New pistols have begun fielding to Army units to replace the service’s 30-year-old Beretta M9 and likely will change how many soldiers carry handguns and how they fight with them.
Soldiers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division received the first 2,000 M17 Modular Handgun Systems, based on the civilian Sig Sauer P320, in late November. The first deliveries occurred 18 months ahead of schedule.
The Army plans to field the MHS to infantry, Stryker and armor brigade combat teams, National Guard tactical combat forces, Army civilian gate guards, and Army Special Forces Command.
The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga., is slated as the next unit to receive the new MHS. In total the Army plans to buy 238,000 handguns from Sig Sauer, according to Lt. Col. Steven Power, product manager for individual weapons within Program Executive Office Soldier.
The M17 not only updates the Army’s physical sidearm, but could change the way soldiers use handguns in combat. The M9’s longform name is the Personal Defense Weapon and is issued as a secondary weapon to crew-served weapon crewmembers and others with a “personal defense requirement” like military police and pilots, according to PEO Soldier.
The M17 program was searching for a non-developmental pistol with offensive capability that could be used “to take the fight to the enemy,” Power said during a recent roundtable call with reporters.
“When I field this to those individuals that their job in the infantry is to close with and destroy the enemy in close combat, what do I need out of a weapon system?” Power said. “Less a defensive weapon than an offensive weapon, I have the capability to put target-engagement enablers on there.”
That thinking resulted in a request from PEO Soldier Weapons to issue an M17 at the level of Army fire team leader and above in a brigade. A fire team typically consists of four soldiers including the leader and is the smallest unit in the Army.
“When I go to clear a cave or a subterranean complex or an attic or a crawlspace, those times when I’m going over a ladder or dragging…a litter, I still need to be able to fight,” Power said. “Headquarters at the Department of the Army understood our rationale and said it was a good idea.”
Because of budget uncertainty, the Army is not saying how many units it plans to equip in the current fiscal year, Power said. The Army has internal schedules for when the M17 will reach full material release, meaning when it is fully fielded, but is not publishing that schedule, either.
“With the number of changes that we’ve had with this program and also the uncertainty of being under a continuing resolution, I can’t give you a quantity or a schedule because it depends on things that are outside my control in Congress,” Power said.
Aside from funding the purchase of more than 200,000 pistols, the Army also has to work out production schedules with German-owned Sig Sauer, which plans to build all of the weapons in factories in New Hampshire, according to Chief Marketer Tom Taylor. Sig won the $580 million contract in January.
Deliveries of huge quantities of specialized 9mm rounds must be coordinated with Winchester [OLN].
The M9 entered service more than 30 years ago. Since then handgun technology has advanced significantly and soldiers were finding flaws with their standard sidearm, which itself replaced the Springfield 1911, according to Daryl Easlick, the Maneuver Center of Excellence Lethality Branch deputy.
“The M9 was well into its lifecycle and we were having some shortcomings with that system, including lethality, reliability, ergonomics, slide-mounted safety,” he said.
When soldiers attempted to clear a stoppage, often they would inadvertently grab the safety switch and render the weapon safe and unable to fire.
“We were unable to change any of the ergonomics with the M9 or the M11,” he said. Both the M17 and M18 have modular grips that can be scaled to fit different hand sizes for use with different thickness gloves.
The new pistol also has an integrated rail attachment point for lights and lasers and the removable front sight allows for night sights, none of which were available on the M9 without costly modification.
Thanks to the personal interest of Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miley, who publicly decried a protracted test campaign for something as simple and commercially ubiquitous as a handgun, the program was significantly shortened from the original development schedule.
What began in 2008 with an Air Force requirement document outlining the need for a commercial-off-the-shelf, non-developmental replacement for the M9, was transferred to the Army in 2010. The program languished until Milley took a public stance against lengthy and extravagant test regimes for simple items that are on sale at sporting goods stores. He used newly granted acquisition authorities to speed the process so that the M17 began fielding two years from the release of a request for proposals and 10 months from contract award.
“The success of this program was possible because the entire team had a single focus, which is to increase the lethality of soldiers,” Power said.
An issue arose just after the contract award when a firearms blogger demonstrated online that the commercial version of the M17 would discharge when dropped at a certain angle. Power said the Army was concerned when reports of the safety deficiency surfaced, but the problem did not occur during any of the Army’s rigorous drop testing.
“The Army’s test plan has a far more challenging standard for drop testing than what any civilian or law enforcement [agency] used,” Power said. “The MHS passed that test…The configuration that is the MHS already had the changes that may or may not have been required to pass our tests.”
Taylor said the M17 has a different trigger mechanism than the civilian P320, which was the pistol available to bloggers who publicized the drop-test failure.
Easlick said the possibility of unintentional discharge of a sidearm worn on the hip or chest of troops in combat is precisely the sort of issues lengthy test campaigns are meant to uncover.
“This is a prime example of why we have to test things to the degree that we do,” Easlick said. “The U.S. military has a different standard…than a local police department or a state or federal agency and we expect our equipment to operate to the requirements we have. The only way to ensure that they do that is to test the with the rigor that we do. The acquisition community coming together as a whole to ensure this system meets the requirement, is safe, suitable and effective has been amazing to accomplish in 10 months with incredible scrutiny.”