Army’s Modular Handgun System to cost over $1 billion dollars

The Army is currently deep in the weeds in the process of trying to replace the venerable M9, which has served the US for nearly 30 years. The initial estimates placed the cost of the replacement program around $300-500 Million dollars, however a new report shows that the cost to taxpayers will likely be over a billion dollars.

Sen. McCain puts the total value of the MHS at not $350 million, or even $400 million, but a whopping $1.2 billion for the winner.

The big factor here is that the Army’s RFP calls for the gun and ammo to be manufactured by the same company/partner companies. That means if, for example S&W won the gun contract, they’d need to also produce the ammo. Interesting, S&W is set to do this, by partnering with General Dynamics to offer a joint RFP to fill the potential MHS contract.


Another company that would clearly be in the running would be Sig Sauer, with their (pictured) P320 modular handgun. Sig also produces their own line of branded ammo, meaning that they also have the capacity to meet the RFP’s requirements. Sig is also the apparent front-runner in the FBI’s new handgun acquisition, which if selected might, or might not, help it in the Army’s MHS competition.

Of course, the real issue with the MHS is “why?” Even if the program continues on its current pace and hits its milestones, you won’t see a new pistol in soldier’s holsters until late 2017/early 2018, and I’d sadly expect the cost to balloon even further. What’s deeply frustrating about this process is how the military, of which I’m proud to be a part of, can manage to make the per unit cost of a $500 handgun balloon up to $1,000 per unit before the ammo cost. It’s just silliness.

What do you think? Do you think the MHS is an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars? Or do you think that the Army, and eventually the military at large really need a new handgun?

5 reasons the Beretta M9A3 will be the next service pistol

Yesterday, much to the joy of Beretta fanboys (like me) Beretta USA announced the latest update to the venerable M9 pistol line, the M9A3. This pistol represents Beretta’s answer to the requirements for the Army’s proposed Modular Handgun System (or whatever they’re calling it this time around) and I am willing to bet that the Beretta M9A3 will absolutely be our nation’s next service pistol. But first, here’s what Beretta has to say about the new gun:


After delivering over 600,000 M9 pistols to the DOD and on the heels of being awarded a new contract for up to 100,000 M9s, Beretta USA announced today the presentation of the M9A3 to the US Army. The M9A3 introduces major improvements to the M9 that will increase the operational effectiveness and operational suitability of the weapon. The improvements include design and material enhancements resulting in increased modularity, reliability, durability, and ergonomics. They are being submitted via an Engineering Change Proposal (ECP) in accordance with the terms of the current M9 contract.

Made in the U.S.A. by an American workforce since 1987, the M9 has been the sidearm of the U.S. Armed Forces for nearly 30 years; serving with U.S. service men and women in training and combat operations throughout the world. The M9A3 is designed for the next 30 years – delivering 21st century capability and features while increasing usability and reliability.

“The M9A3 represents the next generation military handgun utilizing the best of the legacy M9 combined with proven COTS modifications that increase performance and durability” stated Gabriele de Plano, Vice President of Military Marketing and Sales for Beretta USA. Mr. de Plano added, “After listening closely to the needs of U.S. Army and other Service small arms representatives, we determined the M9, much like its counterpart legacy weapon systems (M4, M16, M240, etc.), was capable of being upgraded through material and design changes. The resulting M9A3 we are offering to the DOD will likely cost less than the current M9 and answer almost all of the Services’ enhanced handgun requirements.”

The M9A3 features a thin grip with a removable, modular wrap-around grip, MIL-STD-1913 accessory rail, removable front and rear tritium sights, extended and threaded barrel for suppressor use, 17-round sand resistant magazine, and numerous improved small components to increase durability and ergonomics, all in an earth tone finish.

“Furthermore, the M9A3 benefits from having a law enforcement and commercial variant that will be launched at S.H.O.T. Show 2015 in Las Vegas, NV” stated Rafe Bennett, Vice President of Product Marketing for Beretta USA. Mr. Bennett added, “The M9A3 offered to the DOD is the exact gun that consumers will be able to purchase in the second quarter of 2015.”

The M9A3 follows on the heels of Beretta and Wilson Combat’s collaboration, and represents a lot of the features that end users have been asking for in their Beretta pistols. The backstrap will allow users to switch from a traditional Beretta profile grip to the smaller and easier to manage Vertec style, the sights are replaceable, and the safety is convertable to a G-style decock only model. With this feature set, here are five reasons why the Beretta M9A3 is going to be the US service pistol for a long time.

