By D. Kamm
On January 14th, 1985 the Pentagon announced that the M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol had finally been officially replaced as the standard-issue handgun of the US military, after having served nearly 74 years in that role. The new standard-issue sidearm was to be the Model 92F 9mm pistol manufactured by Fabbrica D' Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. of Italy, more commonly known simply as Beretta. The new handgun was to be designated "Pistol, Automatic, Caliber 9mm, M9" and was to be manufactured in the United States by the Beretta USA Corporation of Accoceek, MD within three years after the contract was awarded. The actual reasons for the M1911A1's replacement have already been discussed in the History page, so this page is simply to make comparisons between the two pistols. It is also to get an idea as to what advantages each pistol may have over the other, as related to actual military use.
It so happens that this author personally owns examples of both pistols, and has fired both fairly extensively. Both are extremely reliable and can be counted upon to perform any task expected of a Service pistol. However, there is a common misconception that the M1911A1 is now "obsolete" as a military weapon. While that may be technically correct, the fact is that the US military has listed the M1911A1 as obsolete only because it is no longer standard issue. That does NOT mean that it can no longer perform as well as more modern pistols currently in use. That fact was borne out during the US military trials both during the 1970s and early and late 1980s trials, where the M1911A1 scored as well or better than the weapons that were being considered to replace it. So does this mean that replacing the M1911A1 was frivolous, or worse yet a step in the wrong direction? Or did the military have valid reasons for adopting the M9 Beretta?
As already mentioned in the History page, the military had no choice but to purchase new handguns as the existing supply of M1911A1 pistols had suffered badly due to 50 years' worth of attrition. Considering the fact that new handguns were in order, it was perfectly logical then that the military re-evaluate its current needs in a Service pistol and possibly select a different design. By the 1970s it was clear that the military wanted a double-action 9mm, and so a series of tests were conducted from around 1977 to 1984 to select the best of the breed. Candidate handguns were subject to all manner of live-fire, handling, and physical torture tests seeing what it took to break each one or cause it to otherwise fail the tests. It has become known that many of the specific tests were irrelevant, unnessesary, and possibly even unfair to many of the candidate weapons, yet the tests kept lumbering along through the early 1980s despite continuous protests (included here is a link to a brief history of the M9 and the pistol trials). After years of in-fighting among the branches of the military, handgun manufacturers, and of course no small number of politicians and armchair "experts", the final trials in 1984 resulted in the Beretta 92F and the Sig-Sauer P226 being joint winners in the competition. Again true to form, the final event of the trials was an equally controversial price-bidding war between Beretta, Saco-Maremont (then importers of the SIG), and the Pentagon. Beretta came up with a lower overall price in its final bid and eventually was awarded the lucrative military contract. It is believed (though never proven) by some critics that Beretta was improperly shown the final bid for SIG's pistols, and thus was able to undercut their offer by offering a better price on spare parts.
In military use the Beretta has nonetheless made a very good name for itself since being adopted as standard issue. It has been used in actual combat numerous times since the late 1980s and early 1990s, most notably during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Overall the Beretta M9 has developed a reputation for amazing reliability, with examples proving almost immune to malfunctions. I say "almost" because there were reports during the Gulf War that the M9 didn't especially like the taste of Arab sand. Also during the late 1980s reports surfaced that slides were breaking in half as well, although that problem was later traced primarily to over-pressure ammunition being used. However, just as with the M1911A1 there were plenty of detractors to be had, who were eager to point out these minor deficiencies and make them appear as serious as possible. Perhaps their hope was that the guns would somehow all be thrown away and their own favorite toy adopted instead. However, it appears that the military has purchased enough M9s by now to be assured of a long-term commitment to the design, so the Beretta will likely remain standard-issue for at least another decade or two. Whether it will last 70-odd years in service like the M1911A1 remains to be seen, but in the eyes of this author it's quite doubtful.
Anyway, on to the comparison. First off the most obvious practical difference lies in the caliber. The .45 ACP always has, and always will have a ballistic advantage over the 9mm regarding terminal effectiveness. The large 230gr slug of the .45 has a much better reputation for stopping an opponent with one or two solid hits than the much smaller 115 or 124gr 9mm round. For many years this was considered of paramount importance, especially considering that the main role of a pistol is a defensive one, i.e. to quickly stop an attacker at short range. However pure stopping power is no longer the primary consideration of today's military, as evidenced by the 5.56mm family of shoulder weapons that form the backbone of today's infantry units. The 9mm does have a few advantages over the .45 ACP however. One is that the fast-moving 9mm round is more likely to penetrate soft body armor. Second, the larger number of rounds carried inside the M9 and replacement magazines means that the soldier can stay in the fight longer before having to perfect his/her pistol throwing skills. A typical issue rig includes the pistol with magazine, holster, belt, and mag pouch containing two spare magazines. This gives the soldier carrying an M9 rig a 45-round capacity, as opposed to only 21 for a similar ensemble using an M1911A1. It has also been documented that the average recruit can be trained to shoot and hit targets with the softer-recoiling 9mm much more easily than with the .45 ACP.
