Awww geeze, not another blog!



Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Beretta M9 Is A Great Service Pistol, So Get Over It

I recently traded into a Beretta 92FS pistol. This is the commercial version of the pistol that 30 years ago became the US military's M9 service pistol. It has been almost 15 years since I handled or shot a Beretta 92/M9 and I figured I needed to reacquaint myself with the platform.

Beretta 92FS, the precursor to the M9 service pistol

I had the good fortune to be on active duty in the mid-80's when we traded in our M1911A1 pistols for the M9. In fact, by the time our units at Fort Lewis, WA received the first issue of M9 pistols around 1987 I'd had almost a decade of experience shooting the military issue M1911A1. I feel I'm in a perfect position to compare and contrast the two pistols

Let's start with the M1911A1, or the 'yankee fist' as many refered to it. I won't drag the readers down the well worn path that is the history of the M1911. We'll just cover the basics: 

  • Invented by John M. Browning and considered by many to be his best handgun design
  • Adopted by the US military in 1911 (hence the military desigination 'M1911') to replace the venerable (but badly out-dated) Colt SAA revolver 
  • First saw wide battlefield service with US forces in WWI
  • The design was modified in the 1920's based on input from Soldiers who used it during the Great War. The resultant pistol was dubbed the M1911A1 and it remained the standard US service pistol right up into the 1980's
  • During WWII over 1 million M1911A1's were produced by Colt, Remington Rand, Ithica, Union Signal and Switch and Singer
  • At the close of WWII the War Department decided it had more than enough M1911A1s to meet service demand and closed down the military production lines. The pistols produced during the war years continued to serve as the US standard service pistol through the Korean and Vietnam wars
  • The M1911A1 was officially replaced as the US military's standard service pistol in 1985 when the Beretta M9 was adopted

M1911A1 in WWII factory packaging


I believe the M1911A1 was the best semi-auto service pistol in use anywhere in the world right up through the 1960's and the Vietnam War. No other service pistol could match it for reliability and knock-down power. But by the early 1970's it's design had been surpassed by a host of improvements in handgun technology. In addition the US Military's stock of general issue M1911's were simply worn out. After almost 30 years of service and three wars (WWII, Korea and Vietnam) the pistols were old, rattly and unreliable. Nobody shot them well. The sights were awful and the triggers even worse. By 1980 the venerable old warhorse was serving way past its retirement date and it was time for something new and improved.


Next let's look at the Beretta M9 pistol:

  • Based on the Beretta 92, designed in 1975
  • Saw initial but limited use with the US military in the hands of Navy SEALS starting in the late 1970's
  • The Beretta 92 won the 1979 Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP) competition, beating out a number of competitors from Colt, S&W, SIG, H&K, Browning and a few others. The USAF ran the JSSAP competition and the Army griped about the outcome (they really didn't want to buy an Italian pistol) so the results were shelved
  • In 1983 Congress put the Army in charge of a new selection program and told them to try again. Both the Beretta 92 and the SIG 226 beat all other competitors (including the M1911A1) and tied for the lead. Beretta submitted a much lower contract bid and won, fair and square
  • Both S&W and Ruger bitched about the outcome of the 1983 trials so in 1989 Congress ordered a new trial. Once again the Beretta 92 (now designated the M9) came out the clear winner
  • The M9 platform has seen almost continuous combat from 2003 to today, racking up an impressive combat record in the hands of all branches of the US Military

The Beretta M9 as adopted by the US Military in 1985 and still serving today


So in three separate trials the Beretta 92/M9 beat all comers, including the beloved M1911A1. The DoD specified a minimum 8,000 round service life in the 1984 trials, yet in tests the M9 has shown to have a service life in excess of 30,000 rounds. The M1911A1 'control' pistols used by the DoD during the trials failed long before that point, most not even making it to the minimum 8,000 rounds. Yet folks in the shooting community and legions of Gunstore Commandos - and a good number of our Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors - bitch constantly about how the Beretta is in some way substandard.


