Do pistols chambered for 5.7x28mm cut it for everyday carry? Yes and no and … maybe.
Back in 1990, NATO wanted a special firearm … a personal defense weapon (PDW). This PDW was to be the modern equivalent of the M1 Carbine. Unlike the carbine, however, they wanted something that’d penetrate the soon-to-be-issued Soviet “superarmor”, something that all Warsaw Pact troops would soon be wearing when they swarmed across the Iron Curtain.
The 5.7x28mm came to us in the P90, an SMG-sized firearm familiar to all fans of the Stargate TV show. Its companion, the PS90, came with a 16-inch barrel and no selector switch. In due time, FN offered a 5.7x28mm option in the FiveseveN, a pistol chambered in the cartridge. The ammunition, however, wasn’t the anti-Soviet loading that NATO could get, but various FMJ and polymer-tipped bullets that could be had here.
So, the question is: Is the 5.7 a suitable option as an EDC firearm and chambering? Quick answer: Yes … and no.
OK, first up are the pistols. For the longest time, we’ve had just the FN version, the FiveseveN, which is pretty marvelous. Holding 20 rounds of 5.7x28mm ammunition, and with magazine extensions adding 10 rounds available, you can have a full box of ammo plus one, in the pistol and on your belt, with just two magazines. Then, Ruger added theirs, and just recently S&W unveiled a pistol in 5.7 as well.
So, you have choices.
Oh, and if it matters, the S&W comes standard with an extended and threaded barrel, so you can mount a suppressor, if you want to, for more giggle-worthy range practice. Plus, the S&W magazine holds 22 rounds, but you’ll have to use the included magazine loader to get it stuffed full. The FN version differs from what we expect in a pistol in that the safety is not thumb-operated, but instead a lever on the frame located for your trigger finger. Both the Ruger and S&W have a safety (ambi) in the expected thumb-actuated location. Still, you can learn the FN safety location.
But there’s a bigger problem with the 5.7 as a defensive pistol: size.
The 5.7 cartridge is long. At 1.59 inches, it’s longer than a .45 ACP or .38 Super, which means fitting it into a magazine, and the magazine into a frame, makes for a larger pistol than “normal.” And then you double-stack it to gain capacity, resulting in a full-sized-plus pistol. The thinness of the cartridge does mitigate the double-stack fattening of the grip, but not enough to make it not big. There’s no getting around it—you’re going to be packing something as big as a 1911 government model, and then some.
If you can get your hand or hands around the frame to hold and shoot it, then great. But if you can’t, it doesn’t matter if it’s the hammer of Thor—you can’t. This does limit the 5.7 to those with large-enough hands who are willing to dress around the gun. We all have to dress around the gun, but the various 5.7 pistols make that a greater task. In the past, I’ve mentioned the various 5.7x28mm pistols as an option for those who aren’t keen on recoil, but (I’m pretty sure) I’ve always been clear: You’ve got to have hands big enough.
Dollar For Dollar
Next up is the cost of ammunition. It isn’t too difficult these days to find practice ammo for a 9mm pistol at $12 for a box of 50 rounds. Granted, the better defensive ammo is going to cost more, but a box of 50 Gold Dots, for example, that runs you $30 will last you for years as carry ammo. But to practice you need to shoot, and shooting means it’s consumed. For that, $12 a box is a better deal, and it leads to more practice.
In the 5.7, practice ammo is going to run you as much as the premium defensive 9mm does—or darned close to it. The lowest-cost 40-grain FMJ I could source was $29 per box, and it went up quickly from there. And, you don’t have the option of reloading to lower practice costs. The case is a bottlenecked one, not always a problem, but while the S&W is a rotating barrel, the Ruger and the FN are both a short-distance blowback design, so case shoulders are blown forward when fired in those pistols. As a result, case life is thus short, and loading data is sparse or vague. There are a host of other problems as well. The quick answer is: No savings here.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cost, the prices have quite the spread. The FN lists at $ 1,409, the S&W at $699 and the Ruger at $899. In an age of a host of 9mm pistols listing for $425 to $450, those aren’t inconsequential price bumps.
