November 20, 2013
By Paul Scarlata
When it comes to military pistols, there are two schools of thought. First we have those who refuse to believe that any significant advances have been made, or even been possible, to military handguns since 1911. And then there are those who recognize that, like most things mechanical, the military pistol is in a constant state of evolution and most of the changes made to them have been of a positive nature.
Oh, did I mention that these two schools of thought have been at odds with each other for more than seven decades and I don't expect to see them agree on anything within the foreseeable future?
The first generation of military pistols — as exemplified by the C96 Mauser, P.08 Parabellum and Colt M1911 — had two things in common:
1. They all used single-action trigger mechanisms.
2. They had magazines holding anywhere from six to 10 rounds of ammunition.
While almost all of them possessed external safety devices, it was generally considered unwise to carry these types of pistols with a loaded chamber and the hammer or striker cocked. This led to many armies discouraging, if not outright forbidding, the practice.
This meant that a soldier thus armed had to draw the pistol and rack the slide to chamber a round before firing. After shooting, to return the pistol to a safe condition, the soldier had to withdraw the magazine, eject the live round from the chamber and lower the hammer or striker either manually or by dry firing.
The first procedure prevented one from getting the pistol into action quickly — negating in large part the handgun's most important duty — while the second was very inconvenient, if not fraught with dangerous possibilities.
While the interwar years saw the introduction of several new military pistols — e.g. Soviet TT33 Tokarev, French Mle. 1935, Finnish Lahti L-35 and Polish VIS-35 Radom — these designs showed little or no real innovation and followed the single-action trigger/low magazine capacity pattern.
I believe that the case can be made that the first truly "modern" military handgun was introduced in the 1930s. And, at the danger of angering one of the aforementioned groups, I am going to place the blame for the first of them where it belongs — in the lap of John M. Browning!
FN High Power Pistol
In this day of highly specialized engineering and CAD programs it is sometimes difficult to believe that the world's greatest firearms designer dropped out of that proverbial one-room country school house in the sixth grade and went to work as an apprentice at the forge of his blacksmith/gunsmith father.
Browning was one of those rare natural geniuses who when faced with a problem, idea, or theory sat down with a piece of metal in one hand and a file in the other and came up with the most successful firearm designs in history. To say his designs were commercially successful would be a gross understatement when you consider the influence this one man had upon the world's arms industries.
He applied for a patent for a 7.65mm blowback operated pistol in 1897 which came to the attention of Fabrique Nationale de'Armes de Guerre (FN), of Herstal, Belgium. The wily Belgians recognized the potential of the pistol and signed a contract with Browning. The FN 7.65mm Browning Modele 1900 would become so popular that "Browning" became synonymous with "pistol" in many parts of the world. JMB spent the final years of his career working at the FN facility where the Belgian workers referred to him as "Le Maitre" — The Master — until his untimely death in 1926.
In 1921, FN asked Browning to design a high capacity, 9mm Parabellum pistol for upcoming French army trials and he presented them with a pair of functioning toolroom models. Both were single-action, striker fired designs but the first was blowback operated, while the second utilized the famous 1911 locking system whereby two lugs on the top of the barrel mated with matching grooves machined in the interior of the slide, which lock the two together.
When the pistol is fired, the slide and barrel recoil a short distance together, whereupon a link on the bottom of the barrel articulates it down, allowing the slide to continue to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. A recoil spring under the barrel then pulls the slide forward, stripping the next round out of the magazine and chambering it. As the slide goes into battery, the barrel moves up, locking the two units together again.
This second pistol included two radical improvements over the 1911: first, instead of the barrel unlocking by the articulation of a link, a cam integral with the barrel pulled it down to unlock from the slide during recoil. Secondly, despite his reported opposition to the concept, Browning designed a double-column 15-round magazine for it.
After the French trials, which they did not win, FN appointed Dieudonne Saive to head the pistol program.
Between 1922 and 1928 Saive, who became FN's chief engineer, continued to modify and improve Browning's original design. One of the first and most obvious changes was an external hammer. He also designed a new trigger mechanism, safeties (thumb and magazine) and, to reduce the size of the grip, the magazine capacity was lowered to 13 rounds. Eventually the only Browning features remaining were the locking and takedown systems and the excellent ergonomics of the grip. Known as the "Grande Rendement," the progressively improved models were entered in army trials around the world.
