Locked and Loaded: The Best Guns of the Year

Locked and Loaded: The Best Guns of the Year

Firearms, and the right to keep and bear them, are quintessentially American. Certainly, firearms existed before America was founded, and there are strong firearms cultures in other countries. However, nobody does it quite like the good ol’ US of A. Keeping and using firearms was such an important principle to our founding fathers that it was formalized in the Bill of Rights.

Handgun on the American flag

You would imagine that a home and gun safe manufacturer such as Liberty would maintain a healthy interest in firearms, the shooting sports, hunting, and conservation, and you’d be right. We’re interested in innovation in the firearms world, as well as designs that earn their place in history. Let’s take a look at a few firearms that could be considered among the best guns of the year, and explain why they deserve to be on our list.

SIG Sauer P365: Compact dominance

SIG Sauer P365

Released in 2018, the P365 is the gun that started the current micro-compact 9mm CCW pistol craze. SIG now claims the P365 line as America’s #1-selling handgun, and based on the numbers we’ve seen, it’s difficult to refute those assertions. In 2019, American Rifleman reported that the P365 was the best-selling handgun of the year, and since SIG has steadily expanded its line of P365s, sales have only improved.

SIG has applied for (and received) 2 US patents for its innovative, compact magazine design. It may seem rather obvious, but the semi-double-stack or stack-and-a-half magazine is what makes this new micro-compact 9mm trend possible, and pretty much every major firearms manufacturer now uses one version or another of this new style of the magazine. SIG has filed lawsuits to try to protect its patents. Still, other offerings from Ruger, Mossberg, Taurus (see below), Springfield Armory, Kimber, Smith & Wesson, Canik, and several other makers have hit the market regardless.

The stack-and-a-half style magazine is similar to previous high-capacity magazines in that there is a staggered or double-stacked column of cartridges at the bottom portion of the magazine, but this tapers to a single stack at the feed lips. However, the innovative design feature that SIG pioneered with its P365 and that has taken the market by storm is that the double-stack taper begins significantly lower on the magazine, and the tapered portion is longer than before. This design permits the pistol’s trigger and other bits that need to function around the upper portion of the magazine to be much more compact side-to-side than was previously possible. So now, with the P365, you can fit 10 (or more) rounds of 9mm Parabellum ammunition into a very slim, compact pistol that’s ideal for concealed carry.

Video: SIG P365 Review: After 2+ Years and 50,000+ Rounds

Starting with this innovative compact magazine concept, SIG was able to build its P365 striker-fired 9mm pistol with a maximum width of just 1.06 inches, an overall length of just 5.8 inches, a 4.3-inch height, and a very light empty weight of 17.8 ounces. In the standard P365, the 10+1 round capacity magazine provides maximum concealment, but 12, 15, and even 17-round extended magazines have become available.

SIG wisely listened to market input and has introduced two larger frame sizes of the P365. The P365X and P365XL accept a 12-round flush-fit standard capacity magazine, while the XMACRO line extends the gripframe further still and accepts a 17-round flush-fit magazine. So, with the P365, you can decide exactly how small your small handgun needs to be. There’s even an aluminum-framed version, the AXG Legion variant. We are truly living in the golden age of CCW handguns.

SIG SAUER P365 AXG LEGION

In late 2023, SIG also introduced a new California-compliant version of its P365, which became permissible due to several lawsuits challenging the state’s unrealistic microstamping requirement for new handguns sold there. The California-compliant P365 looks similar to its brethren but includes a magazine disconnect safety, a manual safety (optional on other P365s), 10-round-only magazines, and a loaded chamber indicator.

There’s no shortage of P365 variants to choose from, starting at a base price of around $470 at discount retailers. Different-length frames, slides, and barrels are available, not to mention optional safeties, compensators, and optics mounts. And since the P365 uses a removable, serialized fire-control group, you can mix and match any configuration you like while still maintaining one firearm for permits or legal purposes where required.

SIG’s P365 is an unqualified hit and definitely deserves to be called one of the best guns of the year. We’re excited to see what the company comes up with next!

