The Beretta M9A3: The Latest Upgrade of the U.S. Service Pistol?

The Beretta M9A3: The Latest Upgrade of the U.S. Service Pistol?


ABOVE: M9A3 pistol equipped with a SilencerCo Octane 9mm sound suppressor.

In 1985 a legend was retired. The highly regarded M1911A1 pistol was replaced with the Italian designed Beretta 92F chambered in the now NATO standardized 9x19mm cartridge. This caused ripples in the small arms community on many fronts. Perhaps the most significant was the replacement of the combat proven .45 ACP cartridge with the 9x19mm. Although the 9x19mm has seen just as much, if not significantly more combat throughout the world, its reputation as a “man stopper” was less than the venerable 45. The 124 grain full metal jacketed projectile often passed right through the target and kept on going, requiring multiple shots. The 45 ACP’s reputation was that any place the enemy was hit would bring them down. Playing the devil’s advocate, that perception is more than a bit unrealistic, and the U.S. was the only country in NATO to use the 45 ACP cartridge. There was a huge push to standardize all NATO countries with the same ammunition for all small arms. The M1911-series had significantly more recoil that the 9x19mm caliber pistols and held half the magazine capacity. The facts are that 9x19mm is the NATO standardized cartridge, it is easier to shoot and it carries double the ammunition without reloading.

The new US service pistol program was called the XM9. The XM9 competition had participants from all of the major American gun manufacturers including Smith & Wesson, Colt as well the foreign firms of Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, Beretta, FN, Walther and Steyr. On September 18, 1984 the Army eliminated three of the five finalists. The Heckler & Koch P7M13, Walther P88 and the Smith & Wesson 459M were eliminated leaving the finalists, the Beretta 92SB-F and the Sig Sauer P226 as the only “technically acceptable” candidates. The final award would be a combination of the scores based on the candidate’s performance as well as price. When the dust settled, Beretta U.S.A. was awarded the M9 contract. The price was extremely close between Beretta and Sig. In fact the guns cost the same. The deciding factor was on the cost of the magazines and spare parts. Beretta came in slightly under Sig on the cost of the magazine and spare parts package. The fact that Beretta had a manufacturing facility in the US helped out this decision greatly. On January 14, 1985 the formal announcement was made by the Department of the Army announcing a five-year multi-year fixed price contract of 315,930 M9 pistols. There were terms in this contract, in particular where the pistols were to be manufactured. The first 52,930 pistols could be manufactured in Italy. The next 56,000 M9 pistols would have to be assembled and tested in Accokeek, Maryland. After that, all the M9 pistols must be manufactured in the American plant in Accokeek, Maryland. Based on this author’s research, the Beretta and Sig pistols performed equally as well. There was no quality compromise by purchasing the Beretta over the Sig.

The standard US service pistol since 1985, the Beretta M9 pistol. Basically a Model 92FS but with US Government markings. There have been several attempts to replace this combat proven pistol but it still stands. We’re all curious to see the outcome of the Modular Handgun System, will it come up with a suitable replacement?

The competitors were not ready to go quietly into that good night, as Dylan Thomas had raged against. Beretta was to have the final signed contract in February but this was delayed by a lawsuit brought on by Heckler & Koch, Smith & Wesson and SACO. At this time a retrial was to be conducted as requested by Congress. Claims were made by competitors that Beretta used hand-selected pistols for the trials that were not an accurate representation of their production pistols. The request for test samples went out on May 10, 1988 inviting any contractor to submit candidates for government testing. Only Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger submitted weapons. Randomly selected M9 pistols from the most recent Beretta U.S.A. production were used in this re-competition. The competition got their second trial and perhaps regretted it. During the testing both the Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger candidates failed to meet some of the mandatory requirements as well as the minimum performance requirements. On May 22, 1989 the Department of the Army announced that the Beretta M9 won the retrial, Beretta’s M9 was still the winner.

