Hey look, it’s time for another Beretta review! The Beretta Cheetahs, (aka the 80-series) are some of the classiest pistols ever made with the side benefit of being built to last like their big brother, the 92.

You might be familiar with the .380 ACP Beretta Model 84 Cheetah, or maybe even the Model 85 or Model 81 (my personal favorite, in .32 ACP). But today, we’re going to talk a little bit about all eight (yeah, eight!) models in the Cheetah series and what makes them so great to shoot, own, and even carry.

Details are in the video below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.


Hey everybody, I am Chris Baker from LuckyGunner.com where you can order ammo with lightning fast shipping.

This is a Beretta Model 85 Cheetah. It’s a compact straight blowback double action/single action pistol.

Beretta Cheetah 85BB

Superficially, it’s similar to a couple of other guns I’ve reviewed recently; the Walther PPK and the Bersa Thunder. But while both of those guns are just okay at best, the Beretta Cheetah is in a totally different class. If you want a carry pistol and the more modern options just aren’t doing it for you, the Cheetah is the gun you didn’t know you were looking for.

The Model 85 is just one of eight base models in the Beretta Cheetah series, also known as the 80-series or 81-series. We’re going to look at the Cheetah series as a whole today, what makes them special, and what to consider if you’re thinking about buying one.

Background and Models Overview

The Cheetahs have the trademark Beretta open top slide and a lightweight aluminum frame. They’re double action/single action with a frame-mounted safety. You can find them in .380 ACP, .32 ACP, and .22 LR.

Beretta started using the name Cheetah sometime in the 90s, but they were first released back in 1975 as simply the Model 81 and 84. The 81 was a .32 ACP with a double column 12-round magazine. The 84 was basically identical but it was chambered for .380 ACP with a 13-round mag.

The 80-series was designed for the law enforcement market, primarily in Europe and other countries outside of the US where small calibers were considered acceptable for duty use. It’s had a fair amount of success in that role and I believe they are still in use in some of those places.

In the early 80s, Beretta debuted single stack versions of the Cheetahs: the Model 82 with 9+1 rounds of .32 ACP and the 85 with 8+1 rounds of .380.

These four models were and still are the most popular and well known variants of the Beretta Cheetah. They all have the same exterior dimensions. They all have 3.8-inch barrels. But they’re not the only Cheetahs.

The Model 87 showed up in the 1980s and was the first Cheetah chambered for .22 LR. The standard 87s look identical to the other single stack Cheetahs. Later on, Beretta added the 87 Target to the lineup, but it’s almost unrecognizable as a Cheetah. It’s single action only with a 6-inch barrel and a Robocop-style counterweight at the muzzle.

The Model 89 was an early version of the 87 Target that’s distinguishable by the target style wraparound wood grips.

The Model 83 was, as far as I can tell, never marketed in the US. It’s essentially the same gun as the Model 85, except for a four-inch barrel and mags that are limited to seven rounds.

That leaves the Model 86. This is also similar to the 85 with one major exception. It has a tip-up barrel just like the pocket sized Beretta Tomcat and Bobcat. I don’t have a Model 86, but here’s a Bobcat. Push this lever forward and the barrel pops up so you can load or unload the chamber.

Beretta 21A Bobcat
A Beretta Model 21A Bobcat with the tip-up barrel feature. The Model 86 Cheetah has a similar tip-up barrel.

Like most blowback pistols, it takes a lot of force to rack the slide on these guns. The tip-up barrel offered a solution for people who have trouble with that. Unfortunately, the 86 is now one of the more rare and expensive variants of the Cheetah.

What Makes the Beretta Cheetahs Unique?

Some of our regular viewers might have noticed that I tend to have a fondness for guns that are a bit dated but not quite obsolete yet. The Cheetah is no exception. The size is similar to a lot of modern compact polymer 9mm pistols. You could make the argument that those guns are superior in most respects. Even so, nothing has come along that quite replaces the Cheetah in the exact niche it fills in the pistol market.

