9mm Showdown: Can The Bull Outflank Pietro?
If Beretta’s Elite is an upgrade of the company’s 9mm Model 92, is the Taurus PT99 Beretta clone a downgrade? Not in our view, because Taurus’s PT99AFS, $547, adds a much-needed carry option and costs way less than the Italians.
[IMGCAP(1)] Old sayings like “The original and still the best,” or “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” can lead to self-admiration to the point of destruction. Witness what happened to Colt’s Manufacturing, as clones stole the 1911 market out from under them. Could the same thing happen to other manufacturers as well?
For years Taurus International has been offering a Beretta knock-off that emulates the Italian firm’s Model 92, a civilian gun cast from the same lineage as the U.S. M9 military 9mm sidearm. Beretta, of Brescia, Italy, began offering the series 92 in 1975, and in 1981 Taurus began producing its version of this pistol, the PT99, at the plant the company bought from Beretta in Brazil. How similar are they? Very. In fact, the easiest way to tell these two pistols apart is with your eyes closed. Ergonomically, the Beretta pistol slips into the hand a little easier. The Taurus grip frame is just a shade more square.
But looking like Elvis doesn’t mean you sing like him, so we wanted to see how the much less expensive Taurus PT99AFS, $547, fared against a pair of Berettas, the mainstream 92FS ($691) and the Elite upgrade ($732), introduced last year. The upgraded Elite employs Beretta’s Brigadier slide, sculpted for additional beauty and function, along with other niceties. Frankly, what we expected to find was what the Elite name and price suggest: That the high-trim Beretta was a markedly better gun than the others. If true, this might inoculate the company from the Colt’s virus, where static product development allowed the Colt brand’s equity to deteriorate and sales to flag.
Instead, we found that Beretta better be ready for a challenge from below, at least in terms of pricing, because Taurus is delivering a very good 92-style gun for about $150 less than a similar Beretta.
Besides the endless plinking that the economy and moderate recoil of the 9mm Luger cartridge tends to encourage, we tested each pistol for accuracy from 25 yards off a sandbag rest. In a tribute to the design of these pistols, we must pass along that nothing remotely resembling a malfunction of any sort occurred during a combined 1,000-plus rounds of fire. If we could say this about every semi-automatic pistol that comes our way, there might not be a need for a consumer-oriented magazine such as ours.
Throughout our accuracy session, fired single action only, we actually took little note as to how good the groups were as they appeared on paper. Our test shooters took one shot at a time, concerned with calling each shot and constantly pursuing the same point of aim. Inspecting the guns side by side, we traditionally have found it is too easy to predict the best shooter just by judging the quality of the sights. You can’t hit what you can’t see (as well), and the Beretta Elite displayed the best sights, in our opinion. The size of the front sight and the two stanchions that formed the rear blade were, in our eyes, perfect.
In contrast, the comparatively meager rear blade of its sister 92FS was adequate, but the stainless-steel front blade made light bars harder to pick up with additional distraction from the large dot engraved in the center. The Taurus suffered this same malady, but the dot its front sight carried was much smaller. With all this distraction and worry about centering and looking off our shots, perhaps we tried harder with the Beretta 92FS and the Taurus pistol, because we can’t otherwise explain the marked superiority of the two stainless guns over the more expensive Elite, as the accompanying tables show.
Our recommendation: Buy it. Copying the Beretta design is a no-brainer—the resulting gun works well. Throw in the Taurus lifetime guarantee plus the option of cocked-and-locked carry, and this $547 pistol is arguably the best value in self-defense 9mm handguns.
The AFS is the top of the line for Taurus’s Beretta 92–based pistols. It is two-tone stainless steel, brushed on the top end and bright on the frame. Ours did not arrive with the Brazilian wood stocks, but it did have a rear sight featuring two white dots and adjustment for windage and elevation. The basic pistol in this series, the PT92B, is a blue-steel pistol with fixed sights, but purchasing the base model only saves you $39. In our view, the PT99AFS is a better buy.
Many of the PT99’s parts are interchangeable with the Beretta pistols, but you shouldn’t interchange them, of course. At first glance even the top ends will interchange, but the difference in safety mechanisms prevents them from functioning without modification. Included with the PT99AFS was polymer trigger lock/block that hoods the trigger and secures the action with a Master-brand wire hasp lock.
