HGR 105 - The Joint Service Small Arms Pistol Trials with Daniel Watters

Hello and welcome to Episode 105 of Handgun Radio! I’m your host Ryan Michad from the wild woods of Central Maine, and this is your home for all the news, information and discussion in the handgunning world. This week, Weerd Beard and I are joined by Daniel Watters, firearms researcher & historian, to discuss the Joint Service Small Arms Pistol Trials that ultimately resulted in the adoption of the Beretta M9 pistol by the U.S. Armed Forces.

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Bullpup Shoot in September!

Week in Review:

Ryan- Got to shoot some vintage S&W revolvers, an I frame .32 S&W Long, K-Frame .32-20, N Frame .44 Special

Weerd Beard:  Had the house to myself this week so I FINALLY got a chance to hit the range.   Didn’t want to over-gun the trip so I bought my father’s re-habbed Sears .22 and my Father-in-Law’s S&W M66 because I hadn’t fired them yet.  Also brought my M&P9, my S&W 617, as well as my Uberti Walker Colt.

Shot better than I expected given my absence from the club, the one let-down was the Walker.   First I forgot the powder measure at home,  but also the #10 caps wouldn’t fit the nipples so I assume they have been flattened out by a previous owner dry-firing, and will need to be replaced...only they are frozen...

(Drink Segment) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mojito


Main Topic: The Joint Service Small Arms Pistol Trials with Daniel Watters

Wikipedia Article on the JSSAP

To discuss the issue adequately, we need to track back to the end of World War II. Between the adoption of the M1911 and the end of the war, nearly three million M1911/M1911A1 pistols had been purchased.  In addition, there had been a variety of substitute standard handguns such as the Colt Commando and Smith & Wesson Victory Model, as well as leftovers from World War I such as the Colt and the Smith & Wesson M1917.  There were also specialty pistols like the General Officers Pistol, better known as the Colt Pocket Hammerless.

During the progress of the war, there were a variety of foreign developments.  Our British and Canadian allies had issued the Browning High-Power pistol.  Our German opponents had issued a large number of double-action semiautomatic pistols ranging from pocket pistols like the Sauer 38H, Mauser HSc, and Walther PP and PPK, as well as the full size Walther P38.

In 1946, the US Army Infantry Board had been tasked with determining whether or not a new service pistol was needed and what features it should have.  At the time, they decided that the M1911 pistol was in fact adequate as was the 45 ACP cartridge.  While they could see the utility of the double action feature, they did not believe that this alone would be enough to justify the immediate adoption of a new service pistol. However, any future service pistol should incorporate the double action feature, and ideally, would also include a feature that would allow the slide to be racked by the trigger.  However, they emphasized that the new pistol should be chambered in .45 ACP and could remain the same size as the M1911.

Yet, not everyone was thrilled with the M1911.  The general complaints about the pistol were that it was too heavy and large; it recoiled too much; it was not accurate; it was not reliable; and it was not safe.  A certain amount of the criticism can be blamed on the inadequate training of wartime troops, combined with a certain amount of revolver bias amongst civilian marksmanship enthusiasts.  The average soldier issued the pistol was not issued it as their primary weapon, even when it was their only firearm. They were either leading other troops, manning a crew served weapon, or assigned as a member of a vehicle crew.  One could argue that the US Army had already perceived that their pistol training was inadequate before the war even began given the creation and adoption of the M1 Carbine.  However, even a carbine could be too bulky for armored vehicle and aircraft crews.

The first effort to adopt a double-action 9mm pistol was sponsored by the US Army Air Forces in 1947, just prior to being granted their status as an independent branch.  Even with the creation of the US Air Force, the service still depended upon the Army for the development of its small arms and aircraft guns for many years.  The original characteristics were quite strict with the weight not to exceed 25 ounces, and the overall length not to exceed 7 inches.  The magazine capacity was to be between 7 and 10 rounds. While they quickly dismissed the notion of trigger-based slide racking, they oddly insisted that the new pistol be blowback-operated as opposed to using a locked breech.  Interestingly enough, the original efforts at a new 9 mm cartridge involved the use of the 158 grain full metal jacket projectile from the service .38 Special cartridge.  This was intended to give a velocity of 850 fps.  Contracts for development of the new pistol were ultimately awarded to High Standard and Colt.

