The Beretta M9 - Was it a good service pistol?
If you know me, by now you know I have an affinity for the Beretta Model 92. There are a bunch of variations of the Model 92 so I'm going to focus on the ones pictured. The US military's search for a 9mm handgun began with the Beretta Model 92S-1 that was nearly identical to the pistol in the image below on the far top right side.
In 1980 the Army wanted something to replace the aging M1911. Production of the 1911 ended with WWII and those old warhorses stayed in service, with no new guns being produced, all the way up until... well today! :D Yes, the Marines and other units still have 1911's in small numbers, but it was officially retired in 1985 with the adoption of the M9.
Early on the Beretta Model 92 caught the attention of the US military. So they began testing it along with other pistols until formal trials opened up in 1984. A number of companies submitted pistols to the 1984 trials including Beretta, Sig, Colt, S&W, Walther, HK, Steyr and FN. In the end, the Beretta Model 92FS would become the M9 service pistol narrowly edging out the Sig Sauer P226.
In 1987 a controversy arose when news reports hit that a member of the Navy Special Warfare Operations was injured by his Model 92. The slide had separated mid-section where the locking block engages and the rear half struck him in the face. In total there were 3 slide failures outside of controlled testing that resulted in minor injuries. A chipped tooth and some minor facial lacerations were the severity of the injuries.
The military began investigating the failures and in total they were able to cause 11 more failures in their controlled testing. It was determined that the Italian made slides were metallurgically flawed and this was the cause of the failures. There's been some misinformation circulated that the failures were due to "SEALs using SMG super high pressure ammo" but this is an old wives tale. The Army concluded that there was a metallurgical flaw in the Italian made slides so Beretta USA corrected this in all future M9 service pistols they produced.
Additionally, the Army requested a block be installed in the lower frame assembly of the M9 that would capture the rear half of a slide should it experience a failure. No documentation exists that such a failure ever happened so the blocks never had to serve their purpose in the 35 years the M9 served our nation.
So lets talk about the four guns pictured in the first image. Starting from the top right, I'll work my way to the bottom left.
1) Beretta Model 92S - This pistol was the early gun tested by the US military in 1980. It features a slide mounted safety/decocker that is only present on the left side of the pistol. You will also notice it has a "heel release" for the magazine. You can see the button on the lower right side of the grip.
2) Beretta Model 92SB - This pistol was an evolutionary change which incorporated changes requested by the US military. The B in "SB" means "button". You can see the magazine release was moved to the "American" position which is just behind the trigger so it's easily accessed by the shooting hands thumb without breaking the firing grip. The safety has a lever added to the right side of the fame thus making it ambidextrous.
3) Beretta M9 - This pistol is in essence what was commercially sold as the Model 92FS. This pistol has all the changes requested by the Army which included a squared trigger guard for the shooter to place their index finger of the support hand while firing (this was an 80's and 90's thing that finally passed), ambi slide mounted safety, specific sights with a "half moon" white mark on the rear sight and a dot on the front sight and a few other changes.
4) Beretta M9A1 - This is the pistol specifically requested by the United States Marine Corps. The USMC version has a 3 dot sight arrangement (two dots in the rear, one up front), a squared off trigger guard and accessory rail designed to work with lights and other accessories that weren't possible with the M9.
Early M9's and commercial Beretta Model 92's had locking blocks that were prone to failure. This would happen at high round counts but also could be brought about by improper maintenance. In speaking with Ernest Langdon, of Langdon Tactical fame, he explained that the M9 locking block should be properly lubricated as this is a critical high stress area of the design. Running it dry only serves to accelerate wear. A drop of oil on the locking block goes a long way to prevent failures of this part.
However, Beretta identified an area of improvement. The blocks were failing at a point where there was a right angle. Any engineer will tell you that right angles are prone to failure. Beretta used a radius cut and eliminated the right angle, and now the locking blocks will likely work for the entire service life of the pistol. In other words, you're not likely to wear one out.
