Is 9mm the New Black

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Introduced in 1901 by an Austrian guy who lent his name to a popular pistol he designed, the 9x19mm Parabellum round has seen its ups and downs. Long a military round on a global scale, it was marginalized in the US for generations until it gained some ground in the 1980s. Then came the .40S&W and the 9mm's name has been mud ever since. That is, until today

9mm 101

At the turn of the century, a character with a great mustache by the name of Georg "Don't Call me George" Luger was working on a toggle-lock pistol. His innovative new gun was chambered in about the only practical semi-auto round of the day, the 7.65x25mm Borchardt (you remember that round, don't you?). Well the toggle didn't quite work with such a long round, so Luger put a larger 9mm bullet on a shorter 19mm case and invented what is known as the 9x19mm Luger today.

(Georg Luger's pistol and his 9mm ammo would long outlive him, even today being commonly just called by his name.)

The official name of the round was the 'Parabellum' which comes from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum ("If you seek peace, prepare for war"). This was fitting because Luger was pitching his new pistol/round to a number of countries as a gun to equip their militaries. It was soon adopted by Imperial Germany (hence the Luger P08 pistol), Holland, Portugal, Switzerland (duh) and others.

Loved in Europe

Even when the Luger pistol faded after the First World War, its round continued onward. Most of the combat pistols used in Western Europe for the next century were chambered in 9x19mm. This included the Browning Hi-Power, Polish Radom wz. 35 Vis, Czech CZ-75, Walther P-38, the Italian Beretta M51, and later 92 series, the Finn/Swedish Lahti, early HK guns, almost every submachine gun, and just about every SIG P-series pistol ever made. In fact, with the exception of very small blowback pistols, the 9mm was seen as just about *the* combat handgun round. Many countries even forbade the ownership and use of such a powerful round, declaring it the domain of the military and police only. But the US seemed a tough nut to crack.

The cult of the .45/.38

In the states, we looked at Georg Luger's gun and round back in the 1900s when they were new to the world. The US Army even ordered 1000 of the later infamous weapons for testing. The thing is, the Army decided that the 9mm was just too underpowered and decreed the entry-level caliber for effectiveness was the .45ACP. This round, which works out to 11.43-23mm in metric lengths, was just too long for the Luger pistol and the Colt model of 1911 won the contract. Well, the 1911 lasted in US service for the next 75 years (never leaving with the Marines who continued to rebuild old WWII guns until they finally were allowed to buy new 1911s last year).

In law enforcement the .38S&W, followed by the .38SPL and finally the .357MAG reigned from the 1900s to the late 1970s. This is because wheelguns were the standard LE loadout during that time. With the .45 being the military round, and rimmed .38s being the LE round, there was little love to go round for that Euro imported 9milly. The only guns in the US before the 1950s even chambered for it came from Europe, often in the duffle bags of returning GIs from the World Wars. Then that changed with the


(This S&W 5946 is the classic Wondernine of the 1980s and early 1990s.)

In the 1950s Smith and Wesson introduced the Model 39, a sweet-shooting 8-shot pistol chambered in (gasp) 9mm Luger. Proving popular on the civilian market, the company redesigned this gun to be a double rather than single stack gun in 1971. This new 14-shot 9mm was called the Model 59 and started to pick up law enforcement sales. It seemed a 14+1 pistol with a fast reload could beat the tried and true six-shooter every time in speed tests. By the 1980s Ruger jumped into the fray with the 15-shot P-85 to try to catch up to S&W. Then came a new import from Austria named Glock with its 17-shot magazine.
Throughout the Miami Vice decade, these so-called 'Wondernines' replaced wheelguns in just about every department. Give an officer a choice between carrying a Glock with 3 mags and 52 rounds or a Colt Trooper with six in the chamber and 12 in speedloaders, and pick the logical outcome. Heck the 9mm even dethroned the beloved Colt 1911, replacing it in military service in 1986 with the 15-shot Beretta M92.

(A military Beretta 92F/M9 at play. When adopted, the US was the last military in NATO to go to the then-standard 9mm round)

Then came Miami.

The FBI Shootout

On April 11, 1986, eight FBI agents squared off against two bank robbers. The agents were armed with shotguns and a mix of revolvers and wondernines. The badguys had a Mini-14, shotgun, and a revolver of their own. After the smoke cleared both bad guys were dead. Unfortunately, so were two of the agents while several of the others were seriously wounded. The after-action FBI investigation on this epic fight placed partial blame for the agents' deaths on the lack of stopping power exhibited by their service handguns in .38/357 and 9mm. This led to the development of the 10mm Auto which proved too much of a handful and was 'right sized' by making the .40S&W in 1990.

40 snobbery

(By the late 1990s, if you weren't .40, you just weren't anything....)

With the new round exploding onto the market, the 9mm Luger's days as a police round were numbered. Soon the FBI adopted it. Then every manufacturer from S&W to Ruger started switching over to .40S&W guns, after all, if the Bureau liked it, they loved it. Even European makers like Glock, SIG, and Beretta redesigned their formerly 9mm-only line to include offerings in .40. For twenty years the gun mags spouted the adage that the '.40 had all the power of the .45ACP but the recoil and capacity of the 9mm' which was kinda true if you squinted. Then came...

Better loads

To compare the 9mm Luger loads of 1901 with the loads of 1951 then finally to the modern combat loads of today, is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, it is the same size cartridge, but it is a totally different round. Today you see such offerings as Corbon's 115gr DPX +P, Winchester's 127gr +P Ranger, Remington Golden Sabers, CCI Lawman Golddot +P in 124grain, and Hornady's Critical Duty 135grain Flex-Lock. These rounds deliver amazing penetration, kinetic energy and shock while using state of the art hollow-pointed bullets that expand more than old Georg Luger would have ever thought possible.

With the higher magazine capacities, lower felt recoil, and in many cases lower price of these new 9mm offerings when compared to .40S&W and .45ACP rounds, there are multiple agencies not to mention civilians that are moving back to the 9. Moreover, 9mm practice ammo is by far more available than anything is with a .4 in front of it. Now manufacturers are rushing out 9mm guns like the LC9, SR9 and others to cash in on this retro-movement to the vintage caliber.

There are even rumors that the FBI, that vaunted law enforcement agency whose opinion of modern combat shooting is seen as the benchmark that everything else is compared to, is looking to get back in the 9milly game.

It seems like everything old is new again.

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December 17, 2013  •  09:30 PM
Interesting read. I also enjoyed the 16/20 shot revolver earlier today. Thanks C.E.
December 18, 2013  •  10:33 AM
Thanks for your articles, I read them all and they are well written and informative. Thank you for the time you put into them!
December 21, 2013  •  01:06 PM
After shooting a BHP in a reshoot of a combat pistol match at Fort Harmar in Marietta, OH back in the day, I became a 9mm convert and have never looked back. I still have that BHP and several more. Most of my pistols are in 9mm and I still love the round!
December 24, 2013  •  03:32 PM
Mr Eger,

you are a scholar and a gentleman we are grateful for your contributions to our forum!