HK45 Interview with Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers

As the HK45 Endurance Test started to wind down, was fortunate to have two firearms industry legends — Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers — agree to discuss their involvement in the HK45’s history. As HK itself described it in a recent press release:

[Larry] Vickers and Ken Hackathorn were both intimately involved in the design of the HK45 as consultants and much of the improved ergonomics of the pistol is due to their recommendations.

So that’s the short version. What is the full story? Read on.

(phone interview transcript follows)

Vickers: Bruce Davidson (former Military Programs Manager at HK) was making a big push for the USP45 Compact with a suppressor and and extended mag for the SEALs. The idea was being met with luke warm response because let’s face it the gun is like a chunky brick. And at one meeting I said, “You know, we’re not making the gun we really need to make. We’re slipping through the cracks.” This was after Ken and I had already been talking.

[The HK45] actually had its roots with the HK 1911 program which really never went anywhere. They never made parts though they made some initial blueprints.

Ken: November of 2001 is when we went over to Oberndorf (HK Germany). Larry was still in [SFOD-Delta] and the price and maintenance of a custom 1911 was becoming a problem for the unit from a logistics standpoint. Could HK produce a 1911 of the quality that you could buy off the shelf? We knew if anyone in the world could do it quality-wise it was HK. And to be honest we presented some pretty nifty ideas to them.

At the same time, HK was phasing out production of the P7 which used a forged frame. So they had the forge capability to make a 1911.

As it turned out, within months SIG came out with a 1911, Smith came out with a 1911, and we kind of went, “This isn’t going to work.”

Larry: And HK was very luke warm about it. So it slipped.

Ken: When Larry and I were talking on the phone, we both agreed the HK 1911 was a bad idea. Then we started talking about hey, they need to stay in their lane. They make great polymer frame pistols. Look at the USP. No one will dispute that they’re accurate and reliable. But the downside is they have the ergonomics of a brick. So that’s what we started hashing out originally. Larry and I sat down over a number of phone calls and went from one end of that gun to the other.

So the concept of the HK45 was basically, ok, if you can’t have this product improved 1911 .45 pistol, what could HK build that would take its place. Remember, we weren’t talking about a CCW gun. We were talking about a duty pistol with primarily a military application, a .45-caliber pistol you’d put in your 6004 with better magazine capacity, vastly enhanced reliability, and accuracy quite honestly as good as a custom built 1911 gun.

Larry: Both Ken and I realized what they really ought to do was make a pistol combining bits and pieces of pistols they already make. Basically, take the slide off the P2000 or USP Elite and the width of the magazine from a USP45 Compact magazine which is narrower. Use the P2000 format with the light rail, the ambi controls, the backstrap inserts. Just kind of use the USP45 and give it a facelift to bring it up to the P2000 standard.

Ken: One of the things we spec’d and talked about was that we liked the cocked and locked feature which Larry and I at the time were both big fans of. And one of the things we talked about on the USP, when you disengage the safety from the cocked and locked position you often decock the gun. One of the things we spec’d for the HK45 was that should be modified so the decocking function was a very deliberate motion that you couldn’t easily do as you disengaged the safety.

We took the USP45 barrel which they’ve already got in production and just added the o- ring because we know that enhances accuracy. So we kind of spec’d those things out. Of course as time went by, what everybody discovered is if you take the o-ring out the difference in accuracy is going to be minor.

But the bottom line is we said let’s take the best features of some of the guns they’ve already designed and make it into a more ergonomic package.

Larry: Obviously, slim frame… we wanted to retain the slimmer frame from the USP compact. We wanted to retain the ability to use the different modular trigger systems. We wanted to take the slide from the P2000 or USP Elite. Better sights. The o-ring; why not, there is no downside to the o-ring.

Ken: Because if the o-ring came off, the gun still shot great and was still accurate and reliable.

A lot of people ask why 10 rounds. We said look, if you put more rounds in the gun you’re either going to make the grip fatter or the grip stupid long. And an 11-shot combat pistol in .45 quite honestly makes a lot of sense.

