The U.S. Army has finally begun to issue its new sidearm, the 9mm M17 pistol, also known as the Modular Handgun System, or MHS. In a significant departure from previous policies, the service will issue these weapons to many more troops, including the fire team leaders in infantry squads, who will "dual carry" the guns along with their standard M4 carbine.
The 101st Airborne Division, the first unit to get the new guns, received 2,000 M17 and M18 pistols on Nov. 17, 2017 and began inspecting and test firing them on Nov. 27, 2017. The M18 is a compact member of the MHS family that the Army will issue to general officers and possibly individuals with a need to carry concealed. In January 2017, the service selected the two variants of the Sig Sauer P320 pistol as the winners of the MHS competition and it expects to purchase nearly 300,000 of them to replace older Beretta M9s.
“It is easier to fire and simpler to operate,” U.S. Army Sergeant Matthew Marsh, a member of the 101st’s 1st Brigade Combat Team told Army reporters. “The pistol felt very natural in my hand. I am excited to take my experience back to my unit and share it with my soldiers.”
It may also be faster to draw, thanks in part to a new holster from The Safariland Group that troops will get along with the guns, according to Military.com. The shooter can release the locking mechanism with just their thumb and offers a variety of ways soldiers can attach it to their gear. The Army may have to adopt another design soon given potential plans to buy a combination light and aiming laser to help soldier engage targets, particularly at night.
“The last thing I want them to be able to have to do is draw a loaded weapon and put a light or a laser on it while it's loaded under fire,” Daryl Eastlick, the deputy of the Lethality Branch at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Bragg, North Carolina told reporters on Dec. 1, 2017, Military.com reported. “Probably not the best idea, so we need a holster that will hold the weapon system that is enabled and already ready to use.”
But the existing combination of the pistol and holster all make perfect sense, since one of the MHS program’s main objectives was to find a new sidearm that was more ergonomic and easier to operate that the older M9. When Sig Sauer beat out the last competing entry, from Glock, in January 2017, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway highlighted these and other important features of the underling P320 design, writing:
“The Modular Handgun System sought to find one platform that could be adapted to a whole slew of missions, with different barrels, grip sizes, safety configurations, trigger groups, slide lengths, and even frame sizes, to be available under a common overall design. For instance, for a general issue sidearm, a standard length barrel, manual safety, combat trigger group and full sized frame could be provided and the user could customize the weapon’s grip to best fit their hand size. For special operations, a threaded barrel for mounting a suppressor, a double action trigger group with lighter trigger pull and no manual safety can be fitted, as well as raised tritium night sights and extended capacity magazine. For concealed carry, a subcompact frame version of the P320 with either trigger group and safety setup could be configured. The bottom line is that not only are main components interchangeable, as are some calibers—such as 9mm, 40S&W and 357Sig—but the manual of arms is universal.
“One of the most notable features of the P320, and many of its MHS competitors, is that it's a polymer framed pistol, which is a massive deviation from the steel and aluminum M9 and the all-steel 1911s that came before them. Polymer pistols have become the norm not the exception in the handgun industry over the last three decades, offering extreme durability, reduced maintenance, lower-cost and especially less weight than their metal-framed cousins. The P320 is also striker fired, and does not feature a traditional hammer.”
After Sig Sauer won the MHS deal, the P320’s particular striker system came under scrutiny after reports that it could activate if the shooter dropped the pistol, causing an accidental discharge. Glock had already accused the Army of making its choice unfair and before all the testing was finished, a protest that the U.S. government dismissed. In August 2017, Sig Sauer announced a voluntary recall of commercial P320 pistols, but insisted that the M17s did not need the replacement parts.
The entire episode had shades of the service’s controversial competition that settled on the M9 in the first place in 1986. Quality control issues with the initial Berettas led to the pistol’s slide breaking off on at least 14 occasions between 1985 and 1988, leading to four injuries. In 2015, another soldier suffered a similar incident during a training exercise. The Army found that somehow that particular gun had escaped the mandatory upgrade program, outlined in an official Modification Work Order, or MWO, for some two decades.
After that debacle, the Army, sometimes in concert with other services, tried and failed three times to pick a replacement sidearm. It has now succeeded on its fourth try with the M17. The U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy are now considering whether to follow suit and adopt a new sidearm.
And soldiers like Sergeant Marsh will definitely be sharing their experiences with more members of the Army than ever before. At present the, the Army generally issues M9 pistols on a very limited basis at the lower echelons of infantry units. One of the services typical light infantry companies has less than 10 of the guns spread out across more than 130 soldiers, the bulk being in the hands of individuals manning crew-served M240 machine guns as a backup weapon.
Over the course of the MHS program, the Army experimented with doling out the pistols in a number of different ways. At one point, based on the experiences if special operations units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment, the service even considered giving every infantry soldier an M17, no matter what their rank is or role. Special operators across the U.S. military generally carry a sidearm in addition to their primary weapon.
“We looked at dual arming the entire infantry particularly dismounted infantry soldiers, engineers, [and] scouts,” Eastlick, the deputy of the Lethality Branch at the Maneuver Center of Excellence told reporters. “What we concluded was the 75th Ranger Regiment – being the premiere infantry regiment in the world – they also have a different training regimen than the big Army infantry battalions do.”
But the Army did find a distinct benefit to issuing pistols all the way down to the two team leaders in each of its infantry squads. The four-man fire team is the service’s smallest maneuver element, consisting of the leader, a grenadier carrying an M4 carbine with a 40mm grenade launcher, an automatic rifleman armed with a belt-fed M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, and a rifleman with another M4.
"There is no real need for us to dual arm the basic rifleman, but having our team leaders armed with both the XM17 and the M4 allows them to better control their teams ... where ever the fight takes them,” 1st Lieutenant Andrew Borer, from the 101st’s 1st Brigade, who spoke to reporters with Eastlick via conference call. “When I need to go into a confined space, negotiate some battlefield task where one of my hands is busy, I need something I can engage the enemy with one hand," Eastlick added.
With conventional forces continuing to deploy on so-called advise and assist missions, which have them close to the front lines of conflicts in places such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other hot spots, the Army may get to see how much this change actually impacts operations sooner rather than later. Earlier in 2017, the 101st had troops in Afghanistan, and in April, members of the division also made a brief deployment to Somalia to train members of that country’s national army.
“It's more useful to have a handgun on your side than a rifle trying to low crawl under tight quarters,” U.S. Army Corporal Jory Herrmann, a team leader in the 101st’s 1st Brigade, added by phone to the Dec. 1, 2017 roundtable with the press. “I think it is going to add a whole new dynamic to close quarters combat.”
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