Kel-Tec is a well-known American manufacturer of innovative firearms, starting from humble beginnings with a few handgun offerings to now producing a wild, wide and interesting assortment of rifles, shotguns and handguns.
Love them or hate them you have to appreciate how hard they work to optimize their various designs for specific purposes in a never-ending quest. Kel-Tec is renowned for producing guns that are highly refined in both concept and ergonomics.
Two of their best-known and longest-running products are the PF9 and P11 handguns, both extremely popular for concealed carry or as backup guns.
The P11 was one of the first true ultra-compact high-capacity 9mm’s available on the market, and the first polymer subcompact with a double-stack magazine.
The PF9 for a long time was the thinnest and lightest 9mm available anywhere. That is quite the feather in your hat when it comes to technical achievement in firearms.
In today’s article we will be looking more closely at both of these iconic Kel-Tec pistols, and providing you with both technical information and my opinion.
History of Kel-Tec CNC Industries
Kel-Tec CNC Industries, better known as just Kel-Tec to avoid that mouthful of a name, is entering its 30th year in business. First founded in 1990 by George Kellgren, a Swedish firearms designer, the company began as a service provider and manufacturer of parts for other firearms makers.
Kellgren himself was then already a veteran of the firearms industry, having designed guns for such manufacturers as Interdynamics AB, its American subsidiary Interdynamic USA, and Husqvarna VA.
Kellgren also founded another firearms company in 1987, Grendel, which produced a few handguns and a couple of carbines that were notable for their heavy use of Zytel plastics.
But it is his pseudo-eponymous company Kel-Tec that saw George Kellgren’s proper rise to fame, and now the company is virtually a household name throughout gun-owning America.
After only a few short years of operating as a service provider, the Kel-Tec P11 was debuted, a subcompact semi-automatic 9mm design for concealed carry. It is this pistol that saw Kel-Tec’s rise to fame, and the little gun was and remains its longest running product.
In its wake would follow a series of successes, and a few flops, but it was the introduction of the PF9 in 2005, a proper successor to the smash-hit older sibling, that would legitimately cement Kel-Tec’s presence on the American firearms market. measuring less than 6 in.
In overall length with a feathery weight of only 12.7 oz., the 7-shot PF9 is a 9mm pocket powerhouse and was, for quite a stretch, one of the flattest and lightest 9mm mass production pistols, if not the very flattest and lightest.
Kel-Tec’s onward march continues today and is showing no signs of slowing. With such intriguing designs surfacing bearing the Kel-Tec standard all we can do is wait with baited breath to see what they produce next.
In the Beginning: The P11
The Kel-Tec P11 is one of the smallest, leanest and lightest 9 mm semi-auto pistols ever produced, even today, and way back in 1995 when it premiered it was the very first polymer framed, double-stack 9mm on the market.
Unlike today, way back then the P11 made a major splash as super compact semi autos, especially in major service calibers, were a rare and specialized breed.
Production of the P11 continued virtually unchanged until its recent discontinuation. The P11 is a short recoil operated semi-auto weighing a scant 14 oz. unloaded. With an overall length of a smidge over 5.6 in. and a height of just 4.3 in.
It still compares favorably to the most modern deep concealment and backup semis available today. The P11 is only 1 in. wide at its widest point making it easy to carry tucked into a waistband, strapped to your ankle or even in a large pocket.
A magazine holds 10 rounds of 9 mm Parabellum and as always a round can be carried in the chamber bringing the total capacity up to 11. The magazines can accept an optional finger extension to provide more gripping service for the pinky, though this does not increase the capacity of the magazine.
The P11 was designed from the ground up as a backup or concealed carry pistol, and to that end was engineered with a considerable amount of thought toward this objective. Trigger operation is double action only with no external safety.
The trigger is not the best, weighing in at about 9.5 pounds according to our gauge and is noticeably stacky near the middle of the pull with a hesitant, uncertain break.
Nonetheless, it is entirely usable for its intended role with a little practice and there are guns made today with worse triggers!
P11 Shooting Impressions
Today, the P11 still holds up favorably enough though some of its contemporaries blow it out of the water when it comes to handling, ergonomics and practical accuracy.
This gun is so small and light that recoil is definitely brisk, and the cramped trigger guard can lead to a noticeable and increasingly painful slap on the trigger finger.
Additionally, ergonomics at the top of the backstrap and the pronounced beavertail are lacking, and the blunt corners will dig into the web of your hand painfully during long shooting sessions.
But those long shooting sessions are likely to be fruitful with this pistol, as the P11 has very usable sights for such a small gun, and we experienced no malfunctions with our chosen ammo even after an extended 600 round session.
That is hardly anything to break a sweat over for a quality full size pistol, but margins for failure get tight and quickly when you are dealing with very compact pistols. This is definitely a pleasant surprise when you consider the price range of these guns and also their vintage.
It should be noted that like most pistols in this category they are likely to show some ammunition preference and this should not necessarily be held against the gun.
You should endeavor to shake out any bugs or teething troubles by giving the gun a workout with at least a couple of hundred rounds of your chosen carry ammunition prior to declaring it fit for service. By following this simple protocol you will ensure your P11 will work like a charm when you need it.
