When the Beretta M9 was adopted by the US Military back in 1985, real gun guys like Jeff Cooper, weren’t happy. The Italian designed double action pistol had an awful trigger compared to the beloved 1911 (Cooper actually suggested discharging a round into the ground during the draw stroke in some of his writings), and, adding insult to injury, was chambered in the puny 9mm NATO cartridge. You can still experience the fall out from this debate today- log onto any internet forum or stand by (or behind) any gun counter, and someone will invariably bring it up (it was the Glock vs. 1911 debate of its day).
I find the military pistol discussion exceptionally interesting because in the military, unlike police forces, pistols are normally issued to officers, staff non-commissioned officers, armor crewman and some machine gunners (USMC) as a last ditch weapon- and this was especially at the time it was adopted (sorry, there weren’t any MagPul videos with super cool transitions back then kids). Were there units that depended on them, absolutely, but they were few and far between. At the theater level, I would argue that pistols have a negligible effect on the outcome of battles. Look at the serious flaws in Japanese pistols during the Second World War, carrying one with a round in the chamber would have been considered a brave act by anyone who knew better.
As I’ve mentioned in my Colt M45A1 Review, I’ve been burning piles of money chasing the fully functional, 100% reliable 1911 white whale for two decades. So, like the angry old men who were ranting about the 9mm in the back of your favorite gun rag from the mid-80s, I had some 1911 and M9 overlap.
As a Marine, I was formally introduced to the M9 pistol back in late 1994/early 1995 by an Army instructor. We were attending a school on an Army base and shot the Army qualification course. Since we had all been through basic and combat training, my platoon smoked the course. It wasn’t a fair inter-service comparison because at the time, the Army combined its schools and boot camps into one combined school and at this point the guys I had been with had all been in the service a minimum of sixth months- a lot of which had focused on marksmanship training.
We sat in a large classroom with a beat up pool weapon in front of us. After a half day of lecturing, we hit the range. The facility was advanced, even by today’s standards- computerized with a bunch of pop up plastic targets. They looked like a mean communist sent to destroy the agents of the wrath, we referred to them as Crazy Ivans (you can see one here). A hit anywhere on Ivan would register as a hit in the system. We had a blast the few days we shot there, but the M9s stayed behind with the Army.
A few months later, I was issued my first M9 when I checked into my unit at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in 29 Palms, CA. It was 1995 and this was my 3rd handgun (in my mind at least, on loan from Uncle Sam). From a personal handgun chronology perspective, this was shortly after my Colt 1911 Series-80 Enhanced Officers Lightweight fell apart and after I picked up a used Glock 19 to replace it.
If you’ve never held a weapon in use by a Fleet Marine Force (FMF or “The Fleet”) unit, you haven’t lived. I would guess the most cherry weapon in our armory would grade at 50%- beat up with extremely worn finishes, especially on the aluminum parts. M16 receivers, M9 frames and slides had as much silver showing as they did black. The magazines were funny looking as well (in simple terms, if you park your car on your lawn and think that it is OK, the guns looked great).
This was shortly after the now defunct 1994 Brady Bill Assault Weapons Ban, “pre-1994” magazines were grandfathered in and valuable. They were so expensive that the nice ones would grow legs and end up in a pawn shop near the base if you didn’t keep them locked up. The only magazines that weren’t “liberated” by Marines, and therefore in use, were those that were really rough. How rough you ask? Well, the M9 makes a great hammer if you hold it by the muzzle and you can hammer in tent stakes with the magazine (we didn’t bring many hammers into the field), so most of them had the bottoms caved in from field expedient hammer use. To be fair, I never used my M9 to hammer in tent stakes, only to battle the occasional scorpion.
Seasoned M9 in hand, I headed to the range for qualification. We were scheduled to qualify at least once a year with the rifle and pistol. In practice, we would shoot a lot more, spending countless months in the desert, but the formal flat range training took place once a year.
