First, there were the cars that could no longer compete with imports. Then came consumer electronics. And now, even guns made in the United States are being shot into second place.

The legendary Colt .45 is now being phased out as the standard pistol of the U.S. armed forces. The Colt's replacement: A 9mm pistol made by Italy's Beretta. It won over U.S. makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger & Co. in two shoot-offs in 1985 and 1989.The army found the Italian pistol lighter, more accurate and more durable than its competitors in bidding for a contract to supply 500,000 pistols.

And foreign guns continue to make inroads. Discerning cops have begun switching to Berettas, Austrian Glocks and West German Heckler & Koch pistols. Status-conscious robbers prize Israeli Uzi submachine guns - as does the U.S. Secret Service.

The latest cover of Guns & Ammo, a widely read U.S. firearms magazine, sports the Taurus, a high-tech Brazilian pistol that comes equipped with a laser sighting system. No U.S. manufacturer has anything like it.

Guns & Ammo noted that Americans were "long wedded to traditional names" but in the last decade had gradually come to accept quality handguns of other makes.

"A great deal more serious thought must be given to design," said Andrew Molchan, of the Florida-based National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, which represents more than 10,000 U.S. firearms retailers.

"This is one of the many cases where American manufacturers are interested more in immediate big numbers than in innovative state-of-the-art design," Molchan told Reuters. In the process, the United States has fallen behind.

But at least in the handgun industry, there is a light at the end of the barrel.

"There is no fundamental reason why American manufacturers couldn't return to world-class designs," Mr. Molchan said.