August 08, 2016
In case you haven't heard, the military is looking for a new pistol. The program is called the Modular Handgun System (MHS), and it articulates the military's desire to field a pistol and ammunition combination that offers more "accuracy, reliability and terminal performance."
The idea briefs well but promises to turn into one more "good idea" that still might end with a canceled program, lots of hurt feelings and no improvements for our troops' guns and gear. The media says the wars are over, and defense budgets are drying up. The argument that our current pistol could use some upgrades is valid, but saying we need a replacement is laughable if you can see the big picture.
However, the military seems to be going full steam ahead with its plan to replace the M9. Here, we'll take a look at the updated Beretta M9A3 platform and see how it stacks up to military specifications.
Militaries and Pistols
I once had the good fortune of attending a Special Forces Close Quarters Battle (CQB) training program, which lasted eight weeks. The standards to pass the program were very high, and many of my Green Beret brethren didn't pass because they failed to meet the required shooting standards. The program was pistol-heavy because, as one instructor put it, "This is the only place in the entire military where you will really be taught how to shoot a pistol."
The military doesn't take pistol training very seriously because pistols are rarely used on the battlefield. This doesn't mean pistols are unnecessary, just that the majority of the troops carrying them are not proficient in their use. Our military would be well advised to keep that fact in mind as it looks at contenders to replace the M9, a pistol around which we have already focused our limited resources.
The opportunity here is to improve what is already being provided to the government. Looking back, the Army didn't have a problem carrying out a dual-path strategy with the M4 and other systems. Every year, the U.S. Army holds an industry conference called "Quads" for manufacturers and solicits solutions to capability gaps with product-improvement suggestions, which usually come from design improvements or technology that didn't previously exist.
For the past two years, Beretta has submitted M9 improvement proposals. Though the Army has always wanted to improve its small arms rather than replace them (e.g., M2 .50-caliber machine gun, M4 carbine, M240 machine gun, etc.), Uncle Sam has remained uninterested in improving the only item in its armories that has never been upgraded.
M9 Engineering Change Proposal (ECP)
Beretta USA started with commercial parts bins and found that it could give the military an 80 percent or more solution to its list of MHS requirements for a lot less expense. One of the design features that make the M9 and the newer Beretta M9A3 ideal for military use is the trigger system.
With the pistol's safety lever disengaged, the Beretta M9A3 has a double-action/single-action trigger that provides a long, heavy pull for the first shot (if you don't manually cock the hammer) and then a short, crisp pull for subsequent shots. The first round's long, heavy pull is the most effective way to deter accidental discharges with young shooters. The best way to keep a pistol combat ready (for the majority of combat troops carrying it) is to keep a round in the chamber, safety off, with the hammer down.
This is actually as safe as any loaded revolver. In this manner, there are no safety levers to move out of the way when it's go time, and the double-action trigger pull minimizes accidental discharges. In contrast, a striker-fired pistol with no external safety is fast into action but requires focused vigilance with trigger-finger discipline to avoid an unintentional incident.
The trigger-pull weight is easy to change on the M9 family by swapping out mainsprings. The military uses a very heavy mainspring to ensure detonation of the hard primers used with military ammunition. Removing the mainspring entails taking out the retaining pin that secures the lanyard loop to the pistol's frame, letting the spring drop out and putting a lighter one in its place. I've never had a problem with the lighter "D" spring setting off the harder primers, and the trigger pull is much more user friendly. Beretta has also improved its trigger spring so that when it is fully compressed, it isn't binding on the pin.
Suppressing a pistol is one of the MHS requirements, and it makes sense for any pistol, military or civilian. Shooting a pistol in an enclosed space is incredibly loud and can detract from our efforts to put rounds on target. At night, the muzzle blast and flash will also cause our pupils to constrict, greatly diminishing our ability to see in low-light scenarios.
Perhaps no pistol is more suppressor friendly than the Beretta M9A3. We can stick a threaded barrel (which the A3 has) on any pistol, and it still won't match the Beretta for reliable use. The barrel's centerline axis on the M9 family of pistols never moves when the pistol cycles. Just about every other pistol has the chamber end of the barrel drop toward the magazine well to move out of the way and let the slide cycle. This makes the muzzle end rotate up at the same time the chamber end rotates down.
When we hang a suppressor on a barrel that needs to rotate, the weight will cause the pistol to malfunction unless we use a timed, spring-loaded booster that momentarily allows the suppressor to float on the muzzle as the slide cycles. As long as we spend the time to figure out what load the pistol/suppressor combination likes, we can get reliable operation with this setup.
Guns & Ammo visited Beretta USA's manufacturing facility in Accokeek, Maryland, for an exclusive testfire of two different variations of the Beretta M9A3 (one with a full-size wrap-around grip, another with the standard grip panels on the thin Vertec frame). We found that attaching a suppressor to the Beretta M9A3 had zero horizontal impact shift out to 50 meters. (A downward vertical shift measuring 2 inches was noted.)
The Beretta M9A3 will eat any ammo we want to stuff in it, suppressed or not. We can just screw the suppressor directly to the threaded barrel; no booster is necessary, because the barrel remains oriented along the bore's centerline axis during the entire firing cycle. Simple is always better and more reliable, and no suppression system is more simple than the Beretta M9A3's.
The Beretta M9A3 has nearly all the updates needed to help our service pistol meet its operational requirements both on and off today's battlefield. The most obvious changes when compared with the M9 are the addition of a Picatinny rail on the dustcover and the slimmer Vertec grip.
