ABOVE: A soldier fires his issued M9 handgun while in training in the United States. Throughout the Gulf War to the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the M9 has served the U.S. Military on a number of military operations overseas. However, the service has not been without bumps in the road such as the catastrophic failure of several M9s in use by the SEAL Teams, magazine redesigns to deal with sand in the 1990s and most recently poorly made magazines during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The second batch of magazines appeared to not have been directed from Beretta but instead a third-party magazine manufacturer that the Army supplied troops with.
Sig Sauer’s January win of the Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition with the company’s 9×19 mm NATO P320 pistol caps one of the more puzzling and drawn out processes in recent DOD acquisition history. Overcoming such competitors as Heckler & Koch, Beretta, Smith & Wesson and CZ, the P320 with its modular removable chassis system, external safety and picatinny rail section will now enter into the annals of history for being the U.S. Army’s service handgun for the next several decades.
The XM17 MHS competition began as a joint service program between the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army with the Marine Corps being allowed to put forth operational requirements. However the Marines won’t be looking at replacing the currently issued M9 until the mid-2020s while the Army is looking at a 2019 adoption of the XM17. The need to replace the M9 (adopted in 1985, beating out Sig Sauer’s P226 entry by the price of accessories and parts) was necessitated by the venerable Berettas coming to an end of their life spans, having been in service for over 30 years. Despite the modifications of the M9A1 with the picatinny rail addition, the handguns were beginning to see the years take their toll on them. Beretta proposed a solution with the M9A3 in a desert color scheme, picatinny rails and a tighter grip, but this was shot down by the DOD because it didn’t fulfill the majority of requirements set forth in the MHS solicitation.
MHS was primarily headed up by Program Manager Soldier Weapons at Picatinny Arsenal, with overall command and control through the U.S. Army Contracting Command. The largest announcement of the XM17 MHS came in June 2015, when Picatinny issued the second Request for Proposal (RFP) outlining what the MHS program would entail for interested parties. Early on, there were a number of concerns with the RFP, and these only accumulated as the program continued. One of the largest issues was the ammunition requirement. MHS stipulated that there was no specified caliber to be entered with, instead leaving it up to industry to decide what caliber to submit. Specifically the Army called for a “Special Purpose Round,” which might have been a political move to stay away from hollow point ammunition. This left the program extremely open-ended and confusing for a number of observers because it essentially allowed such cartridges as the 40 S&W or even the .357 SIG in addition to the 9×19 mm NATO to be entered. In fact the only requirement for any cartridge was that it penetrate 14 inches of ballistic gelatin at 50 meters and be compatible with a 9×19 mm NATO training ammunition, in addition to maintaining a tight group at that 50 meters with 90% accuracy. Much criticism was made to the effect that if the Army wanted a new caliber to be adopted, there should have been a cartridge only competition followed by a handgun competition in the winning cartridge.
Other than the choice of caliber, the competition called for cut-aways of the actual handgun and the ammunition chosen. The handgun had to have modifiable grips, ambidextrous controls, a picatinny rail and be offered in full size variant in addition to a more compact concealable version. Initially the competition called for contenders to submit both a full size and a compact model for review. In September of 2015, the Army finally released the official solicitation for industry.
For many the program had the appearance of a long winded and costly journey to what should have been a simple selection process for a weapon system rarely used in combat. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates specially cited the program in a talk to Congress, saying, “Why is it taking you guys ten years? This is absurd, and why is it a 350 page RFP? It’s a handgun for God’s sake.” His sentiments were echoed by Senator John McCain with, “This failed program underscores the importance of fully reforming our broken defense acquisition system.” Even the Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley commented that, “We are not exactly redesigning how to go to the moon … and arguably, it [handguns] is the least lethal and important weapon system in the Department of Defense inventory.” Circumstances came to a head when the Chief of Staff’s office entertained the idea of simply purchasing 9×19 mm NATO Glock 19s through SOCOM’s already established purchase program with Glock. Much cited was the fact that the MHS solicitation was 350 pages in length. For a more prominent weapon system such as a sniper rifle or grenade launcher this would probably be a sufficient document but for a design such as a handgun, whose basic operation has arguably not dramatically changed since the invention of the 1911, this was seen by many as excessive.
Regardless of the severe criticism from generals and politicians alike, the MHS program continued to push forward through testing and evaluation. Slowly, contenders dropped out of the race despite a number of efforts to deliver the best platform they could. Smith & Wesson for example partnered with General Dynamics to develop the company’s Military & Police line for the competition. CZ and Beretta came up with relatively new designs compared to their former product line, the CZ P-09 and the Beretta APX. Many of these entries were weeded out, but apart from the APX we saw them introduced to the U.S. civilian market at SHOT 2017. Ruger refused to even submit an entry into the competition, realizing early on the monstrous task of tooling up the R&D section to produce a handgun worthy of fitting the solicitation. H&K, Glock, Kriss Arms, FN Herstal and STI submitted bids as well.
Finally, on January 17 while in the midst of SHOT 2017, the news leaked that the Army had officially chosen the Sig P320 submission as the winner of the $580 Million MHS Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity contract. Essentially similar to the civilian P320 currently available on the market, the M17 handgun will feature the addition of an external manual safety lever, loaded chamber indicator, a trigger “mud flap” to capture foreign debris and coated with a desert themed finish. Unconfirmed reports show that the Army is purchasing the handgun at a price of $207 per unit, not including holsters, cleaning kits, spare magazines or servicing and training. Several opinions within the industry point to the timing of the handgun acceptance on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration as President. Some speculate that behind closed doors within the competition, there was fear of the program’s cancellation due to President Trump’s insistence on reducing Federal funding as evidenced by the employee hiring freeze he instituted just days into taking office. How true this fact is probably won’t be confirmed until several years from now when the full details are released.
From a price perspective the Sig 320 probably underbid the competition so severely that any other alternative probably couldn’t have come close to competing with it. In addition, the modularity of the P320 was also too advantageous to ignore. Because the handgun is designed around a chassis system that is inserted into the polymer frame, replacing the frame if damaged is extremely cost effective compared to practically replacing the entire handgun as would be the case with the former M9 with a dedicated aluminum frame.
With the MHS competition completed and handgun selected, the U.S. Army should begin retiring the M9 and replacing it with the M17 handgun in 2018-2019. Complete procurement throughout the National Guard and Reserve component will probably take a little while longer than that, but those two entities will probably see a thorough rearmament in the 2020s. About this time is when the Marine Corps should begin a similar purchase process as well. As for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, there hasn’t been any word yet as to procurement plans, but the author would assume that they will probably follow suit as well. But for now, soldiers can be rest assured that they will soon be getting a reliable, polymer, striker fired handgun to take downrange into harm’s way.