The 9x19mm Parabellum round goes by a number of names and is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, ubiquitous small arms round the world over. From humble beginnings as an Austrian pistol cartridge to replace and improve upon the previous 7.65x21mm Parabellum, the round would gain acceptance the world over. As ammunition improved with better bullet designs and better burning powders the round continued to improve its effectiveness. What was once a fast and light round has turned into an effective defensive round though continued refinement. With the low-cost of ammunition, ubiquity of firearms chambered for it, and over 60% of the world’s military and police forces using the round, the 9mm Parabellum is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
So where did it all start?
The 9mm Parabellum was created by Georg Luger, who was born March 6th 1849 in Austria. After a distinguished military career where he became a marksmanship instructor for the Austrian Military, Luger eventually became a contractor and consultant for the company that would become Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken or DWM. It was Luger’s time as a military instructor that first sparked his desire to develop and work with semi-automatic firearms designs.
Luger created the round out of a desire to have larger caliber firearms in the military. Ultimately he took the existing 7.65x21mm Parabellum cartridge and removed the bottleneck from the round, allowing the brass to accept a larger diameter bullet. The final design was a round with a slight taper and no rim at the edge of the case. Thus the 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge was born. In 1902 the first prototypes of the Luger Pistol and 9mm round were presented to the British Small Arms Committee for testing, in 1903 the US Army and German Military both received prototypes to test as well. Using feedback from these various tests Luger was able to improve upon his basic pistol design and while the round was not adopted by the US Military, the German Military took to the round and implemented it in their standard sidearms and many of their submachine gun designs. The last of the early improvements to the 9mm included a change to the ogive, the shape of the nose of the bullet, to help improve feeding of the round.
Below is a very in-depth video on the early years of production of the Luger Pistol and the companion 9mm round
Use in the World Wars
The round saw its first real use in World War One, the small and light round allowed for more rounds to be carried by an individual soldier. Yet the round still packed a punch, especially with longer barreled submachine guns. It was in the trenches of the First World War that the round proved itself and showed its potential. It remained a popular round well after the First World War and into the Second, with the Nazi forces favoring the round for their sidearms and a number of their submachine guns.
The Luger Pistol is perhaps the most iconic of the early firearms for the 9mm and many other firearms were chambered for it. After the Austrian Annexation, or Anschluss, by the Nazis, many 9x23mm Steyr firearms were rechambered to fit the 9mm round that the Nazis were already using.
During World War Two there were a number of major variants fielded in the various conflicts. Wartime Nazi Germany sought to conserve as much lead as possible and the lead core of the rounds were replaced by an iron core encased in lead. This iron core was made from either regular iron or a compressed, iron powder that was made at high temperatures. These variants were identified as “08 mE or mit Eisenkern, translating to “with iron core” and 08 sE or Sintereisen, translating to “sintered iron“. The 08 mE could be identified by a black jacket, however this was dropped in 1944 for a standard copper jacket. The 08 sE sported a light gray jacket and this was never changed though their production.
The round continued to be effective and powerful, even out to ranges beyond the 50 meters that it was originally designed for. This proven track record allowed the 9mm to continue to be a popular choice for military, law enforcement, and civilians alike.
Introducing the Wonder Nines
While still a battle proven cartridge the current explosion of the 9mm in Law Enforcement and Civilian markets did not really take off until sometime around the 1980’s. The ballistics of the standard 9mm load were greater than that of a standard .38 Special round that many police agencies favored. With semi-automatics becoming more and more prevalent many police departments chose to change from the standard .38 Special revolvers that they carried to 9mm semiautomatics. They gained a performance improvement while increasing capacity from six rounds to as many as 19 rounds in an easily changed magazine. All of this was while retaining the controllable recoil of the .38 Special. Most American police departments did not make the switch until the US Army adopted the Beretta M9 in 1985, police departments such as the Illinois State Police had made the switch as early as 1968 however. In 1962 the NATO countries adopted the S.A. Ball 9 m/m Mark IIz (9m/m Ball MK 2z) as their standard 9mm round. Solidifying the round as a military round and probably ensuring its eventual rise as a favored pistol caliber.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw a dramatic rise in the number of handguns chambered in 9mm. As many police departments switched, civilian shooters also jumped on the round for many of the same reasons as the police and military did. The 1980’s also saw the wide-spread of the Glock pistol, whose simple design helped to spur the development of lightweight, polymer, firearms chambered not just in 9mm but other calibers as well. By the end of the 1990’s the so-called “Wonder Nines” had become the defacto round for many shooters the world over. Today polymer 9mm handguns can be found in almost every gun owner’s collection.