The Picatinny rail is essential because it allows the shooter to mount a pistol light. The Marines' newer M9A1 features a rail with a single lug. The Beretta M9A3 has three for accommodating a broader variety of pistol lights. History reports that many pistol engagements occur at night or in dimly lit spaces, so having a light on board makes a lot of sense. Light also makes target identification possible and makes us much more accurate by letting us see what we're about to shoot. Any duty pistol needs to have an attached and dedicated light.
The adoption of Beretta's Vertec frame would make the Beretta M9A3 a much better fit for shooters with small hands or even those who favor slender grip panels and straight backstraps (think back to the M1911). The reduction in grip circumference is substantial and, to my hand, preferred over the original M9 series. The Beretta M9A3 is offered with a wraparound rubber grip that replicates the M9 and M9A1 grip profile for those who favor the thicker grip with arched backstrap.
Like the M9A1, the Beretta M9A3 has checkering on the front- and backstrap. This change came to the M9 family when the Marines adopted the M9A1 back in 2006. The M9A1 had the Picatinny rail on the dustcover; a Beretta-designed, sand-resistant magazine; and checkering on the front- and backstraps. The Beretta M9A3's frame has the same Pic rail and checkering but also includes the reduced and recontoured grip to fit the needs of smaller-than-large hands.
In addition to the above frame work, the Beretta M9A3 has an oversize magazine release from the commercial 92 Combat pistol, which makes it possible to drop the magazine without repositioning our hand on the pistol. When this is coupled with the smaller grip, it is now much easier for smaller hands to effectively operate the Beretta M9A3 than its predecessor.
The slide has also seen significant work when compared with earlier M9 models. The redesigned A3 slide can be converted back and forth between a "G" decocker-only model and an "F" safety-selector model by an armorer. Though most of us are certain that Uncle Sam would never go for anything but a pistol with a manually engaged safety, the decocker makes the most sense, as it renders the pistol as safe as any handgun, yet keeps the lever under spring tension so that it will always move out of the way once it's released.
For those troops wanting a traditional safety, the Beretta M9A3 can meet that configuration, too. Beretta has redesigned the safety by moving it higher up on the slide with an over-center axis that's slightly canted upward 10 degrees. This greatly reduces the possibility of accidentally engaging the safety when clearing a malfunction with a hand-over-slide technique.
Some instructors teach grabbing the slide in an overhand hold and raking the slide length to clear stovepipes and simultaneously charge the pistol. If done carelessly, this method can engage the safety on the M9. If this is how the owner wants to clear stovepipes, I'd recommend setting up the pistol as a decocker model. Problem solved; problem staying solved.
The other big news up top is the use of dovetailed sights front and rear. There are tritium inserts in both sights, so we're all set for low-light engagements. Thanks to the use of dovetails, the Beretta M9A3 can also accommodate suppressor-height sights. These sights stick up significantly more from the slide and are designed to see over the top of an attached suppressor. Of course, civilian shooters will also appreciate the dovetails because they allow them to use whatever aftermarket sights they prefer. Previously, the front sight blade was integral to the slide.
Beretta makes beautiful magazines, and they slide right into a steeper-beveled magazine well on the Beretta M9A3, much like on the Marine Corps' A1. The magazines that ship with the commercial 92 series are great, and the military has always had access to the same. However, in the late-1990s, the military elected to accept bids from third-party vendors to see who could provide a better, cheaper magazine. Decision makers also wanted these new magazines to have their preferred phosphate coating.
Phosphate coating works on barrels, receivers and lots of other gun parts, but it's a horrible choice for magazines. The coating is rough and doesn't allow a magazine follower to slide up and down like it needs to. Checkmate won the contract to produce the magazines and begged not to use the military-specified finish because it knew it would cause feeding malfunctions. Checkmate was initially unfamiliar with the "it does what it's told" military philosophy, but it was soon made to understand that the military wasn't asking it to use this coating.
So, Checkmate produced tens of thousands of magazines to the specifications demanded — and they were complete garbage. The phosphate coating gave these magazines the texture of fine sandpaper, and the oil trapped by the phosphate helped sand to stick like glue. Compare them with magazines coated in lapping compound, and you'd be pretty accurate. An entire generation of servicemen has some serious beef with the M9 because of these magazines, and it wasn't even Beretta's or Checkmate's fault. Such is the injustice associated with bureaucracy.
Beretta, on the other hand, developed a beautiful 15-round sand-resistant magazine in the mid-'90s, and an improved 17-round version is what would ship with the Beretta M9A3. It's coated with a high-lubricity PVD finish that feels slippery in the hand and does a beautiful job of shedding sand. There are also two channels that run up the sides of the magazine body. These channels keep cartridges inside the magazine from touching the mag body, allowing sand to fall through the magazine without getting trapped by the cartridges.
The Beretta M9A3 follows an exacting test and verification process before earning its Mil-Spec rating. After assembly, an M9 follows its own path through magnetic particle inspection (MPI), reliability testing in water tanks, proof-round testing and another MPI test.
After that, pistols are tested from a fixed Ransom Rest on a 50-meter indoor range to verify that they can place 10 shots of military ball in a group that does not exceed 8 centimeters, or about 3.15 inches.
During one of two visits to Beretta USA's factory, G&A Editor Eric Poole confirmed that the Beretta M9A3 does in fact exceed these standards, even when parts are randomly interchanged with 12 other pistols. It really is a strenuous test.
The M9 celebrated its 30th year of service in 2015. It's seen a couple of big wars and a few small ones and has matured into an exceptional fighting pistol.
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