Why is 9mm So Popular?

If you’re anything like me, you likely want to understand the world around us and the “why” behind market trends. I’ve often wondered why the 9mm cartridge has become the go-to round instead of the many other handgun rounds out there. It’s not like we, as Americans, invented the caliber and originated its popularity. Cartridges like the .38 Special and .45 ACP dominated the American market for decades, and cartridges like the .40 S&W had their time in the sun as well.

Yet, here we are, in 2024, using 9mm Luger — a cartridge older than both the .45 ACP and .40 S&W. It dominates the concealed carry market and the law enforcement market, as well as the pistol caliber carbine market, the military market, and the international market. So, why does the 9mm rule the roost? Let’s discuss.

The Rise of the 9mm

The 9mm Luger cartridge was introduced to the German military in 1902 by George Luger to replace the original Luger pistol chambered in 7.65 Parabellum. When the Germans wanted a larger projectile, he kept things simple by removing the bottleneck from the 7.65 cartridge and utilizing a 9mm projectile. That was the magic that made the round we know and love today.

The 9mm Luger cartridge earned its baptism by fire during WWI with the Bergmann MP-18 submachine gun. The invention of the submachine gun was such a game-changer that after the war, the Germans were banned from building them.

Submachine gun MP18
The Bergmann MP-18 moved from the experimental stage to being widely issued. This 9mm submachine gun could fire 500 rounds per minute. Photo by Vianilondon.

While soldiers are effective with a handgun out to 25 meters, the submachine gun upped that number to 100 meters. At this point, the calibers that dominated European semi-auto handguns were .32 ACP, .380 ACP, and 9mm. Since submachine guns allowed for greater range, a caliber like 9mm made more sense than the sub-calibers previously used in handguns.

The 9mm submachine gun became a staple of the German and British armies. Americans kept the .45 ACP, and the Soviets preferred the 7.62 TOK. However, it was the German and British use of the 9mm that cemented it as a handgun and submachine cartridge.

In 1955, NATO adopted the 9mm cartridge, and it has continued to be the round of choice for Western military forces of today.

In the Modern Era

The United States was a bit slow to adopt the 9mm. It clung to the .45 ACP from 1911 to 1965 before finally getting on board with NATO and adopting the 9mm cartridge as the standard-issue cartridge. The Beretta M9 and the 9mm would then go on to serve as America’s fighting handgun for decades. While it’s currently being phased out in favor of the M17/M18 series, the M9 sticks around, and there are currently no efforts to replace the 9mm cartridge.

beretta M9
A wounded Marine is assisted by his brothers after engaging the enemy in CQB environments. He clutches his M9 pistol. Note the trigger discipline even though he’s obviously in pain – that is a true professional! Photo by Washington Post.

The Police Forces of the United States were also slow to adopt the 9mm cartridge. They seemed to have had an on-again, off-again relationship with 9mm. However, in the mid-2010s, the round began gathering steam, and the .40 S&W was being seen to the door. Adoption by the FBI and several major metropolitan police forces propelled it back into the limelight with law enforcement.

What 9mm Offers Shooters

Why did this humble round from 1902 come to dominate the international market? It’s gotten to the point where countries like Russia are even adopting the 9mm in handguns and submachine guns. Over the years, the round has evolved into a titan that dominates military, police, and civilian markets.

What does it offer you as a shooter?

Low Recoil

9mm handguns are very easy to shoot. Even smaller subcompact pistols in 9mm tend to be fairly easy to handle. Guns like the Sig Sauer P365 tend to be very easy to handle without much recoil. As you get into larger handguns, like the duty-sized Glock 17, the recoil is even easier to tame. This makes the cartridge very egalitarian for a wide variety of shooters and a wide variety of handguns.

SIG P365
The Sig Sauer P365 kicked off the Micro Compact genre.

Low recoil isn’t just comfy but helps shooters make faster follow-up shots and exercise a greater degree of control over their guns. Faster and more accurate shooting is the key to winning a fight or a competition.

Good Penetration

The thing that stops threats in their tracks is having a projectile that can reach deep and strike something vital. This requires the cartridge to have consistently deep penetration. 9mm loads have no problems reaching the proper depth to hit the vitals. In FBI gel tests, the 9mm is an excellent performer.

HST Micro 9mm
HST penetrates deep, even from a short barrel.

Excellent Expansion

The advent of jacketed hollow points was a game changer. Hollow point projectiles that would adequately penetrate and expand were a game changer for defensive firearms. While all rounds have benefitted from better projectiles, the 9mm round has seemingly benefitted the most. A good JHP can reach the proper depth while expanding and growing. The expansion can create projectiles that are .50 inches wide or even larger. This guarantees more damage and trauma to a threat while reducing the risk of overpenetration.

ballistic gel block
9mm excels in penetration tests.

Excellent Capacity

One of the best things about the 9mm is how many rounds it allows you to tote with a flush-fitting magazine. The smaller size of the 9mm round makes it easy to provide magazines up to 21 rounds in duty-size handguns. Guns like the P365 can pack 10 rounds in a gun that could fit in your pocket. This is the main advantage of 9mm, in my opinion; it offers you lots of rounds in a decently sized package.

Smaller Sized Firearms

Speaking of guns like the P365, the size of the cartridge makes it easy to make smaller guns. This includes smaller, more svelte grip sizes without sacrificing capacity.

APX A1 Carry
The APX A1 Carry seems old school in its design, but it’s very efficient.

A Variety of Projectiles

9mm offers shooters anything from the light 115-grain standard rounds to the heavy subsonic 147-grain loads. In between, we have specialty ammo that weighs 90 grains for low recoil and snappy 124-grain +P NATO loads. The 9mm cartridge truly offers something for everyone. It can be tailored to specific guns and used very easily.

Common and Low Priced Ammunition

Finally, one of the big draws to 9mm is the price and commonality. You can find it anywhere and at a great price. Low prices and high commonality make it easy to shoot, easy to train with, and easy to carry. That’s why it attracts both new and experienced shooters. Other calibers like .38 Special, 10mm, .45 ACP, and more can cost an arm and a leg.

speer gold dot
Speer Gold Dot is the classic standard for defensive rounds.

The 9mm Supremacy

The classic 9mm Parabellum round will be tough to conquer. Cartridges like the .30 Super Carry are certainly trying, but they have to fight an uphill battle against a deeply entrenched enemy. The 9mm will likely continue to dominate until manufacturers can find a way to make other ammo types cheaper and more common. Until then, it’s the reign of 9mm.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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