HK Universal Service Pistol

by Massad Ayoob

USP45 UTL. A combination of six letters and two numerals that stand for a lot: Universal Service Pistol, caliber .45 ACP, with Universal Tactical Light. Heckler & Koch's USP has been at the forefront of the plastic-framed handgun market in terms of functional technology since its introduction. The USP was designed to compete with the enormously popular Glock in terms of both construction materials and pricing.

Unlike the Glock, you can "have it your way" with a choice of USP fire control modes. Left hand or right hand operation. Double-action first shot, double-action every shot, or single-action "cocked and locked" for every shot. The standard model, called Variant One, can be carried in your choice of cocked and locked or double-action mode for the first round, with the same ergonomic, frame-mounted lever serving as both thumb safety and decocker.

The USP comes in two frame sizes: standard and large. The standard frame is available in 9mm or.40 S&W caliber, the large frame in .45 ACP. An even larger version of the latter in the same caliber won the SOCOM contract, and (except for the sound suppressor) you can buy the same gun as the Special Operations Command did, though why you'd want the extra size without the suppressor instead of the regular USP45 I can't imagine. Perhaps a collector would want a Mk. 23, as the "USP on steroids" is officially called.

Crime Bill Gun

The USP45 was introduced in 1995. The Crime Bill was already in effect, and the 13-round magazines for which it was designed would be sold only to police and military. A legal 10-round magazine was enough. I got a couple of USPs to test, wrote them up for both police and civilian magazines, and liked them so much that I bought one of them to keep.

Both were equipped with the UTL, the quick-to-mount Universal Tactical Light that fits any USP. This is one of the two best "white light" attachments for a handgun I've ever seen. The other is by Laser Products. Comparison is inevitable. The Laser Products unit seems brighter, and I find it a little quicker to operate. It can be removed from the gun, but is not "quick-detachable," and can be operated ambidextrously and with a pressure switch mounted to the grip panel. It's pretty big. You wouldn't even try to carry it concealed on the pistol.

HK's own modular UTL is activated by a toggle switch that rides ahead of the trigger guard. It's not quite so handy in operation as the aftermarket Laser Products light. On the other hand, it's a lot smaller. It's also quick to attach and remove.

This means that you can use the same pistol for carry without the light and for bedside protection with the UTL in place. That makes a lot of sense for a lot of folks. Separated from the gun, the UTL can be used as a powerful flashlight by itself, and its square bottom allows you to set it somewhere and move away from the area you've left lit up. This means you can use it as a workman's light, or strategically, to illuminate a given area that you are covering from a barricade a safe distance away. That versatility is particularly useful for a cop in the field.

Target Identification

For the officer who is allowed to carry the USP, the UTL makes enormous sense - not permanently mounted on the pistol but in a pocket or glove box. There it functions as a spare flashlight and alternative tactical device as well as a potential gun-mounted source of white light during an entry, a premises search or a manhunt. This latter application has always made more sense to me than a laser sight: it can blind an opponent and, perhaps most important, it can identify your target, something no red dot of any kind can do. For the private citizen with a carry permit, this means the USP can do double duty: carry iron when you're out and about and a white light home defense pistol when you're back in the abode.

SOCOM Connection

My previous tests in 1995 confirmed for the standard USP what the military had found with the SOCOM version. This pistol is engineered to take huge amounts of hot ammo! The Mk. 23 SOCOM pistol was amazingly reliable with tens of thousands of Winchester's military-only +P 185 grain .45 load at about 1,150 fps and it was match-accurate.

The USP has one feature the SOCOM gun doesn't- it's remarkably light for its caliber and capacity. The HK USP45 has been in the field for a couple of years now, and I'm gratified to see my predictions fulfilled. It has earned a reputation for accuracy, reliability and user-friendliness. I've seen a lot of these guns go through Lethal Force Institute courses. I don't recall seeing a USP malfunction. Students who use them generally place among the highest on the final live-fire qualification courses.

Tale Of Five Guns

I've monitored five USP .45 experiences in particular. Several commonalities are noted among them. USP number one was one of a pair of test guns shipped to me by HK. I took it overseas where some clients wanted to try it out during an LFI class. It went through well over 1,000 assorted rounds. malfunctioning only on some strange and nondescript European .45 ACP ammo that wouldn't work in most other .45s, either. It was very accurate and fed even the widest mouth American hollowpoints. I sent it back only because I couldn't afford to buy two of them.

Gun number two was the second test, gun, and this one I did keep. For some time it was my bedside pistol with a UTL attached. It was ultimately replaced in that function by a customized Beretta 9mm with a 20 round magazine and Laser Products light attached. That was, however, a dedicated home defense weapon performing that single function. Had I been new to guns instead of having built a collection over the years, the USP45 with detachable Universal Tactical Light would have been my hands-down choice for one gun that could perform both carry chores outside, and the home defense function.

