The Beretta 9mm is an American icon.
That’s right, I said it—An American icon. Officially adopted in 1985 and in general issue since 1990, the Beretta M9 pistol has served all branches of the US military with distinction for over 20 years now. Over that time, the Pentagon has funded several different programs to decide on a suitable replacement for it, but all have failed. In 2009, Beretta received a $220 million contract to deliver another 450,000 M9 pistols to our military through 2014. All other gunmakers went home disappointed, again. The big Beretta has gotten knocked around and disrespected for too long. It is time to set the record straight and give this pistol the recognition it deserves.
Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game
The Beretta M9 was controversial from the moment the Pentagon selected it to replace the .45ACP caliber 1911. Sure, we all love the 1911 and kneel humbly before the greatness that is John Moses Browning. During the 1984 pistol trials eight companies submitted pistols for evaluation; the military used the 1911 as the “control” group as a standard for comparison. The testing protocol included reliability tests, a salt water corrosion test, mud and sand tests, a total service life test, and a firing pin energy test. The Beretta absolutely wiped the floor with the 1911 during these tests. It wasn’t even close. The military crunched the numbers and determined that if the 1911 had to fire a 30 round fire mission under field conditions, it only had an 82% chance of completing the mission without a failure of some kind. The Beretta could do it 98% of the time. When the smoke cleared, the Beretta 92 and Sig 226 stood head and shoulders above all others, including the exotic Heckler & Koch P7M13. Beretta underbid Sig Sauer’s importer, SACO, and won the contract.
Rumors began to spread immediately that Beretta had cheated to win the contract. Some said that Sig Sauer’s bid was leaked to Beretta ahead of time so they knew the price to beat. Some said they had promised the government free replacement parts. There was general disgust at the fact that the winning pistol was an Italian design. Let’s face it, the Italian military doesn’t have the proudest history in the world. The rumor mill said that the Italian embassy had gotten involved in trying to win Beretta the contract. Pundits everywhere were irked that the U.S. military was adopting the weenie European 9mm round instead of forcing the rest of NATO to buy our .45acp rounds. Congress told the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate what the heck was going on. The GAO came back with a big report in June 1986 breaking the whole thing down. Here’s the bottom line:
- The military was determined to get rid of the .45ACP and adopt a 9mm. If it had not been the Beretta or SIG, it would have been the Smith & Wesson 469, the Steyr GB, or another 9mm pistol. The old .45 was going to be retired from service regardless.
- The Italian embassy did lobby for Beretta. The USA strictly forbids its embassy employees from interfering in foreign government contracts, but other countries do it all the time. The Italians lobbied Congress, which had no authority over the outcome of the trials anyway.
- Beretta quoted the same cost for replacement parts as they listed in their civilian sales catalog. Their magazines cost less than Sig’s magazines, helping their total bid stay lower than SACO’s offer.
- Beretta won the contract because they outbid SACO fair and square. If Sig Sauer imported their own pistols like they do today, who knows what they might have bid? But Beretta really wanted the contract badly and their Best and Final Offer was rock bottom. The initial contract price worked out to $178.50 for each Beretta M9. It doesn’t get much better than that, even in 1985 dollars.
- There was no evidence of a SACO bid price leak to Beretta. However, there was evidence that Smith & Wesson was unfairly kicked out of the competition. Testers rounded off some technical numbers involved with the firing pin energy test, resulting in a failing grade for the S&W 469. Smith & Wesson later sued the government over the mistake but lost after a long and expensive court battle.
- Beretta was allowed to import the initial batch of pistols from Italy. However, the terms of the contract forced Beretta to build an entire factory here in the USA as soon as possible. The resulting plant in Accokeek, Maryland, still builds M9 pistols today.
So you’re a fan of the 1911 and the .45ACP. So am I! Maybe you wish the military never went from .45 to 9mm 27 years ago, but they did. Get over it! Why hate on Beretta for selling the military exactly what they wanted, at a very competitive price, and building it right here in the USA? Don’t hate the player, 1911 fans. Hate the game.
