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My Thoughts On The XM17 Modular Handgun System RFP

Before I even dive into this I’ve got to say that I’d really like to see the US military adopt a new pistol. However, having watched the process to replace the M9 stutter step for almost a decade, I’m a bit skeptical. First it was USSOCOM, then the Air Force took a shot at the issue, and now the Army is trying to find a new sidearm. I’ve read through the Request For Proposals but I’m not going to pick it apart. There are quite a few great concepts in there and I love the fact that they are doing full size as well as compact models out of the gate in addition to suppressors. There’s even consideration for UTM rounds and some creative thinking regarding the use of ‘Special Purpose’ aka hollow point ammunition. All awesome. But for me, the most troubling issue is this open caliber business. In my mind, it calls the entire enterprise into question.

The Army is so thorough in describing the attributes for this new pistol that this open caliber provision makes me wonder if they really want a new pistol at all. Lately, we’ve seen some solicitations, such as Individual Carbine, that have resulted in a big expenditure in dollars by industry with no adoption of new capability by the military. Interestingly, in the case of IC, the Army also included a provision for industry to introduce new ammunition (caliber as well as load) into the mix, and we know how that ended up.

Ammunition Placeholders
At the heart of issue are the XM1152 and XM1153 cartridges discussed in the RFP. They are placeholders for industry to propose ammunition. No matter that the industrial base that produces our military’s ammo is set up for 9mm Ball ammo or that we belong to a club called NATO that considers 9mm Ball its standard sidearm round.

The current 9mm Ammunition stockpile will most assuredly be an issue as the bean counters consider the transition to a new round. Take for example the USMC’s Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon II program. Since they already had so many rounds of ammunition on hand, they were unable to consider a new weapon such as the M84 Carl Gustav, in use with the US Army and USSOCOM. Ironically, the SMAW II is incapable of firing from an enclosure so the Marines are at work to develop a such a round. To add insult to injury, the ‘Goose” has ammunition that can be fired from inside a building but they couldn’t consider it because they had too many SMAW rounds.

Do They Even Know What They Want?
We can’t even have a discussion about the technical merits of the Army’s decision for a new caliber, because they haven’t made one. Instead, they’ve made it a variable in the search for a new handgun. When the Army changed to the M855A1 round for the M16, it cost around $100 Million to retool the ammo plant and they weren’t changing calibers, so even a swap to a new 9mm round is cost prohibitive. Plus, I doubt we’ll get NATO on board with a switch to a new handgun caliber.

I can’t even imagine what’s going through industry’s minds. It’s a bit of a mystery what the Army actually wants considering the mixed messages they are sending. Publicly, there’s been this running theme that 9mm isn’t powerful enough, in spite of the FBI’s move back to the caliber after several years with .40. And then there’s this requirement in the RFP specifying a barrel for the M1041 9mm UTM round, but they never reference caliber for the Ball and Special Purpose ammo in the requirement. Are they telling industry to stick with 9mm? Or do they want something new, but the pistol to be agile enough to accept a special barrel and magazine (not in the solicitation) only for the marker rounds?

Big Guns Need Big Hands
There’s an ergonomics question as well. The associated real estate needed for double stack pistols in larger caliber pistols is also an issue as the military opens combat jobs to women, who tend to have smaller hands.

2-Mark-23-w-suppressor-and-LAM-AUG-19-2014

Let’s not forget how USSOCOM’s Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS) turned out. The .45 H&K MK 23 ended up being a great gun, but one that nobody wanted to carry.

First The Caliber, Then The Gun
This should have been a two step process. What should have happened is that DoD should have asked industry to determine the best ammunition based on its requirements and then asked industry to develop handguns optimized for that round(s). Now, the Army will have to figure out whether the handgun is what is great about a proposal, or the ammunition. These variables make the task of choosing a pistol infinitely more difficult. NATO standardization and current military ammunition industrial base aside, what if the Army selects a handgun/ammo combination that is just dynamite but then realizes it cannot afford to actually manufacture the ammo? Don’t think that could happen? Let me tell you a little story.

