By Elwood Shelton, Gun Digest
These are the seven 9mm pistol designs that propelled the demure German cartridge’s popularity worldwide.
What are the most influential 9mm pistol designs:
Browning Hi Power
Heckler & Koch VP70
There’s no escaping the 9mm. Like the air we breathe, in the shooting world the potent little German cartridge is everywhere at once — pistols, revolvers, carbines. Not that this is a bad thing.
Yes, it’s as common as road dirt nowadays, but there’s a reason why the “Nine” has risen to become not only America’s favorite centerfire cartridge, but a world phenomenon. It plain gets the job done. A rarity in the semi-automatic pistol world, the 9mm presents shooters with few tradeoffs. It’s small enough to enhance capacity. It’s powerful enough to excel in military, law-enforcement and self-defense roles. It’s mild enough that nearly anyone who desires to shoot a handgun can master it. It’s economical enough you can keep a pistol well fed. And it’s flexible enough it’s reinvented itself numerous times over its life, always remaining relevant.
Certainly, the 9mm isn’t an absolute do-all. If you have a yen for handgun hunting anything more substantial than a woodchuck the cartridge will come up short. But for the main applications of a handgun — defense, competition, plinking — it occupies an amazingly large middle ground. A ground no other cartridge really comes close to encroaching upon.
Though, for the sake of fairness, the cartridge doesn’t get to steal the laurels all by its lonesome. Over the years, gun designers have hatched truly classic shooting irons to launch the 9x19mm, pistols that — in some cases — are equal of any other legendary handgun to come down the pike. From armor-plate tough military sidearms to space-aged innovation, the 9mm pistol has evolved more than perhaps any other caliber of handgun in the past 100-plus years. That is especially true of the pistols we’ll look at now.
When it comes to the 9mm pistol, these are the best of the best. They represent not only watershed moments in gun design, but also in handgun application as well as shooters tastes. And if you love the Luger, Parabellum or whatever you might call it, these are must-haves for your collection — if you have a wallet thick enough to afford them.
The gun for which the 9mm was developed, the wicked toggle-lock pistol is among the most sought-after and iconic handguns of the 20th Century. Routinely, choice Lugers can flirt with six figures, such as a prototype “Baby” Luger that sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $92,000 in 2017. Yet, the 8-round pistol generally doesn’t occupy the mind as a moldy dust gatherer. Adopted by the German military in 1904, debatably the first successful semi-automatic pistol served in World War I and II and is remembered as the dynamic sidearm of the enemy and coveted war booty for Allied soldiers.
Soldier or not, who wouldn’t want this extraordinary 9mm pistol? The action alone is worth the price of entry. It was plenty effective too boot, capable of expectorating hot 9mm rounds quicker than you can yell, “Achtung!” And, given its fix barrel, the handgun was inherently accurate — considered by some to be among the most natural pointing pistols ever conceived. The design suffered from some issues. The Luger is ammunition sensitive, struggling to cycle low-pressure rounds. Tightly fitted, it also was expensive to manufacture and it could get testy if not kept clean as a whistle. The last is not a great trait of a service pistol.
Nevertheless, the Luger held its own in two of the greatest conflicts the world’s ever known and continues to stir the imagination today.
Overshadowed by the Luger, the P38 doesn’t quite rouse the soul in the same way. Yet, it’s fair to say the semi-automatic 9mm pistol held a more significant position in the world of gun design than the P08, at least in the modern era. Marking a trend in service pistols from the midpoint of the 20th Century on, it was the first to mate the locking breech with a DA/SA trigger. Furthermore, it was also the first handgun with a loaded-chamber indicator — nearly an industry standard now.
Introduced in 1938 and mass produced in 1940, the 8-round pistol’s ruggedness and reliability endeared it to soldiers. That, and of course, its accuracy. This aspect was hastened by a barrel that always remained horizontally aligned to the target when cycling, instead of tilting like the 1911.
Born out of the need for an easy-to-manufacture and economical pistol, the P38 still contained some downright clever engineering. In particular, the wedge-shaped falling block that kept the slide and barrel locked until chamber pressure dissipated to enough to allow the slide to travel fully backward. The design proved resilient, with the pistol not only seeing action in World War II, but also as the German military sidearm from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s.
Sadly, Walther ceased production of the P38 in 2000. Though, there are plenty of affordable specimens floating around for the shooter who must have one in their collection.
Browning Hi Power
A melancholy addition to the list, given the pistol’s inauspicious end earlier this year. After more than 80-years of production, Browning (but manufactured by Fabrique Nationale) quietly added to the Hi Power’s webpage “No Longer In Production.” Not exactly the adieu one of the 20th Century’s most important and prolific pistols deserved, to say the least. Though, understandable, given so many modern striker-fired pistols offer the advantages of the Hi Power, at a fraction of the weight and price.
Therein lies one of the great contributions of the John M. Browning started, Dieudonné Saive finished design — it laid the groundwork for much of what today makes up the modern pistol market. In particular, capacity and linkless cam locking system. The latter was all Browning, who had to find a way to work around the 1911’s toggle link, which Colt held the patent on. The former was a Saive’s contribution, originally a 15-round magazine in the staggered configuration so familiar today.
The Hi Power as known currently, for the most part, was due to Saive. After the Browning’s death in 1926 and the Hi Power’s failed attempt at becoming the French military’s sidearm, the FN designer continued tinkering with the 9mm pistol. He replaced the striker-fired mechanism with a single-action external hammer, added a manual thumb safety, curved the backstrap and trimmed the capacity to 13-rounds to lighten it a hair. While the French did not adopt the pistol they turned out to be the exception. More than 50 militaries worldwide utilized the Hi Power, making it one of the most ubiquitous military pistols of all time.
