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Zenith Firearms Z-5RS (MP5 Pistol) Review

Have you ever had a firearm that you thought you could live without, only to do an about-face once you’d actually used it? Such was the case for me when it came to the MP5. If you would have asked me three years ago, I would have told you that MP5-style firearms were overpriced, underpowered, and generally outdated. Heck, I didn’t even care for them too much from an aesthetic standpoint, either.

That all changed around a year and a half ago. Thanks to my relationship with Silencer Shop, I was able to review a custom Brethren Armament BAP9 SBR. Along with the rifle the guys in Austin sent Bowers’ excellent, but heavy, VERS 9S. The performance of the combination blew me away, but even alone, the BAP9 was unlike any other 9mm carbine I had ever used.

The only problem was that I really couldn’t afford the BAP. It’s undoubtedly a superb firearm, but the version I tested cost an estimated $3,000. There’s just no way I’m dropping that kind of coin on anything short of an SVD. Fortunately, that’s not the only option in the MP5 world, so I began to investigate more affordable offerings. This search brought me to the Z-5 series from Zenith Firearms. Made under license on HK tooling by MKE in Turkey, the Z-5 is just about as close to a factory MP5 as you’ll get here in the US (excluding HK’s SP5K). It’s also far less expensive than custom, domestic builds. After chatting with the Zenith crew at SHOT Show early last year, I arranged a great deal on one of their Z-5RS pistols.

Z-5RS Pistol Zenith MKE MP5
The Z-5RS pistol from Zenith Firearms

About the Z-5RS

The MP5 was originally developed in Germany by Heckler & Koch in the mid-1960s. At the time, the company was looking to adapt its successful roller delayed design from the G3/HK91 to a multitude of other rounds, including 5.56mm and 9mm. The MP5 was the last of the bunch to make it out of the gate, but has arguably been the most successful and popular roller-delayed blowback firearm to come from Germany’s top arms maker.

So how does the system work? In my review of my PTR-91, I went into greater detail than I will here. Essentially, there are a handful of components that we need to consider. These include the barrel trunnion, the bolt head, the rollers, and the locking piece. On the left and right sides of the bolt head are two slits. Inside these slits, you’ll find the rollers. When the firearm is in battery, the wedge-shaped locking piece presses the rollers through the slits and into complementary channels cut into the barrel trunnion.

Pulling the trigger initiates a series of events. Obviously, it results in the hammer falling on the firing pin and the expulsion of the loaded round. However, once the round ignites, the pressure behind that round exerts considerable force on the bolt head. At this point, though, the bolt head is locked in place by the protruding rollers. As the chamber pressure increases, eventually the rollers press against the locking piece with sufficient strength to push it rearward and out of the way, allowing them to retract and the bolt head to retreat for full cycling. As you can see, there’s a lot going on inside a roller-delayed firearm, but this method of operation means that the MP5 and its variants are some of the softest shooters in the 9mm world.

Zenith’s Z-5RS is simply a licensed MP5-style pistol produced on HK tooling by MKE in Turkey. Because of this licensing agreement, Zenith and MKE are adamant that despite common parlance, this pistol is not a clone.

What's in the Box?

As new firearms go, the Z-5RS is rather impressively packaged. It comes in a hard case with a sling, a claw-mount rail, a cleaning kit, the manual, and last but definitely not least – three magazines. Zenith’s gun isn’t inexpensive, but there’s a lot of added value here, particularly with the Picatinny mount and the additional magazines. Quality MP5 magazines aren’t cheap. Frankly, you’re probably looking at almost $200 in value between those bits and that isn’t counting the case.

