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The Rise of the 9mm Luger

by Allan Jones   |  April 30th, 2013 7
9mm-Luger_001

Optimal 9mm Luger function comes with choosing bullet shapes that can trace their design to the NATO bullet profile (far left).

I had a ringside seat to a revolution—the 9mm Luger Revolution. Considering how long that cartridge had been around, the path to American acceptance was not as smooth as you’d suspect. In 1989 the 9mm Luger surpassed the .38 Special in ammo sales volume when many North American law enforcement agencies transitioned to semi-auto pistols.

The change was not painless, especially for the shooting sports industry. There were few 9mm Luger handguns built in the U.S. prior to that period. S&W had the Model 39 and its evolutionary spin-offs, and Colt offered its Government Model and Commander pistols in 9mm. That limited selection made it easy for ammomakers to create a limited line of 9mm ammo that worked. The fact that military-surplus 9mm pistols were finicky with U.S. ammo was usually written off to, “They’re not built to commercial specs.” However, law enforcement went with high-grade European pistols based on military designs, and that led to a lot of research to make the 9mm Luger the cartridge it is today.

Function
Before the Revolution, a lot of U.S. 9mm Luger ammo was loaded on the “light” side. Winchester and CCI-Speer loaded 115-grain FMJ bullets, and Remington and Federal loaded 123- and 124-grain bullets but with the velocity reduced to accommodate the extra payload. A typical 115-grain load would make the nominal velocity of about 1,125 to 1,150 fps at well under the 9mm’s maximum average pressure (MAP) of 35,000 psi; it was common for those loads to run about 26,000 psi. The 124-grain pressures ran a little higher, but seldom more than 30,000 psi.

Adding to the problem was the selection of noncanister propellants. When the 9mm Luger cartridge was a low-volume (and expensive) product, it was not economically feasible for many factories to inventory special propellants for it. Most 9mm Luger ammo was loaded with propellants that also worked well in the .38 Special.

In Europe, where the 9mm Luger cartridge has been refined over decades of military and police use, propellants were slower burning, and the 124-grain (8-gram) bullet was standard. The SIG, Beretta, and Glock pistols that made up the majority of U.S. police choices during the Revolution were developed around very different ammo than American factories were producing.

As 115-grain FMJ ammo was usually cheaper than the 124-grain domestic brews, many agencies used it for training ammo. In 1989 a big state police organization bought SIGs and ordered 115-grain practice ammo from CCI. Not long afterward I got a call from their training manager. The cartridge cases were trickling out of the SIGs and sometimes not completely ejecting. As I was investigating the detailed load records at our end, the manager called back with more news: His pistols would not work with any 115-grain ammo of U.S. make.

I had an option; we had developed a special 124-grain 9mm load for a European customer. We swapped out all the 115-grain stuff for the heavier bullet, and function returned to 100 percent.

The ammomakers here ramped up research into the new pistols. That meant buying a lot of test pistols for final acceptance function testing. It also meant developing propellants that better duplicated what the European pistols were accustomed to eating and working with bullet shape, cartridge overall length (COL), and profiles.

COL research helped a lot. The S&W and Colt 9mm pistols to which most pre-Revolution U.S. ammo was mated could deal with COLs well under the industry max COL of 1.169 inches. It was common to see COLs of 1.110 to 1.125 inches for FMJ-RN loads. Seating FMJs to the vicinity of 1.135 to 1.150 inches made for better feeding in the Euro pistols without causing issues with U.S.-built pistols.

Bullet COL and profile issues with expanding bullets could fill its own book, so I’ll not cover that here. Suffice it to say that the very short 90- to 100-grain bullets whose profiles were optimized for the .380 Auto cartridge were miserable performers in Euro pistols because they loaded to about 1.005 to 1.050 inches. We dropped all 9mm Luger recommendations for 90- and 100-grain bullets from later Speer reloading manuals after the Revolution.

Accuracy
When I proposed a 9mm Luger 132-grain (8.5-gram) SWC-TMJ Match cartridge as a new Speer product, one of the engineering managers said that “9mm Luger Match” was an oxymoron. Indeed, for years this cartridge and its early pistols had never set any records for tiny groups. However, as we refined the TMJ to its final incarnations, we started seeing that some pistols could be very accurate.

The issue turned out to be a combination of bullet diameter specs and gun barrel diameter. I first encountered it when trying to load 0.355-inch cast bullets for my Browning Hi-Power. Even though cast from hard linotype, they were stripped of their rifling marks in-bore, leaving the bore heavily fouled. Keyholes were the rule. After digging all the lead out of the barrel, I measured the groove diameter at 0.357 inch. Switching the sizing diameter to 0.357 inch fixed that.

9mm-Luger_002

Barrels with groove diameters close to 0.355 inch can be very accurate. The author’s Colt Government Model will put most 9mm bullets into an inch at 25 yards.

