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.

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.

These new, high-capacity guns were hitting the street at the height of the crack epidemic and the era of the drive-by shooting, in a newly deregulated market—in 1986, Congress had passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act. “There was in essence a perfect storm,” Daniel Webster told me. “That legislation greatly decreased risks for people who were diverting guns to criminals. The standards for convicting someone of violating federal firearms sales laws were increased substantially, at the same time that the penalties for those gun sales violations decreased. [Congress] decreased the budget for the ATF. They decreased the number of compliance inspections that they could do. They also rewrote the criteria for needing to have a federal license to sell firearms. So all those things were at play, including the type of guns that were being made.”

Annual gun deaths peaked in 1993. The following year, Congress adopted an assault-weapons ban that capped magazines at 10 rounds. Since the ban expired in 2004, handguns with 15-round capacity or greater have been used in several mass shootings, including the Virginia Tech massacre (55 victims); the attempted assassination of Representative Gabby Giffords (19 victims); and the 2009 Fort Hood massacre (45 victims). Over the past decade, annual gun deaths have crept gradually upward.

Although military contracts drive innovations that make guns more lethal, the same contracts can also spur advances in safety. In the handgun trials of the 1980s, the U.S. military insisted upon several safety features that were state-of-the-art at the time. The Beretta could be safely de-cocked with a live round in the chamber; a firing-pin block prevented the gun from discharging when dropped; a loaded-chamber indicator allowed the user to confirm, visually and by touch, whether there was a bullet ready to fire. Does this mean the next-generation military handgun will integrate the cutting-edge safety technology of 2014? Will the Army adopt some form of smart gun, ensuring the weapon can only be fired by authorized users?

Critics say smart guns are impractical—too complex, too expensive, and not reliable. Even if the industry were to overcome the technological hurdles, though, the Army isn’t likely to adopt smart-gun technology now or any time soon—why would they? The most obvious application is to prevent a child from discharging a parent’s gun, and American soldiers don’t take their kids into combat. In this regard the military brass seem to differentiate between guns suitable for the bedside table and guns purpose-built for the battlefield—a distinction that sometimes eludes the American public.

Whatever new handgun the Army adopts to replace the M9, it will fire a more powerful cartridge than the Beretta’s 9mm. This could be the .45-caliber ammo currently used by the Marines or, according to an Army spokesperson, it could be the .357 SIG or .40 S&W, two cartridges that didn’t exist in the '80s, and which were developed for law enforcement officers to counter increasingly well-armed criminals. It might be quite some time before the Army selects a winning design and awards the new contract. Once they do, you can expect to find an almost indistinguishable pistol in a gun shop near you.