June 2003

9mm Pistols: We Compare Beretta, SIGArms, and Magnum Research

The 92FS continues to prove itself as a reliable, comfortable sidearm. We slightly preferred it over a tight P226 and the steel-bodied Desert Eagle. Bonus: A compact CZ 9mm holds promise.

Of these three 9mm pistols, we liked the Beretta 92FS (left) the best. The Desert Eagle from Magnum Research (center) was a little heavier than the others and not quite as accurate. We would also consider buying the SIGArms Model P226, right. The holster is the Gould and Goodrich Model B811-92F, which will carry any of the three pistols.

The 9mm continues to be one of the country’s favorite guns, if recent manufacturing data are to be believed. According to the BATF’s Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Export Report for 2001, 626,836 pistols were produced (the latest year for which figures are available). Of that sum, 213,378 were in calibers above .380 to 9mm. That’s almost 30,000 more for the next-largest caliber segment, guns above 9mm to .50 caliber.

Unquestionably, then, the 9mm continues to find wide favor among the general shooting populace, and it continues to expand its acceptance in niche areas of the marketplace as well. In the world of competitive shooting, namely Action Pistol and Practical Shooting, the 9mm is being given a boost. The USPSA now allows the 9X19 case to be loaded to major power factor in its Open division. On both a national and international scale the Production divisions in Practical Shooting favor 9mm pistols in their scoring. At the NRA Bianchi Cup the switch is on from .38 Super to 9mm as well.

Most important, Gun Tests readers continue to ask us for 9mm tests, and in this issue, we’ve responded with a three-way comparison of the SIGArms P226, $830; the CZ-like Desert Eagle from Magnum Research, $499; and Beretta’s 92FS, $676.

These pistols have always pleased shooters with accuracy and lower recoil. But we felt if the 9mm pistol was going to keep up with the bigger caliber guns, more aggressive ammunition might be necessary. Our test ammo would not only include simple target rounds but also include expanding and fragmenting ammunition for self-defense use. Here’s what we found:

Beretta 92FS 9mm, $676


Taking into account its production as a military weapon (the M9), this pistol is one of the largest selling sidearms in history. The 92FS and the other guns are traditional double actions. The first shot is double action; subsequent shots are single action. The hammer can be lowered safely using the decocking lever found on both the right and left side of the slide. This lever will then stay down and, acting as a safety, disconnect the trigger. Raising the lever returns the gun to double action.

At least two features make the Beretta 92 pistols unique. One is that the slide exposes most of the barrel, and the other is that lockup is almost entirely achieved from underneath the chamber. A barrel-mounted falling locking block accomplishes lockup. This adds to the simplicity of field-stripping. On the left side of the frame is a button that when pushed allows the catch on the other side of the frame to rotate and release the slide. There is no slide stop to remove. Once removed, the top end breaks down to slide, barrel with locking block attached, and the recoil spring with the guide rod. The recoil spring is a single-filament coil, and the guide rod is polymer. This combination allows this pistol to be reliable with low slide mass and reduced recoil.

The energy expended to operate the locking block also contributes to a reduction of felt recoil, as does the full-sized frame, which contributes excellent ergonomics. The frame is alloy, with Beretta’s Bruniton finish. Both the Beretta and SIGArms pistols in this test weighed in at 34 ounces. The all-steel Magnum Research pistol, although similar in overall size, weighed 6 ounces more.

To test the performance of each of our pistols, we set up a test apart from our usual benchrest session. We fired pairs of shots from 7 yards at a NRA D-1 target, which is used in Action Pistol (Bianchi Cup) and resembles its nickname, the tombstone. It is fashioned from corrugated cardboard showing concentric circles starting with a 4-inch X-ring. Next is an 8-inch ring, referred to as the 10-ring, and a 10-inch ring, which scores 8 points. Aiming at the X-ring we started firing double action, and followed as quickly and as accurately as we could with a second shot single action. This was repeated 15 times. We used a Competitive Edge Dynamics timer to record the splits, or time between shots. This device ($134.50 from Brownells, 800-741-0015) sounds a start signal and then displays elapsed time each time its internal microphone hears a shot. Split times are also displayed.

We then looked at the size of the groups to give us a picture of the each gun’s willingness to transfer from DA to SA and maintain control. The Beretta’s stock double-action trigger was smooth but heavy at 12.5 pounds. Single action was heavy as well, requiring 7.5 pounds of pressure. This would rate as being at the high end of the average weight trigger found on most stock 1911 semi-automatic pistols.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

The Beretta was the first test pistol of the day at the 7-yard line, and we filled it with Federal’s 124-grain Expanding Full Metal Jacket ammunition. This round produced an average velocity of 1095 fps from our 92FS. The P226 fired this round at 1089 fps, and the Magnum Research Desert Eagle was fastest with an average velocity of 1120 fps. In the Beretta’s Action test, the time between shots ranged from 0.71 to 0.51 seconds, for an average of 0.61 seconds. Through 15 strings of fire, we landed 14 X-ring hits, 15 10-ring hits and one 8-ring hit. Our 30-shot group measured 5.9 inches in diameter, tops for our roster of 9mm test guns.

