calls from cops.
Only one problem. Because of arcane federal gun laws and the way that FN classified the weapon for import, agencies had to buy the Five-seveN sight unseen and unfired. Consequently, there were not many sales.
Still, despite its apparent failure, FN's U.S. marketing execs believed that the Five-seveN pistol could be a great tool for American cops. They believed in the weapon and they convinced the execs in Belgium to reclassify the pistol, making it available to the American sport shooting public and to American cops.
Since last fall when the red tape was cut, the Five-seveN has been selling like Belgian waffles to both civilians and law enforcement agencies. It is now an authorized sidearm on the hips of cops in several agencies and in the arsenals of many SWAT teams.
Recently, FN sent a Five-seveN to me for testing. And I have to say that shooting this unusual small-caliber pistol was an eye-opening experience.
Designed around a polymer frame, the Five-seveN is a delayed-blowback-operated, semi-automatic pistol that's available in two versions. The Five-seveN Standard is intended mostly for military users, and the Five-seveN Tactical is intended for Law Enforcement users who carry a handgun as their primary weapon.
Pretty much the only difference between the Standard and Tactical models is the trigger actions. The Five-seveN Standard is equipped with a double-action-only (DAO) trigger with a long pull and no external safeties. In contrast, the Five-seveN Tactical is configured with a single-action (SA) trigger that offers a short and light pull.
There are some feature differences as well. The Five-seveN Tactical sports an ambidextrous safety switch that is located on the frame above the trigger. This is great placement because it puts the safety just about where we law enforcement officers are trained to normally index our trigger fingers.
But beyond the trigger actions and some other features, the Five-seveN Standard and the Five-seveN Tactical are dead ringers for each other. Both variants are striker fired, with an internal firing pin safety. Both have a built-in accessory rail that can accommodate lasers and lights. And both are available with optional night sights.
To understand the power of the Five-seveN pistol, you need to know a little bit about the special 5.7mm ammo that it fires.
The first thing you need to know is that it comes in two versions: one for law enforcement and the military, and one for civilians. SS190 is the designation for the LE-only rounds. SS192 is the designation for lead-core, non-armor-piercing civilian rounds.
FN's 5.7x28mm SS190 ammunition was designed to bridge the gap between 9mm ammunition and the 5.56x45mm NATO round known in the United States as .223 Remington. The 9mm FMJ round is one of the world's most popular handgun and subgun rounds but it and other heavy handgun bullets, including the .40 S&W and .45 ACP, will not penetrate modern body armor. While .223 rounds punch through soft body armor with no problem, they also have drawbacks. A .223 achieves its potency with velocity and it has a lead core, so it often hits its target and keeps going, raising overpenetration concerns in close combat or in an urban tactical situation.
In contrast, FN's SS190 armor-piercing 5.7mm ammo has a unique design that prevents overpenetration despite its high-velocity impact. The tip of each SS190 bullet has a steel penetrator followed by an aluminum core that is heavier than the forward tip. This causes the bullet to tumble in soft body tissue after two inches of penetration, creating a large wound cavity and virtually eliminating the risk of overpenetration and subsequent unintended casualties.[PAGEBREAK]
SS190 ammo won't overpenetrate, but it will go right through 48 layers of Kevlar at up to 200 meters when fired from the 10.2-inch barrel of the P90. The ammo achieves this armor-piercing performance by stepping out of the P90 at a velocity of about 2,346 feet per second. When fired from the shorter barreled Five-seveN handgun, SS190 ammo can penetrate 48 layers of Kevlar at 50 meters. Service, tracer, subsonic, training, and blank rounds are available and supplied in the U.S. by Olin.
Unique But Familiar
In addition to its armor-piercing capability and its design characteristics that prevent overpenetration, FN's 5.7mm SS190 ammunition has only 60 percent of the recoil impulse of a 9mm round. And that makes the Five-seveN a real pleasure to shoot.
It sounds weird to say it, but this pistol feels both unique and familiar at the same time. Maybe that's because it has the look of a highly updated version of the old Browning Buck Mark (FN is the parent company of Browning) or of a Colt Woodsman.
Remember, I said highly updated. The Five-seveN's texured polymer grip is very contemporary, and it's easy to hold in inclement weather or with sweaty palms. In addition, its palm swell and relieved thumb groove provide a correct and positive hold on the gun.
The Five-seveN's ergonomics are outstanding. You would have to try hard to get an improper grip on this gun. The shooter's hand rides high on the backstrap, locating it closer to the bore line to provide even less felt recoil. In addition, placement of the magazine release allows both right- and left-handed shooters to easily accomplish lightning fast reloads. Also, there is not a single sharp or grabby point on this gun.
But that doesn't mean it's hard to keep a grip on it when working the mechanism. Cocking serrations are on the rear portion of the slide and two small "ears" are provided at the very rear of the slide to make chamber checking easy with the first and second fingers on the slide and the thumb on the back portion of the frame.
Of course, no matter how good the ergonomics, a gun is useless unless it's accurate. Believe me, the Five-seveN is accurate. Its sights are outstanding. The rear sight is fully adjustable for both windage and elevation, and FN even includes a sight adjustment tool in the box. The sample I shot came with the standard three-dot system, but night sights are also available.
My only complaint about the mechanics of the Five-seveN is that, out of the box, the trigger feels a little stagey. I am sure this will go away when the gun has more rounds put through it. And anyway, sniveling about the trigger seems petty when you consider the results of my test firing. At 15 yards, this is a one-hole gun.
The vest-defeating capability of the Five-seveN firing the SS190 ammunition is very impressive. I was curious about it, so I pulled out two old Level II vests I had around the office for testing.
The first round I shot from the Five-seveN at 7 yards zipped right on through both the front and back panel of vest number one. So I placed vest number two over vest number one and shot it in a different spot. The round zipped through again, penetrating both front panels and both back panels.
OK, this wasn't a scientific test. But it was interesting. And I'd bet that if the LAPD had possessed a couple of the Five-seveN pistols at the North Hollywood shootout, none of us would have heard about it. It would have been over way before the news copters arrived on scene.
Capacity: 20 rounds
Action: Double action
Barrel Length: 4.75 inches
Overall Length: 8.2 inches
Height: 5.4 inches
Weight (loaded): 1.7 pounds
Sgt. Dave Douglas is the rangemaster of the San Diego Police Department, a veteran law enforcement officer, and a Police contributing editor.