The Build

The Z-5RS comes with classic-style MP5 furniture. This includes the slim handguard and contoured polymer, SEF trigger housing. Since it’s a pistol, the stock is obviously missing. I don’t love anything about the furniture bits that come on the gun. The slim handguard is just too narrow to do anything for me. Using the Z-5RS, I feel like my support hand may as well be holding the barrel. The handguard’s checkered texture is fantastically “grippy”, but the forearm is just too thin. The contoured grip also garners a “meh” from me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the ergonomics just don’t really work for my hands. The good news is that both the trigger housing and the handguard are easily replaced with relatively cheap parts, but you’ll need to stick with SEF-style housings as the newer, ambidextrous versions require several different trigger parts.

Despite the old-style furniture, the Z-5RS scores a major win by having a paddle magazine release. They’re pretty standard on MP5s, but not so much on other roller guns. Without one, magazine changes can be a real chore.

Paddle Magazine Release MP5 Z-5RS
Paddle magazine releases make loading and unloading HK-style rifles like this so much easier than the push-button.

Compared to many domestic builders, some HK die-hards look down on MKE’s more utilitarian build quality. While the Z-5RS is by no means on the same aesthetic level as the “weldless” custom BAP-9 I reviewed last year, it’s still very well put together. The gun’s cocking tube and sights are straight and the trigger housing fits snugly with the receiver. Lastly, the satin black painted finish is evenly applied and seems to be quite durable.

Threaded Barrel MKE Z-5RS MP5 Zenith 9mm
The Z-5RS's threaded, 3-lug barrel is crucial for suppressed shooting.

As a factory MP5 variant, the Z-5RS has a hammer-forged barrel. It is not chrome lined, but neither are original HK parts. This is a major draw for collectors as forged barrels are often seen as superior to button-rifled or other alternatives. Like any true MP5, the Z-5RS’s barrel sports chamber flutes to facilitate extraction. The barrel also features a 3-lug interface for suppressors and if that doesn’t work for your particular can, the 1/2-28 threads most assuredly will.

Since I mentioned the trigger housing, I should emphasize that the Z-5RS is a little different than most semi-automatic MP5s. Typically, semi-automatic MP5s (and other HK-style firearms) swap the original hinge pin at the front of the housing for a shelf. This is intended to make it marginally more difficult to install a military full-auto trigger pack in the gun (meeting ATF requirements). Zenith’s design retains the original housing and instead opts for a small block inside the receiver that will prevent the housing from closing if a full-auto trigger pack is installed. If you have a registered sear, this block will need to be removed, as will the one at the rear of the receiver that precludes the use of a full-auto bolt carrier.

It’s impossible to assess a roller-delayed build without measuring bolt gap. Without getting too into the weeds, bolt gap is the small space between the rear of the bolt head and the front face of the bolt carrier, measured with the hammer down and the gun in battery. It’s a product of the precise interaction between the bolt, its rollers, the barrel, the trunnion, and the locking piece. Proper bolt gap is necessary for correct lockup and cyclic speed. Too little and the gun won’t run or will run slowly. Too much and it’ll beat itself up. On an MP5, the acceptable gap is anywhere between 0.018” and 0.010”, a slightly narrower range than rifle caliber roller guns and likely due to the lower pressure of the 9mm round. My Z-5RS’s gap has held steady at 0.013” since I received the firearm.

Zenith Z-5RS MP5 MKE Bolt Gap
That tiny gap between the bolt head and the carrier is called “bolt gap”. It’s measured in fractions of an inch.

Sights

The Z-5RS features the same diopter sights that are found on other HK-style, roller-delayed guns. The rear sight has four holes, which correspond with different levels of precision. Unlike the HK rifle diopters, those on MP5s don’t affect point of impact (POI) at all. They’re simply there to allow shooters to adapt the iron sights to different speed/precision needs.

Zenith Z-5RS MP5 Diopter Sights
I usually like diopter sights, but the Z-5RS’s short sight radius makes precision shots difficult.

At the front of the Z-5RS is the standard, non-adjustable HK hooded sight post. The hood protects the post and doesn’t interfere with the sight picture nearly as much as I expected prior to using the gun. Further, the hood seems to help with quick target acquisition in a pinch.

