From the inception of the Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol a few years before World War I on until the end of World War II, some 2,695,000 of the slab-sided .45s were manufactured for the US Armed Forces by Colt and various other American contractors. With so many of the Model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols in armories within the US and around the world, there really wasn’t much of a need to produce any more. When not locked in their racks, military sidearms are generally housed in protective holsters doing garrison duty during peacetime. During periods of conflict, they just don’t get the wear and tear that other military small arms might receive, so they last. I was carrying a WWII-era 1911A1 as a young MP Platoon Leader in the mid-1970s and those pistols were probably the oldest item in the armory.
After almost three quarters of a century of service, the military replaced the venerable Model 1911 in 1985 with the Beretta Model 92 FS (M9) in 9mm. It’s been the general issue handgun for air, ground and naval forces ever since. Now in case some of you out there thought it was going to go away sometime soon, don’t count on it. It was reported on January 29, 2009, that Beretta USA landed a US Army contract for 450,000 M-92FS pistols plus associated spare parts that could be worth up to $220 million—talk about economic stimulus. That is in addition to 13 other contracts they received to supply pistols and parts to American Armed Forces three years ago. This new order will send M9 pistols to US military customers around the globe with the first 20,000 slated for the Iraqi military. If the M9 lasts as long as the old 1911, by the time it’s ready to be replaced, troops of the future might hear a command like, “Put your phasers on stun!”
Beretta’s M9 now has the distinction of holding second-place honors in length of service compared to the Colt 1911, as it has been riding in the holsters of US Armed Forces members for over 20 years. It has been refined over the years and supplemented with other pistols for special applications, but the basic Beretta M9 has been the staple for the US military for over two decades. Now the M9A1 has evolved out of requirements developed by the US Marine Corps and its ever-changing missions across the globe; from war fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to natural disaster training operations with Malaysian rangers and marines in the South Pacific.
The most obvious improvements to the design of the M9A1 are the two new additions on the frame of the pistol. The dust cover ahead of the triggerguard now includes a Mil-Std-1913 rail, which allows the option of adding attachments such as tactical lights or laser aiming devices. This makes the M9A1 more versatile for special operations, especially in urban settings where house-to-house fighting in low light is the norm. The Mil-Std-1913 rail adds little to the weight or bulk of the pistol and does not interfere with use of the Bianchi M12 Universal Military Holster.
Next is the addition of radical checkering on the front and back straps of the grip frame. This ensures a firm grip on the pistol whether you are shooting in wet or dry conditions. I can tell you from experience that shooting in the rain and having to handle a wet gun makes more of a difference than you might think. If you’re smart, train in the rain once in a while.
Less noticeable, this next improvement for the M9A1 is a specially designed magazine that is sand-resistant for maximum reliability in desert or coastal environments. The new magazines have a PVD coating, which reduces friction and the clinging of sand particles on the surface, plus the magazine tube design reduces the damaging effects of sand, providing better reliability and function. There is now a groove that runs almost the full length of the magazine. The grooves keep the cartridge column away from full contact with the side walls. This is where sand accumulates and causes the rounds to stop rotating upwards during their normal feeding cycle.
I conducted a test by dropping loaded magazines into sand then inserting them into the pistol and manually cycling through all the rounds. This helped to confirm the advantages and functionality of the new design and a quick wipe-down with a dry rag was all that was required for exterior cleaning.
Other features of the M9A1 are bevels that have been added to the mouth of the magazine well on the front, back and sides, to facilitate the rapid insertion of magazines in a combat situation. Magazine insertion is further aided by the inward slope of the double-column magazine as it channels the rounds up into a single column near the feed lips.
Three-dot sights have also been added to assist in the more rapid acquisition of a sight picture on the target, another advantage in a reduced light situation. My M9A1 had an ambidextrous safety/hammer drop lever, making the pistol compatible for right or left-handed shooters and the magazine release button is also reversible to accommodate left-handers. The matte black finish is Beretta’s proprietary Bruniton, which is non-reflective and highly corrosion-resistant. The barrel is chrome-lined and has a deeply crowned muzzle to protect the rifling and ensure continued accuracy.
Beretta has always touted their open top slide design as one that virtually eliminates jams and stove-piping and I, for one, would have to agree that the open top and almost straight-forward feeding attributes of the M9 make it one of the most reliable semi-automatic pistols available. On a more practical note, if you lose your magazines and have to use the M9A1 as a single shot, the open-top barrel is a lot easier to feed single rounds into than is the typical semi-automatic with a closed slide and ejection port. Of course, it also helps that the M9A1 does not have a magazine safety that would prevent its firing if the magazine was lost.
The manual safety is the disconnect type; when it is engaged the trigger becomes inoperable and you will note that when the safety is “off” a red dot is visible; plus, if you pull the trigger you will see a small steel block lifting up just in front of the rear sight. This is the automatic firing pin block and will only allow the firing pin to move fully forward if the trigger is pulled all the way to the rear. This prevents the gun firing should it be dropped and lands muzzle-down on a hard surface.
