The 9mm cartridge has long held a reputation as a great round for target shooting and competition. But its greatest surge in popularity has occurred over the past 30 years or so as more concealed carriers have adopted it as their favorite. Why has that happened? First, let’s look briefly at the 9mm backstory, then at some of the best guns available chambered for it.
A Little History…
The 9mm round made its appearance in 1902 in the P-08 Luger pistol, designed by Georg Luger. It has been popular in Europe since its introduction (many small arms that were used in both World Wars were chambered in 9mm). And, according to the 2014 edition of Cartridges of the World, it is the most popular caliber worldwide. It came to America in a big way after WWII, when GIs brought back trophy weapons from Germany. Ammunition wasn’t plentiful initially until the ammunition companies realized that the 9 was here to stay and then got into large-scale production.
Law Enforcement Agencies and the Military Adopt The 9mm
Over 20 years post WWII, police agencies started using the 9mm. The Illinois State Police were the first state agency to adopt it, along with the S&W Model 39 semiauto pistol in 1967. Then, in 1985 our military adopted the 9mm and the Beretta M9 as a replacement for the many 1911s in .45ACP that were wearing out. By doing so, they also adopted a round that was a Nato standard.
The FBI and the 9mm
The FBI had a role in the growing popularity of the 9mm, as well. They started using the 9mm when revolvers were phased out but eventually dropped the 9mm in favor of the .40 S&W in 1996 after examining the 9mm’s role in some tragic failures to stop criminals. After ammunition developments helped increase stopping power and lethality, the FBI came back to the 9mm with the Glock Gen 5 pistol just recently.
First, a definition or two…
A full-size gun has a 4 inch or longer barrel with a magazine capacity of 16 rounds or more. These guns tend to be used for home defense or as range guns. (Full – size duty pistols for law enforcement is a different article!). Magazine capacity is one of the main reasons a full – size gun is purchased, as the buyer may or may not be considering carrying it concealed. Many people do so, given the proper holster and belt, but they tend to be too much for most of us. Being only 5’6” tall, I would have a tough time concealing, say, a Glock 17 due to its longer grip length. The barrel length really is secondary to grip length in choosing which large-frame pistol to carry, as the longer grip frame tends to “print” more than the barrel, which is hidden away.
A compact gun will have a 3.5 – 4 inch barrel and a magazine capacity of 10-15 rounds. Compact 9mm guns tend to be multi-capable…they are easier than full-size models when it comes to concealed carry, plus they can double as a home defense or truck gun when needed. They tend to have more grip to hang onto and dampen recoil better than the sub-compacts. It’s no wonder that compact models are some of the best-selling 9mms.
A sub-compact gun will have an approximately 3 inch long barrel and hold 5-9 rounds. When entering the world of sub-compacts, we are talking about guns that possess the power of the 9mm cartridge but may be carried in a pocket or inside-the-waistband holster. Do they kick? Some do, more than others. This class of 9mm is most always used for concealed carry. The advantage of carrying a small 9mm over, say, a .380 is the gain in ballistics…the 9mm just hits harder, even out of a short barrel.
Typically, full-size or compact guns will be easier to shoot due to the increased grip area, more weight and the longer sight radius. Sub-compacts will tend to conceal better but most will be a bit “snappier” in recoil due to their lighter weight and lack of a large grip. Most sub-compact guns, with their standard magazines, will leave the pinky finger curled under the magazine yielding, at best, a 2 ½ finger grip. Magazine extensions will help get all three fingers on the grip. Sub-compacts tend to be a more experienced shooter’s gun due to the shorter sight radius, smaller grip and increased recoil. Also, until the trigger can be adequately mastered to eliminate jerking to one side (due to a long or stiff pull), accuracy will, most likely, suffer. The sub-compact increases this negative effect because of its size, for some shooters. A sub-compact gun may tend to be harder for a beginner to shoot well due to the reasons mentioned above, something to keep in mind when selecting a gun. Offsetting this, however, is the fact that the smaller guns are easier to pack for most of us…you will be more likely to have your sub-compact with you more often than the larger gun(s) you have at home. As always, practice, practice, practice – doing so will help you turn that little bucking fire-breather into a trusted companion.