Larry: We carried over the USP45 Compact magazine and just lengthened it for the HK45. That was entirely to keep the grip frame manageable. Because the USP45 is a reliable gun but for some people the grip is too big.

Ken: The 10rd magazine dictated the length of the frame.

Larry: That’s why the height is a little bit longer.

Ken: We also talked about, most people in the special operations community wear flight gloves. The pistol has to be dimensionally designed so you can shoot it competently with gloves and manipulate it while wearing gloves. So for example, the size of the trigger guard and all the controls had to be designed so that when wearing gloves you would not be struggling to manipulate the gun… drop the slide, decock or engage the safety, drop the mag, it all had to be glove compatible. And to their credit, HK did a great job.

Larry: A Picatinny rail. Remember, at the time there was no HK pistol with a true Picatinny rail. Since then, you have the P30, P30L, HK45, HK45 Compact, P46 [now discontinued].

Ken: But the HK45 was the first pistol they made with a real Picattiny rail.

Larry: The other thing was front grasping grooves.

Ken: That gets back to the glove issue.

Larry: And I said let’s round some of the edges. HK has never been bad about sharp edges on the controls, but that’s where the rounded profile of the front end of the slide came from.

Ken: Which makes reholstering easier.

Larry: It was a lot of little things. It wasn’t big things. Between Ken and I, it was all no- brainer stuff. It was kind of like, frankly this should all be obvious stuff on how to upgrade the USP45. It was a mutual process to take the USP45 — a gun that had a reputation for being very accurate, very reliable, durable pistol — but let’s make it less blocky, make it ambi friendly, more adaptable.

Ken and I were able to pick and choose exactly what we thought would be ideal. Then I went to one of the secretaries at HK and she helped me do a photoshop of what would become the HK45. Minus the spiderman grip, it was really very close. The military group at HK-USA got together and discussed the details.

We had a scrap USP45 frame cut from the trigger guard back that I took home one evening and took a file to. In the grip beavertail tang area I rounded it to show the Germans this is what we want, we want to be able to get a higher grip. And that followed through right into the HK45, HK45 Compact, and the P30 as we know them today. It retained the dimensions needed for the trigger module but rounded it dramatically to make it more tolerable.

Then when Ernst [Mauch, CEO of HK at the time] came over I presented it to him as a morphed, re-born HK 1911 within the parameters of what they could do successfully.

Ernst went back to Germany with it and they began making prototypes. The P30 was also under development at the time and the modular spiderman grip from that gun got incorporated into the HK45.

Ken: From that proposal to the first prototype it was done in record time. I’ve never heard of a company getting something of that scale done that quick. Larry made his proposal in late March and when I was in Germany that November they had prototypes for us to shoot. They had complete new molds for the frames, which was neither a simple task nor an inexpensive task, in five months.

The first five prototypes had black frames, then the next ones had tan frames. When I went to Oberndorf they took me downstairs to shoot one of the original prototypes and it had a black frame.

My first impression — and this is coming from a 1911 user mindset — the high bore line, the first thing you notice is muzzle flip. We knew that was going to be the case because it was a case with the USP. On the other hand, and Todd you’ve shot it enough to know, it’s a matter of technique. It’s how you grip and manage the gun. The people who complain about the muzzle flip I think are people who over-generalize because the truth of the matter as you’ve proven, Todd, it isn’t a big deal if you know how to drive the gun.

The other major thing is that between the great single action trigger and the inherent accuracy of the gun, I shot it at fifteen yards and I remember being shocked. It shot as well if not better than any custom 1911 I’ve ever shot.

Larry: I’m with Ken. I’d put it up against any semi-custom production gun no problem.

The tan framed ones came out in response to the SOCOM Combat Pistol project which happened afterwards. The HK45 concept predates the SOCOM announcement by almost a year.

Ken: We both agreed that the grip circumference of the standard first generation grip, the one that they now have on the Compact which was the P2000 grip is what we wanted. We wanted guys with smaller hands to run this gun and for traction, let’s face it, they can fix that with skateboard tape. And the first five prototype guns had that configuration.