The M9 has a fairly large grip which makes taking the pistol off safe and firing the first double action shot a little bit of a chore. Compared to a 1911 or a striker fired polymer gun, the long double action pull is noticeable. Once the hammer is cocked, the single action trigger allows rapid follow up shots. The G series Berettas removed the safe feature and replaced it with a de-cocker only, I have always considered this a solid upgrade.
I was issued two holsters, the Bianchi M12 military holster, and the USGI leather tanker shoulder rig. You could carry your M9 in the leather shoulder rig (which is out of the way), on the strong side of the belt with the M12, or you could attach the M12 to your body armor similar to shoulder holster (depending on who your platoon sergeant was). You could also attach a K-Bar and magazine pouch to the cross band on the shoulder holster. Once, I made the mistake of carrying it with in my M12 holster on my body armor when “everyone else” was carrying it in the leather shoulder rig and was reprimanded for being an “individual”- shortly after this incident the platoon leader showed up with the same arrangement and it was no longer forbidden. At the range you carried it strong side. The issue magazine pouches were the old nylon USGI type- nothing high speed. In the field, all pistols had a braided nylon lanyard attached to prevent loss if it fell out of the holster.
Pistol training was great, especially for a boot (Jarhead lingo for a new guy). You’d show up in the morning, shoot, clean up the range and head to lunch. The afternoon was spent hiding out from your unit and avoiding work until liberty call. This would last for an entire week (this was the closet thing you’d have to a summer vacation in the Corps).
The unique thing about pistols from the Marine perspective, is that they are point of aim, point of impact weapons. When you shot the Known Distance (KD) qualification course with a rifle, especially at the 300 and 500 yard lines, wind calls are the name of the game. With a pistol, getting a sight picture and squeezing a trigger is simply the entire experience. This is a refreshing change.
I still remember the Chief Warrant Officer who ran the range and was responsible for training the Marines at MCAGCC, Randy Warfield. I’m unsure if the reason I remember him was because of his marksmanship instruction, or, because my friend worked for and complained about him on a regular basis. He’s said it is all sights and triggers, and he was right. The pistol training was an extensive amount of class time, dry practice and live firing. You can find the basic 200 round training course for the M9 online. It culminates with the qualification course that I believe was called table five.
The instructors taught three different stances, Weaver, Isosceles and what was unofficially called Isoscel-Weaver. The individual Marine could select his own shooting style. I shot Isoscel-Weavar, which is basically the modified Isosceles stance familiar to combat shooters today.
The qualification course was a hybrid bull’s-eye combat course, shot on a bull’s-eye pasted over a silhouette target. The turning target system held a “E” silhouette with a NRA B-8 50 yard slow fire target pasted to it (the NRA B-6 25 yard rapid fire pistol target has the same dimensions, but only has a 6″ black bull instead of 8″). It was a 40 round course of fire, shot for score. Unlike your KD rifle score, the pistol course did not count in calculating your cutting score for promotion.
The first stage of fire was shot at 25 yards. It was slow fire, single action. 10 shots in 10 minutes. Basically a bull’s-eye course focusing on the fundamentals of marksmanship. The rest of the course of fire started with the pistol on safe and the first round fired double action. Starting position was the traditional, and now obsolete low ready, with the shooters arms extended down at 45 degrees in front of him.
Second stage moved to the seven yard line. The first drill was one shot was fired double action in 3 seconds. This was done five times for a total of five rounds. The second drill was two shots (double action, then single action) in five seconds, this was shot four times for eight rounds total.
The final stage of fire was at 15 yards. From the low ready, the shooter would fire three rounds, reload, and fire another three rounds in 20 seconds. This was completed twice for a total of 12 rounds.
A score of 345 and up was considered expert, 330-344 sharpshooter and 290 was marksman (minimum required to pass). I usually shot a high expert, I believe in the 380s, but I can not recall the actual score. Looking back as an experienced competition shooter, the times seem more generous than they did back then.
Security forces and military police were provided additional training. Individual units would also provide additional training opportunities. For instance, at one point we were scheduled to deploy with 15 MEU(SOC) and we received a comprehensive package of tactical pistol shooting. It was similar to what you’d consider best practice for a fighting handgun today.