Those Who Fail To Learn From History…
After playing around with it for a few years, the US Army adopted the M16 in 1965. In doing so, they made a few upgrades to the rifle but they also, as a cost saving measure, decided to unilaterally change the powder used in the M16 from the original IMR 4475 powder, to the less difficult to produce Olin powder. While cheaper for the tax payer, this option ignited poorly, leaving the weapon dirty and requiring additional field maintenance. Combine this issue with weapons arriving in Viet Nam’s tropical environment with insufficient cleaning equipment and Soldiers found themselves with jammed weapons in the middle of firefights. This frightful situation resulted in dead American service members and a general sense among Soldiers that the M16 was unreliable.

In Summary
I believe that, based on this insistence on open caliber selection, the Army will be unable to adequately determine which, if any, of the candidate handguns best fit their requirements. Or, they will choose a solution and then fix it until it breaks, as in the case of the original M16. In either event, how unfortunate for the American service member.

37 Responses to “My Thoughts On The XM17 Modular Handgun System RFP”

  1. BrettW says:

    I think this is a simple case of the Gov being lazy (say it ain’t so). They try to roll up small things (like being open to calibers.. <— sarcasm) into one program so they don't need to run duel efforts. In the Gov's mind it saves money; to industry it means hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars spent on R&D efforts for something that is, at best, a 40% chance of moving forward. On the industry side, it a lot of relationship based "strategic" partnerships that go back years. What if H&K didn't want to work with ATK on ammo? What if FN only worked with Black Hills? What if S&W only partners with Johns Guns (I'm not even sure they are still around?)?

    It also makes the process more complicated for industry. What if the Gov likes Company A's caliber performance but Company B's Pistol modularity and Company C's suppressors performance?

    You hit the nail on the head with regards to the IC (that's what came to my mind when I read this yesterday). In some cases industry works better with constrictions, when its left wide open, it leaves to many variables. I believe in the IC solicitation, they even had left "Lethality" open as part of the solicitation, further complicating it; who & how do you define that?

    In the end, our service members lose the opportunity to get better equipment and industry gets more frustrated with the endless Gov run around.

    Hopefully, I had enough coffee for this rant to make sense….

  2. Jack C says:

    The main reason I’m posting is the comparison of the 9mm round supply to the SMAW II rounds on hand. I completely agree with the reason to stay with 9mm as the difference between calibers is almost irrelevant. A handgun will never be a game changer or win battles. A M84 Gustav would be a total game changer for the USMC by the way we conduct an HE battle drill, also we should look to adopt medium velocity rounds for M32s. When you double a weapon’s effective range, that is a game changer. For us the pistol will never be. Its a sidearm for a reason and I think we put too much stock into this idea. For CONVENTIONAL forces, who will be the majority of users, why not something with a high capacity and easy to shoot. A simple solution would be to adopt a low cost, highly reliable handgun like a Glock 17. Before all the tactical cqb wannabees jump in, realize that the firearm will be with every armed duty stander, butcher, baker and candle stick maker, not just special units. It will be carried by PFC machinegunners on patrols and supply officers while they are the Officer of the Day.

  3. Todd says:

    I think it’s pretty clear, even the “XM-17” name…the army wants the Glock 17.

    • bulldog76 says:

      or having adopted the pistol by 2017

      • Luddite4Change says:

        Beware of attaching a year number to anything. Those of us really long in the tooth remember the Army’s Division ’86 reorganization had to be changed to “The Army of Excellence” reorg once they couldn’t come close to meeting the time line.

  4. Sarcasmo says:

    SSD, I agree fully with the your take on this. In this time of “tactical recession” we need a clearly defined wish list. What would be so wrong with picking the caliber and then selecting the new sidearm? After that the ammo vendors could be approached for a specific capability of what they need for performance and reliability in that chosen handgun. It seems to me that there is very little leap ahead tech in the handgun world and ammo/bullet technology seems to be making more advancements. Pick a family of sidearms we can live with for 20 years and be open to the idea of ammo advancements in that desired chambering.

  5. Brett says:

    A similar thing happened with the deveolpment of the Garand back in the ’30s, when the Army was looking for it’s first auto loading rifle. The .276 Pederson was the caliber du jour that the designers wanted to use, because it was a better round to design an auto-loading mechanism around. But the Army had tons of .30 cal. in storage and were tooled up to produce it in mass quantities…

    History repeats itself, over and over and over….so if I were submitting a handgun design, my bet would be on 9mm.