The early problems encountered with the M9 are typical of any new service weapon entering military service. Few weapons are subjected to the rigors of military service, and those rigors are very challenging for any tool. Within a couple of years the M9 became an outstanding service pistol.
But there were other problems down the road. One such problem was the sudden reappearance of failing locking blocks. The Army went to Beretta with a handful of broken parts and asked them why they were failing. Beretta took one look and said, "These weren't made by us." It turns out the Army sub-contracted 3rd party replacement parts, as the Army often will do, and the parts were substandard. Once the no-name parts were replaced with actual Beretta parts, the problem went away.
Then there were reports of serous reliability problems coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army and Beretta dove in to see what the problem was and once again it was a problem with parts. The Army initially contracted with the world famous magazine maker Mec-Gar for their M9 magazines, but as time went on it was decided they were too expensive so a lower cost alternative was sought out.
Check-mate was the first low-bid company who supplied magazines and of course they were problematic. The Army thought they were too expensive still so they put the magazines out for bid once again. A new lowest bidder, Airtronic Services, won the contract based on their lowball offer and they too had reliability issues.
After more research it was decided that the heavy phosphate finished required by the Army's specifications was causing the reliability issues. I mean, it stands to reason a course finish like heavy phosphate that has a surface texture of a fine grit sandpaper might cause reliability issues, especially if they are kept dry and moon dust is introduced.
While all this "lowest bidder" shenanigans was going on, troops in the field were having very real problems with their M9's not working properly. This is how Uncle Sugar gets our troops killed... screwing around with saving a few pennies.
In the end a new "high reliability" magazine was proposed that used a slick PVD finish and the M9 reliability issues evaporated. These are standard issue with the USMC M9A1 pistols and can be identified by their silver color.
Lastly, the M9 got trashed talked because of armorers who didn't do their jobs and properly service the high round count pistols. Granted, in time of war parts can be in short supply and it's not always something the armorers can remedy. However, if a weapon is known to be problematic, it needs to be taken out of service if new parts can't be secured. Many times worn out guns were pressed into service and this only compounded the reputation the M9 was a bad service pistol. This same problem makes some troops believe the M16/M4 is a bad service rifle, or the M249 is a bad squad automatic weapon, etc.
In the end you'll find that most people who know the M9 and use a properly maintained pistol will tell you the M9 has been a fantastic military service weapon and retiring it after only 35 years of service was an incredibly stupid idea by the U.S. Military.
I've come into some privileged information from active duty Soldiers who are armorers regarding the M17. The reason Sig took back the early M17's and sold them to the civilian market is because there were over 12 changes made to the guns to resolve issues with the gun. The early M17's were given back to Sig because it was cheaper to get new guns than it was to retrofit the early M17's with all of the new changes necessary to resolve the known issues. I've heard for more than one active duty armorer that the new M17's have a number of problems including trigger bars that are bending at low round counts which causes the trigger not to reset.
I'm not trashing the M17. Just like the M9 had its teething problems (I don't know of any M17's chipping a shooters teeth) the M17 is destine to have it's own. Hopefully the M17 will evolve to be a rock solid sidearm for our forces.
However, I believe the M9 should not have been replaced. The M17 shouldn't exist. It was a MASSIVE waste of our tax dollars to reequip all branches of our military with a handgun that's no better than the gun it replaced. After 20 years of war, is it really a good use of our tax dollars to replace a weapon that is not a front line weapon? Keep in mind our front line forces fight with rifles, not handguns. Handguns are used primarily by troops that aren't on the front line (not always, but generally speaking). They are not offensive weapons with regards to 11B's and 0311's. Rifles are. So why in the world would we spend billions of dollars procuring a non-frontline weapon to replace to perfectly good weapon already in service vs. focusing those financial resources on more important things like more lethal rifle ammo, better body armor, even a new service rifle?
Only Uncle Sugar knows.
As for me, if given the choice to take a M9 or a M17 into a fight I'm going with the M9. It's battle proven and has earned my respect.
I look forward to your comments!