Larry: I had one on loan, serial number 5.

Ken: I shot one in Germany and thought, “This gun is great.”

When we went to SHOT Show, they had a mock-up with the spiderman grip. Obviously it had been heavily influenced by the P30 at that point. They showed it to us and Larry and I were both like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” They asked what we thought and I said, “This is dumb. It’s a bad idea. It’s a big mistake. Don’t go with it.” And you could tell it’s not what they wanted to hear.

Larry: So they went around and asked enough people until they got the answer they wanted. General Meyer (then CEO of HK, replacing Ernst Mauch) liked it and that was all the engineers needed to hear. From then on, the full size gun had the spiderman grip.

As it turns out, the grip is fine. It’s not a big deal. Where they ****’ed up royally — and with the P30, too — is the whole molded trough or groove in the trigger guard, combined with a lack of overtravel stop, combined with the shelf design of the ambi mag release. It leads to a situation for many people, myself included, when they fire the gun the gun torques and twists in their hands and bites the bottom edge of their trigger finger.

I had a prototype for a while and after shooting it, I called them and told them, “Dude, you need to fix this now. This is a real problem.” But they didn’t touch it. The Germans went into production with it. That has been the one thing … they ****’ed that up. Those were changes they got from the P30 without our input and carried it over to the full size HK45.

That’s why I went to [gunsmith David Bowie of Bowie Tactical Concepts] to do his modification, what he calls the Vickers Mod. He gets rid of the trough, does an internal overtravel stop (which also makes the trigger feel better), and rounds the edges on the paddle mag releases on the HK45 and P30. That does away with all the problems. It’s night and day in my book.

As it turns out, what they did to the grip was OK but the whole interface between the trigger guard and all that was wrong.

For whatever reason, they left the HK45 Compact alone.

Ken: The concept from the beginning was make a grip that you can use regardless of hand size. The interchangeable backstraps is the way you make the adjustment. But when they went to the spiderman grip, they created the trigger guard problems that Larry is talking about. Though maybe because I have such big hands, it isn’t a problem for me.

The Compact is closer to the true form of what we envisioned than the full size gun.

Larry: I like the full size gun. It’s a big gun. I like it, but I would not use one stock out of the box. I would take the gun and have Bowie do his mod. That solves most of the issues. The only other thing is that the trigger on some guns isn’t as refined as we wanted.

Ken: The best way to put it, HK builds fantastic pistols. There is no question that from an engineering standpoint, from a materials standpoint, and in many ways from a design standpoint they’re one of the most forward-thinking companies out there. The two areas where they still have issues is they don’t understand a good trigger pull and they don’t understand good sights.

Larry: That was another thing we wanted them to do on the HK45 was to have better sights, but they’re still not what they could be. Ken and I would have done something better with the sights. I know we’re preaching to the choir with you, Todd. I’m still less than enamored by the aftermarket sights available for the gun. I haven’t seen a set yet that I’m really happy with for the HK45.

If you want a full size .45 for a duty pistol, the best one you can get, the best money can buy, is without a doubt is the HK45. However, I must caveat that in my opinion the gun may need to be modified out of the box for some people. What I’ve found is that half the people who pick the gun up are bothered by that bite. Once you get past that with the Bowie Vickers Mod, it would be my first choice as a full size .45 service pistol. I think it’s the most reliable, best built one on the market. Not only are they dead ass reliable, they’re incredibly accurate. The HK45 in my experience will shoot with a custom 1911 side by side.

You can pretty much use the HK45 Compact right out of the box, however, except maybe changing the sights.

Ken: And the thing you’re proving, Todd, is from a durability standpoint let’s face it, it surpasses any 1911. Because at 50,000 rounds, a 1911 needs a severe overhaul. It’s going to need to be rebuilt and it’s going to have a lot of parts that are worn out.

Larry: Absolutely.

Ken: The HK45 is a superb gun. Larry and I both, once we got ours with the spiderman grip, we both said, “You know, from a user standpoint, it’s not bad.”

