Top 10 Reloaded Handgun Cartridges #1: 9mm Luger
Date: Aug 26 2021
The 9mm Luger was developed by Georg Luger and first offered in the now famous Luger “toggle top” pistol around 1902, then adopted by the German Navy in 1904 and the German Army in 1908 (thus the “9mm/08” or “9mm/P08” barrel marking found on many vintage service pistols). It is also commonly known as the 9mm Parabellum and 9x19mm. Throughout Europe its popularity quickly spread, but in the U.S. it would be decades before pistols became readily available, with the primary exception of wartime souvenirs. Today it has become the most widely used military handgun cartridge in the world, usually referred to as the 9mm NATO.
With the exception of early truncated cone ammunition, most surplus and newly manufactured 9mm ammunition through the 1970s featured full-metal-jacket roundnose bullets that provided little shock, minimal wound channels and in general developed an extremely poor reputation as a military, defensive or hunting cartridge and load. Commercial 9mm ammunition began to change in the 1960s as the now-defunct Super Vel began offering a 90-grain JHP (and other lightweight loads) at around 1,400 fps, and by 1979 Winchester Ammunition developed the 115-grain Silvertip JHP. This significantly changed the outlook of the cartridge and police agencies began to adopt it.
In 1985 the U.S. military officially adopted the Beretta M9 (Model 92F) pistol and 9mm Luger cartridge that conformed to NATO standards. This announcement created a furor in the civilian market that seemingly mushroomed overnight. Any quality 9mm pistol with a high magazine capacity, such as the Glock Model 17, Beretta Model 92, Browning Hi-Power, Smith & Wesson Model 59, etc., was in high demand. Even Hollywood capitalized on high-capacity 9mm pistols that soon became unofficially known as “wonder nines.” With all the new interest in this cartridge during the 1980s, ammunition companies became serious about developing new bullets and loads to enhance terminal performance and better meet the demands of law enforcement and civilians.
It has been interesting to watch the evolution of 9mm ammunition and guns, with compacts and subcompacts becoming increasingly popular for home defense and personal carry.
American manufacturers have been leaders in developing premium 9mm bullets for match shooting and expanding bullets suitable for defense, most of which are readily available to handloaders. Traditional “ball” profile bullets are still offered, which is important when handloading for many vintage pistols. For example, most modern 9mm pistols from quality manufacturers will reliably feed a variety of bullet profiles while some older guns will not. In these instances the roundnose ball ammunition becomes important to keep vintage guns working.
One of the test guns used to cross-reference some of the accompanying data was a Walther P38, which absolutely would not feed any bullet profile other than a roundnose with any degree of reliability. Even the Hornady 125-grain HAP, an FMJ design that features a small flatpoint, would not feed. Several hollowpoint designs from Hornady, Speer and Sierra, as well as factory loads from Federal, Winchester and Remington, would hit the feed ramp and “stop” more often than was reasonable. Even if cartridges chambered, bullets would often become deeply seated, potentially raising pressures to dangerous levels due to the reduced powder space. On the other hand, when stoked with roundnose 115- and 124-grain bullets from Speer and Hornady, the Walther functioned flawlessly.
Industry pressure limits for the 9mm are standardized at 35,000 psi, while +P loads are 38,500 psi. Some companies are marketing +P+ ammunition, for which there is currently no industry specification. Companies that offer such loads are establishing their own pressure standards, and the consumer should determine if these are usable in a given gun.
Space will not allow a complete discussion of guns suitable for +P loads, so standard-pressure loads that are suitable for all guns in good operating condition will be discussed here. If it is +P performance you are seeking with select powder/bullet combinations, some loads duplicate and even exceed factory-load +P velocities without exceeding pressure guidelines.
Surplus military cases should generally be avoided, because primers are generally crimped in place, so a decapping die or manually operated rod is required to remove primers, followed by the removal (usually swaging or cutting) of the crimp. These problems are time-consuming but minor. There are other problems that can surface, however, that will cause frustration in developing reliable, accurate handloads of proper pressure. Some cases feature primer pockets that are slightly oversized, so primers are not held as firmly as they should be. Military cases also vary in thickness and capacity, which often leads to excess pressure when compared to the same load assembled in commercial cases. In one experiment, wherein identical loads were assembled in commercial and surplus military cases, the military case produced 161 fps greater velocity than in a commercial case, and pressure was clearly excessive.