In 1935, FN released the finalized version on the market as the "Pistolet Browning Grande Puissance" ("Browning High Power Pistol" which is often abbreviated to GP, GP35, Hi-Power or simply HP). While Saive's pistol had digressed quite a ways from the original, when FN's marketing department choose to connect Browning's name to it, its success was almost guaranteed.
Over the next few years, it was adopted by the armies of Belgium, China, Estonia, Latvia and Peru. When World War II broke out, Belgium was quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht, which took possession of the FN facilities and continued production of the HP for the German armed forces under the designation 9mm Pistole 640(b).
During the war Belgian émigrés, including Saive, helped the John Inglis Company, Ltd. of Toronto, Canada to tool up to produce HPs for the Allies. The Chinese ordered the Pistol, 9mm, No. 1 Mark 1 and 1* which had tangent rear sights adjustable to 500 meters and wooden holster/shoulder stocks. The Pistol, 9mm, No. 2 Mark 1 and 1* with fixed rear sights were supplied to Canadian and British forces, becoming a particular favorite of Commando and airborne units. During the fighting in Europe, these Canuck HPs faced off against the HPs being fielded by the Wehrmacht.
FN resumed production of the HP in 1954, and it became the most popular military pistol in use outside the Soviet bloc. Since 1950, FN has made a number of mechanical improvements and cosmetic changes to the HP, the most obvious being the change from an internal to external extractor, which took place in 1962.
Twenty years later the High Power Mark II was introduced; it featured an elongated, ambidextrous thumb safety, spur hammer, straight barrel feed ramp, ribbed slide, high profile sights and roll pins replaced the solid trigger pins previously used. Some Mark IIs included a firing pin safety.
Introduced in 1988, the frame (made from cast steel) and slide of the current production Mark III have been slightly re-dimensioned to strengthen them and obviate the possibility of cracking. The ejection port was enlarged and re-contoured, the grips redesigned, and the sights are mounted in dovetails for easier adjustment. Some Mark IIIs have been fitted with a firing pin safety.
Besides Belgium, copies have been produced — with and without benefit of license — in Argentina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines. It continues to be popular with military and police forces around the world.
While the FN High Power still utilized a single-action trigger mechanism, it was the first successful military pistol to use a large-capacity magazine, a feature of almost all military pistols today. In addition, it can take a great deal of the credit for the worldwide popularity of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, a trend that shows no signs of slacking off within our lifetimes!
Walther Pistole 38
With the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s, German industry began a crash program to rearm the Wehrmacht with modern weapons, and it was agreed that a replacement be found for the P.08 Luger pistol. While elegantly made of the finest materials, the Luger was a 19th-century anachronism. It was slow and expensive to produce, notoriously ammunition-sensitive and not overly reliable once it got dirty. All these characteristics did not endear it to either combat soldiers or pfennig-pinching bureaucrats. In 1934, the Wehrmacht announced that it was in the market for a new service pistol — just what the Carl Walther Waffenfabrik had been waiting for!
In 1908 Walther, one of Germany's premier firearms manufacturers, introduced its first semiauto pistol, known quite appropriately as the Model 1. For the next 21 years, they produced a line of .25 and .32 cal. single-action, blowback semiauto pistols that proved quite popular with European police forces and civilians.
In 1929 Walther took the handgun world into the next generation by introducing the first successful double action/single-action (DA/SA) pistol — the Polizei Pistole, or simply PP — whose name clearly indicates the market Walther foresaw for this product. In this they were correct as the PP, and soon to follow compact PPK, became the most popular police pistols in Europe, a position they were to hold well into the 1980s.
But they were chambered for underpowered 7.65mm and 9mm Browning cartridges, and the Wehrmacht wanted a pistol chambered for the regulation 9mm Patrone 08 (a.k.a. 9mm Parabellum)
In 1934 Walther offered the army the Model MP (Militarische Pistole), an upsized PP chambered for the 9mm Parabellum. But its blowback operation doomed it to quick rejection by the army. The following year, a design team led by Fritz Walther began work on a completely new DA/SA, locked-breech pistol to meet the army's requirements.
