“Harder hitting” nonsense…

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve doubtless encountered this gem of a story from Fox News which covers the U.S. Army’s desire for a new handgun. The discussions about this tidbit of information online have generally been dominated by ignorance and soul-crushing idiocy. Let’s boil away all the nonsense and get a few facts straight on this.

1. The Beretta M9 has actually been a pretty good sidearm.

We’ve talked a bit about the Beretta 92/M9’s track record as an issued sidearm for the military and law enforcement before, but it’s worth reemphasizing here that the biggest problem the Beretta has had in military service is bad maintenance practices by the military itself. Springs don’t get replaced, parts that aren’t supposed to be reused get reused, and the military went out and bought a bunch of cheap magazines for them that didn’t work well. Remember that this is the same organization which preached minimal or no lube on carbines like Jimmy Swaggart on cocaine and then seemed somewhat stunned by the fact that guns shut down when used in combat. When you talk to people from units who took maintaining their issued M9 sidearms seriously, and who bothered to actually lubricate them properly, you hear that they were pretty darn reliable. The most annoying issue is probably breakage of the trigger return spring, but for some reason the military never followed the lead of the U.S. Border Patrol by buying the Wolff TCU to fix that.

The M9's service in the military has been better than many would have you believe.
The M9’s service in the military has been better than many would have you believe.

When the GWOT kicked off there were a ton of news stories about how bad the M4 was too, if you’ll remember. Turns out the M4 was just fine provided you lubricated the darn thing, kept up with maintenance, and used decent magazines rather than handing down worn beat to hell magazines like they were the frickin’ family silver. When you read these articles and the statements by somebody who knows somebody who was in unit X who said that the M9 sucked horribly, remember that not too long ago the same sort of doofuses (doofi? What’s the proper plural of that word?) were saying the M4 sucked and were pushing the need for a new rifle like the XM-8. The XM-8 which was based on the spectacularly awesome G36 which has never had any problems ever.

2. .40 S&W ball ammo, .45 ACP ball ammo, or .357 sig ball ammo is going to suck about the same as 9mm ball ammo.

One of the stated reasons for pursuing a new handgun is to get one that’s in a chambering with better terminal ballistics. That’s really a non-starter unless the military is willing to start using ammunition with expanding bullets. It’s particularly amusing to see the .357 sig in the list of considerations because the .357 sig is a .40 S&W case necked down to take a 9mm bullet…as if a .355 FMJ from a .357 sig is going to perform better than a .355 FMJ from a 9mm. If the Army wants better terminal ballistics, start issuing Gold Dots. No, dear reader, we’re not prohibited from using JHP ammunition by the Hague convention…and to paraphrase an exceptionally astute comment from a forum discussion on the topic, it’s patently absurd to issue hand grenades and shoulder-launched missiles and then wring our hands and fret over whether hollowpoints for handguns are “humane”. It’s ridiculous that in our society a police officer can shoot another American citizen with JHP ammo without any human rights concerns but somehow there’s a big problem if a Marine shoots some foreign dirtbag with the exact same ammo. You know, shooting him with a handgun rather than calling in an airstrike or blowing the whole structure the dude is hiding in to kingdom come with an Abrams tank. Derp.

The .40 S&W and .45 ACP hardball loads do bring some advantages to the table, but those advantages aren’t free. They bring with them costs in packaging, capacity, ease of use, and reliability that tend to negate any marginal terminal ballistics advantage you get from an extra .10″ of bullet diameter. These are not insignificant considerations when you’re issuing sidearms to small-statured males and females, and it’s one of the reasons why large organizations like the FBI have been issuing 9mm handguns pretty freely to those who struggle with the standard issue .40 caliber weapons.

3. The military does not take handgun training seriously.

Those who have never been in the military often make the mistake of assuming that everyone within the organization is extensively trained in the use of small arms. This is not true. The unpleasant reality is that a large chunk of the people in uniform (be that a police or military uniform) are extremely poorly trained with small arms. I know a number of people who did multiple tours in the military without ever once touching a weapon. The handgun training that does happen is very rudimentary, happens infrequently, isn’t sustained by any ongoing practice, and generally results in somebody who it is hoped will be at least intelligent enough to know which end of the tube the bullet comes out of. That’s it. Even infantrymen who are supposed to be the warfighters get minimal handgun training that doesn’t leave them remotely prepared to use the weapon under combat conditions. Some units within the military do take training seriously, and guys like “Super” Dave Harrington and Ernie Langdon spent a chunk of their career working on programs designed to teach necessary weapons skills to people going into harm’s way, but places like Range 37 and program’s like the USMC’s High Risk Personnel program are the exceptions rather than the rule.

