The Wonder Nine: The Day The Future Began
Gun culture flourished in America after World War II. Thousands of servicemen returned home after service overseas. The market in the states was soon flooded with war-surplus firearms of all shapes and sizes from countries around the world. American gun owners had a unique opportunity to sample some of the guns from other nations. We really liked some of what we saw, and we didn’t like others. One surplus gun in particular, the German Army’s P-38 9mm pistol, shook things up. This was the gun that would lay the foundation for the introduction of the “wonder nine” pistol.
A wonder nine, in case you were wondering*, is one of a loose collection of semi-automatic 9mm handguns that were introduced in the 70’s and 80’s. They represented a leap in firepower compared to their predecessors and typically have a number of features in common:
- Semi-automatic action
- A polymer frame
- Striker-fired or Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) internals
- Magazines that hold twelve or more rounds of 9mm and fit flush with the bottom of the grip
These features are common to many of today’s firearms, but they were game-changers in the 1970’s and 80’s. To understand how the wonder nine changed things, we need to talk about what handguns looked like before the wonder nine came to be.
Life Before The Wonder Nine
Handgun users inside the U.S. in the years after World War II belonged, in essence, to one of two groups. The first group was the vast majority of American law enforcement agencies. These typically used revolvers, usually chambered in.38 Special and occasionally .357 Magnum or 45 ACP. The second group was the American military. Revolver use was quite common in the military, such as the Smith & Wesson Victory and M1917. However, the gun we associate most with this era is the 1911 single-action semi-automatic, chambered in 45 ACP.
The armed citizenry of America had a foot in both camps. Revolvers of all sizes were quite popular, in a variety of calibers. However, the 1911 was the favorite of Col. Jeff Cooper. Col. Cooper was a veteran Marine and influential gun writer who would go on to found Gunsite, the first defensive firearms training school specifically devoted to private gun owners.
The arrival of war surplus P-38 pistols from overseas upended the revolver vs. 1911 debate. The P-38 is a double-action/single action gun. This means that pulling the trigger back also means pulling back the hammer, at least for the first round. The trigger is doing double duty: It’s pulling the hammer back on the gun, and it’s releasing it to hit the firing pin and strike the cartridge. However, once that happens, the action cycles and it resets the hammer. The trigger does just one thing from then on, it trips the hammer, hence the term “Single Action.”
A New Kind Of Action
The P-38 introduced a type of gun that was familiar to revolver shooters and 1911 shooters alike. It uses a magazine and is held similar to a 1911, but the trigger operated in a manner not unlike the popular revolvers of the era. Things began to change.
Two other incidents also contributed to the rise of the wonder nine. The first was the infamous Newhall Massacre, where the six-shot capacity of the service revolver was highlighted, with tragic results. The second was the rise in crime that happened during the 19070’s, where cops on the street armed with revolvers quite often found themselves outgunned by the bad guys.
Enter the wonder nine. The origin of “wonder nine” comes from gunwriter Robert Shimek, who gave them that nickname because they were easy to carry and solved the firepower and magazine capacity issues. Plus their DA/SA actions meant they were intuitive to use for a police force that was unaccustomed or uncomfortable with the external safety on a 1911. Most importantly, they were priced right, and they worked right out of the box. Those are two very important features for any gun that’s going to be issued in large numbers to a cash-strapped police department.
The (Far From Complete) List of Wonder Nines
There are a few specific pistols which kicked off the era of the wonder nine. A quick timeline of when each was introduced shows how the wonder nine evolved over the years, and how elements of these guns are quite common in most semi-automatic pistols sold today.
1970: The Heckler & Koch VP70. The first polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol on the market. Heavy, with an atrocious trigger, it wasn’t all that successful, but it blazed a trail for others to follow.
1971: The Smith & Wesson Model 59. DA/SA action, 14 round magazine, but with a traditional metal frame. A tad heavy and bulky, it showed off the advantages of having a lot of rounds ready to go at one time.
Here Come The Imports
1975: The CZ75. Metal frame, DA/SA action, 15 round magazine and with an excellent trigger that still sets the standard for DA/SA guns. Because of loopholes in tariffs and patent law, the CZ75 couldn’t be patented or imported from its native Czechoslovakia into the west. This in turn meant that companies could easily copy the design of the CZ75, leading to guns such as the Bren Ten.
1975: The Beretta 92. Beretta is the world’s oldest gun manufacturer, and the metal-framed, DA/SA Model 92 quickly became a favorite of many different organizations. The LAPD adopted it, and a version of this pistol, the M9, was the standard service firearm of the U.S. military for over 30 years.
1982: The Glock 17. DA/SA guns with metal frames were the standard for the wonder nine. The Glock 17 changed all of that. Borrowing the polymer frame and striker-fired action of the VP70 with a trigger-mounted safety and rugged reliability, it reset the rules for what a handgun could do. As a result, it quickly became the pistol of choice for police agencies all across the country, as well as a popular defensive firearm for armed citizens.
1985: The Sig Sauer P266. Sig pushed ahead with a metal-framed, DA/SA gun, and created a solidly-built pistol that was adopted by many different police agencies as well as the Navy SEALS.
The Wonder Nine Goes To Hollywood
The movies also played a big role in increasing the popularity of the higher-capacity 9mm pistol. Actors like Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Chow Yun-Fat are known for using the Beretta 92 in much the same way that Clint Eastwood is known for using the 44 Magnum revolver. In addition to this, directors such as John Woo realized the cinematic potential of a lot of rounds going downrange in a hurry, and wound up changing how we look at action sequences.
In short, the wonder nine changed the landscape of handguns in the U.S. and across the world. Reliable, easy to use, easy to shoot and packing twice as many (or more) rounds than a 1911 or revolver, they quickly set the standard for the modern defensive pistol. Unless you’re running a wheelgun right now, there’s a good chance that the gun on your hip was influenced in some way by the wonder nine revolution, and echoes of those guns will continue on for years to come.
* I make no apologies for that pun.