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…


  1. That was a nice, rational article. The military’s attitude toward pistol training isn’t entirely foolish because the average grunt isn’t likely to use a pistol in combat. Training time and budgets are finite, so it makes sense to train on the systems that will definitely be used. I do wish they would update the course for the soldier whose T/O weapon is the pistol.The high speed/low drag types already get modern, comprehensive training. Rogers runs military units through his school constantly, probably other schools do too.

  2. I’d have to disagree with Paul’s conclusion above. Some state CCW courses have more in depth practice then the . mil offers their non frontline troops. I knew folks in the Air Force who went downrange with zero M9 range time. Which may not matter, since the qualifying standards were 37 out of 50 hits, with 50 rounds of “practice” before the qualfier. I shot more then that even during the ammo crunch!

    All of the current military problems with sidearms can be traced to lack of end user training, and poor choice in contractor furnished replacement parts. The solution here IMO, is to modify half the current inventory to Vertec standards and pump a few hundred million into proper range training. There’s no reason why a farmer who’s been to Front Sight should know more about pistols then the Army mechanic in the war zone. Stopping power is entirely dependent on the end user putting the bullets where they matter.

  3. Just a couple additional thoughts:
    1. A striker fired Glock/M&P is going to weigh less than the metal framed M9 which would certainly benefit a soldier loaded with gear.
    2. A striker fired Glock/M&P (if they can get past the need for a manual safety) will be easier to deploy for soldiers who use the pistol as a secondary weapon.
    3. If the government issues a bid request, its going to be tough for Beretta to be cost competitive with the M9 (or a metal framed variant) against the Glock/M&P.

    Does anyone know if a Glock/M&P has ever been through the military’s qualification tests and how they compare with the M9?

    1. I am surprised weight wasn’t mentioned right after grip configuration. Modern polymers are a full 10 ounces or more lighter than the M9. One less pound, especially attached to the belt, would have to be appreciated by the troops.

  4. If you’re talking about modifying the M9 to Vertec or 90-2 standards, you might as well buy new guns of a different design. If you want to “go cheap” yet minimize the logistics problems (however minor) that would come with a new standard service sidearm, just contract for either M11s (the old Sig P228) or make a new spec (“M11A1”) that represents the CURRENT 9x19mm P229 configuration in production, and use the Sigs as the new standard pistol.

    The P228/P229 is MUCH better suited to a wider range of hands, only holds two fewer rounds than the M9 (13 rounds vs. 15 isn’t enough to worry about. . . honestly), has a better maintenance record (even when comparing similar service histories for particular guns), and is already “in the system”.

    The Sig P226 (the slightly larger pistol the P228 and P229 were derived from) almost won the XM9 competition, and came in second to Beretta ONLY because Beretta’s estimates of “Total Cost of Ownership” were significantly low-balled. (See, they’ve compared M11 and M9 service histories in US service, as well as looking at service histories of P220s and P226s in other nation’s service. The Sigs cost less to maintain. Period.)

    There is NO justification in buying ANOTHER version of the Beretta 92F. It simply offers NO advantages over buying better pistols. There WOULD be a slight cost advantage in buying more M11s (or re-spec’ing to allow current production P229s), especially in TCO, and the P228/P229 already has the feature that MOST needs to be fixed on the M9 (assuming staying with 9x19mm) — it’s a confortable size in grip circumferencs AND trigger reach for a LOT more people than the Beretta 92F family. (Plus, IMSNHO, the DA trigger is WAY better than the DA trigger in the M9.)

  5. Or….

    Just let the service members purchase their own sidearms. Give them an allowance, allows companies to offer programs, or just let the service member buy a sidearm. E-5 and below could get by with an M-9 until they made a decision. Upon promotion to E-6, the service member could purchase and carry a sidearm of their chosing. But what about sharing magazines? And parts? Does anyone really see that as being reasonable? Sidearms are for personal defense. Carrying a spare magazine is necessary because magazines fail. We are not fighting down to the point that service members are tossing handgun magazines to one another. Handguns make green-on-blue violence short-lived. I would rather a service member carry a Kel-Tec .22WMR that he/she is very comfortable shooting than have the freaking insane argument about caliber anymore. I want service members to be competent firing the weapon they carry. If that means they carry a handgun that others do not prefer, fine. No more aruments over the perfect caliber. No more arguments over the perfect design. Let’s step bbac and allow the person who really has there life riding on the decision to chose.

  6. No, Sid, we DO NOT want to let every service member pick and choose which pistol they want to carry. It didn;t even work that well when various nations had their officers do it (even those that mandated it use the standard service cartidge). We WANT guns that a minimally trained (because training takes time and money — you WILL NOT teach someone to be a Master Gunsmith capable of dealing with just about anything, in AIT) armorer can repair, because he’s been specifically trained on THAT gun.