Two years later they announced the 9mm Model AP (Armee Pistole), a hammerless, DA/SA pistol. The Wehrmacht expressed interest with one proviso — they wanted an external hammer. The design was suitably modified and renamed the Model HP (Heeres Pistole — Service Pistol). After a few minor modifications to the safety system, the Wehrmacht adopted the Walther in 1938 as the Pistole 38, or as it is more commonly known, the P.38.
The P.38 was the first DA/SA pistol adopted by a major military power. When the hammer is forward, pulling the trigger will cock the hammer, by means of a drawbar on the right side of the frame, and fire the first round much like a DA revolver. After that, the hammer remains cocked and subsequent shots are fired in SA mode.
The P.38's safety/hammer drop mechanism is very simple: if the hammer is cocked, rotating the safety lever on the left rear of the slide downwards will lock the firing pin in place. As the lever reaches the bottom, it trips the sear, allowing the hammer to travel forward. The safety can be left down, which blocks movement of both the trigger and hammer, or moved up, allowing the first shot to be fired in DA mode. A pin located above the hammer acts as a loaded chamber indicator.
On the left side of the frame are slide stop and takedown levers. Grip panels were made of black or reddish brown plastic, a prominent lanyard ring adorned the lower left grip frame and the eight round, single-column magazine was retained by a heel catch. Of all forged steel construction, the P.38 was, by today's standards, a hefty pistol.
The P.38's locking system consists of a pivoting locking block under the barrel that locks the action by means of two lugs that enter matching notches in the slide. When the pistol is fired, the slide and barrel recoil together about 5/16" before a plunger at the rear of the barrel underlug impacts on the frame and forces down the locking block.
The slide continues to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. Dual recoil springs, located on either side of the frame, pull the slide forward, stripping the next round from the magazine and chambering it. As the slide goes into battery the locking block is cammed back up by a ramp on the front of the frame, locking the barrel and slide together again.
The following year, the Swedish army adopted the Walther as the Pistole 39, but only about 1,500 were delivered before German army orders took precedence. Wartime demands for handguns became enormous, and Walther was not capable of supplying enough P.38s. In 1941, a contract for additional P.38s was given to the Mauser Werke, to be followed in 1943 with another to Spreewerk GmbH of Berlin. In addition arms plants in the occupied countries — FN (Belgium), CZ/Brno (Czechoslovakia) and Steyr-Daimler-Puch (Austria) — made P.38 components.
The P.38 proved to be a rugged, reliable handgun, although it was never available in great enough numbers to replace the P.08. The Germans also provided limited quantities of P.38s to their erstwhile allies, Italy, Croatia and Hungary.
The quality of late war pistols deteriorated: machine marks are evident, an inexpensive phosphate (Parkerized) finish applied, stamped steel grip panels and other short cuts were adopted to increase production.
After the war, large quantities of German small arms were used by the newly liberated European countries. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia issued P.38s to their armies, while the French, whose occupation zone included the Walther factory, assembled new P.38s for their own forces. The French firm of Manuhrin produced Walther PP, PPK and P.38 pistols under license for sale to foreign armies and police forces.
When the West German army — the Bundeswehr — was organized in the 1950s, the new Walther plant at Ulm-Donau began production of a P.38 variant with a lightweight, aluminum alloy frame that was adopted as the Pistole 1 (P1). The P1 was also sold in substantial numbers to the armies and police forces of Austria, Chile, Columbia, Ghana, Norway, Portugal, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela.
But the P1 was plagued with reliability problems, and over its production life a number of structural and mechanical changes were made in an attempt to improve reliability. But according to Peter Kokalis' excellent report, "P.38: Masterpiece or Misfit, Part II" (5/20/11), "The aluminum alloys of the 1950s were not of the same metallurgical integrity as those eventually developed for the firearms industry a half century later. When subjected to heavy and constant use€¦P1 pistols crash dived."
Many have praised the P.38 as the first of that breed we today call the "Wondernine." They credit Walther with breaking new ground and developing the first truly "modern" semiauto pistol. And I can only agree with them.
As after the Great War, after World War II most armies saw little need to develop new sidearms. Outside of the Soviet bloc, the FN High Power dominated the international market, with the slack being taken up by the Walther P1, large numbers of U.S. military aid 1911s and a product from an Italian gunmaking firm.
