9mm By The Numbers - A Brief History Of The World's Most Popular Cartridge

Whether you call it the 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum, 9mm NATO, 9 millimeter, or just plain 9mm, 9x19mm ammunition is the most popular cartridge for handguns in the world – with more than 60% of the world's law enforcement agencies currently using the cartridge. The role of 9mm in World War I and its continued popularity today testifies to its capabilities as an efficient and effective cartridge.

Terminology and Nomenclature

Originally designed as a handgun caliber, the 9mm has reinvented itself multiple times throughout its brief 115-or-so years. In that time period, it’s been found in the barrel of full-sized handguns, pocket pistols, revolvers, carbines, and even submachine guns. This variety of uses for a single caliber leaves many shooters who buy 9mm ammo confused about 9mm Luger vs. 9mm NATO or 9mm Luger vs. 9mm Parabellum or 9x19mm vs. 9mm. The simple answer is that it's all the same – other than the NATO ammo being slightly heavier.

The 9x19mm Parabellum is an ammunition cartridge with a bullet measuring 9mm in diameter and a casing that measures 19mm in length. The name “Parabellum” comes from the motto of the first company to manufacture 9x19mm ammo, the German munitions manufacturer Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). The DWM’s Latin motto – “Si vis pacem, para bellum”  translates to “If you want peace, prepare for war,” and therefore Parabellum means “prepare for war.”

The cartridge is often labeled as the 9mm Luger, associated with its developer’s last name (in other words, the 9x19mm Parabellum and 9mm Luger are the same cartridge). Other times, it’s 9mm NATO, which is still the same size ammunition, but with a slightly heavier bullet – 124 grain (gr) compared to 115 gr – and loaded to a higher pressure (think +P) than traditional range or training rounds.

The 9mm cartridge, unlike most pistol cartridges, has a slightly tapered casing. When stacking bullets side by side, notice the spacing difference between the bottom of the casing and the top. This increases the reliability and accuracy of feeding ammo from the magazine into the firearm, allowing it to happen quickly and without fail.

The Development of the 9mm Cartridge

In 1902, DWM firearms designer Georg Luger developed the 9mm Parabellum as a service cartridge, designed for the DWM Luger semi-automatic pistol called the Pistole Parabellum, aka the Luger. He designed it to be lethal at 50 meters.

This new caliber improved on the previous handgun ammunition, which was large and heavy. Still today, the compact cartridge has less recoil and allows for easy handling. It’s lightweight, accurate, and because of its small size, handguns chambered in 9mm hold significantly more cartridges than those in higher calibers.

By the time WWI erupted, the first submachine guns were introduced and they were chambered for 9mm ammunition – given its ability to penetrate through field gear. Magazine-fed, fully automatic carbines, some of these submachine guns could shoot 900 rounds a minute.

After the birth of the Browning Hi-Power in 1935, and the gun’s prevalence in WWII, the 9x19mm’s popularity spread. As time passed, its use grew to encompass not only the armed forces, but police agencies and civilian self-defense as well. But the milestones for the 9mm didn’t end here – they continued with:

  •  NATO adopting the 9x19 Parabellum in 1955 as their official sidearm cartridge
  • The U.S. Military exchanging the venerable .45 ACP for the 9mm as their official cartridge
  • Some of the country’s largest police forces, like New York City and Los Angeles, adopting the 9mm cartridge, which has been proven ballistically superior to the .38 revolver
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation returning to the 9mm Parabellum in 2014, after they had left it for a brief period of time for the more modern 10mm cartridges

By the 1990s, many civilian gun owners moved away from handguns like the .38 Special and .357 Magnum, favoring 9mm semi-automatic handguns. Ammunition availability has followed this trend, with 9mm cartridges more plentiful and easier to find than most cartridges. According to the 14th edition of Cartridges of the World, 9mm ammunition led the entire market in 2013, making up 21.4% of the whole cartridge market, followed by .223 Rem at 10.2%.

Are There Different Types of 9mm Cartridges?

