Goodbye, M9?

The U.S. Military Announces A Search For The Next Service Pistol

After 30 years in service with American troops, give or take a few months, the U.S. Military announced formally that it intends to replace the 9mm Beretta M9 pistol with a new Modular Handgun System (MHS) that will address many shortcomings of the generally unpopular M9. Older readers will recall scratching their head in confusion when the M9 was first adopted in 1985, replacing the .45 ACP M1911 and M1911A1 pistols that had served as the standard sidearm of American soldiers from the Philippine Insurrection through most of the Cold War. The Beretta 92 – what would become the military M9 – was one of the best 9mm pistols around in the mid-1980s. On the positive side, its 15+1-round capacity was impressive, and the gun was accurate. But many of the complaints about the M9 today are inherent in its vintage design.

Chief among the concerns: that it was not particularly strong or durable; the slide-mounted safety and decocker could be accidentally engaged in the heat of battle, rendering it harmless to the enemy; and its open slide design invited foreign matter to enter its mechanism and jam it.

WHEN THE M9 WENT to battle, soldiers in the field reported dissatisfaction with the stopping power of the 9x19mm NATO ball round. The irony of that complaint is that NATO compatibility dictated that the pistol be a 9mm, a caliber never known for impressive knock-down capability. Back in the day, soldiers had plenty of complaints about the old 45ACP 1911 design pistols too, but lack of stopping power was never among them. Keep in mind that most career military serve their 20 years and retire, which makes for a rather short institutional memory. The .45 ACP round became the American service pistol cartridge in 1911 as the result of a need for greater stopping power fighting Moro warriors in the jungles of Mindanao in the Philippines. Just prior to the turn of the 19th century, with the Indian Wars concluded, the military retired the powerful .45 Colt cartridge in favor of a comparative pipsqueak, the new .38 Long Colt. That
short-lived tale of woe is another story, but the point is when the shooting starts, our soldiers want the bad guys they shoot to stay shot.

Smith & Wesson, makers of the polymer-framed M&P, or Military & Police, has teamed with General Dynamics to pursue a military contract for what could be an order for 400,000 pistols.
Smith & Wesson, makers of the polymer-framed M&P, or Military Police, has teamed with General Dynamics to pursue a military contract for what could be an order for 400,000 pistols.
THE M.H.S. GUIDELINES ARE impressive. The new pistol needs to accept a suppressor and have a Picatinny accessory rail to attach a tactical light or lasers. It needs to run 2,000 rounds between stoppages, 10,000 rounds between failures and have a 25,000- to 35,000-round service life. (The current M9 is said to have a 17,000-round service life, but the military has lowered the bar to a mere 5,000 rounds.) From a fixed rest, the pistol must have a 90 percent or better hit probability on a 4-inch target at 50 yards. The grip must be adaptable to hands of various sizes. With the large number of women soldiers on the front lines as military police and other support troops, this feature will be especially important. Though no calibers have been specifically designated in the competition guidelines, the round must outperform the current NATO M882 9x19mm cartridge. The test will compare permanent wound channel performance in ballistic gelatin.

The wound channel requirement is going to favor a big bullet. The Hague Convention, which the United States abides by even though the Senate never approved it, doesn’t permit any of the high terminal-performance hollow points or specialty ammunition that you or I might use in our defense. The new service pistol is going to have to do it with old-fashioned full-metaljacket ball ammo. Whether that will be a big, slow .45 or a screaming .357 SIG, only time will tell.

THE FIELD IS WIDE OPEN for anything except a Beretta M9 derivative. The military, with the exception of the United States Marine Corps, seems to be done with it like a bad girlfriend. Though a polymer-frame pistol is not a requirement, their light weight could be an advantage, and I would expect to see pistols from Glock, Beretta, Walther and S&W. The latter firm has partnered with General Dynamics to aggressively pursue the award of a contract that could mean up to a 400,000-pistol order from the U.S. Army alone.

The S&W M&P has earned a fine reputation in the past decade since it was introduced, and it is American made. The rules of the MHS competition allow for the military to ignore the winners and choose the weapons system it deems the best value. Expect politics to prevail in this endeavor. One should ask the question why one of the oldest and most successful and innovative handgun manufacturing firms in America needs General Dynamics, a manufacturer of jet fighters, tanks and submarines? Their answer is General Dynamics has an extensive history of winning and managing government military contracts, something S&W hasn’t done much of. That’s a sensible, business-oriented answer. However, ask yourself as a taxpayer what the perceived necessity of that partnership says about the way we procure our war material?

WSJ Frank Jardim

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