After Three Decades, the U.S. Army Is Finally Getting a New Handgun
The M17 is ambidextrous and modular
by MATTHEW MOSS
It’s been 32 years since the U.S. Army last adopted a major new sidearm. The last was the nine-by-19-millimeter Beretta 92F, which the Army redesignated M9 and issued by the hundreds of thousands.
But the M9 was particularly popular — and for good reason. The M9 actually failed its initial trial. Two other pistols, the Beretta and the SIG Sauer P226, passed the same trial. But the Army rejected them on cost grounds.
So it was not without irony that, on Jan. 19, 2017, the Army announced that its new sidearm would be a SIG Sauer — the P320. The SIG Sauer will begin entering service in 2017 under the designation M17.
Initially, SIG Sauer will manufacture around 300,000 M17 pistols. The Army holds an option for 200,000 more. The Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force will continue to use the M9.
As recently as 2012, the Army contracted with Beretta for up to 100,000 improved M9A1s. But in the meantime, the ground combat branch had begun looking for a new and better sidearm. The Modular Handgun System effort called for a pistol that’s more accurate and reliable, lighter and more modular than the M9 is.
The competition drew entries from nine manufacturers. SIG Sauer, a German company with a U.S. manufacturing arm and a headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire, faced tough competition.
It was widely expected that the ubiquitous Glock would win the contract, especially after the British Army adopted the Glock 17 in 2014. Beretta initially offered an improved, cheaper version of the M9. The Army rejected the M9, compelling Beretta to submit its new, striker-fired APX pistol, instead.
CZ reportedly offered its tried-and-true P-09, while FN Herstal submitted a variant of its FNS pistol. A lesser-known manufacturer, KRISS USA, submitted something called the Sphinx SDP and Smith & Wesson offered an updated multi-caliber version of its M&P M2.0.
It seems that Remington developed its new RP9 as an entrant in the Modular Handgun System contest but failed to actually submit it.
Engineers at SIG Sauer began development of the P320 in the early 2010s. It’s a striker-fired pistol with a short recoil system. Unlike commercial P320s, the M17 will have ambidextrous, frame-mounted manual safety catches, ambidextrous slide-releases and a magazine-release button that the user can reverse.
The P320 is compatible with a sound suppressor. The weapon will be able to use a standard 17-round magazine as well as an extended magazine holding 21 rounds. The Army selected both full-size and compact versions of the pistol for various applications.
Both versions of the M17 will feature Picatinny Rails integrated into the frame below the barrel. The P320 has a recess cut into the top of the slide that allows the attachment of a red-dot sight that co-witnesses with the pistol’s iron sights.
One of the biggest complaints about the M9 is its ergonomics. A Center for Naval Analysis report from 2006 found that just 64 percernt of troops were satisfied with the pistol’s handling. In that light, the Modular Handgun specifications required alternate pistol-grip profile options.
Each of the manufacturers approached this requirement differently. Most opted for the interchangeable back straps that are now ubiquitous on the civilian handgun market.
All of the competing pistols featured the modularity the Army requested. The P320 in particular accomplishes this in an interesting way. The pistol features a fiberglass-reinforced polymer grip module that acts as the weapon’s frame.
Within the grip module is a removable stainless-steel frame holding the fire control unit, which combines the trigger assembly, striker and spring groups. Users can place their fire control unit into any one of several grip modules, which vary in size to accommodate shooters of widely different statures.
This also makes it easy to disassemble the P320. And as a bonus, breaking down the pistol doesn’t require the user to pull the trigger like the Glock does.
The Center of Naval Analysis report also noted that a substantial number of troops were concerned about the nine-by-19-millimeter round’s stopping power. In its 2013 Request for Information, the Army asked for pistols that can withstand markedly higher chamber pressures than the M9 can, indicating that the ground combat branch expects to develop cartridges with hotter loads.
Besides the NATO-standard nine-by-19-millimeter, the SIG P320 can also be chambered in the proprietary .357-caliber SIG round as well as .40 S&W and .45 ACP. SIG Sauer has yet to confirm exactly what caliber the M17 will be chambered in.
In August 2015, U.S. Army Contracting Command finally released its formal Request for Proposal for some 500,000 pistols worth up to $580 million. The RFP was open to various calibers.
The Army delayed the program numerous times in response to both manufacturer feedback and delays with testing. That frustrated some officials. “If you gave me $17 million on the credit card, I could call Cabela’s tonight and outfit every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine,” U.S. Army general Mark Milley reportedly complained in April 2016.
U.S. senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called the MHS project “byzantine” in a report criticizing the program’s 350 pages of specifications.
In September 2016, the Army down-selected to three weapons from Glock, SIG Sauer and Beretta. The MHS program then moved into the production verification test phase to ensure quality and cost-effectiveness.
Four months later, Steffanie Easter — principal deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology — announced SIG Sauer as the winner.
“By maximizing full and open competition across our industry partners, we have optimized private sector advancements in handguns, ammunition and magazines and the end result will ensure a decidedly superior weapon system for our warfighters,” Easter said.
The contract obliges SIG Sauer to begin delivering 6,300 M17s a month before the end of 2017. In the meantime, the M17 will undergo operational testing.
Considering the value of the contract, it’s likely that at least one of SIG Sauer’s rivals will lodge an official protest with the Government Accountability Office.