There’s been a flurry of news lately about the potential demise of the Army’s M9 9mm pistol. It’s a bit premature. The Army recently concluded the Individual Carbine Competition to evaluate potential replacements for the M4 carbine. It concluded without a clear winner or Army decision to replace the M4 though the Army has decided almost simultaneously to adopt the M4A1. The M4A1 has been carried by Army Special Forces and unlike the Army’s M4 has a full automatic capability vs. the Army’s three round burst M4. The Army and Air Force Modular Handgun System (MHS) program may come to a similar conclusion. In the meantime, there’s a spirited discussion on many forums presaging the M9’s successor and the pros and cons of various calibers.
I’ll attempt to cut through the hysteria, spin and bias so the reader can walk away informed to form his or her own opinion. The joint MHS program’s purpose is to replace the M9 pistol because the Army and Air Force believe the M9, like the 1911 before it, is near the end of its service lifetime. These services believe actions to extend M9 service and address its perceived shortcomings would be just as expensive as acquiring a new pistol.
The Marines chose a different path, making several modifications to the M9 and fielding the M9A1 which has a rail to mount aiming pointers and light. It also has a beveled magazine well to facilitate reloading and checkered surfaces for a better grip as well being issued with “sand resistant” magazines. Congress encouraged the Army and Air Force to take a similar path. Those services disagreed and Congress demurred, funding the MHS program. Charley Pavlick, assistant project officer for carbine and pistol explained why fixing the M9 won’t address numerous issues which can be grouped in three categories.
■ Many of the weapons developed since the M9 entered service offer better trigger mechanisms. The Small Arms Branch at Fort Benning, Ga., tested and found troops better shot groups and got more hits.
■ The M9 has a lot of issues. The M9’s slide-mounted safety can be accidentally engaged when clearing a misfire or putting the weapon in action leading to a “safed” weapon in the heat of the moment. The “open slide” design also allows for dirt to get in the weapon. The M9 does not offer a modular grip that could be changed to accommodate different sized hands, a threaded barrel for a suppressor and a rail to mount laser pointers and lights.
■ According to Daryl Easlick, the modular handgun systems project officer at Ft. Benning, A new pistol would be cheaper to field according to his team’s budget analysis. One point that is hard to account for in the average analysis is polymer frames common on newer pistols are cheaper and more durable (though not a written requirement today).
A key difference in the approaches of the services may also be in the weapon’s density in the services. While the Marines have a little more than 80 thousand M9’s, the Army has almost a quarter million and is planning to issue a pistol down to team leader level in its Infantry units, a major departure from previous practices. Army light infantry platoons of the 80’s and 90’s had two pistols in the platoon, sidearms for the medium machine gunners. Today it’s not uncommon to find over a dozen in a 40 man platoon. It takes 14 per platoon to equip every leader in the platoon down to the team leader plus the two machine gunners. This may be the cause of the Army’s raising in importance of the above pistol issues as the Army realizes it impacts a larger group and is making changes to how it equips the force.
The role of the military pistol is traditionally seen as serving as a secondary weapon. A weapon for troops to go to in the most dire situations when clearing or reloading their weapon would take longer than drawing a pistol with an imminent threat present. The military pistol also fills two other important military niches. It serves as the choice to arm troops who, while having a need to be armed by virtue of their duty position, are also simultaneously not likely to be using that weapon in the conduct of their primary duties e.g. senior staff officers/commanders, tank crews etc. Secondly, the pistol serves as a primary weapon or weapon of choice in mostly unique and relatively rare situations like clearing tunnels or extremely tight urban combat environments. Until the last decade of combat, these situations were relatively rare.
For those interested in potential replacements for the M9 Army Times conducted a cursory analysis of potential M9 replacements in Aug 2011. It included pistols from Smith & Wesson M&P, Sig Sauer, H&K, Glock, Colt and Springfield. It’s not part of this essay’s purpose to compare and evaluate the pros and cons of these pistols but I am interested in honest assessments of all the fine pistols that may be evaluated.
The MHS program is still defining specific requirements but it has outlined some general ones in line with the issues I described earlier. Defense Media Network summed it up best.
“Systems are encouraged to utilize ergonomic and design improvements to minimize the effects of greater recoil energies, reducing the degradation of shooter-in-the-loop dispersion thereby improving the probability of hit,” it adds.
The “modular” aspects of the MHS vision include, but are not limited to, compatibility with accessory items to include tactical lights, lasers and sound suppressors.
In terms of handgun reliability, the RFI identifies interest in designs with ratings of at least 2,000 rounds MRBS [mean rounds between stoppage], 10,000 rounds MRBF [mean rounds between failure] and 35,000-round service life.
