Those of you who are old enough to be blessed with a few gray hairs, as I am, will remember the “Wondernine” craze of the 1980s. The fashion de rigueur of that time tended towards full service-sized pistols chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge (AKA 9x19mm, 9mm Parabellum, etc.) that would seemingly hold half a box of ammo in their double-stack magazines. And why not? The result was a pistol roughly the same size and weight as the beloved 1911 45 ACP, but with a far greater magazine capacity – even if that magazine was filled with a large number of puny 9mm cartridges instead of a lesser number of the glorious 45 ACP. The 9mm Luger’s reputation as a poor “man-stopper” (a misnomer if ever there was one) was due largely to the projectile designs common to the early 20th Century. Comparing bullet design apples to apples, the 45 ACP is far superior to smaller bullets such as the 9mm Luger, as long as non-expanding Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ammo is used, as is the case in most military applications. Simply put, the 45 ACP makes a bigger hole than the 9mm Luger, so the larger bullet wins. However, with advancements in bullet design such as hollow-point or frangible projectiles, the effectiveness gap between the 9mm Luger and 45 ACP is not so clearly defined: well-designed hollow-point bullets expand to substantially greater than native diameter, allow much greater energy transfer into the target, and create considerably greater secondary tissue damage. The typically higher velocity of the 9mm Luger makes it even more efficient and more likely to significantly expand using modern bullet designs, and because of this, the 9mm Luger has really closed the gap with the 45 ACP. While the 45 ACP’s superiority was at one time unquestioned, modern loadings make the 9mm Luger a very effective self-defense cartridge, giving the 9mm with its typically higher magazine capacity a distinct advantage.
The 1980s saw numerous other innovations in pistol design, such as the striker firing systems, trigger-actuated safeties, and polymer grip frames, but the heart of the “Wondernine” was always its higher-capacity magazine. The smaller size of the 9mm Luger cartridge made it a perfect fit for these double-stack magazines, and the resulting magazine capacity advantage over the 45 ACP made the 9mm Luger ever more popular.
Fast-forward to 1994: in a misguided effort to restrict Firearms Civil Rights and pander to Leftists while paying lip service to slowing the rates of mass shootings (a necrotic equine that the Left has been gleefully pummeling ever since), Bill Clinton and his minions pushed through the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Among the law’s infringements was a ten-round magazine capacity limit, which immediately took away the 9mm Luger’s only real advantage over the 45 ACP. Still, new laws, especially new laws which are not properly considered beforehand, often have unintended consequences: the 1994 law, coupled with the proliferation of states allowing citizens to obtain concealed-carry permits in response to the Clinton administration’s Draconian gun laws, ushered in the next great leap in pistol design. Since magazines larger than ten rounds were verboten, there was no longer any need for 9mm pistols to be as large as a service pistol; as a result, wonderfully-designed pocket 9mm pistols evolved over a few years that made it easier than ever before for the steadily-burgeoning number of armed Americans to conceal a pistol on their persons.
By the time the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 saw its blessed sunset in 2004, the usefulness of these compact 9mm pistols was firmly established, so the evolutionary path of the 9mm pistol continued in two different directions. As the return of standard-capacity magazines allowed the full-sized 9mm pistol to reach the heights we see in today’s modern pistol designs, the compact 9mm pistol really had an opportunity to flourish. While the previous generation’s compact 9mm pistols were wonderful in their own right, their single-stack magazines were limited to six or seven rounds in most cases.
Over the past couple of years, a new class of compact 9mm pistols has emerged, featuring magazine capacities of ten or more rounds in a truly compact form suitable even for pocket carry. These new pistols typically exhibit features that set them apart from the previous generation of compact 9mm pistols, such as enhanced magazine capacity, improved sights, and often the ability to mount an optical sight without modification. I am a great fan of these pistols, and I own several of different brands; each has features that set it apart from the others in minor ways, but my favorite, and the one pistol that I carry every day, is the subject of this article: Ruger’s excellent MAX-9.
