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In January 1985, the U.S. Army made a fateful decision that would send shockwaves through the firearms industry: the service chose a foreign company to replace its arsenal of Colt pistols. The controversial choice of the Beretta 92FS as the standard handgun for the U.S. armed forces marked the end of an era, shifting away from larger calibers and towards higher capacity magazines and modern designs. The Italian handgun also established a beachhead for European firearms and makers on the U.S. market, helping make Europe’s gun makers the household names they are today.

The history of Beretta goes back to the sixteenth century, when Bartolomeo Beretta produced 185 arquebus barrels for the Arsenal of Venice. The company, has made firearms ever since, helmed by fifteen consecutive generations of the Beretta family, arming armies from Napoleon to Mussolini. In the late 1970s, Beretta decided to bid on its most ambitious project to date: the 2.1-million strong United States Armed Forces. The Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP), meant to pick out a replacement for the venerable Colt 1911A1 semi automatic pistol for the U.S. Military, promised to be the most lucrative single contract in history.

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According to noted small-arms author Leroy Thompson, JSSAP came about after Congress expressed concern “about the approximately 590,000 handguns in US military service, of which only 73 percent were deemed serviceable. Within the 590,000 were more than twenty-five handgun types with myriad types of ammunition.” The winner of the JSSAP would replace these handguns with a single, modern design that used a single type of ammunition. Infantry officers, Navy personnel on warships, and Air Force pilots would all use the same handgun.

The M1911A1 handgun, which made up the majority of existing U.S. service pistols, was originally introduced in the 1920s and naturally there was a lot of new technology the military wanted rolled into a new handgun. JSSAP criteria had more than eighty criteria for the new handgun, chief among which was 9-millimeter caliber, a minimum ten round magazine (ideally thirteen or more), ambidextrous controls, double action/single action operation, a reliability rate of no more than eight malfunctions per five thousand rounds fired, a thumb safety, a decocker and a firing pin lock.

Beretta’s entry to the JSSAP competition was the Beretta 92SB-F. Sleek and modern looking, the 92SB-F was the latest in a long line of pistols that began with the Beretta 1915. The 1915 was a simple, compact pistol that held eight rounds and was chambered in 7.65x17SR Browning. The 1915 was issued to Italian troops in World War I and was followed by the Beretta 1934, which was standard issue to the Italian military in World War II. This was in turn followed by the Beretta 1951, also known as the Brigadier, a full-sized pistol chambered in the modern 9-millimeter Parabellum cartridge.

The Model 92S-1, was a modernized version of the Brigadier. An all metal handgun, the M92 had an aluminum frame and steel slide. It was a double action/single action pistol, with the first shot being double action (a single long pull cocked the piston and pulled the trigger, releasing the round) and subsequent shots optionally single action. The handgun handily checked off the military’s list of desired new features, including the thumb safety, decocker, and firing pin lock. Each magazine held fifteen rounds of nine millimeter parabellum, and a basic load of ammunition consisted of three magazines with a total of forty-five rounds—quite different from the 1911, where three magazines held only twenty-one rounds. The M92 weighed 2.6 pounds loaded.