After several misfires, the Army this year has decided to pull the trigger on replacing the M9 Beretta, its standard sidearm since 1985.

Interested firearms manufacturers had to have their bids submitted for the Modular Handgun System (MHS) program by Feb. 12.

The Army plans to award up to three indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contracts this year to three of a pool of half a dozen or so contenders in what it calls the XM-17 MHS program. After a series of validation and limited user tests, the Army plans to award a single 10-year contract worth up to $580 million.

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class William Slayden, an adviser with the 10th Mountain Division, fires his M9 Beretta pistol downrange at Khair Kot Garrison, Paktika province, Afghanistan, June 6, 2013

“The U.S. Army is currently evaluating the proposals and plans to award up to three contracts later this calendar year and then down-select a single vendor for production and delivery of the MHS,” and Army spokesman told Defense Daily.

A formal request for proposals for an MHS was issued in August 2015. Vendors were asked to submit full-size and compact versions of pistols that satisfy Army requirements that improve upon the design and performance of the M9. The program also will replace the more concealable M11 pistol made by Sig Sauer.

Soldiers have complained of the reliability of the M9, which is also the standard sidearm of the Air Force and Navy. The Marine Corps also uses the pistol, though some units have returned to the heftier Colt 1911-A1.45 cal handgun that was introduced prior to World War I.   

The Army has tried and failed to replace the sidearm with a handgun that improves on the accuracy, ergonomics, reliability and lethality of the Beretta. The Joint Combat Pistol competition  in 2005 failed to produce a suitable upgrade to the M9 and was canceled a year later.

A former Army Special Forces captain said the M9 has serious reliability issues, particularly with the barrels, frames and locking blocks. Many of the weapons have been in nearly continual use since their introduction 30 years ago, which has worn them out structurally. The open-slide design makes the M9 susceptible to blockage and failure, especially in sandy environments.

Special Operations personnel, which have more leeway in which firearms they carry into combat, have all but dropped the M9, opting instead for the Sig Sauer. More recently, SOCOM has transitioned almost entirely to the Glock 17 9mm polymer-frame pistol, the Special Forces soldier said. 

An M9’s useful service life is about 17,000 rounds, but the Army requires them to fire only 5,000 times. The replacement pistol must fire at least 25,000 rounds, but the objective lifecycle requirement is 35,000 rounds. The Army also is looking for the pistol to fire 2,500 rounds on average between stoppages and 10,000 rounds between failures. A stoppage is a misfire that does not harm the workings of the weapon and can be cleared in the field while a failure renders the weapon unusable.

Because source selection is ongoing, the Army would not disclose which companies or how many vendors submitted bids. Many of the premier small arms manufacturers have publicly acknowledged their intent to compete for MHS, including incumbent Berretta, which chose to enter its new APX striker-fired pistol instead of an improved M9A3.

Other hopefuls include the Sig Sauer, Glock , Walther, Heckler and Koch, STI-Detonics and KRISS USA. Smith & Wesson’s [SWHC] Military and Police (M&P) pistol that has become popular with U.S. law enforcement agencies is also in the running. General Dynamics [GD] has partnered with Smith & Wesson in the proposal.

Belgian company Fabrique Nationale was expected to offer its FN Five-Seven, which fires a powerful 5.7 mm high-velocity bottlenecked cartridge similar to a miniature rifle round. The handgun is in use with the U.S. Secret Service.

FN was able to propose the Five-Seven because the MHS program is structured as an “open-caliber competition” in which companies can each pitch two handguns chambered for different ammunition. Some criticism of the M9 has stemmed not from the gun but the 9mm ammunition. Some users consider the round too weak with insufficient stopping power.

Most of the competing handguns are offered in both 9mm and the more potent .40 caliber. The latter was designed from scratch for use by law enforcement as a round midway between the heft of a .45 cal round and the relatively light but easier to use 9mm.

Changing calibers would be a complicated endeavor for the Army. Adopting a handgun that fired anything other than 9mm ammunition would immediately render existing ammunition stocks for the entire military obsolete. The 9mm round is also a standard cartridge among NATO countries and is used in a variety of pistols and submachine guns.