U.S. Army to Retire 9mm NATO M9 and M11 Pistols

Fox News reported in this article that the U.S. Army will replace it’s Beretta M9 and Sig Sauer M11 pistols because they are “worn out” and troops need a cartridge with “better knockdown power.” The M9 was adopted by the U.S. Army almost 30 years ago, so it’s easy to understand why several “worn out” pistols are in the hands of our troops. (I previously wrote an article discussing the adoption of the M9 here.) Fox News also said, “The Army is seeking to replace the M9 and M11 pistols with a handgun that is more accurate, ergonomic, reliable and durable than the current pistol.”  Read more here and here for detailed spec requirements. The new pistol and its accessories are referred to as the Modular Handgun System or MHS.

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The venerable Beretta M9 has served as the official sidearm of the U.S. Army for 30 years.

Specific requirements of the MHS include: 35,000-round lifespan, 90% hit rate of a 4″ target at 50 yards (most people can’t do that shooting off-handed, but tests will likely be done with a mechanical rest), show higher lethality than the current M882 9mm NATO cartridge, 13-round or higher capacity, picatinny rail for accessories, suppressor capable, modular grip, and full ambidextrous controls. There is no mention of the need for an external safety. The Beretta M9 does not offer a picatinny rail or modular grip, and it’s external safety design is loathed by some. Also, just because the M882 9mm is being replaced doesn’t mean a 9mm +P+ cartridge is out of the question. There is no spec on bullet diameter.

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The SIG M11, or civilian P228, in 9mm NATO with 13+1 capacity is used by members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy who need a more compact sidearm than the M9.  The “A1” designation means the pistol has a short reset trigger or SRT, a milled slide, and special coating on carbon steel parts.  Read more here.

It’s interesting to me that most of these features are available on off-the-shelf, consumer pistols, like the Glock 21 which gets my vote for the MHS. Why spend money testing and creating new designs when existing models already qualify? H&K, SIG, FNH, Smith & Wesson, and Springfield all have potential contenders chambered in more potent calibers than 9mm NATO, but I have yet to see any manufacturer officially enter the race. Beretta will likely enter a different model in the trials as well.

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My choice for the MHS: the FDE Glock 21 in .45ACP with 13+1 capacity.

Certainly, ergonomics have advanced over the last 30 years as polymer grips have taken over their steel and aluminum alloy counterparts in volume. Adjustable back-straps are the norm for modern poly-pistols making grip modification easy for hands of all sizes. Will the military finally accept stronger-than-steel, lightweight polymer or continue with its antiquated theory that metal is better? I think yes because I’m not aware of metal-framed pistols with adjustable grip sizes, although I’m sure that problem could be easily solved.

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The probable caliber contenders side-by-side.

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Specs of probable top contenders. Bullet weights and velocities are typical. Note that Energy cannot be used alone to determine lethality. The U.S. Army will use ballistic gel to measure wound channel characteristics. Bullet diameter plays a significant role in wound channel creation.

Durability can be improved in many ways. Cartridge selection is the primary factor. The .45ACP results in less wear and tear on the frame and barrel than higher pressure, higher velocity rounds like the 9mm NATO, .357SIG, and .40S&W. (Sorry, Five-seveN fans, you don’t stand a chance.) Regardless, if you count out the 9x19mm, the .45ACP is the front-runner for durability as there are widespread reports of .40S&W pistols wearing out more quickly than the same model chambered in 9mm. One could beef-up the pistol to better handle the .40S&W, but that means more weight.

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Smith & Wesson’s M&P40 VTAC has 15+1 capacity in .40S&W. The M&P40 recently
bested the Glock 22 in an ATF competition by such a small margin that both were awarded contracts. You can read the juicy GAO report here that discusses why SIG failed the test and was excluded in addition to how the pistols ranked against each other.

A pistol’s design and materials also affect durability. The MHS must function in wet, dirty, sandy, and dusty environments. It will be interesting to see which tests are used during trials. One common complaint about the Beretta M9 is that the ejection port is a dirt-collector that leads to jams and malfunctions. No pistol is impervious to jamming when ultra-dirty, but a combat pistol should function normally immediately after it’s dropped in the mud or a body of water.

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FNH FNX Tactical in .45ACP boasts 15+1 capacity, rail, and threaded barrel, but it’s pricey at ~$1,000.

The raging debate over caliber is which one has the best knock-down power. Is it the .45ACP, the .40S&W, or the .357SIG? All have their proponents. One thing’s for sure, the .45ACP is proven in combat, and you rarely hear complaints about it’s knock-down power. Of course, the FBI adopted the .40S&W as did many police departments across the U.S., and you don’t hear complaints about its lethality either. The Army says terminal ballistics at 50 meters through 14 inches of ballistic gel will access lethality compared to the M882 9mm NATO round. Think about this…the most lethal round won’t necessarily be chosen. The chosen round only has to be more lethal than the current 9mm M882. Will a higher pressure, 9mm +P+ round be used in the tests? My guess is yes. The .357SIG has a followership for sure as it was designed to match .357 Magnum ballistics in a semi-auto design. While surely more lethal than the current M882, it is significantly more costly. Although it would not have the same recoil as a .357 Magnum due to the semi-auto action absorbing energy, felt recoil is significantly greater.

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Could Beretta stay on top with the Storm PX4 Full?

For shoot-ability, the .45ACP is hard to beat.  Match pistol shooters like the .45ACP for a number of reasons, including mild recoil and accuracy. The biggest problem with the .45ACP round is less capacity due to its larger bullet diameter. That’s a double-edged sword because that large diameter also contributes to the 45’s stopping power via larger wound channels.

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The Springfield XDM .40S&W with 16+1 capacity is one to watch. Could it withstand durability testing?

If you’ve shot a .40S&W, you’ve experienced muzzle flip first-hand, but some don’t mind the extra recoil, including many at the FBI and many police departments. However, increased muzzle flip and recoil are two common complaints about the cartridge. The .40S&W is actually a shorter version of the 10mm Auto, and part of why it was created was to reduce the massive felt recoil of the 10mm while maintaining a relatively large bullet diameter. Personally, I think the .40S&W will fail in the area of durability. It will probably outperform the .45ACP in the ballistic gelatin test, but as mentioned earlier, the .45ACP only needs to surpass the 9mm NATO in that test.

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The Sig P226 Tactical Operations model in .357SIG with 15+1 capacity. Not
the most popular cartridge, but performance is excellent and the SIG P226
has already proven itself in military testing.

If you’re a semi-auto pistol junkie like me, you are eagerly waiting to see which manufacturers join the MHS competitive process. The more the merrier because I would love see more data on various models and calibers. Be patient. The U.S. Government does not have a track record for moving quickly on these types of decisions, and it could be a few years before a winner is declared. More to come!

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The new HK VP9 is everything the MHS needs except it’s chambered in 9mm NATO.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it is available in .40S&W very soon.

My dark-horse candidate for the MHS is the Walther PPQ. You’ll notice that it is strikingly similar to the H&K, and it’s important to note that the PPQ came first. If you do some research and look at comparisons between the two pistols, you’ll find that opinions lean towards the PPQ having a better trigger. The M2 variant of the PPQ moves the magazine release from the trigger guard to a traditional push-button position that is reversible for left-handed shooters.

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The Walther PPQ M2 is very similar to the H&K above. It’s currently available in 9mm and .40 S&W. Another bonus is the adjustable rear sight for windage. Some believe it is a better pistol overall because of its excellent trigger. It’s also ~$150 less and weighs a few ounces less than the H&K.