The Best 9mm Pistols
Let’s answer some basic questions, then we’ll look at some guns. “Best” can mean different things, depending on how you use the gun. So, recommendations are based on answers to the questions below.
Now, Ask Yourself…
When considering buying a 9mm handgun, ask yourself these questions:
- What is its intended purpose?
- If its purpose is to carry, how much pistol am I willing to take with me every day, and how will I carry it?
- How much do I want to spend?
Here are some typical uses:
- Something to take to the range or maybe use as a home-defense weapon. A full – size semiauto will suffice.
- A gun to carry in your car or truck (provided it’s legal to do so). Any of the three sizes mentioned will work, although a full – size gun will be easier to shoot. A gun towards the lower end of the retail price spectrum should fill this need, as you won’t care so much if it gets a little beaten up.
- Something to carry concealed. This is where preferences matter most, as some folks are comfortable carrying a full – size duty-type pistol and others need a smaller gun.
Let’s look at some guns.
First, we’ll look at guns I’ve had experience with, then we’ll examine some of the “best of the rest.” I have rounded most dimensions to one decimal place, which is probably close enough for our purposes. One area I reported two decimal places was width…some folks are can be pretty OCD when it comes to pistol width and I wanted to be able to compare exact numbers. After all, if you want more detail about any of these guns, there are plenty of manufacturer’s sites you can visit to get more information. All guns listed are polymer-framed and striker-fired unless otherwise noted.
The Guns – My “Best” 9mms
This is a compilation of guns that I consider to be my best-buys in the world of 9mms. These guns are ones that I have owned, shot a lot and reloaded for, and they always did what they were supposed to.
Ruger LC9S – My “Personal Best” 9mm – Sub-Compact
My personal best 9mm is the Ruger LC9S. Here are some of the reasons why. First, it a feature-rich pistol with a very attractive price tag. Second, it is reliable and accurate. It tends to go ‘bang’ every time you pull the trigger, and puts even my reloads in the center of the target. Its accuracy is markedly better than many other larger 9mm pistols I’ve owned.
You have a choice of models with the LC9S – the regular model has a thumb safety, and will not fire unless a magazine is in place. The Pro model does away with both of those safeties but still retains the redundant built-in safeties like bladed trigger, etc. You can get many different finishes, as well (camo frame, yellow frame, bronze slide etc.).
The LC9S has dovetailed sights (replaceable) with the rear sight windage-adjustable and a very aggressively-serrated slide for racking ease. Ruger’s newest product, the EC9S was designed to give the buyer most of the features of the LC9S but is sold at a lower price. They did it by, among other changes, milling the sights into the slide so they are an integral part of it and can’t be replaced or moved, going to a finish that can be applied on the production line (read: cheaper) and spreading the slide serrations out a bit to save milling costs. They are pretty much identical other than that. With the LC9S you get a reasonably-priced semiauto, backed by a company that has some of the (personally-experienced) best customer service in the gun universe. You can’t ask for much more than that. That is why the LC9S is my personal favorite 9mm to carry and shoot.
Street prices for the LC9S/LC9S Pro models vary greatly, depending on where you buy them. I’ve seen them as low as around $240 up to the $350 neighborhood. Shop around, and don’t neglect your local gun shop in your hunt for your gun.
Taurus PT111 G2/G2C – Sub-Compact
I’ve owned two of these, the PT 111 G2 model. With a street price as low as around $220, this is a great value. The G2 (or Gen 2, if you’re into Glockspeak) is an improvement over the previous model. Some PT 111 features include a fully-adjustable rear sight, thumb safety, “dishes” in the frame to park your trigger finger when not on the trigger, a sculpted slide to reduce weight, finger extension magazines (12+1 capacity, two included), a rail for mounting lights/lasers, great ergonomics and grip texturing.
