The Wondernine: Has Its Time Come Again?

By David Tong

During the mid-1970s, when Smith & Wesson combined the double stack magazine of the Browning Hi-Power with the double-action lockwork of the Walther P-38, they created a new genre of service sidearm. Proponents of the new pistol, named the Model 59, proclaimed it to be “safer,” “lighter” and possessing the proverbial quality of “load on Sunday, shoot all week.” This was also the time of the Generation One development of jacketed hollow point bullets that promised to elevate the 9mm Luger cartridge’s stopping power. The archetype of the Wondernine was a 15 shot, double and single action pistol.

Several things happened to put a fly in the ointment. First, the M59’s Gen One feed ramp was curved similar to the Hi-Power’s and this caused many feed malfunctions, which were also partly due to the poor ogive profiles of the early JHP bullets. While this issue was cured by the early ‘80s with the Gen Two M459 and M659 and their straight feed ramps, subsequently adopted by FN for the Mark II Hi-Power, this was only one problem.

The other issue was that some of the new JHP rounds, lacking the sophisticated computer modeling of succeeding designs, lacked consistent expansion with penetration. This caused law enforcement agencies to hang onto their .357 Magnum revolvers a little longer.

Other manufacturers, including Beretta and Glock, subsequently produced far superior service pistols with capacious magazines. Their products benefited from the computer assisted design and they were optimized for proper feeding.

Several agencies had problems with cartridge selection that, although no fault of the cartridge, did not add to the luster of the 9x19. LAPD, the second largest police department in the U.S., issued its new Beretta 92 with 95 grain JSP bullets, while LASD issued Gen One 147 grain subsonic rounds. Both produced very poor stopping results.

All handgun cartridges have an optimum bullet weight range for caliber and for the 9, it is between 115 and 125 grains. When companies like SuperVel fell by the wayside, Winchester, Remington,and Federal, lately joined by Hornady Manufacturing and Cor-Bon, took advantage of advanced testing methodologies based upon the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit studies. These indicated that a minimum of 12” of penetration into 10% ordnance gelatin with approximately .55-.60 caliber expansion and no bullet weight loss was the preferred formula for improving the performance of the 9x19.

The pistols themselves have also improved. Most of the earlier designs such as the S&W's and the Beretta, had larger butt sections than could be comfortably used by small-handed personnel. To an extent it remains a problem, for double stack magazine require more space than single stack magazines. Trigger reach for the first double-action shot in DA/SA pistols is also longer than for a single-action design with a double stack magazine, such as the Browning Hi-Power, or a Glock Safe Action.

LAPD and LASD learned the hard way about their cartridge selection, as did the rest of the country’s police. Both agencies are now using 115 grain bullets in +P loads. The ne-plus-ultra 9x19 cartridge for police use (at the moment) appears to be Winchester’s Ranger-T RA9TA, 127 grain +P+, clocking some 1,250 fps out of a 4” barrel. This is an internally serrated, bonded core round of otherwise conventional construction and materials, produced with low flash powders for night vision retention and with nickeled brass cases for feed reliability. The feed profile resembles a flattened ball round for reliability. Marshall and Sanow have reported this round is producing 91% one-shot stops, if one can believe their statistical methodology and practices.

Without delving into the merits of their study and contrasting it with the Martin Fackler school of thought, it is my opinion that a combination of both schools of thought are required, as both have useful things to say about the terminal effectiveness of ammunition. Ordnance gelatin is not human flesh and autopsy findings are not shootings (but do review them). Fackler’s hypothesis and subsequent scientific approach and methodology appears both repeatable and sound. The results derived appear to correlate with reality on the street. Rather than trying to split hairs as to whether a round “stops” someone, let us all remember that we are discussing the use of lethal force and leave it at that.

The main issue facing the 9x19 for police use is that most agencies have transitioned to the .40 S&W cartridge in similar sized pistols, which was the point of that particular exercise. The .40 carries from 20 to 55 grains more bullet weight than competing 9x19mm rounds and most of the .40 rounds are already subsonic save the 135 grain versions. Several of these rounds statistically match the vaunted .45 ACP in its better loadings. Over 70% of all American law enforcement agencies are now using the .40, so why do I believe that the Wondernine may have a new lease on life? (Why should civilians be guided by what guns/loads police officers are required by police administrators to carry as service pistols? -Editor)

First, in this day and age of budget cutbacks, agencies are looking for nearly any way to reduce costs and this includes training and issue ammunition. 9x19 is cheaper to make and ship, using less increasingly valuable strategic metals such as copper and brass, and these savings would be passed on, in theory, to the cops.

Second, even in its stouter loadings, the 9mm does not recoil as much as the .40, while being within the margin of error statistically versus that round’s stopping power. Less recoil translates to better shot placement and it is shot placement that wins gun fights. This also means that an agency might realize additional savings, since recruits might be able to qualify easier and faster than with an identical .40, as well as be more effective in the field.

Third, while I cannot state this with absolute certainty, it appears that the latest generation of bullets available in 9x19, when loaded to +P speed, work as well as larger caliber rounds. It is tough to dissect how much better 9 out of 10 stops can be between the competitors, so the armchair statistician in me calls it a draw.

Please note that SAAMI U.S. spec 9x19 and even the NATO spec version has always been loaded lighter than the original 1902 German spec cartridge. One can easily feel this in one’s hand, if one has shot generic hardball from Dynamit Nobel (GECO), Fiocchi, or Hirtenberger. It is notably hotter, kicks more and the muzzle report louder. However, I have not confirmed this subjective observation with a chronograph.

I think it bears reiteration that the 9x19 must be loaded to +P pressure and speed, in the appropriate bullet weight range and fired in a 4" or longer barrel, in order to create rounds that provide 90%+ statistical stopping power. This is why .357 Magnum works so much better than .38 Special; energy is the key. Note that Federal has upped the velocity of its Personal Defense “C9BP” 115 grain JHP load from 1,150 fps to 1,180 fps for this very reason.

Thus, in 2011, it appears that the 197'0s promise of a reliable pistol with good stopping power and a deep magazine may have occurred. (Actually, it happened in the early 1980's with the introduction of the Glock pistol, if not before. It just took some people a long time to catch on. -Editor) Some high capacity 9x19's still have issues for small sized hands. It doesn’t have to be that way except for the economy of manufacturing commonality of frame sizes shared between 9mm and .40. The notion of having many good 9mm rounds on tap appeals to many shooters, especially if one is recoil sensitive.

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Copyright 2011 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.