Based on testing done by Beretta U.S.A., the average rounds between stoppages of the M9 pistol is an incredible 17,500 rounds. During one test, twelve 92F pistols fired 168,000 rounds without a single malfunction. U.S. Army tests established the average durability of the M9 slides at over 35,000 rounds and the frame was over 30,000 rounds, the point at which testing ceased. This is over 7 times the contractually mandated service life of the pistol. The M9 pistol was assigned the stock number NSN 1005-01-118-2640.

The slide is very unique as well. The entire top of the slide is open, basically preventing the possibility of a failure to feed or eject. Beretta 92-series pistols are legendary for their reputation of reliability. The first article this author ever did was a 20,500 round endurance test on a Beretta 92FS. Throughout all that ammunition there was not one single failure to feed, extract or eject. The only failure was due to an underpowered cartridge which caused the slide to short stroke. The locking block failed on this pistol at just over 19,000 rounds. Based on the pitting on the right wing of the locking block there was evidence this was going to happen. Normally, once these signs are seen on inspection, you would replace the locking block but this was a torture test and was meant to push the limits. As per the military specification, the M9 slide, barrel and locking block are proof tested and magnetic particle inspected to ensure there are no stress fractures before they are shipped to the U.S. Govt.

The M9 service pistol (top) compared to the proposed replacement pistol by Beretta, the M9A3 (bottom). Notice the different colors between the two. The modified trigger guard and Mil-Std-1913 rail pop right out as defining improvements.

Once the pistol went into service the Navy SEALs had found an issue with the M9. One SEAL unit broke seven slides, causing a catastrophic slide failure. The slide cracked and separated in the location of the locking block causing the rear of the slide to come off the rear of the pistol and the slide striking the shooter in the face. No serious injuries were caused but this alarmed the military. Safety notices went out mandating changing out M9 slides at very low round counts as safety precautions while the investigation was underway. So, what was to be determined was if this was a problem with the pistol, the ammunition or the operator. The SEALs immediately felt it was due to the poor quality of the pistol. They stopped using the M9 in favor of the Sig Sauer P226. Beretta has never seen this condition with more than a million of pistols they had produced. Upon completion of the investigation it was found the culprit of the problem was ammunition. The major contributing problem was that the ammunition was +P+ ammunition, which the pistol was not designed for. The first runs of M882 Ball ammunition exceeded 50,000 PSI, which was significantly hotter than proof loads. The pistol can handle limited numbers of this ammunition but it is not recommended that any alloy frame pistol fire a constant diet of submachine gun ammunition. This same ammunition cracked frames of Sig P226’s. Another contributing factor was the extremely high round count on these SEAL pistols. The broken slides had between 4,500 to 30,000 rounds through them. After the investigation was concluded, the restrictions on slide and barrel replacement was halted.

Due to the fact that this ammunition existed out in the field, the military decided they wanted a safeguard in case this was to happen again, so the shooter would not get injured. Beretta felt it was important to correct the safety risk by getting proper spec ammunition and that the pistol could be designed with a slide stop safety. At the request and on the dime of the government, Beretta designed a slide overtravel mechanism that if the slide were to fail it would not come off the frame of the gun. Beretta enlarged the head of the hammer pin on the left side of the gun, then a recess was machined under the slide on the left side where the hammer pin would sit underneath. The recess cuts off at a specific distance. If the slide were to come back farther, the hammer pin would stop the slide’s rearward travel protecting the shooter. Beretta retrofitted a quantity of pistols and they worked it into new production (92FS). Beretta did offer slide and hammer pin upgrades to customers who anticipated high usage but never offered this as an across the board upgrade to commercial or law enforcement customers due to the rareness of the problem. Currently, slide failures are normally seen in training units where the same pistols are used to train troops day after day and the pistols wear out. It is extreme round counts and heavy use that causes this condition. The military was much slower to respond to absolve Beretta of fault of the slide failures than it was to criticize them. In fact Beretta’s reputation was damaged enough that Beretta sued the government and won. The claim was settled out of court.

The M9A3 arrives suppressor ready with a threaded barrel along with a thread protective cap.