By 1950, the specifications were slightly relaxed.  The pistol could now weigh up to 29 ounces, with an overall length of 7-1/2 inches.  However, the pistol should now hold at least 13 rounds like the Browning High-Power pistol.  Yet, they continued to insist that the design be a straight blowback.  Earlier, there had been experiments with the use of an annular chamber ring in order to delay the extraction of the cartridge, and reduce recoil.

In the meantime, Colt had been submitting more conventional alternatives, which included aluminum-framed variants of the Government Model and what was to become the Commander Model.  While they were not under contract, Smith & Wesson also began development of its own lightweight, double-action 9mm pistol, which ultimately became the Model 39. The Infantry Board started a new set of trials in 1952 to evaluate off-the-shelf revolvers and semi-auto pistols ranging from .32 to .45 ACP.  Their report of April 1953 recommended that the M1911 and the .45 ACP cartridge be replaced on a one-to-one basis with a 9mm semi-auto.  The evaluators claimed the M1911 and its cartridge were no longer suitable for Army issue in part due to their weight.

Springfield Armory drafted a solicitation for a commercial 9mm pistol competition in June 1955.  However, less than a month later, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics killed the 9mm pistol procurement program outright, claiming that they had plenty of M1911 pistols in inventory and that pistols were not terribly important anyway.

A few years earlier, the Air Force had already tired of waiting on the Army’s 9mm pistol development, and adopted lightweight .38 Special revolvers as the M13 Aircrew Revolver. The trick with the M13 was that both the frame and the cylinder were made from aluminum.  The U.S. Navy also considered adoption of the M13 Aircrew Revolver for its own naval aviation crews to replace their older S&W Victory Models.  However, they were not as optimistic about the durability of the aluminum cylinder.  This ultimately proved to be correct.  A lower pressure .38 Special load was standardized as M41 Ball.  It used the 130 grain projectile from .38 Super ammunition loaded at approximately 850 fps.

In 1959, the Air Force ultimately decided to scrap its stock of M13 Aircrew Revolvers.  These were replaced by the S&W Model 15 Combat Masterpiece with 4” barrels.  A variant of the 2” snubnose Model 15 was also standardized as the M56.

As the war in Vietnam heated up, both the Air Force and the Navy made small purchases of the Smith & Wesson Model 39.  In the case of the Air Force, the pistol was issued as a General Officers Pistol.  The Navy was primarily issuing it as an aircrew pistol, although it filtered out to other units.  A variant of the Model 39 modified for use with a sound-suppressor, known as the Mark 22, was also developed for the Navy SEAL teams.

By the late 1960s, the Army also started to see a need for a new General Officers Pistol to replace the long discontinued Colt Pocket Hammerless.  Among the pistols tested were the Smith & Wesson Model 39, the Walther P38, a 9mm variant of the Colt Combat Commander known as the M1969, and an in-house compact conversion of the M1911 from Rock Island Arsenal.  The latter was ultimately adopted as the M15.

By the early 1970s, the Air Force began to become disillusioned with the performance of the M41 Ball.  Experiments were made to improve the performance of the cartridge, including short case variants, as well as deep-seated variants.  The latter option was ultimately standardized as the PGU-12/B.  The Air Force also started to look at the potential of modifying the Model 15 revolver to fire the 9mm cartridge.

