The Army Pistol


by R.K. Campbell

photography by R.K. Campbell

April 22nd, 2005




In 1985 the United States Army replaced the Colt 1911 service pistol with the Italian designed M9 Beretta. The first question that came to mind is why?  Why not simply order up a few hundred thousand of the then new Series 80 Colts?  There are various reasons but several sources in the Army claim Congress, always well informed, pushed the 9mm pistol on the Army to place the United States in line with NATO.  Others say it was a leveraged deal, involving contracts for military bases in Italy.  A look back at the problems encountered with the M 16 rifle program shows that Congress found that the upper echelon in the Army acted with ‘near criminal negligence’ in nearly ruining the performance of what was once an ideal jungle weapon.  Could this be true of the 9mm pistol program?  The Beretta seems to be reliable enough and seems to have been tested adequately, but in terms of wound potential the pistol has fallen short. If a weapon is only a projectile launcher the M9's projectile badly needs upgrading. 

During a long grueling test the Beretta 92, which became the M 9, competed against several state of the art pistols including the SIG SAUER P 226.  Neither pistol was rated on the basis of ergonomics or handfit, but the P 226 and the Model 92 were in virtually a dead heat in the end.  Beretta brokered a lower bid and secured the contract.  I have extensive experience with both pistols, yet would be hard pressed to make a choice.  The SIG has more muzzle flip, but may be a shade more accurate.  The Beretta develops more muzzle velocity due to it’s 4.9 inch barrel.  The Beretta has superior safety features, including a positive manual safety and a loaded chamber indicator.  Neither pistol has been noted for a high number of accidental discharges in training and the Beretta in particular has a sterling reputation in that regard.  Overall, the Beretta fits my ideal of a service pistol more than the SIG, with all due respect to SIG fans.  An epilogue to the contest came when the GAO determined Smith and Wesson had been unfairly excluded from competition.  The modern 5906 family of pistols is an excellent choice for any police agency, and has proven popular with foreign governments as well. In the end, the mind is boggled that so much time and money was spent on choosing a relatively unimportant weapon.  A ‘game of charades’ was what  Undersecretary of the Navy Ambrose called the contest.   

But we had a new service pistol.  The various revolvers and old 1911s were put to rest-or were they?  Numerous top units have maintained and deployed with the 1911, often a custom version purchased at personal expense.  Delta Force, Marine Recon, and various other units recognize the worth of a good pistol in close quarters combat.  To them, good means a .45 auto.  No matter what the real worth in combat, the fighting man seems more comfortable with the pistol on his hip.  That brings us to an inescapable question: if the pistol isn’t very important, is the Beretta as good as any?  It depends on your definition.  Is the handgun a badge of office, used to direct troops, or is it a genuine implement of battle?

Let's look at the arguments pro and con and then the truth.  In historical terms the first war that saw considerable handgun action was the Mexican War, but the handgun really came into its own during the War Between the States.  Calvary officers valued Colt’s revolvers, carrying a brace or as many as they could fit on the saddle and on their person.  Rapid movement and strings of shots were the tactical doctrine.  But as the Devil’s advocate I have to add that the six shot revolver was revered because muskets just weren’t that accurate or quick loading. Units armed with Spencer repeaters or the Henry rifle did not deploy as many pistols. On the plains, a heavy accurate rifle capable of taking down an Indian war pony was needed.  So, the pistol had earned its place as a short range fighter, but not as a substitute rifle.

In 1892 the Army adopted a revolver that many point to as a parallel to the Beretta 92.  The Colt 1892 was adopted largely as a result of its technological advances, which included a solid frame, a swing out cylinder, and double action trigger.  No big bore double actions with swing out cylinder were yet available.  The 1892 proved prone to breakage and early wear.  In military actions in Cuba and the Philippines, the .38 caliber cartridge proved practically worthless against motivated enemies.  Quickly, the SAA .45 was reissued.  Much the same situation exists today, with special units maintaining 1911 pistols from old stock or new purchase with select budget or personal funds.  The 1911 .45 auto solved all previous problems with issue handguns and is still the obvious leader in service gun efficiency today.

The story of the 1911 has been told many times and will be told again.  Things change, but it is fair to say we knew more about what is needed in a fighting pistol in 1911 than we knew in 1985.  The 1911's main features were a result of the input and demands of a group of hard bitten cavalrymen who had fought not only the Indians but the Moros, and who would soon face Mexican bandits and the Hun.  The features demanded for fighting off horseback included a positive slide lock safety, a grip safety, and efficient reloading by means of a button style magazine release.   The caliber was specified as meeting the performance of the .45 Colt. 

Then, we flash forward to the M 9.  The M 9 is a triumph of the technical over the tactical compared to the 1911.  The Beretta is easy to shoot well. It kicks but little and is usually accurate.  But Jeff Cooper wrote he would rather have a hatchet than a 9mm at intimate range.  Even when loaded with expanding ammunition, which the military cannot use, the 9mm has not proven to give consistent, reliable results.  The instances in my files that include full metal jacketed 9mm loads are particularly dismal.  I have one case in my files in which a female victim took eight rounds before succumbing to a ninth shot through the eye socket.  I have a 9mm pucker in my leg and a ragged scar on my face left by an individual who absorbed three 9mm soft point rounds.  Adequate for battle?  Hardly. (The 9mm man will always say, ‘You used the wrong load.  Why, the FILL IN THE BLANK will get the job done.’  They never seem willing to admit the caliber was the problem.)