Ruger was not the first to market with their new compact 9mm, but they did set the bar for those that would follow, and the MAX-9 checks all the boxes. The MAX-9 features a couple of real improvements over what has been offered in the past. Not the least of these innovations is a 30% to 50% increase in magazine capacity over and above what has been possible with earlier designs (both by Ruger and by other makers), at essentially no increase in the pistol’s dimensions. Ruger accomplished this impressive increase in firepower by ingeniously redesigning the grip frame, and designing a nifty magazine that tapers from a double-stack body to a single-stack feed. Not being a gun designer myself, it seems almost magical what Ruger has accomplished here: creating a 9mm pocket pistol that accommodates a magazine of 10 or 12 rounds, in a package that is the same size as a pistol that holds a 6 or 7 round magazine.
The MAX-9 is constructed with the familiar Ruger toughness and durability. The slide is made from through-hardened alloy steel, finished in black oxide, and the barrel is similarly black oxide finished alloy steel. The grip frame is high performance glass-filled nylon, and is medium-textured for a secure and comfortable hold. I found the grip texture to be just right: aggressive enough to aid in the only type of “gun control” which should be under discussion, while not so overly-textured that the hand is abraded under recoil, or that concealment becomes a problem.
The MAX-9’s trigger is excellent, incorporating an articulated safety lever in the center. After just under one-quarter inch of lighter takeup, the trigger travels another one-quarter inch before breaking cleanly and consistently at 3 pounds, 2.3 ounces for an average of five pulls, as measured by my Lyman Electronic Digital Trigger Pull Gauge. Not only is trigger travel short and trigger pull pleasantly light, the pull is very smooth and even, yielding a much better pull than one would expect from a compact pistol’s factory trigger.
The safety features of the striker-fired MAX-9 are several. As mentioned above, the trigger incorporates an articulated safety lever, which will be familiar to those who are accustomed to striker-fired pistols, and is automatic in operation. Internally, the MAX-9 incorporates a striker blocker, which prevents firing as the result of a blow, such as dropping the pistol onto a hard surface. As far as external safety levers are concerned, Ruger offers two basic models of the MAX-9: the MAX-9 Standard features a manual safety lever, while the MAX-9 Pro has no safety lever. I carried a Standard model until the Pro model became available, then I switched to the Pro model, as I consider the safety lever superfluous. For those who are more comfortable with a manual safety, the MAX-9 Standard is available for the same price as the Pro model; the rest of us can opt for the Pro model, or simply ignore the safety lever of the Standard model. The safety lever is intuitive in operation: the safety naturally and comfortably falls under the shooter’s thumb on the port side of the pistol (the lever is not ambidextrous), and operates by sweeping UP for Safe, and DOWN for Fire. The safety lever is easy to operate with the right thumb, and clicks positively into each position. Finally, the top of the barrel hood has a witness hole which serves as a loaded-chamber indicator. None of these reduce the importance of a firearm’s primary safety, which is located between the shooter’s ears, but the MAX-9 is a very safe design that should prove to be proof against anything but fools.
The sights on the MAX-9 are a cut above what one would expect in a pistol of the MAX-9’s price range. The rear sight is thankfully steel, dovetailed into the slide and drift-adjustable for windage, with a medium-high profile and a vertical front face which would aid in racking the slide against a table or corner, should it become necessary. The front sight is excellent, featuring a combination Tritium / Fiber Optic bead that makes the sight picture very easy to acquire in both bright and low-light conditions. The Bad Guys often come out at night, and such a front sight can be very important to keeping Mom’s favorite boy, or those he loves, out of harm’s way. If you have ever shopped for Tritium night sights, then you know how much value is added by Ruger’s inclusion of such a sight into the very reasonable price of the MAX-9.
As optical sights have become smaller and more reliable, and the prices of them have begun to decrease, they have recently become very popular on semi-auto pistols. In fact, a mini-industry has formed to convert pistols to their use, along with a proliferation of brands and styles from which to choose. With the availability of different styles, sizes, and price points, it has actually become practical to use such sights on a defensive pistol. The top of the MAX-9’s slide features a removable plate, with mounting holes per-configured underneath to accommodate a wide variety of these optical sights. I know of fifteen different currently-available optical sights that will bolt right up to the MAX-9, and there will undoubtedly be more as their popularity increases and their mounting systems become more universal. Optical sights are a viable option for belt carry, or even pocket carry given a generously-sized pocket, without adversely affecting the ability to conceal the pistol. Also, with an optical sight installed, the MAX-9 could very well be pressed into service on the target range.
