September 16, 2021
Great music, awesome flannel and questionable handguns. The Cold War was won, computer-aided technology was improving manufacturing efficiency, and the Gulf War saved Kuwait in 1991. Two years later, the Clinton administration took over politics, which was followed by the 10-year Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. That event preceded the Democrat party’s loss of both the U.S. House and Senate in January 1995. Charlton Heston began his first of five terms as president of the National Rifle Association in 1998, and former Vice President Al Gore told CNN in 1999, “I took the initiative in creating the internet.” The 1990’s was an interesting period for gun owners in America.
With most law enforcement (LE) agencies transitioning from carrying revolvers to semiautomatics, a war between the so-called “Wonder 9s” was waged against pistols chambering .357 SIG, .40 S&W and the venerable .45. It seemed that where the military and LE markets went, so followed civilian gun ownership.
I worked part time in a gun shop during the 1990s, and I remember the high points and low points. In a decade remembered for transformative technology, American gun manufacturing was not so transformative.
So, dig out that flannel shirt, play some Nirvana, and let’s turn the calendar back 30 years.
Colt Model 2000 (1991-1993)
On paper, the Colt 2000 — sometimes called the “All American 2000” — should have been a hit. First appearing at the 1990 SHOT Show, the Colt 2000 had some Model 1911 styling to the slide, which was attached to a molded polymer frame (with removable grip panels). Thought up and designed by C. Reed Knight and Eugene Stoner, the result of their effort was a compact pistol with a 6-pound trigger, rotating barrel and a slide-release that could be confused with a Model 1911’s manual safety lever. Knight and Stoner sold the concept to Colt, but the consumer ended up with a complicated full-sized pistol that looked as if was conceived in an orgy of bad ideas.
The trigger, as originally designed by Knight and Stoner, rode on roller bearings straight to the rear while completely cocking the striker. This made it feel long, but smooth and predictable, and almost like a tuned double-action revolver’s trigger. However, when it was time for Colt’s lawyers to sign off, they increased the trigger pull weight to a nominal 12 pounds, negating the design’s intent.
Colt also incorporated an unusual extended barrel bushing that looked more like a shortened section of slide and included the gun’s front sight. Subject to wear and the movement of the bushing, the sight’s location contributed to the Colt 2000’s inaccuracy. At the range, the lack of reliability didn’t help this pistol’s reputation, and all of these pistols were recalled in 1993 due to trigger issues. In 1994, after some 20,000 made, this Colt went out to pasture.
Colt Double Eagle (1989-1996)
For most companies, one failure per decade would be considered too much. On the surface, the Double Eagle seemed as if it would hit the right notes. It had a trendy double-action trigger, and a frame-mounted decocking lever, which was familiar to users of SIG Sauer’s classic P-series pistols.
A reboot of the venerable Model 1911, Ron Smith of Smith Enterprise, Inc., is credited as the main designer of the double-action system in the Double Eagle. It was the first double-action semiautomatic pistol offered by Colt. Chambered for several cartridges including the .38 Super, 9mm, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP, the Double Eagle was offered as a stainless-steel pistol with a Lightweight Officer’s model being the exception for having an alloy frame and blued slide.
Though the slide wore the “Series 90” label, it was really a variant of Colt’s Series 80 slide with a locking firing-pin safety. Unlike the Series 80 Model 1911, the Double Eagle Officer’s model accepted an eight-round magazine for .45. The magazines for the Double Eagle were single-stack and identical to the M1911’s, which were plentiful in various calibers.
Unfortunately, the Double Eagle just wasn’t right. I’m sure that Colt, today, harbors a tinge of regret and embarrassment for what they came up with in the 1990s. Though more accurate than the Colt 2000, and reasonably reliable, the Double Eagle didn’t earn acceptance with consumers. Model 1911 shooters didn’t see the need for a double-action trigger, and Wonder Nine enthusiasts didn’t see the point of another pistol using single-stack magazines.
Maintenance-wise, gun shops open in the ’90s all have a story about a Double Eagle customer bringing in a Tupperware container full of assorted small parts, the result of removing the Colt’s Xenoy grip panels, which protected several small parts and held in various springs under tension. The last “Double Buzzard” left the Colt factory in 1997.
Ruger P90 Series (1991-2010)
Though we’ve had some fun reminiscing at Colt’s expense, Ruger’s P-series is another easy target. Historically, the P-series story begins with the P85, which became available commercially in 1985. Designed to compete in the U.S. military pistol trials, the entire P-series remained in production until being discontinued in 2013. For the sake of this column, I’ll limit this to the P90, which was a scaled-up P89 with an investment-cast aluminum-alloy frame and chambered in .45 ACP. From the P90’s launch in 1991, this series included several variants until the P97, which became available in 1999.
The P90 enjoyed a good reputation for reliability, even with increasing varieties of hollow-point ammunition. It also offered above-average accuracy. Still, they weren’t without detractors. It seems that the models’ primary issues were external. The P90s were considered ugly, blocky and ergonomically more difficult to operate among shooters with smaller-than-average hands. Given that these pistols were produced for more than 20 years means that they weren’t failures, but looking back, these designs didn’t age well.
Smith & Wesson Sigma (1994-2012)
The last pistol I’ll call out is the Smith & Wesson Sigma. It was the brand’s first attempt to incorporate synthetics, which resulted in a high-strength polymer for the frame. The Sigma featured a preset striker mechanism and was available in both 9mm and .40 S&W. Designed in 1993, it was one of the first handguns that was purpose built to accept the then-new .40 S&W cartridge. (Some were also chambered in .357 SIG.)
The Sigma became known as the “American Glock” by some shooters of the day, as it shared mechanical similarities to the Glock design. It was so similar that Glock sued S&W for patent infringement. The case was settled out of court in 1997, and S&W agreed to make alterations to the Sigma design. It paid Glock an undisclosed sum, which is believed to be somewhere between $5 million and $8 million dollars.
Samples that I shot during the late ’90s were not as accurate or reliable as the original, but the model continued into the 2000s as it was updated to the SD and SW series before those, too, were discontinued in 2012. Only the SD and SD VE is still produced ($389, smith-wesson.com).
Worth noting for the sake of documenting military history, by 2005 S&W had shipped some 22,500 pistols for issue to the Afghanistan National Army and Afghanistan Border Patrol. On February 16, 2006, S&W announced that it received another $15 million order from the U.S. Army for the SW9VE pistols to supply the Afghanistan National Police. Though the Sigma line originally cost the company money in the 1990s, it could be argued that these later editions earned it back.
The 1990s were the gateway decade from old firearm technology to the new. Many of the lessons learned in the computerization of manufacturing as well as training paved the way for the modernization we are experiencing now. It’s humorous to look back on history’s less successful entrants, but the products of the ’90s were important stepping stones to today. Take Will Smith, for example. If it wasn’t for the “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” we would have never had “Bad Boys.” Now, it’s time for a Zima.
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