The Sleek WonderNine: Browning’s BPM-D 9mm Pistol
By David Tong
The term “WonderNine,” was a term applied by the gun press to double-action 9x19mm pistols with double stack magazines, typically holding 13 or more cartridges. The earliest example of the type was the Smith and Wesson Model 59, which combined the Walther P-38 DA system and the staggered-column magazine of the Browning Hi-Power. Proponents of the WonderNine claimed greater safety, more firepower and argued that 13 or more 9mm cartridges were a better option than seven .45 ACP rounds, an argument that still rages today.
What wasn't taken into account was that the early expanding-point pistol ammunition was insufficiently developed to be reliable man-stoppers, either expanding too quickly and not penetrating enough, or failing to expand and over-penetrating without causing the tissue disruption that provides stopping power. Police departments sometimes encountered "failures to stop" due to poor bullet performance. Subsequent testing and computer aided design of current 9mm bullets have largely eliminated these problems, yet the latest statistics still indicate stopping power advantages for both the .40 S&W and .45ACP.
The other tenet, a pistol that could be more safely handled during loading, unloading, carrying and re-holstering has also proven to be a bit elusive, as police agencies around the country reported an INCREASE of negligent discharges when they abandoned their revolvers. (No surprise there, as modern revolvers are inherently safer in semi-skilled hands than autoloading pistols. -Ed.)
The late 1970s were also a period of intense development and competition for a possible U.S. Army service pistol contract. The Army had decided, rightly or wrongly, that our troops needed to carry a pistol chambered for the NATO-standard nine-millimeter caliber, so the major manufacturers such as Colt, Smith & Wesson, SiG, Beretta and FN-Browning, among others, submitted test samples. While everyone is aware of the outcome of this, FN-Browning continued to quietly develop other models after it’s so-called “Fast Action” Hi-Power failed to win the coveted contract.
Among other requirements, the Army was looking for a pistol which could be “administratively handled,” meaning loaded and unloaded, while the pistol was on safe and incapable of fire, via a decocking mechanism. One result of this development was a pistol called the Browning BDM, which stands for “Browning double mode.” This allowed for a user-selectable “traditional” double-action/trigger cocking first shot and single-action follow-up shots, as well as a “DAO” selection that rendered it trigger cocking only. Introduced commercially in 1992 after failing to win the second FBI pistol trials, it was of all-steel construction, had the de rigueur 15-shot double-stack magazine and a very slender profile, allowing it to fit most hands well. The pistols were offered in the American market in much the same way as the current offerings of new .45 ACP handguns, resulting from the recent 2005 request for proposal for a Joint Services .45ACP caliber pistol (which was subsequently cancelled), brought us the Smith & Wesson M&P, the Springfield XD Tactical and the Taurus 24/7 OSS/DS.
The BDM and its follow-up “BRM” (meaning “Browning Revolver Mode" or double action only) did not catch on with the buying public. I must admit that I cannot recall ever seeing an example for sale in California, where I was living at the time. I do remember that it roughly approximated the Hi-Power in size and shape.
The clumsily named “Browning Pistol Mode – Decocker” or BPM-D, which is the subject of this article, is a further development of the BDM and strongly resembles that pistol. Key statistics are as follows:
A clean and lightly used example came into my local gun emporium. I performed the usual cleaning, lubrication and systems check to ensure safe function. Upon closer examination, I was struck by the number of features that were included with input by experienced shooters.
The entire pistol is softly rounded in appearance, with all sharp edges melted. The front of the slide and frame are narrowed to facilitate easy re-holstering and the forward slide profile is angled and rounded to allow easy “press-checking” for a loaded round (more on that later). Both slide and receiver appear to be precision investment castings, with only the slightest evidence visible under close examination.
The sights are an anti-snag design and the rear sight, molded from plastic, even resembles a giant version of the now-famous Novak combat sight. The rear sight blade, besides being heavily “sunken” into its protective ears, is also undercut, thus cutting glare and errant reflection and producing a crisp sight picture, with adequate light around the front sight for quick acquisition.
The grip profile is commendably narrow. Many “WonderNines” of any era feel like two-by-fours with squared-off front straps, wide due to their double-action trigger mechanisms and with stocks that generally protrude beyond the frame flats. The BPM-D, on the other hand, has a very thin profile, even narrower than a 1911 across the stocks. This is remarkable considering the magazine capacity. It is the flattest high-capacity pistol this author has ever encountered.
The trigger reach is short and the double-action (DA) stroke is the lightest of any full-sized nine I am aware of, save the double-action-only Para-Ordnance 1911-based pistols. Not only that, the approximately 10-pound DA stroke is smooth and even, making it relatively easy to place that crucial first shot accurately on target. The grip angle is the same 110 degrees as the Colt 1911.
The SA release after the first shot has roughly ¼” take-up and minimal over-travel, letting off at less than 4-1/2 pounds with some light creep. It is an easy trigger to deal with, because it lacks the grittiness of most DA autos.
