The 9x19mm parabellum cartridge has been around since 1902 as we know it. Georg Luger developed it from his previously designed 7.65x21mm parabellum. It was almost immediately adopted by the German army and has been the NATO cartridge of choice for several decades now. Arguably the oldest mainstream military service round for semi-automatic pistols, the 9x19mm parabellum is the caliber of many high-quality semi-automatic pistols today. In this article we’re going to look at a few of the more popular handgun designs for this cartridge, the pros and cons of each, and solicit your feedback on which is your preferred or favorite pistol (in this caliber).
Let’s start out with the Browning High Power. Anyone who has read my reviews for more than a few weeks probably knows that I’m a fan of the 1911 Government Model .45ACP pistol. What I’ve never discussed before is that I’m also a fan of another of John Browning’s single-action designs: The High Power. The Browning High Power was the first design to successfully incorporated a double-stack magazine design. This was created by Browning to answer the French requirement for a magazine that held 15 rounds of 9mm ammunition. Although Browning fell short by two rounds (the mags hold 13 rounds), he generated a big step in magazine technology by creating the double stack or staggered column magazine. Contemporary magazines do hold 15 rounds of 9mm and are available commercially on the internet.
One of the things that I don’t particularly care for in this pistol design was also put in as one of the original requirements from the French: a magazine disconnect safety. The Browning High Power, without a magazine in place, won’t function through pulling the trigger. Not only do I think this is a bad idea in any combat handgun, but by including this design feature the trigger pull was destined to be much harder and rougher than it should have been – especially for a single-action pistol.
Another item of note is that the grip frame is significantly wider feeling than some other double-stack 9mms. Of course, I AM spoiled for my polymer frame pistols, but an 1/8″ could be cut from the width of the High Power with different grips.
A couple of things that I noticed that worried me, but proved of no concern:
- The feed ramp is NARROW. I didn’t think jacketed hollow point ammo would reliably feed. The pistol proved me wrong though. It fed Federal Hydra-Shok 124g JHP +P+ and Speer Gold Dot JHPs with no issues.
- The front strap and rounded back strap are both smooth (with the exception of the serial number stamped into the front strap). I thought that once my hands were wet or sweaty I might have some trouble getting a secure grip on the wide-feeling grip. The diamond checkering on the grip panels provided sufficient friction to keep moisture from causing slippage.
Unsure of what holsters might be available for the weapon I had checked in with a gentleman that I consider something of a holster guru. He advised me that most holster that would fit a Government Model 1911 would fit the High Power. I hadn’t known that. Sure enough, the leather pancake holster I have for my 1911 fits the High Power reasonably well. The pistol also fit well in my BlackHawk SERPA Tactical holster, BUT… the end of the retaining pin – an integral part of the slide stop – sticks out far enough to get stuck in the holster. I have examined this issue and am of the opinion that a significant portion of the end of that pin can be milled off. I will be checking with a respected gunsmith and advise further on that.
Let’s move on to the current U.S. Army pistol, the Beretta M9 also known by it’s civilian designation as the Beretta 92FS. Those who carry handguns are often just as loyal to a given manufacturer, model or pistol as are motorcycle, car and truck fans. Some folks like Glocks, or Sigs, or Rugers… Some folks wouldn’t be caught dead with a Beretta, and some just won’t carry anything else. My agency is a Beretta agency. The United States military is (by and large) a Beretta organization. Are you a Beretta fan?
The Beretta M9/92FS is a short recoil, semi-automatic pistol chambered for 9mm NATO ammunition. That’s a 9×19 case with a 124g full-metal-jacket bullet. My agency issues Federal HydraShok 124g +P+ ammo and it functions well. Internal, external and terminal ballistics have proven sufficient for our duty use. The barrel length of the Beretta M9 is just under five inches (125mm = 4.92″: designed in Italy = metric measurements). The M9 has an ammunition capacity of 15 rounds in each magazine. If you add a chambered round, you have a total of 16. Extended 21 round magazines are available but became harder to find when the now-defunct infamous Clinton gun laws went into effect.
With an aluminum-alloy frame, and a steel slide, an empty Beretta M9 weighs about 2.1 pounds. Add in the fifteen round loaded magazine and you get a total weight of about 2.6 pounds. The trigger pull in single-action is 5.5 pounds, with the double-action pull straining the scale at 12.3 pounds. Since reloads are inevitable, the magazine release can be put into the frame to suit either a right- or left-handed shooter. With most of today’s handguns still incorporating some form of the Browning lock-up system, the Beretta uses a cam-locking system that allows the slide to move back and forth without the barrel tilting during recoil, extraction, ejection and chambering. The Beretta handguns are the only guns I know of that utilize this type of lock-up system. Every other handgun I’m familiar with uses a tilting barrel system of some sort.