If you’re fielding troops that are poorly trained with a handgun, it doesn’t bloody matter what size bullet you give them because they’re not going to put the bullet where it counts in the first place. The Fox News reporter who wrote the original story probably knows how to use Google and so he managed to stumble on Ernie Langdon who summed up the terminal ballistics situation nicely in the article by saying “…handgun bullets suck. You have to shoot people a lot with a handgun.” That’s an accurate summation of the many years of law enforcement shooting data that’s been collected here in the US.

The military doesn’t need to buy a bigger bullet and bet on magic, they need to actually take handgun training seriously. Even if a soldier is stuck with 9mm FMJ ammunition, if he/she is able to put a few of those FMJs in an Al Quaeda aorta it’s going to work. Handing a poorly trained troop a larger, heavier, lower capacity handgun with more recoil and hoping that the bigger bullet will make up for training shortfalls is lunacy. Police departments blessed with solid personnel have figured that stuff out and have made efforts to up their training game with excellent results on the street. Tools aren’t unimportant, but the military’s biggest handgun problem isn’t the quality of the tool, it’s the dearth of proper training on how to use the tool. Until that’s fixed the results won’t change no matter what shiny new thing they buy.

You might get the impression that I’m dead-set against the Army adopting a new handgun, but I’m not. I’m against making purchase decisions based on faulty assumptions and belief in the ballistic equivalent of voodoo. I’m especially against spending a bunch of money on equipment that doesn’t matter instead of channeling those resources to the training which does.

I’ll talk about where I think a new handgun makes sense next time…



  1. All handgun bullets suck. None of them are rifles. Even .40 and .45 ball ammo sucks, and in seeing very real people shot with all of the above I am equally unimpressed.

    The 9mm does have a very real advantage when it comes to .mil work; OpFor tends to wear gear, even terrorists wear stuff like chest rigs. 9mm NATO consistently gets through barriers such as canteens, loaded mag pouches, steel helmets, and flak vests that stop a .45 ball round dead.

    Going back to the .45 would be stupid as hell.

  2. #3 is why they’re never going to issue a sidearm that doesn’t have an external safety lever. You think cops have a lot of NDs? Wait till you give Glocks and M&Ps to soldiers and marines. That’s a non-starter.

    1. M&Ps can be had with an external safety. Reasonable people could differ on 1 and 2 but number 3 is dead on. Civilians who think all military/cops are ninja death gods would be shocked at the handgun “training” we got.

  3. Why are they considering it . .. probably because a corporation wants to make some money and who better to cut a deal with, than the Federal Community Chest for 100’s of thousands of firearms. In addition we must spend the military portion of the budget on something and it will help
    keep the economy rolling along.

  4. From what I’ve seen as a range officer at a large municipal range in south Florida, the training that cops get is abysmal. Their qualification is very simple and easy, yet many fail. The only military folks that I see that actually know how to shoot rifles or pistols are those that entered the military as hunters of shooters. EXCEPT the Marines. Most of them do know how to use a rifle quite well.
    These comments sound critical of the cops and military, it’s not. It is virtually criminal that the folks that put their life on the line for their fellow citizens deserve far better training. The criticism is for the people that cut training short to save a few dollars.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with teh idea that .45 and 9mm ball is almost identical in performance, and any inconsequential advantage will be washed away by the additional recoil and lower capacity. (If we were discussing decent modern JHP ammo, I’d be 100% with you. Hell, I’d say that the 9mm is SUPERIOR to the .45 and .40 as a “department wide” issue.)

    1. Sure, it’s only about a 1/10″ (2.5mm) difference in DIAMETER, but it is about a 50% increas in FRONTAL AREA (and since these are nonexpanding bullets that neither tumble nor fragment worth a darn, the ONLY wound cavity we can count on is the direct crush). Since BOTH rounds will merrily go through and through on a typical torso of a human that is fit enough to be on a battlefield, that means that we’re talking about 50% more tissue destroyed by volume. That ain’t inconsequentional. That’s a significantly larger chance I will at least manage to nick something important.