In August 1977, the Air Force Armament Laboratory contacted manufacturers inviting submission of 9mm semiautomatic pistols.  The pistols should be capable of single and double-action fire; have a magazine capacity of at least 13 rounds; the magazine catch should be easily accessible and drop the magazine free upon release; the slide should lock to the rear when empty; the ambidextrous safety must lower the hammer without touching the trigger and lock the firing pin when engaged; the magazines should be equipped with a removable floor plate; and the pistols parts should be interchangeable.

The submissions included the Beretta 92S-1; the Colt SSP; the FN GP35, ‘‘Fast Action’ Hi-Power, and Double Action Hi-Power; the HK P9S and VP70; the Smith & Wesson 459A; and the Star Model 28.  The HK entries and the basic FN GP35 were quickly dismissed due to failure to meet the basic technical requirements.  Ten each of the remaining candidates were purchased for testing.  An equal number of issue M1911A1 pistols and S&W Model 15 revolvers were used as control samples. The test pistols were to be capable of functioning under adverse operating conditions, including dust, mud, heat, and cold.  Only eight significant malfunctions were to be allowed during the 5,000-round endurance test.  No candidate passed the tests, but the Beretta was considered to have performed the best of all of the handguns tested, including the control models.  Critics seized upon the poor performance of the control M1911A1 pistols to suggest that the Air Force tests were unscientific and flawed.  This ultimately allowed the Army to take over any future pistol trials.

The US Congress had already begun to take interest in the testing, and seemed particularly peeved concerning the number of different handguns being issued by the different services.  The Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP) was established in 1979, and one of their first tasks was sorting out the pistol issue.  In 1980, JSSAP recommended that a single family of 9mm pistols be adopted, with a full-size and compact model.

In 1981, the US Army began the XM9 pistol trials. 85 requirements were laid down for the winning pistol, of which 72 were mandatory while 13 were desirable. Due to the short time between the the Request for Proposal and the required delivery of test samples, only four candidates were submitted: the Beretta 92SB (an improved 92S-1), the HK P7M13, the S&W 459M, and the SIG-Sauer P226. However, all four failed, and strangely, the Beretta now finished dead last, even behind the control M1911A1.  Congress and the GAO were infuriated by the waste of money for no results.  Procurement funds for additional .45 ACP ammunition were withheld until the US Army could formulate a test series that a manufacturer could pass.

The XM9 trials started again in January 1984.  The competitors included the Beretta 92SB-F (an improved 92SB), the Colt SSP, the FN Double Action Hi-Power, the HK P7M13, the SIG-Sauer P226, the S&W 459M, the Steyr GB, and the Walther P88.  In the end, only the SIG-Sauer P226 and 92SB-F were considered to have passed all of the tests.  After a series of bids in which SIG-Sauer started as the low bidder, Beretta was finally awarded the contract in 1985 due to a lower price quoted on its spare parts.  Allegations were made that Beretta was fed SIG-Sauer’s final bid in order to undercut it.  The other manufacturers were also upset for a variety of justifiable reasons.

After a series of Congressional investigations, another series of tests similar to the XM9 trials were ordered for 1987.  The Army fought to keep the 92F (now the M9) from being retested since it had passed the XM9 trials.  SIG-Sauer insisted that the P226 didn’t need to retested either since it had passed XM9 as well.  S&W argued that the Beretta M9 were no longer being built to the standards of the XM9 trials, having received relaxation of several requirements including accuracy.  The initial set of testing was ultimately cancelled, even though FN, Ruger, S&W, and Tanfoglio intended to submit samples.

The XM10 tests were finally rescheduled for the August 1988.  Since Beretta refused to submit samples, the Army used off-the-shelf M9.  S&W submitted their 459M yet again, and Ruger submitted their new P85.  As before, there were allegations of impropriety after the M9 was announced as the winner.  S&W failed tests that they had passed in XM9, and Ruger wasn’t provided any reason why their samples failed.


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Daniel thanks so much for coming on and sharing your knowledge with us!

Until next week, have fun and SAFE SHOOTING!!!!