Pocket Wonder — Rohrbaugh R9S Stealth

by Tim Slemp

Not without extensive research could I determine the origin of pocket pistols. I presume that, since the advent of modern firearms, enthusiasts and engineers alike have long fancied the idea of a diminutive defensive pistol able to slip into the most unlikely locations and carried on one’s person discreetly. Perhaps it is just me, though I doubt it, but the pocket pistol represents the ultimate in convenience, portability, and discreet concealed carry. A few years back the genius’ at Rohrbaugh Firearms crafted a pocket wonder in their R9 autopistol. The R9 is quite possibly the ultimate full caliber pocket pistol and was designed to bring 9mm performance to a very special niche of micro-pistols, otherwise defined by teensy weensy mouse guns in arguably less-than-serious social calibers.

For my discreet carry needs I have personally never been interested in the industry’s offerings in pocket pistols. They were either not reliable enough, powerful enough, or small enough to truly fulfill the duty I expected of such a gun. Prior to the Rohrbaugh R9 I was perfectly content with my J-frame Smith as the smallest serious handgun I was willing to carry. With the debut of the R9 the pocket pistol recaptured my attention, and reinvigorated my hope for pocket pistol utopia – a pistol that can go where no other serious pistol can go. I will preface myself by stating succinctly that the R9 is not perfect, but it’s close. As long as one understands its shortcomings and caveats, and feeds it compatible ammunition, the little Rohrbaugh is sufficiently dependable and may in fact be the ultimate pocket pistol.

I am unforgiving when assessing weapons, particularly pistols that are to perform as a personal defense tool. And, thus far, if a pistol fails to pass my somewhat arbitrary performance criteria it gets canned. I ruthlessly discard it to the used gun market. Although I’ve yet to own a pistol so flawed that I wouldn’t even wish it on my enemies, that’s probably a product of making discriminating purchases in the first place. So, it is without precedence that I embrace one of the most unreliable pistols I’ve owned – my Rohrbaugh R9S Stealth.

Assessing the R9S took a bit longer than any other pistol I’ve owned, consequently this review is rather long – brief, it is not. But I believe the uniqueness of the R9S deserves it, especially at its steep ~$1100 tariff. I purchased my R9S Stealth in September of 2008 and thus far have only put a grand total of 228 rounds through it, which have been anything but flawless. Frankly, the extended and, heavily abridged, test is abnormal for me. The Army recently relocated my family and gave me a ruck sack full of books to study, which has occupied my free time more than I would like. Additionally, local range facilities are few and far between, particularly ones that allow “unsafe” practices such as “drawing from a holster” and “rapid fire.” Factor in the winter months and it took me well longer to run the R9S through its paces than I would have preferred.

However, my plan all along was never to run a case of ammo through the R9S. The pistol is simply not designed for high volume fire and I wasn’t going to batter it to death prematurely by attempting one of ToddG’s notorious 2,000 round challenges that would hardly break a sweat on a duty pistol and is nothing short of brutal on the R9S…and its trigger puller. I intended to break it in, and then carry it a lot.

At 12.8 ozs unloaded, 14.3 ozs with an empty magazine inserted, 5.2″ long, 3.7″ tall, and .85″ wide, the R9S is billed as the world’s smallest and lightest 9mm handgun and can be bruising to shoot with full power loads. Few other 9mm pistols come close in both weight and dimensions, but it is my opinion that the R9 and the R9S are the only truly viable pocket pistols chambered in 9mm, and it nearly fits within the palm of my small (size 9) hands.

The R9S achieves its flyweight size and mass through a combination of stainless steel and aluminum construction. All major mechanical components including the slide and barrel are of stainless construction and are formed through precision CNC computer controlled machines. The Stealth model adds a blackened diamond-like carbon (DLC) finish over the top of the stainless slide for reduced signature and protection. The aircraft-grade aluminum frame is carved out of a 7075 forging, commonly seen on MILSPEC M4 carbines. Rohrbaugh employs Wolff springs throughout, and a dual-nested recoil spring to arrest slide velocity in a very short distance, aiding the compact construction of the pistol. This double-spring arrangement makes reassembly a tedious chore, necessitating hand pliers, Leatherman Tool, or other such instrument to compress both ends of the spring when placing back in the slide, that is unless you have bionic thumbs and forefingers. The small package is polished off with a set of light and handsome G10 grip panels.

