HK’s Iconic USP Pistol, Made Famous By Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Turns 30

After serving around the globe and starring in films, television shows, and video games for three decades, the USP is still in production.

byTyler Rogoway| UPDATED Jan 19, 2023 9:42 PM
HK’s Iconic USP Pistol, Made Famous By Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Turns 30
Ubi Soft/Red Storm Entertainment
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Time flies, doesn't it? Case in point, this month marks the 30th anniversary of German small arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch's USP line of sidearms. The gun was a massive success for HK and quickly became something of an icon thanks to the cover of the 1998 video game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. To this day, whenever I hear the term 'operator' in regard to special operations forces I think of that balaclava and Oakley goggle-clad commando pointing the USP's trapezoidal business end at the camera.

USP9 (lifesizepotato/Wikimedia Commons)

When translated, USP stands for Universal Self-Loading Pistol — a simple but apt name for what became a very popular firearm, one that is still in production today. That in itself is notable as even with very few changes and a handful of variants along the way, the USP remains viable in a marketplace awash with polymer-framed pistols packing trendy features, new technologies, and ever greater round capacities in smaller frames. And they aren't cheap with prices today of over $1,000 for the basic model and going up from there. This is only possible because the USP remains a dead-reliable, highly useful tool with a lustrous — and celebrity — pedigree.

The USP was anything but HK's first polymer handgun. The company largely pioneered the use of polymers for such applications decades prior. While Glock gets by far the most credit for spurring the 'plastic handgun' revolution, HK paved the way for that revolution with the VP70 way back in 1970. Not only was it the first polymer-framed production handgun — non-mass production types did exist prior — but it also was striker-fired, which made the very futuristic-looking handgun, well, pretty damn futuristic.

VP70. (Hecklerfan/Wikimedia Commons)

Fast forward to the late 1980s and a future where polymer could dominate the handgun marketplace was coming into focus. HK, always an innovator, had their aforementioned VP70 and also their P9 series, as well as the now legendary P7/PSP line of steel squeeze-cocker pistols that competed in the last two rounds of the Army's XM9 competition under the P7A10/ P7A13 designations and lost. But the company needed a pistol to compete with where the marketplace was going, not where it had been. And, with the help of a U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) tender, the USP was born.

P9S. (Hecklerfan/Wikimedia Commons)

Around 1990, the Offensive Handgun Weapon System initiative from USSOCOM was kicked off and would see what would become HK's massive Mk 23 .45 ACP pistol put through hell in testing. The USP, which was a more normal-sized pistol compared to its SOCOM-specific cousin, was envisioned for law-enforcement, civilian, and military sales. The two were developed in parallel and considering its cousin was being built for the most demanding of customers, the USP benefited from the challenging requirements of the OHWS initiative. In the end, the Mk 23 won the OHWS contest and was introduced into service in 1996 – it too would become a celebrity.

Mk 23 SOCOM (HK)

But before that occurred, the USP was formally introduced by HK in January of 1993, exactly three decades ago. It was a blocky, stout, but modern-looking pistol that eschewed a degree of ergonomics for brute functionality. Functionality for users wearing heavy gloves was a must, for instance. Hence the big squared-off trigger guard. It also used a Browning-type action with a tilting barrel, which was a major diversion from HK's other pistols, which used a roller-delayed or blowback action. In this way, it was directly competitive in terms of familiarity with other popular handguns on the market at the time. The USP also featured polygonal rifling, which has become a staple of HK handguns.

.40 Smith & Wesson was the type's launch caliber and 9mm followed shortly after. Other variants quickly stacked up. Chambering in .45 ACP followed as did a compact version, which was also available in .357 Sig.

USP Compact chambered in .357 Sig. (lifesizepotato/Wikimedia Commons)

In time, the USP became available in a variety of sub-configurations, including a long-slide target model and a tactical model with threaded barrel and suppressor-height sights. Slides were available in a blued finish with stainless steel being offered on some models. The original double/single action setup was also joined by double action only and HK's proprietary LEM trigger. Multiple configurations of these trigger types along with the gun's manual safety and decocking lever were offered, making what was a relatively straightforward design remarkably customizable.

