I wanted to focus today on military pistols, and specifically the Beretta M9. I start here with the Beretta M9 because it is the most commonly used sidearm across the armed services. In the coming future, expect to see others covered here as well, from SIG Sauer to Heckler & Koch, but today, I’m just talking Beretta. It’s popularity has waned over it’s history. Some hated it for replacing the M1911A1 our grandfathers carried into war, others hailed it as a great step forward. I’ll try to give the negative and positive aspects as I see them from my experience and let you decide in the end. But I warn you, I am biased against the Beretta offering. My personal opinion is that there were great alternatives available and politics once again stepped in and gave service members an inferior weapon.
The Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, or just Beretta in common use, is an Italian success story filled with history. They are the oldest firearms production company still operating in the world, with company records dating back to 1526, and amazingly they are still run today by the same family lineage after 15 generations. Originally, the company was only producing barrels, not full firearms. By 1860, the company had begun producing it’s own brand of weapons and steadily began production, supplying the Italian Royal Army during WWI and WWII. The company proudly boasts having earned more medals in Olympic rifle shooting events than any other manufacturer. In modern times, the company has expanded and now owns Benelli, Franchi, Sako, Stoeger, Tikka, Uberti, Burris Optics and a 20% interest in Browning. The company’s reputation has mainly stemmed from quality shotguns, and it’s lucrative military contracts such as the M9 pistol.
The circumstances around the decision to adopt the Model 92F as the M9 was steeped in controversy. The Air Force was in charge of seeking a 9mm pistol suitable for all services, and Beretta entered a modified Model 92S-1 into the trials known as the Joint Services Small Arms Program from 1979-1980 as a potential replacement for the aging .45 ACP M1911A1. The Air Force declared Beretta as the winner, but then the Army challenged the results in 1981. In the Army testing done in 1982, all pistols initially failed. Congress became involved, demanding another round of trials, this time under the XM9 name. On the second Army trial conducted in 1983, Beretta submitted an updated pistol, the Model 92SB-F, later shortened to 92F, which went on to win the trial along with the SIG Sauer P226.
Beretta and SIG Sauer then competed in a bidding war for the contract rights. The SIG offering was cheaper than the Beretta but became costlier with the inclusion of magazines and spare parts, thus the Beretta bid became cheaper and won the contract in 1985 worth $75 million. There was still more controversy over the decision, with some saying that Beretta was shown the bid placed by SIG Sauer, allowing them to undercut their bid. Others cited the US strategic interests in Italy as influential on the outcome being in favor of Beretta. Yet another tidbit comes up from time to time about how the contract specified production in the US, and that SIG wasn’t on-board with moving production to the US. I don’t agree with the production argument, because SIG wouldn’t have bid for the contract if they didn’t intend to get it.
In the early use of the new pistol by US Navy SEAL teams, some catastrophic failures occurred with the weapon. The locking block would fracture during firing, and the entire slide would be shot rearward, hitting the shooter in the face. It was quoted that ‘You weren’t a SEAL until you had eaten Italian steel!’ due to the failures publicity. It was later speculated that the cause of the failures lay in the ammunition, which was supposedly loaded as high as 70,000 PSI instead of the NATO 9mm specification of 31-35,000 PSI. The rumor was that sub-machine gun ammo was being run in the pistols. Let me be VERY CLEAR. Test 9mm pressures are 50,000 PSI. The rumor of ammo being the cause is just that, RUMOR, run rampant on the internet. The true fault was that Beretta USA made the receivers and the slides were still produced in Italy while the US production was getting started, and a batch of slides with low-hardness steel were the cause of the failures. Beretta modified the pistol in response, incorporating a slide-stop to prevent the occurrence and renamed the pistol Model 92FS.
The early failures caused a stir in the Naval Special Warfare community, with many not trusting the Beretta design. Most NSW teams to this day carry SIG Sauer M11 pistols (P226/228). The Beretta offering did, however, earn fame with civilians for it’s appearance in many popular movies such as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and The Boondock Saints, which made its popularity soar much like Dirty Harry did for the .44 Magnum. Many police departments also took note of the military trials and changed their service pistols to Berettas in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s.