Where does this leave us in search of a new battle pistol?  The search is coming because of disenchantment with the 9mm’s performance in critical incidents. Street clearing and diving into bunkers and enclosed places as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq is pistol work.  The pistol should be up to the job.  We are behind the curve in pistol shooting and equipment, despite excellent rifle instruction.  My son recently completed an extensive, demanding rifle training program that lasted several weeks and saw the expenditure of thousands of rounds of ammunition.  The proficiency of the young men and women involved is unquestioned.  No, it did not take place at a private training facility and you can’t buy this training.  It took place at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  My son was the Soldier of the Cycle but the best shot came from the American West. Something about growing up shooting jackrabbits.  The rifle is important and we have a good if not perfect rifle.  The pistol will get scant attention.  On one level, that works for me because the rifle is about 1,000 times more important than the pistol.  But if we do need a pistol at all it should be a good one.  The handgun has been the final arbiter of victory in innumerable actions.  Immediate actions, actions in tight quarters, and at close range involving dedicated adversaries,   the pistol is important.

If anyone thinks our current generation of soldiers cannot master the 1911's manual of arms or manage the recoil of the pistol they are gravely mistaken.  I have introduced several young soldiers to the .45.  Anyone who can learn to handle the computerized gear common in today’s Army, who can master the intense physical training given these young people, and drive a Humvee can learn the 1911's manual of arms in a few minutes. And retain it. As for the recoil, the tawny arms of our young warriors shrug off the nonsensical.  As a seventeen year old (female) reservist told me, ‘ I like the recoil of the .45.  When it slaps my hand, I know it hits hard down range.’

To make an intelligent decision in service weapon selection we have to study previous actions.  There is no shortage of documented action involving the handgun and practically any cartridge you can name.  I have searched these archives at length, often digging into commendation reports for medal of honor winners.  These actions were subject to congressional investigation and are well documented.  Remember, among the reasons we won World War Two was because our intelligence reports were reliable.  Saving face or fearing the Fuhrer was not present and our men did not produce fabulous, unreliable after action reports. The reports concerning the .45 are impressive. (There have been fabulous, unreliable reports in the gun press involving secret sources and animal testing, but we will leave that for another time.......)

The efficiency of the 1911 is well established.  Of course, there are more modern designs available.  The Heckler and Koch USP is designed to be 1911 like and does a good job of it.  It is a good gun, but I don’t think our 21st century Army would care to look to Germany for pistols and replacement parts in case of war time demand.  To classify Germany as an unreliable ally is not far from an understatement.  The Glock has no manual safety and in the big bore calibers is too large and bulky for most shooters to handle.  The SIG P 220 has excess muzzle flip, no manual safety, and its short barrel loses significant velocity compared to the 1911 type pistols.

My choice for the Army pistol?  A new 1911.  

The 1911 is a proven design, true, but the pistol has not remained a stagnant design.  The sights of modern pistols are not only much better than GI guns, they are better than the Beretta or SIG.   Modern 1911s are available with positive firing pin blocks or firing pin safeties of the Schwarz type,  an important safety measure.  These pistols are manufactured to a higher quality standard and higher degree of parts interchangeability than any pistol we have ever fielded.  The production line is available to produce pistols in the desired quantity and quality.  The Kimber Custom II would be the finest pistol ever used by United States forces. The shorter Pro Carry could be issued to General officers and CID personnel.  Even smaller guns could be issued if the CID needed them.  But they are all the same caliber and can use the same magazines.  Perhaps this is too simple, perhaps not.  But the American fighting man, in a preeminent position in the world, deserves a pistol good enough to serve him. At present, this need is not met.   I think a  hard look at the situation is needed.  This is a tremendous opportunity to once again set our troops apart from the also rans in equipment.  The fighting heart is the main component, but the .45 is something that sets us apart as well.

R.K. Campbell

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Click pictures for a larger version.


The plain old GI .45 is still a good gun, but we can do better. This is a Rock Island Armory gun–nothing wrong with this pistol.



The author feels that the Beretta is a better police pistol than a soldier’s pistol.  He has taught numerous shooters to use the Beretta well, and it is a well made pistol. But it chambers a minor cartridge. 



The basic laws of physics cannot be argued against.  The .45, left, will always produce a more severe, fasting acting wound.  The frangible loads illustrated function more reliably in .45 caliber pistols, which are less finicky than 9mms in terms of cycle reliability.  We may give the 9mm an edge in feed reliability, but since the military cannot use hollow points this hardly matters. 



Commonality of caliber is sometimes given as a reason for retaining the 9mm. Very few modern armies use the 9mm SMG any longer, replacing it with short .223 caliber rifles. Why? Problems with penetration and effect.  The pistol cannot by any stretch of the imagination perform better!



The Taurus pistol features the early Beretta mechanism, which featured a frame mounted safety and is much quicker in operation.  This pistol will never see military combat– it is a .40 caliber.  The .40 neatly solves the problems of the 9mm and offers excellent penetration, but no, it will never happen.



The author has tested the H and K USP extensively and found it an excellent handgun of the type– but why not simply adopt the 1911?



The Springfield Loaded Model, Ranger manual and Ek Commando knife–superb equipment for the modern warrior. (Courtesy Matthew Campbell, SCNG)



Springfield Loaded Model pistols and variations of the Ek Commando knife- top flight equipment for various tense situations.



Many pundits mistakenly base their prejudice against the 1911 upon the early examples that saw much service.  Just the same, these pistols served well in times of need.  Modern versions are even more effective.



How's this for ultra modern?  A high capacity, polymer frame variant of the 1911 offers excellent ergonomics and light weight.  From Kimber.



The 1911 is hardly difficult to field strip.  This weapon is a model of simplicity compared to others of it’s generation and not too bad in modern terms.



Need a compact pistol for issue to pilots and general officers? Why didn’t you ask Springfield?