February 23, 2022
The 9mm is likely the most popular self-defense and service handgun cartridge choice around the globe. Given life in 1901 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire firearms designer Georg Johann Luger, the 9mm was based on the earlier .30 Luger (7.65x21mm or 7.65 Luger). This cartridge would go into production in 1902 and see use in almost every major worldwide conflict since. While this NATO-adopted cartridge is widely regarded as “the” staple semi-automatic military handgun cartridge around the world, how does this translate to the home front, armed citizen self-defense and police use? This is an especially relevant question considering its old stigma for insufficient ability to "stop" a threat, along with the tragic and bloody results from its poor performance in the famous 1986 Miami FBI shootout.
Call it the "9mm", "9mm Luger", "9mm Parabellum", "9x19mm" or "9mm NATO", all of these designations describe the dimensionally identical German (Austrian) rimless handgun cartridge (although the 9mm NATO is slightly higher pressure). It is loaded with a .355-inch diameter projectile and can be found with either Boxer or Berdan primers. Utilizing a 19mm case length, the 9mm can effectively use a plethora of projectile weights ranging from 88 to 158-grain projectiles in traditional projectile production (Seismic loaded a 185-grain JHP, but is lumped into the "exotic" or "boutique" ammunition in my opinion) and all the way down to 50-grains in solid copper offerings. With this wide array of projectile weights, it is hard to find a 9mm that can't suit any need.
From submachine guns to handguns of all sizes, the 9mm is a solid performer for most any close range engagement. Look at the offerings of most handgun manufacturers and you will find they produce at least one 9mm. Take Gaston Glock's Glock 17 pistol. Likely one of the most successful handguns produced from the "Wonder 9" era of handguns, the Glock 17. This handgun received nearly instant respect for its durability, reliability, capacity and ease of use. Speaking of capacity, that is a staggering 17-round magazine. Most double stack, full-sized 9mm handguns will offer the user a round count easily exceeding that of its traditional 1911 counterparts and even the original "Wonder 9", the Browning P-35 Hi-Power. While Heckler and Koch and their Volkspistole 1970 (English for "Peoples Pistole 1970") or VP-70Z/M was ultimately a "modern handgun", developed in the late 1960s (with its 18-round capacity, polymer frame and striker-fired operating system), the handgun was ultimately plagued with issues and ahead of its time by 20 years. So, what makes the 9mm so popular?
First and foremost is capacity. The 9mm gives the user optimal capacity in a relatively small package. For years, the Glock 19 reigned supreme for the concealed carry market. The small polymer package holds 15 rounds of 9mm, while offering optimal recoil mitigation and a good sight picture, all in a lightweight platform.
However, drastic and radical changes came to the sub compact and concealed carry handgun market in the past couple of years. With the introduction of the SIG Sauer P365 9mm and Glock 43x, utilizing the 15-round Shield Arms magazines, a person is able to match Glock 19 capacity, with a substantial reduction in handgun size and weight. With these sub-compact handguns holding 12 to 15 rounds of ammunition, it is easy to see how the 9mm holds the superior edge in capacity, even over the once hugely popular .40 S&W.
Terminal performance is another area where the 9mm can shine. In my opinion, Winchester ultimately started the advancement in modern commercial expanding projectile technology with their SXT line of projectiles. This early pioneer offered the user everything that a handgun should. It provided deep penetration, controlled expansion, near-perfect weight retention and minimal (yet controlled and designed) jacket separation. Ultimately, "modern bullet technology" is a company's study of FBI and International Wound Ballistics Association testing protocol.
Oftentimes, companies will design their ammunition to perform within these stringent parameters of: projectile weight retention, optimal penetration of 12-18 inches in 10% ordnance grade gel, controlled expansion and at minimum light barrier performance (such as heavy clothing). While this applies to calibers across the board, the often overlooked and imperative key to this is velocity. Ammunition companies typically design their ammunition to perform optimally from the most popular firearm they will be fired from. For the .45 Auto, it would be the M1911’s 5-inch barrel. For the .38 Special (excluding "short barrel"/Micro ammunition), the most likely barrel length would be the 4 to 6-inch barrels found from duty length firearms. The same goes for the 9mm, .357 SIG and .40 S&W. The most likely barrel lengths being the 4 to 5-inch barrel commonly found in duty length arms.