For those inquiring about the “S” in the R9S model designation, this is Rohrbaugh’s code indicating that it is equipped with a curious feature – open sights. Karl Rohrbaugh, the pistol’s designer, never envisioned the R9 to be equipped with sights, intending the diminutive bullet launcher to fill a pocket pistol role where extreme measures were taken to keep the pistol snag-free. However, the sight-equipped R9S accounts for the majority of sales. The sights are politely described as “rudimentary” and, admittedly I agree, that the sights have little value on such a small pistol. Nevertheless, I generally believe in always using sights and requested them on my copy. The sights are extraordinarily low profile and, although certainly not target grade, fulfill their function without risking your pockets.

The category of pocket pistols is perhaps the most ambiguously defined genre of pistols. I suppose if it can fit in a pocket, it is pocket pistol. Sadly there is not an industry standard “pocket.” Traditionally, pocket pistols have always been mouse guns chambered in some .22 rimfire manifestation, .25 or .32 ACP. As engineers toyed with new designs like the famous Seecamp, .380 ACP became a viable chambering, but did little to untether the pocket pistol from its mouse gun pedigree. Frankly, the .380 ACP is better than its little brothers but is well short of what a contemporary fighting caliber should be.

The magazine capacity limitations imposed upon the public in the 1990s gave birth to another interpretation of the compact pistol – the subcompact. In my opinion, the subcompact has been the only successful marrying of the functional reliability of true fighting pistols with the diminutive dimensions of the pocket pistol. But, again in my opinion, there is not a subcompact pistol that approaches the usefulness of a true pocket pistol in either external dimensions or weight. I hear all the time from various users who insist they can conceal a subcompact in their BDU or trousers pocket. Yes, it can be done. Is it awkward? You bet. And concealing any pistol within a bulky or ruffled garment while standing still is frankly not that hard. The pocket pistol is unique in that it is both small and light enough that carrying it in normal casual or formal dress is virtually transparent, and this is what makes the pocket pistol so appealing. Unfortunately, as a whole, pocket pistols never earned a legendary reputation for being among the most potent, reliable, and accurate handguns, so it is through this lens that I judge the R9S and make an exception for its performance when compared to suitable combat pistols.

To date there are an endless supply of excellent quality, near 100% reliable fighting pistols that are worthy to have one’s life entrusted to. Personally, I continue to return to SIG and HK-branded combat pistols, as I’ve found them to be the reference standard for reliability among out-of-the-box production pistols. In fact, I could make a strong case that back in the early ’80s SIG Sauer, in particular, was largely responsible for setting modern military and law enforcement standards for combat pistol reliability, emulated by the industry as a whole today. As a pocket pistol, the R9S is a big exception and a jagged pill to swallow for those seeking a 100% dependable fighting gun.

I don’t categorize the R9S or any other pocket pistol as a fighting gun. Pocket pistols are guns of compromise, plain and simple. And those who have cut their teeth on SIGs, HKs, Glocks, and Berettas are likely to be disappointed if they apply the same expectations of performance that they’ve become accustomed to with their fighting pistols when judging the R9S.

Plainly spoken, the R9S is the most unreliable pistol that I have chosen to keep, and I love it nonetheless. During the course of 228 rounds I have experienced no less than 11 malfunctions, including one failure to fire (FTFi) due to light primer strike and a total of ten failures to extract (FTE). On the surface this would have me very distressed, and it did for a while. The sole failure to fire due to light primer strike was experienced with Sellier and Bellot NATO-spec 124 grain FMJ ammo. S&B, and NATO-spec ammo in general, are notorious for hard primers and this is certainly not an anomaly with other pistol mechanisms, and frankly I expected it to occur with the R9S.

I deliberately tested the R9S with hard-primered ammunition just to see if I could induce an FTFi malfunction. The R9S is equipped with a slick double-action-only (DAO) trigger requiring full release to reset the sear and is spec’d at about 7 lbs, which I subjectively feel to be right on the mark. It is exceptionally smooth and exhibits very little perceptible stacking. I find the R9S’s DA trigger to be ideal for a pocket pistol in this role, an excellent balance between intrinsic safety and shootability. But a light DA trigger usually has trade-offs and, when combined with a low-mass bobbed hammer, the R9S is bound to give up some striking energy that risks 100% ignition with more stubborn primers like the S&B.