You may smirk at my suggestion that the MAX-9 could do yeoman’s duty as a target pistol, but hear me out: the MAX-9 is inherently no less accurate than its larger siblings, with the major difference relating to accuracy being the short sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights) dictated by the pistol’s smaller size. As a rule, the shorter the sight radius, the greater the potential geometrical error imposed by the shooter’s natural “sight wobble”; this is why shorter-barreled firearms are considered to be less accurate than their longer-barreled siblings, not because of any inherent inaccuracy related to barrel length. With an optical sight installed, this limitation is removed; no longer is there a sight radius with which to contend, but there is only one sight plane, and nothing has to be lined up by the eye. This can aid in both precision and speed, and Ruger has us covered with the MAX-9.
Although I carry the MAX-9 daily as a pocket pistol with the provided open sights, I did want to put it through its paces with an optical sight, and was quite impressed by the result. The optic I chose was the Romeo Zero 1x24mm sight from Sig Sauer. The Romeo Zero is a direct bolt-on fit for the MAX-9, is perfectly sized for the MAX-9 in all dimensions, and is available with either a 3-MOA or a 6-MOA dot. I chose the 3-MOA version, as it glows plenty brightly while providing a smaller dot for greater precision. The Romeo Zero is powered by one CR1632 coin-type battery, with a claimed battery life of ten years, and features eight illumination settings for various lighting conditions. The Romeo Zero neatly includes a built-in co-witness rear sight, but this proved to be unnecessary on the MAX-9, as Ruger’s sight design allowed the open sights to easily co-witness with the Romeo Zero. The Romeo Zero is fully adjustable for windage and elevation correction, works flawlessly, is easy to power on/off, and is easy to adjust. The Romeo Zero is readily available from Lipsey’s, and retails for $199.99.
I consider myself a “45 guy”; I love my 1911 pistols and carry them often, but the pistol that is ALWAYS with me, even when I am carrying a 1911 pistol or N-frame revolver, is my Ruger MAX-9 Pro. There are several choices in today’s market when it comes to modern pocket-sized, optics-ready 9mm compact pistols. They are all fine pistols, with features that will appeal differently to different shooters; as the man says, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice”.
The MAX-9 pistols are currently in-stock and available from Lipsey’s-affiliated dealers; to find such a dealer in your area, click on the DEALER FINDER at https://www.lipseys.com/.
At a current MSRP of $439.00 for either the Standard or Pro model, the MAX-9 holds the center of the price spectrum; some brands of compact 9mm pistols cost more, some cost less, but none are better. I own several examples of this type of pistol, and appreciate them all, but the Ruger MAX-9 Pro is the one that I always carry in my pocket. I can think of no higher praise than that.
About the Author:
Boge Quinn is a life-long shooter, born and raised in the Great State of Tennessee. A co-founder of Gunblast.com (https://gunblast.com/) in the year 2000, along with his brother Jeff Quinn, Boge has continued on with Gunblast after Jeff’s passing in 2020. Boge serves on the Board of Directors of The Shootists (https://shootists.org/), an organization started by John Taffin in 1985, as did his brother Jeff. Boge appreciates firearms of all types, but his soul is particularly stirred by the “older style” guns: lever-action and single-shot rifles, along with Single-Action and Double-Action revolvers and 1911-style pistols. As a former professional artist, Boge appreciates the aesthetics of a fine gun, as well as its mechanical precision and practical application. His particular affinity lies in the world of handguns, and he has hunted mostly with handguns of all types since the mid-1970s. A regionally well-known musician, Boge is also a Deacon in the same Baptist Church where his brother Jeff formerly served as Deacon, and where their Dad finished his 50-year career as Pastor.