The New G2CThe G2C will, in all probability, take the place of the PT 111 but it’s so new that it was just added to the Taurus website a few days ago. The newer G2C guns are almost identical to the PT 111 – they have virtually the same specs. Three features are different, however. First, there is no key lock in the frame like most other Taurus guns have. Secondly, the grip texturing is more aggressive and raised a bit. The last change is that the laser engraving on the barrel has been downplayed and minimized. Other than that, they’re pretty much the same gun. Back to the currently-available PT 111…it fit my hand very well. I was able to shoot any load through it and could adjust the rear sight up-down/left-right to compensate. Taurus started using a brightly-colored magazine follower a few years ago…other makers have jumped on that particular bandwagon. It makes sense, as it’s easy to see when you’ve run dry. Taurus has had a somewhat checkered reputation in the quality control department, but with the company under new leadership, those issues have lessened. A company not to sit on its laurels, Taurus recently brought out many new designs that push the bar higher for other makers. For a street-priced $220 sub-compact with 25 rounds available on your person (carrying both magazines plus one in the chamber) that is reliable and concealable, you could sure do worse. Let’s not forget that Taurus offers a lifetime warranty on most guns and a free year’s membership in the NRA as icing on the cake.Speaking of warranties, please note that Taurus has changed its warranty policy. Guns designed before January 2017 will carry the lifetime warranty (PT 111 G2), while those designed after that date will have a one-year warranty (G2C). This should be made clear. In any event, either one is a good buy.
S&W SD9VE – Compact
Derived from the S&W Sigma pistol, this gun is a bargain. The SD9VE (Self Defense, 9mm, Value Enhanced) is a great seller not only to those on a budget, but to anyone wanting a lesser-expensive 9mm. S&W took some of the look and feel from their M&P series and created a pistol that is eminently reliable, has only the controls necessary (some may argue that a thumb safety is necessary but I’m not an adherent to that philosophy; in any case, the 9VE doesn’t have one) and then combined it all in an affordable package. I‘ve owned two of these and they both ran like champs. They both were consistently reliable, feeding any and all ammo I put through them including my powder-coated cast-bullet reloads. They were accurate and had very useable sights. Like many of its more expensive brethren, this pistol comes with two stainless 16-round magazines (not to mention the stainless slide) – quite a feat at this price point. The trigger tends to be a bit heavy, but with a $20 Apex trigger kit (or, in my case, a few hundred dry-fires), it lightens up considerably. Real-world prices tend to hover between $275-$300.
Sig P290 RS – Sub-Compact
The Sig P290 is a little jewel among sub-compact 9mms. A solid gun, it boasts the Sig quality of build plus the added bonus of being able to be carried in a pocket holster. Night sights just sweeten the deal. Finding one might be a bit difficult as it was discontinued in 2017 in favor of the P365 (below), but you should be able to locate one on the used gun market. Advantages include restrike capability (hence the “RS” in its description), small size, great shootability and night sights. Factors that could be improved include ergonomics (I found it to be a bit chunky for its weight) and heavy trigger. Still, it’s a great little gun that can be carried all day in a pocket holster.
KelTec PF9 – Sub-Compact
Not everyone has $500-$700 to drop on a gun…the lower end of the 9mm price range is well represented by companies like Kel-Tec. A single-stack pistol with a long, stiff trigger pull isn’t everyone’s idea of the perfect carry weapon, but the PF9 pulls it off. A lot of folks consider a stiff trigger to be a type of safety, since most modern guns with built-in redundant safety features can’t fire unless the trigger is pulled. But the stiff, long trigger was a distraction for me. The PF9 will fit in a pocket holster. (Side note: DO NOT carry any gun in a pocket unless it’s in a holster). It also has a respectable magazine capacity and ergonomics. Manufactured in Cocoa, Florida, the PF9 is made by a company that is known for innovation in its designs. Add to that excellent customer service and a $225-$250 street-priced gun starts to sound pretty appealing.