As adopted, the M9 is a 9x19mm short-recoil, semi-automatic pistol firing in Double Action and Single Action modes with a magazine of 15 rounds. The most notable design feature setting it apart from other pistols is the skeletonized (cut out) slide and extended barrel. The slide mounted safety switch also acts as a de-cocking mechanism and is ambidextrous. The magazine release can be changed from left to right side as well. The pistol is defined as a full-size pistol, with a length of 8.5″ and height of 5.4″. The barrel at 4.9″ and the 6.1″ sight radius provide great accuracy. The pistol is slightly heavier than others at just over 2lbs unloaded and 2.56lbs loaded. In 2006, the M9A1 was released with the primary change being to add a Picatinny rail to the pistol.
Ammunition is generally limited to NATO M882 124-grain FMJ 9x19mm ball (DoDIC A363) producing 1,230 ft/sec muzzle velocities. The M882 round is used in pistols, but is not loaded quite to high pressures or +P as many seem to believe although the M882 is just slightly above a normal load. There is a ‘hot’ 9mm round, the M905 High-Pressure Test round, which produces 50,000 PSI. I must admit there could be some truth in rumors of the M905 test ammo being used for regular shooting, which caused the aforementioned slide failures, but I highly doubt it. Anyone with sense would understand that a high-pressure test round would have a potential of causing extreme wear and should not be used for normal shooting, and if accidents occurred with that ammo it likely would have gone into the incident reports.
What was available for the MP5, and for our pistols in Iraq, was the subsonic jacketed hollow-point 147-grain 9mm (DoDIC A260). I had a letter from the Jag-types stating that the use of hollow-point ammunition was allowed since insurgents were not a uniformed fighting force essentially, and so I immediately had every one of my guys change their 9mm combat load to the hollow-point. I was also informed we had 90-grain frangible 9mm (DoDIC AA16) Mk254 ammunition available if we requested it, but we never bothered asking once we got the A260 ammunition on hand.
Unfortunately for us carrying 9mm in service use, we cannot take advantage of the many excellent cartridges produced in modern times for civilian use. Developments in recent years have done well in bringing the performance and lethality of 9mm closer to that of .40 S&W and .45 ACP. I do like to point out that many of those same developments have occurred in the other calibers as well. The 9mm is decent as a general all-around cartridge. Often cited reasoning for choosing 9mm over other calibers tend to gravitate toward something like low cost, low recoil, and speed of follow-ups. Caliber wars are a silly game to get involved in, any round is better than none, and all pistols are notorious for lack of lethality. I feel that for defense going with a larger caliber is best as long as the shooter can still use it effectively and have it available when needed.
In my own personal opinion, I find the M9 to be inferior to other designs in 9mm such as the SIG Sauer P226/P228 M11 or Glock 17/19s. I found the M9 locking block and slide need careful inspection for cracks after major training evolutions. Barrel cracks are far less common but have happened, generally just above the locking block in the chamber area. I also noted that the pistol failed basic trigger pull gauging far more often than the M11, and couldn’t always be restored to spec after changing applicable components. I also noted a much higher incidence of other components fracturing such as the safety/decock lever. When a M9 is well used and the coating starts to wear, this pistol can rust on exposed areas rapidly, which came to be a common time suck to keep up with. I rarely encountered issues like those with the M11.
When actually employing the pistol, I find the ergonomics of the M9 to be terrible. The safety/decock lever is not in a favorable position, and I must change my grip or twist awkwardly to re-engage the safety. I train members to overhand rack the slide during reloads, and can’t count how many times I would see a shooter accidentally engage the slide mounted safety and attempt to fire. Usually, the shooter would attempt to fire, get nothing, immediately tap and rack, and then try again without a shot before realizing the safety had dropped… I don’t find that to be an intuitive design. I also saw many new shooters forget to switch to fire and pull the trigger 2 or 3 times before catching on. I personally oppose any defense pistol having a safety switch like that of the M9, because a stressed shooter may forget to disengage it and that costs precious time. My other big gripe was addressed in the M9A1 when it added the accessory rail for lights and lasers.
In the end, I can say that the M9 is a moderately accurate and reliable pistol in 9mm having a long sight radius and barrel. It has had some issues, but we must remember, it is now a 40 year old design and full of history, both good and bad. Many have used it and swear by it, others swear by the .45 ACP offerings. My own opinion is just mine, but I lean as far away from it as I can get, favoring the M11 for 9mm or even better, a Glock. I think as a replacement for the M1911A1, the M9 is a suitable weapon gaining firepower by carrying twice the ammunition and using a more common round worldwide. I’ll discuss other pistols in another post so keep an eye out. Feel free to sound off in the comments with your own opinion.