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.
Most of the manufacturers that had competed with Beretta for the military contract refined their prototype weapons and offered them for commercial sale. Among these were the SIG-Sauer P226 and the Walther P88, which each had 15-round standard magazines. Contemporaneously, Austrian engineer Gaston Glock used his expertise in synthetic polymers to develop a revolutionary lightweight handgun with a 17-round standard magazine. Originally intended for the Austrian military, the Glock 17 later became a favorite with American customers.