On the Jan. 19, the U.S. Army’s six-year-long Modular Handgun System program finally selected a winner, with an announcement that Sig Sauer’s P320 will be adopted as the M17. It had been 32 years since the Army last made a major handgun selection. The weapon chosen in 1985 was the pistol the P320 will replace, the Beretta M9.
The P320 came to the civilian market in January 2014. It is a striker-fired, polymer-framed, 9x19mm pistol with a steel slide and a short recoil-operated action. These are all industry standards — but dig a little deeper and the Sig Sauer does some things differently from its rivals.
What makes the P320 special? The Army was adamant that the new sidearm must be more accurate, reliable, lighter and, most importantly, more modular than the current Beretta M9. The P320’s rivals all approached this differently, with most offering the option of adjustable grip backstraps.
Sig Sauer, however, offered a more innovative system. The P320 has a fiberglass-reinforced polymer grip-frame module which acts as the weapon’s lower frame. Within this module there is a removable internal stainless steel frame holding the fire control unit. This fire control unit combines the trigger assembly, striker and spring groups into a small unit. Users can place their fire control unit into any grip module of varying sizes to fit different hand sizes. Engineers at Sig Sauer began development of the P320 in the early 2010s, with the design developed from the less-successful, hammer-fired P250.
Compare the new pistol with the venerable Beretta it is set to replace.
The M9, with its metal frame and slide, weighs 34.2 oz unloaded while the full size M17 comes in at 29.4 oz. In terms of length, the new M17 is 0.5in shorter than the 8.5in long Beretta. As for magazine capacity, the Sig Sauer feeds from either a standard 17-round magazine or an extended magazine holding 21-rounds — both significant improvements over the M9’s 15-round magazine.
In terms of controls the M17, unlike commercial P320s, will have ambidextrous frame mounted manual safety catches, as well as ambidextrous slide releases and a magazine release button which can be reversed. While the M9 has safety levers on both sides of the pistol, it is not a truly ambidextrous design.
The Army has adopted both the compact and full size versions of the P320, and both versions will have an integrated Picatinny rail, something sorely lacking in the aging M9. Additionally, the P320 has a recess cut into the top of the slide, allowing the attachment of a red dot sight, which will co-witness with the pistol’s iron sights. Interestingly, all of the Army’s new pistols will reportedly be able to fit a suppressor. This improved modularity over the Beretta will allow the M17 to be utilised in various applications and roles.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Army’s announcement is what they did not announce. The press statement from Steffanie Easter, the Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology made no mention of the pistol’s calibre. As the current US and NATO standard is 9x19mm it seems likely that this will be the calibre the M17 will predominantly be chambered in. The P320’s modular system, however, makes calibre conversions simple with the pistol able to chamber the proprietary .357 Sig round as well as .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. This capability is extremely useful for tailoring pistols to mission objectives, especially in light of concerns from troops about the 9x19mm round’s stopping power. It also gives the Army the future flexibility to move to another standard caliber at a later stage.
During the XM9 selection in the 1980s, only two pistols completed the trials successfully, the Beretta and the Sig Sauer P226, but the P226 was eventually rejected on cost grounds. If early reports are to be believed, this time Sig Sauer has undercut their rivals, with the new pistols rumored to have a unit price of just $207. As a result Sig Sauer has been awarded the Army’s $580 million pistol contract with a projected 300,000 pistols to be delivered initially.
While Sig Sauer and the US Army have so far only released preliminary press statements on the adoption more details are likely to be forthcoming. However, with a procurement contract of this size it is highly likely that at least one of Sig Sauer’s rival manufacturers may launch an official bid protest with the Government Accountability Office. The Marines Corps, Navy, and Air Force have not yet followed the Army’s lead and will continue to use the M9. In the meantime the Army’s new sidearm appears to be a weapon system with enough modularity and flexibility to face the next 35 years of small arms development.