New modifications are making the country’s much-maligned Beretta service sidearm much more accurate.
The Colt .45 ACP Government Model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols rode on the hips of soldiers, sailors, and aviators through two World Wars and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam before being retired in 1985 in favor of Beretta’s 9mm M9 sidearm. In the minds of many .45 Auto loyalists and other observers, the government made a grave mistake when it retired the Pistol, Automatic, Caliber .45, M1911A1, in favor of the Beretta M9 a dozen years ago. They maintain the .45 autos were supremely reliable, effective, and battle-hardened GI firearms, and stepping down to a foreign manufacturer’s 9mm might imperil American soldiers in some future conflict.
Fortunately, the U.S.A. hasn’t had to conflict-test the notion that the M9 can’t carry the 1911’s water, so debate about the M9’s usefulness has moved into other quarters. On the civilian side, the commercial Model 92FS and its variants have not been widely accepted in any venue we are aware of. They have practically no profile in the action and speed games. As nonservice carry guns, the beefy 34-ounce, 8.5-inch long 9mms can not seem to find a niche between lighter, smaller .380 ACPs and more powerful .40 S&W; autoloaders. Also, very few law-enforcement agencies pick the 92FS over comparable Sigs, Glocks, and H&Ks.; In accuracy shooting competition, such as bullseye matches, the service-handgun M9/92FS has been noticeable only by its absence.
We have been looking for more than a year trying to find a firearms mechanic who has solved any of the Beretta’s problems, the most nettlesome of which was its resistance to accurizing. Nearly every 92FS we’ve had a chance to shoot in that span couldn’t produce groups under 2 inches at 25 yards—which may be fine for a battle arm, but which isn’t remotely close to being competitive on paper or steel.
Now we’ve found two paths to greater glory with the 92FS and M9, respectively. Pennsylvania gunsmith Jack Weigand has brought down from his shop on the Mountaintop an inexpensive, quick, clean commercial modification that tightens up the front of the 92FS. Moreover, U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit gunsmith Master Sergeant David E. Sams has systematically cleaned up trouble spots on the M9 and has turned it into a topnotch bullseye gun—on the order of sub-inch groups at 50 yards with factory ammo.
We recently tested Weigand’s commercially available modification to see if it actually helped a pre-ban 92FS shoot more accurately. Sams’ AMU modifications aren’t available commercially, but his knowledge of how to accurize the M9 is. By reading about his solutions, the interested shooter may be able to find a smith who can perform some of the AMU wizard’s work and bring the 92FS up to snuff at the range.
The Weigand Nosepiece
When we first heard of the Weigand Combat Handguns BT Nose Piece modification performed by Jack Weigand (pronounced we-GAND), we imagined all sorts of gargoyle-inspired clamps and bushings hanging off the gun. Happily, the retrofit Weigand barrel bushing doesn’t mar the lines of the utilitarian 92FS. He charges $59.95 for the nosepiece, and $39 for installing it. Weigand performs the work in a day, and even during the UPS strike, we were able to ship the gun to him, get the mod done, and have the gun back for retesting in 10 days.
The nosepiece is a 1-inch-tall, 0.25-inch-thick piece of steel that fits over the front of the barrel where it protrudes from the slide. On a stock 92FS, about 0.375 inch of the barrel juts out in front of the slide, and the nosepiece fits over the exposed barrel and is fixed to the slide with two Allen-head screws. Weigand says the nosepiece reduces the amount of barrel-alignment change from shot to shot, which improves the gun’s consistency.
To see if the product performed as advertised, we shot the 92FS with six brands of ammo before we shipped the gun: PMC’s Eldorado Starfire 124-grain Jacketed HP C9SFB, the Federal Personal Defense 135-grain Hydra-Shok Jacketed HP P9HS5 fodder, Hornady’s Custom 115-grain Jacketed HP XTP No. 9025, No. 9025 SXT 147-grain Jacketed HP XTP bullets from Winchester, Speer Gold Dot 124-grain GDHP No. 23618 rounds, and the Winchester 115-grain FMJ No. Q4172 rounds. We also measured the rounds’ velocities with an Oehler 35P chronograph. We shot the accuracy groups with the help of a Ransom Rest, firing 10 five-shot groups at 25 yards.
