How Military Guns Make the Civilian Market

The U.S. Army plans to select a new standard-issue handgun. If history is a guide, similar pistols will soon start appearing at gun stores and crime scenes near you.
A U.S. sailor demonstrates the Beretta M9 to a Chinese solider aboard the USS Mason. ( U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet/Flickr)

This week, the U.S. Army will brief arms manufacturers on the design requirements for a new standard-issue handgun. Several gun makers will compete for the lucrative contract, developing weapons that are more reliable and more powerful than those currently in service. Officials say the upgrade is overdue—it’s been nearly 30 years since the Army adopted the Beretta M9. But the last time the military challenged the industry to make a better handgun, all the innovations intended for the battlefield also ended up in the consumer market, and the severity of civilian shootings soared.

Studying gunshot injuries in the D.C. area in the 1980s, Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins University noticed an alarming trend—as time went on, more and more patients were arriving at the emergency room with multiple bullet wounds. In 1983, at the beginning of the study period, only about a quarter of gunshot patients had multiple injuries, but in the last two years of the study, that proportion had risen to 43 percent. Over the same period, semiautomatic pistols with a capacity of 15-rounds (or more) were replacing six-shot revolvers as the most popular firearms in the country. It’s not difficult to see the correlation—more bullets in the guns, more bullets in the victims. But why had guns changed so radically in such a short period of time?

In 1980 the Joint Services Small Arms Program invited the firearms industry to develop a new military handgun, with more than double the capacity of the sidearm American troops had been issued previously. At the time, soldiers were still using essentially the same handgun their grandfathers had carried into the trenches of World War I, a pistol John Browning had designed at the turn of the century. Its standard magazine held just seven rounds. The U.S. Army had a long wish list for a replacement, with 72 mandatory design requirements and 13 additional “desirable” features. According to Leroy Thompson, author of The Beretta M9 Pistol, “many of these mandatory requirements were very military-specific, which made it difficult for an off-the-shelf commercial pistol to fulfill them without alteration.”

In a series of trials, prototype guns were slathered with mud, soaked in salt water, subjected to hot and cold temperatures, dropped, and fired thousands of times. The Army tallied each misfire and scrutinized each mechanical failure, requesting various design tweaks along the way. Italian manufacturer Pietro Beretta entered the trials with a prototype based on their Model 92 semiautomatic pistol, which had been developed for Italian military and police forces. By 1985, Beretta had won the contract, and the Army placed a preliminary order for more than 300,000 of the new pistols, now designated M9. Initially the guns were manufactured in Italy, but to meet demand Beretta moved production to Maryland.

Beretta offered a nearly identical handgun for civilians, the Model 92FS. It wasn’t the first high-capacity semiautomatic available to American consumers—there were earlier German and Belgian imports with 12- and 13-round magazines, as well as the 14-round Smith & Wesson Model 59 (commissioned by the U.S. Navy but never adopted). None of these had transformed the commercial gun market like the Beretta. Prior to 1980, semiautomatic pistols represented less than a third of handguns produced in the U.S.; by 1991, 74 percent of all handguns produced in America were semiautomatics.

The Beretta became a pop culture icon. Mel Gibson brandishes his in Lethal Weapon and says, “I’m a real cop, and this is a real fucking gun!” In Die Hard, a terrorist admonishes Bruce Willis, “Next time you have a chance to kill someone, don’t hesitate!” Willis responds by popping off 14 rapid-fire rounds from his Beretta, then says, “Thanks for the advice, pal!” Chuck Norris? Check. Steven Seagal? Check.

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Matt Valentine teaches undergraduate courses in writing and photography at the University of Texas at Austin. His photographs have been published in The New York Times, Men's Journal, Boston Review and elsewhere. 

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