American troops are now being issued a new pistol and acceptance has been good. This follows the January 2017 announcement that the U.S. Department of Defense, after a ten year search, had decided on a new standard pistol, to replace the elderly and unpopular Beretta M9. The new M17 pistol is a variant of the SIG Sauer P320, which lost out to the Baretta in 1985 because the Baretta 9mm was a little cheaper. The M9 replaced the M1911 11.4mm (.45 caliber) pistol. The M9 replacement first appeared in 2014 as a civilian/police weapon modified to compete to replace the M9. The basic characteristics of the military and civilian versions are the same. Both are 836 g (29 ounce) weapons that are 203mm (8 inches) long and have a 17 round magazine (with an optional 21 round extended magazine). There is a compact version (M18) with a shorter (by 20mm/.8 inch) barrel making it more useful for concealed carry.
Combat zone testing in Afghanistan during late 2017 discovered a few problems with the militarized P320 and SIG quickly fixed these by making a few component modifications. This quick response was part of the contract for the new pistol and is expected to continue if more problems are encountered. The Baretta was notorious for having problems that took a long time to “verify” and even longer (if ever) to fix. SIG has a reputation for moving faster in this area and demonstrated it right away.
To help with the user testing and debugging SIG is releasing 5,000 M18s to the commercial market, selling for $650 each. The military buys them in large quantities for less than half that price. While most civilian owners won’t treat their M18s as roughly as troops or use them under harsh conditions for extended periods, these civilian users tend to be more experienced, often ex-military and another source of insightful user feedback.
The Department of Defense currently plans to buy 421,000 M17/M18 pistols. Most, 195,000 are for the army while 130,000 are for the Air Force, 61,000 (M18 only) for the navy and 35,000 for the marines. The army and marines are issuing more pistols to infantry units, recognizing that there are a lot of situations where several troops should be armed with pistols. This includes clearing caves, tunnels or other confined spaces. The M17 and the new holster were selected with this in mind and using a lot of feedback from combat experienced soldiers and marines. This feedback led to the few modifications that turned the SIG P320 into the M17 and made it much easier to train troops to quickly become quite effective (and accurate) with the M17.
Since the 1980s, when the M9 appeared there have been numerous new accessories for pistols, many of them used a lot by special operations and police (SWAT and the like) forces. Many troops bought their own 9mm pistols (SIG and Glock were common) equipped with these accessories and used them in combat. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) would pay for any successful (in combat) pistols and accessories. A key factor in selecting SIG was its history of firing a large number of rounds without any jams or malfunctions. That is a crucial factor for combat troops who now have a pistol that is recognized as an offensive weapon and when it is needed must be reliable.
Experienced military and civilian pistol users agree that the P320 was the best choice although the Glock was a strong alternative choice. The militarized P320 has modifications to improve performance in combat conditions. That meant tweaks that make it more reliable when exposed to mud, sand and all manner of crap associated with combat zone operations. Other modifications made it easier to take apart for cleaning under field (outside, cramped quarters, low light) conditions. Other modifications for military use included improved single handed performance, easier use with either hand, able to easily install military type night and day sights and improved accuracy. The M17 also has the modification to allow a silencer to be attached.
The M17 decision came after the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force joined forces in 2014 to speed up the seemingly unending selection process. Another development that speeded things up was the fact the SOCOM had already adopted a number of other pistols to replace the M9. For example in 2011 the U.S. Navy SEALS adopted the SIG Sauer P226 9mm pistol as their Mk25 standard sidearm. This pistol was actually the same Sig Sauer P226 the SEALS have been using since the 1980s, but with a better accessory rail, a few other minor changes, and a new name. The Sig Sauer P320 is, to most users, an updated version of the P226. This is ironic because back in the early 1980s the Berretta and Sig Sauer pistols had both scored about the same on the American evaluation tests and the Berretta won mainly on the basis of price. The P320 is cheaper than the P226 but the contract to replace as many as 500,000 army M9s is worth over half a billion dollars.
The selection of the P320 was criticized mainly because it took the Department of Defense (mainly the army) a decade to select what their own evaluation team approved of back in the early 1980s and that SOCOM user experience confirmed before the 1980s were over. SOCOM came into being a few years after the M9 was adopted and immediately began planning to bring back .45 caliber pistols for its commandos while also allowing the use of alternative 9mm pistols as needed. SOCOM always had the right to do that and the army and marines often pay close attention to, and adopt, new weapons and equipment SOCOM has selected and then used successfully in action. Thus the SOCOM decision to keep using the .45 and select a different 9mm pistol. Actually, many Special Forces and SEAL operators never gave up using the original army .45, as it was the ideal pistol for many commando operations.
