What is a Combat Handgun?



Submitted by Eric Daniel

Read this article the other day about the Air Force's $90 million request for new pistols getting nixed and instead they were granted $5 million to "study" joint combat pistol needs with the Army.  This, in turn, reminded me of a piece I'd written several years ago on the H&K Mk. 23 Mod 0 SOCOM.  A lot of money was invested in building that state of the art pistol, and there's no arguing that it is in fact, one hell of a handgun; but you don't see too many of them around.  Of all the SOF personnel I saw in Iraq, none had anything other than the M9 Beretta, and of the several I spoke to about the .45 SOF pistol, none had ever seen one. 

To be sure, I'm sure there are more SOF folk than there are SOCOM pistols, and there might be some sort of SOP regarding the use of the SOCOM, but if that were the case, why go through all that trouble to make such a superlative firearm and either not issue it in greater numbers, or restrict the use of the ones you do have?

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I am not a "gun" guy.  As a soldier, I use firearms as the tools of my trade. I can take them apart and put them back together, and I know how to troubleshoot them when something does not work right.  What I can't do is quote chapter and verse on muzzle energy, knockdown power, stopping power, fit, feel, or functionality of any particular firearm or bullet.  This having been said, however, I think, even given my own limited "gun" knowledge, I could come up with a replacement for the M9 for less than 5 million dollars.

Take my experience with the M1911A1 .45 pistol and the M9 Beretta.  The thing I liked best about the M1911A1 was the fact that it was made out of forged steel; You could drop it, kick it, crawl on it, you could do anything to it short of melt it, and you wouldn't affect it's reliability.  Moreover, properly blued or parkerized, the M1911A1 was very forgiving of the elements.

Not everything on the M1911A1, however, was perfect.  I thought the ejection port on the slide to be too narrow and I remember that "stove piping" was a constant issue, where the spent casing would extract from the chamber, but would not eject clear of the slide.  Now I don't know if this issue was the result of the small ejection port or some other issue, but it was something I noticed with the pistol.  The lack of removable or adjustable sights seemed to me to be a viable point of improvement.  While I understand that the inclusion of such features would obviously drive up the price of the weapon, I would have, at a very minimum, liked to have seen replaceable sights on the pistol.  Many, many of the .45s I saw had mangled front and rear sights, no doubt the result of decades of service.  Adjustable sights might have been something of a luxury for a strictly "defensive" weapon, but I believe replaceable sights would have been an improvement.  Finally, some complained about the recoil from the .45, that it was too powerful, or that the weapon, being made from steel, was too heavy.  I personally thought the recoil was manageable (more than the M9 to be sure, but not alarmingly so) and when compared to all the other gear I was hauling around, the extra 2 pounds from the M1911A1 was hardly noticeable (not to mention a loaded M9 weighs almost the same.)

As for the M9 Beretta, it fired well, it was easy to take apart and put back together, and since it was made of a non-ferrous alloy, it was again very tolerant of the elements.  Moreover, it did have a nice big ejection port (right out the top of the slide.)  On the downside the M9 was made of a non-ferrous alloy, which made it significantly more susceptible to damage from what I would consider routine exposure to the combat environment.  I've seen M9s crack when dropped off of vehicles, suffer significant gouging, and pinching of the frame.  With the M1911A1 if I could get the slide to work I had faith that the pistol would work, and work safely.  Not so with the M9.  Moreover, the M9 was a SA/DA (single action/double action) pistol, which meant that you didn't need to thumb cock it like you did with the .45 or rack the slide to cock the hammer, you could just pull the trigger and the hammer would cock itself and fire.  However, with the Beretta the trigger, in DA mode (hammer down) was WAY out there and for some folk, reaching all the way out there with one finger was literally quite a reach (I've even seen folk "double pull" the trigger where they pull the trigger partway and then readjust their finger position to complete the process.)  For me, coming from a M1911A1 background, I always thumb cocked my M9 during qualification.  This may not have been the standard, but it was how I "grew up" and I didn't see the need to go to a different method simply because TRADOC said so.  Others have also complained about the "fat" double stacked, 15-round magazine, but again, with my big hands, that wasn't an issue.  Finally, as with the M1911A1 the M9 does not have removable or replaceable sights, though again, in the grand scheme of things, this isn't really a deal breaker as much as it would have been means of maintaining the accuracy of the pistol over its service life.

(Now, before anyone mentions it, I intentionally did not address the physical characteristics of the bullets themselves.  Over the course of my military career the only thing I've ever "killed" with my pistol was paper and plywood, so I can't comment on the combat utility of either the .45 ACP or the 9mm Parabellum.  But bullet lethality is a whole

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