Perhaps the most disconcerting are the number of failures to extract. Frankly, I’ve never owned a pistol that exhibited such a high rate of failure. With the exception of two instances, all of the FTE’s were experienced with CCI/Speer Blazer Brass 115 FMJ, and it was nothing short of epidemic with this cartridge in 50 rounds fired. All 228 rounds were fired from the pistol straight from the box, factory lubed, but in December when I test fired the R9S with the Blazer Brass the pistol was close to bone dry. The factory lube had all but evaporated at this point. I deliberately test pistols dry because I want to learn how dependent their mechanism is on lubricant in general. I have found many mechanically reliable pistols begin to choke when dry, and often the tighter the pistol, the more bobbles tend to occur. At any rate, I don’t believe this to be a major factor with the R9S as there was no indication that the FTEs were a result of the slide balking, as the subsequent double-feeds suggest. I may be wrong, but most likely the extractor was slipping off the case rim, and I’ve read of similar FTE issues with Blazer Brass with other pistols. The Blazer Brass is somewhat anemic compared to full powered 9mm, which could certainly be an aggravating factor.

Close examination of the R9S revealed no detectable flaws. In fact, the Rohrbaugh pistols in particular, are renowned for their high quality of manufacture, and my R9S is no exception. Fit and finish is excellent. It’s not as tight as some semi-custom production pistols but it is free from rattles and looseness, and Karl Rohrbaugh states that the close tolerances were designed to limit the ingress of dust and dirt in consideration of its pocket pistol role. The close tolerances do little to hinder the mechanism as both the slide and trigger mechanisms are silky smooth in manual function even while dry. It is akin to my better examples by SIG Sauer as point of reference.

Accuracy of the R9S was mixed, and generally disappointing. I’ve read reviews praising its accuracy, while others complained of keyholing. I never achieved the accuracy that some have claimed but with most ammunition the R9S was entirely adequate. However, the sights were poorly regulated, predictably shooting about four inches to the right at 15 yards. Palm-sized, 10-12 yard groups were the norm. The pistol is so small that two-handed shooting achieves little for improving accuracy, and virtually all of my shooting was done one-handed, as the pistol is intended to be shot. I did experience keyholing and nothing less than appallingly poor accuracy with one load in particular – Blazer Brass. Yep, the same culprit for the high incidence of FTE. I’ve included a picture of what started to be a slow-fire accuracy assessment at 15 yards, standing, unsupported, one-handed. I was aiming point of aim, point of impact at the leftmost 25-yard bullseye, but after witnessing the first magazine of 6 rounds impact erratically I elected to continue firing a total of 40 rounds with unpleasant results.

This is not the first time that I have had unsatisfactory results with Blazer Brass. I’ve fired 9mm, .40, and .45 ACP Blazer Brass, an invariably it has been among the most inconsistent factory loaded ammunition I’ve experienced. So much so that I avoid it like the plague, but at the time it was all that the local Wal-Mart had in stock. Why Blazer Brass is so bad, I do not know. I have never had problems at all with standard CCI Blazer (aluminum case), and find the aluminum-cased stuff entirely functional. The Blazer Brass shot fine through my SIG P229 on the same day, worse through my HK P30, and abysmal through the R9S, with evident keyholing. Neither the HK or SIG experienced any extraction problems with the Blazer Brass either. I recently acquired a lot of Speer Lawman 115 TMJ and ran 50 rounds through the R9S without any hiccups and perfectly adequate accuracy.

After experiencing the malfunctions and poor accuracy I called Rohrbaugh Firearms and spoke with Karl Rohrbaugh himself. He offered to take the pistol back in and look it over. He asked that I specify which ammunition that I wanted to use and that he would ensure that is reliable with it. I inquired of the inaccuracy and heyholing and he seemed a little guarded with his answer reminding me that the R9 was not intended to be a target pistol but rather for close-in, face-to-face engagements. Curiously, the R9S has very shallow rifling. Using my poor-man’s mic, it is obvious that the R9S’s lands are of wider dimension than other conventionally rifled barrels like my SIG P229. I believe this is the likely culprit for the unpredictable accuracy.