The USP quickly became popular with law enforcement in the U.S. and abroad, while military units also began to adopt it. Germany's security services and military were major customers of course, too.

A German Navy commando holds a USP, known as the P8 in the German military, during a boarding exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Bart Bauer)

The special operations world, especially, had an interest in the rugged but modern handgun. Being smaller than Mk 23 also made it far more attractive for most special operations applications. HK had an incredible reputation in the special operations community, especially with its MP5 series of submachine guns. Its G3 rifles were also used around the globe by regular infantry and security units, along with a number of its other tactical small arms offerings, which span the gamut from machine guns to sniper rifles. Pairing the ultra-reliable and accurate MP5 with a USP sidearm seemed like a natural outcome for some units.

Then came the aforementioned Rainbow Six cover, which changed everything for the USP's place in popular culture. The game was based on Clancy's novel by the same name, which centered on a 'rainbowed' unit of special operators from around the world that worked together in a top-tier counter-terrorism force with global reach. Gameplay was relatively groundbreaking and relied heavily on tactics, weapons application, and stealth over the typical 'run and gun' first-person shooter. In the end, the title launched a whole franchise of games under the same banner.

But the packaging shot that was seen on Babbages and Game Stop shelves all over the U.S., with the ninja-like operator pointing the .40 S&W USP, was a turning point. It wasn't just successful marketing iconography for the game – it captured the public's imagination when it came to the idea of special operations forces in general.

The original Rainbow Six cover. (Red Storm Entertainment)

Apparently, there is an interesting story behind the image. There are a number of posts scattered around the internet on this, including those over at HKpro.com, the place for all things in the HK 'universe,' but basically the story goes like this:

The image is supposedly of John Meyer Jr. who was Vice President of Sales and Training at HK USA in the early 1990s. The photo was shot as part of the launch materials for the USP. Red Storm Entertainment, which made Rainbow Six the game, later used the impactful image for its stylized product art and promotional materials roughly six years later. The rest is history.

HK's original 'Rainbow Six' image.

Rainbow Six was just the start of the USP's pop culture presence. Just looking at the Internet Movie Firearms Database makes it clear that you can pretty much pick your action movie or show and the USP probably played a role in it. Most notably, it was Jack Bauer's sidearm in 24, which led to a lot of interest in the pistol years after Rainbow Six made it a star.

Jack Bauer's USP compact was a staple of the hit show 24. (Twentieth Century-Fox Television)

As for video games, it is virtually everywhere. The USP is a staple of the action and first-person shooter genre. Probably its most high-profile starring role beyond Rainbow Six was as Lara Croft's compensator-equipped guns akimbo in some of the Tomb Raider series, which also had movies based on it.

Tomb Raider saw guns based on the stainless steel slide model USP become stars in their own right. (Paramount)

The USP subsequently gave birth to HK's most current handgun lineup. These include the P2000, which saw some ergonomic improvements over the USP. A huge leap in ergonomics and modernization came via the P30 and HK45 (the SEALs adopted the HK45 Compact Tactical, or CT, as the Mk 24). These guns carry over much from the USP and even retain a degree of its blocky, trapezoidal-slide looks, but the frames, with their customizable 'batman grips,' changed one of what was for many one of the USP's biggest downsides — its slab-like handle — into a massive selling point. HK's flagship pistol went from brick to glove in terms of ergonomics. The striker-fired VP9 — the newest and most popular of HK's current handgun lineup — also owes much of its lineage to the P30 and thus the USP.

VP9 (HK)
P30 (HK)
The P30 served a starring role in John Wick. (Summit Entertainment)

The USP has served literally around the world with all types of units, from top-tier counter-terror squads to local police forces and immigration agencies. It continues to have an operational presence, albeit a decreasing one, 30 years after it first arrived. Many private shooters, especially in the United States, have hung onto their rock-solid USPs, still having an affinity to the hardy pistol and its celebrity status.

So there you have it, the USP turns 30 and is still in production. A true testament to its design and the reputation it gained through its service – with a little help from the entertainment industry, of course.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com

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