So, You Have a 9mm Pistol?

The 9x19mm is one of America’s most popular rounds, probably the most popular round. If it wasn’t the case before the explosion of new compact, higher-capacity 9mm handguns on the market it certainly is now. Whether you call it 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum, or some other moniker, if you’re going to shoot 9mm ammunition, you might as well understand it.

Everyone knows what you mean when you say your sidearm is a “9mm.” Most everyone, anyway. 9mm Parabellum, also known as 9mm Luger, was the first major 9mm cartridge and is still the greatest, despite many would-be competitors. In the video linked below, Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons gives us the history of a dozen 9mm cartridges over the last 120 years. “9mm” didn’t always mean what it does today.

Ian McCollum 9mm pistol
Not all 9mm ammo is created the same. Several are quite different. Ian McCollum gives us the lowdown on a dozen cartridges. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

Space prohibits a detailed commentary of Ian’s video. Nor can Ian’s expertise be reproduced like that. But here’s a brief rundown to give you the outline. The video is well worth your time if the topic interests you.

9mm Parabellum (9mm Luger or 9mm NATO)

Technically, the .38 ACP was the first 9mm diameter cartridge, but it’s been dead for a long time. But the 9mm Parabellum, or 9mm Luger, has been around since 1902 and it’s only getting more popular. The 9mm Parabellum’s story starts with Georg Luger, who worked at Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). The famous Luger pistol was originally chambered in 7.65mm Parabellum, a bottlenecked cartridge featuring a .32 caliber projectile.

7.65mm Luger pistol
The famous Luger was originally chambered in 7.65 Parabellum. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

DWM shopped the Luger to European militaries, but they wanted a larger bullet. So, DWM eliminated the bottleneck and produced an almost straight-walled cartridge with a 9mm bullet. They shortened the 21mm case to 19mm and lengthened the bullet to maintain proper ballistic shape, hence today’s “9x19mm” cartridge. The cartridges had the same overall length. They called it “9mm Parabellum,” and Lugers were offered in both calibers.

7.65mm Parabellum and 9mm Parabellum cartridges
DWM created the 9mm Parabellum by modifying the 7.65 Parabellum case and adding a larger bullet. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The cartridge’s design was deliberate. DWM developed it to be compatible with the Luger pistol, so it had to fit the action and magazines already in use. By modifying the original 7.65 cartridge, all Lugers had interchangeable parts, except for the barrel. Some surplus ammo may be labeled as suitable for submachine guns only. These are hotter loads that can damage a pistol.

Surplus 9mm Parabellum ammunition
Some 9mm Parabellum ammo may only be suitable for submachine guns. On the French package on the left, “PA” means pistol and “PM”: means submachine gun. So, this ammo works for either one. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

9mm Bergmann (9mm Largo or 9mm Bergmann-Bayard)

This 9x23mm cartridge was introduced in 1903 for the Bergmann Mars pistol adopted by Spain. The Spanish called the Bergmann cartridge “9mm Largo” (9mm long) to differentiate it from the 9mm Parabellum.

1903 Bergmann Mars pistol
Bergmann developed their cartridge for the Mars pistol. The Spanish dubbed it the “9mm Largo.” (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The 9mm Largo was loaded a bit lighter, despite being almost 20 percent longer. The cartridges are almost identical ballistically. That difference led to the Largo mostly dying out once the Bergmann pistols were superseded by more modern sidearms. There was no reason to have a bulkier cartridge that required more raw materials but yielded no performance advantage.

9mm Parabellum cartridge and 9mm Largo cartridge
Top: 9mm Parabellum cartridge Bottom: 9mm Largo cartridge. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

9mm Browning Long

John Browning designed this cartridge for the FN Model 1903 pistol. It featured a 20mm semi-rimmed case. Semi-rimmed means the rim’s diameter is slightly larger than the case. Most modern cartridges, including the 9mm Parabellum, are rimless, meaning the rim’s diameter is the same as the case.

9mm Browning Long cartridge and FN Model 1903 pistol
John Browning developed the 9mm Browning Long for the FN Model 1903 pistol. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

Browning used a semi-rimmed design because the rim provides an easy data point for head spacing, unlike rimless cartridges which use the case’s neck or shoulder. Fully rimmed cartridges like the .38 Special provide excellent head spacing data points but they don’t work well in magazines. Semi-rimmed designs offer the best of both. Good data points and they work in magazines. Browning also used a semi-rimmed design on his .25 ACP and .32 ACP, which are really the only modern cartridges with that feature.

9mm Largo and 9mm Parabellum cartridges
Top: 9mm Browning Long Cartridge Bottom: 9mm Parabellum Cartridge. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The 9mm Browning Long wasn’t as powerful as the 9mm Parabellum because the FN 1903 was a simple blowback gun. A hotter load requires a locking system or a much heavier slide to handle the recoil. Militaries decided they wanted a hotter cartridge, so they went for pistols with locking systems. The 9mm Browning Long died out after that, though the French used it in one of their pistols and the Swedes in an early submachine gun.

9mm Kurz (9mm Short or .380 Auto)

John Browning developed this cartridge in 1908 for the Browning 1903 Pocket Hammerless. The gun was a scaled-down version of the FN Model 1903 for the American civilian market. The gun was originally chambered in .32 ACP, but Browning designed the .380 as an optional larger caliber.

