Firearms: After bit of initial misfire, Luger 9 mm became huge hit

It is known as the 9×19 mm NATO, 9 mm Parabellum (German for “For War”) and most appropriately as the 9 mm Luger.

This moniker relates to the inventor of the cartridge: Georg Luger, also the inventor of the Luger pistol of World War I and World War II, made famous in the hands of the German army and a hugely popular war souvenir of both wars.

Luger brought out his pistol originally as a .30 caliber in 1900. It was found to be lacking in the power department so ol’ Georg took a pragmatic approach in 1901 and efficiently took the parent bottle-necked case, enlarged the mouth as much as possible and it just happened to come out to be .355 inches or 9 mm. This change seemed to satisfy everyone involved in 1902 and it became the most popular auto pistol cartridge of all time.

We Americans have had a problem with the “nine” since Lugers and Walther P-38s started landing on our shores as war souvenirs; after all, it’s not a .45. Nevertheless, it is considered virtually a magnum in Europe and most other parts of the world as they generally used .32 ACP or .380 ACP pistols or .38 revolvers for their police departments and even militaries.

As a huge fan of the 9 mm and its versatility, I’ve become one of its many defenders. I’d rather you say my dog is ugly than tell me that the 9 mm is an under-powered weakling; them’s fightin’ words!

This round’s sheer volume (pun intended) of controversy demands that I break its use into two articles. This week I will focus on the history of its development and military use of the 9 mm. Next time will be the story of the extreme efficiency and versatility that led to its takeover of America in the 1980s.

As I stated before, the 9 mm was developed first and foremost as a military cartridge.

The vast majority of soldiers are issued an assault rifle (only rifles capable of fully automatic fire are truly assault rifles) as their main weapon; the handgun is rarely used and many times not even carried.

Because of the rarity of its utilization on the battlefield, there is very little training time allotted to its proper use. This results in poor deployment of the 9 mm by untrained troops, which then results in the perception that it is ineffective. The service handgun of most of our armed services is the Beretta M9, which is the same handgun as the civilian 92F and 92FS save for a small change in the rear sight.

As seems to be the case with any generation of shooters, when the 9 mm started replacing the aging .45 ACP 1911 and 1911A1 pistols in 1985, it was seen by many as the dumbest small arms phase-in of all time by the U.S. military. There were many advantages to the change that die-hard .45 lovers will not acknowledge.

The first is that the newest 1911s in general service were made in WWII. They were getting old and worn out,. If a new pistol wasn’t adopted, hundreds of thousands of new 1911s would have had to be procured instead.

The 1911 pistol is a single-action design. That means that the hammer must be cocked in order for the pistol to fire. The only safe way to carry a 1911-style pistol is with the hammer cocked and the safety on, known as cocked-and-locked. I don’t know of a single soldier or sailor who was taught this by any military trainer, assuming they received any handgun training at all.

The other two methods are not safe; if the hammer is lowered onto a chambered round, there is a chance a blow to the hammer or dropping the pistol could make it discharge. Now you have a half-inch hole somewhere you didn’t want one. The other method is to carry the pistol with the chamber empty and rack the slide to chamber a round upon drawing the handgun. This is a terrible idea. What if your other hand is fighting someone off, wounded or incapacitated in some other way?

The handgun will most likely be used urgently and up close; it should be able to be drawn quickly and put fully into action with one hand. The M9 Beretta is double-action; you can pull the trigger whether the hammer is cocked or not and fire it.

Having been around untold thousands of pistol owners, buyers and shooters, I’ve met very few who are comfortable carrying the 1911 pistol appropriately and safely. If the military is not going to instruct in the correct way to operate the single-action pistol, our troops are much safer with a double-action pistol, like the excellent M9.

It’s common knowledge that the .45 is a much better fight stopper than the 9 mm, especially with FMJ (full metal jacket) nonexpanding bullets, right? Wrong!