They are generally very durable and reliable. That’s because, even though it’s a small caliber pistol, it’s built to the standard of a duty pistol. It was designed to be fired a lot and carried daily and to withstand a fair amount of abuse. It’s kind of like a miniature Beretta 92, and that’s nice because even the 92 Compact is a pretty hefty gun.

In the 20th century, Europe produced a lot of duty sidearms chambered for small calibers, so that, alone, doesn’t make the Cheetah unique. But the Cheetah was one of the last of those designs, so it has a few refinements lacking in something like a Walther PPK or a Makarov. Specifically, I think the Cheetah has well thought-out ergonomics. The controls are easy to reach and it’s a comfortable gun to shoot for most people.

It’s also one of the only small caliber duty pistols that’s available with double stack magazines. In fact, the only other one I’m aware of is the CZ-82/83, which is also an excellent pistol, despite the fact that it looks like it took a hard tumble from the peak of Mount Hideous.

Last I heard, the Cheetah is technically still in production in Italy but there are always rumors that it’s going to be discontinued. Beretta USA periodically imports small batches of them. There are also plenty of used ones out there. If you have any interest in owning an 80-series pistol, there are a few things you should probably know, starting with the different generations.

The Five Beretta Cheetah Generations

You can easily identify which of the five generations an 80-series belongs to by the suffix after the model number.

I’m not going to go over all the little differences between each generation. But there is one major change that bears mentioning when they transitioned from the BB to the F models in the late 1980s. That is when the sleek, rounded trigger guard became more squared off. But more importantly, Beretta changed the safety lever to a safety/decocking lever.

All Cheetahs have a very nicely designed frame-mounted safety. It’s ambidextrous with a distinct click on and off. And it’s positioned right where your shooting hand thumb needs to be. The first three generations of Cheetahs, like this model 81BB, can be safely carried cocked and locked — round in the chamber, hammer back, and safety engaged. I can also carry it with the hammer down, but I have to disengage the safety and manually decock it which is… I won’t say dangerous, but “less safe” than a gun with a decocking lever. So now the gun is in double action mode and the hammer is in the half-cock position. I can carry it with the safety in the fire position, or I can engage the safety to disconnect the trigger.

I don’t have an F or an FS model here, so you’ll have to use your imagination. With the newer style safety, when the gun is cocked, pushing up on the lever engages the safety and automatically decocks the hammer. You can only carry the gun with the hammer down and the safety on or off.

So on one hand, the newer models are easier and safer to decock. The downside is that you can’t carry them cocked and locked. The newer models also have a magazine disconnect safety, which I’m indifferent about, but I know a lot of people don’t really care for.

For a carry gun, I personally prefer to have a decocker like the F and FS models. But the BB and earlier models get all the style points. That curved trigger guard and blued finish just looks so much classier. And since this is not a gun I plan to carry very often, I’m happy with my Model 81BB as a mostly for fun gun.

Surplus Import Versus Commercial

It also doesn’t hurt that I paid very little for it because it was a police surplus gun. Several batches of surplus Cheetahs have come to the US over the years — mostly model 81s, 84s, and 85s from Europe. The majority of them seem to be in phenomenal condition for police guns.

As you’d expect with any surplus guns, they’re extremely affordable, particularly if you buy one when a batch first comes in. Surplus retailers typically price Cheetahs in the $200-400 range which is an absolute steal. A new Cheetah — when Beretta imports a batch — is usually more like $600-800. They’re very high-quality guns and a new one is probably worth that much. So when you can buy a surplus model in good shape at less than half the price, you’re getting a pretty good deal. You’re not going to find a new pistol for 300 bucks that’s anywhere close to the quality of a surplus Cheetah.

Surplus Beretta Model 81BB with LOK Grips
Surplus Beretta Model 81BB with LOK Grips.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to predict when a new batch of surplus guns will arrive, or what specific model they will be, or which retailers will have them. For all I know, there may not even be another shipment of surplus Cheetahs. So if you want one, keep your eyes peeled and be ready to move quick.