As the U.S. Army Special Forces discovered, if you are well trained and know what you are doing you should carry a pistol, in addition to your rifle. Not the official issue M9 pistol but something with a bit more stopping power. The SOCOM operators more frequently operate in small groups and fight up close. The Special Forces prefer new model 11.4mm (.45 caliber) pistols, although 10mm weapons are also popular. The reason for this is that you are most likely to be using the pistol indoors, where your target is going to be really close. You want to knock the enemy down quickly before he can get at you with a knife or even his hands. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines brought their own pistols and most commanders have been lenient on this issue.
The army and air force do not have the same needs as SOCOM and simply want a 9mm pistol with fewer flaws and more of the latest pistol tech than the existing M9. The air force tried to replace the M9 in 2007 and was ordered by the Department of Defense to back off. The M9 is a 914 g (33 ounces empty), 217mm (8.5 inch) long weapon that has a 125mm (4.9 inch) barrel and a magazine that holds 15 rounds. It replaced the World War I era M1911 .45 (11.4mm) caliber ACP. This is a 1.1 kg (39 ounce empty), 210mm (8.25 inch) long weapon with a 127mm (5 inch) barrel and a 7 round magazine. Both pistols were only accurate at up to about 50 meters, which is fine for a pistol. The M1911 had more hitting power, while the M9 was a bit more accurate. Loaded, each pistol weighs about 230 g (half a pound) more. The M17 is more accurate than the M9 and uses a new pistol round that has more stopping power than most other 9mm rounds.
By 2014 the army and air force had a very compelling case for change. The army, in particular, found that many of its oldest M9s were, literally, falling apart from old age. Some components (especially the barrels, frames and locking blocks) tend to break on older, especially heavily used, weapons. Since September 11, 2001, the army has used its M9s a lot, much more than originally expected. There are also a host of other problems, like the shape (too awkward for some users), trigger pull (too heavy) and lack of a Picatinny rail for easy mounting accessories. The safety switch is in an awkward position and troops in combat often accidentally put the safety on when cocking the pistol. That can be fatal (for the user) in combat. More modern designs (like SIG Sauer) have something more efficient (and less of a dirt catcher) than the open-slide and spent cartridge ejection system of the M9. Another sign of the times is that the M9 is not equipped to screw on a silencer, an accessory that is more commonly used these days.
Indeed, most of the problems with the M9 result from the fact that it is a design that is over three decades old. Pistol technology has improved a lot since the late 1970s and that can be seen in the pistols that are popular with police forces. Cops can often buy their own pistols and tend to get the most modern, but proven in action, models. Thus many troops in the combat zone leave the M9 they were issued back at the base and go into the field with a 9mm pistol they bought themselves and will continue to use when they leave the military. This is often a Glock 19, which is a police favorite and popular with troops in other countries. Many armies do not replace pistols as frequently as police forces, or special operations troops. But in Afghanistan and Iraq regular combat troops used pistols a lot, and the M9 was not only old but as far as features went, the design was obsolete. As you can see, it’s not just the wear and tear, it’s also obsolescence in the face of advances in pistol design.
Meanwhile, in 2012 the army had to order another 100,000 M9 9mm pistols, each costing $640. This was just to replace the M9s that were falling apart. The U.S. military (mostly the army) already has over 600,000 M9s and that purchase keeps the M9 in service at least until the end of the decade. The U.S. military adopted the 9mm pistol in 1985 largely to standardize ammunition with NATO and to replace the M911 .45 caliber (11.4mm) pistol with something smaller and lighter. All other NATO states used 9mm for pistols. At the time it was noted that most 9mm pistols were carried by officers and support personnel, who rarely used them, in combat or otherwise. Many American combat veterans disagreed with the switch to a 9mm pistol but that advice was ignored, except in SOCOM.
But times have changed. Since 2002 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan discovered, through combat experience, what types of weapons worked best at close range to take down the enemy. It was the same with SWAT teams and commandos all over the world. When conducting a raid and finding yourself up close and personal with someone trying to kill you, there is a need for a heavy caliber pistol or a shotgun (firing 00 shot or slugs). The premier pistol for ensuring you take down someone is still the .45 caliber (11.4mm) or .40 caliber (10mm, but only with a heavy bullet) pistols. There is also a .50 caliber (12.7mm) pistol, but only very large people can handle this one. The 11.4 and 10mm pistols are light and handy, compared to assault rifles or shotguns, and have a long history of quickly taking down an armed and determined foe. An acceptable alternative is a modern 9mm pistol design that is reliable, has the right accessories and uses a round with more stopping power.