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Second Amendment Social Distancing April 2020
Dan Martinez  

As of April 1st, our Governor issued a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected” executive order. But the order also says that engaging in outdoor exercise activities such as walking, hiking, and biking are permissible exceptions because they are deemed Essential Activities. Other defined Essential Activities include constitutionally protected activities such as speech and religion. And we know that the Trump administration has declared gun shops as Essential Businesses.

So even though we are officially in some sort of a “lock down” for the month of April, I took advantage of these official declarations to head up to J&G Sales in Prescott to purchase an Italian Polizia Penitenziaria surplus Beretta Model 81 in caliber .32 ACP. These became available on the market somewhere around the middle of 2019 as far as I can tell. I noticed them a few months back, but recently stumbled upon them again. I decided that I needed to grab one before they dried up, as surplus arms usually do.

J&G has them in two grades, Good and Very Good. The Good ones are $199.95, and the VG ones are $229.95. I opted for a VG. I headed up there mid-morning, mid-week, and strolled right in to an empty shop. No line to get in as we have seen at the popular outdoor stores here in Phoenix since this crazy situation started. I was able to take my pick out of three that the clerk brought out. The gun comes with only one magazine, but Classic Firearms presently has spares available for $35. I ordered one extra.

The Beretta 81 is one of Beretta’s 80-Series pistols known as "Cheetahs". Other variants in this series are chambered in .22 LR and .380 ACP. The 81 is a double stack .32 ACP (known in Europe as the 7.65mm Browning) that holds 12 in the magazine. It looks very much like a baby M9. It is an open-top slide, exposed barrel design just like the military M9 (92FS). However the Cheetahs are all straight blow-back, not locked breech.

The Cheetahs are medium-sized. They are bigger than a pocket pistol, but smaller than a service pistol. Height is about 4⅝", length is about 6⅝" from the tip of the beavertail to the end of the muzzle. I measured barrel length at 3.9 inches.

However, the Model 81 has a rather fat grip. The grip width measures 1.365” – quite hand-filling. For grip length, half the width of my pinky finger hangs off the bottom of the magazine baseplate. The frame is aluminum alloy and the slide is steel. The grips are shiny hard plastic.

The Cheetahs were introduced in 1976. These surplus 81s are mostly the earliest variation, the plain Model 81. There have been a few imports of Model 81BB’s as well, but they go for $50 to $100 more if you can find them. The main functional difference is that the straight Model 81s do not have an internal firing pin block, which means that safe handling is a little more tricky.

These Berettas use the DA/SA operating system. With hammer down and chamber loaded, you can squeeze a long double action trigger stroke to fire the gun. Subsequent shots will leave the hammer cocked, so next shots will be single action. However, there is no hammer drop decocker. To decock after chambering a round, you have to do it the old fashioned way, by pulling the trigger, but having your thumb placed between frame and hammer to arrest its fall.

That’s quite doable with a little practice, but here is where you have to be extremely careful due to the lack of a hammer block safety. For guns with a hammer block safety on the underside of the slide, after you trip the hammer to decock, you release the trigger before allowing the hammer to continue on down. Releasing the trigger activates the automatic hammer drop safety. So even if you fumble the hammer at this point, if you have released the trigger, there is no foul.

For this gun, releasing the trigger after dropping the hammer allows the hammer to catch at the half-cock position. If the trigger was kept back, the hammer will go all the way down allowing the hammer to push the firing pin against the primer. Done gently, the round will not go off, but a blow now against the back of the hammer will fire the round. The safe decocked position is at half-cock.

Beretta Model 81 in .32 ACP on the left;
S&W Model 632 J-Frame chambered for .327 Federal Magnum on the right;
Cartridges L to R: .32 ACP, .32 S&W Long, .32 H&R Magnum, .327 Federal Magnum

Instead of a decocker, the Model 81 has an ambidextrous frame mounted safety. It is in exactly the right place to be activated and deactivated easily and confidently by the side of your thumb. This makes cocked and locked carry a good alternative to manual decocking, for those folks who are comfortable with that carry method.

Because it is a straight blow-back design, the recoil spring is pretty stiff. That means that racking the slide could be a struggle for some. Despite the agreeable recoil of the .32 ACP cartridge, I would not necessarily recommend this as a carry gun for beginners. Not only for the need to manually decock, but also because the slide takes significant muscle to manipulate.

My favorite carry gun to this point in time has been the Smith & Wesson Model 632 Carry Comp chambered for .327 Federal Magnum. The .327 Federal is a stout, obnoxious little beast of a cartridge. As a result, I mostly shoot and carry .32 H&R handloads in this revolver.

The best resource I have found on the web that details the performance differences amongst the various .32 caliber cartridges and also compares them to other small caliber cartridges that may be considered for defensive purposes, is on

Lucky Gunner’s test results show that most .32 ACP loads from the 4” barrel of the Beretta 81 clock between 980 and 1100 fps. The SAAMI spec for cartridge pressure for the .32 ACP is 21.5 kPSI. However, the European C.I.P. spec equates to around 25 kPSI. As a result, you will almost always see greater velocity with European .32 ACP ammo.

The power level of .32 H&R Magnum compares favorably with the .38 Special, a well respected defensive caliber. The typical velocities for the .32 ACP are almost identical to .32 H&R. The difference is that the .32 H&R Magnum uses bullets nominally around 20 to 40 grains heavier than the .32 ACP, so the Auto cartridge is definitely weaker.

Is the .32 ACP a viable self-defense round? The common wisdom in this caliber is to use FMJ both for practice and also for self defense. I’m not sure that I should subscribe to that idea, but the rap on HPs for the .32 Auto is low penetration. Adequate penetration with FMJs is not a problem, but we’ve been taught that tissue destruction wrought by expanding hollow points is necessary for rapid incapacitation.

For at least the first half of the 20th century, this was Europe’s most prevalent caliber for police and military officer’s sidearms. But let us remember that civilian self-defense is a fundamentally different mission than police or military work.

All that a civilian defender needs to do is create the “social distance” to end the threat, and allow the defender to escape the bad situation. That does not specifically equate to lethality. We know that most of the time, just pulling a pistol will send an adversary running. If not, very few are going to keep coming at you after being perforated several times, even by teensy-weensy little .32 caliber FMJs. Low recoil means shots can be optimally placed for best results.

As an alternate carry gun for myself, I’m thinking, yeah, why not? As it turns out, the fully loaded weights of both the Beretta and the Smith are almost identical:
Beretta Model 81:    26.2 oz.
S&W Model 632:    25.9 oz.

The Beretta has the advantage of carrying twice the number of shots. The disadvantage is that the grip of the Beretta is quite a bit fatter – less concealable. I was able to find a nice leather pancake holster on Amazon by Pusat Holster of Turkey which does a good job of tucking the butt into my side.

With this little pistol, you get Beretta quality at an absolute bargain price. Whether for collecting, carry, or just plinking, my recommendation is to go get one while they remain available.

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