This is the first part of a two-part series that was featured in our July issue as the cover story. Check back in a few days to read Part II, which is all about range testing!
A 9mm Difference
A Semi-Auto Handgun Trio Chambers the Humble and Hardy 9mm Parabellum
The word Parabellum is derived from the Latin phrase: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you seek peace, prepare for war”). This phrase was the motto of DWM, the German manufacturer who brought us the Luger semi-auto and its 9x19mm cartridge.
If your only source of information was the covers of recent gun magazines and current gun websites, it may appear as if there was only one handgun and caliber on the market: the Colt Government Model 1911 and the .45 ACP cartridge. While the celebration of the gun’s 100th year of production justifies some attention, the sheer volume of articles touting the attributes of this admittedly dynamic duo has grown all out of proportion (Editor’s note: Gun World is also guilty of a 1911 love-fest, but we’re willing to live with it). While I’m a big fan of both the 1911 and the .45 ACP, enough is enough already. Remember the fairy tale about Cinderella? There’s a parallel here, except in the 1911/.45 ACP story, the older, often over-looked, but still humble step-child is the 9×19 Parabellum.
A Cartridge by Any Other Name…
The 9x19mm Parabellum should receive an award if only for the number of monikers attributed to it. It has been known as the 9x19mm Parabellum, the 9×19, the 9mm Luger, and the 9mm Parabellum. Then, when NATO adopted it, they quickly labeled it the 9mm NATO.
The cartridge was originally designed by Georg Luger and introduced in 1902 for the legendary German Luger semi-automatic pistol. About the only difference between this seeming myriad of cartridges is a variation in pressure ratings (depending on which association you choose to refer to), and differences in bullet weights and designs. Unfortunately, the 9mm has fought a long-running battle of acceptance on the American front.
Our first national exposure to the 9mm came via the “war trophy” handguns brought back by troops in great numbers following the first two World Wars. At that time, some shooters chose to explore the 9x19mm, but many dismissed it that “foreign cartridge.” But let’s be honest. With our system of measurements, most Americans had no clue what a millimeter was. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s (a full fifty years after its introduction) that the 9x19mm entered the mainstream of the American firearm market. In 1955, Smith & Wesson introduced its new Model 39 semi-auto pistol chambered for the 9mm, and promoted it as a replacement for the standard police revolver.
Worldwide, the 9mm remains a popular handgun cartridge, but even with S&W’s heavy promotion of their new pistol, it took some time for the cartridge to become accepted in the states. Finally, in 1968, the Model 39, along with the 9mm cartridge, was adopted by the Illinois State Police. This vote of confidence opened the flood gates, and more departments (and a vast number of civilians) began to view the 9mm in a more favorable light.
With the advent of the “Wonder Nines” in the 1970s, the exposure increased even more. These new semi-autos employed a staggered column magazine, which greatly enlarged the capacity of the handguns. Over time, the raw power of the revolvers chambered in the .357 Magnum just couldn’t stand up to the high capacity (13-18 rounds) of the new semi-automatics. Then, in 1985, the shooting public was shocked when the U.S. military adopted the 9mm and the Beretta 92 as a replacement for the Government Model 1911. This decision has been debated ever since, but it definitely ensured a place for the 9x19mm in the annuals of American history.
The humble 9×19 helped usher in two other major shooting industry shifts. The first handguns to incorporate the use of aluminum frames in vast numbers were the S&W 39/59 series of semi-auto pistols. Then, as shooters were still adapting to the use of aluminum, the Glock 17, another 9mm, hit the market, and that “plastic pistol” forever changed the firearm world with its advanced use of polymers. If imitation is truly a form of flattery, Glock pistols should still be blushing. These Austrian pistols are now entrenched in the American market, having found well-documented favor in both civilian and law enforcement arenas. Since its introduction, dozens of new handguns have been chambered in the 9mm cartridge, but you have to wonder if the high point of the 9x19mm wasn’t reached years ago.
A Private 3-Gun Competition
Smith & Wesson recently introduced the SD9 VE, specifically tailored to the self-defense market, and it its debut initiated this 9mm cartridge review. I wondered if this new handgun would carry on the stellar history of the 9mm, and how it would rate when compared to the well-tested models of the past three decades. Just shooting at a few targets and regurgitating statistics wasn’t going to satisfy my curiosity.
I’d read that a three-legged stool provided a firm foundation, so when this new Smith went to the range, two old warhorses went with it for a direct comparison. The first was a Smith & Wesson Model 3913. The second was a Glock Model 19. The 3913 is a third generation version of the Model 39 and was chosen to represent not only the introduction of aluminum to handguns, but also the era prior to the polymer age. The third generation Glock 19 is a direct descendant of the Model 17, the keystone by which all polymer handguns are judged. Finally, the Model 3913 and the Glock 19 roughly matched the physical characteristics of the SD9 VE, making for a fair size comparison.
Just to make things more interesting—and to assure that my personal bias for one or the other platforms didn’t interfere with any final judgment—I asked two other shooters to join me for a range session. One of the men had been shooting for about ten years, but the other just started in the past year. For this comparison, I decided to ignore the trade names for given components and hidden design features. All most shooters really want to know is how a gun operates, how to make it safe, how it feels, and, perhaps most importantly, the answer to “Did I hit the target?” Forgive me in advance, but for 99% of users, a flat coil spring compared to a round one means very little. Trademarked terms such as “Safe Action” and “SDT” (Self Defense Trigger) may look good in a brochure (and Gun World readers probably understand each one), but we all know that if we take a new shooter to the range, they get that “deer in the headlight” look the moment we start to toss “insider” phrases around like spent cartridges.
Story & Photos by Terrill Hoffman
To read the conclusion to “A 9mm Difference” Click here for Part II!