Navy Seals Break Stuff, and a Gun Store Legend is Born
If you’ve spent as much time in gun stores as I have, you’ve heard a chairborne ranger tell the story of how the Beretta 92 is junk because they killed a bunch of Navy SEALs back in the day. The story goes that the pistols were so weak their slides broke in half, with the rear half of the slide flying off the frame rails and going right through the eye socket of the shooters, killing them instantly. Sometimes another gun store expert will chime in that the Navy SEALs were using special super high velocity +P+ submachine gun ammunition so they could have ammo compatibility with their HK MP5 sub-guns. The guns would not have blown up with standard ammo, but those Navy SEALs just have to be different. Then everyone grumbles for a while about how 1911s would never do that.
That story is pure gun store crap. The next time you hear someone tell it, just smile and walk away. Here’s what really happened. A Navy Special Warfare Group soldier received an injury in September 1987 when the slide on his civilian Beretta 92SB fractured and hit him in the face. A few months later, it happened again with two first-batch military issue M9 pistols, injuring their shooters mildly. No deaths were involved, but one shooter broke a tooth. You didn’t really think a slide breaking from the recoil of a 9mm would kill someone, did you?
The Navy quickly informed Beretta and the other branches of the military that there was a problem. The Army had been doing some independent durability testing on three civilian-spec M92SB pistols. Hearing of the Navy’s problems, they checked the slides on those guns for cracks. They found a crack on one pistol slide and decided to shoot all three pistols until the slides broke in the same way that the Navy SEAL pistols had. The gun with the cracked slide let go at 23,310 rounds fired. The other two broke at 30,083 and 30,545 rounds fired. The military and Beretta determined that all of the broken slides were made in Italy and had unusually low metal toughness. They modified the slide design to add metal in the locking block area, and modified the frame so that if a slide did break, it could not fly off the rear frame rails. Eventually 14 slide failures occurred: 3 in the field by the SEALs and 11 in laboratory testing. All guns were shooting military standard M882 pistol ammunition. The M882 round is a standard power round, firing a 124 grain bullet at 1113 feet per second. After Beretta made the design changes and the Maryland factory began producing complete M9 pistols here, the military reported no other slide breakages. EVER.
What does this mean, practically? Well, if you have a Beretta 9mm manufactured sometime before 1987 and you’ve shot more than 20,000 rounds through it, you should check the slide for cracks. If that situation doesn’t apply to you, then forget it. Beretta fixed the problem promptly and permanently 25 years ago, after those three SEALs broke guns shot beyond their intended service life. Breaking stuff is what SEALs do best anyway. Instead of spreading the gun store fable around, ask yourself how many other gun companies would bother to redesign their product after just 14 examples broke, out of hundreds of thousands of pistols built under a single contract. Go on, name one. I’ll wait….
A Retort for Every Gripe
Here are some common complaints about the Beretta 92. For every complaint I have an answer.
It’s too big. The Beretta is a big gun—built like a tank, with a chunky steel slide on an alloy frame. I love my smaller and lighter Glock 19, to be sure. Shooters with large hands always appreciate the big grip and solid feel of the Beretta. Even with my average sized hands, I find it to be extremely controllable and comfortable to shoot. Not all pistols are made to be hidden. Some are made to be big, intimidating, over-engineered brutes. The extra weight helps tame recoil, too.
The safety is in the wrong place. Beretta doesn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have put the same safety on nearly all their full size, compact and sub-compact pistols. The tiny Nano is striker-fired and has no external safety at all, so it is the sole exception. Many other designs feature a similar safety, including my favorite totally underrated pistol, the S&W 5906. The trick with this design is learning to take the safety off with the gun still in the holster, on the draw. As you reach for the pistol, push the safety forward with your thumb and forefinger before sweeping down just a bit to grasp the grip. It takes no time at all and you can do it in one smooth, quick motion. Since you’re still in double-action mode, there is plenty of safety margin during the rest of the presentation from the holster.