Browning 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol
John Browning developed the .380 Auto in 1908 as a caliber option for his 1903 Browning Pocket hammerless pistol. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

At 9x17mm, the case is 2mm shorter than the 9mm Parabellum. Ian notes that it is “unequivocally less powerful.” The .380 was specifically designed for a smaller blowback pocket gun. It still fills that role today.

9mm Parabellum cartridge and .380 Auto cartridge
Top: 9mm Parabellum cartridge Bottom: .380 Auto cartridge. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

9mm Mauser Export

This 9x25mm cartridge was Mauser’s 1908 attempt at a more powerful chambering for their export pistols. The C96 Broomhandle pistol and a couple of early Sig submachine guns in the 1930s used the cartridge.

Mauser C96 Broomhandle pistol
The 9mm Mauser Export was used mostly in the C96 Broomhandle pistols. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The round was ultimately too powerful. The recoil was heavy, and its length really made it too long for pistols whose mags were inside the grip. The long cartridge case worked in the Broomhandle because of the gun’s forward magazine well. It was a better submachine gun round, but few countries were willing to have different cartridges for their sidearms and submachine guns. It died out quickly, though Sig briefly brought it back for their submachine guns, as did the Hungarians.

9mm Steyr

Developed for the Steyr Model 1912, the 9mm Steyr is almost indistinguishable from the 9mm Largo. They have the same ballistics, and the only real difference is the bullet weight. The Largo used a 125-136 grain bullet, while the Steyr is 115 grains. But the 9mm Parabellum did everything better. The Steyr, like the Largo, faded away quickly.

Steyr Model 1912 Pistol
Steyr created their cartridge for the Model 1912 pistol. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)
9mm Steyr, 9mm Largo, and 9mm Parabellum cartridges
Top: 9mm Steyr cartridge Middle: 9mm Largo cartridge Bottom: 9mm Parabellum cartridge. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

9mm Ultra (9mm Police)

Developed by Walther, this was the first 9x18mm cartridge, predating the 9mm Makarov by more than a decade. It began as a 1930s German Air Force experiment to get a more powerful cartridge without needing the more expensive locked breech action. Essentially, they wanted a hotter Walther PP or PPK for their pilots. Those pistols were chambered in 7.65mm at the time.

9mm Ultra Walther pistol
The 9mm Ultra was too powerful for the 1930s Walther PP and PPK pistols. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The round proved too powerful, cracking slides and parts after only a short time. It was a bit more powerful than the .380, but less so than the 9mm Parabellum. The PP and PPKs of the day just weren’t designed for the hotter cartridge. Ballistically, it was similar to the 9mm Browning Long, but in a much smaller package.

Walther reintroduced the cartridge in the 1970s as the “9mm Ultra” in an updated PP. A few guns, most notably Sig, used it but none were successful, and the cartridge died again. The most significant result of the 9mm Ultra was the creation of the 9×18 case.

9mm Makarov

First developed in 1946, the Makarov pistol entered Soviet service in 1951. The Soviets wanted a smaller, lighter officer’s sidearm to replace the Tokarev. The Soviets didn’t need it for submachine guns. The new AK-47 filled that role. So, it didn’t have to be particularly powerful. The Soviets did want a larger bullet than the 7.62mm Tokarev, and the 9×18 worked well in the simple blowback Makarov.

9mm Makarov pistol
The 9mm Makarov’s bullet is incompatible with any other 9mm cartridge. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

The round is ballistically similar to the 9mm Ultra, 9mm Browning Long, and .380, though it’s a bit more powerful than the latter. The real difference is a slightly larger 9.2mm projectile. The other 9mm cartridges are .355 caliber, while the Makarov is .364. The Soviets may have purposely chosen a nonstandard bullet diameter to prevent captured ammo from being used against them. The Finns did just that in the Winter War of 1939-40 and later in World War II.

9x21mm

Certain European nations prohibited civilian ownership of military spec ammo. 9mm Parabellum was illegal in Italy and France, though France has since changed their law.

9x21mm is exactly the same length as 9×19. But the case is 2mm longer and the bullet is seated 2 mm deeper. Gun companies created it so they could market the same pistols across Europe without breaking the law. So, those guns are offered in Italy in 9×21 instead of 9x19mm, even though either one will work. Crazy gun laws.

9mm pistols
Clockwise from the top left: Luger; Bergmann Mars; FN Model 1903; Steyr Model 1912; Browning 1903 Pocket Hammerless. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

9mm Winchester Magnum

A ridiculously powerful cartridge created specifically for the Automag pistols in the late 1980s.

9x25mm Dillon

A wildcat cartridge developed for hunting. It’s the same overall length as the 9mm Mauser Export. Ian describes it as “massively overpowered.”

9x23mm Winchester

Specifically developed in 1996 for IPSC competition use. It’s meant to provide a 9mm cartridge with enough power to qualify as a major caliber, like .40 or .45, without losing capacity. Ian notes that other cartridges have mostly surpassed it.

Is that all?

You’d think so, but no. Ian is researching a couple of other 9mm cartridges that he’ll bring to us later on. Still, though, that’s a lot more 9mm than I knew about. Through it all, the 9mm Parabellum, or Luger, has been the best of the bunch, and it’s better now than it’s ever been. I guess DWM knew what they were doing back in 1902.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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