9x23 - Where Are We?

Whether you're talking Jeff Cooper's "Super Cooper" or Karamojo Bell's 9mm Mauser or Matt McLearn's 38 MMC...9x23 has been the most underrated, least understood, self-defense cartridge around for a long, long time.

I have in front of me a Dec. 1973 "Guns and Ammo" article by Jeff Cooper on the 9mm MAGNUM "Super Cooper". I was a junior in college in 1973, happy the Vietnam War was ending and worried about lots of things, none of which had anything to do with a wildcat load for a 1911. In fact in 1973, there were many folks whose only thoughts of the 1911 were nightmares. Few of the military guys liked them. The Texas Rangers and other like-minded law enforcement officers were diehard 1911 fans but they were few and far between. IPSC was still a couple of years away. There were some shooters on both the East and West coasts "playing" at *combat pistol* and the 1911 was the darling of that crowd. Cooper was a well known writer in 1973 but certainly not the icon that he would later become, as the father of the "practical pistol".

So why am I here telling you all of this? Well, I thought you might like to know where Winchester's 9x23 cartridge actually came from. We'll talk about its history and beginning and I'll give you an idea, from my crystal ball, where it's headed today.

So let's go to the beginning. Ever heard of D.W.M. Bell, "Karamojo Bell"? Short version, "the" ivory hunter at the turn of the century. He explored Uganda on year-long, foot safaris and hunted many things, including elephant and men. One of his favorite weapons for the latter was a ten-shot 303 bolt gun and a ten-shot Mauser pistol; the "Broomhandle" with shoulder stock. The round it was chambered for was the 9mm Mauser - 9x25 in overall size. It pushed a 128 grain bullet at 1362 feet per second in factory form. It was designed as an export version for the overseas trade in Africa and South America and to be more powerful than the 7.63 Mauser pistol cartridge. In the tropics, where this gun was most often seen, you can bet it did better than 1362 fps for velocity with the old powders. It is still a 174 power factor by modern standards. In Bell's own words, "kept them dodging for 400 or 500 yards".

Introduced in 1908, reintroduced in 1933. Two world wars killed this fine cartridge. The 9mm Mauser is a collector's item today. But it's the father of the 9x23 if not in size, certainly in spirit and performance. (As a side note that is worthy of mention the 7.63 Mauser which was the predecessor to the 9mm Mauser was a 9x25mm case necked down to 7.63mm. This cartridge was the king of velocity until the 357 Magnum arrived years later. 86grs @ 1410fps. Case size? 9x25! Now you know where Dillon and Leatham got the idea for a 9x25 based on the 10 mm case.)

Skip the next 60 years and you find the same process in Arizona and Southern California as well as...interestingly enough, Central and South America.

Cooper had spent some time in '70/'71 in El Salvador. One of his students Mario Sol, hot-rodded 38 super hand loads and declared it a suitable trail and self defense load. It is worthy to note that Cooper was in El Salvador to teach self defense. The use of a hand gun against humans was and is his forte. Cooper was impressed with the man and his hot rod 38 super. Members of the Southwest Pistol League took over the project and pushed the 38 super case with a 130 grain bullet to 1350 fps. (Corbon commercially loads a 124gr @ 1350 fps now) That was a stout 38 Super load, but Cooper and others wanted a "real" 357 Magnum! John Adams was getting 1750 fps from a 90 grain bullet and 1600 fps from a 124grain bullet before typical 38 super cases blew. This was from an unsupported 6.5" Barsto barrel. It was also with powders from 1970!

Besides the other well known pistoleros involved here, Major George Nonte was playing the same game. His addition was chopped .223 brass to replace the 38 super brass and to head space the 38 super on the case mouth instead of the semi rim.

Wowie, zowie! The first 9x23! In a case designed to take rifle pressures, 52,000 psi to be exact. Winchester 9x23 is designed to take 48,000 CUP. And in Winchester's own words, "The strongest case ever built for a center fire cartridge". Amazing how much the 223 case and a 9x23 Win case look alike when dissected.

