We have all heard, or even participated in, the much-heated debate of 9mm Luger vs 45 ACP. One simply needs to look at the comments section of self-defense articles or look on just about any gun forum to find evidence of the “best caliber” war. Many of these heated debates use outdated and inaccurate terms to promote their given caliber of choice. There is an interesting development in this discussion, and that is that 9mm Luger seems to incrementally be taking over the defensive circles as one of the better options among the “Big Three” semi-auto rounds (9mm, 40 S&W, 45 ACP). So, let’s look at the history (albeit condensed) of this now very common round.
Like most common rounds today, the 9mm Luger traces its ancestry to just before the turn of the century and WWI. One of the precursors to the 9mm Luger was the 7.65x25mm Borchardt designed for the Borchardt C-93 pistol (recently featured in the video game hit “Battlefield 1”). The Borchardt C-93 was designed by Hugo Borchardt, hence the name. This pistol round was adapted from the 7.92mm cartridge, also called the 8mm Mauser, and was designed to fit a pistol by incorporating such things as bottlenecking and a rimless design. The Borchardt round was the first successful rimless pistol round, later to be modified, and served as the inspiration for three different pistol rounds that led to various modern 9mm rounds. It was featured in the design for the Mauser C96 and its accompanying round the 7.63x25mm Mauser. This means it eventually led to the 7.62x25mm Tokarev cartridge, which was eventually replaced by the 9x18mm Makarov, the Soviet’s answer to the 9mm Luger. Here is an interesting little fact: the Makarov round is slightly larger in diameter than the modern 9mm due to different caliber measuring methods between the East and the West.
The next step toward the creation of the modern 9mm was in 1898, when Georg Luger and Hugo Borchardt designed the round from the previous Borchardt round for Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). This new round, the 7.65x21mm Parabellum, also referred to as the .30 Luger, was designed for the new Parabellum pistol, the Luger P08 (Pistole Parabellum 1908). The cartridge and pistol arose out of the need to address complaints brought up about the C-93 in the 1897 Swiss military trials. Luger made the grip narrower, the action shorter, and chambered it in the shorter cartridge. These eventually led to the creation of the Pistole-Parabellum, commonly referred to in the United States as the Luger pistol. The cartridge itself began mass production somewhere within the 1900-1901 time-frame, and its 1903 carbine variant was manufactured until just after WW1. It was used and manufactured for military use and exported to a variety of countries including Brazil, Portugal, the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and of course Germany.
While the .30 Luger was still widely being used, a giant in the firearms industry was designing a 9mm variation of his own. The legendary John Moses Browning designed the .380 ACP (9x17mm), which was introduced by Colt in the U.S. in 1908 and then in Europe in 1912. The .380 ACP, officially named the 9mm Browning Court, was considered a moderately powerful service round in comparison to the .32 ACP. It did not last beyond WWII as a preferred caliber though. Although it was a weak cartridge, the .380 ACP is one of the few pistol rounds to shape world history: it was the caliber used in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which set in motion the events that led to WWI. During this time period the .380 ACP was adopted by Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, and Germany (Pistols chambered in .380 were popular among German officers, following the trend of lighter, smaller caliber pistols for military officers throughout the world).
Now we get to the 9x19mm Parabellum. This round was developed by Luger simply by expanding the bottle neck of the 7.65×21 to accept a 9mm projectile. The Luger pistol that would eventually be chambered in 9mm Luger was patented in 1898, but would not be chambered in 9mm until the German military requested a larger pistol caliber resulting in the famous, or rather infamous, P08.
Luger submitted the new round for review in 1902 to the British Small Arms Committee. Sometime during 1903, Luger even submitted three prototype designs to the U.S. Army for tests by Springfield Arsenal. As to the adoption of the round, the Imperial German Navy and German Army adopted the round in 1904 and 1908, respectively. The round was modified during the 1910s to deal with feeding issues.
After WWI, the 9×19 Parabellum became a very popular caliber for pistols and submachineguns. During WWII, Germany came up with at least two interesting variants for the 9mm Luger. Due to logistical problems, mainly to conserve lead, the Germans made an iron-core, lead encased bullet designated the 08 mE, which stood for mit Eisenkern (with iron core). These rounds were manufactured with a black jacketing until 1944, when it was replaced with the standard copper jacketing. In addition to this round, they even designed a compressed iron powder round (essentially a wrought iron bullet concept) designated 08 sE. These rounds, if any are still around, would make great collectibles, but are considered illegal in a variety of locations due to concerns over their ability to defeat various types of soft body armor. The Germans even created some creative variations for the 9mm Luger rounds, some of which had lead pellets instead of a single projectile, and one had a poisonous bullet!
During the latter half of the 20th century, the 9mm became quite popular in the civilian market as well as with law enforcement/military. The development of various single action/double action pistols or double action only semi-automatics with better capacity than .38 Special revolvers were vital to the popularity of the 9mm. Illinois led the way in the popularity of semi-auto pistols. The Illinois State Police adopted a 9mm Smith & Wesson Model 39 for duty use in 1968. This early adoption set the tone for acceptance and use of semi-auto pistols and the 9mm cartridge in the 80s and 90s by U.S. law enforcement and civilians alike. The U.S. Military also followed this trend in the 80s with the Army adopting the Beretta M9 in 1985. The Army has maintained the 9×19 cartridge with the adoption of the new modular handgun system, the Sig Sauer P320.
With advances in projectile design, more efficient powders, and the overall ability to carry more rounds, it is no surprise that the 9mm Parabellum has become one of the most common handgun rounds used throughout the world. From NATO to various Middle Eastern and Western oriented countries, 9mm is the standard issued round. Its wide use around the world as well as its affordability and performance, means the 9mm cartridge won’t be disappearing anytime soon.