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.
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…