September 24, 2010
An admirer of old slab-sides finally gives today's service pistol a chance.
The M9 has taken its fair share of knocks since it replaced the 1911, but it still reigns as our service pistol after two decades.
I find it fascinating that Beretta, the world's oldest firearms manufacture, has created one of the most prolific yet controversial handguns, the Beretta M9. Never in the firm's 482-year history has another of its products been praised and denounced with equal fervor.
In 1985 it was announced that the 9mm Beretta M9--the military version of the current civilian Model 92FS--was going to replace the venerable Colt Government Model 1911A1 in .45 ACP as the official sidearm of the United States armed forces. As a die-hard fan of the old slab-sided warhorse, I joined in the collective groans from both civilian and military ranks over the demise of a pistol that had served our country with honor through two world wars, the Korean conflict, Vietnam and a host of other battlefield engagements.
But even I had to agree that the Beretta M9 was a more realistic choice for modern warfare. Instead of the 1911's seven-round capacity, the M9 holds 15 cartridges, more than doubling the previous service pistol's firepower. And rather than being single-action only, the Beretta is capable of both single- and double-action operation.
It also has a more sophisticated safety system; aside from the standard "safe" and "fire" controls, the hammer can be lowered to safe with a mere flick of the thumb via a side lever on either side of the slide, rather than requiring a two-handed operation. In addition to ambidextrous decocking, the magazine release can easily be switched from left side to right to accommodate southpaws.
In fact, the pistol is safety personified. The M9 sports a two-piece inertia firing pin and a half-cock hammer catch that prevents an accidental discharge should the hammer slip while being cocked. It also has a loaded chamber indicator on the slide that can be seen or, in the dark, felt.
Another point in the M9's favor is that it is unbelievably easy to field strip. For someone who still has dreams about my Army indoctrination disassembling the 1911 while blindfolded, I found the Beretta's system to be a revelation. While visiting the Army's National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California, I spoke with a second lieutenant who did me one better by stating that in the Rangers they were taught to field strip the M9 while blindfolded and hanging upside down.
And, finally, the Beretta is inherently rugged, having been tested by firing an astounding 17,500 rounds, as witnessed by government inspectors, without a single malfunction. Given the fact that the government contract called for each M9 to withstand up to 5,000 rounds of firing, that's a commendable example of over-engineering.
But in spite of all these features, initially there were problems with the government's new sidearm, both physically and philosophically. For one thing, there was the stigma of the M9 having an aluminum frame. Of course, this was necessary to ensure the gun's relatively light fully loaded weight of only 21â'„2 pounds.
Then, of course, we had the caliber controversy, a debate that rages to this day. The 230-grain full metal jacket .45 ACP service round was legendary for tales of its one-shot knockdown power, while the 124-grain FMJ 9mm was hardly deemed fit for combat by American standards, in spite of the fact that it was in use by the majority of NATO armies--which was the main reason the United States Armed forces decided to adopt the round.
But lack of stopping power and over-penetration tales were rampant due to the 9mm's 1,200 fps muzzle velocity combined with its full metal jacket configuration, which impeded expansion.
One of the principal advantages of the M9 is its simple takedown. The barrel and slide group slide forward and off the receiver as a whole.
There was also the fact that a U.S. service pistol was going to be made by an Italian firm. American shooters had no such aversion to using Beretta's well-built shotguns and rifles to win countless trophies and bag game, but it was a different story when it came to sidearms for our soldiers. As part of the initial contract to produce the first 321,260 M9 pistols, Beretta overcame this objection by agreeing to manufacture the guns in its then new Beretta USA factory located in Accokeek, Maryland.
But the M9's problems were just beginning. In 1987 and again in 1988, stories surfaced concerning cracked slides and frames, especially in the vicinity of the barrel-mounted locking block, which absorbs most of the recoil energy.
In all, four such incidences were reported, three during extensive testing by Navy SEALS (who were putting 3,000 to 5,000 rounds a week through the new guns--far more than the 5,000-round total capability demanded by the government) and one failure during testing by the Army.
Now, I'm no mathematician, but out of the total number of early guns produced, that represents about 0.5 percent.
Still, it was discovered that during startup, in order to meet initial quotas, some slides were not manufactured in the U.S. factory. A design change was immediately instituted by Beretta, all production was eventually moved to Beretta USA, and since 1988 there have been no further instances of frames or slides cracking. In addition, there have been three design improvements to the locking block, making for a much sturdier gun.
Just how sturdy? The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Ft. Benning, Georgia, currently competes with modified Beretta M9s, and its seven-member team puts an average of 15,000 to 30,000 rounds a year through the guns (substantially more than any M9 experiences in combat) before anything has to be replaced.
Another thorn in the M9's side are occasional reports of failures to feed--almost always with faulty aftermarket magazines.
However, a more realistic problem concerning feeding malfunctions with the M9 has been traced to the hostile environs of Afghanistan and Iraq, where dirt and sand are omnipresent. To address this situation, two years ago Beretta introduced its sand-resistant M9A1 magazine, designed specifically for gritty environments and supplied with the M9A1 pistol for the United States Marine Corps.