  6. 32sbct says:

    I fully agree, caliber first and pistol second. Also, most pistol designs are not limited to just one caliber. Most can be made in any of the the big three calibers (9mm, 40 cal, and 45 cal) with the trade off that the larger calibers usually reduce the number of rounds in the magazine. If they don’t allow for modern ammunition and stick with ball, then sectional density matters and 40 and 45 may make sense. But the cost to switch calibers is very high. If they stick with 9mm they may as well adopt the Beretta M9A3. That platform is already in the system, there would be a minimal of retraining required, and most parts would be interchangeable. Is the Beretta the best possible pistol, probably not. But in a era of super tight budgets and considering how big Army members actually use a pistol it makes the most sense.

    I’m guessing this will go the route of the new carbine, PT test, etc. Lots of time and money spent with no results to show for it. Hell, look how long it took to come up with a new camo pattern. All those phases, all those trials, and in the end we go with Scorpion W2 which was out there for use from the start.

  7. PPGMD says:

    What I predict will happen

    *US Army walks up to Beretta*
    Army: “We want you to produce this.”
    Beretta: “What is it?”
    A: “It is an ECP to the M9 contract, we call it the M9A4.”
    B: “This is pretty much the M9A3 proposal that you rejected outright”
    A: “No it isn’t, see we replaced the references to M9A3 with M9A4, and at the bottom it says written by ‘MAJ Paine US Army’.”
    B: “Ok whatever *rolls eyes*”

    • Riceball says:

      That would be pretty funny if it didn’t sound so plausible, esp. after what the Army did with adopting Scorpion. I also think that this new program isn’t going to anywhere and the Army will either end up keeping the M9 as is, or adopting the M9A1(?) that the Corps is using, or Beretta’s M9A3.

  8. Bill says:

    But the one question not being asked is do they need it? What will a new pistol do that the current one doesn’t? Modular? What does that mean? Small hands? With the multitude of small statured cops shooting none modular guns well, does that even matter?

    Even if it is the greatest pistol ever devised three things will be certain.
    1) No soldier will receive enough training to be proficient with it.
    2) Maintenance on them will be abysmal (over cleaning by the men lack of parts upkeep by the armorer).
    3) Troops will bitch its a peice of shit because of one and two.

    I remember every grip men have about the Beretta applied equally to the 1911s.

  9. Superbly well written and well-reasoned article!

  10. james says:

    well done… classic horse before the carriage… or at the very least figure out the horse power you need to do the job… FIRST… then decide what package delivers it…

  11. Darkhorse says:

    +++NEWS FLASH+++

    Hey Army- There are special mission units (chartered by YOU to develop weapons/gear/parachutes/etc/etc) that have already done ALL OF THE HARD WORK FOR YOU, at a fraction of what your costs will be. You just have to pick up the phone and call them. Think of all the taxpayer money you’ll save not reinventing the wheel over and over and over and over again.

    PS- they already tackled the suppressor too! AND bullets!!

    • BrettW says:

      I get where you are going with this but sometimes whats good for a few isn’t good for the force.

    • majrod says:

      Those organizations don’t have the Army’s budget when it comes to buying these pistols in the hundreds of thousands vs. the tens of thousands these organizations “may” purchase (more likely less than 10K).

      Scale does make a difference. The user and the training the user is going to get are also very different.

      • Darkhorse says:

        I’ll bet they haven’t looked at a single report from what SMU’s have produced. I’d be surprised if they know what the SMU’s are using. I completely agree that what might be good for one organization, may not be good for another. That’s not the point.

        The work has been done and those units have been CHARTERED to be the way out front for the Army/Navy. Why are they chartered if the bigger service keeps reinventing the wheel? I know the right answer, but there are too many jobs at stake to just go with what the SMU developed. THAT’S THE ISSUE.

        Also, it’s not like everyone in the Army needs to be re-trained. They just need to be trained. They’d be better off adopting something that’s long since been combat proven and use their R&D funds to develop a real handgun POI for said new platform.

        We’re not talking about a weapons system that everyone will use or be issued. We’re talking a select few in the grand scheme of fielding. I could care less if the right weapon for Rangers/SF/Light Infantry doesn’t meet the needs of the female ice cream clerk in the 438th Transpo Company. Taxpayer’s are paying for this waste.