With the 223 brass Cooper was able to safely get a 124gr bullet to 1700 fps and a 90 grain bullet up to 2000 fps. Even Cooper was impressed with those numbers, tiny bullets and all. His comment, "I intend to carry it a lot while boon docking. While it was never intended to be a fight stopper, one would be well advised to stand out of its way, (it) should prove to be a reliable fight stopper if ever called upon." "It will shoot as flat as any man alive can hold."

So, you just have to ask, what happened between 1973 and 2000 and why haven't I ever heard of a 9x23 Winchester let alone seen a gun chambered in the caliber?


I'll get to that in a minute though. Let's look at the years in between.

In 1977 Winchester introduced a new case for the Wildey gas operated pistols. It was called the 9mm Magnum. A 9x29.5 mm case. Usable in only the Wildey of course! Later AMT would chamber a few pistols to the 9mm Magnum case. Its ballistics were not that impressive. Certainly no Magnum. 115 grains @ 1475. A typical 38 super can do that, with a case that fits into almost all the guns that are made with a large frame. What was Winchester thinking?

In my opinion, Winchester missed the boat on this one. They are doomed to repeat this error over and over again because of a lack of research. There aren't many new ideas in cartridge design, just better materials to be used in the manufacture, which in turn improves performance.

In 1981-82 Chip McCormick was shooting a Devel compensated gun in 38 super at the Steel Challenge, Bianchi Cup and in IPSC competition. He was the first top ranked competitor to do so. Charles Kelsey, owner of Devel, designed and tried to get produced a 9x23 case that would give 1600 fps from a 125 grain bullet. All the major U.S. manufactures turned him down flat. Finally and at great expense, Fiocci of Italy produced 1000 unprimed cases for R&D. The project went into a holding pattern because of brass supply. (a typical problem over and over again with this caliber as you'll see) Shortly there after Devel went out of business.

In 1984 Robbie Leatham won the US Nationals of the IPSC. Things changed forever, for an acknowledged dead-to-the-public caliber, 38 Super was resurrected and the medium bore calibers for action pistol shooting began a domination that still is here today.

The rare exception is 40 S&W in USPSA limited. That was made possible only by an arbitrary rule of minimum caliber diameter.

Next came the high capacity guns. The first of which where built on custom made 1911s and welded magazines. Soon pistolsmiths realized that 9mm could, in the right gun, make IPSC major and there were magazines and guns that would be both major and high capacity!

9mm was here to stay. 38 super was beginning to trail in the high performance department because the cases blew up too often. Supported barrels to solve the problem of major loads blowing up, were developed from bullseye technology. Pistolsmiths built the guns to eliminate the problems of a case (38 super) that wasn't up to the task. The 9x19 para case could, if loaded long and with heavy bullets, take the pressures but most of the high cap guns couldn't take the beating. They broke.

But by having calibers and cartridges that would fit a 9mm frame size the high cap craze continued, 9x19 major, 9x21, 356TSW, were the highlights of a 9mm at major power factors for a few years. (Major power factor is velocity x weight and must make 175,000. This arbitrary number was intended to duplicate 45 acp from a 4.25 " commander. 230grs x 750fps = 172,500)

The guns couldn't withstand the beatings they took in competition so the gun makers redesigned the guns. Now we had high cap 1911s. 38 super became the round of choice again. 9x21 was just behind it because it stacked in the magazines better loaded to the 1.25 length.

But everyone knew what was really needed was a new case design. John Ricco actually designed and had reamers for the 9x23 long before but Winchester was very slow on delivery. It was mid '94 before the brass "9x23 Super" was available. Matt McClearn had a rimless 38 super case made, 38MMC.

But Ricco's design was not a rimless 38 super case! It was in effect a brand new case! CP 9x23 S case was made to work in the high 40,000 CUP range. A huge improvement over 38 Super made to work in the mid 30,000 CUP range.