    Secret Squirrel dudes (depending on the unit) may be a different story. If MSG Rambo from 7th Group wants to carry a personal handgun, and I were in his chain of command, I would likely develop a serious case of shortsightedness. If PVT Snuffy from the truck company shows up with his Deagle, that’s a problem.

  7. Geodkyt, you have to realize what pistols are used for in the military. We carry sidearms on the FOB/COL so that we are never unarmed. This prevents green-on-blue violence or at least stops it in short order. I have read the oft repeated line from the operator types “a pistol allows you to fight back to your rifle”. That is BS. The fight is over in about 5 bad guys. Our service members need firearms so that they are not soft targets. All the time.

    Gunsmiths are not part of this. The service member is responsible for the care, maintenance, and repair of their sidearm. And believe me when I say soldiers talk. If a particular handgun or manufacturer has a reputation for being unreliable, sales will go down. Or, every manufacturer will open a shop at major bases with walk-in service. And they will develop a loaner gun program while PVT Smith is having custom trigger work performed.

    Let the service member become the responsible person. The military only has to provide a shooting range. Each service member has to qualify twice a year. In a forward deployed area, carry 100 pistol rounds. Again, the rifle or machine gun is doing the heavy lifting.

    If PVT Snuffy from the transportation company wants to carry a Desert Eagle, fine. He has to qualify with it. Then, he has to carry it 5-7 days a week. He can either man up or change weapons. PVT Snuffy has sworn an oath. Read that oath and then ask yourself does PVT Snuffy deserve to chose his own handgun:

    I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

  8. Sid, we’ve made it a federal felony to bring your own gat into theater. In theory, PVT Snuffy from the transport company could port his deagle about, but we all know that it would execute like crap. There are plenty of solid tactical Tupperware handguns to choose from; let’s pick one and be done with it.

  9. Beast, no. Any choice by a govt/military committee to pick a handgun that few will be allowed to carry in a meaningful way is just a waste of taxpayer money. The M9 fires a 9mmm bullet and holds 13. There is no performance gain when we continue to use FMJ 9mm. I will not agree to spending $20 mil acquiring a newer handgun. Quit spending govt money on a handgun. Let the soldiers pick their own gun. If you want limitations, then pick a bullet and require that all service members have to purchase a handgun that fires that bullet. Open this up to the free market. But quit having the endless argument about magic calibers and maintenance free designs. Let those of us who have placed our lives in front of your freedoms have the ability to chose.

    1. Sid, yes. You’re calling our current acquisitions process a waste of money. While wasteful, it is what it is, and necessary. The M9 holds 15, not 13. Commonality of caliber and magazine design, holster fit, and any number of logistical concerns are valid when outfitting a large armed force. And I dare say I’ve placed my life in front of your freedoms more than enough not to get told to sit down and shut up.

      1. Beast, I did not tell you to sit down and shut up. You may want to read again. I deployed with the 7th ID (Light) to Panama, was recalled to active duty for Desert Storm, supported the Bosnia mission doing LE patrol in Kaiserlautern, and led an MP platoon in 09-10 in Mosul. I currently command a vertical engineer company in the National Guard. Again, I did not tell you to sit down and shut up. I simply proposed an end to wasteful spending. I believe soldiers above the grade of E-6 should be allowed to purchase their own sidearm. They will also be responsible for magazines and end items. I believe our soldiers deserve the right to chose their own individual sidearm. I also believe that if we allow them to chose their sidearm they will possibly take more time to become proficient. Rather than spend more money on a new sidearm, the Army could spend the money on resetting pistol ranges that would have liberal use privileges. Now, I am writing with reservation and respect. This is not my forum and I am showing deference to the hosts. You would not want to be standing in front of me in uniform. I have little patience for soldiers who misconstrue written words.

        1. Sid, thanks for your resume. I’ve got four tours, three with 3d Group. I don’t have any problem with Soldiers carrying the right tool for the job, but let’s set some sensible defaults for the Army. And I’ve brought an M9 to a machine gun fight. I just had my sidearm and a radio handset while my indig fighter fired my rifle as we were pinned down for a good half hour.

          I’m invested in this issue, but the solution isn’t to let everyone buy their own. We’d need a cadre of E-6 and above that are a hell of a lot better with handguns than they are now, and support that with range time and issued ammo well beyond what we do now. I endorse that heartily, but introducing random guns to the mix doesn’t strengthen our case. Pick a good gun and train.

          And if I were standing in front of you in uniform, I’d make you salute me.

  10. I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned the potential to shave about 10oz from an infantryman’s basic load-out, by going to something polymer framed.

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