Military/FBI Caliber Choices:

Does It Really Matter To The Rest Of Us?

By John McCarthy

The military adopted the 9mm Beretta, retiring the battle-worn 1911’s in inventory. Some say it was merely
to adhere to the NATO use of the 9mm rather than the gun/cartridge combo being more effective than the .45 ACP.
Should you make your own carry decision based on what the military does?

We all know when the fan gets hit there will be no screeching police cruisers, fast-roping hostage rescue teams, or hard charging cavalry showing up just in time to save our butts.There will be just you, your training and what you draw from your holster. Given this big fact, let’s have a look at the history and motivations of the FBI and the military as they vacillate back and forth on the 9mm and consider how we should view the choices they make.

Many of us watch what federal agencies, police departments and other agencies say about the weapons and ammo they use. We often seek to emulate these “experts” when making our own choices about the hardware we rely on to protect ourselves and our families during these extraordinary times.

Now the two most influential examples many look to for this expertise, the FBI and the US military are seemingly offering differing advice about the 9mm.

The FBI first discarded the 9mm round after the disastrous and tragic 1986 Miami firefight where two agents were killed and five agents were severely wounded.These casualties were suffered in a gunfight where the FBI had an eight on two advantage. Actually, it was and eight on one advantage since one suspect got off just one shot before being knocked unconscious. A lone gunman did all the damage.

The FBI, the best law enforcement agency in the world if you believe what they say, found itself with two dead agents, five in the hospital, and a huge PR embarrassment. I believe the FBI reacted to this debacle like any other ordinary government agency: they identified and blamed a patsy.The patsy was a single bullet fired from an FBI 9mm semi-auto pistol failing to penetrate one more inch. One bullet out of a verified 70 shots fired by the FBI. Having studied this gunfight I know there were a myriad of tactical and mindset issues contributing to the appalling results. I attribute most of the problems to the quality of the agents’ training.

When law enforcement moved to the .40 S&W there was a helter-skelter move to do the same among the public in general.
Now LE is moving back to the 9mm as they discover the .40 has its own set of issues like snappy recoil, high pressure
and expense. Do you make your own decisions based on what the local cops carry? Should you?

A New Round

The FBI’s response was to seek a new round having greater penetration capabilities.This decision lead directly to the now famous FBI Protocols, a series of barrier tests favoring a round’s depth of penetration in 10-percent ballistic gelatin. From this arrived the 10mm, and later the .40 Smith and Wesson (the 10mm short).

And now the FBI has announced it will return to the 9mm for its standard issue duty round. Since 1986 the Bureau has suffered from a chronic case of tunnel vision relentlessly focusing on just one element of a bullet’s terminal ballistics. For them it’s penetration, penetration — and yet more penetration. This obsession began as a handy “CYA” press release and has transmogrified into a stone engraved commandment from the clouds. The FBI now says due to improvements in bullet technology they can enjoy their 12″ to 18″ penetration standard and agents can shoot faster and more accurately with the smaller nine.

I believe the FBI hopes for a Mulligan on that one shot. If history re-runs the1986 script the right bullet will be there to penetrate one more inch and all will be vindicated.

For 74 years and through four wars, the John M. Browning designed Model 1911 chambered in .45ACP was the “Oh Crap!” go-to weapon for the American serviceman. In 1985, the Military retired the beloved 1911 and decided to go with a newer semi-auto design chambered in 9mm.That newer design became the Beretta M9.

The military now seeks to dump the M9 and has issued an RFP for a yet newer pistol firing a round more hard-hitting than the 9mm (won by SIG, by the way). Curiously, the military’s announced the competition with an “open caliber” clause. I anticipated a move to the .45, but the 9mm was kept. I was surprised.

I believe the primary impetus for the move to the 9mm was some bureaucrat’s twisted notion we needed to be more like Europe. Our allies shoot the 9mm and so should we. Well, they like soccer and socialism too. At the time we also enjoyed the usual murmuring about saving taxpayers’ money. Now through two more wars and one in progress (there and here) the military concludes bigger is better. Battle damage assessments from individual fighting men going BUG with their M9’s were loaded with complaints about the 9mm’s lack of stopping power. Yet they kept the 9mm.

Now we must decide how the decisions and experiences of some of our favorite “experts” impact how we arm ourselves. To do this we must understand the similarities and differences between us and them. A term in the equation we have in common is our goal: survive. Whether it’s SEAL Team 6, the FBI Hostage Rescue team or some guy or gal minding their own business, we all must win the fight. However law enforcement and the military must consider variables irrelevant to the millions of us who by definition fight and train as individuals.

Government organizations must pay for and maintain arsenals, choose weapons and calibers suitable for many, pay for periodic qualification training and wrangle with politicians many of whom believe guns are inherently problematic. These factors easily contribute to decisions and choices not suitable to the lone defender.

Dr. Anderson’s in-depth analysis of the famous 1986 FBI shootout helped to show how
tactics and not necessarily caliber selection caused issues. The FBI moved to the 10mm and
then the .40 based on that shootout. Was that wise and/or should that influence your own
decisions about what’s best for you?

What’s Clear?

From this understanding two things are clear: 1) we are responsible for our own training and proficiency and 2) none of the crap mentioned above motivating agencies and armies, applies to us.

Because we’re in control of the quality of our training I believe anyone dedicated to realizing their full potential and effectiveness in combat can prove to be more battle ready when the panther comes calling. More so than some of the “professionals” even.The training regimes of most police officers consists of what they learned at the academy and periodic qualifications requiring minimal skills to pass. My friend, a retired police officer and longtime police firearms instructor, is a plain, blunt-speaking man. Many of his reflections about supervising police firing lines cannot be repeated here.

As for the crap, all we have to worry about is our gun. We choose what gun and ammo is best for us and worry little about wear and tear, other peoples’ maintenance problems and what a bunch of gun-phobic council members think about our hollow points. What we must consider, and this is a biggie, is the different ammo used by the FBI and the military.

The FBI enjoys the luxurious option of being able to use the most modern self-defense bullets, while the military is mostly restricted to ball ammo. FMJ bullets do not expand, they do damage by going deep. So it’s no marvelous revelation a combat soldier would rather shoot the enemy with a bullet that goes deeper and bigger. And for the guys on the battlefield who will very likely be in multiple assailant fights, a bullet passing through the enemy and hitting what’s behind him can be a good thing.

So what are we, the little people, to conclude from all this? Is bigger really better or should we choose smaller, faster and more accurate? My answer is a very definite, “It depends.” Since we are not afflicted by politics, big reputations and busted budgets we choose what gives us the confidence to be the bad guys’ most deadly adversary.

Therefore, because I can, I choose the big bores. I have two primary carry guns, a Ruger SR1911 in .45 ACP and a Ruger GP100 in .357 magnum. I have accepted where there is a big bang there is recoil and I manage that recoil. I like shooting big and fast. If others prefer different choices, they can simply make different choices. And it’s the freedom to make our own choices is why we must examine the decisions made by governments with analytic skepticism.

Finally — and this is me — I rarely dismiss anyone as having nothing to offer. I approach most folks believing they know or can do something I need to learn. However I think there are very few things we “normal citizens” need look to the professionals for regarding decisions about how we defend ourselves. I believe it’s useful to study and understand their decisions, but given the dissimilar needs and motivations of these organizations, I prefer to just watch what they do and see how it works out.
Their opinions on this or that mean little to me.

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