        • Luddite4Change says:

          Of course they have the data. The question, as Bill so aptly put it above is “do they need it”? Unlike the SMU, the big Army (and all the other services who will get pulled along) isn’t going to be able to personalize each weapon to the individual shooter. Nor provide the same type of training regimen to each. That, unfortunately, is to costly for what the service needs on a day to day basis.

          The Army’s mantra on most kit really is “best capability at the most reasonable life cycle cost”. It wouldn’t surprise me if we end up with an M9A4 if it meets the requirements.

          • Darkhorse says:

            SMU’s don’t customize each gun to the user. And when the Caspian 1911 started to be phased out at the beginning of the GWOT, pretty close to stock Glock 19’s were the interim replacement. They didn’t have the standard trigger and probably had better than stock sights and that’s about it… oh, and a rail (which may have been stock, I don’t know) for the Insight Technologies light.

            I’m not sure why the Army needs anything more than that type of gun. Army could have leveraged that years ago as a life cycle replacement to the Beretta.

            Imagine all of the taxpayer money Army could have saved if they’d followed that lead in say, 2005.

            • majrod says:

              I’m sure the folks at the Battle Lab at Benning are talking to the guys at Bragg and for sure with Ranger Regiment down the street. It was SOP when I worked there. It was done with the M855A1, the M249, the M4A1 etc.

              The training (and selection) that SOF get with pistols is adequate for a pistol without an external safety. Not so with the average troop which is why the Army is making an external safety part of the requirement. The Army isn’t going with a standard Glock (and the schoolbook SOF pistol manipulation that goes with it).

              Yes, I’m also a huge fan of training (especially before looking for material solutions to potential hardware problems) but I also realize the sheer magnitude of the problem. It’s a million man Army with funding so constrained we are having issues doing training above squad. (Which is another reason the whole program may fail) ALL of SOF is 60k troops. That’s over 16 times smaller. It’s the difference between selecting, equipping, training & leading a buddy team in comparison to a full size squad with attached machine gun and Javelin team,

              If one thinks it’s easy one just doesn’t understand how big the problem is or the core competencies inside these various organizations. Heck, in my 20+ years I was never formally trained to even draw a pistol from a holster and it’s still not on the basic conventional manuals. (I was lucky to have some really squared away instructors & NCO’s from the President’s Hundred to the AMU/CAG). Outside of the MP’s on the conventional side the pistol training leaves much to be desired. Unit leaders make the big difference.

              The bottom line is comparing how SOF does things and imagining it can be scoped for a force 16 times larger “simply” is just fundamentally misunderstanding the problem. It’s like saying SOF can be built quickly because that’s what’s done on the conventional side. That truth about SOF not being able to be built quickly also applies to some of the competencies in any force.

              • Darkhorse says:

                Cops carry Glocks. Enough said.

                • MAJ S says:

                  Apples are not the same as oranges.

                  Cops (and this here SA) carry a pistol as their primary weapon, day in, day out.

                  When I was active duty, the only time a pistol was my primary was…never. Even as BDE level primary staff officer, I carried a carbine with an M9 backup. I NEVER trained with the M9. I qualified with it, and that was it.

                  While one could argue that troops need to train more with the pistol so that could get to a higher standard, I’d ask what not non-DA required training events a unit could give up to train with a secondary weapon, not to mention how the hell you’d pay for it.

                  • Darkhorse says:

                    My point is- cops receive very little training with their PRIMARY weapon and although I’m sure there are instances of AD’s, the vast majority of cops and soldiers rarely handle their side arms. I actually think that a Glock is easier to handle and learn than a Beretta with that stupid decocking feature. I shot one several times and i could never remember what to do. With a Glock, if you don’t want it to go off, don’t pull the trigger. Glocks are pretty intuitive. Drop the mag, slide goes forward, pull the trigger.

  12. majrod says:

    Fascinating subject. FWIW several thoughts…

    ICC – Many point to the ICC as a failure. Not every weapons program produces a result that’s adopted. Most actually don’t. They are still worth doing because they promote R&D, some nifty developments do get showcased/adopted and most importantly data is produced. Data that allows decision makers to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze like paying 400% more for a rifle with a piston to achieve a 1-2% improvement in reliability or providing data to contest the congress critter promoting a locally produced implement of war as the ultimate solution based on the vendor’s claims.

    Yeah, the gov’t often screws the pooch. Sometimes it keeps the pooch in line.

