A Fair and Balanced Analysis of the Beretta M9 Service Pistol
By David Tong
As many regular readers of my ramblings know, I am an adherent of the John Browning designed M1911 pattern pistol in .45 ACP caliber, for a lot of reasons. Among these are a simple design, all steel construction, match quality trigger system designed to enhance hit probability, a caliber of proven performance both at the target range and for personal protection and adjustable ergonomics long before this became a popular “new idea.”
When, in the late 1980s, the US Army adopted the Beretta 92 SB-F, renaming it M9, the clamor for the high capacity 9mm semi-auto pistol was at its peak. It wasn’t until the Clinton-era “Brady bill” that limited magazine capacities to ten rounds that smaller, concealable pistols became popular, especially in larger calibers such as .40 Smith and Wesson and .45 ACP. The thought being, of course, if one is limited ten shots, they might as well be “big” ones. Much has been written in the pages of Guns and Shooting Online regarding the preference for smaller, lighter arms suitable for all day carry, while this lowly scribe has blithely carried on with his old Government Model.
The M9 is a full-size service pistol. It features a 4.7” barrel and is of mixed construction, with an aluminum alloy receiver and a steel slide and componentry. Since Army Ordnance officials were concerned with negligent discharges, they desired an arm with a safety which allowed for the administrative loading and unloading with the safety “on,” along with a long, 12-pound-plus double action trigger pull for the first shot.
The Beretta was extensively tested to a degree that no gun magazine or editorial staff can duplicate and it was ultimately selected over a similar pistol (the P226) from the German firm Sig Sauer. The P-226 later became the issue pistol of the Navy SEALs. The usual battery of sand, mud, salt spray, rust, ice, and drop testings were done and while there were a few isolated incidents (three to ten, the actual number is unknown) of slide fractures causing the rear of the slide to separate from the pistol on recoil, injuring several personnel, the pistol has been redesigned to eliminate this possibility via an enlarged hammer pin and different metallurgy of the slide to enhance its longitudinal strength.
The M9’s operating system is very similar to that of the pre-WWII Walther HP, which later became the “P-38,” the 1942-onward standard issue pistol of the Wehrmacht. It features a plunger activated, machined steel locking block which pivots below the barrel and allows the slide to retract after pressures have dropped to a safe level after firing. The system requires the barrel, the locking block, the plunger which pushes the block out of line to allow slide retraction, and a cross pin to hold that plunger in place. The locking block action makes for a very wide slide
The trigger system also appears very similar to the P-38, in that it uses an external lever system above the right side of the trigger guard to trip the sear when the trigger is pressed. The take down lever is located on the left side of the receiver and is activated by a spring loaded plunger protruding from the right side of the receiver ahead of the trigger lever.
The pistol’s overall design is a progressive development of the Model 1951 “Brigadier,” which was an all-steel, single stack 8-round, single action pistol Beretta built shortly after WWII. The M9 added the double action trigger, a firing pin drop safety, relocated the safety from the traditional 1911 frame position to the slide (also just like the Walther P-38) and, of course, the capacious magazine.
Add to this Beretta’s usual quality construction, a very smooth feel to its operations and recoil, relative ease of normal field stripping and you have a pistol that has served the military for 20 years now, with new re-orders continuing to be granted to Beretta’s Accokeek, Maryland manufacturing facility.
The M9 pistol has had its share of detractors. From a user standpoint, it is large. The length of trigger reach and the diameter of the butt makes it truly suitable only for medium to larger sized hands, especially if the operator is wearing gloves. From a weight standpoint, it’s nearly quaint; despite its alloy frame, it weighs within 4 ounces of the all steel 1911, which is substantial considering that a Glock 17 is ten ounces lighter due to its plastic frame and carries two more rounds in its magazine. Beretta has addressed this problem with civilian market models such as the straight backstrap grip on the Vertec model, as well as the newer “Ninety-TWO,” but that isn’t what the troops are using.
Larry Vickers is a retired Special Forces trooper with over 20 years experience--15 years of that was with Operational Detachment Delta (“Delta Force”), America’s most elite SpecOps unit. He has trained soldiers, law enforcement, and civilians on the 92 system for years since retiring. He does quite a bit of writing in the firearms press and his reputation for truth via his personal experience is beyond reproach.