The second day of tests featured all four guns being tested from a sandbag rest at a distance of 25 yards. We fired two loads from Black Hills, a new manufactured (red box) 115-grain +P round, and a remanufactured (blue box) 124-grain FMJ round. We also tried a frangible, the 60-grain Defender from MagSafe. Reliability throughout our tests was 100 percent. We found that the Beretta liked the Black Hills 115-grain JHP-EXP the best, shooting groups that consistently measured approximately 2.5 inches center to center.

SIGARMS P226 9mm, $830


The SIGArms P226 is another pistol that is easy to break down. Lock the slide back, rotate the lock, and slide off the top end. This is a linkless design, and there are no other top-end pieces to look after other than barrel, slide, and guide-rod assembly.

Operation of the slide release is handily located within reach of the right-hand thumb. Just ahead of this lever is the decocker, which can be used to return the pistol to double-action fire after racking the slide or taking a shot. One of the reasons why this gun is easy to use with one hand is that the grip frame is smooth. The plastic two-piece grip does an exceptional job of blending with the frame. In fact, the entire pistol is snag-free. Perhaps this is why at $830 this was the most expensive pistol in the test. Another reason might be the stainless-steel, blued slide manufactured and in New Hampshire.

Our P226 was the base model with dovetailed sights front and rear. The rear assembly is adjustable for windage only, but the gun arrived dead-on. Night sights are optional, but we like the combination of a white dot up front and a white rectangle inside the rear notch.

We found loading the ten-round mags to be quite a chore. The springs were very stiff and inserting the tenth round took some muscle. Another area where a fresh spring proved too stiff was the recoil spring. We were careful to break each of our test guns down and treat them to an open bar of all the Break-Free they could soak up before firing. Still, it took about 80 rounds to make this gun loose enough to cycle without malfunction. Until then we had a 3 percent failure to fully cycle and eject spent cases. Throughout this test we expended more ammunition than any test in recent memory. Not only did we push each of these guns past the point of break in, but also we feel to a point at which we had some indication of their durability. Nothing rattled loose on the SIG or Beretta pistols. We were able to shoot these guns so much because they were gentle enough on our hands. Full-size 9mm pistols are ideal for putting in a lot of practice time at the range.

But what about power? In terms of muzzle energy, the winner in this test was the 60-grain Defender from MagSafe. The Defender slugs flew at a blinding 1848 fps from the SIG P226, producing 455 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. This type of power is considerable, especially when you factor in that this ordnance shot groups measured right at 2.0 inches.

The P226 showed some versatility. Firing the 124-grain FMJ round from Black Hills, we landed a 1.5-inch five-shot group, the best of our test session. The average over five groups was only 1.8 inches. This kind of accuracy from the bench may well reflect the same tight construction that caused the initial malfunctions.

In our action test our hits were more spread out. The 30-shot group at 7 yards fired double to single action measured 8 inches, including fourteen Xs, twelve 10s, three 8s, and one shot in the 5-point zone. We think the P226 was a willing shooter compared to the Beretta. Though the weights of the guns’ trigger pulls are very similar, the break point of the trigger in single action on the SIG is much further back. This positioning plays to the strength of the finger and enables it to apply more leverage. Also, with the trigger breaking so close to the frame, the inside of the trigger guard acts as a trigger-stop.

The 226’s split times were fast (0.60 seconds on average), but its accuracy was not as good as the Beretta or the Desert Eagle.

Magnum Research Desert Eagle 9mm, $499


The Desert Eagle pistol was the only steel-framed gun in the test. Since it weighed more than the Beretta or the SIGArms pistols by 6 ounces, we expected it would produce less felt recoil. Not so, in our view. Also, despite the full-length dustcover that adds weight to the muzzle, the Desert Eagle actually suffered the most muzzle flip. Perhaps this was the result of the slippery finish of the grip surface or the gun’s operational design. Pistols without an intermediate device such as a falling block or even a simple barrel link tend to recoil more because there is no way to bleed off the initial burst of energy that runs the gun but also produces recoil. But the SIGARMS pistol is also a linkless design. Why then does the P226 recoil less than the Desert Eagle even though it is lighter?

We observed that the Desert Eagle, generally recognized as a CZ copy but with the safety decocker mounted on the slide much like the Beretta, locks up with the slide via two lugs located just ahead of the barrel hood. As the slide moves back, the barrel is unlocked but its movement is extremely limited. However, we noticed that when the slide of the P226 moves rearward the barrel is tilted down out of battery and floats with quite a bit of play. Perhaps the unlocking and locking of the SIGArms barrel requires more energy than the CZ-style cycle, therefore using up energy that translates to muzzle flip or felt recoil.

