The Svelte Italian That Really Got Around…

In the wake of WW2 the Italians were seeking a replacement for their aging .380 ACP Beretta M1934 pistols, and of course who would they turn to but Beretta? By 1951 the new pistol was ready. It was the company’s first locked-breech pistol, chambered in the more powerful 9mm Parabellum. It was adopted by the Italian Navy, the Carabinieri and other police agencies; the army retained their M1934s until the double-action, high-capacity Model 92 was introduced.`

The venerable Beretta Model 1934, chambered in ‘9 Corto’ (.380 ACP) was the standard sidearm of the Italian military through WW2 and beyond.

The gun entered production in 1953 with an alloy frame, but this was soon found to lack the durability needed in a military arm, and it was replaced with a steel frame. Like its predecessor it was a hammer-fired single-action design. It borrowed the hinged locking-block and open-topped slide of the Walther P38, and like that gun carried eight cartridges in it’s single-stack magazine. Moving the recoil springs from the sides of the slide to under the barrel allowed the new gun to be slimmer than the Walther. This necessitated a full-length slide which resulted in a handier, better-balanced weapon. Like the M1934 the magazine floor-plate had a hooked finger extension, which made the gun comfortable and secure even for those with larger hands.

The Beretta M1951- designed from the start for the military market, used by many countries and still in service today.

The new pistol garnered interest from other nations, and Egypt’s army ordered their own unique variant of the gun. This had a slightly longer barrel, high-profile sights, a different, simpler grip and a heel-magazine release. It is believed around fifty-thousand guns of this configuration were produced for Egypt before Maadi licensed the design from Beretta and began producing the Helwan in Egypt. Interestingly the Helwan includes none of the modifications requested by the army for their model. The ‘Egyptian model,’ despite being produced in large numbers, has never been officially imported, so they are rare in the United States.

Italians by way of Egypt- Top is the Maadi Helwan (imported to the US as the Helwan Brigadier) and bottom is the Beretta-produced Egyptian Model of the M1951

Iraq also produced their own version of this gun, the Tariq, and additionally the gun was used by Israel, Nigeria, Yemen, Libya, Thailand, Tunisia as well as being used by British police organizations. A civilian version known as the M951 Brigadier was also produced for several decades, though in the 1970s and 80s it was eclipsed by it’s descendant, the Model 92. Versions in .30 Luger were produced for countries where private ownership of guns in ‘military calibers’ was prohibited.

The Brigadier was famously used in Don Pendleton’s long running series of Executioner books, where the main character Mack Bolan used a .44 Automag and a silenced Beretta to mow down improbably large numbers of mafia Dons and Soldiers.

The M1951 achieved a legendary reputation for reliability in the deserts of the Middle East, and as the Tariq it remains in production, and service, to this day. Recently a large number of Italian police trade-in M1951s have been imported from Italy, selling for prices under $300. Having owned both the Helwan and an Egyptian Contract M1951 I scooped one up, and have been giving it a good wringing out at the range.

My gun arrived in quite good condition with only minor holster wear. It came with a single magazine, but my Helwan magazines work just fine. The gun is very comfortable in the hand, and for me it points naturally. The sights are… well, they aren’t wonderful. Comparable to GI sights on a 1911; usable but far from ideal. The trigger has a little free-play and significant over-travel, but it’s crisp. I was surprised at how easy it was to double-tap with this gun, but the second shot did tend to hit rather high. It would still be on target though, and I expect I’ll improve with practice. Recoil with standard-pressure loads is mild, and after a slight tweak to the magazine lips it feeds hollow-points flawlessly out of all three of the magazines that I had on-hand.

Speaking of ammunition I have been advised to stick to standard-pressure ammo, and I see no reason not to. This may or may not be important for the Beretta, but it is vital in Helwans; two shots with +P ammo peened the locking lugs and rendered the gun non-functional. Apparently Maadi’s metallurgy is not up to standard.

Rapid-fire is easy to control at seven yards. I tried some tape to improve the visibility of the front sight, but it made for a tendency to shoot low. Overall I shot better without it.

This old Beretta is a real pleasure to shoot, and box after box of ammo disappeared downrange; after a couple of hundred rounds I found myself wishing I’d brought more.

Having the magazine release on the grip is odd, but it actually works pretty well. To change the magazine draw a fresh magazine, bring your left hand to the grip and hit the button with your thumb. The spent mag falls out and your hand is right there to slap the fresh one in. With very little training it’s about as fast as a conventionally located button, and even a person with small hands doesn’t need to change their strong-hand grip. Awkward as hell for a southpaw, of course; these are very much a right-handed gun.

OK, last but not least let’s address the elephant in the room; that weird cross-bolt safety. It’s a strange feature for a service pistol and seems out of place, but for a right-handed person, specifically me, it’s surprisingly workable. When I assume a firing grip it’s very easy to pop it in with the joint of my thumb. Putting it back on requires a second hand, or at least a serious shift of my grip. Overall though it works surprisingly well.

Yes, it’s obsolete. Yes, it could use better sights. Yes, there are lighter, better, more modern guns that hold more rounds. But I would not feel abused if this was my only option; it’s a fine (if unconventional) design and still effective after all these years. Maybe Mack Bolan was on to something…

Michael Tinker Pearce, 7 August 2020

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