Varan PMX90: Ambidexterity in South Africa

The Varan pistol was developed by two Rhodesian designers, Tony Blackshaw and Stewart Beecham, and was originally designated the PMX-80. Development would take nearly a full decade, however, and mostly took place in South Africa. The goal was simply to create a good domestic service handgun, as such things were relatively difficult to obtain in these countries at that time. When it was finally completed in 1990, the Varan PMX-90 would fill this role reasonably well. It was not an exceptional handgun, but it was serviceable and reasonably high quality, and about 2,000 were produced before it become commercially unable to compete with the Vektor Z88 and SP1.

The PMX-90 offered substantial ambidextrous features, including a top-facing ejection port in the early models. These would also allow the safety lever, slide release, and magazine release to be swapped to either side to fit the shooter’s preference. In time, several of these features were discarded, and the later versions had a right-side ejection port and fixed slide release lever.

The gun included several interesting features from a manufacturing point of view as well. The magazines were made of a transparent plastic, although it tended to turn to an opaque yellow with exposure to gun oil, and cracked easily. A later black plastic magazine partially solved the cracking problem. The frame was a hybrid milled and stamped assembly, presumably to reduce fabrication costs. Otherwise, it was mechanically a copy of the Browning High Power, including a single action only trigger mechanism.


  1. “Development would take nearly a full decade, however, and mostly took place in South Africa.”
    Rather long time considering final effect – decisively not straight Browning High-Power copycat, but not as exceptional as you might anticipate after 10 years of development.

    ” create a good domestic service handgun, as such things were relatively difficult to obtain in these countries at that time.”
    Wait, does embargo against South Africa was about guns (actually made examples), production know-how or both?

    “several of these features were discarded”
    This lead to question: were objectives changed during development? if yes: why? were originally objectives (technical-tactical requirements) set incorrectly or they have to be altered, but it could not be foreseen at time when created?

    “single action only trigger mechanism”
    Wasn’t it looking somewhat archaic in 1990s?

    • No more archaic than a P-35 or 1911 looks today. A double-action trigger on an automatic is a good solution to a non-existent problem.

      • My only question would be if the top ejection would sometimes sent a spent shell case back into the shooter’s face.

  2. Apart from the cosmetically porous slide castings, it looks like a sound pistol.

    The provision of a half cocktail notch is a good safety feature

    It can sometimes avoid a negligent discharge when something that is not a human finger accidentally catches the trigger

  3. Ian, I have 4X pre-ban Ram-Line plastic .223 mags, also translucent – and also with a baseplate that is held in w/ two side tabs (and 1 front one). These are the ones that fit the AR and the Mini-14 – and originally claimed to fit the AR-180 as well, albeit I’ve had no luck w/ a borrowed sample of one AR-180. Found 1 w/ a rusty mag spring, and a Magpul Gen 2 spring fits exactly, which is a startling coincidence. Even have 1 new in the box, never opened. If you’d like to test some pre-ban forgotten mags, drop me a line.

      • Mark, if you found an answer to your question on the mag for a varan pmx90 let me know please. I am considering 3d printing but need someone who can scan the mag and convert to a file that 3d printers can read.

  4. I had someone fab a plastic one for me. I think it was a 3D print but the new one is still not perfect. I still have problems.
    Someone in Hillcrest did the fabrication. I am not sure if this number is correct which u may try….0832873377

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