Although Mr. Rohrbaugh would not say, I presume that he elected to use such shallow rifling with a long leade as a method of reducing chamber pressure. He explicitly prohibits +P and +P+ ammunition in the pistol. I am sure that this has to be the case with such a diminutive firearm with minimal slide mass and using stiff, but manageable, springs to tame the high slide velocity. Frankly, it is nothing short of phenomenal that such a high pressure cartridge is able to be safely fired in such a small firearm. Although I didn’t deliberately shoot any high pressure ammunition in the R9S the S&B 124 grain loads were NATO-stamped, and the velocity was in line with other NATO-class 9mm I have shot, typically in the +P pressure range. The pistol didn’t kaBoom! or show signs of overpressure, but I definitely recommend heeding Mr. Rohrbaugh’s advice, if for no other reason than to prevent excessive battering on the little gun and its recoil spring, [so essential to its function], and recommended to be replaced at 200-round intervals, which I did at the conclusion of this test.

Mr. Rohrbaugh referred to Sellier and Bellot ammo as “s#$**y bullets,” citing other complaints using their cartridges. Well, I politely disagree. S&B is perfectly good ammunition but it is known to have hard primers. Plainly, unless a cartridge is grossly out of specification, I normally attribute supposed “ammunition malfunctions” to the pistol, as any good fighting gun should be able to chug through a wide variety of ammunition and small variations without skipping a beat. The R9S is neither a traditional fighting gun and is an exception, in my opinion. Anyhow, I resolved not to waste the money on a round trip. The pistol exhibited no flaws in manufacture, (which I typically find on pistols with a knack for choking), and the R9 is reputed to have hit-and-miss reliability with certain types of ammunition simply on account of its highly compressed dimensions. Reportedly the R9′s are 100% with Speer GHDP but I did not have any standard pressure variants on hand to test, as I prefer the +P versions. I did not want to have Mr. Rohrbaugh tinker with a pistol that was set up for mass consumption and make any modifications to its mechanism that would prejudice one cartridge over another, certainly not on account of Blazer Brass.

Mr. Rohrbaugh personally recommends and carries Winchester 115 gr Silvertips in his R9. I have elected to use Black Hills’ 115 EXP, which is a standard pressure, high velocity reincarnation of the Winchester 115 JHP projectile. It catalogs at 1250 fps in a 4″ barrel, and generated 1121 fps out of the 2.9″ tube of my R9S. That is within striking distance of what the standard Win 115 STHP will do out of a 3.9″ P229/228. This is more than adequate for a pocket pistol. Lighting off those Black Hills loads supplies vigorous recoil. It is not brutal, like shooting a S&W Scandium .357, but it is very sharp and will take its toll on you. The relatively high bore axis makes for lively shooting but allows the recoil to roll over the web of the hand rather than directly into it. I would compare shooting the BH 115 EXP loads in the 14.3 oz R9S as very comparable to shooting Speer’s 135 gr +P GDHP out of a 10.8 oz S&W 342PD – my preferred every day “always” gun and load.

So, what’s to conclude? Frankly the R9S despises Blazer Brass, with which it is appallingly inaccurate and unreliable. I do not know what CCI/Speer does different with their bargain Blazer Brass line other than use extruded brass – an industry exclusive and possible culprit. Perhaps the extruded brass presents unique challenges to the R9S’s extractor claw not exhibited with other conventionally-formed brass. Nevertheless, I will avoid it. Otherwise, the R9S was more predictable in its function. And, yes, I do somewhat forgive the lightly sprung pistol for not lighting off the notoriously hard-primered S&B NATO ammo. I would not afford any other pistol (read: fighting gun) the same leniency.

So, can 228 rounds provide a conclusive assessment of the R9S? Of course not, but neither would 2,000 rounds, as it would still only be anecdotal. Amazingly, however, it does provide some insight on the strengths and weaknesses of a very intriguing pistol. And, what use does an unreliable, inaccurate mini-9 have? Well, that is the beauty of the R9S – it does what no other pistol can do. It fires full power 9mm in a package best compared to .380 ACP mouse guns. Its dimensions and overall bulk are most closely compared to Ruger’s LCP (5.16″ X 3.6″ X .82″) than Kahr’s PM9 (5.3″ X 4.0″ X .9″), both of which I believe to be the R9S’s (5.2″ X 3.7″ X .85″) closest peers. The Kahr PM9 is a decent 9mm, but at 16 ozs both its slightly heavier weight and bulkier dimensions cause it to migrate into the non-pocket pistol role, in my opinion. Frankly, I think the R9S is the absolute largest and heaviest pistol that can appropriately be used as a pocket pistol, and that’s debatable.