The locking block used on the M9 is similar to the one utilized in the Walther P38. Unlike most recoil operated pistols where the barrel drops down to unlock, the M9 barrel stays in line with the shooter. The locking block drops down allowing the slide to recoil. This alters the felt recoil of the M9 compared to many other conventional military pistols. The recoil is more of a “push” than a “snap”. This helps the controllability of the pistol during rapid fire. Every locking block manufactured for the M9 pistol as per specification is proof tested and then magnetic particle inspected. The final locking block will have “PM” marked on the top front of the locking block, indicating the part was proof tested and then magnetic particle inspected. If one were to say there is a weak link in the original M9, I would have to say it would be the locking block. It must be clarified that Beretta has had three generations of updates to the locking block since the adoption of the M9. The original locking block had a service life of between 8 to 10,000 rounds. The second version of the locking block main changes were the radial relief cuts near the locking surface of the block to relive stress increasing the serviceability of the part to 17 to 22,000 rounds. Now there is a third generation. When a locking block fails, it is almost always the left wing. This is due to the torque caused by the right twist of the barrel. The locking block seldom breaks without warning. There are warning signs that if heeded prevent this from happening at an inopportune moment. One will see pitting on the face of the wings on the locking block from wear. Once this is seen in the M9 pistol, it is time to change it out. The third generation locking block increases the surface contact area of the locking block so much that it has to use a modified plunger as well as a change in shape. This further increases the service life. The M9 pistol would not see any of these enhanced locking blocks. Due to the government approved Technical Data Package, the pistol must adhere to the original drawings. They never approved any of the updated versions of the locking blocks. However, there were several contracts over the years where the government bought commercial off the shelf (COTS) versions of the M9 which did have the updated components. The new Marine Corps M9A1 for instance was a COTS pistol and shared all the new improvements. The M9 had developed some bad situations in the Global War on Terrorism due to failing locking blocks. Most of this was caused by defective locking bocks manufactured by sources other than Beretta U.S.A., they were not made to specification and broke relatively early.

The barrel itself is 4.92 inches long and rifled with 6 lands and grooves and a right hand twist. As per military specification, it has a chrome bore and chamber. This is common on most of Beretta’s pistols and shotguns. This prevents pitting, which is caused by corrosion and it aids in extraction and ejection. The barrels are proof tested and magnetic particle inspected to ensure quality and integrity (Marked PM on the left side of the barrel).

The M9 utilizes a 15-round double stack magazine. The magazine is black and has an aluminum follower. It should be noted that Beretta switched over to a more reliable polymer follower years ago. The US Government subcontracted this magazine out to Checkmate Industries as spare parts. During combat operations in Iraq it was found the sand would stick in the finish causing failure of the shot column to rise resulting in failures to feed. Troops who were deploying learned very quickly to look for Beretta marked magazines.

The backstrap of the M9 (top) and M9A3 (bottom). The M9A3 is equipped with the more slender handgrips intended for users with smaller hands.

The Marine Corps Updated the M9 pistol to the M9A1

In the spring of 2005, Beretta U.S.A. was awarded a contract for the United States Marine Corps for 3,480 M9A1 pistols along with 6,960 PVD nickel plated improved magazines as well as 3,480 M9A1 pistol holster systems. The M9A1 was designed with specifications provided by the Marines. The M9A1 pistol is a COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) firearm being procured by the Marines. Basically what that means is the pistol does not have to conform to the M9 Technical Data package. In other words the Marines were able to make changes to the pistol without going through the political small arms procurement establishment and get exactly what they wanted. Also, these are not marked with U.S. government markings nor proof codes. No rights nor TDP will be provided to the government.

One major change to the pistol is the addition of a Mil-Std-1913 rail to the front of the frame for attaching a flashlight. Another addition to the frame is that the vertical gripping grooves of the M9 pistol would be replaced with a checkering pattern to further enhance the ability to grip the pistol under adverse conditions. Additionally the trigger guard was re-contoured to better accept various tactical lights on the market. The identifying mark is on the left side of the frame which states “Type M9A1”. Next to that is the serial number which has the non-military “BER” serial number prefix.