We were able to overcome the extra muzzle flip by concentrating on a very firm grip. Actually, we felt as though we were shooting a full-power .45 ACP pistol rather than a 9mm. In our opinion this subtracts one of the advantages of choosing a 9mm pistol.

But the trigger of the Desert Eagle was the lightest of our test guns. While the 12-pound double-action trigger weighed nearly the same as the other pistols, the single action was a light 4.5 pounds. Desert Eagle’s SA trigger felt more like what we’d expect from a custom trigger job, and the Desert Eagle was the quickest in our Action test. Split times between a double-action first shot and a single-action follow-up ranged from 0.47 to 0.65 seconds. Average split time was 0.53 second. The Desert Eagle finished neatly in between the Beretta and the P226 with a 30-shot group of 6.7 inches. Scoring on target accounted for 19 Xs, ten 10s, and one 8-ring shot. The fact that the Desert Eagle had the most X-ring hits but still finished second in group size illustrates how recoil affected our ability to control the second shot.

Firing the lower velocity 124-grain rounds, we suffered many fliers, resulting in 4-inch-plus groups at 25 yards. Additionally, the point of aim was very low (about 5 inches) at 25 yards. However, the sights are only adjustable for windage. Elevation adjustments must be addressed with a new front-sight blade or a different choice in ammunition.

9mm Compact Bonus Test: CZ-USA P 01, $569


Along with the three full-size guns tested above, we also tested a new compact 9mm from CZ-USA. We didn’t consider it to be part of the main test, but because the gun served the same self-protection function as the Beretta, SIG, and Desert Eagle, we shot it alongside the others.

Our take: What would you say if you spent several weeks shooting an alloy-framed pistol that was just about perfect in size and looks only to find it unreliable? Or if such a compact nearly outshot all the full-size 9mm pistols tested at the same time but had a feeding flaw we couldn’t diagnose?

The CZ-USA P 01 weighs 30 ounces, holds 10+1 rounds, and has an accessory rail under the barrel — but our gun didn’t shoot all the time. This pistol is at heart a CZ Model 75 compact with alloy frame. Operation is traditional double action with a frame-mounted decocker on the left side only. The hammer is serrated and relieved. The grip panels are rubber and a little too sticky for our taste, but it otherwise filled our hands perfectly. With its short barrel, cycling was over quickly. Average split time throughout our DA to SA Action test was 0.57 seconds with 15 Xs, fourteen 10s, and one 8-ring hit. The 30-shot group measured 7.4 inches. From the bench we fired four different rounds of ammunition through the CZ. Of the three test rounds included in the adjacent test of full-sized 9mm pistols, the P 01 produced an average group size measuring 2.1 inches for all shots fired. This included a best overall group of 1.4 inches firing the Black Hills 115-grain JHP-EXP round that proved most accurate in all four test guns. Also, the frangible rounds from MagSafe shot to point of aim in five-shot groups of 2.6 inches. Average speed was 2117 fps, producing muzzle energy of 498 foot-pounds.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

The top end of this gun breaks down just like any other CZ 75. With the gun empty and magazine removed, the shooter moves the slide back about one-quarter inch to line up the marks on the frame and slide. Push out the slide stop, lower the hammer and remove the top end. Inside we found a barrel with single lug atop the barrel. Ironically, the accessory rail has only one locking notch as well. We removed the top end to see if we could deduce why the gun was locking back prematurely. What we were looking for was a point of contact that might fool the slide into thinking the magazine was empty. Sometimes a loaded round will impact the slide stop, but we did not see a brass colored scuff on the stop or anywhere near the barrel lower. Maybe the slide stop was too tight or interfering. We experimented with holding our right hand thumb both above and below the decocker while firing. There was no effect on the condition. Were the magazine lips interacting with the slide stop instead of the magazine follower? If so, then each of the two supplied magazines failed.

Gun Tests Recommends
Beretta 92FS 9mm, $676. Our Pick. Performance varied from good to excellent, depending on the ammunition. Slightly lower price gives it an edge in the pocketbook department.

SIGArms P226 9mm, $830. Buy It. There is no denying this gun’s quality or accuracy right out of the box. Its refined trigger, snag-free design, excellent sights and ability to accept a reload quickly make it a fine weapon.

Magnum Research Desert Eagle 9mm, $499. Conditional Buy. The Desert Eagle represents the economical rendering of a proven design in a proven caliber. While it may frustrate the expert with inconsistent accuracy at longer distances, the casual shooter will likely find this weapon to be sufficient for self-protection.

Bonus Test Bottom Line
CZ-USA P 01, $569. With no definite answer about why this gun malfunctioned, we decided to confer with CZ-USA and retest this pistol after the manufacturer’s evaluation.