    2. As for the lack of training meaning that .45 is so uncontrollable that the troops are better off with 2/3rds the destruction. . . I would argue that military pistol training is so bad, it doesn’t matter – they’ll be just as lousy a shot with a modern 9mm as they would be the same exact pistol chambered in .45.

    3. Yup, you CAN maintain an M9 and it will last longer, but most units don’t. They still wear out faster than many other designs. In some cases, from OVER cleaning them (improperly). Of course, compared to a 1911, the M9 is an AK47, when looked at as a “fleet” weapon– while a 1911 would LAST longer, 1911’s needed GUNSMITHS to replace parts and M9s just need armorers. But there are guns better yet than the M9. Whether or not the M9s could have been maintained better and served longer is really quite irrelevant, however — the guns WE HAVE have lasted beyond their RFP’d service life, and ARE (as a “fleet”) worn out. So, they need to be replaced, soon-ish, and pretty much as a group. We could buy more M9s, or we could buy something else. Why not buy something that is less prone to being worn out faster?

    Frankly, if we’re going to stay with 9x19mm (and we probably will), I would suggest one route would be phase out M9s by replacing them with M11s (or even go non-milspec and allow Sig to deliver current production P229 9mm’s). we’ve already got the M11 in the system, so switching to it would have a lower TCO than going to a wholly new design. And the M11 is perfectly capable of serving as the standard service pistol, if 9x19mm ammo is considered acceptable. It fits a wider range of servicemembers, holds enough BBs, and shoots really well.

    1. The problem with the reasoning in point#1 is that with jacketed round nosed bullets, .45 doesn’t punch a 0.45″ hole and 9mm doesn’t punch a 0.355″ hole. They both punch holes that are smaller than their actual diameter, since most tissue is elastic and round bullet profiles tend to push tissue out of the way rather than cutting through it.

      Even going to a wadcutter bullet with a nice flat meplat would improve terminal ballistics a lot.

  6. First off, good article! Plenty of things to think about and digest.

    As an Army Reservist and USPSA member, I can honestly say I have had more quality handgun training in the civilian world than I ever have had in nearly 31 years of Army/Army Reserve service.

    Military side arm training is pitiful at best and makes a troop more dangerous to himself/herself and other service members. At least the USMC seems to be making strides in the right direction. Army? Not so much. The M9 qualification is the same as the 1911 with 7 rounds (max) in the magazine. Short sighted? Don’t get me started.

    As for a new weapon, yes it is needed. However, my concern is the mentality of “if it doesn’t work well, we need a new weapon.” Haven’t we all known someone who insists on looking for a mechanical fix to overcome piss poor training? Well, welcome to the DoD.

  7. Thanks for making me actually look up the Hague convention. Only applys when both parties are signatory. So we can’t shoot Dutch with JHPs, We aren’t fighting any government, so it doesn’t count. Good to know.

  8. There are only three job positions that are issued a pistol in an infantry platoon. PL, BFV driver, 240b gunner. There is no need for any more training on the weapon system than, “this is how the safety works”. If you are in a job position that does not repeatedly every day tote around larger, more effective weapons, then yes, you need more training with your pistol. There is absolutely no reason to ever go for a pistol in a black weapon situation in an infantry platoon. If you black out, you take a knee and fix it and your buddies shoot your shit for you. Pistols in the infantry are almost useless.

  9. Perhaps if all military personnel were required to be armed whenever on duty, we would have fewer massacres of unarmed service people. If this were so, the pistol would be the issue weapon of choice for many non-combatant positions. Console flyers, accountants, general officers, whatever. If this were true, one has to assume that that the military would take pistol training a lot more seriously if only to keep from shooting themselves. While police training leaves much to be desired, it has vastly improved in recent years and is way better than military (pistol) training not to mention the training obtained by the modal citizen with a gun (none).

  10. Many feel that if they spend money on training, those dollars will ETS at some point.

  11. If spent half the effort and money on firearms training as we do on SHARP and Suicide Prevention training we’d all be world class shooters.

  12. RawDawg July 11, 2014 at 00:42

    You know the best (and ONLY) justification I have run across for doing as was done WAY long ago, and arming Infantry squad leaders with pistols? It’s not so HE has a pistol, it’s so the SQUAD has a pistol available for the few times where it makes sense.

    Also, I was light infantry, and none of my platoon leaders EVER carried a pistol. They all carried rifles. The company CO and XO were issued pistols, but usually carried rifles in addition to (or even instead of) pistols.

Comments are closed.