The original FN High
Power pistol was equipped with a tangent rear sight adjustable to what can only be described as an extremely optimistic 1000 meters.
An employee at the John Inglis factory in Toronto, Canada posing with a Chinese contract No. 1 Mk. I* High Power. World War II made the High Power.
While the High power is inevitably cited as a Browning design, a lot of the design should be credited to Dieudonne Saive, designer of the FN49 rifle.
A postwar commercial FN High Power has fixed sights and the internal extractor, while a post-1962 model has the external version of the extractor.
The most recent versions of the FN High Power were assembled in Portugal and featured thumbrest grips, ambidextrous safety levers and fixed sights.
A Canadian made No. 2 Mk. I* High Power shows the hump at the rear of the slide that supported the rear sight and the round lanyard ring at the butt.
An Israeli police officer, circa 1958, was armed with an FN High Power. The HP was common in the Middle East: Saddam Hussein was said to favor it.
Walther's Armee Pistole (AP) was
the forerunner of the P.38. Hitler's Wehrmacht did not care for its hammerless design, and ordered changes.
A Walther P.38 made by Mauser
in 1944. Note the exposed barrel, DA trigger, decocker/safety lever on the slide and heel-type magazine release.
Members of the Danish Resistance celebrate in
liberated Copenhagen in 1945. The fighter standing on the left is holding an ex-Wehrmacht P.38.
Like the Beretta, the P.38's open topped slide insured positive ejection of spent cases. The locking wedge is visible here in front of the slide.
A late war production P.38 came with reddish brown plastic grips. Late war guns are often crudely finished and have truly horrible trigger pulls.
A French Foreign Legionnaire in Indochina checks a Viet Minh casualty while armed with a P.38, common armament in the Legion at the time. (Jean Huon)
The predecessor of the Model 92 was the M1951 or Brigadier. It had a single-column eight-round magazine and was used widely in the Middle East.
The M9 pistol has lots of detractors, especially 1911 fans, but it has served in large numbers in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 20 years.
The new M9A1 Beretta has a Picatinny rail for mounting lights and lasers, a beveled magazine well for easier reloading and is used with PVD coated magazines.
The 1st generation Glock 17 with the so-called 'pebble ' texture grip. The 2nd generation Glock 17 had the front and rear straps of the grip checkered.
Beretta Model 92
Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta of Gardone Val Trompia is the oldest privately owned firearms manufacturer in the world. They began producing semiauto pistols, designed by Tullio Marengoni, for the Italian army in 1915. These were simple 7.65mm blowback operated designs which featured an open top slide that would become an identifying feature of all of Marengoni's later designs.
During the interwar years Beretta expanded its line and sold pistols to armies and police forces in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. During World War II, Beretta pistols saw wide use with the Italian, German and Romanian armies.
In the mid-1950s, Beretta introduced Marengoni's first locked-breech pistol. Known as the Mo. 1951 or "Brigadier," it was chambered for the 9mm Parabellum, used a variation of the P.38's hinged block locking system, a SA trigger, eight-round single column and the trademark open-top slide. It proved popular and was adopted by the Italian army and Carabinieri, the Egyptian, Iraqi, Israeli, Nigerian, Sudanese and Tunisian armies.
In the 1970s, a design team led by Carlo Beretta, Giuseppe Mazzetti and Vittorio Valle began working on a new pistol based upon the Mo. 1951, and adding features of the HP and P1. The result was an aluminum-frame DA/SA pistol with a 15-round magazine that still retained Marengoni's trademark open-top slide. Introduced on the market in 1975 as the Modello 92, it attracted immediate attention from armies and police forces around the world.
Early Model 92s had the magazine release at the bottom of the grip and utilized a frame-mounted safety that did not decock the hammer. At the request of a number of agencies, Beretta relocated the magazine release behind the trigger and fitted an ambidextrous, slide mounted, decocker/safety lever.
With the establishment of NATO, the armies of the member nations attempted to standardize their weapons and ammunition. While the former proved to be only partially successful, the latter was achieved fairly quickly with the standardization of the 7.62mm NATO for rifles and light machine guns, the .50 BMG for heavy machine guns and the 9mm Parabellum for pistols and submachine guns€¦with one exception that is.