Some thought that the 9mm was in danger from the FBI’s development of the .40 S&W round, part of the fallout from 1986 shootout. However, a FBI report from 2014 has shown that improvements in bullet design and powders since the FBI adopted the .40 S&W has made the difference negligible between the two, and the FBI is readopting the 9mm. But of course the caliber wars will continue and even the popular 9mm will never be useful in every situation and be every shooter’s favorite, nor should it be.
A rose by any other name
One of the things that plagues new shooters is the variety of names that the 9mm goes by. All of the following terms refer to essentially the same round.
9x19mm Parabellum, 9mm Parabellum – This is the first name that the 9mm was created under, the name “Parabellum” comes from the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum” or “If you seek peace, prepare for war”. This was the motto of the DWM that first manufactured the round and employed Georg Luger.
9x19mm, 9mm – An abbreviated version of the above name.
9mm Luger – This name is another common way to describe the 9mm and honors Georg Luger and the Luger pistol, unless marked as “+P” or “+P+” they will function in any 9mm pistol that is in good condition.
9x19mm NATO, 9mm NATO, 9mm +P, 9mm +P+, and similar – These rounds are essentially the same as the standard 9mm round, however they are all over the standard pressure specification for SAAMI and CIP specifications. You should consult your firearms manufacturer to see if your gun is rated for over pressure ammo. While many modern production firearms are rated for these higher pressure loads, older or worn firearms may not be able to handle these “hotter” loads. If in doubt always consult a competent gunsmith.
And an urban myth of sorts
There is an oral tradition about the 9mm that I have often heard, that the round was supposed to wound and not kill. I generally hear this in the Great Caliber Debate™ as a knock against the 9mm round. There is, in reality little, to objectively point to this idea and I have yet to see someone point to historical combat manuals that espouse this. Though if one can find any evidence for this from a source dated around the early 1900’s when this round was being developed, I’d love to see it. However, I have never seen a weapon’s designer create a firearm or bullet for a national military with the idea of making it “less lethal”.
Chambered firearms in 9mm
An exhaustive list of firearms chambered for the 9mm round could take up an entire website by itself, so I will not go into too much detail here. However, it would be almost impossible to find a 9mm firearm that will not be able to suit the needs of even the most hard-core firearms enthusiast. From inexpensive firearms such as the Canik TP9SA and the Hi-Point 9mm for budget minded people to expensive but high quality guns such as the STI 2011. Carbines and Pistol Caliber AR-15’s and AKM variants can be found as well. Even a handful of revolvers that use moon clips such as the Ruger LCR 9mm, fire the venerable cartridge. The 1911 can be found in 9mm and the Browning Hi-Power, the 1911’s cousin, is chambered by default in it. Glock, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Remington, CZ, Sig, all produce fine 9mm handguns and more, the list is really endless.
Collectors will also find a plethora of old World War Two era and earlier firearms that are chambered in 9mm, such as the German MP 35, MP 40, Luger Pistol, Walther P38, the rare and hard to find British Welrod, and the STEN Sub Machine Gun, though there are many, many others.
Hand Loading and Factory Ammo
Perhaps no other caliber is so spoiled for choice. Literally every type of round that has been produced has a 9mm variant. From standard Full Metal Jacket and Hollow Points to more exotic types such as frangible, incendiary, and simulated fire rounds 9mm factory ammo is ridiculously easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
For hand loaders brass and bullet options are also plentiful. Nosler, Hornady, Sierra, Barnes, Lehigh Defense and many other manufactures make 9mm bullets for reloaders. Any standard reloading manual will have load data for the 9mm, however you can find excellent reloading data from these places
Still the champ
The 9mm round has proven to be an effective round for well over a hundred years and advancements in bullet and powder technology continue to improve upon its base design. For now the 9mm remains one of the most popular cartridges in the world and it seems like there’s little reason to believe that anything will change any time soon.