He has stated that there are factors which detract from the continued use of the M9, aside from the anecdotal after action reports on the caliber issue. The three main things he sees are an institutional aversion to proper lubrication, parts breakages and the use of subcontracted, non-factory magazines.
There are more modern pistol designs that don’t require (much) lubrication to function, including the Glock and Hecker & Koch USP series. Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are in an environment with blowing sand and dust, to not use much lubricant as it attracts dirt. However, what is occurring with both the M9 and the M16 is that the proper amount--more than one might expect--of lubricant is necessary to keep these close-toleranced weapons working.
The Beretta’s frame is aluminum and it simply does not have the service life and durability of steel or the polymer frames of the Glock or HK-USP. Unlike those designs, the Beretta M9’s slide rides directly on aluminum frame rails rather than steel and with inadequate lubrication, they wear. The military has addressed this by “re-arsenaling” the pistols and rebuilding them, but a more major issue is locking block breakages. The part has an expected life of 22,000 rounds and recoil springs are recommended to be replaced every 5,000, but seldom does either occur. Thus, the locking block and frame take a pounding and cracks can occur that will stop the pistol. The issue is that other, more modern designs are more durable and the War on Terror means more shooting is being done than ever before. Practice and training is also taking its toll. WWII era 1911s were not immune to breakages due to the same lack of lube and spare parts, though many of them have been documented to have fired over 400,000 rounds, in comparison to the 92 receiver’s hoped for life of roughly one-tenth that amount.
Finally, to save money, the military has engaged an outside contractor to supply magazines. These have not proven nearly as reliable as the factory Beretta mags, due to what he considers sub-standard interior finish and poor springs.
In addition, in my view, the large size and long, heavy trigger pull makes the M9 a more difficult pistol to hit with quickly under stress. This can be overcome by training if you have big hands and are willing (or able) to shoot enough. The pistol is accurate, but again, in a modern military cranking out “qualified” personnel, one wonders if the M9 is an ideal solution, or simply the one they’re continuing to go with, despite the well-known issues.
A recent “request for proposal” for a new “Joint Services Combat Pistol” in early 2006, in .45 ACP by request from the troops, was shelved later that year and instead more M9s were purchased.
A brief trip to the Albany, Oregon Rifle and Pistol Club range provided me with some observations. First, that long and heavy first trigger pull means one will truly concentrate on the front sight and usually this means a first round hit, at least slow fire. The subsequent shots have about ¼" of take up, then a relatively crisp release of about five pounds. Recoil, as with any full size 9x19 pistol, is negligible and well-absorbed by the wide grip and the operating system. I shot a mixed bag of 115 grain lead round nose, 115 grain JHP, 124 grain ball and Winchester's 127 grain +P+ JHP, roughly 200 rounds. The pistol worked without malfunction and several times I was able to place 25 rounds into about a 2.5" circle at 11 yards.
However, in a ballistic "non-test," the six falling metal plates sometimes didn't, unless one hit them in the upper third of the target. These plates are placed about 20 yards away and typically fall easily to either a .40 S&W or .45 ACP even if center hit. This just illustrates Newton's Law of action and reaction once more; that the target will feel just a bit less of an impact than the recoil in your hand and that the latter two rounds do have more momentum.
In my own personal view, I’m considering acquiring one simply to have something cheaper to shoot, ammo prices being what they are, in order to keep up my skill set and in order to have one “high-capacity” pistol in case the November elections go pear shaped and we have a gun-hostile new Administration. Since I am not a signatory to the Hague Convention, I can use +P or +P+ hollow point ammunition, which statistically provides some comfort to this .45 admirer. I also prefer having a manual safety on a carry piece, even though the slide mounted units on the Beretta are very easy to activate when racking the slide to load it, rendering the pistol inert unless switched “off.” This can be a problem if one has to use it in anger. Again, a training issue that can be overcome, but I wonder if there isn’t a better way.
Note: A full review of the Beretta 90-TWO pistol mentioned in this article can be found on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2008 by David Tong. All rights reserved.