For over a year, the U.S. military has been looking at options for replacing the decades-old Beretta M9 handgun. As with most DoD programs, the so-called "Modular Handgun System" program is a sprawling, multi-million dollar plan to find a new pistol that takes advantage of innovations in the current firearms market and delivers a sidearm that works well for a variety of missions and troops.
Listen to the WATM podcast to hear the author and our veteran hosts discuss what the XM17 modular handgun program means to the military:
The M9 is a solid performer and is still popular among many in the U.S. military. But over the last 20 years, handgun technology — especially the use of polymers in handgun construction — has advanced well beyond the all-metal, one-size-fits-all frame of the flagship Beretta sidearm.
Both the Army and Air Force are running the search for an M9 replacement, dubbed the XM17, and have called for a do-all pistol that will fit in the hands of a wide range of troops, be more accurate and reliable than the Beretta and, most importantly, be configurable for different missions.
An ambitious goal to be sure, and some high-ranking officials in the Pentagon have argued it's one that'll wind up being too expensive and take too long to field, with the Army estimating it'll take $17 million and 2 years to test the final version of the XM17.
"We're not exactly redesigning how to go to the moon. This is a pistol," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in March. "You give me $17 million on a credit card, and I'll call Cabela's tonight, and I'll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I'll get a discount on a bulk buy."
Despite Milley's frustration, the program is set for a so-called "downselect" next month to three competitor designs to move into field testing. The safe money is that the Army will settle on options from Sig Sauer, Glock and a team composed of General Dynamics and Smith & Wesson.
So what do each of these companies bring to the table for a modular handgun?
By far the most popular handgun among law enforcement, military special operations and a huge swath of civilian shooters, the Glock series of polymer-framed pistols has been considered the gold standard of modern handguns since its introduction in the 1980s.
In fact, the Glock 19 is the standard-issue handgun for Army special operations troops, Air Force special operations Airmen and has recently been chosen to replace Naval Special Warfare Sig Sauer P226 pistols. Sources say the company submitted versions of its G17 (a 5-inch barreled, 9mm handgun) and the G22 (a 4.5-inch barreled, .40 caliber handgun) to the MHS program.
A Special Forces soldier fires a Glock 19 pistol at a range during joint training with Hungarian special operations forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tyler Placie)
While Glock doesn't have a so-called "modular" gun, the pistol uses so few parts that swapping a barrel or switching the backstrap of the grip for smaller-handed shooters takes no time. Glock offers several handguns that look and operate the same as the G17 and G22 — namely the G19, G43 and G21 — that are more compact or are optimized for different shooting situations.
Smith & Wesson
Long a close second to the Glock family of polymer pistols, Smith & Wesson's M&P series of handguns have made serious inroads in the law enforcement and civilian markets.
Check out the utility belt of a local cop or stroll down the shooting bays of your local range, and you're bound to see a bunch of M&P 9s in holsters or on the bench. Similar to the Glock, the M&P pistol is simple to operate, has few parts and fits a wide range of shooters with replaceable backstraps on its grip.
Smith & Wesson M&P 9. (Photo from Smith & Wesson)
And, like Glock, Smith & Wesson doesn't have a truly modular handgun system. But the company makes a longer barrel M&P in a variety of calibers and the wildly popular M&P Shield for concealed carry. All are based on the same design as the M&P 9 and have the same ergonomics — so troops shifting from the 5-inch M&P 5-inch CORE on one mission to the M&P Shield on another won't have to deal with a learning curve.
Sig Sauer has been most widely known for its double action handguns (ones that have hammers instead of strikers), and the P226 is perhaps the most famous gun the company makes since it's been the go-to pistol for Naval Special Warfare's sailors for years.
That changed this year when the SEAL community let slip that it would be replacing its inventory of P226s with Glock 19s — in line with other special operations units in the U.S. military. In 2014, Sig announced its newest handgun, dubbed the "P320," which uses a similar polymer frame and striker fire system as the Glock and M&P.
But what makes the P320 unique among its closest competitors is that it is truly modular. Buy a stock P320 and a shooter can purchase new frames and barrels in different sizes and calibers; you can literally change the P320 from a 4.7-inch combat handgun into a 3.6-inch subcompact concealed carry gun in about a minute with a new frame, slide and barrel.
Photo from Sig Sauer
You can even switch out a 9mm to a .40 with ease. The only common part of the Sig P320 is the "fire control group" which includes the trigger and internal safety module.
And it's this off-the-shelf modularity that leads many to believe the P320 is the odds-on favorite to win the XM17 handgun program.
Will it happen?
The problem is the Army (and other services) don't have a great track record of making solid decisions on new weapons that take advantage of modern technology.
For several years in the early 2000s, the Army spent a lot of time and money looking into a replacement for the M4 carbine — a rifle that derives from a pre-Vietnam design. Despite test reports that showed other options performed better than the M4, the Army decided it wasn't enough of an improvement over the existing rifle, and the service shelved the program.
Likewise, the Mk-16 and Mk-17 SOCOM Combat Assault Rifle -- or SCAR -- program was originally billed as a modular rifle program, one that would eventually see a combat rifle capable of switching from, say, a short-barreled entry gun into a longer-barreled one for more distant engagements. That program was also shelved, with special ops forces mostly using the .308 caliber Mk-17 on some missions as a battle rifle.
It's still unclear whether the XM17 program will suffer a similar fate. But it's there's no argument that the Beretta M9 is facing an age problem and is increasingly causing armorers headaches.
So whether it's a Glock 19 from Cabela's or a futuristic, modular pistol, U.S. troops should see some kind of new handgun in their armory within a few years.