The U.S. spec for maximum 9mm Luger bullet diameter is 0.3555 inch. The barrel groove diameter spec is 0.355+0.004—pretty loose. Fortunately, I’ve never found a barrel in a quality 9mm Luger pistol larger than 0.357 inch. The closer the bore diameter to 0.355 inch, the better accuracy you can expect. My custom Government Model 9mm has a box-stock Colt barrel with no special fitting. It can hold its own with most match-grade semi-autos. Its groove diameter is just under 0.3550 inch. My favorite load for it is the Speer 124-grain Gold Dot +P load. In the Colt’s 5-inch barrel, it nearly equals the .357 Sig cartridge in velocity and muzzle energy.

Getting the 9mm Luger loaded with a wide variety of bullet weights and shapes to work in a disparate mix of firearms makes and models required unprecedented cooperation between the gunmakers and the ammo factories. It was worth it, because today this cartridge is far and away a superior product to what was made before about 1987.

  • Doc Thomas, NRA LIFE

    The 9mm in a good quality firearm with good ammunition that matches it can be very accurate with low recoil. I remember moving to a state that required a course for those who wanted a concealed carry permit. I shot a 50 round, one hole group of no larger than 1.5 inches from a G19 and this drew a crowd.

    • USPatriotOne

      In Ohio it’s 15 feet to qualify for your CCW permit. I had nearly the same grouping from my Kel-Tec P11 to receive my CCW. Good shooting!

      • MrApple

        In NC, it’s 50 rounds at 7 yards with any caliber, not necessarily the one you might carry concealed.

  • petru sova

    In the book “The Englis Diamond” they cover a secret U.S. Military test between the 9×19 using a Canadian Englis High power and a U.S. Military .45acp 1911. The .45acp was such a dud round it actually bounced off of a WWII helmet at 35 yards and recently gun writer Mike Venturio tried this test at 25 yards and the .45acp failed even at this close range. The 9mm actually penetrated the helmet at an outstanding 135 yards and might have done it even farther but tests were suspended due to the accuracy of the 9mm pistol beyond 135 yards. Now picture yourself in combat when your rifle is blow out of your hands and broken by a motor shell. You now only have your pistol and people are shooting at you at 100 yards away. In such a scenario the .45acp is totally worthless. This is why the 9mm was and is the superior combat cartridge.
    Ah ha you say, but the .45 acp will knock a man down or spin him around like a toy top or make him disappear in a red puff of mist. Sorry fella its a myth. Pistolero magazine shot barn yard pigs in Mexico in the 1980′s to get around U.S. animal cruelty laws and found that there was absolutely no difference in killing power between the .38 special, .357 magnum, 9×19 and .45acp. Another gun writer myth flushed down the toilet.
    With todays modern high velocity expanding bullets the 9×19 takes a back seat to none of the other auto pistol calibers including the .40 S&W. I myself have shot 180 pound White Tail Deer and killed them dead as heck with only on shot using the 125 grain Remington hollow point bullet loaded with Unique power. They never knew what hit them. They dropped over as if hit by lightning. What more could you ask of a combat cartridge.

    • oldbill
    • UnapologeticConservative

      You have an great way of expressing yourself. “Disappear in a puff of red mist.” Classic! I’ve noticed that gunwriters love to pontificate, and love to oversell. Ex. spoken in a self-important, sententious way, “Well of course the .30-06 is acceptable for rabbits and squirrels, but we have heard that anything less than .50 BMG will not reliably put down a white tail out past 50 yards.” Or the opposite, “I once shot an enraged grizzly with a .45 ACP fired out of a Colt 1911 (skeletonized trigger and extended beaver-tail, of course), and the bear disappeared in a puff of red mist and fur.” BLAM! SPLAT! POOF! Thank you, Petru Sova for a “real” opinion, without feeling like I’m listening to the ramblings of an old campaigner in full condescension mode. I happily up-vote you!

  • MrApple

    If anyone is interested here is a list of 9mm loads (in no particular order) that all seem to have favorable performance if the articles and videos on YouTube are to be believed. Feel free to give your personal opinion on the list.

    Federal 9mm 115gr JHP

    Remington UMC 9mm 115gr JHP

    Winchester 9mm 115gr JHP

    Winchester Silvertip 9mm 115gr JHP

    Federal Hydra-shok 9mm 124gr JHP

    Hornady 9mm 115gr FTX Critical Defense

    Hornady 9mm 135gr FlexLock Critical DUTY

    Hornady 9MM +P 135gr FlexLock Critical DUTY

    Speer Gold Dot 9mm +P 124gr GDHP

    Speer Gold Dot 9mm 147gr GDHP

    Winchester PDX1 9mm 147gr JHP

    Federal HST Tactical 9mm 147gr

    Speer Gold Dot 9mm 115gr

    Federal HST Tactical 9mm +P 124gr

    Federal HST Tactical 9mm +P 147gr

    Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel 9mm +P 124gr GDHP

    Cor-Bon 9mm +P 115gr JHP

    Remington Golden Saber (Bonded) 9mm +P 124gr JHP

    Winchester 9mm (White Box) 147gr HP

    Winchester 9mm 147gr Ranger T-Series

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