While the U.S. Army first ran trials on 9mm pistols, the guns fell afoul of two seemingly immovable obstacles. First was the innate dislike many in the American military felt towards the cartridge and, second, the Army's belief that the pistol would be of little real value in future wars, so why go through the trouble and expense of adopting a new one when plenty of .45 pistols and .38 revolvers were in inventory? Thus it was that U.S. soldiers continued to carry 1911s — most of them of World War II or earlier vintage — in their holsters until they just plain wore out!
It became increasingly obvious that it was no longer practical to keep rebuilding the aging stock of 1911s and, under continuing pressure from NATO to standardize, the Joint Services Small Arms Planning Commission was formed and the Air Force was authorized to test a variety of handguns. Beretta entered the Model 92, which was declared the winner over entries from Colt, S&W, FN, H&K and Star.
The uproar at the adoption of a foreign design led to politics becoming involved in the process and a Congressional committee insisted upon a new series of trials which were conducted by the Army rather than the Air Force. In 1984, the trials started again with updated entries from S&W, Beretta, FN, Heckler & Koch, SIG-Maremont, Steyr and Walther. Beretta won this competition, but there was a yet a third series of trials, the XM10 competition, in 1988.
Despite continuing screaming, yelling, accusations of conspiracy and predictions of doom from 1911 aficionados, the Beretta was once again declared a winner — which resulted in even higher levels of screaming.
In 1990, the Beretta 92, under the designation Pistol, Semiautomatic 9mm M9, was officially taken into service by all branches of the U.S. armed forces.
Teething problems led to several changes to the basic design and the modified M9A1 was approved in 2006. It added among other things, a Picatinny rail for the attachment of lights, lasers, and other accessories to the weapon. The M9A1 also has more aggressive front and backstrap checkering, a beveled magazine well for easier reloading, and a reversible magazine release. M9A1 pistols are used with PVD coated magazines for improved functioning in sandy environments.
In addition to the Italian and U.S. armed forces, the Beretta 92 has been adopted by dozens of armies around the world and is also widely used by police. It has been produced under license in Brazil and France and I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that within the next decade it will replace the FN HP as the western world's most popular military pistol.
In 2009 the U.S. government signed a contract with Beretta for 350,000 M9 and M9A1 pistols. Despite continuing criticism — mostly unfounded and undeserved — from its critics, the Beretta will be the standard sidearm of U.S. armed forces well into the foreseeable future.
While the U.S. Army's acceptance of a 9mm pistol was the big news in the handgun world of the 1980s, a quiet event occurred that, in the long run, may have a greater effect on military pistols.
In 1980, the Austrian military announced that it would seek tenders for a new, modern duty pistol to replace the aging Walther P1 pistols. The Austrian Ministry of Defense formulated a list of 17 criteria for the new generation service pistol:
1. The pistol must fire the NATO-standard 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge.
2. The magazines would not require any means of assistance for loading.
3. The magazines must have a minimum capacity of eight rounds.
4. All actions necessary to prepare the pistol for firing and any actions required after firing must be done single-handed, either right- or left-handed.
5. The pistol must be absolutely secure against accidental discharge from shock, stroke and drops from a height of 2 meters onto a steel plate.
6. Disassembly of the main parts for maintenance and reassembling must be possible without the use of any tools.
7. Maintenance and cleaning of the pistol must be accomplished without the use of tools.
8. The pistol's construction may not exceed 58 individual parts (equivalent of a P.38).
9. Gauges, measuring and precise testing devices must not be necessary for the long-term maintenance of the pistol.
10. The manufacturer is required to provide the Ministry of Defense with a complete set of engineering drawings and exploded views. These must be supplied with all the relevant details for the production of the pistol.
11. All components must be fully interchangeable between pistols.
12. No more than 20 malfunctions are permitted during the first 10,000 rounds fired, not even minor jams that can be cleared without the use of any tools.
13. After firing 15,000 rounds of standard ammunition, the pistol will be inspected for wear. The pistol will then be used to fire an overpressure test cartridge generating 72,518 psi (the normal maximum operating pressure for the 9mm NATO is 36,550 psi).
14. The critical components must continue to function properly and be up to specifications, otherwise the pistol will be disqualified.