The R9S’s 9mm chambering is perhaps its best attribute, bringing a fighting gun caliber to the pocket pistol genre. Some would argue the merit of this role, as there is no shortage of 100% reliable .38 Special snubnose revolvers that possess adequate ballistics. True, but there are very, very few high performance .38 Special +P loads that can truly match the ballistics of full power, standard pressure 9mm. In fact, generally a snubnose often must launch .357 Mag loads to achieve 9mm-level performance out of S&W’s 1-7/8″ bbl, and recoil is a beast in such revolvers. My personal 342PD is constantly stoked with five Speer 135 gr GDHP +P rated at 865 fps from the short tube. Compared to the payload of 6+1 BH 115 EXP at 1121 fps in the Rohrbaugh, the R9S has a distinct firepower advantage. Frankly, the ability to reload is mox nix as both are clumsy to reload and are “last chance” defensive tools. Although it is easier to stuff a 6-round magazine into the R9S than it is to strip 5 rounds off of a Bianchi Speed Strip in the 342PD, the R9S’s magazine release is stiff and requires awkward techniques to actuate. Additionally, the R9S omits a slide release or other hold-open device in the interest of simplicity and compactness of design.

As I write this, my S&W 342PD rides on my belt nearly undetectable. It is comfortable, light, and totally reliable. My R9S resides alone in a compact jacket pocket, which hangs in the closet for occasional chilly walks or trips outside. For 95% of my discrete carry purposes, the 342PD more than suffices. The R9S comes into its own during those unique circumstances when I need a truly small weapon to slip into a pocket discretely, in formal dress, or simply where my J-frame cannot go. Moreover, the R9S brings the potency of full power 9mm ammunition that expands options and makes an ideal companion to a SIG P228 or HK P2000/P30 that I often carry, supplying common ammunition compatibility, if that sort of thing matters. All of this for the bargain sum of $1100 – a value that no other pistol can supply at any price.

My R9S is a keeper.

Chronograph Results:

20081109, 43 degrees, 700 ft, sunny, chrono at 10 ft., 10 round strings (unless otherwise stated)

Pistols

  1. SIG P229R 9mm, 3.86″ bbl
  2. HK P30, 3.86″
  3. Rohrbaugh R9S, 2.9″

Sellier and Bellot 124 FMJ NATO
Pistol Hi Lo Avg ES SD
SIG P229R 9mm, 3.86″ bbl 1108 1153 1131 33 11 (30 rds)
HK P30, 3.86″ 1170 1209 1187 39 13
Rohrbaugh R9S, 2.9″ 1059 1097 1078 38 11
Fiocchi 147 XTP
Pistol Hi Lo Avg ES SD
SIG P229R 9mm, 3.86″ bbl 880 893 887 13 4
HK P30, 3.86″ 951 976 959 24 6
Rohrbaugh R9S, 2.9″ 837 863 849 27 9
Blazer Brass 115 FMJ
Pistol Hi Lo Avg ES SD
SIG P229R 9mm, 3.86″ bbl 1078 1113 1096 35 10
HK P30, 3.86″ 1103 1159 1144 55 16
Rohrbaugh R9S, 2.9″ 982 1049 1021 68 24
Black Hills 115 JHP EXP
Pistol Hi Lo Avg ES SD
SIG P229R 9mm, 3.86″ bbl 1127 1200 1170 73 21
HK P30, 3.86″ 1210 1239 1229 29 10
Rohrbaugh R9S, 2.9″ 1109 1133 1121 24 8 (30 rds)

About the Author: Tim Slemp is a career officer actively serving in the U.S. Army for over 13 years. He is a combat veteran who has served operationally in Iraq, the Balkans, and the Korean Peninsula. He has worked closely with training and managing operational Army special reaction teams (SRT), led tactical Military Police platoons, commanded a law enforcement detachment, and worked as a training, readiness, and operational planner for several Army law enforcement organizations. He is a part-time weapons instructor holding certifications in pistol, shotgun, and dynamic shooting and training techniques, and competes in IDPA and USPSA circuits. As of the writing of this article, Tim Slemp is currently a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff Officer’s College (CGSOC) at Fort Leavenworth, KS.