And now we c
ome to accuracy, one of the focal points for critics of the M9, which I find telling, because that was the same criticism of the Model 1911 when it first came out. But neither the 1911 nor the M9 were ever intended as cluster punchers. Both service pistols were designed with loose-fitting parts to enable them to function reliably under adverse conditions. It was because of these rather spacious dimensions, which also facilitate easy field stripping, that both guns came out on top during military trials.
Indeed, the M9, classified as a "close personal defense weapon," is primarily issued to members of crew-served weapons such as .50 caliber machine-gunners, tank commanders and their teams, rifle company officers, and headquarters support personnel. And although the maximum effective range of the M9 is officially listed at an optimistic 50 meters (roughly 164 feet), the standard M882 military round is hardly conducive to any great accuracy at this extended range.
Or is it? Under the auspices of Lt. Col. Frank Muggeo of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, the service pistol team has flatly disproved any inaccuracy claims associated with the Beretta M9.
The military has to shoot ball ammo through its M9s, but civilians shooting the Model 92F have a wide array of effective ammo to choose from.
"The Army Marksmanship Unit is a lead developer of accuracy with the M9," says Lt. Col. Muggeo. "It is quite common for members of Army's service pistol team to shoot 10X groups at 25 yards. There are quite a few examples of this at 50 yards as well. There are no secrets to what we do, or how we do it. It is a common shared knowledge with the Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard and the National Guard. In short, anyone who uses the M9."
But just as tricked-out Model 1911s were the guns that qualified on the firing line, the Beretta M9s used by the USAMU, which start out as standard issue service pistols, undergo an average of 40 hours on the bench of the unit's custom shop.
Under the auspices of civilian master gunsmith Tony Kidd, the frames and slides are remachined and retrofitted to tighter tolerances. And because these competition pistols undergo extensive firing of 300 to 600 rounds a week, three oval steel inserts are inlaid in critical contact points on each side of the aluminum frame rails to reduce wear.
The standard chrome-lined service barrel is replaced with a match-grade, button-rifled barrel from KKM, which is fitted with a custom-made, sleeve-type bushing mated to the slide.
"There's absolutely no play, no tolerance," says Kidd. "We also machine the back of the hammer to lighten it about 35 percent. Then it's filled with silicon rubber so it looks identical to a normal hammer. Taking the weight out of the hammer wasn't done for lock time. It was done because the as-issued Beretta hammer fall was so heavy when you fired the gun it caused the front sight to dip and the gun to move. But by taking the weight out of hammer, it eliminated that problem."
And that helps explain the Beretta's hard-to-hit-with reputation. Of course, the 12-pound double-action and 51â'„2-pound single-action trigger pull doesn't help. For his match guns, which are fired one handed, single action, Kidd reduces trigger pull to a crisp four pounds.
The fixed rear sight is swapped for a modified Bo-Mar BMX, and the mini-shark's-fin front sight is changed to a shop-made half-inch tall thick Patridge with quarter-inch steel blade.
The grips are left as-issued checkered black plastic. In fact, aside from the sights, the modified M9 looks like a stock gun. Until it starts shooting, that is. Standard M882 military rounds are used for combat-specific matches, but Ft. Benning's custom shop has also developed a 115-grain competition round for the guns it builds.
"We're getting all of our guns to generally shoot less than 11â'„2 inches at 50 yards for a 10-shot group (with the competition rounds)," says Sgt. First Class Jason St. John, who joined the Army's Third Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was deployed twice to Afghanistan, served as a sniper and is now the non-commissioned officer in charge of the USAMU's service pistol team.
"It seems that there's not enough gunsmiths building [competition M9s]" says SFC St. John. "There seems to be more demand than people who have the ability to fulfill that demand because of the skill it takes to make all these modifications.
"There are only a few gunsmiths in the country who can really build a high quality Beretta that has the ability to supplant a 1911. That's why you still see so many 1911s on the line, because they don't have the product out there to replace it," he says.
Well and good, but few of us have access to a $1,200 custom M9. And as a devotee of the 1911 who once was the only soldier in my platoon to qualify with it, I wanted to see how today's standard issue sidearm compared. I borrowed an M9 from Beretta (which, aside from a different serial number range and slide markings, is the same basic gun as the Beretta 92FS), and got a variety of Winchester NATO and Federal 9mm ammunition.
I took these to the Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall, California. Starting off with 124-grain military M882 ammo, the first shot out of the box struck at six o'clock in the 10 ring; the second shot was touching. A five-shot string, fired at seven and 15-yard combat distances, measured 13â'„4 inches. I had no problems with the military sights, but I found myself wishing I had one of the USAMU's customized M9s to see what it could do.
I also put Federal 124 grain Hydra-Shok and Blazer 124-grain FMJ ammo through the gun, in both single shot and rapid-fire exercises. In all, I fired 350 rounds, with no malfunctions of any kind. My only critique was that the magazine springs are a bit stiff.
"The Beretta is very forgiving, function-wise," Kidd told me. "It's a more difficult gun to modify than a 1911, but as far as reliability goes, you don't have to do anything to a Beretta to make it work. It will always run 100 percent no matter what you do."
I can echo that. According to a soldier I spoke with at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, the only thing he could do to make his M9 better was to outfit it with Crimson Trace LG-402M Mil Spec laser grips, which many in his outfit were doing. Moreover, after my range session, I ended up buying my test gun. And for the much-maligned and wrongfully accused M9, that's the best praise I can give it.