Fully supported barrels are not needed with 9x23 Win. brass. The primer is the weak link in hot loads. Small rifle primers are recommended just for that reason but certainly not mandatory.

Ah, you would think, the problem has been solved! Well in my mind yes it was. Enter Winchester who was building the CP case for Ricco with a patented design, Ricco's patent by the way.

Winchester thought it such a new and amazing case design that they tapered the case a bit and decide to market it themselves. John Ricco is a very nice gentleman but he didn't take all of this as humorous. With less than two years of limited production of the CP 9x23 S brass the supply stopped.

Lawsuits were filed and, two years later, settled. Almost four years had gone by and there still was not a reliable source for the brass. Many shooters just gave up on the pipe dream and built guns in 38 Super, again.

Colt and Springfield, encouraged by Winchester, both ran limited runs of basic 9x23 guns. Those same guns are still being sold at below dealer costs by some of the major wholesalers. Winchester in turn developed a "practice" load to enable them to dump the brass. As a component it was too expensive to sell against 38 super or Starline 9mm supercomp and 38supercomp brass.

The guns and the 9x23 cartridge were a marketing FAILURE.

Then WHY you ask have I spent so many words telling you about it? It's simple. 9x23 in the Winchester case is the BEST round for the 1911 platform guns, ever designed!

That is saying a lot, but even Browning would approve. Bell used it for the intended purpose and found nothing lacking. Cooper thought it had "potential".

Why is it better? How about a litany of benefits to the 9x23? It makes a 1911 a 10 + 1 gun with *cheap* factory magazines. Ten round magazines being the magic number these days. It has the ballistic potential to match the very best fight stopping cart, the 125 grain, 357 magnum. It has none of the down sides of the 357 mag. No excessive flash, less muzzle blast and a mild recoil. In fact it's easier to shoot than a 45 acp. The recoil is mild with less muzzle lift. A 9x23 gun in factory configuration weighs 2 oz. more than a 45acp gun. All the extra weight is in the barrel. It helps with the recoil. While loaded almost to maximum, its potential for down loaded target ammo is unlimited. The 9x23 case feeds better than any other round in the 1911 frame.

Nice list, huh?

Let me tell you a couple of the benefits to this round feeding in a 1911. They are substantial. The easiest feeding guns are "inline". Browning designed the 1911 with a two piece feed ramp. The cartridge has to hit the frame ramp and skip into the barrel, over the barrel feed ramp. The shorter the skip and the shorter the distance from the center line of the cart to centerline of the bore, the easier it is to get a 1911 to feed from the magazine. The smaller diameter of the 9x23 cartridge makes it sit higher in the magazine. The distance it has to raise to make it to the centerline of the bore is less than a 45. The 38 Super size cases (9x23) have long been known for their ability to feed smoothly, even with the funky semi rim to hamper them. With no rim as on the Winchester 9x23 there is nothing to diminish the feed cycle and in fact a slight taper encourages feeding into the chamber and extraction and ejection.

Reliability is JOB #1 in a self defense gun. A 45 is reliable, a 9x23 is more reliable just in design. More importantly it's more reliable in actuality. The case is, pure and simple, a better mouse trap for the 1911.

Two more rounds and it's easier to shoot than a 45 and better yet it has more energy, more usable energy.

Let's talk about why it's easier to shoot. Easier to shoot and perceived recoil are ticklish things. What I think is easy to shoot and what you think is easy, may be light years apart. As mentioned before I never recommend a 9x23 for beginners. The guns are hard to find and the ammo can be expensive for a first investment. These things are detriments and make the 45 a better bet if it's your only gun or first gun but if not, 9x23 is worth the search.