Though the Hi Power’s time finally came this year, it won’t be soon forgotten. Honestly, it can’t be, with how many pistols followed its lead.
Heckler & Koch VP70
An ugly duckling to be sure, the VP70 arguably is among the most important pistols of the late 20th Century. The first (of many) handguns to utilize a polymer frame, the German 9mm, in essence, launched the materials revolution that defines the pistol market today. Innovative as it was, the pistol proved somewhat ahead of its time, as it took until the 1980s and the rise of Glock for the concept to really catch fire.
Introduced in 1970, the 9mm pistol’s design was as simple as kindergarten arithmetic. A blow-back operation, the striker-fired had a relatively clunky slide encasing a fixed barrel, which should have made it accurate, though this was thwarted somewhat by a less-than-smooth trigger. Downright stiff, the double-action-only trigger made it feel more like shooting a 9mm revolver than a 9mm pistol. Though, if you knew the gun, you could stage the trigger like a wheelgun, thus break an aimed shot without all the travel.
On the plus side and similar to most blowback pistols, the VP70 digested nearly anything it was fed and was dependable as daybreak. Additionally, it boasted an ample 18-round capacity, which at the time must have seemed like you could shoot the thing all day off a single magazine.
The VP70 isn’t the first pistol shooters would pick in a beauty contest, nevertheless, its cutting-edge use of material more than proved an attractive concept that gunmakers swarmed to as the years wore on.
To say the least, this unique DA/SA draws mixed reactions. Partly due to replacing the M1911 as the U.S. military service pistol, partly due early design flaws (a whole other article), the 92 tends to raise some shooters’ dander. But, overall the first 9mm pistol to the serve the country had a fairly solid track record over its recently-ended 23-year career.
While many remember the M9 (its military designation) taking the place of John M. Browning’s masterwork, it actually cut a wider swath across the armed services. In all, it replaced some 25 pistols and revolvers — not to mention all the ammunition to feed them – that had wormed their way into service by 1985. Given 9mm was the NATO standard, it was logical as a member of the treaty the U.S. would follow suit with its new pistol. This, more than the fact it replaced the 1911, probably got most folks upset. The 9mm is smashing when shooting defensive rounds, but many felt it left a lot to desire spitting ball.
Designed in 1972, the unique handgun was based off a different Beretta service pistol — the single-action 951. Like the older 9mm pistol, the 92 employed the Walther P38’s locking block barrel design, which increased its accuracy potential by keeping the barrel situated on the target after it fired. Furthermore, it had kept one of the most distinguishing features of its predecessor — an open slide design with an exposed barrel. Though, it was also influenced by the “Wonder Nine” movement of the time, with a 15-round double-stack magazine and, of course, the DA/SA trigger.
Loved and hated, the 92 is controversial, at least in some military circles. But taking the U.S. military’s sidearms in a whole new direction for the first time in 70 years makes it as influential as ever.
The term “Wonder Nine” has lost some of its luster over the years, but in the 1970s, when law enforcement by and large still carried .38 Special revolvers, the title had meaning. And few optimized it more than the CZ 75. The little wonder from behind the Iron Curtain had nearly everything shooters were looking for out of a modern 9mm pistol at the time and even now.
Well, the DA/SA trigger is up for debate, it’s never gained the level of popularity akin to striker-fired options or single-action only semi-autos. That said, it was and is one of the best examples of this style of trigger, smooth on the first squeeze and curt every one that followed. Additionally, it was fully capable of being carried in condition 1 (cocked and locked), which made the 9mm pistol a favorite among the competitors. Nice as its trigger is, hands down the showstopper was its 15-round capacity, which in its early days made it the Henry Rifle of handguns — “Loaded on Sunday and shot all week.”
The Italian manufacturer wasn’t the last to slap their roll mark on the CZ 75. Given the inability of brothers Josef and František Koucký to secure world patents on the design, the 9mm is among the most cloned and outright copied pistols in the world. From the Magnum Research’s Baby Desert Eagle to Kriss Arms Spinks, all are derivatives of the Eastern European masterpiece.
The Glock 17 wasn’t the first polymer-framed pistol to amble on the market (see the VP70), but no bones about it, it was the first successful one. Though truth be told, success misses the mark. The 9mm pistol, initially designed for the Austrian military, went way beyond that redefining the handgun market from the early 1980s on.
The Glock 17’s impact is undeniable, sparking today’s incredible selection of polymer-framed pistols. Nearly every major manufacturer offers at least one line of the style of handgun and, by and large, they are the choice of most armed citizens, particularly those who carry concealed.
The Glock 17’s lightweight, simple design and intuitive shootability made it a global sensation and a near instant classic. And it took what amounts to a wink to accomplish. Gaston Glock assembled a team of European shooting and firearms experts to propose design points. From there, it was a matter of months before the company cranked out a prototype to submit to the military trials. Impressive, given beforehand Glock and his company had no background in firearms.
In addition to materials, the Glock 17’s other revolutionary design point is its trigger. Double-action-only (know as a ‘Safe-Action by Glock) achieved one of the most consistent pulls up to that point. Squeeze in and out, the striker-fired’s trigger broke at a predictable 5.5 pounds — an absolute boon for a shooter’s accuracy potential.
Certainly, there are shooters who bemoan the rise of the plastic fantastics sparked by the G17. They might have a point, the blocky black pistols have all the charm of an indecent proposal. But when your life is on the line, Glock’s unsightly lines are absolutely beautiful.
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