Range Report

I don’t think there’s really any doubt at this point that MP5s are my favorite firearms to shoot. I first discovered this fact while reviewing the BAP9 and it still rings true with this, my own Zenith Z-5RS. I simply have not found a smoother shooting gun. Yes, a well-built AR-15 can be a very pleasant shooter, but as tired as the analogy may be, the Z-5RS is like a sewing machine. There’s enough recoil behind each shot that you know you’re shooting something more powerful than a .22, but the action is smooth and the sights fall back on target very quickly. The Z-5RS’s roller-delayed system of operation is noticeably smoother than most 9mm carbines and subguns that rely on straight blowback actions.

Because the Z-5RS is so easy and fun to shoot, it took me no time to blow past the 500 round mark. As it stands, I have a little over 700 rounds through this firearm and have yet to experience any stoppages. I’ve also used a variety of different types of ammunition, including 115-grain loadings from Federal (Champion), Winchester (white box), and Prvi Partisan. I have also used 147-grain Freedom Munitions subsonic rounds (non-HUSH variety) and 158-grain subsonic ammunition from Prvi Partisan with perfect reliability. My Z-5RS hasn’t seen any hollow-points, but I’ll update this review as soon as I get the chance to test them.

Zenith Z-5RS SBT5 Brace MP5
Adding the SBT5 brace makes a world of difference.

Make no mistake, the MP5’s status as an excellent suppressor host was a significant reason for my desire to own the Z-5RS. I’ve been fortunate to try a variety of 9mm suppressors and a handful of different hosts. In my experience, no 9mm firearm suppresses as well as the MP5. The roller-delayed system is vastly superior to straight blowback firearms when used with a suppressor. Thanks to the bolt-lockup provided by the rollers, the action stays closed longer on the MP5/Z-5RS, which results in better suppression at the shooter’s ear and a more pleasant experience overall.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Z-5RS is its trigger. Roller-delayed guns, specifically HK variants and clones, have a reputation for subpar triggers. I’m in no way a fan of the trigger on my PTR-91, but the one on this Z-5RS is far more endearing. There’s still some creep in the pull, but the break is far lighter and cleaner than my PTR’s. According to my Lyman digital scale, the hammer falls after just under six pounds of pressure have been applied to the trigger. Compare that with the PTR’s whopping nine to ten-pound pull. Really by any standards, the Z-5RS’s trigger isn’t bad at all.

As is the case with my Zastava M92 pistol, the absence of a stock on the Z-5RS undermines the gun’s usefulness to a degree. Fortunately, the 9mm Z-5RS is much more manageable without shoulder support. Off-hand and prior to adding the SB Tactical SBT5 brace, I could easily squeeze out 1.5” groups at 25 yards. Those aren’t necessarily impressive for an MP5 variant, but they’re respectable considering the relative awkwardness of the firearm’s stockless disposition. Since adding the brace, my results have improved drastically. I recently had the Z-5RS at the range and kneeling, with the gun propped on my ammo dry box (not exactly the most stable platform), I was able to put 4 out of 5 rounds through the same hole. The fifth was a flyer of sorts in that it was around an inch right of the group. Overall, the Z-5RS is every bit as accurate as you’d hope.

Zenith Z-5RS Dead Air Wolf
A peek of the Z-5RS with Dead Air’s Wolf-9SD in its short format.

Conclusion

Naturally, it’s very, very difficult for me to say that a $1,600 firearm is an awesome deal. By almost every measure, there are dozens of 9mm carbines and pistols out there that are capable of almost everything the Z-5RS can do. However, in context, the price truly is very reasonable for an MP5 variant.

With the Z-5RS, you get a factory-built MP5 pistol that is supremely reliable and impressively accurate. It’s a more pleasant firearm to shoot than any of its direct blowback competitors and suppresses far better than them as well. In addition, it ships with a hard case, a serviceable Picatinny rail, and three magazines. If you’re in the market for a high-quality MP5, there are plenty of options, but few offer as much value as the Z-5RS.

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