15. When handled properly, under no circumstances may the user be endangered by case ejection.
16. The muzzle energy must be at least 441.5 joules when firing a 9mm Hirtenberger ammunition.
17. Pistols scoring less than 70% of the total available points would not be accepted.
Glock GmbH of Deutsche-Wagram, Austria was a company founded by Gaston Glock. Glock had no experience with firearms design or manufacture, but did have extensive experience in advanced synthetic polymers, knowledge that was instrumental in the company's design of the first successful line of pistols with a polymer frame.
In 1982 Glock assembled a team of leading handgun experts from European military, police and civilian sport shooting circles to define the most desirable characteristics in a combat pistol. Within three months, Glock developed a working prototype that made extensive use of synthetic materials and modern manufacturing technologies in its design, making it a very cost-effective candidate. Several samples of the 9mm Glock 17 (so named because it was his company's 17th patent) were submitted for assessment trials in early 1982, and after passing a series of exhaustive trials, the Glock was adopted as the Pistole 80.
The Glock 17 is a recoil-operated, locked breech semi-automatic pistol that uses a modified Browning cam-lock system adapted from the Hi-Power pistol. The firearm's locking mechanism utilizes a linkless, vertically tilting barrel with a rectangular chamber hood that moves up into, and bears on the front edge of, the ejection port.
During the recoil stroke, the barrel moves rearward initially locked together with the slide approximately 3mm until the bullet leaves the barrel and chamber pressure drops to a safe level. An angled lug on the bottom of the barrel then interacts with a tapered locking block integrated into the frame, pulling the barrel down and unlocking it from the slide.
This camming action terminates the barrel's movement while the slide continues back under recoil, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case.
A recoil spring located under the barrel then pulls the slide forward, picking up and chambering the next round in the magazine. As the slide goes into battery, the chamber hood moves up into the ejection port, locking the two units together again.
But what makes the Glock so unique is that its frame — and a number of internal components, including the magazine — are made from polymer. This had several advantages: the pistol consists of fewer parts, making it easier and cheaper to manufacture; the polymer frame makes it very light; polymer requires less maintenance then metal; polymer is as strong as metal and can take even more wear and abuse; since there are no separate grip panels, the grip frame is narrow allowing the use of wide, high capacity magazines without making the pistol difficult for persons with small hands to operate; the polymer frame flexes under recoil, absorbing some of the recoil pulse making the pistol more comfortable to shoot.
Glock also pioneered the "Safe Action" trigger, whose trigger stroke is in between that of a single-action and double-action trigger. As the trigger is pulled, it disables three different safeties before the pistol can fire. Thus there are no external safety devices that must be manipulated, which makes training and operation much easier. Many believe that the lack of an external safety is what has prevented the Glock from being adopted by more armies then it has.
While the Glock 17 generated a lot of controversy, if not outright distrust, much to its detractors' surprise, it proved to be a simple, sturdy and reliable pistol.
As military bureaucracies tend to be more conservative than others, the Glock was accepted by police departments before many armies considered it. The Glock 17 helped introduce the concept of the "plastic" pistol, one that has become so popular that every major handgun maker in the world now offers such a product.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the Glock 17 had been adopted by, among others, the armies of Austria, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Venezuela. The British Royal Army just ordered 25,000 of them. It is also widely used by elite military and police units. Many — usually privately purchased guns — are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I can see no good reason to write an article like this and not burn gunpowder I obtained samples of the above pistols to run through a mano a mano shootoff.
My good friend Jon Michael Littman provided an Inglis No. 2 Mark I* Hi-Power and another acquaintance, Brooks Hedrick, loaned me a Walther P.38 that his father brought back from Germany in 1945. After searching the darker recesses of my gun safe, I managed to locate a new Glock 17 Gen 4, while Beretta USA kindly sent along a new Beretta 92FS, the civilian version of the military's M9. I obtained a supply of U.S. 9mm M882 ammunition sufficient to my purposes and headed out to the range to see how this quartet of handguns performed.
I decided to compare the pistols in the following categories: ergonomics, controls, triggers, sights, ease of reloading, accuracy and offhand shootability.
Ergonomics: this is a very subjective category and I'm sure there are as many shooters who will disagree with me as will agree. I found the Beretta's grip to be the most user-friendly and the pistol pointed more naturally for me than the other three. That being said, I must admit that the M92's grip was the widest and shooters with smaller hands might have trouble with it.