One of the design features that makes the Beretta M9 so reliable is it’s open-top slide. There was a time when virtually all of the Beretta pistols incorporated this design feature, and indeed it was an easily recognized feature that automatically identified a weapon as a Beretta. Now there are widely accepted Beretta pistols (the Cougar for instance) that do not have this open-top slide feature. That open-top slide effectively makes the whole top of the slide one big ejection port. Forget about making your ejection port a little bigger and flaring it to get a couple thousandths of an inch of metal out of the way. Maybe it’s just been my experience with the Beretta M9/92FS, but I’ve never seen a stovepipe occur.
Next up is the Sig Sauer P226 9mm, well known as the pistol of choice for the Navy’s Special Warfare section. In 1988 the Sig P226 was my dream gun. I was lucky enough to be working for a police department that needed to replace their blued .357 revolvers and they went about it the right way: getting an assortment of pistols to test and then selecting what they felt was the best. For them, the Sig P226 won. Since that time I’ve had numerous conversations with many service veterans – many from the Navy Special Warfare community – and the Sig P226 keeps popping up as the favorite.
So, what made the Sig P226 stand out so well? For one, at that time, it was quite a unique pistol in that it didn’t have a manual safety but instead had a decocking lever. In the mid-’80s when police agencies began to follow the lead of the Army in a move toward adopting 9mm high capacity pistols the selection varied from no manual safety (such as the Glock) to a manual safety like the Beretta M9. Many police agencies I’m familiar with don’t even use the manual safety as a manual safety but instead train with and use it as a decocking lever. The market demand for a non-safety decocking lever drove Beretta to create a variant of the M9 whereon the lever WAS only a decocking lever. That was what the Sig P226 offered from the get go… but it wasn’t all.
When I went to the armorer school for Sig in 1988 (they were still in Virginia back then) I learned to like the P226 design even more. Sure, there was a couple of roll pins to deal with, but the gun – by and large – was fairly simple and highly reliable. During our selection process all officers who shot the Sig found it more comfortable than the other pistol options and most had no trouble qualifying with it as well as, if not better than, they did with their revolvers.
Of course, just like everything, the Sig P226 has evolved across the years. Back then, when I attended the armorer school, Sig was changing the frame rails to give greater strength to the mating of the slide and frame. Now, like every other full size “service” pistol on the market the Sig P226 has a picatinny rail mounting system on the dust cover. For some reason the whole industry seems to think that a pistol can’t be a service weapon unless you can mount a light on it. Long time readers know how I feel about lights mounted on pistols.
Delivered with two 15-round magazines in a hard plastic case, the P226 Combat shows – in my opinion – that Sig is paying enough attention to make necessary changes but isn’t being so aggressive toward market trends that they’re willing to toss out their corporate / firearms identity in an attempt to grab an extra few dollars.
That brings me to what is currently the most commonly carried handgun in American law enforcement today, albeit more often in the .40S&W than in the 9mm today, the Glock Model 17, or any of its down-sized variants, the Model 19 or the Model 26. I can’t say that when the Glock Model 17 hit the market way back in the mid-eighties that I was immediately a fan. In fact, I remember saying things about it being so ugly and it being shaped like a block. I remember the jokes about it and how much it was criticized for not having any external manual safeties. I also remember hearing about how simple it was to shoot. “Just like a revolver” was a term often used. Just load it, aim it and pull the trigger. It doesn’t get much simpler, right?
While shooting the pistols showed me that they were easy to handle and easy to shoot, the armorer training gave me the necessary insight into the design to appreciate the simplicity of it. In all fairness, comparing Glocks to revolvers is like comparing apples and oranges… no, scratch that. It’s like comparing apples and radios. Not only are the Glocks different because they are semi-automatics but also because the design is just as simple as it can get. That simplicity, in my mind, translates into greater reliability. The less there is to break or go wrong the more reliable the weapon is.
Since the introduction of the original Glock Model 17 9mm, Glock has made several design improvements. As they celebrated the 25th anniversary of that weapon in 2010 they also introduced the fourth generation of it. Of course, there is a price to pay for the design changes though: the complete inter-changability of parts that existed in the first generation is now gone. Now you have to pay attention to what generation of weapon you’re dealing with and make sure you have the appropriate parts. To me that’s a small price to pay for having a reliable weapon that rarely needs cleaning and doesn’t fail unless you really work at it.
Accuracy is as it has always been. From the 15 yard line, free hand, I was able to consecutively shoot 2″ 5-shot groups. Many of the groups I fired were actually 1.5″ or less. It was one of those times I wished I owned a Ransom Rest so I could machine fire it and measure the groups. I’m certain the gun is capable of greater accuracy than I am. Many folks like the 17+1 capacity and hopefully no new laws will limit magazines to 10 rounds again like the Clinton AWB did.
