These Firearms Manufacturers Represent The Top Competition For The Army's New Handgun

Gear
U.S. Army Rangers from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, fire 9mm Beretta M9 Pistols at a range in Fort Hunter Liggett, California, Jan. 24, 2014.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade

Earlier this month, the Army updated its notice for the Modular Handgun System that is slated to find a replacement for the M9 pistol currently in service. The official request for proposals now dubs the prototype weapon the XM17, and the full draft reveals some interesting specifications for the new pistol.


The first notable detail is that the XM17 program is actually asking for two potential pistols: a full-size service weapon and a more concealable compact version, likely for use with special operations units and military law enforcement agencies. Interested companies could also submit a single design they feel fits both requirements. They must also submit standard and extended magazines for each model.

Also notable is the lack of a defined caliber requirement, indicating that the Army is potentially considering switching away from the 9X19mm-pistol caliber used since the Beretta M9 was adopted in 1985.

But perhaps the most intriguing requirement is the ammunition support package each company is to provide with their entry. In addition to 60,000 rounds of standard “ball” ammunition and 50 inert dummy rounds, the draft asks for 1,600 rounds of what it calls “special purpose ammunition.” It’s possible this could simply be subsonic ammunition, as the draft requires the XM17 to be supplied with equipment to mount a suppressor. Given that frangible ammo is really only used for training, and that armor piercing and tracer rounds aren’t in use with military handguns, the other logical possibility is that the Army is considering adopting modern defensive pistol ammunition: hollow points. If so, that would be a major departure in the history of military service pistols.

With a potential contract for almost 500,000 pistols between the Army and the other services, competition for the XM17 will be fierce. While the final solicitation is not planned to be released until 2016, here are some of the likely contenders.

Glock

None

The Austrian gunmaker has been a powerful force in the handgun market since its first pistol, the Glock 17, came out in the mid 1980s. The company’s polymer-built pistols have proved extremely popular worldwide, finding service with numerous law enforcement agencies and national armies. In the United States, it dominates the law enforcement market, with over 60% of agencies nationwide carrying some sort of Glock pistol. While Glock did not participate in the program that would eventually lead to the M9’s adoption, Glock pistols have made inroads in the special operations community. There are numerous Glock models available in many calibers, in both full-size and compact variants, so the company will have little issue fulfilling that requirement.

One sticking point may be the Glock’s signature trigger safety; the XM17 draft asks for an “external” safety, but does not explicitly define what that means. Glock has added more traditional frame or slide-mounted safeties to its guns; it did so when entering into the British military’s search for a new handgun, but the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence ultimately waived that requirement.

Heckler & Koch

None

This legendary German gun company has many handguns it could enter, but the most likely choice is its latest release, the VP9 pistol. Released last year, this 9mm polymer, striker-fired pistol is intended to compete with Glock’s product line. The VP9 also features replaceable grip backstraps for different hand sizes, a loaded chamber indicator, as well as full ambidextrous controls. There is no compact version of the pistol, so the company would place faith in the ability of the pistol to fulfill both roles. Recently, Heckler & Koch released a .40 caliber version of the pistol. The company has some experience providing pistols to the military; it supplied both the MK23 and HK45C .45 caliber pistols to U.S. Special Operations Command.

SIG Sauer

None

SIG Sauer, a German company, has a long history with service pistols. Its P226 design lost out to the Beretta 92 in 1985, but the P226 went on to be adopted by the Naval Special Warfare Command as the handgun of choice. SIG Sauer handguns also have a prominent presence among law enforcement. SIG’s latest effort is the P320, a polymer pistol released in late 2014 that is designed to emphasize modularity. Like the VP9, it features interchangeable backstraps. The grip frame is shared among all three available calibers: 9mm, .40,  and .357 SIG. This allows separate slide and barrel assemblies to be purchased, enabling an easy change of caliber. In addition, the modular frames and slides allow a single gun to be converted into a compact version for low-profile use. The version SIG Sauer is entering into the program features a frame-mounted safety and a loaded chamber indicator.

Smith & Wesson

This Massachusetts-based manufacturer has rebounded in the handgun market with its “Military & Police” line of semi-automatic pistols. The line is currently available in 9mm, .40, and .45 ACP, in both full-size and compact versions. The pistol was one of the first to feature interchangeable backstraps when it came out in 2005. Smith & Wesson offers a thumb safety, which will likely be on any version the company submits to the XM17 program. The pistol has caught on with a number of law enforcement agencies, as well as the civilian market. Smith & Wesson has little experience with military contracts other than providing pistols to Afghan security forces, but a partnership with General Dynamics, and the political power of “buying American,” may give the manufacturer an advantage.

FN Herstal

None

This Belgian gun maker is not necessarily known for its pistols outside of the exotic Five-SeveN, or FNS, chambered in 5.7x28mm. But they have an extensive handgun line in more traditional calibers. The striker-fired FNS is FN Herstal’s latest offering, featuring 9mm and .40 caliber options in service and compact sizes. The FNS’s ambidextrous controls and  manual safety round out the pistol’s features. While not widely popular among law enforcement or the civilian shooting community, the FNS may have a shot given FN Herstal’s experience with military contracts. The company’s manufacturing subsidiary holds the contract to build M16 rifles, M4 carbines, and M240 machine guns for the Department of Defense, and supplies several weapons to Special Operations Command.

Of course, there will certainly be other companies jockeying for the XM17 contract, as sequestration ensures that there will be few other small-arms opportunities on horizon. Growing companies like CZ-USA may take a shot at the lucrative opportunity. Beretta, who has held the pistol contract for three decades, will probably try to hang on to it with a recently announced polymer pistol; as the company’s attempt to sidestep the XM17 project with a upgraded M9 has seemingly fell through.

The role of the handgun in military service is differently from that in the military; the military treats the pistol as a backup weapon system rather than a primary one. As the armed services seek to improve handgun training, a more modern pistol, coupled with better training methodology, will better serve those in uniform who must rely on it.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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