Sadly, all great things must come to an end, and this pioneering subcompact pistol is now discontinued as of January 2020.
It should be noted that Kel-Tec has promised to continue to service P11 pistols, and honor the warranties in force for the guns out on the market so long as parts remain available. If you are one of them, I wish you and yours many more happy years of shooting!
Good night, sweet prince!
Newer, Lighter, Leaner: The PF9
As you should come to expect from Kel-Tec by now, they were not content to sit back and enjoy the accolades that came from the introduction of the P11.
A little over a decade later they introduced another blockbuster hit pistol in the PF9, a gun that was in the same ultra-compact concealed carry or backup pistol category as the P11, but one that was even thinner thanks to a single stack magazine, carefully engineered slide and refined ergonomics.
The overall length and height the PF9 and P11 are almost identical, with the PF9 actually being a tad longer. But the PF9 weighs a couple of ounces less and is over a tenth of an inch thinner than its progenitor.
This could only be accomplished functionally if the pistol utilized a single stack, seven shot magazine though 8 rounds can be carried if a full magazine is inserted with a round already chambered. The magazines themselves may use a standard or extended finger rest floor plate.
Also like its predecessor, the PF9 features entirely usable low-profile sites, a double action only trigger that is almost tediously heavy and a smooth, slick and largely snag-free design. There is no external safety.
The most noticeable updates on the PF9 compared to the P11 are the large, almost grenade-like checkering molded into the polymer frame and an integrated accessory rail on the dust cover that can allow the use of a compact light or laser with no modification to the pistol.
Also of note is that the PF9 shares quite a few parts with the P11 and its smaller sibling the P3-AT, including the extractor, front sight, trigger, ejector and several springs. This pistol definitely shows considerable refinement in design over the P11, but how does it shoot?
PF9 Shooting Impressions
The PF9 feels a lot like the P11 on the range and in the hand when firing. A gun this small and light firing full power 9mm will definitely get your attention, and feeding it a diet of +P rounds will have your full and total attention, and then begin tenderizing your hands in pretty short order.
Unfortunately, the trigger guard is still cramped on the PF9 and some shooters will be affected by annoying and painful trigger slap.
The ergonomics have been improved enough that the top of the back strap will not chew the web of your hand to pieces, at least not right away, but sustained practice sessions will still lead to hotspots and blisters in fairly short order.
But the good news is that the PF9 can definitely shoot if you can do your part. Unlike most guns in this size category the sights are prominent and functional enough to enable you a proper point of aim, unlike the pitiful “speed bump” sights that are so often present on tiny semi-autos.
The heavy, lengthy double action only pull is still present, and also feels noticeably springier on the PF9 than the P11. It is not an outstanding trigger by any means, but is entirely manageable with practice and should not be a terrible detriment on a gun of this type.
Who Are These Guns For?
The P11 and PF9 were designed first and foremost for concealed carry, either as easy to conceal primary sidearms or deep concealment backup guns.
Both of them can easily be carried pretty much anywhere you want to carry a pistol and definitely lend themselves to ankle carry and even pocket carry, though the PF9 has a decided advantage over the P11 in this regard thanks to its thinness.
If you consider the concept of a defensive handgun as “have a gun” they both get high marks for sheer portability, and also for chambering a proper service cartridge.
Unfortunately, brisk recoil and tough-to-manage triggers make these hard guns to shoot well and quickly, and only dedicated shooters will overcome the pain and discomfort of lengthy practice sessions that will be required to attain mastery with either.
The guns are certainly reliable enough in their intended role so long as you take the time to verify continually good function with your chosen ammunition, though like many Kel-Tec products I’ve had experience with in the past I have significant concerns about long-term durability and reliability.
An amazing warranty does you no good in the middle of a fight when your pistol chokes or breaks.
On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable to expect both guns to function perfectly within a reasonable lifespan and certainly for the duration of the average defensive encounter.
These are not proper “gunfighter” guns that you should expect to survive high tempo, high volume rolling gun battles: These are guns that will be called upon to fire three to five rounds in about three seconds if we can depend on the averages concerning defensive shootings in the United States.
This is not an endorsement for guns of poor quality, but is instead a call to be reasonable when the average person purchasing a gun for self-defense is not going to be a “gun” person.
They will probably not want to spend $700, $800, $900 or more on a top of the line handgun from a top tier manufacturer that will then be customized to their liking. They will spend on a gun that is easy to carry, simple to operate and can be expected to go bang when they pull the trigger.
When you contrast the performance of these guns against their price and their intended role I would call them winners, definitely. It is a little sad to see the P11 go, but the PF9 is definitely up to the task of carrying on its progenitor’s legacy.
Kel-Tec is a firearms maker that is rightly famous, bordering on infamous, for their constant and unyielding will to innovate.
Their P11 pistol was a game changing polymer framed double stack 9mm that paved the way for many imitators in the future, and then they took the concept and made it even smaller and lighter with their PF9.
Both of these guns have proven to be dependable performers in their category for a very modest price, and though they are not the easiest guns to shoot both are solid choices for concealed carry or in the backup gun role.
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.