I hate double action triggers. The double-action trigger on the Beretta is long and heavy. I tend to ignore it when shooting recreationally. You can help with the pull weight a bit by installing a lighter mainspring, such as the ones used in the double-action-only 92D variant. A DA/SA type trigger is not for everyone. There’s no doubt that the 1911’s trigger is better. However, the Beretta’s trigger is no worse than other triggers of the same type, and better than most of them. Perhaps one day the military will go to a striker-fired trigger system as used in the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, and other more modern designs. For safety reasons, they will never go back to a single-action-only system like the 1911. For now, the military wants an exposed hammer and a double action trigger, and the Beretta 92 features one of the most robust trigger systems of that type in the world.
It doesn’t hold enough ammo for its size. There was a time when a 15 round magazine capacity was amazing. In 1985, the current issue pistol held seven rounds in the magazine and it was not yet common practice to “top off” with another cartridge in the chamber. Fast forward to 2012 and it seems crazy that such a large pistol should only hold 15 rounds. Fortunately for us not saddled with military issue mags and ammo, the big Beretta benefits from the latest magazine technology too. My stainless Beretta 92FS sports extended MecGar mags holding 20 rounds. They work great and do not add much bulk to the gun at all. Problem solved!
I can’t put a tactical light on it. Assuming you aren’t considering buying an M9-A1 or Beretta 90-TWO (a confusing name for a great pistol), both of which have integrated 1913 Picatinny rails, you can get adapters from Insight Technology or Surefire which attach to the trigger guard. They fit on your standard Beretta 92 with no modifications needed. Easy!
The one I was issued in the military had problems. Some veterans I talk to say their issued M9s were awful, others say they were great. It partly depends on the condition of the gun issued to you, but more so on the condition of the magazines issued to you. Magazines made for the military by Checkmate Industries had a thick phosphate coating (parkerizing) and were notorious for falling prey to the sandy conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Fine sand embedded into the rough parkerized surface caused the magazine to stick in the mag well, and the follower to stick inside the magazine body itself. It’s important to note that Checkmate is not a junk company. They had to build those magazines to the specifications the military demanded, and they did. Those specifications just didn’t pan out in the dust of the Middle East. The Pentagon changed the finish to a dry film lubricant type when they contracted with Airtronic Services, Inc. for new magazines in 2006. The finish wears off of the newer magazines more quickly, but they do not attract sand as the older Checkmates do. Checkmate is making military magazines again now, to the newer specification.
Many issued M9 pistols are well beyond their service life but are still out there fighting, simply because they are already there and still (mostly) work. In addition, many military units don’t do much preventive maintenance below the armorer level. Troops carry and shoot their Berettas until something breaks or the gun otherwise stops working, then turn it in to the unit armorer to fix. The M9 is capable of taking a lot of abuse, but grunts can break any piece of equipment if they keep using it long enough. How well would your favorite gun hold up after a few years of going to war in the hands of enlisted men who didn’t pay for it?
The military spec Beretta M9 is available for civilian purchase here in the United States. Beretta builds the model 92FS to nearly the same specifications, with extremely minor differences such as an angled dust cover on the frame instead of a straight one. Both the M9 and 92FS feature the excellent Bruniton finish and chrome lined barrels, just like the barrel on an M4 carbine. Beretta also makes the 92 in stainless steel, which they call the Inox model, inoxidizable being Italian for not oxidizing. If you have never shot one before, you owe it to yourself to get some range time behind it. If you’re only experience with the Beretta 92 is a ratty, beat up M9 you toted through sandstorms for a year, try a newer one in friendlier circumstances. You might just find out that the Beretta can be an extremely dependable service pistol, and a real joy to shoot.