The Best Of The Rest
Of course, there’s also a world of guns out there that I’ve just not had contact with. But I’m always looking, learning and dreaming…
Based on what I’ve uncovered through conversations with gun owners, from reading countless magazine and online articles, and from delving into the realm of YouTube videos when I can pry the remote out of my grandkids’ hands, these guns are also 9mms to be revered. So, in no particular order, are The Best of the Rest…
Glock 43 Sub-Compact
The Glock 43 is the single-stack 9mm that a lot of people thought Glock should have made way earlier than they did. At a time when every manufacturer of note, it seemed, was coming out with polymer-framed single-stack 9mm pistols, Glock had nothing to offer. The Model 26 was popular, but it is a double-stack; it’s wider and heavier than a single-stack. So, when the G43 was introduced, it sold like proverbial hotcakes. It is still among the top-sellers the Austrian company produces. You will find this little gem in many holsters, carried by civilians and law enforcement personnel alike. I have a good friend on a local police force who had carried a Beretta Nano as a backup gun but when the G43 came out, he bought one and never looked back. I believe it goes almost everywhere with him. The G43 was late to the game but it hit a homerun when it got there.
CZ 75B Full – Size (Hammer-Fired, Steel Frame)The CZ line of pistols originated in the Czech Republic in 1975. It was one of the first “wonder 9s” and was built with a SA/DA trigger, different than bladed-trigger striker-fired guns of today. This type of trigger may take some getting used to – I never did – but the quality of the build and its heavier steel frame made this gun handle recoil more easily. The thumb safety, which doubles as a decocker, is a keeper. When the hammer is cocked and the thumb safety is pressed down, the decocker drops the hammer to a safe position. This is one of the safest ways yet devised to lower a cocked hammer. The ergonomics of this pistol are very good. I have a medium sized hand and the CZ fit me well. I truly appreciated the highly-visible sights on this model (tritium sights are available) as it allowed me to acquire a sight picture very quickly. (CZ is now making polymer-framed guns if you are looking to save a few ounces. The newest compact model poly-framed gun is the CZ P-10, which is striker-fired). These guns were originally popular in Eastern Bloc countries, and are imported by the U.S. subsidiary of CZ, CZ-USA, for sale in the U.S.
Glock 17 – Full-Size
The Glock 17 was the first gun that Gaston Glock produced. It was used by the Austrian military and adopted in its Gen 5 form by the FBI. Reliable, light, easy to operate, this full-size duty pistol has a lot going for it. As you can see, this is no pocket pistol but is very popular among law enforcement agencies and civilian shooters. My experiences shooting a Glock 17 revealed this large gun really soaks up recoil and settles down quickly back on target. Like most Glocks, it has a decent trigger in the 5.5 lb. neighborhood (which I appreciate, since I’m not pulling off target due to fighting a long, hard trigger). The Gen 4 version has finger grooves on the grip frame which fits my hand very well. I am not a stranger to Glock finger grooves – I own a Model 30 .45ACP Gen 3 with grooves that fit me perfectly. But if you’re not a fan of having to place your fingers where Glock says you have to, the new Gen 5 Model 17 comes without them.
Smith and Wesson M&P 9 M 2.0 – Full Size
The S&W M&P 9 2.0 has a solid following among shooters. An improvement over the original M&P, the 2.0 is able to be custom-fitted to the hand by using one of the included interchangeable back straps. Upgraded sights, upgraded grip texturing, an 18 degree grip angle, tough Armornite finish and aggressive cocking serrations help make this a great bargain indeed. The improvements in grip texturing (almost feels like stippling) made the gun sit, and stay, in my hand better than the 1.0 models I’ve handled in the past. New forward slide serrations also help with press-checks.
Sig P226 (Hammer-Fired) Full – Size
The Sig Sauer P226 has earned quite a reputation among special forces and shooters who demand the best. One of the few DA/SA hammer-fired guns listed, it is a workhorse. If you are looking for one of the very best examples of a 9mm pistol, this is it. There are several variations available.
For purposes of comparison I am describing the P226 Nitron Full-Size model. To me, this gun just feels big & solid…professional, for lack of a better word. After handling it I could understand why it is so popular with military special forces and police agencies worldwide.