Let's look at the gripes:

  1. The Beretta family and/or the Italian government bribed Congress to adopt the pistol. This silly rumor has been kicking around since the mid-1980s and it's been investigated to death. While I don't discount the willingness of an occasional Congresscritter to take cash under the table to do a deal (Dan Rostenkowski, anyone?) this specific claim has been proven baseless. The pistol won the competition on its merits (and low bid price), not because Italians were delivering bags full of lira to the Congressional office buildings
  2. The SIG P226 really won the competition but got undercut at the last minute when their best and final bid price was leaked to Beretta. Again, no basis in fact. SIG's US representative, SACO, blew the bid process by refusing to lower contract prices on things like magazines and spare parts, making their bid significantly higher than Beretta's
  3. It's a 9mm. Yes it is, but don't blame Beretta. The DoD specified before the competition started that any pistol selected would be in the 9mm caliber. Beretta would have been happy to build pistols in 50 Action Express if that's what the competition requirements called for
  4. It's got a weird trigger.  Really? What's weird about it? From the late 1970s through the 1990's the DA/SA trigger design was all the rage, and was considered a far better and far safer design than the M1911A1's single action design. S&W, Colt, Ruger, SIG, H&K, Walther, and a host of other manufacturers made millions of pistols using the DA/SA design, and EVERYBODY wanted one. The Beretta trigger happens to be one of the best DA/SA designs ever brought to market. It was only after Glock came along with the trigger with the little thingey in the middle that folks began to change
  5. It's got a weird safety. The biggest gripe the 1911 partisans and Internet Commandos have about the M9 safety is that it's nothing like the M1911A1. Well OK, I agree - the M9 safety is nothing like the 1911's. That's because the M9's safety is better. There, I said it. As early as the late 1950's (when the Army started making noises about looking for a new pistol) it was recognized that the M1911A1 safety design was outdated and dangerous. That's why the Army mandated carrying the pistol hammer down but without a round in the chamber. Plus the safety lever was set up for right handed shooters only. The Beretta's ambidextrous decocker system provides an absolutely safe method of lowering the hammer on a loaded chamber and permitting perfectly safe carry with a round in the chamber. Far better than the M1911A1
  6. It's got an open slide. The Beretta's open slide design was touted as an advantage over the competitor's fully enclosed slides. I remember sitting in on meetings where we were briefed on the benefits of the new pistol and the open slide design was praised for it's improved barrel cooling and resistance to crud build-up inside the slide. The resistance to getting clogged with sand was particularly emphasized. OK, in retrospect there may not be any real benefit other than reduced weight, but reports from the sandbox are that as long as you do routine maintenance on the pistol, to include removing any sand or grit that may have slipped through the slide and down into the dust cover, the pistols are as reliable and run just fine
  7. It's got a fat grip. Yes it does, but it's not that fat. In fact, compared to something like the Glock 17 the grip is actually quite comfortable and manageable. I have medium-large hands and I find the grip quite comfortable. The real issue with the grip is the long reach to the DA trigger for those with medium or small hands. This can be alleviated by carrying the pistol with the safety off and the hammer cocked to the first notch, which brings the trigger back further in the trigger guard. Of course the Army frowns on this practice but if you are a civilian it's a perfectly safe way to carry the pistol.   
  8. The slides break, killing people. Early in the service life of the pistol the Navy SEALS experienced precisely three (3) broken slides. On two occasions the slides broke completely into two pieces, with the rear section smacking the shooters in the face. One high speed-low drag operator suffered a broken tooth. That's the full extent of the human devastation caused by broken slides. Investigation revealed these were high round count pistols that were shooting waaaaaay out of spec high pressure ammo. When the Army heard about the incident they took three civilian spec 92SB pistols they had been testing and shot them until the slides failed. One pistol's slide let go at just over 20,000 rounds and the other two let go at over 30,000 rounds. Analysis of the broken slides revealed all had heat treatment problems. Beretta beefed up the slides around the locking block area and improved QC on the heat treating. This was back in 1988. Since then there have been zero instances of slides cracking or breaking on any M9 pistol. It simply hasn't been an issue for over 25 years of production and service. Time to drive a stake through the heart of this idiotic rumor
