Army XM17 Modular Handgun System – Worth the Wait?
By LTC Craig Grosenheider (USA, Retired)
After years of delay in developing a strategy to field a new sidearm, the Army Acquisition Executive and the Project Manager – Soldier Weapons announced on January 19, 2017 that SIG Sauer had been selected as the winner of the $580M Modular Handgun System (MHS) competitive procurement, furnishing roughly 500,000 examples over the next 10 years. The long awaited selection finally brought down the curtain on the 30+ year reign of the generally competent but unremarkable Beretta M9 as the Army’s issue handgun. Given the dollars and effort involved in submitting a proposal for the MHS contract, losing contractors Glock, FN and Beretta may well protest the decision, but that does not appear likely to change the outcome.
The SIG XM17 is a variant of SIG’s production P320, introduced in 2014 and designed by SIG Sauer in part to meet the Army’s requirements for the MHS proposal. “Requirement” has a very specific meaning in the defense acquisition community, encompassing both the weapons systems expected performance and it’s adherence to technical specification. Force Development professionals on the Army staff and branch specific combat development officers work together to come up with the general capabilities a material solution is expected to enable, then Army acquisition project managers work with force developers and industry to develop, test and field the production item.
So what’s unique about the SIG design? Certainly there’s a broad selection of outstanding pistols available today with similar specifications – there’s nothing particularly novel about a striker fired, accessory rail equipped polymer framed high capacity pistol in NATO standard caliber 9x19mm. In the end, the Army made a best value decision that weighed performance against overall cost, and found the SIG proposal the most compelling.
There are several advantages to the MHS approach and the XM17’s design. Procured in both full sized and compact variants, soldiers will benefit from commonality of manual of arms, weapon manipulation and field maintenance procedures across the XM17 family of pistols. The compact version will replace the current issue M11, the military version of SIG’s own P228, issued to aviation and combat vehicle crews, undercover and plain clothes law enforcement and others that benefit from the reduced size and weight of a medium framed pistol. The larger variant brings the reduced recoil, longer sight radius and increased velocity inherent in a full sized fighting handgun. Both guns are configurable with 3 sizes of “grip modules” that vary in thickness, resulting in small, medium and large circumferences to better fit different sized hands. In general, the SIG 320 polymer frame is considered ergonomically well designed, with a natural pointing grip angle and a deep upper backstrap pocket for improved recoil control.
The XM17 is a far cry from grandpa’s P226. There is no hammer, and no manual decocker. It has a polymer frame with a steel slide, and utilizes a striker fired action. The striker action has the advantage of a consistent trigger pull from a loaded chamber, while incorporating internal safeties that prevent the gun from firing unless the trigger is pulled. The SIG striker design incorporates both decades of development experience and feedback from professional competition shooters like Max Michel, resulting in smooth takeup and short reset. Reset is the distance the trigger needs to travel forward after actuation in order to enable another shot; minimizing it reduces the “split” time needed between multiple shots. Amid some controversy, the Army also specified a redundant manual safety, perhaps because Privates – this feature is absent on the production SIG P320. The XM17 will be delivered with kits including threaded barrels and detachable suppressors for both compact and full sized variants fielded to units that require suppressed capability.
While not specifically called out in the announcement or depicted in press release photos, the XM17 produced by SIG offers the easily adopted future capability for what may be considered game changing technology – the mini reflex sight, or MRS. Derived from the long history of holographic “red dot” sighting systems first employed on tactical rifles and competition handguns, improvements in display technologies and electronics have enabled compact dot sights small enough for practical use on a tactical pistol. These compact, durable slide mounted dot sights enable quicker sight acquisition under all lighting conditions, resulting in both faster and more accurate shot placement at close combat distances and beyond. Mated with a suppressor and rail mounted laser/light combo, it’s easy to imagine the reflex sight equipped SIG pistol in use with units that need a handgun capable of use in the offensive role.
Finally, and perhaps most significant in terms of terminal performance, the US Department of Defense appears poised to accept the widespread combat use of jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) pistol ammunition – “ammunition capable of greater lethality” in the Army’s words – the gold standard for decades in civilian and law enforcement defensive handguns. Previously constrained by the legal interpretation of the Hague Conventions Law of Land Warfare prohibiting small arms ammunition that may cause “unnecessary suffering”, military handgun ammunition has remained “ball”, or full metal jacket, for as long as we’ve had centerfire metallic cartridges. This constraint more than any other has handicapped the historical combat effectiveness of the 9mm handgun, while modern developments in bullet design and construction have so significantly increased 9mm terminal performance in law enforcement use that the FBI recently elected to switch back to 9mm, after decades of specifying .40 S&W.
The combination of the XM17’s easily mission configured 21st Century design, coupled with advances in optics, noise signature suppression, improved sighting, rail mounted designation/ illumination and enhanced ammunition lethality represent a significant improvement in capability over the previous generation sidearm. While long overdue, the Army decision appears to reflect excellent judgement in choosing the M9’s replacement.
- LTC Craig Grosenheider, (USA Retired) is a defense consultant in Colorado Springs CO