Springfield XD(M) 9 Full – Size
The XD(M) is a large pistol, but it boasts some of the best ergonomics in the game. This pistol is the only one listed here with a 1911-style grip safety. Great sights (including fiber-optic front), a 19-round magazine capacity, and an ambidextrous magazine release make this a gun fit for competition or other uses right out of the box. The grip safety and fiber optic front sight on a similar Springfield model (XDs) I owned were features I truly appreciated. The light, little XDs in .45ACP handled very well; the full-sized XD(M) 9mm is a sweetheart to shoot.
Glock 19 – Compact
The Model 19 is the best-selling Glock, period. It is the yardstick used to measure compact 9mms. Read almost any review of a compact 9mm and eventually you’ll find a statement similar to “dimensionally, it is very close to the Glock 19”. A great balance of capacity, barrel length/sight radius, grip length and versatility, the compact 19 has a lot going for it. The newer 19x and Gen 5 models have been released and are now available in most areas, which gives Model 19 lovers even more options. To me, this gun just naturally points right – the sights come up to the target easily with my eyes closed which only happens for me with a few guns. No wonder it is so popular.
S&W M&P 9C – CompactThe 9C is the compact version of the full-size M&P 9 listed above. It is a very popular pistol, one that fills many holsters. Having the same build quality that the full-size 9 boasts, the 9C is a gun that fulfills many needs. The features are similar between the compact and the full-size models.
Ruger Security 9 (Hammer-Fired) – CompactRuger listens to the shooting public and responds to what they want. Responding to marketplace feedback, two of their new pistol models, this one and the EC9S were designed and built with several goals in mind, one of which is to be able to sell them at a lower price point. There’s a lot to be said about providing a new, high-quality pistol that the budget-bound shooter can afford – this strategy should help attract folks to shooting that otherwise may not have been able to ante up to participate. The new Security 9 is basically an upscaling of Ruger’s popular .380, the LCP II. This pistol presses all the right buttons…the right size (most dimensions are almost the same as of those of a Glock 19), a 15+1 capacity with two magazines, ease of use, simple take-down and the affordable price, and Ruger’s vaunted customer service. This is not just a beginner’s pistol…many experienced shooters are buying these for second guns or for a primary carry piece. With a real-world price of under $300, a quality compact 9mm is within the reach of most shooters.
Sig P365 – Sub-CompactA gun supposedly designed around a magazine, the P365 was introduced in late 2017. Once available, it made big waves in the concealed carry world. Many YouTube videos show the P365 held up next to almost every other popular small 9mm (and a few .380s) to illustrate just how small this gun is. What sets the P365 apart from others in its class is the fact that it ships with two “stack-and-a-half” ten-round magazines, with finger-extension 12-rounders available from Sig. (One review I read said, in the author’s opinion, that with the four extra 12-round magazines the author had for his P365, it was almost like carrying a Glock 19, only lacking three rounds per magazine). Most other guns its size only hold 6-9 rounds. Coupled with X-RAYS day/night sights©, great ergonomics and Sig reliability, the P365 has become one of this summer’s hottest-selling guns, period. As of right now, you’re usually in for a wait if you order one from your local gun shop but that situation is getting better.
The selection of a gun is a personal thing. After all, there are hundreds of guns to choose from and each one has its followers. But the questions listed above remain all-important; make sure you have solid answers for them before you buy a gun, whether new or used. Whatever gun you choose, buy an assortment of ammunition to shoot at the range to see which brand/load your gun prefers. If you are going to carry your gun as a CCW, definitely test several self-defense loads to see which load is the most reliable and accurate. Ammunition that functions 100% in your new gun is the goal. Allow some sort of break-in period (that will vary depending on which gun you buy) and shoot, shoot, shoot! Practice at least weekly with a variety of ammunition to keep your skills up. Clean your gun regularly – do not think that it will only need cleaned every 500 rounds or so as some videos and articles propose. What’s the “Best 9mm”? Ultimately it’s the one you shoot the best and fits YOUR needs!
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Duane Pearson of Pearsons Sports (pearsonsports.biz) for providing guns for photographs.
Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 7-and-counting grandkids.