1. Money
Hey, did you know that the military is currently undergoing all kinds of budget cuts? The Air Force (for example) by the end of FY 2015 will be at its smallest size since its creation in 1947, the Army is cutting costs wherever it can (despite getting new uniforms) so when Beretta presents a solution to the DoD’s desire for a new toy that doesn’t involve wholesale replacement of holsters, magazines, and small parts, the odds are that they’re going to go for it. Unless Sig nails the baksheesh.

2. Seriously, the money
Beretta did a smart thing: they submitted the M9A3 to the Army as an ECP, and engineering change proposal. What that means is that the M9A3 is part of the existing M9 contract now, assuming that the DoD accepts the ECP, which they will because follow the money.

In the Modular Handgun System proposal, the Army asked for a certain set of features on the new gun. The M9A3 has all of those features, which means that some bean counter in the Pentagon is going to look at this ECP vs the cost of an entire new handgun and go “well, this is a no-brainer.” Essentially, the M9A3 is presented to the Army as fait accompli by Beretta. “Oh, you want all these features in a gun? No problem Holmes, let’s just make that for you as part of the existing contract.”

3. We are not going away from 9mm any time soon
There are entire graveyards full of dudes that have been killed with 9mm ball ammo. Despite what the Warriors of the Keys will tell you, we don’t really need to switch up to .40 or .45, because in the FMJ form our line troops would be required to use, they still suck. To get serious though, we’re not ditching the NATO standard round any time soon. Everyone uses 9mm, and we are going to keep using 9mm as long as we’re the Big Kid at the North Atlantic Treaty Table.

If anything, the trend in rounds is towards smaller rounds. It wouldn’t surprise me if when I’m getting ready to retire in 30 years for the military to be issuing pistols that fire 5mm tungsten core beads to pierce power armor or something.

4. The M9 is fine
The big problem with the M9 (and the M4) isn’t the gun. It’s the way the military trains people to “maintain” their weapons. But that’s a post for another time. Fastidious attention to cleanliness at the expense of lubrication isn’t good for guns.

5. Logistics
All those mags. All those small parts.

There are circumstances where the M9A3 might not make it. The Army could, for reasons that are unfathomable to me, reject the ECP and force the MHS competition to go forward, and then pick a different gun. Sometimes they do things like that because of reasons, none of which make any kind of sense. But like I said above, I’m willing to make a considerable wager that in 2017, when the Army is supposed to pick its new handgun, the M9A3 will already be riding in frontline holsters, and doing just fine. Then it will be “this gun gives us what we wanted, so let’s just keep it.”

What do you think? Will the M9A3 effectively end-run the MHS competition?

Good reasons for buying a new military sidearm

In the discussion about the possibility of the military purchasing new sidearms to replace the Beretta M9 there has been much nonsense. Most of the discussions of the virtues of a new pistol has centered around the irrelevant, trivial, or even the completely untrue. Despite this, there are some perfectly sane reasons to look at acquiring a new sidearm.

1. It’s now possible to buy an auto pistol that will fit almost anyone.

In the early 1980’s when the military went shopping for a double-stack 9mm pistol the world was considerably different. The Glock had not yet had the impact on the market that would make polymer frames an expected design feature in a handgun. Polymer isn’t simply cheaper, proper use of it also allows for more efficient packaging. This gives you the ability to make the grip of the pistol smaller overall and as we’ve seen with the Smith & Wesson M&P, H&K P30 or VP9 (and a host of other pistols) it also makes it easy to have an adjustable grip to fit a wider array of hands. The M9 is a good sidearm, but the size of the grip and reach to the double-action trigger are a struggle for many smaller-statured shooters. Beretta could modify the M9 to make it better in that respect with different grip profiles such as the one found on the Vertec or Elite pistols (or even the Beretta 90-two) and it would help enormously…but it would require revisiting the contract. People often don’t understand that a contract is frozen in time. Once you contract to deliver a pistol with certain specifications you have to deliver to exactly those specifications even if you’ve come up with a better idea since.

Beretta has made improved versions of the M9 like the M9A1 for the Army's Special Forces and the USMC already...and seem willing to make more changes to keep the military contract.
Beretta has made improved versions of the M9 like the M9A1 for the Army’s Special Forces and the USMC already…and seem willing to make more changes to keep the military contract.

