Long known among firearms aficionados, but often not easy to find, Beretta’s legendary M71 .22 pistol is now readily available. Offered by Century Arms, the lightweight semi-auto boasts excellent reliability and a storied past in the often violent history of the Middle East.
First, I’ll mention a little bit about Beretta and how the pistol came to be.
Formally founded in 1680, the Beretta family got its start in the arms business in 1526 by providing barrels.
Located in a region of Italy known for its violin makers, Beretta’s first foray into the service pistol realm began with the Model 1915. An autoloader in 7.65mm or 9mm Glisenti, it used firing pin ejection — a simple but effective system found on the Colt 1908/FN 1906 “Vest Pocket” .25 that lives on in the Raven .25 and Hi-Point handguns. Beretta’s subsequent 1934 model, however, is a much more refined gun and introduced the final form of the trademark open-top slide that, along with a rowel-style hammer, gives the defining lines to the classic Beretta pistols, including the 92F/M9 9mm.
Chambered in 7.65mm/.32 ACP and 9mm Corto/.380 ACP — and a later version in .22 LR called the 948 — the 34/35 had a heel magazine release, a more vertical grip angle than the company’s later autos (similar to some of Browning’s pre-M1911 designs) and was hampered by the inclusion of a thumb safety just forward of the left grip panel that required a full 180 degrees of throw to turn the gun on. This was changed — some might not say “improved” — on the M1951, Beretta’s first locked-breech pistol.
Also known as the 951, the full-size single-stack 9mm borrowed the Walther P38’s barrel locking system but maintained the timeless Beretta slide contours combined with a more natural grip angle, improved slide lock and a pushbutton magazine release unfortunately located at the lower rear corner of the left side grip panel. It also has a cross-bolt thumb safety more conveniently located at the upper left rear of the frame, where most of us expect to find the safety.
Adopted by the Italian Navy and Carabinieri, licensed versions of the 951 were produced in Egypt as the Helwan Brigadier and in Iraq as the Tariq 9mm. Not an unattractive pistol, the 951 was reportedly adopted in Haiti, Israel, Libya, Nigeria and Tunisia and is said to still be in service in some of those countries.
In the late 1950s, Beretta introduced its 70-series pistols, which are blowback guns that included most of the improvements debuted on the 951 combined with a rakish new profile and the finger-extension magazine of the 34/35 — a svelte enough profile to be copied by the Bersa M644 and perhaps by similar Bernardelli pistols. Although the earliest 70-series guns maintained the pushbutton safety found on the 951, later ones (such as the M71 covered here) use a more conventional M1911-type thumb safety that pivots down to fire and up for safe.
Built in .32 ACP, .380 ACP and .22 LR, numeric designations include 70, along with “S” and “T” versions, model numbers 71-75 and 101 as well as the names “Cougar,” “Jaguar,” “New Jaguar” and “Puma.” Supposedly, the Jaguar version is capable of being fired in either .22 LR or Short with a simple change of recoil springs, although the blocked .22 Short M70 magazine we found for sale on www.gunbroker.com suggests the caliber change might have been a bit more involved.
We compared the test gun to a steel-framed Model 70S in .380 ACP and found several minor differences, including the takedown procedure. While the M71 barrel is removed from the bottom of the slide, the .380 barrel comes out of the top. The magazine safety found on the 70S but not the M71, as well as the markings for the takedown lever (English on the 70S, Italian on the M71), can likely be attributed to being made for U.S. export.
Interestingly, we found both barrels would fit and lock in place interchangeably on the two frames, and the slides would start but wouldn’t go to battery because of the interference by the different-sized ejectors. This offers possibilities for those interested in multi-caliber pistols.
Of all the barrel length and caliber options, the .22 made the greatest impact, and it did not do so in Italian hands. Surprisingly accurate and reputed to be one of (if not the) most reliable .22 pistols ever made, the 70 series .22s were attractive to the Israeli Mossad (reportedly as assassination tools) and their air marshals, who supposedly chose the .22 for the limited damage it would do to an airplane.
Opinions differ as to how much of this is true and how much is myth. Nonetheless, it’s part of the gun’s mystique and has an appeal for many purchasers.
A compromise required to make the M71 importable, the permanent addition of a fake suppressor adds enough barrel length to raise the pistol’s point score for import. The fake suppressor consists of a solid piece of steel with a hole drilled through it to allow the bullet to pass, and two different sections of knurling. Unfortunately, it weighs 16 ounces by itself compared to 17 ounces for the alloy-framed pistol, and the profile of the steel cylinder totally blocks out the sights. It also makes it impossible to install a real suppressor without serious modifications, and it is impossible to remove the barrel from the slide when the pistol is taken down.
