Today’s feature comes to us from our companion service, Shooting News Weekly.
In the world that’s full of semi-auto handguns, there seems to be a formula that works. Give it a polymer frame, make it striker-fired, chamber it in 9mm, and use a double-stack magazine. Add a rail and maybe give it an optic cut, and we have the description of basically every duty-sized pistol on the market.
It’s boring, but it’s boring because it’s prevalent, and it’s prevalent because not only does it work, but it sells. They’re the guns people want.
That said, they don’t typically impress me much. They don’t disappoint, but it’s tough to get excited about one of these…except for the Springfield Echelon.
Springfield’s duty-sized, polymer-frame pistols were dominated by the XD series for decades. There isn’t really anything bad about the XD handguns, but I never saw them as inspired. They did the same thing every other polymer frame and striker-fired pistol on the market did in pretty much the same way, and that was fine.
I didn’t expect Springfield Armory — or HS Produkt — to hit me with what’s become my favorite handgun of 2023, but that’s what’s happened.
The Echelon was a surprise hit for 2023.
The Hellcat micro-compact was a great step forward in Springfield’s firearms design. But they released the Hellcat and a few other Hellcat variants and continued to pump out XDs for years. Maybe they were prototyping, developing, and building the Echelon during the Hellcat’s introduction. I can’t quite say, but I’ve found the easiest way to describe the Echelon is that it’s a duty-sized Hellcat. Kind of.
From Hellcat to Echelon
The Echelon takes its sleeker, more modern look and design cues from the Hellcat. It dropped the grip safety of the XD and (thankfully) ditched Grip Zone for the “adaptive” grip texture Springfield has chosen that’s really tough to beat. Good sights and optics-ready options were standard with both the Echelon and the Hellcat.
The Echelon, however, parts ways with the Hellcat in a number of features.
First, the Echelon uses a modular internal chassis that combines the fire control parts into one removable block. This is just like the design of the SIG SAUER P320.
The Echelon’s central operating group or COG.
When you remove the fire control group, or as Springfield calls it, the COG, you’re removing 99% of the gun’s guts.
The COG is the serialized portion of the gun.
The only thing that’s left behind is the magazine release. As with the P320, the serialized portion of the firearm can be swapped and switched out to accommodate different grip modules and slides. Springfield has even recently released the compact grip module for the Echelon and, at release, offered three different sizes of grip for the full-sized module.
The Echelon also uses one of the most ingenious optics mounting systems known to man. They call it the VIS, or variable interface system. This system uses a series of threaded slots to accommodate the footprint of several different optics.
The VIS also features a series of self-locking front pins that allow the optic mounting system to work with a variety of optics. It’s a quasi-universal design that isn’t reliant on plates to mount optics.
Mounting an optic has never been easier.
What’s wrong with plates? Well, they start a trend of stacking tolerances and introducing failure points. Additionally, plates add height to an optic. With the VIS, the optic sits low enough to co-witness with normal height sights.
The VIS system is quite nice, easy to use, and makes mounting a ton of different optics to your gun easy. Plates will still be required for a number of enclosed emitter optics, but that’s the nature of the optics’ design.
The metal night sights that come with the Echelon are quite nice. They’re very visible in every lighting condition and a nice touch. They look great and are easy to acquire and see. Standard three-dot sights are available at a slightly reduced ($40) cost.
Suppressor-height sights aren’t needed with this design.
Springfield even went with completely ambidextrous controls when they designed the Echelon. Not a reversible magazine release, but completely ambidextrous controls that are easy to use. At first the magazine release was a little stiff, but it loosened up over time and has become easier to work with every reload.
All the fancy features mean nothing if the gun doesn’t run well, shoot straight, and work as it should. In terms of reliability, the Echelon keeps up with every other modern polymer frame, striker-fired, 9mm handgun. I’ve run it hard, and I didn’t clean the gun. And don’t plan to do so.
The Echelon is as modern as a handgun gets.
I’ve dropped the mags in dirt and on my hardwood floor during reloads. They haven’t slowed down. The gun has eaten a variety of ammo types and I’ve shot it suppressed. All it’s done is function without a problem.
Ergonomically, the grip is fantastic. It’s svelte and feels good in my large hand. The grip design and undercut trigger guard make it easy to get a nice high grip on the gun, and a high grip translates into better control. I was a fan of the adaptive grip texture on the Hellcat and I’m a fan of it here. It’s absolutely everywhere it needs to be and provides a slip-free grip in just about any conditions.
Springfield came hard with a number of nice features on the Echelon.
At the range, the big, full-sized 9mm pistol has fairly light recoil and drives like a BMW M3. It’s smooth and wants to go fast. Blasting through a 10-10-10 or Bill Drill feels smooth and steady with the Echelon.
The Echelon is a rock-solid, feature-filled pistol.
A 2.5-second Bill Drill is great, but in reality, that means the gun is easy to handle, low-recoiling, and accurate. That translates well in a defensive-oriented pistol. I put a red dot on it as soon as I could, and with a red dot, I could ping an IPSC torso at 50 yards and do my own version of the Dickens drill. It’s got a great trigger and performs above my expectations.
The slide serrations are deep, bite into the hand (in a good way) and deliver an excellent grip. A set of wings stands out on the rear of the slide to make it easy to slingshot rack and reload. The beveled magwell opening also makes reloads easy, and magazines find their way home faster than the trio from Homeward Bound.
17 rounds with an optional +3 baseplate is nice to have.
An Impressive Feat
I’ve never had anything against Springfield’s handguns as far as their mechanics go, but I never thought I’d be impressed enough to make one my favorite pistol of 2023. The Echelon was a nice surprise that’s competitively priced as far as handguns go. Maybe Springfield and HS Produkt will keep impressing us in 2024.
Specifications: Springfield Echelon 9mm Pistol
Barrel Length: 5.28 inches (threaded variant)
Overall Length: 8.8 inches
Width: 1.2 inches
Weight: 24.5 ounces
MSRP: $679 ($719 for model with tritium sights)
— Travis Pike