The components of the M9A1, with the exception of the frame, are all compatible with the M9 service pistol. The same components are used so there is no logistical burden of using special components that needed added into the inventory. The slide is marked with commercial marking and no proof or magnetic particle inspection marks are present. The Marines opted for a three-dot sight system instead of the standard M9 two-dot system. The M9A1 uses the third generation improved locking block as well.

The magazines have been improved as well. There is a special PVD nickel finish placed on the magazine to increase their reliability in the desert by eliminating the need for lubrication. The magazine body has been improved to make it more durable and reliable. The ribs built into the magazine body reduce fouling from sand and dirt environments by allowing the debris to trickle down the internal sides of the magazine tube. The improved plastic followers are used. These are more reliable due to the fact that dirt and sand do not stick as easily to them as the aluminum followers and they are corrosion resistant.

Perhaps the most monumental change is the improvement to the safety. Complaints have been heard that if one charges the M9 pistol (top) by grabbing the back of the slide and pulling rearward, the safety would inadvertently engage (Bad idea). The M9A3 (bottom) has changed the angle of the safety lever allowing one to easily retract the slide without accidentally engaging the safety.

US Military Solicits for a New Service Pistol: The M9A3

In January of 2013 the army released the requirements for yet another handgun replacement program which would be between 250,000 to 550,000 pistols. This Request for Information would be called the Modular Handgun System (MHS). This is by far not the only program started to replace the M9 pistol. There have been many in the more than 30 years the M9 has been in service. The program was to provide a handgun with improvements such as various grip configurations, additional magazine capacity, have a Mil-Std-1913 rail for mounting flashlight and laser modules, be fully ambidextrous, make use of a sound suppressor and have a finish of a non-reflective neutral color. They are also looking for possible increases in accuracy and dispersion out to 50 meters, modularity, durability, and reliability in all environments. For accuracy the gauge is being able to hit a 4-inch circle 90% of the time at 50 years throughout the life cycle of the pistol. It must be ergonomically viable for use with soldiers with smaller hands such as many females. Reliability threshold is 2,000 mean rounds between stoppages, 10,000 mean rounds between failures and 35,000 round service life, which is really not that much more than the current M9 pistol.

The most interesting thing, in this author’s opinion, is that this request is not caliber specific. They want improved terminal performance than is provided by the M882 ball round. This makes a world of difference for the tried and true 9x19mm. With the use of modern ammunition (Federal HST, Hornady Critical Defense, etc….) it can change the entire terminal performance possibilities of the 9x19mm to the point there is little if any need to replace the caliber. Some companies are expected to introduce the .40 cal and for sure some will try to bring back the all American 45 ACP caliber.

Beretta USA wasted no time. In December of 2014 they introduced a new pistol by way of an Engineering Change Proposal in accordance with the terms of the in effect M9 contract. It was a highly modified version of their Commercial Off The Shelf M9A1, a pistol that they felt would meet almost all of the MHS requirements at a fraction of the cost. Furthermore, they had already made the considerations of costs for the government to procure a new pistol; cost of pistols, magazines, spare parts, training, time to replace current inventory for both pistol and ammunition and they offered the Army a way to get everything they wanted with a very low cost. This pistol they coined as the “M9A3.” The only government approved M9 pistol is the standard M9 pistol. Both the M9A1 and M9A3 are named by Beretta.

The US Marine Corps Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) M9A1 pistol. Notice the enhanced trigger guard, Mil-Std-1913 rail and removable front and rear sights.

This new Beretta M9 pistol design uses the basic configuration of the M9A1 frame. This includes the 3-slot Mil-Std-1913 rail and reinforced trigger guard. The frontstrap and backstrap of the pistol grip have an improved grip pattern. The pistol sports two grip configurations. For small handed individuals there are two thin grip panels and for those users with larger hands a wrap-around grip manufactured by Hogue is offered. The magazine release button is still ambidextrous but has been made larger, which makes its actuation much easier.