I don’t put much credence in war stories as there is no scientific way of quantifying or proving the exact details of a situation without a forensic study of the scene and situation.

All the stories of the 9 mm’s ineffectiveness can be countered by stories of other calibers’ failures. There is no death ray that always works. The 9 mm actually has some advantages over the vaunted .45 ACP.

It actually has more power, the NATO loading of the 9×19 mm round is a bit “hotter” than the factory loads you can buy at Wal-Mart and the foot-pounds of energy of the 124 grain 9 mm service load is slightly higher than that of the 230 grain .45 service ball.

The 9 mm also has quite a bit more penetration than the .45 and in a military scenario that is almost always an advantage. The 9 mm round can, under the right conditions, penetrate a Kevlar helmet and the .45 cannot. The fast-stepping 9 mm also stands a better chance of penetrating a “flak vest” than the slow-moving .45 pumpkin ball does.

Additionally if you look at the wound cavity of both military loadings in ballistic gelatin they are very similar in diameter but the 9 mm’s will be deeper. This is because the .45’s low velocity only allows a permanent wound cavity. What this means is that the low-velocity FMJ bullet basically only destroys tissue it comes in contact with.

On the other hand the higher velocity of the 9 mm is just enough to produce a temporary stretch cavity as well as a permanent wound cavity, the tissue around the 9 mm bullet actually stretches to the point that it, too, is damaged which makes up for its smaller diameter.

The 9 mm M9 also contains 16 cartridges, twice as many as a fully loaded 1911. Each of those cartridges also weighs half as much, which means the soldier can carry twice as many of them. I don’t know of any combat veteran who would complain about being able to carry twice as much ammo into harm’s way.

The 9 mm is also the NATO standard and although that wouldn’t personally drive me to adopt a certain cartridge or weapon system, it is nice to be able to share.

Today’s military is made up of many ethnic groups, both sexes and many shapes and sizes.  Not all of them are built like an action hero, so the mild recoil impulse of the 9 mm is a blessing as well. It’s hard for a regular shooter to believe, but in the days of old many soldiers, who were grown men, complained of the .45’s recoil.

The Beretta M9 will also shoot circles around a worn service-grade 1911. Beretta’s 92 series of pistols are renowned for their excellent fit and finish and that attention to quality pays dividends in the accuracy department.

Anyone who has accuracy complaints about the M9 has either got their hands on the extremely rare “bad egg” or they just haven’t been sufficiently taught how to shoot a handgun.

There was also a big to-do about the original M9 pistols made in Italy having the slides crack in half. These pistols were the same as the 92F civilian/police version.

The real “problem” was operator error. All of the handful of pistols that had this occur  were in service with Special Forces units. At the time the darling of most of these units, especially the Navy SEALs, was the Heckler & Koch (pronounced “Coke”) MP-5 – a very cool sub-machine gun in 9 mm Luger chambering.

These are very robust arms and have an extra margin of strength built into them that is difficult to match in a handgun design. 9 mm ammunition is available in a much “hotter” version/loading intended for sub-machine guns only.

Since this ammo has more power, it seemed like a good idea to use the stuff in the service pistol as well. Makes sense, right? Well it did for tens of thousands of rounds until the pistol could take no more abuse and the slides finally cracked in half through their weakest point. Then the rear of the slide came off of the frame striking the shooter.

Beretta eliminated this possibility on future M9s and 92F pistols by enlarging the head of the hammer pin and cutting a corresponding groove in the underside of the slide so if anyone were to abuse the pistol in the future and cause the slide to crack the back half is retained on the pistol.

The new pistol was designated the 92FS for the civilian/police version, the added “S” stands for “safety” (modification). It speaks well of a company to remedy a situation that is not actually their fault.

As alluded to at the beginning of this piece, next time we will deal with civilian and police use of the 9 mm Luger. Obviously when we open up the types of ammo to exotics and hollow points the .45 ACP will win hands down…right? Don’t bet on it!