Taurus GX4XL: Compact powerhouse – on a budget

Taurus GX4XL

The Taurus GX4 is one of the P365-like pistols developed to compete with SIG in the micro-compact market, but it brings some innovative features to the table. First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Taurus firearms haven’t had the best reputation for quality and customer service over the years. A successful Brazilian firm that first gained notoriety in the 1970s making licensed Beretta 92 copies for that country’s military and police forces, Taurus began selling those pistols along with reasonably good facsimiles of Smith and Wesson revolvers in the USA around the 1980s. For the price, Taurus has always offered a lot. However, their forays into polymer-framed semi-auto pistols and other firearms have been a rather bumpy road, with recalls, parts failures, and reports of poor customer service being fairly common.

Over the past decade or so, Taurus USA has made a concerted effort to improve both the company’s products and customer experience, and we’ve noticed a difference. Since 2020, the time needed for a warranty repair has dropped from an average of 22 weeks to just four days, and all Taurus firearms come with a lifetime warranty that includes used firearms. Recent handgun offerings from Taurus have performed very well, and the company has frequently innovated in areas where other manufacturers may be reluctant to rock the boat. Taurus revolvers and pistols now often show up on lists of best guns for the money, and their polymer-framed semi-automatic pistols have earned a good reputation for reliability and features.

The GX4 is very similar in size and performance to the SIG P365 but adds an extra round in its 11-round standard magazine and interchangeable backstraps. Like the P365 family, Taurus offers multiple configurations of the GX4 with longer slide/barrel assemblies if desired. However, unlike the SIG P365XL, the Taurus GX4XL retains the same-length compact grip as the very small GX4, but adds an inch of length in the slide and barrel. With the included 13-round magazine and its extended baseplate, even people with large hands can get a full grip for improved recoil control. Or, for maximum concealment, you can opt for the original GX4’s 11-round flush-fit magazine.

Video: Taurus GX4 XL Micro Compact 9mm Better Than Expected

Like many of Taurus’s recent offerings, the GX4XL is proving to be well-made, ergonomic, good-looking, reliable, and very attractively priced, with a base model MSRP as of date of publication of $429 USD, though we’ve seen them listed on popular retailers’ websites for as low as $291 after a promotional rebate. Optics-ready T.O.R.O. variants are available. Plus, the pistol has one of the better triggers in the micro-compact market, comes with excellent steel sights, good texturing, great trigger feel, and is also among the lighter of the bunch at 18.5 ounces empty.

If your list of best guns of the year includes Best Bargain, then the Taurus has to be on the list.

Springfield Echelon: the elegance of precision

Springfield Armory Echelon

If you had asked us before July 2023, we’d have said the world needs yet another striker-fired, polymer-framed 9mm handgun like a submarine needs a screen door, but Springfield Armory’s Echelon pistol has changed our minds. Launched in July, the Echelon aims to make a serious dent in Glock’s market share for military, law enforcement, and civilian handgun sales, and there’s a lot to like about this Croatian-built pistol.

Similar to the SIG P320 series (which has now been adopted by the US military as the M17 and M18 pistols), the Springfield Echelon utilizes a removable, serialized fire control group. Springfield calls it the COG or Central Operating Group. This is legally considered the firearm, but it may be easily removed and swapped into different-sized grip frames or modules, depending on your hand size and preferences. Additionally, Springfield offers three sizes of grip modules AND three sizes of interchangeable backstraps that fit all of the modules. This is fairly unique in the duty handgun world and is a feature we love. You can select the exact combination of grip circumference and backstrap size that fits your hand perfectly.

Video: Springfield Armory Echelon

Continuing on the theme of ergonomic excellence, the Echelon sets a new bar for comfortable and effective grip shape and control surfaces. Rather than Glock’s famously blocky grip and annoying hump at the rear of the trigger guard, the Echelon feels like it was molded to your hand. The texturing applied to the polymer grip frame is innovative as well. It feels smooth to the touch until you add pressure, which grabs onto your skin and allows for a secure grip, even if your hands are wet, muddy, or bloody (though we thankfully haven’t had to try that last one). The Echelon ships with one 17-round and one 20-round magazine and is extremely light for a duty-sized pistol at under 24 ounces with an empty 17-round magazine.

Additionally, Springfield has incorporated integral, textured thumb rests on the dust cover forward of the takedown lever, and has recontoured the takedown lever itself. This is a plus for shooters who prefer an index point or a so-called gas pedal to help control recoil during rapid fire. The slide features deep, wide troughs and aggressive serrations that allow manipulating the slide from the front or the rear, and there’s an integral ledge along the rearmost slide serration that helps ensure you won’t lose your grip in the harshest conditions. The Echelon’s trigger is excellent, breaking at around 4.5 pounds with a short, assertive reset, and features a modern flat-faced design with an integral trigger safety.

