The Army's M9 service pistol. (Beretta)
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Below: See the contenders to replace the M9.
The Army has a new pistol in its sights. After 25 years of action, the M9 is on its way out as officials are confident they can give soldiers a better pistol at a better price. The goal is to replace all 239,000 M9s and the concealable M11s.
"The M9 is at the end of its lifecycle," said Maj. Art Thomas, small arms branch chief at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga. "It is an old weapon. We can do a lot better with what technology can provide us now."
Lethality is among the M9's several "limitations," said Daryl Easlick, project officer for close effects. The requirement for a new pistol calls for "an increase in permanent wound channel," which suggests something more powerful than a 9mm may be on the horizon.
Other limitations the new pistol must overcome include:
• The slide-mounted safety. When solders rack the slide to alleviate a jam or stovepipe in the M9, they often inadvertently engage the safety — and won't realize this until they reacquire and squeeze the trigger.
• The open-slide design, which allow contaminants and dirt into the system.
• The lack of a modular grip, integrated rail and night-sight capabilities.
• The inability to suppress.
• Limited service life — replacement should have a service life of at least 25,000 rounds.
Service life is a key issue, Easlick said, noting that the M9 is only required to fire 5,000 rounds.
"We are looking for a threshold capability ... in the magnitude of five times better than that," he said.
Beretta insists that the M9's numbers are well beyond 5,000 rounds. Two-thirds of all M9s fire 5,000 rounds with one or no malfunctions, said Gabriele de Plano, Beretta's vice president of military sales and marketing. Slides have 35,000-round durability, frames last for 30,000 rounds and locking blocks for 22,000. The average reliability of all M9s is 17,500 rounds without a stoppage.
During one test conducted under Army supervision, 12 M9 pistols shot 168,000 rounds without a malfunction.
But that is not the norm. Easlick said an M9 is tempo-dependent, and its service life is "exponentially" dropped when it is used as an offensive handgun and in intense combat training.
To get the changes it desires, the Army adopted the Air Force's Modular Handgun System proposal, which had been approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council but lost steam in recent years.
The Army plan has jumped through most hoops and is at Army Headquarters awaiting approval. Of course, there is the reality of diminishing defense dollars. But Thomas said all participants are "working diligently" to create a budget-friendly fielding and funding plan.
While timelines remain to be seen, the Army in a June 30 omnibus reprogramming request placed procurement in fiscal 2014.
Your next pistol
Officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process while requirements are being written. But Thomas did say the next pistol would be a commercial, off-the-shelf product.
Narrowing the field is not especially hard. The soldier requirements division must first consider existing programs of record. If another government agency has a pistol program that meets or exceeds the Army's requirements, that is the one you will get.
There are some strong contenders in that category, and they are not limited to the .45 caliber and 9mm varieties. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 2010 made a big switch to the .40 caliber, and many military leaders would like to do the same.
Smith and Wesson's .40 cal M&P nudged the Glock 22 and 27 in the ATF competition. Scores were so close that both received a part of the $80 million contract — and prime standing as the Army enters its search.
"It's kind of hard to beat the Smith and Wesson M&P right now," said one industry insider from a competing company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It is a polymer gun with high-capacity steel magazines. It has a positive safety and ambidextrous controls ... they simply came out of the gate with the right gun."
Other companies with existing government contracts and weapons that meet Army requirements include:
• Beretta. The company in 2010 launched the 92A1 9mm and 96A1 .40 S&W pistols. They include increased capacity magazines, removable front sights, an accessory rail, captive recoil spring assembly, frame recoil buffer and sand-resistant magazines. The Army would need no transitional training if it chose the 9mm, and parts compatibility is 90 percent.
Beretta's next-generation Px4 family of pistols has polymer frames, modular grips and a rotary barrel system similar to a bolt-action rifle. The Px4 Storm Special Duty .45 ACP, which had been submitted for the now-defunct Joint Combat Pistol program, includes a long barrel for suppressor mounting.
• Sig Sauer. Many Navy SEALs carry the company's P226, and the Coast Guard has adopted the P229. The industry insider called the Sig a "workhorse," but said the P229 is an unlikely selection because it is double-action only and has no positive safety.
The .40 caliber P250 probably has little to no chance. The pistol had 58 stoppages, 13 of which were gun-induced, during the ATF competition. Smith & Wesson had 16 shooter-induced stoppages and Glock had seven, and neither had gun-induced stoppages.
• Heckler & Koch. The HK P2000 is lauded by the Border Patrol. They love its modular grips, dual slide release levers and mounting rails that easily accommodate a variety of lights, lasers and accessories.
• Glock. A longtime favorite among many special operators, the latest variants include modular grips and shorter trigger distances. The recoil spring also has been replaced with a dual recoil spring assembly to reduce recoil and increase life cycle.
But the venerable Glock does have its detractors, the industry insider said — primarily because the pistol lacks an external safety. In addition, there is no metal-on-metal contact in the magazine catch-recess area, causing magazines to wear out faster and sometimes drop out of the gun.
• Colt and Springfield. Both companies are competing to replace the Marine Corps' M45 Close Quarter Battle Pistol. If the winner becomes a program of record before the Army opens its selection process, then it would be in the running. But Colt's variant is a single-action, cocked and locked pistol, which is not popular with many folks in Big Army.