Police and military agencies need a handgun that’s going to work with the physiology of very different individuals. During a range trip a while back I ran into a police officer from a few miles away who had just been hired on to a police force while she finished her master’s degree. She was an exceptionally bright, and exceptionally small human being. She was issued a S&W M&P chambered in .40 S&W, which was a good thing because she was able to use the smallest grip panel so she had a shot at reaching the trigger. With a little work on how she approached gripping the pistol she was hitting bull’s-eyes on small targets in no time. Getting a new sidearm to better accommodate the physical differences in the personnel who need sidearms would be a perfectly rational motive for at least revisiting the current M9 contract.

2. It’s now possible to buy sidearms that require much lower levels of maintenance.

Maintenance and upkeep for issued weapons is often cited as one of the strikes against the current Beretta M9. While much of that is overblown, there are some annoying maintenance issues like the trigger return spring on the M9 that are a pain to keep up with. Thanks to revolutions in manufacturing and design, there are now options on the market that are much easier to work on or that require maintenance far less frequently than in the past. The H&K P30 is an excellent example. The pistol was designed to need armorer level attention only after 25,000 rounds…which is a hell of a lot of shooting. Granted there are some units in the military who can put that many rounds through a sidearm in a couple of weeks, but with the shooting schedule of  most of the sidearms the military would be replacing the armorers working on the guns more frequently than the armorers would be replacing parts in the guns. Given the neglect that military sidearms often see, buying a new sidearm that thrives despite neglect would be perfectly reasonable.

3. A new sidearm would make new training programs necessary…which might be an opportunity to fix the training problem. 

This, I admit, is an exceptionally unlikely outcome. The lack of solid training with handguns is an institutional problem and even though a new weapon would require a new training program to go along with it, but I don’t expect buying something new and shiny to fix the institutional culture that doesn’t take handgun training seriously now. Still, if the argument is going to be made a new pistol and training program is when the organization is most vulnerable to new thinking about it.

So, Mr. Smarty Pants, what would you do?

Good question. Since the power to completely overhaul how the military approaches training with sidearms likely will not come along with the power to select a new sidearm, I think we’re doodling around the margins. Given the expense and logistical headache involved in buying an entirely new sidearm, I’d seek to make improvements to the current M9. The USMC’s M9A1 program is a good example of how that could work. I would add on top of that a revised grip such as the one found on the Vertec pistols or the 90-Two, dovetailed sights instead of the integral front sight on the current M9, and perhaps moving all the pistols to the “G” configuration which makes the levers on the slide function as a de-cocker only. This could probably be accomplished with the lowest overall cost when you figure in logistics, training, support equipment, etc. Perhaps even a low enough cost to allow the purchase of some additional equipment (like visible lasers) that would make putting bullets where they need to go easier under stress.

I have no idea what the military will eventually decide on. I honestly expect this latest lust for a new pistol to die in the cutthroat budget process within the DOD…but stranger things have happened. The military has a bureaucracy and whenever reason and circumstance seem to make a particular decision to be exceptionally unlikely bureaucracies have a tendency to make precisely that decision. So I wouldn’t count it out, either…

“Harder hitting” nonsense…

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve doubtless encountered this gem of a story from Fox News which covers the U.S. Army’s desire for a new handgun. The discussions about this tidbit of information online have generally been dominated by ignorance and soul-crushing idiocy. Let’s boil away all the nonsense and get a few facts straight on this.

1. The Beretta M9 has actually been a pretty good sidearm.

We’ve talked a bit about the Beretta 92/M9’s track record as an issued sidearm for the military and law enforcement before, but it’s worth reemphasizing here that the biggest problem the Beretta has had in military service is bad maintenance practices by the military itself. Springs don’t get replaced, parts that aren’t supposed to be reused get reused, and the military went out and bought a bunch of cheap magazines for them that didn’t work well. Remember that this is the same organization which preached minimal or no lube on carbines like Jimmy Swaggart on cocaine and then seemed somewhat stunned by the fact that guns shut down when used in combat. When you talk to people from units who took maintaining their issued M9 sidearms seriously, and who bothered to actually lubricate them properly, you hear that they were pretty darn reliable. The most annoying issue is probably breakage of the trigger return spring, but for some reason the military never followed the lead of the U.S. Border Patrol by buying the Wolff TCU to fix that.

The M9's service in the military has been better than many would have you believe.
The M9’s service in the military has been better than many would have you believe.

When the GWOT kicked off there were a ton of news stories about how bad the M4 was too, if you’ll remember. Turns out the M4 was just fine provided you lubricated the darn thing, kept up with maintenance, and used decent magazines rather than handing down worn beat to hell magazines like they were the frickin’ family silver. When you read these articles and the statements by somebody who knows somebody who was in unit X who said that the M9 sucked horribly, remember that not too long ago the same sort of doofuses (doofi? What’s the proper plural of that word?) were saying the M4 sucked and were pushing the need for a new rifle like the XM-8. The XM-8 which was based on the spectacularly awesome G36 which has never had any problems ever.