Above: The M1911A1 holds eight .45 ACP rounds (7+1 chambered) versus sixteen 9mm rounds for the M9
Regarding the actual differences in design, there is really no way of making a fair comparison as the M1911A1 and the M9 were designed using two entirely separate ways of thinking. The M1911A1 is a weapon purely designed for intense close-range combat, and as such it has been designed to fire quickly and easily with its short-resetting single-action trigger. The M9's design by comparison makes a few concessions in the name of operator safety. As a result the M9 is harder to fire fast and accurately from the first shot, but it makes up for that by being much less prone to accidental discharges. Accidents with the M1911A1 are so well documented that it has long been standard military procedure to leave the chamber empty when not in actual use, thus negating the whole advantage of a single-action trigger. With the double-action mechanism of the Beretta it is comparatively safe to leave the chamber loaded in a holstered pistol while in the combat zone, and so the Beretta redeems itself somewhat in the "quick-into-action" category. It should be noted however that among the crack elite military teams the first choice remains a "cocked n' locked" .45 auto, and as such the few remaining M1911A1s in inventory have been issued to many of them. With sufficient training a fully loaded, cocked M1911A1 with the safety engaged is still considered quite safe when handled correctly.
On the subject of reliability and durability, the M1911A1 has always enjoyed an excellent reputation for sheer ruggedness in the field. M1911A1 pistols are made from steel throughout and are made to fairly loose tolerances, and so they can ingest a fair amount of mud, crud, dirt, water, snow, ice, and sand without malfunctioning. Because of their all-steel construction they can also take a fairly heavy beating yet still remain operational. As good as the M1911A1 is regarding functional reliability however, the M9 is reportedly better still. Berettas typically can fire an unbelievable number of rounds without malfunctioning, even after having been exposed to the elements (reports out of the Middle East notwithstanding). On the subject of durability however, the alloy-framed M9 is somewhat more fragile and has been known to suffer more breakage of major components than the M1911A1. Parts breakage with the M1911A1 is relatively uncommon, and is usually confined to small and easily-replaced components.
There are other practical differences in design such as the ease in field-stripping the pistols. As noted in the Disassembly page field-stripping the M1911A1 is quite complex, with the danger of spring-loaded parts zinging the operator in the eye ever apparent. There is no danger of this with the M9. You simply push in a button of the right side of the frame and flip a lever on the left, and the whole top half comes off and is easily disassembled for cleaning. On the other hand, detailed disassembly at the repair level is very complex with the M9, requires a number of proper hand tools, and leaves a lot of small check balls and springs lying around to get lost. The M1911A1 by contrast can easily be torn down to nothing using its own parts if necessary, and as such is more easily maintained in the event of poor forward maintenance support.
Shooting each firearm is an entirely different experience. The Beretta is a large handgun and doesn't suit small-fingered users very well, yet the same fat grip effectively soaks up recoil and makes the gun very pleasant to shoot. Hundreds of rounds can be fired easily at a single range session without inducing operator fatigue. Berettas are very intrinsically accurate, and the typical recruit shoots much better scores with an M9 than with an M1911A1. By contrast most examples of the M1911A1 could have anywhere from above-average to poor intrinsic accuracy, depending on the individual gun and how loosely made or worn it is. In addition the trigger pull is often stiff due to idiosyncrasies in the design, and worse yet the combination of narrow grip dimensions and a narrow grip safety tang often pounds the operator's hand after a fairly low number of rounds. In addition the heavier recoil of the .45 ACP round causes the gun to want to twist in the operator's hand unless held properly, and so the M1911A1 is often quite intimidating to the average raw recruit. On top of all this the sights on the as-issued M1911A1 are quite small and nothing like those on the M9. However, it should be noted that many individual M1911A1s do indeed display excellent accuracy and a decent trigger pull, and thus enjoy a much better reputation among their users. In addition most modern civilian-production 1911-pattern pistols have been given the benefit of many custom modifications that overcome the design's basic shortcomings. A typical "custom" 1911 is easily the most perfected weapon to be had, and the feel and live-fire experience of one is nothing like that of a WW2-era pistol. With a match-grade barrel, tuned trigger pull, better sights, and a wide flat "beavertail" grip safety such a 1911 is quite possibly the easiest to shoot, and most lethally fast and accurate handgun in existence. Evidence of this is borne out by the fact that the Marine MEU/SOC units still use M1911A1s modified in this manner, and reports are out that these guns are generally preferred over either the M9 or the newer H&K SOCOMM .45 Pistols.
One final comparison is in order, and that is in the ability to inspire confidence and sense of well being on the part of the user. A handgun in modern military service is no front-line weapon, yet it remains in use because the user often needs something small and portable that he/she can defend themself with if attacked. Which pistol is better suited for the job? Many people feel more confident in the hard-hitting .45 ACP round and the extreme durability of the M1911A1 pistol. Others feel more confident that with the M9 they won't shoot their own butt off at the wrong moment and that the larger magazine capacity (15 rounds vs. 7) is much preferred over the .45's better stopping power. In the end it's all a matter of choice. Some feel the M9 is an improvement over the M1911A1 while there will always be others who feel it was a retrograde step. Unfortunately today's soldier no longer has a choice, as he/she will be given an M9 if they are indeed issued a personal weapon at all. But the Beretta still certainly has its merits, and as long as the military continues to issue personal weapons the soldier will be glad to have one regardless.