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Why One Gun Writer Went Back to the 9mm

Updated on September 17, 2017
LJ Bonham profile image

LJ Bonham is an author, historian, hunter, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

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A long time ago (it gets longer and longer) I bought my first handgun—an old Smith & Wesson Model 27 in .357 Magnum with a six-inch, pinned barrel. Back then, things were indeed simpler when it came to self-defense handguns. The world divided into two neat camps: revolver or semi-auto pistol. Those then subdivided into just a few caliber choices—if you were serious about tools for close encounters of the dangerous kind. Revolvers were .38s or .357s (the bigger bores were either cult cartridges like the .41 and .44 Rem. Mags. or outliers like the .44 Special). Proper pistols came in .45 or 9mm; most Americans, whether citizens or cops, preferred the .45.

Poll Results

After a few years, I had an urge for a semi-auto pistol—my trusty wheel gun seemed big and clunky. All the gun magazines were deep in the Wonder Nine craze then as every few months it seemed a new high-capacity 9mm hit the market. At the time, I had the good fortune to have numerous co-workers who were either former cops or Vietnam combat veterans (I’ve always run with a dangerous crowd—wink). Most recommended a 9mm. I took their advice and bought a used Smith & Wesson (recurring theme here) Model 659 pistol.

Then the search began for the right ammunition. I learned the FBI issued S&W 459s to some agents, the blued brother to my stainless steel prize, along with Winchester Silvertips—a well-regarded load back then. I figured if America’s premier law men and women thought it a good thing, I’d have it, too. Happiness followed, I had what the best had.

S&W 5906.  The later version of author's 659.
S&W 5906. The later version of author's 659. | Source

A Dark Day in Florida

Then came April 11, 1986. Two desperate, sociopathic bank robbers, determined not to go to prison, took on eight FBI agents in an intense, four minute fire fight in Miami, Florida. They were killed, as most people who shoot it out with the G-Men are, but not before they in turn slew two agents and wounded five more. How had such a fiasco happened?

There were many reasons, from poor tactics to just plain bad luck, but one thing stuck out in the Bureau’s mind, and everyone else’s. The perps were hit six and twelve times, respectively, with everything from buck shot to .38+P Specials, .357 Magnums, and 9mms. However, just one 9mm Silvertip which “could” have stopped the fight received all the attention.

Special Agent Dove hit suspect Michael Platt with a 9mm Silvertip from his S&W 459 in the upper right arm when the fight started. The bullet blasted through the arm and into Platt’s chest cavity, but stopped about two centimeters from the heart. Ah-ha, the Bureau (and countless other pundits) screamed, we have our witch! Never mind this particular bullet had cut Platt’s brachial artery and eventually killed the man, just not in time to save Special Agents Dove and Grogan. Overnight, the 9mm became a pariah, and even if you decided to keep yours, no way would you put those weakling Silvertips in it. The bullet still has a bad reputation to this day.

9mm Silvertip (right), the Miami shootout scapegoat.
9mm Silvertip (right), the Miami shootout scapegoat. | Source

Suspicion is a Contagious Disease

Alas, I too began to doubt the reliable, accurate 659 and those Silvertips which I had loved up until then. Like the FBI and other agencies, I bounced around the handgun and cartridge spectrum, desperate to find Excalibur which would hold society’s hob-goblins at bay should the need arise.

Journey of a Thousand Guns Begins with the First Step

Soon, a Colt M1911 Combat Elite chambered for the legendary .45 ACP took up residence in my home. Just one problem, the darn thing wouldn’t digest hollow points to save its life—or mine. Solution? Get local gunsmith to massage the ramp and barrel throat. Result? Baby still choked on anything other than mil-spec ball ammo. Strikes one, two, and three.

Will our next contestant enter and sign in please. America's second War Against Drugs had been in full swing for half a decade and many narcs had moved up from 9mms and .45s to big bore revolvers--to make an impression on suspects ramped up on crack and PCP. Ah-hah, I thought, sounds like just the ticket, so my search for a suitable candidate began.