Unlike many of the pistols on the market today, the M9A1 has an exposed hammer and has a traditional DA (double-action/single-action) trigger mechanism. What I mean by that is the hammer can be manually cocked and the pistol fired in the SA mode or it can be fired in the trigger-cocking mode by just pulling rearward on the trigger, which both raises and drops the hammer. The Beretta Model 92 series of pistols has always had what I consider a long and fairly heavy DA trigger and those with small hands can have some difficulty firing this weapon. I have a medium-sized hand and it is just on the borderline of being “a lot to hold and pull the trigger too” for my mitt. The DA pull is in the 13- to 14-pound range and the SA after a bit of take-up for safety breaks clean in the 4- to 5-pound area.
A couple of other items I’ll mention is the contour of the frame at the front of the triggerguard has been altered and no longer has the rounded slope going down from the rear of the dust cover to the front of the triggerguard. This area has been more or less grounded down flat to help accommodate a tactical light or laser aiming device. You can still hook a finger out there if you want to and have no adverse effect other than giving that portion of the gun a more angular look. Older pictures and the one in the owner’s manual show the Beretta with flat-head screws holding on the grip scales; my sample had hex-head screws and I applaud this move.
Model 90-Two Details
Most everything that I’ve said about the Beretta M9A1 also goes for the new Model 90-Two. You have basically the same pistol, but the 90-Two has that stylized “Sci-Fi” look with a sculpted slide that not only looks good, but reduces the number of sharp edges that hook on and wear clothing and holsters. Other obvious differences include the one-piece polymer grips that completely enclose the backstrap. This grip has small, stylish, textured panels on the side of the grips and checkering on the front and back. They felt thicker to me than the grip on the M9A1 and my dial calipers measured a width of 1.34 inches as opposed to 1.37 inches for the military model; so it wasn’t the width. The length on the other hand was 2.29 inches for the 90-Two and 2.18 inches for the M9A1.
There is also available as an option a “small” grip with a more vertical backstrap for those with smaller hands. You also do not see the thick, squared-off triggerguard on the 90-Two; it’s more contoured and much thinner. Both guns also have the Picatinny rail, but the 90-Two has a removable plastic cover that offers more rounded edges on the front for times when you don’t have a light or laser sight attached. Another notable addition is the magazine capacity, which has been increased from 15 to 17 rounds.
More subtle differences are the shape of the disassembly button, which is round rather than oval, more streamlined levers on the ambidextrous safety, a bit more substantial magazine release button, and a triangular rather than round hole in the hammer. There was not as much of a bevel in the mouth of the magazine well as was on the M9A1 and the fixed rear sight had more of the “Novak” look. Internally, near the disassembly lever, a metallic recoil buffer reduces the impact of the slide assembly against the frame during the shooting cycle, which helps extend the service life of the pistol.
I fired both Beretta 9mm pistols at the range to test for accuracy, reliability and functionality as a military or law enforcement combat weapon. I will say right from the start that during dozens of rounds fired, with seven different kinds of 9mm cartridges I did not have a single malfunction with either pistol. Just about all the loads carried JHP bullets and three were high-pressure +P rounds. My first chore was to see what kind of velocities I would get out of the 4.9-inch barrels on the two self-loaders. Almost all of the lighter bullet loads registered over 1200 feet per second (fps) through my Oehler Model 35P chronograph.
I did my accuracy test from a steel and concrete bench, shooting at a distance of 25 yards from an MTM Case-Gard pistol rest, four 5-shot groups with each load. I found that both guns had their little anomalies, the 90-Two tended to shoot low for me and the M9A1 shot about 3 inches to the right of point of aim (POA). Accuracy in both guns could best be described as “combat-worthy,” but neither would be my choice for bull’s-eye work at Camp Perry.
For me, at least, the M9A1 had a slight edge because it seemed to fit my hand better and my best group was 2.85 inches with Winchester Ranger 124-grain SXT-HP +P and I also had the lowest 4-group average with that cartridge. I managed a 3.11-inch group with Fiocchi 115-grain XTP-HP, but everything else was pretty mediocre; the “4 + 1 Syndrome” seemed the rule of the day. My best group all day came with the 90-Two, when I managed a 2.18-inch cluster using CorBon 125-grain JHP +P ammo. I also had my lowest average group with that cartridge; both guns seem to favor +P ammunition. Second place went to Remington’s 124-grain Golden Saber HP with 5 shots going into a 2.58-inch group. There were lots of 3.5- to 4.5-inch groups that session.
Combat shooting was another story altogether and the greater majority of shots at 3, 7 and 15 yards stayed in the 9, 10 and X-rings of the silhouette target during a 30-round combat course. There were absolutely no malfunctions and both handguns exhibited flawless performance with great controllability in rapid fire, speedy reloading capability, good pointing characteristics and easily acquired sights.
There’s a good reason the US military and police agencies like LAPD have been using the Beretta Model 92FS series of pistols for many years and, while it may not be the right gun for pin-point, paper-punching accuracy, both of these pistols get the job done and best of all they work every time.