In terms of feel, the Taurus front strap is flatter than the Berettas, lacking the flare at the bottom. Also, the grip doesn’t have a channel from the beavertail undercut to the mag release. We are accustomed to rolling a pistol in the hand to connect with the mag release, but the front edge of the grip tends to block such a maneuver. Furthermore, the distance between the apex of the beavertail and the center of the mag release button is 1.9 inches, 0.3 inches more to reach than on its Italian first cousin once removed. While the lines cut into the grip frame fore and aft are mild, they proved to be effective in anchoring the gun in our hands. Weight distribution seems to be toward the shooter, and there is just enough heft to kill recoil, but not overload the hand. The primary difference from the Beretta pistols is the Taurus’s ambidextrous slide safety, which locks the slide and prevents the trigger from operating in both the single and double action mode. The Taurus’s safety lever was available to the strong-hand thumb without a change of grip, even for those with medium-sized hands. We feel this is key to combat readiness.
The Taurus PT99AFS (“A” for adjustable sights) was the overall accuracy winner. Shooting PMC’s 124-grain Eldorado Starfire jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) and Remington’s 115-grain JHP, average group size measured less than 2 inches at 25 yards. The combination of the Taurus and the Remington ammunition also produced the best single group of the test, measuring a mere 1.2 inches. For some reason the hot EXP hollowpoints from Black Hills were less at home in the Taurus, with an average group size of 3.0 inches. The Beretta Elite shot nearly identical groups with this round, but the 92FS averaged 2.1 inches with the EXP cartridge. In fact, the 92FS averaged 2.1 to 2.3 inches for all groups fired. Despite having what we considered to be better sights, the Elite pistol trailed the others, with average group sizes ranging from 2.5 to 3.0 inches.
From the rest, all three pistols handled about the same, are more than accurate for defensive applications, and were 100 percent reliable. This sounds perfect, doesn’t it? But our additional tests for practical accuracy go further in determining what we feel is the true combat readiness of a pistol. In terms of a Bullseye match or static target session. it can be said that the target is known, the target is located and waiting. All that is needed is to mount the gun with the trigger mode of least resistance, hold steady and fire.
In defensive-gun tests like this one, we try a more Practical approach, requiring our testers to shoot the guns more reflexively under draw-and-fire conditions. For this test, we chose Speer’s 147-grain Gold Dot hollow-point (GDHP) ammo. Our choice of holster was the three-slot pancake design by Old World from Michaels of Oregon. The three slots allow for strong side as well as weak side (cross-draw) carry. A thumb-break snap is included, making it an appropriate universal Beretta/Beretta-clone holster. Drawing and firing from any position made it painfully obvious there was no way either Beretta could defeat the Taurus. Why? Because the Taurus PT99 series pistols may be holstered safely with the hammer back, requiring only a short, single-action trigger press. The Berettas, on the other hand, offer a long double-action pull on the first shot or the challenge of thumbing back the hammer during the draw. While all three guns may be carried with a loaded chamber and hammer down by activating the decocker, only the Taurus PT99 offers a third carry option of hammer back, safety on.
The Old World holster accommodates this mode with a strap that crosses under the hammer. Would we consider carrying either Beretta with hammer back and rely upon the strap to guard the exposed firing pin. No. Did we consider holstering the Berettas with hammer back to even the odds in the timed draw and fire test? Thought of it, yes, acted on it, no. The whole reasoning behind the decocker and the double action first shot found on so many semi-autos today is to avoid undue liability for an errant or inaccurate first shot. Unless a pistol incorporates a 1911 design, like the Heckler & Koch USP series, or like the PT99 have a thumb-operated safety, we do not feel safe relying upon a device separate from the gun to secure a cocked hammer. However, all three guns fit snugly enough into the Old World holster to preclude the use of the retention strap when additional protection from an accidental hammer fall is not necessary.
Our Practical test of draw and fire from a strong-side holster was preceded by enough dry-fire rehearsal to build an adequate level of familiarity and confidence to give each gun its best chance. Once each of the pistols was in single-action mode, all three guns shot with about the same feel. Still, their differing tactile impressions jump out at you. For example, the grips on the Taurus seemed to flex inward, but the grip frame and panels on the Berettas felt like one solid piece. The Taurus trigger was noticeably lighter, and the shooter was more aware of the full valance of the trigger. Our Brownells Chatillion gauge registered each Beretta trigger at 6.5 pounds single action, but the take-up and engagement of the 92FS trigger felt more willing than the press offered by the Elite, in our estimation. In a game of draw and fire, shooting five shots at 10 yards over three strings, the best 15-shot group (measuring 4 inches) was delivered by the Beretta Elite, and it only put one shot outside the black. The Beretta 92 showed four shots outside the black for a group of 4.7 inches. The Taurus only showed one shot outside the black, but the group was the largest at 5.5 inches. But there is more. Both the Berettas printed low left. This is a result of a trigger-control problem in which too much finger is left on the trigger after transitioning from double to single action.
