“Pizza Box” is the derogatory nickname given to the square-shaped marksmanship badge no Marine wants. It was often a presumption that those who rated a pizza box preferred to wear their medals instead of ribbons and badges for formal occasions to hide their shooting disability. The Maltese Cross worn by sharpshooters isn’t an unattractive badge, but Marines want to earn crossed rifles and pistols.
What was particularly interesting to me as a primary marksmanship instructor, or PMI, was that more shooters qualified expert when the Beretta M9 started filling racks in the armory. I have a special spot in my heart for the M1911A1, but when my job was to train Marines of varying backgrounds who may have never handled a pistol, the Beretta M9 just seemed easier for most to qualify with, especially when scoring timed- and rapid-fire sequences.
Beretta’s 92FS was adopted as the Beretta M9 more than 30 years ago and has survived controversy ever since. That’s an enviable length of service for any gun manufacturer looking to win a lucrative government contract. Spawning from forecasted DoD requirements in the 1970s, the subsequent Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP) was aimed at modernizing Uncle Sam’s sidearm. The result was a direct-feed pistol with a double-stack magazine evolving from Beretta’s notable M1922 and M1951 open-slide designs.
In part, the government wanted to abandon the .45 and enlist the 9mm to achieve commonality with its allies in NATO. The dimensional benefits of the 9mm made a case for a change toward a new handgun given its higher capacity. Built on a space-age aluminum frame, the Beretta M9 would mark the transition away from a reliance on steel materials and bring an open-mind philosophy to manufacturing small arms with alloys that could save weight and take advantage of the growing computer-aided machining industry.
The first 92 appeared in 1975, and by 1981 the 92S with slide-mounted safety/decocking lever was on the scene. Shortly after receiving feedback from the U.S. Air Force, the 92S-1/92SB was introduced, which included a firing-pin block and had relocated the magazine release to a position behind the triggerguard rather than at the bottom of the grip.
The final 92FS that won the JSSAP competition stood in complete contrast with the then-issued M1911A1, whose hand-assembled, hand-finished production and requirement for gunsmith-level maintenance didn’t align with the government’s vision for a low-cost, automated future. The next generation of combat pistols had to be a long-term investment, even if they were going to be of a design that would need maturing along the way. And it did.
The Beretta M9s in service today utilize several improvements including a redesigned locking block, guide rod, trigger return spring and sights, just to name a few. Marines have also updated their inventory with the M9A1 (2006), noticeably featuring an accessory rail for a dustcover, aggressive checkering and Beretta-manufactured PVD-coated magazines engineered to work better in sandy environments.
One could argue that 9mm ammo is better today than it was when the M9 was adopted in 1985. While this may be true, the military still has its hands tied with using the 124-grain FMJ M882, which has proven less effective against combatants than the former and harder-hitting .45 ball.
The U.S. military is making noises like it’s going to revisit the M9 replacement this year. The Army is poised to challenge the Congressional House Armed Serves Committee’s desire for another Beretta M9 upgrade. Don’t be surprised if nothing happens, however. The last attempt to dethrone the M9 resulted in a five-year, 450,000-pistol contract in 2009. If the Modular Handgun System (MHS) trials move forward later this year, Guns & Ammo will bring you a full report on the DoD’s list of candidates, perform our own tests and see if we come to the same conclusion.