Unlike many service or duty pistols, the Echelon features fully ambidextrous controls, including the magazine catch and the slide stop lever. The sights are dovetailed, steel, and feature a high-visibility tritium insert in the front and a quick-acquisition U-notch or half-ring rear sight, but a 3-dot tritium setup is also available.

The sighting system is where the Echelon really starts to stand out. The pistol comes optics-ready with a new, patent-pending optics mounting system Springfield calls the Variable Interface System (VIS). This innovative design eliminates potentially problematic optics mounting plates entirely and allows owners to mount over 30 different optics directly to the slide. You configure the self-locking, self-aligning pins for the footprint of your desired optic, and screw the optic down. This allows the optic to sit low enough in the slide to allow you to see standard iron sights through the window of most optics, which is a huge plus. You probably don’t need to spend money on suppressor-height sights to get a good cowitness.

The Echelon is so good that it won the National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers’ best new handgun award for 2023, and Guns & Ammo’s 2023 Handgun of the Year. But perhaps more importantly, it has made Liberty Safe’s list of best guns of the year.

CZ Shadow 2 Compact: Precision redefined

CZ SHADOW 2 COMPACT

Hitting shelves in September 2023, the Shadow 2 Compact follows along the lines of CZ’s wildly popular Shadow 2 full-size competition pistol. The CZ Shadow 2 has become the gold standard for USPSA Production division and IDPA shooters who want a DA/SA action system, amazing ergonomics, a fantastic trigger, and stone-axe reliability but who don’t want to pay $4,000 or more for a custom 2011 (double-stack 1911 variant). The new-for-2023 Shadow 2 Compact takes all the great features of the full-size Shadow 2 and includes them in a lighter and more compact package, ideal for concealed carry or even competition.

The Shadow 2 Compact has a 4” barrel compared to the original Shadow 2’s 4.72” barrel, and the new lightweight aluminum grip frame is also shortened. The flush-fit magazine now holds 15 rounds, similar to a Glock 19. The Shadow 2 Compact with its smaller dimensions and forged aluminum frame, weighs just over 30 ounces compared to the larger, steel-framed Shadow 2’s 2.92-pound (46.5-ounce) heft.

Video: The NEW CZ Shadow 2 Compact

The Compact’s magazine release isn’t extended as far as the large, competition-style one on the Shadow 2, and the ambidextrous thumb safeties are similarly abbreviated for carry. Otherwise, the Compact is nearly identical. We’ve found that the trigger is as amazing as the full-size as well, with a very smooth 8-pound DA stroke, a short reset, and a 4-pound SA break that is likely to lighten up with use.

Like its competition sibling, the Shadow 2 Compact features 25-line-per-inch checkering on the front and backstraps, very grippy aluminum grip panels, a large trigger guard, a picatinny rail under the dust cover, and excellent adjustable sights with a fiber-optic front. The Compact features CZ’s optics-mounting capability as well, with a removable rear sight panel that covers screw holes that allow mounting of popular red-dot optics directly to the slide, or via separate mounting plates, depending on the model of optic selected.

CZ SHADOW 2 COMPACT WITH OPTIC

Regarding performance and shootability, we’ve found that the Shadow 2 Compact performs as well as the custom $4,000+ 2011s out there, but for a retail price of around $1,299. That price will likely settle at around $1000 or so (like the full-size Shadow 2) from major retailers after the hype dies down a little.

But the hype is well deserved, and we expect the Shadow 2 Compact will prove to be one of the best-selling premium carry/competition handguns over the next few years.

SIG MCX Spear: Cutting-Edge Innovation

SIG MCX SPEAR

Based on the US Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) Rifle, the SIG XM7, the new MCX Spear is the semi-automatic variant now available to civilians in caliber .308 Winchester/7.62x51 Nato. The service rifle was developed around the new .277 SIG Fury round (also known as the 6.8x51mm Common Cartridge), developed by Sig Sauer as part of the NGSW program. The new cartridge is loaded using a hybrid three-piece with steel case head and brass body to handle the increased pressure (up to 85,000 CUP). The .277 Fury cartridge promises increased ballistic performance, range, accuracy, and lighter weight compared to the current 7.62x51 Nato round. However, the .308 Winchester variant of the Spear is currently the dominant model on the market.