Then wonder of wonders, I found a S&W Model 57 .41 Magnum sitting on a dealer’s shelf begging like a puppy to go home with me. Bought the six-inch, Dirty Harry-lite brute, and fell in love with what, in my opinion, is still the best all-round revolver cartridge ever developed. Got the beast’s barrel bobbed back to just over three inches--for “social occasions” as the gunsmith quipped. Then a sad reality sunk in: no one, save myself it seemed, loved the .41 as much as I. Scarce, expensive ammo precluded sufficient practice to stay proficient. Model 57 shrinks to the back in gun safe, a forlorn waif.

.41 Remington Magnum.  Still the best revolver cartridge ever, in the author's not so humble opinion.
.41 Remington Magnum. Still the best revolver cartridge ever, in the author's not so humble opinion. | Source
S&W 657 with 3 inch barrel, the stainless steel version of author's Model 57.
S&W 657 with 3 inch barrel, the stainless steel version of author's Model 57. | Source

A Perfect Ten

Then the clouds parted. The FBI (remember them?) had completed an exhaustive test program (with yours and my money) and decided they had found the best ever (in their opinion) hand-held death ray. Enter the 10mm.

Right. Off I went, and lo, a friend in the local three-gun clique just happened to have a Colt Delta Elite (recurring theme) he’d part with for the right sum. U.S. Treasury notes exchanged for said pistol and a bill of sale, and I walked confident. Again, I had the best used by the best. Just a few years later, the Bureau tired of their big, heavy S&W 1076s and the snappy 10mm, but not after a stint with watered down loads which eventually begat the ubiquitous .40 S&W cartridge.

As an aside, I never did go for the .40 after the 10mm. Once you’ve had the prom queen, why settle for her less attractive second cousin? (Uh-oh, is that an angry, .40 fan boy mob on the front lawn?)

Didn’t matter to me. Remember my opinion about the .41 Mag.? Yes, I fell in love all over again. The years passed and the honeymoon ended on the same rocks which wrecked the Model 57: scarce, expensive ammo. Plus, this 1911 didn’t always like hollow points, either. While I rode the roller coaster down, I had another brief fling with my first sweetheart, the .357, this time in a much handier two and a half-inch S&W Model 19, also an FBI issue weapon at one time (can you say, RECOIL and MUZZLE BLAST?). Sold the little snapper and went back to another 1911, Officer’s ACP this time.

10mm Colt Delta Elite
10mm Colt Delta Elite | Source
Colt Officer ACP
Colt Officer ACP | Source

As Ron White Might Say, I Told You That Story to Tell You This One.

The third Colt let me down (recurring theme) for the same reason as the first and second, sketchy reliability with hollow points. I resigned myself to just shoot G.I. FMJ ammo in it until one day at a gun store counter (recurring theme) I picked up Glock’s new at the time brain child, the .45 ACP Model G21SF. "SF" stands for “Small Frame” and the new pistol addressed the biggest complaint I had about their double stack .45s up until then, too fat a grip. The ungainly, black polymer Austrian wunderkind fit my hand. Clouds parted, cherubim sang, and I saw a bright light. The way became clear. (Oh hey, is that a 1911 fan boy mob on my front lawn?). Yes the Glock worked—for me. It ate anything I fed it, ammo littered gun store shelves, and it shot great.

Glock 21SF
Glock 21SF | Source

Vision Quest

One day a few years later I woke up and decided I needed a more compact pistol than the G21SF, but what should I get? I know! Already seduced by the plastic dark side, I picked another Glock. Hosanna. Enter the handiest pistol ever made, the Glock G26 in—wait for it—nine millimeter. Back to the future, Marty!

Before I plunked my money down on the G26, I had test fired both it and its .40 S&W clone. The high-pressure .40 cartridge made the diminutive pistol jump as though I had a fresh-caught trout by the tail. The 9mm, however, seemed made for this size pistol. It gave a neat balance between control and power, much like a BMW M3--just right. So I bought it, and years later still can't imagine how I got along without it.

