Custom Combat Modifications in Iraq
by Sam McCord
A weapon of war is a highly personal thing. The day after the first army issued pointy sticks to its soldiers they began modifying them to suit their tastes, whims, and perceived needs. The following day that army’s sergeant major undoubtedly passed an order forbidding such action.
The DOD spends great sums of money and man-hours testing its weapon systems so that the end product performs to a standard across many environments, mission profiles, and in a way adaptable to different size users. Therefore, the notion to modify a weapon should be taken seriously. One must understand that it is generally against regulations and that the end result must not detract from the function of the weapon. Any changes must genuinely enhance performance in the expected mission profile, the environment, or the fit to the individual shooter.
With the above in mind I thought it may prove interesting to some readers to see the “combat customizing” done to one Marine’s pistol.
This particular pistol served through two deployments in very different circumstances. The first was in Iraq as a secondary to an M16A4 on predominantly night ambush patrols and the subsequent to the Horn of Africa as a primary, largely concealed in plainclothes purely for self defense. Due to weight considerations in Iraq, the pistol was sometimes jettisoned in favor of more water or radios (or loaned as a secondary to machine gunners in the patrols), but when present served as a backup.
The basic, much-maligned M9 is an entirely serviceable weapon save several issues which are correctable. The first is that it eats locking blocks. The military skipped out on several generations of locking block improvements available in any commercial Beretta today and then contracted out replacement blocks to the lowest bidder. The only real surprise is that with the aging fleet of M9s there aren’t more problems with cracked or sheared locking blocks. Having worked in a training command that shot LARGE volumes of 9mm (and broke many pistols), I am funny about strapping on a pistol with an unknown round count through the block, so I bought a 3rd generation locking block and one roll pin later was good as new. Not only did it boost my confidence, it made an already above average accurate pistol “win bets” accurate that on its first test fire broke the unit qualification score record. This was a nice fringe benefit to the increased reliability, since issue 124 grain FMJs would need to be well placed for success, to offset their meager energy and .35 caliber wound channel.
The other reliability concern is the trigger return spring. Replacing it is a simple task and cheap insurance at $3.49. I have deployed with units where it was not uncommon to replace the mainspring with a reduced power coil or to tweak it in various ways to lighten it, but I left this mainspring alone. Concerns over the pervasive dust in the mission area made me think a little extra power in the mainspring was more important than addressing the less than buttery DA pull. The thought being that the extra weight and power might be necessary to overcome excessive dust in the pistol and maintain reliability.
The most obvious modification was the installation of Crimson Trace LG 302 wraparound laser grips. These were issued via the military supply system and are becoming more common. Lasers on pistols may be controversial in some circles and I prefer iron sights in most scenarios, but not when using Night Vision Goggles. It is very difficult to use any traditional pistol shooting methods with the depth of field/ focus limitations associated with NVGs. Since the probable employment of the pistol in Iraq was while in the goggles I was glad to have the laser grips. However, they did not fit my hand well, so I got out a sharp knife and the file from the ole leatherman and went to work. I trimmed the wraparound to a single finger groove and radiused the left panel’s top rear to allow a better firing grip and access to the safety and slide release. An ancillary benefit of the lasergrips was the ability the laser provided in training to demonstrate when training others and to verify when dry firing for my own benefit.
I finished off the pistol with actual Beretta magazines. Although less common in the military compared to the flat based, heavily parkerized contract mags, true Beretta mags are the easiest way to ensure reliability and many savvy folks willingly pay for them out of pocket. I then replaced the angled aluminum floorplates with Elite model rubber bumper pads. The old aluminum floorpates have a an occasional but nasty habit of shearing if dropped or handled roughly over time, shooting spring and rounds across the countryside. The rubber pads with their additional length make reloading easier, allow a full two handed firing grip on the pistol and assist in stripping a mag from a mag pouch or out of the weapon in the event of stoppages.
During the first trip the pistol was carried in either an issue Safariland 6004, the Cadillac of drop holsters, or most of the time in a Milt Sparks Versa Max 2 IWB holster. The VM2 kept the weapon in tight to the body, preventing its catching on everything, while being quite comfortable. Being an IWB covered by the long tail of the uniform blouse, it kept the pistol remarkably dust free and still allowed reasonably fast access and presentation even with body armor. There is also a school of thought espousing the benefit of not having a target indicator such as a pistol for enemy snipers looking for “important” (SNCOs and Officers typically having the only pistols outside of specialized units) people to shoot. It has been my experience that people who are in charge tend to look like they are regardless of insignia or armament, but who knows? Concealed carry has its benefits even in uniform, especially in areas controlled by grass-eaters who are scared of their own armed men. Out of sight and out of mind. In Africa, that was the entire point and the large-ish pistol hid well even under sweat-soaked untucked polo shirts. On that trip the pistol was accompanied by a spare mag in a Ready Tactical Kydex mag pouch and a Surefire E2 Outdoorsman with KL4 LED replacement. While in Iraq, spare mags were carried on the body armor, with one on the belt in a Null horsehide pouch.
Lubrication is not necessarily customizing, but you can take the average M9 out of a soldier or Marine’s holster, lube critical parts correctly with quality (non-CLP) lube and return it to him, and he will think you a wizard or master gunsmith. The M9 greatly benefits from quality lube in a few places. For me the most important is the interior of the safety. If I struggle to get the weapon off safe when I really need it, I may not get a chance to appreciate how much better the trigger feels or how smoothly it cycles! Legions of Beretta users wipe an oily rag on the safety lever itself and think they have lubed it while the interior cylinder the lever turns is grating in dust and metal to metal contact. (Carrying the weapon off safe is not an option in exposed carry, unless you wish to be corrected by every Marine you encounter.) The next priority addresses reliability of cycle and is to lube the wings of the locking block and the channels for them in the slide. Many M9s are parts queens with armorer-replaced barrels, blocks, and mismatched slides and frames. Also, bear in mind that Mil Spec NATO (A363 DODIC) ball is exceptionally dirty stuff. Between the two and given a field environment, the rails and block need lube to ensure reliability. Finally, I hit up the hammer hooks, the trigger bar where it connects to the sear and where it passes through the trigger, and the hammer pin where its oversized head rotates on the left side of the frame under the grip, and the firing pin lock plunger from the inside as well as the outside, and the pistol now has a drastically improved trigger.
The above modifications “customized” the weapon for use by me in the pursuit of specific missions. All military weapons are simply tools to accomplish a purpose. I believe the changes made the issue weapon a more effective tool in this case. I was certainly reluctant to return it to the armory when checking out of that unit and trust that it is serving its new owner as well.
Sam McCord is the pen name of an active duty U.S. Marine with conventional, anti-terrorist, and irregular operations experience in Central America, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa.