Modular Handgun System Program Overview

    For many of you, it will feel like “that time of year again”, so many US pistol competitions have come and gone. The Army’s Modular Handgun System program is gearing up to replace current service pistols with a new suite of pistols, holsters, and accessories. Still, despite efforts to replace it, the M9 remains the standard handgun of US armed forces. Well, Paul M. Barrett (no relation), author of GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun and writing for Businessweek has weighed in on the probable MHS contenders:

    For gun manufacturers, no customer rivals the Pentagon for prestige and revenue potential. That’s why, after years of anticipation, firearm makers are mobilizing for the U.S. Army’s imminent competition to replace the Beretta M9 pistol, the American soldier’s standard sidearm since 1985.

    The procurement process for several hundred thousand new pistols formally begins in January and is expected to last about two years. Based on more than 15 years of reporting on the gun business, I’d identify the early favorites as a much-improvedSmith & Wesson (SWHC), which enjoys a made-in-the-USA marketing edge, and the formidable Glock of Austria.

    For a second opinion, I asked longtime industry consultant and former National Rifle Association organizer Richard Feldman for some snap handicapping. “Beretta starts with a 30-year history of supplying the Army, and that counts for something,” said Feldman, now the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, an advocacy group based in Rindge, N.H. “S&W, which lost a lot of police and civilian business to Glock in the 1980s and 1990s, has transformed itself into a modern firearm manufacturing enterprise with much better quality than in the past. Glock, barely in existence the last time this contract was up, is undeniably a powerful contender.”

    “Oddly,” Feldman continued, “Colt, despite its iconic role in American firearm history, isn’t even a contender.” That won’t come as news to readers of Bloomberg Businessweek. We’ve charted the demise of West Hartford (Conn.)-based Colt under the control of latter-day private equity owners.

    Pentagon officials have been talking for years about shelving the semiautomatic M9, made by an American unit of the Italian-owned Beretta. Daryl Easlick, a project officer with the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., told the website in July that the Pentagon would replace its entire inventory of 9mm Berettas for something more accurate, lethal, and reliable: “It’s a total system replacement—new gun, new ammo, new holster, everything.”

    Handguns are secondary weapons for rank-and-file infantry soldiers armed with rifles. Pistols are carried by certain officers, tank crew members, truck drivers, special operations troops, and others on the battlefield.

    While I have no particular expertise in handguns, this sounds like a reasonable assessment to me. However:

    For years, front-line war fighters have complained that the M9′s 9mm round lacks sufficient stopping power. “The 9mm doesn’t score high with soldier feedback,” Easlick told The Army and its sister services—the Marines, Air Force, and Navy—want a sidearm and ammunition round that will cause more damage, he said. “We have to do better than our current 9mm.”

    In a sense, the military appears poised to go back to the future. The Beretta 9mm replaced a Colt .45 caliber model that had served as the Army standard for generations. The .45 round is larger and therefore deadlier than the 9mm. In the 1980s, however, the Pentagon decided to follow the lead of NATO allies that preferred lighter, less expensive 9mm ammunition.

    [emphasis mine]

    This is something I’ve addressed before:

    That’s right, standard pressure 9mm ball loads are pretty much directly comparable in energy with standard-pressure .45 ACP loads. Now, sometimes you’ll see cheaper plinking loads that produce less velocity, and often 9mm is shot from 4″ barrels, where .45 is normally shot from 5″ barrels, but in an apples-to-apples comparison, they’re about the same.

    But why? The .45 is much larger, surely it should be more powerful. Yes, but the .45 ACP is much lower pressure (circa 22,000 PSI) versus the 9mm (circa 32,000 PSI), which accounts for its pretty mediocre performance.

    Pistol rounds, whether they be 9mm, .45, .40, or .380 ACP, produce similar wound channels if they have similar bullet construction. FMJ bullets will perform the same typically, more or less regardless of what tissue they hit. They produce a tubular temporary cavity, and a relatively mediocre permanent cavity.

    Unfortunately, there is a relatively limited range of options available to the military if improving the effectiveness of their pistols is their goal. There’s some evidence that high velocity rounds like 5.7×28 suffer less from encountering bone, but that ammunition comes with a considerable penalty in terms of muzzle flash and blast, and is considerably handicapped in available subsonic ammunition. It’s conceivable that an expanding FMJ bullet could be adopted, though in my opinion these won’t pass the Hague convention muster (which prohibits piercings or incisions intended to make the bullet flatten in the target – exactly what the EFMJ bullets possess).

    My guess is that, at best, a new sort of FMJ round will be introduced for the 9mm cartridge. What that could eventually look like is beyond my ability to predict; though the Army has considerable tools at their disposal to be applied in the effort.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]