    The FBI’s latest study – Some great stuff there but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Often many unsaid factors dictate where a study goes, e.g. selecting a weapon that facilitates use by a minority group instead of the best tool to hurt people which is what the weapon is really for (vs. the administrative qualification that is used for promotion/retention). Not to long ago the FBI did a study that the .40 was the cat’s meow. Same organization, different study, different findings little refutation that the previous study was wrong. The FBI study concludes that with modern ammo all rounds are about equal with the 9mm being better because of recoil/ammo capacity. Well wait a minute, we still can’t use premium self defense rounds in general combat. Maybe the FBI report should be placed in context?

    NATO – Ok, on a logistics level I understand and concur about common solutions. On the other hand we have given the finger to NATO in the past (see .45 and adoption of 5.56) and am amenable to it now. The truth of the matter is we are going to have to supply our allies because they’ve been living off of US defense welfare for decades (e.g. look at who supplied the majority of ordnance and combat missions in Libya, then start looking at other dust ups). Pistol ammo isn’t going to make or break a war, if NATO bitches ask when they are going to live up to their military budgeting promises.

    Off rant.

  13. Nathaniel F says:

    Hi SS.net,

    The spirit of you argument with the M16 is correct, but the facts aren’t quite right. Here’s an article I wrote that sheds more light: http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2015/01/09/jim-sullivan-m16-vietnam/

    • SSD says:

      The article was about this about fielding of the M-16. Consequently, I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty.

  14. Justin says:

    Very well said and I could not agree more. The only good things I see coming out of this program are new pistols potentially being offered in the civilian market.

  15. Vorp says:

    Good article as usual and I agree with your forecasted outcome…but when the training will never be there for the vast majority of the pistol-issued force, it’s really unimportant what the R&D and procurement coolies come up with. (Whenever I hear that PM Ammo is going to influence the outcome of an R&D effort I wonder if it is doomed from the start) Any unit that takes pistol marksmanship beyond the annual checkinthebox qual/what badge do i get?-level will procure its own pistols and ammunition matched to their requirements. The time, money and effort expended will be a massive waste.

  16. S1 says:

    I like the idea of allowing people to carry what fits. For example: If it is the Glock platform, allow the G22 and the G23 to be carried on duty. Or the M&P 9 and 9c for duty. It benefits having the shooter being able to pick a weapon that fits them. They will be more comfortable and proficient when shooting. The main thing that should be addressed is the training aspect. Whatever they decide to go with, hopefully the training is up to par.

    • majrod says:

      How do you ensure the soldier selects a pistol that serves the purpose and not something “cool” or something “cheap” because the soldier believes he will never use it? (Some Joe will buy a race gun with all the paraphernalia just like another will buy a Hi-Point.)

      How do individual weapons get the repair parts, holsters, accessories and unique ammo if not in supply channels in Asscrackistan?

      What do they use in the meantime? Where does that gun, holster, accessories ammo come from?

      When the gun no longer works because of a lack of logistics who is responsible for securing that firearm and where is it done? As a company commander I wouldn’t want responsibility for someone’s privately owned pistol. As a soldier, I wouldn’t want to carry dead weight or irresponsibly store that gun where it becomes a security hazard.

      I’m a firearms trainer, at what unit level are you expecting a trainer who is competent in training the maintenance, use, basic marksmanship (and advanced training if you want to go that far) that covers any pistol a soldier may decide to carry? What organization trains those trainers and how do we ensure we always have one in whatever unit size one may think is good enough? If that training organization doesn’t exist where does it get stood up and how is it paid for?

      Doing your own thing sounds great but falls apart when you have to create a system to put it in place or support it. What you are proposing is something most police departments don’t do that are stateside, have relatively easy access to support and work shifts where there is time to fix glitches.

      • SSD says:

        Why did you even bother responding to that nonsense?

        • S1 says:

          I guess I wasn’t clear, and it has been interpreted as nonsense. As a police officer, I think it would be beneficial to have one weapons system, such as the Glock. You could choose to carry the Glock 22, or the Glock 23. That is all. But you have a choice. This benefits the small handed officers. The detectives could carry the smaller firearm as well.

          If the agency decides on S&W, then you could carry the M&P 9 or the 9c.

          I was not advocating that soldiers should pick from the plethora of firearms that are available in the market.