An otherwise unassuming .22 LR pistol, the Beretta Model 70 saw heavy use with Israeli anti-terror units and spies for several years. Its interesting history makes this little gun a lot more than just your average plinker.
In 1969, airplane hijackings were common occurrences. In the U.S. alone, there were 159 hijackings between May of 1961 and the end of 1972; more than 130 of which were between 1968 and 1972, which has been called the “golden age of hijacking.”
At times, there were more than one on the same day. Hijackers, quickly dubbed “skyjackers,” demanded to be flown to communist Cuba (so common that “take me to Cuba” became a punchline). Some were Cubans wanting to return to the fairly new Cuba under Castro, which they hoped promised to be a socialist paradise. Others wanted millions in cash or gold or to make a political statement.
Airplanes were easy targets, and airline policy was to comply with demands in hopes of getting passengers and planes returned to safety. Though it’s hard to imagine today, there was essentially no airport security in those days.
There were some deaths, mostly from shoot-outs with law enforcement, but there was no deliberate flying of planes into targets like we experienced on 9/11. However, a similarly minded scare in 1972 caught the attention of airlines, federal authorities and the public when three skyjackers threatened to crash a plane into an atomic reactor in Tennessee.
Shortly after that, the Federal Aviation Authority implemented physical screenings, metal detectors and luggage searches, entering a new era for airline travel.
Skyjacking wasn’t limited to the United States, and none of them grabbed headlines as much as the Arab terrorist campaign against El Al, Israel’s national airline. In July 1968, a plane bound from Rome to Tel Aviv was hijacked to Algiers, and Israeli passengers were held prisoner until exchanged for Arabs imprisoned in Israel. In December 1968, an attack on an El Al plane killed one passenger. In reprisal, two days later, Israelis attacked the airport in Beirut, destroying 13 planes.
The July skyjacking prompted the Israeli government to increase security by putting armed veteran Israeli soldiers aboard El Al planes.
The Beretta Model 70 Sees Action
The sky marshals trained with .22-caliber Beretta Model 70 pistols; the only attack scenarios studied at the time were those occurring inside airplanes. The Model 70 was reportedly already the “signature terminator pistol of the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence and covert operations agency. There are no public records, of course, but Model 70s in the hands of Mossad agents are believed to have brought about the demise of many terrorists, perhaps tabulating the most assassinations of any handgun.
Then came February 18, 1969, the most famous incident involving the Beretta 70. According to reports, four terrorists jumped from a white Volkswagen parked in a lot near the fenced runway of Zurich’s Kloten International Airport and opened fire with AK-47s on an El Al airplane taxiing in position for take-off, riddling the tires and cockpit with bullets.
Aboard was sky marshal Mordechai Rachamim, who drew his Model 70 and went into action. With bullets hitting the body of the plane, Rachamim rushed to the cockpit and looked through the cockpit window. Seeing a man lying in the snow, Rachamim shot twice, but his pistol jammed—an unusual occurrence for the Model 70 chosen by the Mossad for its reliability.
Rachamim ran to the back of the plane and asked a flight attendant to open the back door and engage the emergency slide. Rachamim slid to the tarmac and ran behind the plane in a flanking maneuver of the location shots were being fired. He reloaded while on the move. (He reportedly carried two spare magazines.) He climbed the fence, saw a shooter with an AK-47 about 30 to 40 meters away between two snow piles. As he approached, Rachamim ordered the man, in English, to drop the rifle. When he didn’t comply, Rachamim fired three shots from about four meters away, one shot striking the attacker in the neck, the other two near the armpit, the wounds proving immediately fatal.
Swiss police had then arrived and disarmed Rachamim and placed him under arrest. As he was led away, he saw the other terrorists being apprehended at gunpoint. The El Al pilot later died of injuries suffered in the attack; seven passengers were wounded.
Rachamim reportedly later told the court, “I started running in a wide circle toward the barrier behind which the Arabs had been shooting at the plane. I ran in a very wide circle to draw their fire toward me and prevent them from hitting the plane because I feared that any moment bullets might reach the fuel tanks and cause an explosion.” In court, he said the terrorist, armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifle made what appeared to be a threatening gesture. “It was then that I fired three shots at him,” Rachamim said.
Rachamim was released on bail and returned to Israel to a hero’s welcome. He was later acquitted of manslaughter charges; the terrorists, two men and a woman, received 12-year sentences. They were released a year later to meet hijackers’ demands.
Rachamim went back to work and would be back in the thick of things in 1972 when he and other commandos disguised as airline mechanics stormed a hijacked Sabena Airline flight in Tel Aviv. Rachamim killed one of the Palestinian terrorists with his Model 70; a second terrorist also bit the dust, apparently killed by other commandos.
Why The Beretta Model 70?
Always working to be at the top of security matters, the Israelis reportedly picked the Beretta 70 because it was compact, accurate and, despite Rachamim’s jam, a reliable performer. With little recoil, the Model 70 could easily be fired with less anticipatory flinching in rapid succession with fast recovery, delivering the eight-round magazine’s worth quickly and accurately. And, since they trained for engagements inside airliners, it was thought the .22-caliber rounds wouldn’t cause significant damage to the cabin or collateral damage to passengers.
The Model 70 was introduced in 1958 to replace and was based on Beretta’s 1935 pistol (replacing as well as the 1934, 948 and 949) which had been popular for about 25 years. Available in .22, .32 and .380 calibers, it was known as a smooth-operating, reliable and pleasurable handgun to shoot.
The Model 70 is nearly identical to the Model 71 that followed, though the 70 has low-profile fixed front sights while the 71 has adjustable sights, seen by some as an improvement that came about after the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Gun Digest’s Book of Guns & Prices notes that in the late 1960s some Model 70s were designated Model 100 for the U.S. market, where it was also known as Puma. (Model 71s were known as Jaguars.) In the late ’70s, a magazine safety was added, and the model designation switched to 70S.
Made of steel alloy, these have a solid, well-built feel with enough heft to hold the already negligible recoil to a minimum. The exposed hammer has a comforting throwback look, feel and function. And the slant of the pistol grip seems to naturally align sights with your eyes for a comfortable focal picture. The magazine features a curved forward extension that hugs the pinky finger, providing a snug, secure grip.
The trigger, a sear-release mechanism, is crisp, neither light nor excessively heavy. At the time, Beretta touted the Model 70’s increased accuracy at short and long ranges, achieved by lengthening the barrel guide fitting the barrel into the receiver. The original design featured a cross-bolt safety (which was replaced with a levered sear-block safety), hold-open catch and push-button magazine release and was available with a 3.5- or 5.9-inch barrel.
Production of the Beretta Model 70 stopped in 1985 but interest remains and some, including the .32 and .380 models, can still be found for sale on websites and at gun stores.
Model 70s can be carried cocked and locked, but the Israeli technique was reportedly to carry it with a fully loaded magazine but an empty chamber, racking in a round as they drew it from the holster. And it’s hard to argue with Israeli technique.
Though it wasn’t designed for personal defense or law enforcement/military applications, the Model 70 has certainly proven itself capable of holding its own, though undoubtedly the vast majority of instances when it was brought into play against terrorists will never see the light of day.
They don’t publicly announce such things, but the Israelis reportedly took the Model 70 out of service in the mid to late 1970s, replacing it with a 9mm Beretta, model unknown.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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