Runner up as the Inglis HP. It pointed very naturally and just felt "right" in my hand. In fact it might have beaten the Beretta except for its short grip tang which allowed the hammer to bite the web on my shooting hand. The Glock came in third, primarily because its grip to frame angle makes me point low, forcing me to consciously lift the muzzle when shooting rapid fire. Through years of use, I have overcome this problem but I have heard other shooters complain about it also.
Coming in on the heels of the pack was the P.38. While the grip was comfortable, that skinny barrel sticking out there all by itself made for a badly unbalanced handgun. One might almost say "butt heavy."
Controls: the Glock 17 led the pack here primarily because it has fewer controls then the other pistols and is thus the easiest to operate! I found the Inglis' flat thumb safety so difficult to manipulate that I almost placed it last in this category but after due consideration have rated it a tie with the Beretta and P.38.
Triggers: I had assumed that the Inglis' SA trigger would make it the winner here but since the pistol still has the magazine disconnect installed, the pull was rather gritty and heavy. This category's winner was the Glock 17. While the Safe Action trigger has a longer stroke then the Inglis, it had a crisper letoff.
Both the Beretta and the Walther DA/SA triggers function identically, but the Beretta had a smooth, consistent DA and a crisp SA, which the P.38 did not. After much thought, I gave second place to the Beretta and 3rd to the HP. I found the P.38's trigger a real trial and so it finished dead last.
Sights: the M92FS had an excellent set of three-dot sights which provided a fast sight picture and so finished in first place. What surprised me is that while the Inglis HP had a "different" style of sights, the inverted V-blade up front mated to the generous square notch rear were easy to pick up even when transitioning between targets, so I gave it the second place position.
Personally I have never cared for the factory sights on Glock pistols, as I find them too coarse for precise shooting, but they were far and away better than those that graced the P.38. The German pistol's wide U-notch and skinny blade front made it difficult to take a good sight picture, especially when shooting fast.
Ease of Reloading: Beretta took first here also. The magazine release was easy to manipulate and the magazines fell free loaded or empty, slide forward or locked back. The Glock 17 was close behind, although I found the magazine release a bit short for fast manipulation. Because of its magazine disconnect safety, the Inglis' magazines sometimes did not fall free. With its heel-type magazine catch, the Walther P.38 was doomed to take last place in this category€¦again.
Accuracy: I fired three five-shot groups with each pistol from an MTM pistol rest at 15 yards and averaged the results in the table on this page. Because of its poor sights and heavy trigger, the P.38 consistently grouped low and left. I had to nurse the Inglis's trigger a bit, but the effort was worth it as every group printed exactly to point of aim. The Glock and Beretta performed more or less identically, so I'm going to call this a Glock/Beretta/High Power tie with the P.38 a distant fourth.
Offhand shootability: I then ran each pistol through an impromptu offhand exercise, firing 15 double taps (two rounds rapid-fire from the ready position) with a two-handed hold on a combat target set out at 7 yards. All four of the pistols handled acceptably, exhibited good recoil control and proved capable of putting rounds where I wanted them, albeit in groups of varying degrees of compactness. I ended up scoring them the same as in Ergonomics: Beretta, Inglis, Glock and Walther.
I realized that no matter which pistol I declare the winner, a significant proportion of the readership would get angry with me. But what can I do?
While all four of these pistols would serve a combat soldier more or less adequately, if I had to declare a winner it would be the Beretta M92FS!
OK, before my long-suffering editor is inundated with irate letters and e-mails let me explain my decision. I found the Beretta to have the best ergonomics and to be the easiest and most comfortable of the four to shoot. I believe that for the average soldier a pistol with a DA/SA trigger mechanism is the safest choice and I do not agree with those who believe transitioning between the two trigger pulls is detrimental to speed or accuracy.
For what's it worth, I also found the Beretta the easiest of the four to disassemble for cleaning. In its various guises, the Beretta 92 has proven rugged and reliable and is well on its way to becoming the most widely used military pistol of the 21st century. Which says a lot about it.
I would like to thank the following for providing materials used to prepare this report: Jean Huon, Peter Kokalis, Michael Jon Littman, Brooks Hedrick, Grant Rombaugh, Gabriele DePlano, Shelley Decker, Beretta USA, Glock, Inc. and all my friends at www.gunboards.com.