The big thing that I think we’ve all come to realize — and originally we had this gun cocked and locked like a 1911, we looked at it as a 1911 replacement — but what we’ve seen since then is that candidly, the way to go with the gun today is with the light LEM trigger.

Larry: Yup.

Ken: That is the most logical way to approach that handgun.

Larry: I think so. If you’re going to run that style gun, a conventional hammer fired gun, I think it’s the best way to go. The whole cocked and locked thing, as we know now in hindsight, it’s time has come and gone. For the average guy, it’s just not the best choice. I would say the lighter of the two LEMs is the way to go.

Todd: How would you compare the HK45 to a top-quality custom 1911?

Ken: You can buy an HK45, send it to Bowie and get the mods that Larry suggests — though with my hand size I don’t need them — and get Heinie sights. You’ve got a pistol one half or even one third the price of a top 1911 pistol today that is more reliable and every bit as accurate. For most anybody I can imagine if you said you need a pistol to stake your life on and you’re going to be someplace you can’t run to a pistolsmith every time you need it, if your choice is between an HK45 and a 1911 and you don’t take the HK45, you’re ****’ing brain dead.

Larry: Yeah, I agree 100%. Ken is spot on. For the average guy, it’s a far better choice. The 1911 is an enthusiast’s pistols. In order to keep that gun running you have to, it’s not optional, you have to become your own armorer to a degree. You have to be able to diagnose and fix minor problems on an end user level. If you’re not willing to sign up for that, frankly you have no business running a 1911 for anything other than occasional recreational shooting. If you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way with that gun and you’re not willing to sign up for that, then you need to avoid it. The HK45 is clearly the better choice. For the overwhelming number of people who feel like they need to have a .45 the only two real choices are the M&P45 and the HK45 and push come to shove if I’ve got to trust my life to one or the other, it would be the HK45.

We both are in agreement that if you had to go to Afghanistan for a year with just a handful of spare parts, what do you have confidence in getting the job done? The HK45. That would be my first choice. I think it is the most bomb-proof service pistol on the market. And we just saw SEAL Team Six go with the HK45 Compact for those reasons.

I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt the HK45 would not exist without me and Ken. I’m not saying we cured cancer with the HK45. What we did is just kind of show HK this is the obvious next step in a .45 caliber service pistol.

Larry Vickers is a decorated US Army Special Forces veteran and national pistol champion. Mr. Vickers has nearly two decades of special operations experience (1 SFOD-Delta), much of which was spent as his unit’s Primary Firearms Instructor. In addition to his special operations accomplishments, his competitive shooting has yielded a 10th and 9th place finish in the 1993 and 1994 USPSA Limited Nationals as well as a 1st place finish in CDP class at the 2001 IDPA Mid-Winter Nationals at Smith & Wesson. Mr. Vickers is a founding member of IDPA. In addition to being a highly experienced operator and national pistol champion, Mr. Vickers is also one of the premier 1911 pistolsmiths in the country and his work has been featured in several firearms publications and on the cover of American Handgunner. In addition to all this, Mr. Vickers has served as a consultant and technical expert to the firearms industry. Mr. Vickers is featured on two new firearms, tactics, and accessories focused T.V. shows called Tactical Impact and Tactical Arms.

Ken Hackathorn has served as a US Army Special Forces Small Arms Instructor, Gunsite Instructor, and NRA Police Firearms Instructor. He is currently an FBI Certified Firearms Instructor, Certified Deputy Sheriff with Washington County SO, Ohio, and a SRT member and Special Response Team trainer. Ken has trained US Military Special Operations forces, Marine FAST and SOTG units and is a contract small arms trainer to FBI SWAT and HRT. Ken has provided training to Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies and been active in small arms training for the past 25 years. He has written firearms related material for Guns & Ammo, Combat Handguns, Soldier Of Fortune, and currently American Handgunner and contributed to at least six other gun/shooting journals. Ken was also a founding member of IPSC and IDPA.