At the moment the only bright spot on the horizon for the 9x23 cartridge is its new found use in IDPA competition. In the Enhanced Service Pistol division, 9x23 single stacks come into their own. ESP is also known as the gamer's category in IDPA. You'll find some of the better shooters using old USPSA single stack guns minus the compensators. It isn't those shooters who have made the 9x23 their darling though, surprisingly. It is the savvy new shooters to IDPA. They recognize a better gun, the 1911, and a better cartridge, the 9x23 Win. for all the right reasons.

The factory ammo will do anything a hand gun can be called on for self defense. Loaded as target ammo and a lighter power factor the gun makes a formidable "game" gun. You get the best of both worlds all in one package. I have never recommended the cartridge to new shooters but I am amazed at the amount of new shooters who love shooting a 9x23 govt. model over the 45 acp.

I have told Winchester executives for years that 9x23 was not a USPSA/IPSC cartridge. It is too expensive and offers no advantages in the open race guns. It is one of the very best self defense and law enforcement cartridges made. The only limits are the cartridge length so it has to have a 45acp size magazine well to handle the cartridge length. Besides the 1911, Sig 220s and the EAA Witness have been chambers for the round. AR 15's have been chambered in both blow back and closed bolt versions.

A good hollow point doing 1450 fps has some credibility. Like Cooper said back in 1973, "the round has a LOT of potential".

The guns are still around. The factory loads are extremely accurate, usually shooting under two inches in the production guns. Winchester white box ammo should sell at retail for under $10.00. The Winchester brass will last for dozens of reloads. I have four guns in 9x23 and have built dozens of custom guns in the caliber. I am also still using Ricco 9x23 brass in many cases. It lasts and lasts. You'll most likely lose it before you wear it out, if my experience is any example.

The FBI Springfield gun should have been a 9x23. How about a 147 grain bullet doing 1300/1350 fps. That would be MAJOR.

A note if you decide to buy a 9x23 production gun. The Colt 9x23's are simply rebarreled (with a heavy barrel) and resprung 38 Supers. The Springfield guns are a heavy barrel gun with integral ramp and an EXTRA locking lug on the barrel. That is an excellent idea! I build a lot of 9x23's and there are certain steps that have to be taken to have them function correctly that are different than a typical Super shooting factory loads.

Neither gun is perfect. There is no need for a ramped barrel, and they are not as reliable for feeding as Browning's original design as in the Springfield gun but neither is the Colt set up correctly for this caliber.

It simply AMAZES me that neither gun company nor the ammunition manufacturers understand this caliber. It's so good that it has refused to die since 1908. Some of the most studied men in firearms during their generation thought it "had potential" and still it sits dormant lacking the right gun and loads. The vast majority of current shooters think the 9x23 is just an expensive 38 Super. It clearly is not.

Truly amazing!! More than one person has said that anything that is a GOOD thing with a 1911 is a gold mine. Here is a "gold mine" that still has not come close to reaching its potential. There are no down sides to the cartridge other than initial cost of the brass. It is no loss because the life of the brass is better than anything else on the market by a long way.

Instead of dying on the vine, which by all rights it should have, 9x23 gains converts every day. Rumor is, Kimber is thinking of doing a small production run of guns to test the waters. They are already producing a stainless 38 super Classic. Mine is on order for an easy conversion.

Here is my vote. Have Kimber chamber the 9x23 Win, in a basic blue classic. Have SVI chamber their new single stack frame and slides in a custom gun with your choice of options...including the aluminum frame and slide. Springfield can offer their FBI and TRP guns in 9x23. And finally let STI chamber and warranty their little pocket rocket in 9x23.

Colt and Winchester are behind the power curve here. I'm not asking them for anything at the moment. Although either could do a lot more to make their own 9x23 projects successful. That is my Christmas list!

None of the major manufacturers will slow down my production of custom 9x23 guns. I own four custom 9x23s now, all hand built. But I would buy at least one of each of the above! My guess is so would the many customers for whom I have built custom 9x23's.

Bring them on, I can "deal" with that kind of competition!