Commercial cases also vary significantly in capacity that, due to the short powder column, will change pressures, sometimes substantially. This may not be important when using starting loads, but when using maximum powder charges it can push an otherwise reasonable load to excess pressure levels. One lab reports this figure to be in excess of 10,000 psi.
To develop the accompanying data, Starline Brass (1-800-280-6660) was used exclusively. These quality cases have proven to produce less pressure than many others.
A Kimber Model 1911 Team Match II 9mm was used to develop and establish velocities for the accompanying data. The Kimber pistol is, in essence, a full-featured gun at a production gun price. The Team Match II is a full (Government) size target pistol with a 5-inch barrel, stainless steel construction and fitted with a fully adjustable rear sight and dovetailed front. A few standard features include a lowered and angled ejection port, steel magazine well, serrated slide, Chip McCormick-style grip safety, hammer and match grade trigger, ambidextrous safety, flat mainspring housing, match barrel, 30 lpi front strap checkering, and . . . you get the idea.
The precision fit slide, frame, barrel, etc., is remarkable, all of which contributes to outstanding accuracy and reliability. The trigger pull on my pistol breaks cleanly at just over 4 pounds. With many handloads the Kimber “chews” up the center out of targets at 25 yards, leaving nothing more than a ragged hole, and other than a few starting loads that failed to develop enough pressure to push the slide back, there were no malfunctions throughout the tests.
Maximum powder charges should be approached with caution, as slight changes in components, even lot number variations, may result in notable differences in pressures and velocities. A powder measure designed to uniformly throw small charges, such as the Redding Competition Model 10X, will prove especially valuable when loading this cartridge.
Bullet seating should be approached with the usual cautions. Due to the 9mm’s minute powder capacity and short case, changes in bullet seating depth will dramatically change pressures and velocities. For example, tests have shown that when seating a bullet just .040 inch deeper (about the thickness of 10 sheets of this magazine), pressures jump by 6,000 psi.
Like most rimless autoloading pistol cartridges, the 9mm headspaces on the case mouth, so a taper crimp is required that should be performed as a separate step after bullets are seated. Maximum industry case mouth diameter is .3800 inch, but U.S.-based ammunition companies that are members of SAAMI apply a crimp that measures between .369 to .370 inch, the dimension used to assemble loads listed here. This not only serves to keep bullets in place and aid in uniform powder ignition, but it also facilitates smooth cartridge feeding.
Many powders offered admirable performance. That said, some were cleaner burning and more accurate, others were flash suppressed and still others provided more velocity. This explains why different shooters prefer different powders, as they seek different performance features. Some of the more outstanding powders for all bullet weights included Alliant Power Pistol, Blue Dot, Hodgdon Longshot, AutoComp, Titegroup, Accurate No. 7 and No. 5, Western Powders Silhouette, Vihtavuori 3N37 and IMR-4756. Several other powders gave excellent results with specific bullets or bullet weights.
The only FMJ roundnose bullet listed is the 125-grain Sierra. Both the Hornady 115-grain FMJ and Speer 124-grain TMJ roundnose were tried with excellent results, but to avoid redundancy, that data was not included. It is suggested to use the Hornady 115-grain XTP data and the Speer 124-grain GDHP data, respectively, and seat bullets as outlined. Velocities, for all practical purposes, will be the same.
When using the Oregon Trail Laser Cast 124-grain roundnose, due to its full-caliber, .356-inch shank, it should be seated to an overall length of 1.045 inches. If the shank is seated too far out of the case, it contacts the leade and prevents the cartridge from fully chambering. Due to this rather deep seating depth, powder charges must be used as outlined and cannot be interchanged with bullets that seat to a longer overall cartridge length.
Many of the loads were cross-referenced with several guns for safety and function, including the Kimber Model 1911 Team Match II, Browning Hi-Power, Glock Model 17, Beretta 92F and Walther P38. Select loads were tried in a Glock Model 19, Kimber Solo and Ruger LC9. Most loads functioned reliably in all guns, but as previously indicated, some starting loads lacked sufficient pressure to reliably cycle the slide. It will prove beneficial to thoroughly test loads for reliability in a given gun before loading any quantity of ammunition.
With new bullets and powders, traditional 9mm Luger performance is easily surpassed through handloading. Just follow the “recipes” exactly as outlined.