The slide has several improvements over the standard M9. The front and rear sights are now both removable permitting easy sight replacement as well as easy configuration of night sights or whatever else may be required. The M9A3 comes standard with tritium night sights. One of the most frequent complaints was that due to a slide mounted safety, when the slide was retracted the user could inadvertently actuate the safety and engage it when the rear of the slide was grasped. Beretta now has given the lever a slight angle which would basically eliminate this. Beretta also redesigned the slide to be “universal” and allow the unit armorer to easily replace the “F” safety/decocker with the “G” decocker only lever… with a simple change of parts.

The barrel remains the same with the addition of threading for easily mounted sound suppressor. Also the most recent revision of the locking block is being used which significantly increases the life of the locking block over that of the TDP original Mil-Spec M9 pistol.

The magazine is similar to that of the PVD finished magazine of the M9A1 but the capacity has been increased from 15 to 17 rounds of 9x19mm ammunition.

The frame is anodized a Flat Dark Earth tone and the slide and barrel are Cerakote™ finished in a Flat Dark Earth color. For all intents and purposes this pistol meets the MHS criteria.

Going through Beretta’s line-up you notice the M9, M9A1 and M9A3. Where is the M9A2? Beretta had this part figured out for Uncle Sam as well and proposed it in its ECP. Beretta could upgrade all M9’s in the inventory to almost the M9A3 configuration, hence the “A2” monicker. The MIL-STD-1913 rail would be permanently attached to the frame (instead of integrally machined), and the grip would remain standard M9, but otherwise all other improvements would be introduced to this “upgraded” M9. The current guns could be modified or have replacement frames issued. Also a majority of the parts in current inventory can still be used. Basically the barrel, sights, safety and grips would be added to the inventory. Refinishing of slides can be done by an armorer. Taking all this into consideration there is a tremendous amount of savings to the US government and taxpayers.

Shown is the disassembled M9 pistol. Both the M9A1 and the M9A3 disassemble and clean in an identical manner to the standard pistol of more than 30 years issue. Pistol is disassembled for maintenance without the need for any tools.

The M9A3 provided to SAR is what has been described. The only difference is the way the slide is marked. It has the commercial Beretta Stylized PB on the slide. It was provided in a plastic tan ammo can-type case with three 17-round magazines. Double action pull was 8.75 pounds and single action was 4.25 pounds
on the T&E pistol.

The M9A3 was tested with a SilencerCo Octane sound suppressor. The threads on the M9A3 are .5×28 inch and that was the required spec from SilencerCo. The length of the suppressor is 7.50 inches with a diameter of 1.37 inches. The suppressor weighs 10.8 ounces and is manufactured from aluminum and stainless steel. The suppressor is user disassembled for maintenance guaranteeing long service. The baffles are manufactured from stainless steel and use the SilencerCo CTA™ or Click Together Assembly baffle system. This particular suppressor is full-auto rated and can be used with everything from .380 ACP, 9x19mm, .357 Sig and 300 Blackout ammunition. The MSRP is $918. According to SilencerCo the Octane has a muzzle decibel average of 127.0 dB.

In testing there were 200 rounds of IMI Samson 9x19mm 124gr NATO ball fired for function. There were 100 rounds of Winchester 147gr FMJ subsonic and 100 rounds of Hornady Custom 147gr XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) rounds fired with no malfunctions of any sort. Throughout the 400 rounds of ammunition the pistol was never cleaned. Moderate lubrication was applied before testing began.

The Army in the end rejected the Beretta proposal in favor of conducting the MHS program. Was this a wise move? If in fact the Army decides to stay with the 9x19mm cartridge this is without a doubt a very good option for them. No matter what a new pistol does, it will not offer enough benefit to warrant the expenditure. If they opt for a different caliber, then that is a different story. In this case, these costs are unavoidable. Going with modern hollow point ammunition technology in this author’s opinion will enable the 9x19mm caliber to be extremely effective and be the right military caliber. If still restricted to M882 ball though, perhaps a new caliber will be in order. Beretta USA has come up with an excellent alternative that would benefit both the US soldier as well as the US taxpayer.