While 9mm Luger ammo (aka the 9mm Parabellum and the 9x19mm) is the world’s most popular cartridge in both military handguns and submachine guns, it’s not the only 9mm cartridge available. A wide range of rounds featuring the 9mm bullet have been developed since its birth in 1902, some better than others.

  • 9mm Ultra: Also referred to as 9mm Police, these cartridges were designed for the German police and fall between the 9mm Luger and the .380 Auto. The shell measures one mm shorter than the Luger and one mm longer than the .380, leading to a casing length just .04 inches shorter than the 9x19mm. Although this cartridge is difficult to find in the U.S., there are a handful of nice firearms chambered for it, including the Sig Sauer P230 and Benelli B76 Auto.
  • 9mm Bayard Long: This 9mm cartridge was designed for the 1910 Model Bergmann-Bayard pistol, which was the official sidearm of the Danish military during the period. Although the cartridge (and the firearms they were designed for) were never manufactured in the U.S., some Spanish pistols were chambered for the 9mm Bayard Long and the ammo gained popularity after World War II due to military surplus.
  • 9mm Browning Long: The 9mm Browning Long was a European cartridge designed for the FN Browning 1903 Model pistol, which became the official sidearm of Sweden in 1907. Many of these pistols were released to the public after WWII as military surplus and most have been altered to fire .380 ACP ammo.
  • 9mm Mauser: The 9mm Mauser was used for a brief period from its development in 1908 for the Export Model Mauser until the gun was discontinued in 1914. Nearly a quarter-inch longer than the 9mm Luger, this rimless cartridge did have a comeback during WWI when some submachine guns were chambered for it.
  • 9mm Winchester Magnum: Released in 1988, the 9mm Winchester Magnum was designed for the stainless steel Wildey gas-operated pistol used in silhouette competitions.
  • 9mm Glisenti: The Italian military used the 9mm Glisenti during WWI and WWII. Although it highly resembles the 9mm Luger, they’re not interchangeable. The Glisenti has a significantly lighter load and the Model 1910 Glisenti automatic pistols the cartridge was designed for can’t handle the power of a 9mm Luger.
  • 9mm ABC Mi-Bullet: Made by Advanced Ballistics Concepts, LLC, the 9mm Mi-bullet features a multipart bullet that uses Kevlar tethers that unlock and expand, allowing this 9mm cartridge to act like a shotshell. Designed as a self-defense load, the bullet reaches maximum expansion at 12 feet and holds its pattern until 21 feet, increasing the probability of hitting an attacker.
  • 9x21mm: In countries like Italy, Mexico, and France, the government prohibits its citizens from owning firearms chambered in military calibers, which makes the 9mm Luger illegal. To overcome this, the 9x21mm was developed, measuring just two mm longer than the 9x19mm.
  • 9mm Steyr: Designed for the Austrian military pistol, the Steyr Model 1912 Auto, the 9mm Steyr is longer than the Parabellum, with a case length of 23mm. Common in Austria, this cartridge is also found in Romania and Chile.
  • 9x23mm Winchester: Winchester released its 9x23mm Winchester ammunition in 1996. Designed to meet the specific regulations of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC). A high-pressure cartridge, the 9x23 Winchester looks like a stretched out 9mm Luger, but has many internal differences.
  • 9mm Federal: The 9mm Federal was designed as a rimmed 9mm Luger for revolvers – specifically the Charter Arms PitBull, a five-shot double-action revolver. This firearm was only briefly manufactured after the cartridge’s creation in 1989, as Charter Arms went out of business (although the company later reopened).
  • 9mm Kurz: The 9mm Kurz uses a 9mm bullet in a shorter, 17mm casing. Designed in 1912 by John Browning, this ammunition is sometimes referred to as the 9mm Browning Short, but is most commonly known as the .380 ACP.

The 9mm cartridge has come a long way since its conception over a century ago, dominating the consumer ammunition market as well as law enforcement agencies to this day. With its many types of cartridges, variety of uses, range of projectile types, affordability, ease of use, and ability to work in different firearms – the 9mm Luger (or whatever you’d like to call it) will remain one of the most popular calibers for years to come.