  9. It wears out too fast. A pistol is a mechanical device that wears out with use, and it wears out faster if not maintained properly and even faster when used in environments where dust and sand is prevalent - like the Middle East. General issue weapons in the DoD inventory get minimal care and maintenance. Yes they get cleaned but they don't get maintained as well as they should. This means many of the M9 pistols that have seen up to 30 years of service, including 15 years of continuous wartime service in the hands of hundreds of service members, have been shot a lot but received minimal maintenance. As you would and should expect, they are worn out. Again, don't blame Beretta or the pistol's design. Blame a military that has seen an extraordinarily high OPTEMPO for the past 15 years in an environment that's known to accelerate wear on all mechanical devices, coupled with a reluctance to pull marginally serviceable weapons from the inventory
  10. It's unreliable. Another Gunstore Commando rumor that refuses to die. Remember, in three separate reliability tests the Beretta tied for first place in one and beat all comers in the other two. Well, there was a point during the GWOT where the Beretta pistols the Army owned were exhibiting a surprisingly high number of malfunctions, But again it wasn't Beretta's fault or the fault of the pistol. It was magazines. Specifically, non-manufacturer spec magazines that were built to a badly flawed Army contract specification. After years of active combat the Army was running out of M9 magazines. The Beretta-produced magazines were of excellent quality, but they were wearing out at an alarming rate with years of service in a very sandy/dusty environment. The Army needed a lot of replacement magazines, and needed them fast. To save a few bucks they awarded a contract to a third party (but very reputable) US-based magazine manufacturer named Check-Mate. In an effort to try to extend the service life of the magazines the Army contract stipulated that both the outside and the inside of the magazine bodies were to receive a phosphate coating. When Beretta and Check-Mate read the contract requirement they both notified the Army that the coating on the interior of the magazine body would cause ammunition feeding problems. The Army refused to budge and told Check-Mate that either they comply with the contract as written or it would be taken from them and given to one of their competitors. Check-Mate complied, delivered the magazines and things started to go south from there. Army Soldiers in combat started to report multiple malfunctions, mainly failure to feed issues. Of course they blamed the M9 in general as being unreliable, but the issue was very quickly traced to the phosphate coating on the inside of the magazines. In fact, both Beretta and Check-Mate had told the Army to expect this to happen. The rough textured coating on the inside of the magazine body was trapping sand and grit, which interfered with the smooth operation of the magazine follower causing malfunctions. This problem triggered a nationwide shortage of Beretta factory magazines for the 92-series pistols as friends and family members of Soldiers snapped up every available magazine to send to their loved ones fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army quickly realized its mistake and revised the contract spec to require a dry lube coating on the inside of the magazine. Once all of the phosphate coated Check-Mate magazines were pulled from service the reliability problems went away. It should be noted that the USMC, fighting in many of the same regions and often right alongside Army units, continued to use Beretta-manufactured magazines and continued to enjoy excellent reliability out of the M9
  11. It's not a 1911. This is the zinger of last resort that any Gunstore Commando will throw down when losing an argument about service pistols. It's usually delivered with a dismissive wave of the hand as they walk away from the argument, firm in the belief that their logic is unassailable. Sort of like a liberal shouting "you're raaaaacist!" when you bring up the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago. No Virginia, the M9 is not the M1911A1. It's actually better. Now remember, we can't compare the M9 to your Ed Brown Classic Series 1911. We have to compare service pistol to service pistol, and the M9 proved in three separate DoD tests that it handily beats the WWII-era M1911A1 in every evaluation category. A lot of 1911 partisans argue that if - just if - an updated 1911 design had been included in the trials it would have wiped the floor with all the pretenders to the throne. Maybe, Maybe not. We'll never know. You can't run an Indy race against a car that doesn't show up at the starting line
For more information on the procurement controversy go read the Government Accounting Office's 1986 report 'Allegations on Army Selection of Beretta 9-mm as DoD Standard Sidearm'