As the accompanying tables show, the best groups came with Speer Gold Dot ammo, which shot 1.9-inch groups on average at 25 yards. But there was wide variation between the best group (1.0 inch) and the worst group (2.8 inches). The worst-performing ammo was the Winchester Q load, which averaged groups 2.8 inches in size, with a best group of 1.7 inches and a worst group of 3.8 inches. Across all the ammo lots, we calculated the gun shot 2.3-inch groups on average.
Our followup testing showed that the Weigand nosepiece improved five of the six accuracy results, one by as much as 35 percent. We saw the most improvement in the PMC ammo. Our $100 investment dropped groups sizes from 2.6 inches on average to 1.7 inches. The Speer and Winchester Q loads showed 21-percent improvement, followed closely by the Hornady Custom ammo (20-percent improvement) and Winchester SXT rounds (15-percent improvement). Only the Federal Self Defense load showed no change in group sizes after the nosepiece was added.
But in one respect, we saw improvement in the Federal load, too. Before adding the nosepiece, the range between best and worst groups was 2.3 inches. After the nosepiece was added, that range dropped to 1.1 inches. The other ammos showed similar or larger drops in group-size range.
Performance Shooter Recommends
Within a given design, a gun can provide only so much performance. Accuracy in a semi-auto handgun is a product of trigger control, slide-to-frame fit, barrel lock-up consistency, and the precise relationship of the barrel to the sights. Our testing showed that the Weigand BT Nose Piece accomplishes one important facet of semi-auto accurizing: It stabilizes the relationship between the front of the barrel and the slide. The resulting improvement in accuracy is likely to cut your Beretta 92FS’s group sizes by at least 20 percent, we believe. Moreover, we believe that the incidence of fliers will be reduced substantially if the nosepiece is fitted to a stock 92FS.
For $100, Weigand’s simple, effective part is worth the money, in our view. Though a more comprehensive, more expensive workup on the 92FS may be available to civilians in the future, right now the BT Nose Piece offers a sizable improvement in the gun’s accuracy for not a lot of money. We recommend it.
Though Master Sergeant David E. Sams’ modifications to the Service M9 were developed for exclusive use by the AMU, it is interesting nonetheless to see what can be done to the Beretta to make it shoot.
Let’s skip the main course for now and get to the dessert: A tricked-out AMU M9 shoots 0.875-inch groups at 50 yards with factory match ammo. That’s right. Just over 1.5 MOA from a handgun. Even the best 1911s shooting tweaked handloads can’t do better, and most .45s can’t approach that level of accuracy.
What’s the secret, and why hasn’t anyone else been able to work out the Beretta’s bugs to this level?
“You’ve got to give full credit to the Marksmanship Unit,” the 39-year-old Sams said. “The unit commander called me into his office and told me to make the M9 fit for competition. About a year later, it was ready. But I didn’t have to work on anything else, and I could order or build whatever it took to get the gun right. I can’t think of a commercial gunsmith who could dedicate a full year to a single project. They’ve got to eat.”
Oddly, Sams had to juggle and balance several aspects of gunsmithing to get the gun to shoot well yet make it easy to work on. “It wasn’t enough to make it accurate,” Sams said. “I had to make sure it was durable, that I could repair it quickly and easily in the field with limited tools, that the gun was shooter friendly, and that I could build enough of them for the AMU shooters. Any solution I came up with that didn’t fulfill all these criteria wasn’t good enough.”
The major upgrades he settled on involve many of the same principles as accurizing a Government Model, but adapting them to the M9 proved tricky. He emphasizes that no one step alone would produce the results he demands, but the interplay of the modifications makes for a sweet-shooting gun.
The first step was getting the barrel lockup consistent. Sams says the barrel is the heart and soul of any gun, and it’s a given that to shoot well, the moving barrel has to go to the same place in lockup.