2. .40 S&W ball ammo, .45 ACP ball ammo, or .357 sig ball ammo is going to suck about the same as 9mm ball ammo.

One of the stated reasons for pursuing a new handgun is to get one that’s in a chambering with better terminal ballistics. That’s really a non-starter unless the military is willing to start using ammunition with expanding bullets. It’s particularly amusing to see the .357 sig in the list of considerations because the .357 sig is a .40 S&W case necked down to take a 9mm bullet…as if a .355 FMJ from a .357 sig is going to perform better than a .355 FMJ from a 9mm. If the Army wants better terminal ballistics, start issuing Gold Dots. No, dear reader, we’re not prohibited from using JHP ammunition by the Hague convention…and to paraphrase an exceptionally astute comment from a forum discussion on the topic, it’s patently absurd to issue hand grenades and shoulder-launched missiles and then wring our hands and fret over whether hollowpoints for handguns are “humane”. It’s ridiculous that in our society a police officer can shoot another American citizen with JHP ammo without any human rights concerns but somehow there’s a big problem if a Marine shoots some foreign dirtbag with the exact same ammo. You know, shooting him with a handgun rather than calling in an airstrike or blowing the whole structure the dude is hiding in to kingdom come with an Abrams tank. Derp.

The .40 S&W and .45 ACP hardball loads do bring some advantages to the table, but those advantages aren’t free. They bring with them costs in packaging, capacity, ease of use, and reliability that tend to negate any marginal terminal ballistics advantage you get from an extra .10″ of bullet diameter. These are not insignificant considerations when you’re issuing sidearms to small-statured males and females, and it’s one of the reasons why large organizations like the FBI have been issuing 9mm handguns pretty freely to those who struggle with the standard issue .40 caliber weapons.

3. The military does not take handgun training seriously.

Those who have never been in the military often make the mistake of assuming that everyone within the organization is extensively trained in the use of small arms. This is not true. The unpleasant reality is that a large chunk of the people in uniform (be that a police or military uniform) are extremely poorly trained with small arms. I know a number of people who did multiple tours in the military without ever once touching a weapon. The handgun training that does happen is very rudimentary, happens infrequently, isn’t sustained by any ongoing practice, and generally results in somebody who it is hoped will be at least intelligent enough to know which end of the tube the bullet comes out of. That’s it. Even infantrymen who are supposed to be the warfighters get minimal handgun training that doesn’t leave them remotely prepared to use the weapon under combat conditions. Some units within the military do take training seriously, and guys like “Super” Dave Harrington and Ernie Langdon spent a chunk of their career working on programs designed to teach necessary weapons skills to people going into harm’s way, but places like Range 37 and program’s like the USMC’s High Risk Personnel program are the exceptions rather than the rule.

If you’re fielding troops that are poorly trained with a handgun, it doesn’t bloody matter what size bullet you give them because they’re not going to put the bullet where it counts in the first place. The Fox News reporter who wrote the original story probably knows how to use Google and so he managed to stumble on Ernie Langdon who summed up the terminal ballistics situation nicely in the article by saying “…handgun bullets suck. You have to shoot people a lot with a handgun.” That’s an accurate summation of the many years of law enforcement shooting data that’s been collected here in the US.

The military doesn’t need to buy a bigger bullet and bet on magic, they need to actually take handgun training seriously. Even if a soldier is stuck with 9mm FMJ ammunition, if he/she is able to put a few of those FMJs in an Al Quaeda aorta it’s going to work. Handing a poorly trained troop a larger, heavier, lower capacity handgun with more recoil and hoping that the bigger bullet will make up for training shortfalls is lunacy. Police departments blessed with solid personnel have figured that stuff out and have made efforts to up their training game with excellent results on the street. Tools aren’t unimportant, but the military’s biggest handgun problem isn’t the quality of the tool, it’s the dearth of proper training on how to use the tool. Until that’s fixed the results won’t change no matter what shiny new thing they buy.

You might get the impression that I’m dead-set against the Army adopting a new handgun, but I’m not. I’m against making purchase decisions based on faulty assumptions and belief in the ballistic equivalent of voodoo. I’m especially against spending a bunch of money on equipment that doesn’t matter instead of channeling those resources to the training which does.

I’ll talk about where I think a new handgun makes sense next time…