The operating system is unique because the ambidextrous decocking levers also serve as the slide release. This doubled feature first appeared in the Walther P-5. This feature reduces confusion. A simple downward stroke renders the pistol loaded and decocked. In addition, there is a smaller “stop/lock” lever that is the actual slide release, so one can also depress this part, located just ahead of the left side de-cocker, to reload the pistol and revert to single-action shooting for greater accuracy potential.
Please note that there is no manual safety; the pistol is always ready to fire, in either DA or SA mode. There is second-strike capability in case of a dud primer. When de-cocked, the hammer falls to an intermediate notch short of resting on the rear of the firing pin housing, thus shortening the trigger reach and stroke on the first double-action shot and hopefully increasing the percentage of first round hits.
A look at the internals during fieldstripping showed smooth machining without noticeable tool marks. The frame’s slide rails are long and interrupted only adjacent to the magazine well, providing good support, and the barrel hood’s fit into the separate, modular breechblock was closely toleranced for accuracy.
The forged barrel has an integral feed ramp that dispenses with a separate frame feed ramp and promises greater feed reliability. It eschews the annular locking lugs of the P-35 in favor of the more modern barrel chamber edge engaging the forward lip of the ejection port for locking. The BPM-Ds’ barrel top is rounded and so is the top profile of the slide, to render it less overtly rectangular in appearance, which I like. The only other pistols built this way were the Walther P-88 and P-88C. The BPM-D’s 4-¾” barrel should allow full catalog velocity from the 9x19 cartridge, while remaining a manageable length for holstering.
The BPM-D has two loaded chamber indicators that deserve mention. A small, square hole cut into the right rear of the modular breech block exposes the case rim, visible at a glance, and the extractor can be felt as slightly raised to double confirm the round’s presence in the chamber. This breechblock, along with the left forward frame mounted rotating takedown lever, resembles the design of the SiG-Sauer P-series and Springfield XD pistols and works identically to those arms.
The firing pin is in a pivoting, movable housing to provide drop safety, as the hammer cannot contact the rear of the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled; it then rises to a position in line with the protruding face of the hammer. A clever, if more complex, way of reducing accidental discharges compared to the lever-depressed spring-loaded slide plunger that locks the firing pin in most modern pistols.
The ejection port is proportionally huge and should pretty much eliminate “stove pipe” jams. The rear of the slide has several neat features as well. It has two small, cast-in checkered panels on either side of the dropped hammer. This is to allow positive re-holstering of the pistol, by one’s thumb, without pushing the slide out of battery. Additionally, the end of the slide behind the grasping grooves is slightly extended outward, making racking the slide easier for loading or a malfunction clearance drill. At 31 ounces, the BPM-D with magazine is some three ounces lighter than a Beretta 92 and the same weight as a Springfield XD; both of those without their empty magazines.
What does this all mean? It means that this pistol is very easy to use, has a better than average trigger pull, is well balanced when loaded, easy to strip and clean and easy to carry due to its thin profile. It does not hurt that it’s also made in the U.S.A., which is unusual for a Browning service pistol.
A quick trip to the Albany, Oregon Rifle and Pistol Club range proved the pistol fed my usual assortment of ball and jacketed hollow point ammunition without malfunction. Recorded groups were 5-shots over sandbags at 25 yards. I used the following factory loaded ammunition: PMC Bronze Line 115 grain RNFMJ, Winchester White Box 115 grain RNFMJ, Winchester Ranger SXT 115 grain +P+ and Winchester Ranger SXT 127grain +P+. Weather conditions at the range were 51 degrees, 5 mph crosswind and cloudy skies with drizzle, typical for western Oregon in November.
All groups centered about 2” to the right of center with the usual vertical dispersion due to different bullet weights and velocities. All groups measured between 4” and 8” in diameter. There was a preference for the Winchester RA9TA 127 grain load, which shot the tightest of the patterns. The recoil is easily managed due to the nicely shaped butt design, with a broad and rounded upper grip frame to help spread those forces into the web of your hand in a comfortable manner.
I think that the era of the WonderNine is over, because over 75% of U.S. police agencies and many civilian concealed-carry permit holders have moved to the .40 S&W round, as it can be had in a pistol of the same size (albeit with a lower round count) and somewhat better stopping power statistics. This could also be due to the institutional bias against the 9x19 round based upon its earlier stopping power statistics.
The primary advantages of the 9mm are that practice ammunition is quite a bit cheaper than the larger calibers and the smaller diameter cartridge makes a thinner, single-stack magazine pistol, such as the Kahr PM9, possible for concealed carry.
There are enough interesting design choices in the Browning BPM-D pistol to make it a sound choice for the person with smaller to average size hands, who should be able to manipulate it efficiently under stress. I found it a pleasure to examine and shoot. Get one while you still can. Be advised, however, that Browning will no longer service the pistol and that you’d best locate any standard-capacity magazines at the same time; CDNN Investments currently has only 10-shot magazines available.
In a way, it seems a shame to this observer that Browning no longer builds this pistol. In many practical and subtle ways, it is a better offering than anything currently available. Although it was a sales failure, the BPM-D cannot help but reinforce the FN-Browning Company’s reputation in firearms design and production.
Note: This review is mirrored on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2009 by David Tong. All rights reserved.