The new MCX Spear won the NGSW trials and was selected to be adopted as the new squad weapon for the US Army, likely fighting alongside soldiers armed with standard M4 carbines for the next couple of decades. The Spear is a larger, heavier rifle than the M16 and M4, but it packs a much larger long-distance punch as well, and the military version is said to defeat Level IV body armor. Additionally, the Spear has fully ambidextrous controls, including safeties, bolt catch, and bolt release. The Spear also has a non-reciprocating side charging handle and the well-known AR-15 style rear charging handle for maximum flexibility in shooting position and optics capability. The stock is collapsable, adjustable, and side-folding.

Unlike the M16 and M4, the Spear uses a short-stroke piston operating system with a 2-position gas system for improved reliability in adverse conditions. This also facilitates a quick-change barrel design so armorers (and civilian owners) can easily swap from standard barrel lengths to shorter or longer setups depending on the mission or preference.

The modular rail system is milled for Magpul M-LOK accessory mounts, and there are stainless steel QD sling swivel slots on both sides of the receiver and rail. The Spear also features SIG’s Matchlite Duo Trigger for a clean, crisp break and comes with a combination flash hider and suppressor mount at the muzzle.

Video: The Anti AR-15 - Sig Sauer MCX-Spear LT

If 9-plus pounds and $4,200 of American badassery is too much to lug around, the new rifle platform is also available in the Spear-LT or light configuration, in calibers 5.56x45, .300 Blackout, and 7.62x39 with a skeletonized stock and most of the features of the larger Spear. The LT variants don’t have the side-mounted charging handle, but the LT retains the full-size Spear’s caliber-change capability, as well as all of the other ambidextrous functions for around $2,500 from well-stocked retailers.

Innovation, performance, and a new era in US military infantry rifles earn the MCX Spear a spot on our best guns of the year list.

Beretta A300 Ultima Patrol: Reliability and Versatility

Beretta A300 Ultima Patrol

The Beretta 1301 Tactical has been widely considered the best combat and self-defense shotgun on the market for several years, but its price ($1,300-$1,700 street price depending on configuration) has kept it out of reach for many shooters. For 2023, Beretta USA announced the release of its new A300 Ultima Patrol shotgun, which features many of the benefits and much of the performance of the 1301 at a street price of under a grand.

The A300 Ultima Patrol is outfitted with an enhanced, relieved loading port, a slim forend with M-LOK slots, an enlarged bolt handle and release, an adjustable stock shim system, and a 7+1 capacity when loading 2 ¾” cartridges. The shotgun weighs just 7 pounds, 2 ounces, but feels lighter than that. The primary differences between the premium 1301 and the semi-premium A300 are the barrel and the operating system components. The 1301 uses a Steelium barrel with a lengthened forcing cone, and features Beretta’s proven Blink (or B-Link) gas system and a rotating bolt. The A300 uses a more conventional steel barrel with Beretta’s MobilChoke profile, and an operating-rod based gas system with the return spring located in the buttstock. The gas pistons are essentially identical, but the bolt, operating rod, head, and return springs are different.

The short answer is the 1301 will cycle slightly faster and might produce less felt recoil than the A300, though back-to-back testing has been inconclusive and results depend on the user. The 1301 is optimized for a wider variety of light and heavy shotgun loads as well, while the A300 was designed with primarily defensive loads in mind. The A300 Ultima Patrol absorbs regoil surprisingly well, particularly for a 7-pound shotgun. It handles heavy buckshot and slugs with aplomb, and has proven extremely reliable even when dusty and hot.

Video: Beretta A300 Ultima Patrol Review vs. Beretta 1301

The A300’s loading port is notably superior to the first-generation 1301 Tactical’s as well, with a very open, smooth profile milled into the underside of the receiver. Cartridges seem to fly into the magazine. The enlarged controls are well appreciated, as are the included ghost-ring fiber-optic sights and Picatinny rail for mounting any optics you may choose.

A bonus for some buyers is that the A300 Ultima Patrol is made in the USA, at Beretta’s factory in Tennessee. At a price that most people can afford, we don’t think a better semi-auto tactical shotgun is on the market today. Good job, Beretta USA!

Store Your Guns in a USA-made Liberty Safe

So there you have it, Liberty Safe’s picks for some of the best guns of the year. Whether you decide to buy one or several of these awesome firearms or whether you’re all set with your collection, be sure to secure all your firearms and valuables in a quality gun safe from Liberty. Check out our interactive online catalog, or visit a dealer near you.


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