What the John Wick is “9mm Major”, Anyway?

Let’s face it: like it, love it, or hate it – the “John Wick” movie series has been a boom for the shooting sports industry over the last five years.  The explosion of interest in custom pistols, tactical training, and competition shooting owes much of this growth to the movie series featuring Keanu Reeves doing what Keanu Reeves does best.

As the movies have grown in popularity, interest in the firearms and equipment used in the movies has grown as well.  Taran Tactical Innovations, a firearm accessories manufacturer and training company in California, has benefitted greatly from their items being featured front and center throughout the series.  Taran Butler, owner of Taran Tactical, served as the primary firearms instructor to Keanu and most of the other actors and actresses in the movie series. 

In the latest installment, there is a scene where Wick is selecting his weaponry and the concierge suggests a “2011 pistol chambered in 9 millimeter major”.  Now, just about everyone in the developed world has heard of 9 millimeter, but what’s this ‘major’ designation?

9mm is a very versatile round that has continued to evolve and improve since being introduced in 1902.  Its size and adequate power make it well suited for handguns which must balance stopping power with capacity and overall packaging.  It’s also relatively inexpensive, making it a very popular choice for competition shooting where a typical event may consume anywhere from 150 to 500 rounds in a single day.

Competition shooting spans a broad category ranging from bullseye shooting, to multi-gun, pistol competition, steel challenge, and everything in between.  Two such organizations – the United States Pistol Shooting Association (USPSA) and the International Practical Shooting C (IPSC) – dominate the field in terms of membership and the number of sanctioned events happening worldwide.

Both organizations have numerous divisions based on what type of firearm being used, and one of these includes being designated as “Major”.  Major divisions dictate the use of ammunition which exceeds a measurement of velocity and weight known as Power Factor – a minimum of 165 for USPSA, and 175 for IPSC.  Without going into excessive detail, Power Factor (or PF, simply) is an equation balancing the weight of the projectile against the velocity of the projectile.  Anything below the line for Major is considered ‘minor power factor’.

Most of the time, competitive shooters are looking for the slowest, heaviest ammunition possible in order to mitigate recoil.  The Major power factor requirement creates a more level playing field for those using larger calibers such as .40 S&W and .45 ACP by rewarding the use of higher power ammunition.  Shots that hit outside the center scoring rectangle are penalized less for those shooting in Major divisions.  For open class shooters who are allowed the use of compensators, this becomes a ‘no brainer’ decision.

The only problem?  Larger rounds such as .40 S&W and .45 ACP limit magazine capacity necessitating more frequent magazine changes and slowing down the competitor.  

Enter “9mm Major”.

Typical 9mm ammunition is loaded to SAAMI specifications of approximately 32,000 PSI chamber pressure which results in a velocity between 850 and 1200 FPS depending on the weight of the projectile.  9mm Major ammunition is loaded much, much hotter – typical velocity for a 115gr projectile exceeds 1,550 FPS in order to reach a power factor of 165.  The extra velocity would typically cause excessive recoil and make ‘two tapping’ difficult, but the additional of a compensator reduces this recoil to be equal to that of standard 9mm ammunition.

End result?  All the benefit of Major classification when it comes to scoring with maximum magazine capacity.

What does this mean to the average shooter?  Not much, really.  9mm Major ammunition is typically hand loaded and not something available on the store shelf.  It’s also dangerous to fire in a pistol not designed for the excessive pressure generated by loading enough powder to reach the velocity needed.  Typical 9mm loads range from 3 to 4.5 grains of powder while many Major loads exceed 7.5 to 8 grains of powder, resulting in pressures WELL above the SAAMI limit for 9mm.  Most handguns caution against the use of “+P” and “+P+” ammunition – 9mm Major loads can generate pressures above +P+ making them unsafe for most off the shelf pistols.  The Taran Tactical “Combat Master” 2011 featured in the film is specifically designed to accommodate these excessive pressures, as are many other pistols marketed toward competition shooting.

Would 9mm Major be of any benefit in a tactical situation?  Possibly.  The added velocity could allow penetration of a level IIIA ballistic vest depending on the design of the projectile, but it will never reach the velocities necessary to penetrate level III ‘hard’ armor plates.  Excessive velocity can also be a detriment to some hollow-point projectiles by causing them to over-expand and break apart before they’re able to penetrate to the depth necessary to cause damage to vital organs. 

As with all things, it is important to design all aspects of the cartridge to work together as a system.

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