First Love

| Shooter's RX |
Seeing The World With A Sleek,
Hot Italian

Will Dabbs, MD
Photos: Sara Dabbs

I was a corn-fed backwoods American kid who had not gotten for outside of my hometown. I had plenty of homegrown experience, mind you, but it was the foreign strangeness combined with the unfamiliar sensuous curves that initially caught my eye. In short order I was smitten and we were inseparable. We shared a sleeping bag under many a starlit night and travelled the world together, taking in the sights and savoring exotic locales. The inevitable danger and mystery only deepened our bond. I thought it would last forever but, alas, it was I who cheated first. In short order something younger and hotter caught my eye and I moved on. However, no matter where I went after that, or with whom, I always held a soft spot for that first little Italian.

The bond between a soldier and his weapon is an almost mystical thing. On the surface the gun is simply a very specialized tool, not altogether dissimilar from a flashlight or spanner wrench. However, the nature of the relationship runs much deeper. A friend who landed on Omaha Beach on the afternoon of June 6th, 1944, carried an M1 throughout his service in Europe. He told me the M1 Carbine was a Carbine, the M1 Thompson was a Thompson, and the gun we all erroneously call the Garand was the only real M1. He explained that for an entire year there was not a moment when some part of his anatomy was not touching his M1. You take it with you to the latrine, to the chow hall, and to church. You sleep and shave with it. You’d shower with it if you ever got a shower.

Another friend once killed a man with his 1911 in a pathetic little drama that played out in a nameless burned-out hamlet in France in 1944. My buddy was faster than his German counterpart and as such lived to tell the tale. The telling was always filled with melancholia. Movie depictions notwithstanding, normal people are not really wired to take human life. Such stuff will change a man.
I fondly remember when we transitioned from the old standby 1911A1 to the newfangled Beretta M9. Our 1911 pistols all dated back to the Second World War and had inevitably been through the rebuild process a time or three. They rattled when you shook them and the sights were comically small. Recoil was a handful, but this was a manly gun for a manly time. When limited to ball ammunition, there was literally nothing more effective on the planet.

Much of my infatuation with the Beretta stemmed from a single movie. The Mel Gibson cop classic Lethal Weapon introduced me to the high-capacity double-action/single-action auto. Despite the fact Gibson’s Detective Martin Riggs never seemed to use a holster, his gun shot preternaturally straight, or perhaps because of these things, most of us simply had to have our own high-capacity Wonder-9 handguns. I bought mine early on for an exorbitant sum and was pleased to own it.


A soldier’s individual weapon is his most intimate personal possession.
More than any other piece of equipment, this device is his security
blanket, badge of authority, and insurance policy.

Natural History

The original handgun trials during the early ’80’s were rife with controversy. We stood poised to adopt a combat handgun not invented in the United States and such a thing was not lightly done. At the end of the contest two guns prevailed, the Sig P226 and the Beretta M9. The Beretta took the day. But the Navy SEALs, who never seemed quite as constrained by budgetary restrictions as the rest of us, opted for the SIG.

Our early love affair with the M9 was not without its hiccups. The gun developed a distracting tendency for the back of the slide to break off at high round counts with catastrophic results. A little steel disk affixed to the frame as a mid-production fix ensured were this to happen at least nobody would get hurt.

The Beretta M9 was indeed state of the art at the time. The magazine held 15 rounds, the safety included a decocker, and the gun came to pieces with nary a fuss. It always seemed adequately reliable to me and I liked the way it rode in my hand. The barrels on ours were chrome-plated and when we were in nasty places we kept a yellow earplug in the muzzle to keep out the crud. I can’t say I ever explored whether this was a good idea or not.

The open slide design was said to improve reliability but I never quite bought into that myself. I have carried and fired an awful lot of very reliable handguns with enclosed slides. However, it was indeed a fast gun to run.

The pistol and a brace of spare magazines gave us 46 rounds on tap, but you could squirt through those rounds awfully quickly if you weren’t careful. A friend wounded in Mogadishu, Somalia, ended up with his pistol as well as that of his copilot when he was surrounded by skinnies, the universal derogatory epithet everybody used for the nihilistic Somali teenagers hopped up on khat who did the dirty work for the local warlords. My buddy burned through the two pistols with their single magazines in two vigorous bursts, striking but a single Bad Guy as near as he could tell. A bit of divine intervention kept him from becoming somebody’s victim, but that is a story for another day.

In short order we became inured to foreign weapons in our arms rooms such that it didn’t seem like such a big deal. Our handguns were Italian, our squad automatic weapons were Belgian, and a few of the M16A2’s I bumped into had FN on the magwell. We import our clothes, our cars, and our Happy Meal toys. I suppose foreign weapons were inevitable


These two handguns armed United States military forces for more than a century.
Each weapon was the product of an entirely different process and an entirely
different era. Together they have armed generations of American soldiers.
The Beretta M9 (left) heralded a new era in American military small arms.
For the first time in modern history, the US Armed Services adopted a primary
weapon not domestically designed. While the 9mm ball round has been maligned
and the M9 has vociferous detractors, it has in general been a reliable and
effective combat weapon. The classic 1911A1 .45 ACP pistol (right) sprang
from the fertile mind of the inimitable John Moses Browning, a visionary
gun maker born five years before the American Civil War. Standard issue
for more than 70 years, the 1911 still remains the most prolific and
customized handgun design in history.

Trigger Time

The M9 remains one of my favorite 9mm handguns. The grip feels familiar and comfortable and I can work the controls without conscious thought. I have never been able to hit to precisely the same point of aim in both double action and single action modes but that is likely my fault. I should always practice more. Nevertheless, I can land those 9mm ball rounds pretty much where I want them even when rushed or sweaty.

Recoil is piddly and magazine changes are smooth to the point of tedium. You can’t deactivate the weapon just by pushing on it from the front and the gun is not so wide I couldn’t carry it underneath my clothes when I needed to. The combination of myriad internal safety mechanisms with the slide-mounted hammer-drop device means the M9 simply will not shoot unless you allow it to. I shared a sleeping bag with mine many times and never worried I would roll over and shoot my kneecaps off.

The M1911A1 .45 is a much more masculine gun, although my groups were never quite as tight as they were with the subsequent smaller caliber weapon. I once watched an unfortunate young stud at Fort Benning slip during a timed weapons competition and fire his recoil spring plunger into the stratosphere. The 15 minutes he spent looking for the errant piece in nearby tall grass did indeed count against him. However, I have a friend who shot a man three times in the chest with his M9 and went on to develop a friendship with the unfortunate Iraqi after he recovered. I am not so certain there would be such a happy ending if my buddy had wielded that classic slab-sided icon designed by John Moses Browning, himself born five years before the American Civil War.

Thanks For The Memories

I recall the familiar mass of my M9 underneath my uniform when it did not seem appropriate to keep the thing in plain sight. I carried mine in a low-ride abseiling thigh rig back when no one else did because it kept the gun clear of the seat armor when I flew helicopters. This practice earned me derision from more than a few of my Infantry comrades who had a greater affection for uniformity than utility. Considering literally everybody carries this way nowadays, I do sometimes wish I could say “I told you so.”

I snuggled up with mine in a snow cave and openly carried it into a commercial airliner when we took a charter on a deployment to some wretched spot or other. I cradled it in the dark and kept it close when I might have otherwise relinquished everything else. A soldier’s weapon is his friend, his companion, his security blanket, his insurance policy, and his badge of authority. Like that first car or that first kiss, the first time you carry a gun for real, it is almost surreal. Memories are made of such as this.

World War Supply
P.O. Box 72
Ada, MI 49301
(616) 682-6039

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