Punching Above Its Weight
How about ballistics? Detractors diss the 5.7x28mm as “being an expensive .22 Magnum,” but that’s not true. The little rimfire has its published ballistics rifle velocities, and using it in a pistol chops a bunch of fps off of those figures. Out of a pistol, the .22 WMR delivers around 1,200 fps or a bit more, with a 45-grain bullet. The 5.7 can accelerate a 40-grain bullet to 1,700 to 1,800 fps, which is a significant difference.
Field reports on the 5.7 aren’t extensive. It hasn’t received anything like the acceptance of the .40 back in the early 1990s, nor the adoption of the latest-generation 9mm JHPs that we can mine for a trove of data. However, there’s one incident we can turn to—the use of a 5.7 at Fort Hood. There, 45 people were shot, 13 of whom died.
The interesting (from a ballistics viewpoint, otherwise it was horrible) aspects of the incident was that, despite all the victims being young, fit and motivated, none were able to close the distance to the shooter. In fact, the 5.7, when it struck bone, broke bones, which isn’t always something a pistol cartridge can do. As I’ve mentioned before, when a “lowly” .22 strikes the femur and breaks it, there’s something going on here we can’t necessarily explain with the various ballistic theories I’ve read. Ballistically, the 5.7 seems to punch well above its weight.
Accuracy Excel, Recoil Is Pleasant
The impressive ballistics delivered don’t come at a cost in apparent recoil. While the 5.7 in any pistol is going to be a bit “bouncy” in recoil, it doesn’t beat you up like others do. A +P load in a .45 ACP is definitely a workout to shoot. A top-end 9mm, or a +P load, while not as hard-hitting on your hands, has more bark to it, and some people find the noise more of a problem than the recoil. Some loadings of the 5.7 are snappy in noise, but none are what you’d call hard to shoot, recoil-wise.
In recoil, momentum seems to be a better yardstick of the impression in your hands than kinetic energy is, so we’ll use the power factor (PF) calculation here (weight times velocity). So, a vanilla-plain 9mm load (115 grains at 1,150 fps) posts a 132 PF, while an average .45 hardball load posts a 190 PF. (The top-end loads of each are considerably higher in PF.)
The 5.7? With a 40-grain bullet traveling at 1,900 fps, you’d have an 85.5 PF. So, that’s soft recoil, if you can get your hands around it.
As far as accuracy is concerned, the 5.7 is no slouch. The ammunition—and the pistols—will be more accurate than just about any shooter out there. And all can be had now with mountings for red-dot optics, so you aren’t giving that choice up.
And The Verdict Is?
So, where are we, as far as EDC for the 5.7x28mm?
We’ve got a large pistol, and for that you’ll need proper leather (or Kydex) to carry it and not be noticed. All three options weigh a few ounces less than a G17 and a half-pound less than the weight of a lightweight commander—just a bit more than half the weight of a steel government model. If you’re carrying a spare magazine (and you really ought to), you’ll have one as big as one-plus of a G17 mag or two 1911 magazines. And that’s even before you take advantage of the extra capacity extensions.
I gave up on packing a full-sized government model back when Reagan was president, in favor of a more-compact, lightweight commander. I’m not sure I’d go back to that size, even for the capacity of the 5.7.
But I’m old, cranky … and like my comfort.
To sum things up: If you can hide the size and get your hands around the grip, the 5.7 offerings can be very attractive. For a lot of shooters, those are both big hurdles to overcome. And practice will be expensive, because you can’t cut costs by reloading.
But, as I’ve said many times before: This is America, and you have choices.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2023 EDC special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
More 5.7x28mm Stuff:
- The PSA Rock 5.7 Pistol
- Using 5.7×28 For Self-Defense
- The Ruger LC Carbine
- The CMMG Mk57 GUARD Line
- Fiocchi Subsonic 5.7 Ammo