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As a weapon of defense rather than attack, a handgun must always be readily available to the user. This makes it the most intimate of weapons; rifles are carried while pistols are worn. This distinction is certainly reflected in the attitudes which we have developed towards handguns; no other weapon is so despised or so revered. Handguns are the most prized of war trophies. It is one of the few pieces of equipment that soldiers are often willing to provide for themselves. For the soldier, this is a very personal, and important piece of gear.
A pistol needs to do everything that a rifle needs to do, but it needs to do it in a much smaller package. This presents obvious mechanical problems, but also problems of ergonomics, which the rifle design does not need to consider quite so carefully. Because of this, the design of the modern handgun is always compromised. Compared to the modern rifle, the handgun is under powered, short ranged, inaccurate, and limited in cartridge capacity. On top of all of this, a pistol is a very difficult thing to master. Nearly anyone can become a reasonably good shot with a rifle, but developing skill with the pistol is something like becoming skilled at an athletic event or learning to play a musical instrument. The pistol becomes very much an extension of the body. So this most important of all weapons, that which has the most vital task of saving it's owners life, is also the most compromised of all weapons, and that which is the most difficult to learn.
Pistols are also important off the battlefield. Pistols are carried by detectives, spies, bodyguards, high officials, and security people. They are also being carried more often, by regular citizens. A pistol is not a hunting or offensive weapon. One of the things that the anti gun, and particularly the anti pistol groups can't seem to understand is that a pistol is not a weapon of attack, and that an individual carrying a hand gun is not necessarily an aggressor. Only in the last hundred years or so has any government thought to restrict the right of it's citizenry to protect itself.
For most of the history of the human race, it has been considered not only respectable, but somewhat of an obligation for a man to be prepared to defend himself and his family. It has also been considered a practical matter of common sense. Travelers who went about unarmed were considered to be foolhardy. As far back as recorded history, it has been common for individuals to carry knives, swords, cudgels, or whatever the current weapon of the time might happen to be. The modern handgun is the latest incarnation of that tradition. To many, the Wonder Nine is the latest incarnation of the handgun.
The title of Wonder Nine was coined in the eighties as a term of derision by firearms enthusiasts who were a bit tired, and suspicious of all of the claims being made for the new series of fully featured 9mm automatic pistols that were being introduced by most of the world's gunmakers. It was later taken up by the proponents of these new systems, who were either unaware, or chose to ignore the sarcasm inherent in the term. The phrase was a bit of a tongue in cheek tribute to the description of the weapons under development by Germany towards the end of the Second World War. These new examples of modern technology were going to take war out of the dirt of the battlefield and put it in the hands of technicians, ending war as we knew it. They were known collectively as Wonder Weapons. We all know how that idea worked out.
What is a Wonder Nine?As a general rule, a wonder nine is a semiautomatic pistol which fires the 9 mm cartridge, and offers a number of features considered to be valuable for combat. These are generally not considered to be target guns. They are intended for combat use, and the emphasis is on firepower, safety, and readiness. The main features identifying these guns are:
The First Wonder NineThe true progenitor of this whole class of weapons was probably the S&W M-59, introduced in the early seventies to a luke warm reception. Though the M-59 did nothing really new, it did bring together for the first time, a number of features and design elements that had been floating around for decades. It had an alloy frame, which reduced concerns over field maintenance, and lessened the weight of the gun. It also had a double action trigger, a double column magazine which held fifteen rounds (two more than the High Power), a hammer drop safety similar to that of the P-38, and fired the newly popular 9 mm cartridge. None of these things were new, but the M-59 was the first to bring them all together in a single handgun. It was also the first reasonably priced handgun to offer any of these features, a distinction it was to retain for years. An M-59 sold for something like half the cost of a Browning High Power, or a 1911 Colt. The gun slowly gained popularity, and was adopted by several police departments, though no military service of which I am aware, ever used it. Within ten years of it's introduction, most other manufacturers were beginning to follow the formula of the M-59, giving birth to a series of handguns collectively known as the Wonder Nines.
The M-59 was a descendant of the Model 39, a failed attempt by S&W to garner a government contract back in the fifties, for a pistol to replace the aging collection of M1911 models, which had been serving since just before the First World War. This was a 9 mm automatic, with an alloy frame, and a double action trigger system. It also featured a hammer drop safety, similar to the one on the P-38 pistol. Though the M-39 used the cam link system of the Browning High Power, it was feature wise a knock off of the P-38, having a similar safety, magazine capacity, and featuring the alloy frame of the latter P-1 variants of the P-38. The M-59 was an M-39 with an enlarged grip to hold a widened double column magazine inspired by that of the Browning High Power. In retrospect, it is surprising that the initial design, which lifted the operating system from the High Power, did not also copy it's double column magazine.