Fitting the slide to the frame, of course, is an important part of this. But the Beretta had aluminum rails that didn’t respond well to any of the traditional rail-fitting techniques, such as squeezing the slide to the frame, welding on new metal and then fitting, or installing aftermarket parts (they don’t exist). He solved the problem by removing aluminum from the rails and screwing on handbuilt steel blocks that were Loctited in place. This gave him durable, malleable metal that allowed him to fit the slide and frame.
Next, he installs a match-grade barrel, and Sams makes sure a given barrel will shoot by locking the barrel in a special jig. The jig, which has a swinging breech assembly, allows AMU to test each barrel before any work goes into it. “You can be darned sure that if a barrel won’t shoot in this rest, there’s nothing we can do to make it shoot in the gun. It’s a quality-control step that allows us to make sure we’re using the right components before we assemble a gun,” he said.
Once a barrel passes this test, Sams threads the front of the barrel and installs a custom-made cone bushing that’s a common modifications on 1911s, said Sams, who spent his first 17 years in the Army as an infantryman and his last three at AMU. But fitting the AMU version of the cone bushing solved a lot of problems that a larger-diameter barrel or slide bushing didn’t. Not only did it work, but if the gun gets out of adjustment, the cone bushing can be removed and shortened a few thousandsths, then screwed back on. The gun should tighten right back up.
Adding two set screws in the breech block assembly (see sidebar) and changing out the springs finishes the AMU conversion. Sams uses a stock 1911 mainspring and a new recoil spring. He says the stock 13-pound recoil spring doesn’t provide the solid front-end lockup that he likes, so he uses aftermarket 15-pounders instead.
Though he’s substantially improved the Beretta M9 for AMU’s shooters, Sams believes he can wring still more accuracy out of the gun.
That attitude is keeping with his mechanical background. Growing up in Virginia west of Richmond, he learned how things worked by watching his uncle gunsmith and rebuild vintage Ford pickup trucks. “He was not school trained. But he was a mechanic who could make anything run,” Sams said. Sams went into the Army at the tender age of 18 and is now preparing to retire after 20 years. But he has always worked on guns at home—even when he was jumping out of planes as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, when he was a drill sergeant, during a short 21/2-year stint as a civilian police officer, in the role of chief pistol instructor, or as a shooter who was a member of the 1988 National Trophy team.
“I have to confess, I became a shooter just so I could get my foot in the door to come to the AMU as a gunsmith,” he said. “A lot of shooters knew me, and because I built some of their personal guns, they were comfortable recommending me when a slot opened here. I’m so lucky, because our mission is to train and support the best shooters in the world, and we have unbelievable talent and resources to accomplish that mission.”
Though MSG Sams plans to retire in November, further development of the competition M9 will certainly continue. In particular, Sams believes ammo refinements will play a large role in advancing the M9. “What shooters are using now is marginally passable by AMU standards,” the MSG says. A match-grade 124-grain jacketed hollowpoint round is shooting very well, Sams says, but it can’t be used in the Service Pistol or EIC (Excellence in Competition or “leg”) match portion of the National Match Course. Instead, 115-grain or 124-grain full-metal-jacket ball ammo must be used, and it doesn’t shoot as well as Sams wants.
New barrel-twist rates may also solve the ammunition problem. Sams says he has thoroughly tested barrels with 1:16 twist (that’s the barrel AMU shooters are currently using), and he’s begun experimenting with 1:24-twist rifling.
How shooters operate the trigger is another area in need of improvement. Sams says the gun’s trigger pull can be smoothed and refined, even though the 14-element Beretta trigger can already be easily lightened to the 4-pound minimum allowed by competition rules. Sams thinks machining oversize parts and fitting them down could solve those trigger-quality problems.
There are likely other fixes for the M9, and Sams is adamant that he doesn’t have all the answers. “John Browning, the father of the 1911, could develop a gun by himself. He was a master at building guns. I’m not,” Sams said. “The way I look at it, a gunsmith is only as good as the people around him. I’m surrounded by some of the best here, and everyone has contributed ideas—some of which I’ve been able to make work.”