While MHS calibers are not specified, Daryl Easlick, has stated the requirement for a new pistol calls for “an increase in permanent wound channel” and the ammunition must exceed the performance of the current M882 9mm full metal jacket issued round.”. The program plans on measuring ammunition terminal ballistics from 0-50 meters in 14 inches of ballistic gelatin and will look at 9mm, .357 Sig, .40 and .45 calibers. This decidedly injects a discussion of calibers into the general discussion. Any ammunition selected must be in accordance with the Hague Convention, ruling out hollow point or explosive bullets.
At this point let me introduce some false arguments, personal observations and insights so as the reader forms his own opinion, one can avoid some of the more common pitfalls surrounding the discussion which is sometimes vociferous and passionate in other forums.
Unstated in any discussion of the MHS is the conventional US military’s propensity for an external safety. It’s important to consider that almost uninterrupted historical trend in determining potential replacements as many ignore it over personal preferences. The conventional military may dramatically break with that trend but those who promote it often fail to present a rational for the conventional mindset and need. Remember conventional troops get a fraction of the training of most forces equipped with weapons without a standalone safety.
Many debates about calibers compare hollow point against other calibers’ full metal jacket round. I’ll discuss hollow points later but it’s a “rigged game” to compare hollow points of one caliber against the full metal jacketed round of another. Often it’s the only way the case for one caliber’s superiority over another. I’m not so much against any caliber as I am against inaccurate comparisons. Beware this straw man.
Another often discussed advantage of a particular round over others is one of magazine capacity. One can see and appreciate an argument that favors quantity. It’s why I transitioned to a double stack pistol from a single stack but often this approach ignores the other caliber pistols that also have double stack magazines. Applying one standard to one caliber (double stack magazines) and failing to apply it to others isn’t a very honest comparison.
Often those that promote the greater quantity of a certain caliber as an advantage often transition to an argument promoting the school of thought where shot placement is king. No doubt a properly placed round will stop an enemy cold but larger rounds can also be properly placed and have the advantage of doing more damage when key areas of an enemy aren’t visible. A shot in the “T-box” (the area located from the brow to the bottom of the nose and from eye to eye) will immediately incapacitate but when you only have someone’s butt to shoot at and time is short can’t wait for them to expose their head. There is also the reality that the enemy is often engaged in fleeting situations or through concealment where the enemy is concealed but not protected by a barrier (e.g. foiliage). Shot placement is king but it doesn’t only apply to one caliber.
An often distracting argument is that the US not being a signatory of the Hague Convention, doesn’t have to abide by its provisions against hollow point rounds. The US didn’t sign the Hague conventions but abides by them and requires its military forces to do so. It ‘s the same as the Ottawa treaty on mine warfare that we didn’t sign but has eliminated the use of the M16 “bouncing betty” US mine. Individual troops using hollow points in violation of US policy would be in violation of US practices and be subject to UCMJ.
The only exceptions to this policy apply to Special operations forces and snipers. The Army JAG Memo DAJAIIO of16 Feb 93 United States, Department of the Army, Legal Review of USSOCOM Special Operations Offensive Handgun document limits the use of hollow point ammunition to special operations forces.
Major Joshua F. Berry an Army JAG officer (and a proponent for the US changing its hollow point for al US military forces) explains why special operations forces (SOF) are authorized to use hollow point in counter terrorist operations on page 127 of his legal essay. It is a fascinating and compelling explanation for why SOF can use hollow points in counter terrorist operations where the full weight of the military’s weapons cannot be brought to bear and often involve innocent bystanders.
Further explanation on the use of hollow points can be found on p 439 of International Law Studies – Volume 73 Annotated Supplement to The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations A. R. Thomas & James C. Duncan (Editors) It also mentions the specific finding and reason (accuracy) snipers are also allowed to use match grade open tip ammunition. There is a difference between open tip and hollow point ammunition besides their external visual similarity. Open tip manufacture allows for more exact manufacture important for long range engagements and does not necessarily have the expanding properties of hollow point which are primarily designed to expand.
The Fire Arms Blog laid out the MHS programs near term way forward. The next significant event in the MHS program is a July 29 “industry day” for gun manufacturers to learn competition requirements. The Army is expected to release a request for proposal in August. The plan calls for two years of testing before a final decision. It is reported the government will pursue a “best value” contract which allows it to pick a favored weapon and not necessarily one that meets requirements at the cheapest price. This is a double edged approach that could allow the military to pick a better weapon at a higher cost or on the other hand allow for a selection based on the worst of reasons.
All of this ignores the greatest hurdle, that being a very tight budget. In the meantime, Beretta received a 5-year, $64 million firm-fixed-price contract for up to 100,000 M9’s in September 2012.