According to firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer, its Modular Handgun System pistols for the U.S. Army looks set to become the standard sidearm across the U.S. military as a whole. However, serious questions remain about the weapons’ overall reliability, issues The War Zone was first to report, as well as the legality of more widespread use of hollow point ammunition that is likely to accompany the guns.
Earlier in March 2018, Sig Sauer told Military.com that all the branches of the U.S. military, including the U.S. Coast Guard, were planning to purchase variants of the Modular Handgun System, or MHS. This followed that outlet’s earlier report that the U.S. Marine Corps had specifically ask for funds to the purchase 35,000 of the pistols in its 2019 fiscal year budget request.
In January 2017, the Army handed the Swiss-headquartered gunmaker a contract worth up to $580 million for up to 195,000 guns, including full size M17 and compact M18 versions, as well as various parts and support services. The MHS pistols are all variants of the company’s commercial P320 design.
“All services have been involved in MHS since its inception ... and they have all committed to ordering guns,” Tom Taylor, Sig Sauer’s Executive Vice President for Sales and Chief Marketing Officer told Military.com in a statement. “The U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard all have orders that will be fielded starting later this year and early next year.”
Taylor did not say what the value of these orders was, in part or in total, or how many pistols each service had committed to buy. The Marine Corps is the only service to have included any clear mention of MHS pistol purchases in its proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal cycle.
It’s also not clear if some of the Army’s 195,000 guns are actually slated to go to other branches of the U.S. military already. “The other military services, who were involved in the entire acquisition process including source selection, can also procure XM17/XM18 Modular Handgun Systems under the Army contract with Sig Sauer,” Debra Dawson, a spokesperson for the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, which is overseeing the MHS program, explained to Military.com.
It is definitely true that all the services have been actively considering following the Army in acquiring the new pistols since the MHS program began in 2008. This project followed the failure of previous joint service handgun program called the Joint Combat Handgun.
The desire for standardization makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to systems like handguns, which see widespread and varied use across different components of all the services. A common system inherently reduces the strain on maintenance and logistics chains and allows the different branches to reduce costs through large, bulk purchases of spare parts and ammunition.
The goal of the MHS program was also to select a gun that could be reconfigured to some degree with relative ease or was otherwise available in a number of different subvariants that had high commonality in parts and basic controls. The latter part helps reduce training requirements since the manual of arms – the basic actions of firing the weapon, operating various features, and remediate jams or other malfunctions – remains the same regardless of the pistol’s exact configuration.
This was the same logic behind the rest of the U.S. military’s decision to adopt the Beretta M9 after the Army selected it as its standard service pistol in 1985. These guns, in turn, were supposed to replace the iconic Colt M1911 series, which had been in service in some form or another since World War II.
The problem, of course, was that the M9 program became mired in controversy, first because of alleged improprieties in the contracting process and then because of quality control issues. To try and counter the claims that it had unfairly favored Beretta’s entry, the Army even re-ran the competition, but Sig Sauer, who had protested the original results, refused to compete and Beretta won out again. The service then had to spend a significant amount to have the Italian gunmaker fix the pistols it had already supplied to prevent malfunctions that had sent more than a dozen people to the hospital with serious injuries.
On top of that, it turned out that the different services, as well as various components within them, had a host of requirements the M9 simply could not satisfy. Its large size in particular made it unsuitable for any units with concealed carry requirements, prompting the Army to almost immediately adopt the compact Sig Sauer P228 as the M11.
Every service has since purchased small numbers of handguns to supplement or outright supplant the M9 in various roles. The Navy, thanks in no small part to the SEALs, had no less than 10 different pistols in inventory by 2016, plus other assorted “Cats & Dogs,” according to one briefing.
The Marines even bought modernized M1911s and now expects the MHS to replace those, its M9s, and a small number of Glocks that it just began issuing to various specialized units in 2017. It seems almost certain that there are a host of other types handguns sitting in armories across the services.
There remains a very real chance that Sig Sauer’s pistols, somewhat ironically given the company’s previous history with the M9 program, could end up facing at least some of the same issues. According to a Pentagon report earlier in 2018, during Army tests, both the M17 and M18 experienced significant reliability issues, especially while using standard ball ammunition. You can read about these malfunctions in detail here.
Both PEO Soldier and Sig Sauer have defended the guns since then, saying they are "confident" in the pistols ability to perform adequately in the field. At the time of writing, though, the Army had not responded to our questions about whether it had fixed or was in the process of fixing the problems the Pentagon’s top test and evaluation office noted in its annual review.
Perhaps more importantly, the service also did not respond to requests to explain what the legal rationale is behind issuing cartridges with hollow point bullets as the standard ammunition for the weapon. The Hague Convention of 1899 bans any bullet that has features that cause it to deliberately expand from combat use. While the United States has not signed or ratified the particular portion of the agreement dealing with expanding projectiles, it has historically followed its provisions nonetheless.
The U.S. military has argued that it could use those rounds when there is a “clear military necessity” and some special operations forces already issue hollow point pistol rounds, as well as rifle cartridges with deliberately fragmenting bullets, with this justification in mind. However, it did not appear that this argument extended to regular use of hollow points and there is a concern that in using this ammunition routinely, the United States could open itself unnecessarily to accusations of war crimes.
It’s also just not clear whether or not the MHS will truly have the flexibility to meet all the necessary operational requirements across the services, including continued concealed carry demands among internal law enforcement units and special operations forces. For years now, Glock pistols, the Glock 19 especially, have been a favorite among special operators in particular because of their slim profile. There is no indication that U.S. Special Operations Command plans to transition to the MHS entirely.
The Coast Guard will also present a potentially complicated case, as it occupies an obtuse bureaucratic position as a uniformed military service within the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has adopted the .40 Smith & Wesson, rather than the U.S. military standard 9mm, as the standard pistol caliber across its components, to include the Coast Guard.
The Sig Sauer P320 can be readily rechambered for the .40 caliber round, which should make that less of an issue, but it will still reduce the commonality between the Coast Guard’s guns and those in other military branches. Unless other components of DHS decide to acquire versions of the Swiss pistol as well, it will also make it more difficult for them to source spare parts and other services through that department.
The Army and Sig Sauer, along with the other branches, will have to take these various issues into account in order to avoid the same pitfalls they experienced with the M9. Otherwise, the services could easily end up again with the same kind of unwieldy mix of guns that the MHS program was supposed to replace in the first place.
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