On August 8th, 2021, the final M9 to be delivered to the American military rolled off the assembly line. Beretta posted about it to their social media pages, and when I came across the posts, I couldn’t help but feel a little tinge of nostalgic sadness. I’m not saying the Beretta was better than the SIG, but I loved the M9.
The Beretta M9 replaced the famed 1911A1 pistol, and it was a tough show to follow. The 1911 had seen use in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and every other conflict, both big and small involving American troops since the year 1911. People loved the gun in the service and in the civilian world. Lots of people, conversely, hated the M9.
Many believed that the 9mm didn’t have the ‘stopping power’ a 1911 and its 45 ACP round had. Although ‘stopping power’ has long been disproven as a concept entirely. The M9 also suffered a significant setback in public perception when the slide on a pistol blew rearward into the face of a Navy SEAL while training. Beretta quickly fixed the issue, but the SEALs went with the SIG P226. The P226 came in second place during the 1984 trials that resulted in the M9 selection.
Sadly the poor M9 got a bad rap from the get-go and had trouble ever overcoming those early issues. Much like the M16, the M9 went on to serve with distinction as America’s first 9mm, double-stack general issue handgun.
Why the M9?
In 1984 the United States military was looking to modernize and join NATO in adopting a standard 9mm sidearm. The 1911A1 had been in service for over 70 years at that point and was painfully outdated as a military pistol. The 45 ACP round combined with the weapon’s single stack magazine ensured your capacity remained low–at 7 or 8 rounds (with one in the chamber) total. The pistol was single action only, and the remaining examples were beaten to hell after their decades of heavy use.
A competition was launched for a modern 9mm pistol to equip the United States Military. It started in 1979 with a series of trials in which the Beretta 92S-1 succeeded. In 1984 a new set of trials were hosted, and again Beretta rose to the top. In 1985, the gun saw its official adoption. However, once more in 1988, another pistol trial began. Once more, the Beretta came out on top.
The Beretta 92 model beat out entries from SIG Sauer, Smith and Wesson, HK, Walther, Steyr, and FN and became the M9 after some minor changes. Testing included saltwater corrosion tests, high and low-temperature tests, repeated drops on concrete, and burial in mud, sand, and snow. The M9 passed all tests swimmingly.
Over time there were minor issues with magazines in sandy environments, but this was quickly fixed, and the M9 would go on to be relatively controversy-free during the Global War on Terror.
Breaking Down the M9
The M9 offered the United States Military a modern fighting pistol that featured a 15 round, double-stack magazine. We also got a double-action / single-action design. This means the first shot fired utilizes a long, heavy trigger pull, but subsequent shots would be a lighter and short single-action trigger. A combination of safety and decocker adorned the frame and they were easy to use with a bit of practice.
One of the most important elements of the Beretta pistol is its open slide design with an exposed barrel. This offers numerous advantages. First, there is very little slide for a round to find itself caught. The ejection port is essentially the whole of the slide, and this ensures failures to eject are extremely rare.
An open slide means reduced weight, which is also good. A lightweight slide means less mass moving rearward with each shot fired, and this helped reduce recoil.
The barrel also cools faster, but this isn’t a big deal with a handgun. The M9 went on to receive a minor update in 2006 and became the M9A1. The M9A1 came with an accessory rail, a PVD-coated magazine, more aggressive grip checkering, and a beveled magazine well for faster reloading. M9A1s did not fully replace the M9 and were somewhat rare to come across in the service.
My experience with the M9
As a machine gunner, I was supposed to be issued an M9 as a secondary weapon to my machine gun. However, the Marine Corps rarely follows those rules closely (with a limited number of pistols, they tend to find their way into the hands of officers and senior enlisted troops). For a long time, I carried both an M16A4 and an M240 machine gun. I, and other machine gunners, never stopped fighting to obtain pistols.
Somehow we complained enough to the right people and were granted our request…as long as we could pass the pistol qualification. They sent us to pistol qual with absolutely zero training with the M9 or handguns in general. Maybe they planned for us to fail. Who knows. All but one of us passed the qualification, however, and they kept their word. We got our M9s, and I treasured mine.
I worked hard for it, and while it may seem like a small victory, it felt like a massive battle for a Lance Corporal to win. I loved the M9–maybe even outside of my victory to obtain it.
The M9 went with me to nearly a dozen different countries from Djibouti to Spain, and it never failed. The M9 served me extremely well, and it served generations of men and women well for the entirety of the Global War On Terror.
One of the defining pictures of the Global War on Terror is that of Sergeant Major Bradley Kasal keeping a grip on his M9 as two Marines carry him after a brutal and intense fight. The M9 is the pistol of my service and my war, so I can’t help but feel nostalgic for it.
So Why Replace It?
Well, technology moves forward. It’s been a long time since 1984, and pistols have advanced. Polymer frames, striker-fired designs, rails, modular pistol frames, and optics cuts are now the standard. The M9 doesn’t even have an interchangeable front sight. There are complaints regarding the beastly sized grip and unergonomic design for servicemembers with small hands.
Pistols are rarely used for general warfighting, but specialized roles like MPs, Investigators, Personal Security Details, and Special Operation forces can make use of a more modern handgun.
Plus, it might be a fair bit cheaper to purchase modern pistols with modern polymer frames versus an all-metal design. Even if the SIG is the same or near the same price as the Beretta M9, the advancements and features it offers make it a more attractive purchase.
Even though I acknowledge the M9 is a bit outdated, I can’t help but feel some internal resistance to the new pistol. As I sit here, like an old man, I can see why people clung to the M1911A1 pistol. Sure, it might be a little outdated, but I have nothing but fond memories of the M9 and found it to be an amazing pistol.
What was your M9 experience? Let me know below. I’m curious if you have your own stories, and I’d like to hear them.