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Does the M9 have some flaws? Of course it does, but the 'flaws' are not shortcomings in the pistol's basic design but shortcomings that have cropped up as firearms and accessory technology has progressed over the past 30 years.

In my eyes the current M9 design has two major shortcomings. First is the lack of an adjustable/replacable front sight. The second is the lack of an accessory rail (also referred to as a 'Picatinny' rail). Remember, the standard M9 reflects a design that was locked in-place in 1985, before the advent of Tritium night sights and small, powerful weapons lights.

While the rear sight on the M9 is 'drift adjustable' (that's gunsmith speak for the need to smack the thing with a hammer and drift punch to adjust the point of aim), the front sight is actually an integral part of the slide and is neither replaceable or adjustable. That was OK in 1985 when we were just thankful to be moving away from the awful sights found on the M1911A1, but today that design simply isn't good enough. In my opinion every pistol issued to an American Soldier should have replaceable Tritium night sights. You simply can't provide that with the current design of the M9.

Next, the accessory rail. In 1985 nobody had even heard of a thing called a weapon light. If you needed to light up a target at night you usually used a hand held flashlight. Then in the 1990s companies like SureFire and Streamlight started developing small, lightweight high intensity lights that could be mounted below the barrel on the dust cover. This first resulted in a bunch of goofy clip-on rail systems but then swiftly led to manufacturers incorporating a standard accessory rail into their pistol designs. Today it's almost impossible to buy a newly manufactured pistol that does not have an accessory rail built in, but the M9 design is still stuck in 1985.

Enter the Marine Corps. While the US Army developed only a grudging respect for the M9, the USMC seems to have fallen in love with it. The average Marine spends far more time than the average Soldier on the range and is therefore more familiar with, and in tune with, his or her duty weapon. I'm told the USMC also pays much more attention to weapons maintenance than the Army does, and is more aggressive in replacing worn parts like recoil springs. As a result the USMC has gotten better service out of their M9s. But they too recognized the ageing design of the pistol. In 2010 the USMC contracted directly with Beretta for a redesigned M9 that incorporated an accessory rail, a re-configured trigger guard, three-dot sights, some polymer parts to save weight and improved 'sand resistant' magazines. Designated the M9A1, it is scheduled to replace all standard M9 pistols in the Marine Corps inventory. Surprisingly, the M9A1 still retains the integral front sight, so good luck trying to fit Tritium sights.

USMC M9A1

The M9A1 is a logical upgrade to the 1985-era M9 but no other branch of service has shown interest in it. The reason for this lack of interest is called the Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition.

Around 2008 the Army and Air Force decided that the M9 design had reached the end of its service life and it was time to look for a new service pistol. Since 1985 handgun technology has undergone a number of key improvements. The most visible change has been the emergence of the polymer framed, striker fired designs like the Glock. Pistols like the Glock 17 and the Smith & Wesson M&P line absolutely dominate the American law enforcement market, from local police agencies all the way up to the FBI and have even found strong acceptance in limited roles within the US military.

So the two services are keenly interested in adopting a standard service pistol that is striker fired, has a polymer frame, improved safeties and offers easier maintenance. After several fits and starts, in 2014 the DoD announced the kick-off of the selection program for what they call a Modular Handgun System (MHS). Beretta quickly figured out that any re-configuration of the M9 design would not meet 100% of the MHS minimum criteria. So Beretta tried an end-around move to bypass the MHS competition and offered the Army a radically re-designed model of the M9 called the M9A3.

Beretta M9A3

Beretta got smart with this redesign and takes the original 92-based platform as far as it can go. The M9A3 incorporates a true M1913 'Picatinny' accessory rail, Tritium front and rear sights, a supressor-ready barrel, minor changes to the decocker safety and a recontoured grip. The frame of the pistol is still aluminum alloy, but Beretta re-engineered it to accept different sized grips and backstraps. At first Beretta tried to sell the M9A3 to the Army under the existing M9 contract, claiming the changes were allowed under the 'minor engineering changes' clause. The Army said no, deciding that the changes were too radical to be considered 'minor'.

But Beretta's not giving up, and apparently has a plan that just might work. As the MHS tests move forward Beretta is putting the M9A3 into limited production for civilian sales. Even limited production proves that the company can ramp up to volume production if the orders pour in. Next, Beretta is willing to play a watch and wait game. Even though the MHS program will eventually pick a winner Beretta knows the US military is in the draw down mode and money may not be available to field the selected pistol. This puts Beretta in a good position to step forward and tell Congress that it has a ready replacement for the M9 that meets 85% of the MHS requirements and offers near 100% compatibility with existing DoD service pistol support systems (training materials, spare parts, holsters, maintenance tools, etc.). Who knows, Beretta may just pull it off!

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So 30 years on two things are clear. First, the M9 has received limited respect from those who carry it. To be honest I think the pistol was somewhat doomed from the beginning simply because it was replacing the venerable and beloved M1911A1. NO pistol other than an updated 1911 could have overcome that hurdle. The rumored failures I outlined above gained so much traction that they are impossible to control or squelch. When a Soldier going in to combat is handed a perfectly serviceable M9 all he/she has heard are the barracks rumors fueled by all the drivel out on the internet. What he/she doesn't hear is the truth.

The second thing that's clear to me is that the M9 was the best pistol selected in the 1985 trials and has proven to be an outstanding service pistol. It's real failures are few and dozens - perhaps hundreds - of service men and women are alive today thanks to the M9's ruggedness and reliability in some of the worst combat conditions imaginable. It's a pistol I'd unhesitatingly carry in to combat if I had to go today.

Stay sharp!

- Brian