During the entire time I was in the service, I don’t recall seeing an M9 malfunction. I did see one bend in a 6″ radius when a tank mechanic had his pistol get sucked into and over the winch on an M88 tank retriever (sorry, no pics, pre-digital camera days- but it looked awesome). Nothing else noteworthy, they just shot.
Until 1998, the biggest concern the Marines I knew had with the M9 was someone pushing the muzzle back and taking the gun out of battery so it wouldn’t fire. It happened in a movie so the older guys would tell lots of stories to the boots. Occasionally some burnt out Lance Corporal would chamber a round, press the pistol against his hand and pull the trigger to demonstrate the flaw. Incredibly stupid- but Marines aren’t known for being the most reflective bunch. The floor of one of our company’s barracks rooms had an odd colored tile where a Marine had done this, but the M9 fired, landing him in the hospital. When he recovered he received nonjudicial punishment. This all changed in 1998 when Lethal Weapon 4 came out and Jet Li showed the world you could easily disassemble an M9 in a gun fight (see video below), that became the biggest concern amongst the guys(that’s how the desert works, when you have nothing to do, this is the stuff you think about).
The civilian Beretta 92FS on the market at the time looked nearly identical to the M9s we were issued. The problem was our guns had a two dot sight system (only one white dot in the rear) and different markings. In the late 90s, Beretta started releasing civilian M9s with the correct sights and markings, I immediately bought one.
My personally owned Beretta was a thing of beauty. Unlike my work gun, it was pretty and refined. Magazines were everywhere and reasonably priced. Recoil was minimal. While the double action trigger was heavy, it was something I had become accustomed too. The only time the M9 didn’t seem great was when you held it next to a Glock 19, it just looked big for what it was.
That’s the thing about the M9. They shoot great, feel great when you rack them, they are reliable and have a wonderful single action trigger. They are just really big for what they are.
When I left the service, I had three working pistols, an M9, Glock 19 and Sig P220 and one broken Colt 1911- the M9 was my go to gun. I’d train with it, shoot USPSA and IDPA (new at the time, started in 1996) with it. It was great. I started shooting with a friend (and original contributor to Rifleshooter.com the first time around in 1998) who was an instructor for a well known and respected federal agency. He was and is, a shooter amongst shooters.
The first time we headed to the range I brought my M9. I loved it and was familiar with it. After we shot our carbines (This was the late 90s before Y2K and I was running a clone M4 with a welded vortex flash hider and Knights rail- he had a Colt SP1 20″ with one of those gooseneck C-Moore sights), we shot the local Police Department’s qualification course. I cleaned it with my M9, but as we progressed onto different drills with shorter par times, the long trigger and awkward safety started becoming a liability. He asked what other guns I owned, and suggested I bring the Glock 19 next time. I did, and the rest is history.
I still own that same M9, and unlike all of the other guns I owned before 2000 besides my original G19, I didn’t- and can’t, sell it. I have a strong sentimental attachment to it. (In 2006, the Marines have ordered an upgraded version of the M9, the M9A1. The M9A1 is upgraded to include a rail system to attach a light and a checkered front and back strap. However, it is still double action with a hard to reach safety.)
I use my M9 for dry practice a few times a year. The feel of it transports me back in time. I’ll shoot it occasionally and even take it to match every year or two. What it lacks a compact design and easy to reach safety, it makes up for with a smooth lines and reliable functioning. While I don’t prefer the double action pistol operating systems, I think they have their place in certain applications.
For the cranky old guys, the biggest downside to the M9 is the cartridge. You need to think beyond 9mm and 45 ACP. Pistol cartridges in general suck. Does a 45 suck less, probably, but it isn’t a rifle. I don’t think there is a Warrior alive who would take a pistol over a rifle in a fight. I always liked the M9, and look forward to passing mine onto my son.
Editors note: Check out Military Sidearms: Overhyped and Overrated, by former Reconnaissance Marine Kyle Eggman on Lucky Gunner.