For those who hold an SOT, there appears to be a lot of potential in the idea of selling the M71 along with a suppressor and adaptor, such as the Walther and SilencerCo jointly marketed .22 PPK/S with a Spectre silencer (after the release of the James Bond movie of the same name).
The M71’s manual of arms is simple. With the exception of the inconveniently placed magazine release, everything works as you would expect. It has slidestop automatically actuated by an empty magazine and with an external control so you can apply it to lock the gun open (unlike the comparable PPK), and the thumb safety works in traditional fashion, though we found the exceptionally short “throw” of the safety a bit unnerving. Although the thumb safety is an improvement on the earlier pushbutton safety, when handling an earlier Model 70 in .32 ACP we found it more effective than expected, as disengaging it only required twitching the thumb inwards when the gun was held in a firing position. While perhaps a bit slow to reapply, it was quite fast to take off.
The single-action trigger on our test gun measured 3 pounds 14 ounces on our Brownells-sourced electronic trigger pull gauge. Although we felt a slight amount of creep when we looked for it, it wasn’t noticeable while shooting. Be aware that while these are very nice pistols, they are surplus guns and will come with some wear; ours had a few dings on it, including a small one on the front sight, and the alloy frame shows silver through both factory proof markings and the Century Arms import markings. Apply a little Aluma Black and the brightness will diminish, if not go away entirely.
The gun’s magazine takes eight rounds, though we were able to shoehorn in a ninth round, we found the extra cartridge kept it from feeding the top round. Eight rounds might seem a bit short for centerfire pistols, but is acceptable for a .22 — considering the issues that arise from stacking too many of the rimmed cartridges in a row, it’s unusual for a .22 to hold more than 10 rounds. The greater issue for shooters is magazine availability. Factory mags tend to be a bit hard to find, but Triple K offers an aftermarket replacement.
We found the M71 more than lived up to its reputation during testing. As is our habit, we neither cleaned nor oiled the pistol and fired some 738 rounds, excluding one brand we found would not feed reliably (of which we shot well over 100 rounds). The large hollowpoint of Winchester’s 222 load hung up on the feed ramp when the magazine was fully loaded, and while reliability improved when downloaded to five rounds, it otherwise never fed flawlessly. Some .22 pistols are simply picky, but that did not appear to be the case with the M71. We also fired the Winchester load through a Tactical Solutions/Volquartsen MKIII pattern pistol, a Manurhin Walther PPK and a Nighthawk Custom M1911 in .22LR, all with similar malfunctions.
The only other malfunctions we found with the M71 were a single cartridge that required two hits to fire, and after we failed to fully seat the magazine during a reload, downward hand pressure on the extended floorplate pulled it down just low enough not to fire —that’s shooter error.
Near the end of the test, we started to notice significant misfeeds — a couple of sluggish feeds with the top round and consistent failures to feed. Upon close inspection, one of the feed lips of the magazine had been partially crushed. We bent it back with a cleaning rod as a field-expedient fix and it did not misfeed again. It’s worth mentioning that before discovering the feed lip damage, we ran rounds from the same box of ammo through the other three .22 pistols to eliminate it as a variable and found they would not feed it either — although the M71 did before the magazine damage and again after the repair.
Our early attempts at accuracy work gave us a group some 4 inches high and 2 inches across at 25 yards, shooting unsupported from a modified Weaver position. In later work, we were able to do just over 2.5 inches at that distance and generally shot groups around an inch at 7 yards, even when shooting at a faster cadence. With the fake suppressor in place, the gun shot quite low; removed, it shot a bit high, and with the Outback silencer screwed on, somewhere in the middle. We did our best work with neither in place, due to the ability to see the fairly small front sight better. Although painting sights is generally a dubious practice, for those who intend to leave the fake can in place, it might result in better accuracy.
While some split-slide pistols tend to return a lot of blast and debris into the shooter’s face when used with a silencer — making shooting quite unpleasant — the M71 avoided this tendency. Only CCI’s hypervelocity Segmented Hollowpoint, boasting a quick-stepping 1,640 fps produced any noticeable back blast.
Even apart from its storied history with the Israeli government, the M71 proved itself a highly capable handgun capable of exceptional accuracy and reliability. By itself, it’s one of the best of the breed. Coupled with a suppressor, it offers unique marketing opportunities that reference the gun’s history and take advantage of how easy it is to suppress.