Any deviation from this optimal barrel length in turn, has an effect on the optimal velocity envelope in which the cartridge performs. Dropping even a half inch in barrel length on handguns has an adverse and notable difference in velocity and projectile behavior. This is why cartridges with pre-determined low velocities struggle with any additional drop in velocity, while cartridges with notably higher velocities offer substantially more consistent and reliable performance from subcompact handguns to duty length and beyond. This is where calibers such as the .40 S&W and 9mm shine and consistently surpass calibers such as the .38 Special and .45 Auto. The 9mm further out performs its .40 S&W counterpart, by giving consistently higher velocities from heavy for caliber projectiles in shorter barrels, thus resulting in better projectile performance.
The 9x19mm Luger also offers consistently lighter recoil and thus better recoil mitigation across the board than its other common counterparts. While the .40 S&W does offer a larger diameter projectile, felt recoil and recoil mitigation suffers over the smaller 9mm. This means added training is needed to counteract this increase in recoil. Regardless of the amount of training, simple physics comes into play here, meaning the 9mm will typically produce lighter felt recoil, better recoil mitigation and faster split times between shots. This results in easier, faster and better shot placement for the average user, as well as a slight edge for professionals and well-trained. The end result is faster hits on target.
World Wide Adoption
As 9mm is a NATO standard in terms of handgun cartridges, along with its wide spread usage around the globe and even adoption by both Russia and China, ensures 9mm handguns and ammunition are widely produced. This makes 9mm not only less expensive, but also gives this cartridge substantially wider availability than likely any other handgun cartridge. Anyplace that carries and sells handgun ammunition will offer 9mm. The high production volumes make the 9mm a much more cost-effective and easily obtainable cartridge. This makes high volume shooting, training and more frequent range time possible for your average firearms enthusiast. This is important not only for the average firearm owner, but also police departments with budget constraints.
The 9mm is likely the cheapest handgun to practice with, using factory-loaded ammunition. Even bulk defensive ammunition such as Federal's Hi-Shok 115-grain JHP (9BP) is typically cheaper than .40 Caliber or .45 Auto FMJ. During the best of times, a person was easily able to acquire this ammunition for slightly less than $200.00 per 1,000 round case and FMJ Blazer brass for less than $160.00 per 1,000 round case. This cuts costs of training munitions by more than half, allowing for much higher volume training, thus translating to higher hit probability for those who take training seriously. For those who are more budget-conscious, this allowed the user to literally practice with their self-defense load, as $9.99 per 50 round box of Federal 115-grain Hi-Shok JHP allowed for this to be an easily feasible task. While times have changed and panic struck, prices are beginning to fall to somewhat of a resemblance of the past. With this, the 9mm still remains the cheapest and most economical cartridge to practice with, even with a $16.99 per 50 round price tag.
While the 9mm may not be a "show stopper" with FMJ/"ball" ammunition, and is often shadowed by the larger .45 Auto with this use, the capacity and low recoil more than make up for this downfall in terms of military small arms and side arms. For those who aren't limited by the Hague Convention, the use of quality hollow point ammunition increases the effectiveness of the 9mm drastically. With the highest possibility of expansion across the board in terms of barrel length and projectile weight, it is no wonder the 9mm is such a widely chosen cartridge. Couple this with the highest capacity among the big duty calibers, great recoil mitigation, flat and consistent recoil impulse and the ability of fast, accurate follow-up shots, it is no wonder the 9mm has taken the world by storm.
Ten 9mm Facts You May Not Know
- The 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge was designed by Georg Luger in 1901.
- It was introduced in 1902 by Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken (DWM).
- It was first chambered in the Luger semi-automatic pistol.
- The 9x19mm is not only the standard of NATO but it has also been adopted by the Federal Russian Army as well as the People’s Liberation Army of China.
- The name Parabellum is derived from the Latin Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you seek peace, prepare for war).
- The 9x19mm is currently the world’s most popular military pistol cartridge.
- The German Navy adopted the cartridge (1904) before the German Army did (1906).
- The first 9x19mm submachine gun fielded was the German MP18.I which first saw combat during World War I in 1918.
- The 9x19mm cartridge entered US military service in 1990 as a replacement for the .45 ACP.
- In an attempt to increase performance higher pressure loads labeled +P and +P+ were introduced.
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About the Author:
Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.