I owned one of the old M-59 pistols, back in 1978, when it was still a fairly new design, and a cutting edge pistol. I was not impressed. Though the gun was filled with "features", and was an impressive defensive tool on paper, it was rather poorly executed. The M-59 was a great pistol to read about, and wonderful design exercise. It had all of the latest frills, and seemed to do everything. Unfortunately, the gun was compromised, and a shooter was probably better off with a 1911, or a good .357 revolver. The double action trigger was heavy and long, as double action triggers tend to be. It was sloppy in both double and single action mode, and did not have a particularly clean break. The ergonomics of the gun were just awful. Holding and aiming a Model 59 was akin to holding a brick. The sights were too small (though in all fairness, those of the stock 1911 were even worse), as was the magazine release, and the slide release. I could actually shoot the gun fairly well, given time, but it was not exactly an instinctive pointer. Still, the gun had potential.
The concept was copied because manufacturers saw a ready market among police departments, military forces, and defense minded shooters. To many, this seemed to be the ultimate development of the defensive handgun, to date. H&K, along with Beretta, Colt, Browning, and Walther, all modified existing designs to take double column magazines, or double action triggers. No one wanted to be without a competing model. Steel frames gave way to alloy, which in turn has given way to polymer. The latest crop of wonder nine pistols, inspired by the trend setting Glock, uses plastics. H&K has it's USP, and even S&W, the company which arguably started the whole thing off, has gone to polymer in it's Sigma series.
After a set of trials, the U.S. military has gone with the Beretta version of the wonder nine, Germany uses the Walther P-88, Austria (among others) has adopted the Glock, while the classic Browning High Power is still in use throughout most of the rest of the world. The military has embraced the wonder nine, and so has, after some hesitation, the police community. For many, this ready acceptance signals the demise of the classic semi auto, just as the introduction of the double action pistol in the early part of the last century signaled the end for the classic cowboy single actions. Many others are not quite so certain.
Obstacles to universal acceptanceWhat has really hung the whole concept of the wonder nine, for many gun enthusiasts, is the choice of caliber. There are other factors, of course. The guns can be overly complicated, in some cases being more engineering concepts than defensive tools. In particular, many of the "safety" features are cumbersome, poorly thought out, and just plain silly; some can even be dangerous.
These guns are collectively known as Wonder Nines because of their almost universal chambering in 9mm. The primary reason for this is to keep the size of the pistols down to something manageable. The double column magazines, which go a long way towards defining this class of gun, add greatly to their bulk. Before Glock, and Para Ordinance showed the way, the 9mm was though to be the largest cartridge for which a practical double column gun could be designed.
In the seventies, when the concept of the Wonder Nine really began to take on form, and gain in popularity, there were a number of tests performed, which seemed to indicate that the 9mm, in certain bullet weights at certain velocities, was a far better stopper than the 45 ACP. In large measure, the tests succeeded in their purpose, which was to validate the belief already held by some designers that the 9mm was the better cartridge. Unfortunatly, the true purpose of any test should be to find the truth, rather than prove a truth that you think you already know. Though these tests have since proven to be flawed, the myth remains. In truth, the 45 ACP is a far superior cartridge, and this fact is one major block towards universal popularity and acceptance of the Wonder Nine, among most shooters.
Many shooters find the new Wonder Nine pistols to be a bit too wonderful. In many cases these pistols were engineered by teams anxious to add features and show their design expertise, as opposed to the intuitive genius of designers like Colt, or Browning. As a result, these pistols can be a bit complicated, and somewhat cumbersome in use. This is often aggravated by police administrators who ask for additional safety features, such as double action only triggers, or extra heavy trigger pulls, which increase training and familiarization burdens. From the simple act of aiming and pulling the trigger, the operation of some handguns has turned into a coordinated sequence of manipulations of the trigger, safety, getting used to two distinct trigger pulls, and of sometimes not even being certain of the readiness of the gun. Part of the reason for the complication is that in order to add all of the features and flexibility demanded by administrators, and marketing departments, many of these guns do not feature consistent operation. Six different carry options require the learning of six different methods of bringing a gun to bear. It also leaves considerable room for error. With a revolver, or an older style of pistol, things were simple. In a revolver, you simply pull the trigger, period. In an old 1911 style pistol, You can see at a glance if the piece is cocked, and there is a single safety option (on or off). There are no unnecessary features such as double action triggers, hammer drop safeties, or a magazine safety (though the 1911 does have the useless grip safety). The trigger pull on a classic 1911 always has the same travel, the same weight of pull, and the same break. rarely is there even any noticeable slack to take up. These problems ruin the credibility of this whole class of guns in the eyes of most serious shooters. One notable exception to this is the Glock, which has only three controls: the trigger, slide release, and magazine release.