Now let’s take a look at one of my favorite handguns; a gun I used to own in the late ’80s and regret ever having sold because now they’re pretty expensive: The Heckler & Koch P7 pistols. Double action; single action; DA/SA; “safe” action… You’ve heard them all. Heckler & Koch (HK) makes a very unique sidearm that is none of the above: it’s a squeeze-cocked weapon wherein a lever on the front of the grip performs actions normally controlled by a weapon’s trigger squeeze. The P7M8 is a 9mm (9×19) caliber pistol that uses single-stack magazines. The P7M8 designation indicates that it is the eight-round capacity version of the P7 pistol. HK also makes a P7M13 which holds, can you guess? Thirteen rounds of 9mm ammo.
The P7 is essentially a recoil-operated firearm with several unique features. The most obvious is the lever located on the front of the grip that pivots at the bottom. This lever performs a multitude of functions that most pistol aficionados expect other controls for. Double action trigger? Not to be found here. Squeezing the lever cocks the weapon. Single action trigger? Once the weapon is squeeze-cocked, that’s what you have, but if you haven’t loaded the action by squeezing the lever in, the trigger is a dead piece of pivoting metal that accomplishes nothing. Decocking lever? Not to be found. If the weapon is cocked it’s because you’ve squeezed in the lever to load the action. To decock the weapon, simply loosen your grip to release the lever.
The pistol does have a slide catch lever, but it is located in a recess of the frame on the left side of the pistol and is difficult to manually operate. The slide will lock back on an empty magazine. Upon reloading, you simply squeeze the lever and it will release the slide, loading the chamber and putting the pistol in a cocked state. Release the lever to decock the weapon. The magazine release is ambidextrous and is not a button to push in: instead, it’s a lever than gets pushed down from either side, releasing the magazine.
Shooting the P7 is a dream. Due to the gas cylinder that is incorporated into the design, the straight recoil and the 9mm caliber, the felt recoil is very light. This lessens the time required to get back on target and the fixed barrel increases the inherent accuracy of the weapon. Two examples are shown of test groups fired free-hand from seven yards – just over twenty feet. The groups we fired averaged two inches with the smallest coming in just under an inch and a half (1.5″).
All in all the P7M8 is a nice gun. Easy to manipulate and easy on the shooter, the only down side I could find to the firearm is its suggested retail price of more than fourteen hundred ($1400) dollars. I’ve seen them listed for as low as $1100, but this is still almost double the $600 I paid for my first one in 1987. I’m sure some of this has to do with legislation on firearms imports, but none of us can immediately do much about those events. If you have the dollars to invest, this is a fine pistol and you’ll enjoy time spent shooting it.
That brings me to one of the newer designs I’d like to look at: The Smith & Wesson Military & Police (M&P) pistol. First some background; the M&P (Military and Police) is a short recoiled, locked breech semi-automatic pistol manufactured with a Zytel reinforced polymer frame and the slide is Melonite coated stainless steel. This first M&Ps were introduced by S&W in the summer of 2005.
You can have this pistol with or without a thumb safety (required for military trials), in full-size, mid-size or compact, with either the 4.5 or 4 inch barrel and in states that require a magazine disconnect safety (more on this later), with or without that option also. Oh, and you can have any of these in black or Dark Earth Brown frame.
The pistol has a striker-fired mechanism similar to that of a Glock or Springfield XD. It is closer to the XD than the Glock as the Glock has a tensioned striker. Anyone familiar with either of these pistols will have no problem disassembling their M&P. One change of note; there is a sear deactivation lever that “allows” the user to separate the upper assembly from the lower (field strip) without having to pull the trigger. For someone used to stripping a Glock, this is a mild annoyance. You will need some device (a pen will do) to pull the lever up to disengage the sear, allowing the slide to ride forward. There is also a loaded chamber indicator in the form of a viewing port on top of the slide.
The M&P series also come with ambidextrous slide release and a magazine release that can be installed left or right. I tried it on the right side… too different from my other pistols. Those of you who only carry one firearm and have small hands might like it. Maybe not. The sights that come installed are standard three dot and are dovetailed into the slide, front and rear. There is an integrated Picatinny rail in case you want to hang some bling off the front of your pistol. The M&Ps ship with two magazines.
The one pistol I’m leaving out but will hopefully do a full review on in the near future is the Springfield Armory XD. I carried one of these pistols chambered in .40S&W for a short while with a previous agency. My overall impression was that it’s a very good design and a reliable pistol. When I have more experience and test time, I’ll report more completely on it.
So, what’s your favorite?
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