Yes, the Ghost of Miami hovered over my shoulder all the while I considered the decision, but the past is the past, and after several decades the ammunition industry has made quantum improvements to Herr Luger’s cartridge. The 9mm will now flip an assailant’s switch just as well as any other proper pistol round out there, if you put them in the vitals (outside the vitals, even a .500 S&W won’t help you much). Even the FBI now agrees, the newest 9mm ammo will go through that infamous arm and deep, deep into that storied chest.

I like to think the G-Men followed me this time (smirk) since they announced in early 2017 the Bureau would adopt the Glock G19, my G26’s welterweight brother. I’m comfortable with my decision, and I laud the FBI for seeing things my way. I still use other caliber handguns when the need arises, but I’m confident if I do my part, and put rounds in the right place, the 9mm will do its part just as well as a .45 or .40 (there’s that fan boy mob again).

The author considers the Glock G26 one of the most useful pistols ever designed.
The author considers the Glock G26 one of the most useful pistols ever designed. | Source

Evolution

The “Nine” has grown up. Modern ammo produces equivalent muzzle energy to the .45 ACP, or so close anyone shot with both could not tell the difference, and the newer hollow point designs transfer the energy with decisive effect.

So why did I go back to the 9mm Parabellum? The ammo has changed, but more important, the tactical situation on the street has changed. Back when the FBI had its dark night of the soul, the average American faced the usual, ordinary decent criminals: muggers, burglars, and such. Most were lone perps with the odd occasional twosome thrown in for variety.

There is now a significant chance one will have to deal with multiple armed assailants who've graduated from criminal finishing school (prison). They use good tactics combined with significant fire power to invade your home as though it were Fallujah. Then there are the active shooters, some in groups, and many not just willing but eager to die for their cause. For this brave new world order there is but one logical answer: high magazine capacity. Ron Risner, an FBI agent who fought in the Miami debacle, gave some advice in a video made not long after the event for anyone caught in a multiple assailant, superior firepower gun fight. Have as much ammo as you can carry and have as much in the gun to start with as possible. I’ll take a guy who has the t-shirt and hat over any other source, thank you.

The 9mm's major tactical advantage: magazine capacity.  Shootout veterans agree, you can't have too much ammo in a fire fight.
The 9mm's major tactical advantage: magazine capacity. Shootout veterans agree, you can't have too much ammo in a fire fight. | Source
Federal introduced the Hydra-Shok over two decades ago in response to revised FBI test standards, and it has an excellent street record.  Newer bullets designed since then should perform even better.
Federal introduced the Hydra-Shok over two decades ago in response to revised FBI test standards, and it has an excellent street record. Newer bullets designed since then should perform even better. | Source

The Defense Rests, Your Honor

The 9mm fits this new reality well. Keep in mind there is no perfect solution—other than don’t get in a fire fight. There are many excellent 9mm pistols on the market these days. Don’t like Glocks? Fine, dozens more (including 1911s) await your approval. The ammunition is reasonably priced and available, which means you can practice. Its popularity also means if you had to pick up someone else’s unused ammo in a fight because you ran out, it is more likely it will fit your gun. You can carry at least forty percent more 9mm rounds than .45 ACP for the same weight. The 9mm has less recoil than either the .40 or .45 which means more accurate rapid fire and shorter time between multiple targets. Never forget, it is hits on target which end fights—you can’t miss fast enough to win—and most people can shoot a 9mm better than the larger calibers.

Are the other cartridges useful? Yes, of course. If I were limited to non-expanding ammunition, I’d choose a .44 or .45 without hesitation. However, the truth is, I am not limited to ball ammo, so I don’t have to make such a choice.

The effective, plentiful, accurate, affordable 9mm Parabellum is back. In today’s environment, make mine a Nine.

An Excellent Test of Some Newer 9mm Loads

124 grain Hydra-Shok for comparison. A good, proven load. Bullets designed since its introduction have improved the 9mm's game even more.

© 2017 LJ Bonham

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