One of the oddest challenges to the popularity of the wonder nine is the continued existence of the so called magazine ban (the omnibus crime bill of 1994). This bill is due to expire in September of 2004, though there is no guarantee that it's renewal, or a worse bill in the future, won't be passed into law. Opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of the federal ban to pass several state bans. There was little opposition to this among gun supporters, because the articles banned were already under the federal ban, and it seemed silly to put forth any effort to oppose the redundant state bans. When the federal ban expires, many of these people may regret their short sightedness. Presently Maryland, New Jersey, California, DC, Hawaii, and numerous municipalities have banned magazines larger than ten rounds. In some of these places, handguns capable of accepting these magazines have also been banned.
Other Wonder WeaponsThe eighties were a banner decade for the new wonder weapons. Two new calibers, the 10mm, and the 40 S&W were introduced. What made these rounds special were their high performance, and the ability to utilized them in existing pistol designs. The 10mm, was usable in pistols designed for the 45 ACP, while the 40 S&W could be used in the smaller pistols designed for the 9mm. Other calibers were introduced, the 40 AE, the 9mm Magnum, and the 45 magnum, .451 Detonics, and the automags cartridges, but only the 40 S&W, and the 10mm have found wide spread acceptance.
Nearly every company which produced a Wonder Nine, quickly introduced a 40 S&W variant. Many models chambered for the 45 ACP were modified to fire the 10mm, though the 10mm has not generated nearly the following of the 40 S&W. This helped to moderate some of the objections to the new pistols, among those who disdained the use of the "pip-squeak" 9mm. Still, as much of an improvement over the 9mm as the 40 S&W is, it is still not up to the 45ACP.
Along with the introduction of new calibers in the eighties, some custom makers were designing 45 automatics to take double column magazines. These were generally 1911 style autos with the frame cut and welded to hold a larger magazine. The magazines, too, were custom jobs and quite expensive. Still, if you had the money, you could have yourself a genuine double column 45. It would cost a fortune, and would be rather large in the butt, but it could be had.
Glock introduced it's own double column 45 ACP, taking advantage of it's polymer frame design to make the pistol thin enough to be manageable by the average shooter. Still, the Glock 21 was quite a large pistol, and the grip is what could be charitably called hand filling. H&K eventually followed suit, and others are certainly on their way. Still, it seemed that the only way to get a high capacity 45 was to get one made of plastic.
I have a special page devoted to the Para Ordinance line of firearms, and will not rehash everything here. These started out as shaved down versions of the standard 1911 style frame, designed to hold a double column magazine. Para Ordinance began by selling frame kits, but eventually began production of fully assembled handguns. The big selling feature of the Para Ordinance is that it is a 1911 pistol with a double column magazine, making it a natural for those already familiar with these classic guns. These guns are dimensionally almost identical, and will even fit in holsters made for the old 1911. As if this were not enough, in 1991, Para Ordinance redesigned the mechanics of the gun to accommodate a fully supported chamber. Their popularity has become widespread. The opposing camps of the 45 ACP loyalists, and the Wonder Nine enthusiasts have found some common ground at last. Glock has come out with the new 45 GAP, which has all of the power of a standard 45 ACP, but is contained within a cartridge no longer than a 9mm. This will allow for the use of the cartridge in the smaller 9mm size framed guns.
Wonder Weapons in My Personal CollectionSeeing is believing. I have not had personal experience with all of the myriad of wonder nines being stamped out by the major manufacturers, but I do own some representative examples from several companies. These new wonder weapons are at the cutting edge of the gun makers art. Most are designed to mate with high tech laser, optical, or light enhancing sighting systems. Some people are talking about smart weapons, new cartridges and even multi caliber guns. The future should bring some interesting developments, provided that the laws are held to reasonable limits.
Some wonder nines I own and have had the opportunity to fire.
Other Wonder Weapons
The guns below are featured like Wonder Nines, but are of different calibers.