While the Taurus PT99’s group was largest, it had the bulk of its hits not only in the black but in the X ring. Moreover, each string fired from the Berettas was 0.75 to 1 second slower than any of the strings shot with the Taurus. The loss of time was evident on the draw while carefully lining up the sights during the double action pull and between the first and second shots that transition from DA to SA.
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. It’s hard to fault the original, and obviously it carries the tacit recommendation of the armed forces. But in our view, the $691 gun is limited by hammer-down carry.
Choosing a gun for the way it feels in the hand is important. Based on this criterion alone, perhaps everyone should own a Beretta 92 series pistol. They just feel great. Also, it is hard to argue with its classic styling, which on our FS was heightened by a low-key two-tone stainless-steel treatment wherein the slide is darker than the frame. The slide stop and breakdown levers match the slide, which is further accented with a bold red dot that is hidden when the ambidextrous decocker/safety lever is placed in the safety-on position. This safety disconnects the trigger when the pistol is in the hammer-down position. Activating this lever with the hammer back drops the hammer safely onto a loaded chamber. This gun is unsafe if it is carried with the hammer back in single action, in our opinion.
From the driver’s seat we saw a generous rear sight notch that offers plenty of search room for the front sight. The rear sight is windage adjustable only, but it is the front sight that disappoints. The front is the same color as the slide and reflects too much light. On the 0.0112-inch-wide front blade, the engraved and red-painted dot is distracting, but we found neither the front red dot nor the two red dots in the rear sight particularly easy or fast to pick up. We feel a dark, striated front sight with perhaps a white dot that didn’t overtake the edges of the front sight would be a better choice.
On the subject of trigger control, the gun’s first shot is designed to be double action, and we found our test sample’s movement to be smooth, if heavy. The trigger face was pleasantly radiused. This allows the finger to flow across the trigger and not interfere with an even, continuous press. But the cues this gun gives off confuse the shooter, since the intent of placing a long DA pull in front of the more willing single action is to prevent an accidental discharge. But unlike on a revolver trigger, the Beretta shooter can’t tell where he is in the press. The only way to ensure that the trigger is used safely is to pull smoothly through the entire sweep of the trigger without an attempt to stage it at the brink of firing.
Another problem: Prior to our draw-and-fire test, we spent a great deal of time shooting double-action only, decocking the hammer after each shot. We enjoyed doing this, sharpening the skill of breaking the shot with sights on target. Our test shooters with larger fingers, however, found their trigger fingers made contact with the frame, interrupting the final arc of the press.
In terms of maintenance, the 92 series is easy to break down It’s really no wonder this pistol was chosen for battlefield duty. No tools are needed to break it down. Once apart, there are no small pieces that can be easily lost. Its design offers reliability without having to machine-in loose tolerances that can sabotage accuracy.
But as a civilian weapon, where confrontation is bound to be a surprise more often than on the battlefield, we feel omitting the option of cocked-and-locked carry is a minus.
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. For some extra money ($40), we think some the Elite’s upgrades make owning this pistol more enjoyable than its stablemate.
As a combat upgrade, Beretta offers the $732 Elite with some features that are positive, but not entirely worked through. For one, the fully relieved hammer is not only stylish but affords less mass, to speed up lock time. The Elite also comes with full base pads that complete the profile of the grip. This is helpful in protecting the mags when they are dropped repeatedly during reloading drills or combat competition, but are still basically a cosmetic upgrade. The Brigadier slide is tastefully contoured and really makes the gun look special. But, it is no lighter than the standard 92 slide, a modification that can speed cycling, nor heavier for greater durability. The barrel is marginally shorter (about 0.25 inch) making it somewhat more concealable and perhaps faster to point. The upgraded sights did pay off, in our opinion, during the rapid-fire test.
We were disappointed to note, however, that the Elite’s slide-to-frame fit is no different than on the standard model, and it was actually the least accurate of the three test guns from a sandbag rest. Also, the Elite trigger is still as heavy as the basic factory issue. These are two areas that are crucial to an “upgrade” truly performing better than a stock gun.
Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus PT99AFS, $547. Buy it. This pistol should be capable of doing anything the higher-priced Berettas can do. Additionally, the availability of cocked-and-locked carry makes it more appealing.
Beretta 92FS, $691. Conditional buy, if you can live without cocked-and-locked carry. But for all its positive traits, this stainless gun needs a better sighting system.
Beretta Elite, $732. Conditional buy. The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit has spent a lot of money and talent to make the M9 Beretta 9mm fit for the highest levels of competition. Hints of those technical advancements have filtered down to the Elite model, and if we were choosing between it and the FS, we’d spend the dollars for its features.