It came with factory installed Tru-Dot night sights that worked and shot fine with target pistol accuracy and made it easy for me to find the pistol in the dark when awakened from deep sleep. This pistol has never jammed in probably 3,000 rounds of all kinds of .45 ACP fired by me and my students.

Number three belongs to Greg Henderson, a gunshop owner in northern New Hampshire. A big man, Greg has no problem concealing this large frame pistol, and he not only carries it daily (in double-action mode, for civil liability reasons), but takes advantage of the cocked-and-locked mode to shoot it in IPSC matches and beat an amazing number of competitors who have tricked out 1911 pistols. Greg was top shot in his LFI class against tough competition with his unmodified USP.

He has sold many of them to his customers, whom he reports are equally enthusiastic. One of his customers once said to him accusingly, "You sold that big HK .45 to a woman?" Greg laughs, "He came on like I'd sold alcohol to a little kid. I told him, 'Bud, you ought to see that woman shoot that USP! "' Greg has put many thousands of handloaded and factory .45 rounds through his USP, and doesn't recall a single malfunction.

USP number four belongs to New Hampshire state legislator Debbie Morris who has become enamored of the USP. An HK fan who usually carries a P7M8 for its compactness, Debbie likes the UTL on her .45 for home defense and for in the car.

"When you come home to a dark house at night, it's comforting," she noted. Although she's only 5'4" tall with proportionally short fingers, she finds that she can work the trigger easily in double action mode. "It's very controllable and enjoyable to shoot, with the usual accuracy, quality, and reliability I expect from HK," she says. The USP she uses is into a four-figure count of rounds fired with no malfunctions of any kind, factory or reloads.

Gun number five belongs to Lee Whittier, a private citizen in Vermont. "I tried every pistol I could get my hands on before I bought my USP," she told me. "I liked how easy it was to manipulate the slide, and how good the trigger was. I've been taught how to clear malfunctions, but I haven't needed to do that yet." At 5'7" and 125 pounds, Lee has no problem carrying her big .45 concealed. She shot steady 90 percent scores with it in her LFI class. "I like the idea of the UTL," she adds, "and I might get one for home defense use."

Note that among the above experiences we see the common threads of user friendliness, accuracy, performance on demand under pressure, extreme reliability and the desirability of the UTL option. Notice also that people find a way to conceal a light, high capacity pistol that they totally trust their lives to, even though it may be large in dimensions.


I've seen very few problems with the .45 caliber USPS. One dealer noted that he had three magazines that began to separate at the back welds after a lot of use, but that seems to be an isolated complaint, which would indicate one small batch of mags.

The Tru-Dot front night sight on Debbie's gun started coming loose during a 400-round John Famam course; she staked it back into place herself and had no further problems.

I managed to kill the UTL on the number one test gun mentioned above while in Europe. I'm not sure what happened: it stopped working and everything went smoky black on the inside. However, I'd been carrying it on the gun, both concealed inside the waistband and in the breast pocket of a heavy leather jacket (try that with any other flashlight mounted to a pistol; the flat, compact profile of the UTL made it just barely possible) and we'd been kicking the hell out of the light-mounted pistol in field exercises in very nasty weather. I just sent the dead UTL back to HK with the live test pistol, and neglected to ask the company to analyze what went wrong. My other UTL is still running fine on routinely changed batteries.

Bottom Line

HK's USP is an excellent pistol, earning top marks for accuracy and reliability. Its double-action pull is good, its single-action pull is great. It is extremely weight-to-firepower effective, and it's a damn good buy. The Universal Tactical Light makes a lot of sense, and it's the only pistol available from the gun manufacturer with this desirable option.

By the time you read this, the USP45 will be available in both stainless steel upper structure and "compact" mode. The UTL will still work on both. The new versions will make a fine gun even better, and the only possible icing on the cake would be if the magazine ban could be repealed, bringing its magazine capacity up from an admittedly-adequate "10+1" rounds of .45 ACP to the even more reassuring "12+1" rounds that this fine pistol was designed to hold - the better to protect the decent people HK designed this system to serve.

USP45 Technical Specifications

Caliber .45 ACP
Operating System Short recoil, modified
Browning action
Ammunition Feed Staggered magazines;
10-round capacity
Sights Fixed, 3-dot
Barrel length 4.41 inches
Overall length 7.87 inches
Height 5.55 inches
Weight: with empty
1.90 pounds

first published in the 1997 Combat Annual edition of Guns Magazine