Which Caliber?

In the US, we usually associate the Cheetah with .380 ACP, but personally, I’ve always been more drawn to the .32 and .22 models.

I’ve never actually had the pleasure of shooting a Model 87. They are difficult to find and somewhat expensive. That’s partly because, even in Europe, .22 LR has never been considered a service cartridge, so there aren’t any police surplus 87s.

I have had a fair amount of range time with .380 and .32 Cheetahs. I think the .32s are severely underrated. As far as terminal ballistics, .380 might be a marginally better cartridge, but the real world difference is not huge. They’re both small calibers with limited effectiveness. But with a gun this size and weight, .32 ACP has the advantage of almost no recoil. It’s like shooting a loud .22. I tend to get better shot placement with the .32 Cheetahs because the sights barely move. And it’s a lot more fun than shooting the .380.

Beretta Cheetah .32 ACP barrel
The One True Caliber.

That’s not to say the .380 Cheetahs have excessive recoil. They are not difficult to manage. But I understand why a lot of people consider them to be snappy, even when compared to a 9mm of similar size. That’s just the nature of blowback .380 pistols in general. The recoil is delivered to the shooter’s hand over a shorter period of time, which gives the perception of a quick snap.

If you’re really torn on which caliber to get, the good news is that you can convert the caliber of the .380 and .32 models simply by swapping the barrels. And if it’s a double stack model, you’ll need to swap magazines as well.

Single Stack vs. Double Stack

A lot of people disparage the single stack Cheetahs because they’re basically the same size as the double stacks. The grip is only two tenths of an inch thinner and everything else is the same size.

I can’t say for sure why Beretta bothered with a single stack version if they weren’t going to make it significantly thinner or lighter. It does make a little more sense if you look at one of the original double stack models with the smooth wood grip panels. Those grips are super thick. I could see how some government agencies may have gone back to Beretta to request a slimmer version at the expense of ammo capacity.

The later checkered wood grips and the more recent plastic grip panels are a lot thinner. I bought a set of slim G10 grip panels from LOK grips for my 81BB and I’m extremely happy with them. They’re even thinner than the plastic factory grips and give the gun virtually the same feel as a single stack.

If your hands are on the smaller side or if you live in a state with magazine capacity restrictions, you might want to try a single stack model. Otherwise, a double stack Cheetah is probably the way to go.

If I Had to Nitpick…

I think the biggest downside to carrying a Cheetah is the lack of holster selection. None of the custom kydex holster makers that I trust currently support the Cheetah. You can find holsters that are made to fit the Cheetah, but most of them are not very good for actual carry on a daily basis.

I took a chance on a kydex appendix holster I found on eBay. And it’s usable, but only after I heated and reshaped parts of it and did some sanding and replaced the belt clips. So if your holster standards are high, be prepared to figure out some kind of DIY solution for the Cheetah.

The only other real issue I have with the Cheetah series pistols is the sights. They’re not terrible, but they could be a lot better. They’re somewhat small compared to the sights on modern pistols of this size. Like a lot of other Berettas, the front sight is machined into the slide, so there’s no way to swap it out for something better.

An original, “no suffix” Beretta Model 81

As I always do with sub-par iron sights, I have blacked out the rear sight with a marker and applied neon orange nail polish to the front sight. That makes the sights adequate for me, at least in daytime lighting conditions.

Overall, I have very few complaints about the Beretta Cheetah. If you’re a DA/SA aficionado like myself and you are enlightened enough to appreciate the merits of small pistols calibers, you should definitely try to at least shoot one sometime. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

I also doubt you’ll be disappointed if you order some ammo from us with lightning fast shipping at LuckyGunner.com. Give that a try. See how it feels.


Did you enjoy this article?

Share this article with your friends!

Leave a Comment Below