The Beretta M9 Don’t Get No Respect
After over three decades of service in the US Military, the Beretta M9 is on its way out, having been dethroned by a Sig – though not the Sig it contentiously won the 1980s XM9 trials against, a Sig nonetheless.
Practically from the moment it started to replace the 1911, it started being maligned for this reason or that. It begins, of course, with the infamous cracked slides of the 1980s – I have read in official reports of fourteen incidents and four confirmed injuries, and I’ve met all 150 people who had a slide hit their face, even though most weren’t born until the 1990s. Add in some reports of unreliability in the Middle East and including general references of it being, to put it mildly, a piece of crap, and it all adds up to fact that the poor Beretta M9 just don’t get no respect.
That’s a shame, because the Beretta M9 and its civilian brother the 92FS are some of the best handguns you can buy.
I recently had the opportunity to teach a group of military officers the basics of handgun shooting. Before we’d even started the hip pocket portion of the class, a captain said, “Man, the M9 really is junk, isn’t it?”
My reply to this has been repeated since to other officers, since they usually have the same opinion about the M9. “Think of an enlisted guy in your company who maybe isn’t the best at his job. Tell him to maintain a rental car in continuous use by a succession of people for ten years without any way to tell how many miles are on the car. Every once in a while, the drivers are told they have to use up a large supply of gas and tires as quickly as possible before they can go home. How well do you think it’s going to run after another decade?”
Even the most ardent M9 haters pause to consider that one before we invariably go on to shoot tons of rounds through the M9 without a hiccup. I have found as a general observation that the people who hate the M9 most tend to have the least experience with it. Then again, I haven’t found many people who have a lot of experience with the M9, so I can’t quite pin down what they’d say. Most people seem content to feed off the hatred of the M9 passed down to them over generations in the military and race to pick up another gun as soon as they can.
The M9 was designed as a result of a very long and confusing set of specifications for a new pistol, specifications with conflicting requirements, and ultimately they became one with over 50 “mandatory” requirements. The M9 saga is detailed quite well in this GAO report for you more demanding readers.
Would the Sig P226 have been a better pistol for the military? I doubt it. I think we would have heard about how it was a piece of junk, too. I think we would have serviced it with subpar lowest-bidder magazines and other components made to specifications incompatible with the original firearm or the intended use, and today no one would look back on classic Sigs with the nostalgia that they rightly deserve – and, frankly, so does the Beretta M9 and 92FS family.
While I’ve gone on for quite some time to describe why the M9 is not deserving of all the hatred shoveled upon it, I haven’t explained why it’s one of “the best handguns you can buy.” That starts now.
To start, there are very few handguns which are, out of the box, as accurate as the M9 – nor, if one understands how it works, as shootable. I recently picked up an M9 and, although I have been shooting many striker fired handguns lately, scored 60 out of 60 on an FBI qualification test administered by a federal agent. To my everlasting shame, I dropped some rounds outside the A zone. I don’t think I would have done as well with a Glock, and that’s what I shoot most.
The M9 is also stunningly reliable – when fed with quality ammunition from good magazines. I have on my own time put 92FS pistols through terrible abuse and witnessed them never skipping a beat. The stellar performance of the M9 in military trials involving mud and other nasty testing do not surprise me. As with any semi-automatic pistol, including whatever your favorite is, if you put ammunition of dubious quality in knock-off mags and expect a pistol to run just as well as it would have with NATO ammo in OEM mags, you’re a bit off your rocker. Even a Glock 17 will reliably malfunction when fired with cheap imported mags from Asia.
Though military ammo has generally been of high quality, most of the current generation of servicemembers’ problems with the M9 can be traced to Check-Mate mags. I’m told Check-Mate makes fantastic M14 mags, and I’m also told that they made those terrible M9 mags to whatever specification the military wanted, and finally I’m told that they eventually fixed the rough interior finish and weak spring that caused problems, but it can’t be argued that quite a few Check-Mate M9 mags still in military service offer abominable reliability. My unit received new Beretta PVD mags in 2006 and all of our reliability problems went away.
Back to mags for a moment – If you’re in government procurement and think that it’s okay to buy cheap stuff because if it goes bad you can replace it with slightly better stuff, remember that you’ll never fully replace the bad or old stuff. At a recent active duty military range day, I saw dozens of black follower 30 round M16 mags dating as far back as the Persian Gulf War era. They were not all up to the task of feeding M4A1s, let alone full auto suppressed 10.5″ AR platform rifles, and yet there they were, lounging around in government inventories because someone was afraid of not being accountable for them. I would have recommended they all be crushed a decade ago, but I guess that’s why I’m not in charge of those sorts of things. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were still M9s in active service somewhere in the US military in 10 years.
It can’t be denied that the M9 is a little large and heavy for its magazine capacity compared to newer designs with polymer frames, though larger capacity flush fitting mags are now available. It can’t be denied that the placement of the safety is a little awkward, though, like all pistols, this means the M9 has an idiosyncrasy which can be adjusted to with practice. And it can’t be denied that the M9 really should have a replaceable front sight, although on the plus side, you really have to make an effort to knock a fixed front sight out of alignment. I once saw an M9 inadvertently dragged on its lanyard behind a Humvee for a few hundred yards. The front sight was ground back into shape in a few minutes with a bench grinder and the pistol went back into service without issue.
But these are rarely the things I hear people complain about. I mostly hear that the M9 is neither reliable nor accurate – neither of those things are remotely accurate. With a little practice and coaching, almost anyone can shoot well with the pistol, and good students can shoot expert without expending a lot of effort.
One legitimate complaint I hear about is that the locking blocks tend to crack – after 30,000 rounds or so. As you may have noticed in the GAO report above, that convoluted specification only called for a 5,000 round service life! A cracked locking block is not the end of the pistol. After you’ve fired ten times the retail cost of the pistol in ammunition, you’ll have to spend a few minutes replacing a part which costs less than ten percent of the pistol. Boo hoo.
I understand that many of the M9s in military service have far exceeded 30,000 rounds and, in combination with general wear and tear, needed to be replaced en masse. Given the added machining cost of the M9 frame compared to an injection molded polymer frame, it’s understandable that the military would want to look elsewhere to save money. But to a civilian buyer looking to buy a pistol, the differences in cost which are evident in military procurement are not so evident when shopping for guns online. Especially in M9A1 guise with attached weapon light, it makes an excellent home defense pistol, and it’s a lot easier to conceal than you might think.
The next time you’re considering which new gun to buy, don’t pass by the Beretta M9/92FS too quickly because of stories you’ve heard on the Internet or at the shooting range. Spend a few minutes dry firing to learn how the trigger feels before you put a live round through the gun and I think you’ll be amazed at how well you shoot the M9.
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