By Robert Bruce
(Editor’s Note: With fielding of replacements for all of its aging 9mm Beretta M9 pistols in favor of new .40 caliber SIG P229s, the United States Coast Guard has become the first branch of the US Armed Forces to not only retire the Department of Defense’s standard issue handgun, but also the marginally effective NATO standard round it fires. We dispatched Military Affairs Editor Robert Bruce to get the story of how this momentous decision was reached, what steps were taken to make the best choices, how the transition was progressing, and what users were saying about their hot new pistol. - Robert G. Segel)
“The M9 9mm Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) has served the Coast Guard well for nearly two decades, but the need for a replacement handgun was apparent from both an operational and maintainability standpoint.” Commandant’s ALCOAST Message, 7 October 2005
When the critical need arises to draw and shoot a pistol, there are many reasons why most special operations types don’t carry M9s filled with 9mm hardball. These same reasons are also cited by others in line-of-fire roles whose primary duties don’t facilitate carrying the now-ubiquitous M4 carbine, or who need a reliable and hard-hitting backup.
The United States Coast Guard, the smallest branch of the US Armed Forces with some 47,000 active and reserve personnel, was liberated from the Department of Transportation after 9/11 and is now a star component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) where law enforcement is deadly serious.
In addition to such traditional duties as search and rescue, and marine safety, the Coast Guard is charged with the gargantuan mission of securing our nation’s ports and waterways against terrorist threats. It also operates far offshore in drug interdiction and with sister services in foreign waters worldwide.
All of these duties have involved “Coasties” with holstered M9 pistols and more than a bit of grief has arisen from aging guns and puny ammo.
Worn-out Berettas were the main problem cited in relevant official USCG announcements along the way. In particular, an “ALCOAST” Commandant’s message on 5 Nov 04 specified “...increased frame failure rates, unreliability issues and that 75 percent have far exceeded their predicted 5,000 round service life (CG fires an average 500 9mm rounds annually, the majority of PDWs have been in service for approx. 16 years, well beyond their predicted service life).”
So, why not buy a bunch of new M9s?
A careful reading of some other CG documentation acknowledges what many in the field have been saying for years. While a politically sensitive issue, there is an unarguable need for more stopping power than that inherent in NATO standard full metal jacket “hardball” 9mm ammunition.
Thus, the Coast Guard was an energetic participant in a big shootout conducted by DHS over several weeks in 2004 on behalf of its enforcement agencies including Immigration, Customs, Border Protection, and Sky Marshals. Six manufacturers, Beretta included, submitted 46 models and more than 2.9 million rounds of various calibers were pumped through 690 guns.
The test regimen was impressive for its relevance to mechanical, environmental and human factors. In addition to strict accuracy and function testing, requirements included repeated four foot drops on concrete, shooting with a plugged barrel, plus environmental torture in 200 degree heat, minus 30 degree cold, windblown sand, and salt water immersion. 22 experienced Coast Guard shooters also personally evaluated each candidate weapon for handling and firing characteristics.
When the vapors of nitrocellulose combustion cleared, the Coast Guard chose the P229R-DAK in .40 S&W caliber from SIGARMS. In August, 2004, The Exeter, New Hampshire, firm got a 4.2 million dollar contract for an initial order of 12,000 pistols, commencing delivery soon afterward at the rate of more than 1,000 per month.
Pistols and other small arms from the Swiss/German team SIG SAUER have earned a well deserved reputation for reliability, accuracy, durability, and user enthusiasm. SIGARMS, its American operation, offering designs resulting from long service in various forms and calibers with elite military units and law enforcement worldwide, enjoys much recent success in mega contracts with US government agencies on the cutting edge of homeland security and the Global War on Terror.
Lt. (JG) John Strasburg, USCG Office of Counterterrorism and Special Missions states, “On October 7th, 2005, the Coast Guard officially launched its transition to another handgun - the .40 caliber SIGARMS P229R-DAK pistol. The effort, spearheaded by Coast Guard Headquarters, took nearly two years and thousands of man hours. The need for a replacement to the venerable M9 9mm Beretta was identified in late 2003; the M9 had served the Coast Guard well as the standard service arm since 1986, but wear and tear through the years and the Coast Guard’s requirement for a larger caliber drove the change.”
A comprehensive transition plan was developed at the same time, with the goal of ensuring that units and users would experience no degradation in mission effectiveness during changeover. Much more than just swapping out pistols and ammo, moving to the new Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) comes with a catalog of components running the full range from bore brushes to boarding parties.
SAR contacted USCG headquarters to get the straight scoop and soon got a call back from the right guy with the right stuff. Although too modest to say it himself, Lieutenant (JG) John Strasburg has been a driving force behind the landmark transition program, now well underway as of this writing in Spring 2006. A former enlisted Gunners Mate, with plenty of experience in operations afloat and ashore, this young officer seems particularly well qualified to oversee the program’s complex and interlocking pieces.
According to Strasburg, “Headquarters bought the pistols, magazines and three new types of ammunition, Ball, Jacketed Hollow Point and Frangible, each to support specific missions.” These were stockpiled at central locations to support the second phase when designated units would requisition these and begin implementing training and qualification. While this was going on, he said, a lot of experienced Coasties were hard at work charting the course.
Strasburg arranged a meeting at the Coast Guard’s TCY (Training Center Yorktown, Virginia) so we could sit down with him and senior enlisted representatives of the Engineering and Weapons Branch; key players in the transition.
“TCY has the expertise we needed to turn SIG’s operator, technical and training materials into something like the DoD manuals for the other small arms we use,” Strasburg said. “Staff and Instructors of the Gunner’s Mate ‘A’ School, Small Arms Instructor School, course writers and others were able to give us a really good product.”
Soon after the contract to SIGARMS was awarded, TCY started getting a supply of pistols, ammunition, manuals and maintenance items. These facilitated both study and hands-on evaluation with the goal of practical modifications to things that had long been institutionalized in supporting the M9.
Nearly everything needed attention. The changeover required some new administrative procedures, storage and issue of three types of new ammo, modifications to weapon security racks, changes in manuals for operators and armorers, reworking basic and advanced range qualification programs.
And it wasn’t merely rewriting civilian into military-speak, according to Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Dana Brooks of Training, Engineering and Weapons. “All that’s a joint effort from the GM ‘A’ School instructors, SAI school instructors, and headquarters. We would draft one and send it around for review, to delete or add anything; courses of fire, instruction, weapons, maintenance, and repair.” This round-robin continued, Strasburg added, until all hands approved of the finished product.
Training the Trainers
Yorktown’s Weapons School takes pride in not only providing entry-level “A” qualification for Gunner’s Mates, but several “C” programs as well for more salty Coasties. In addition to in-depth training on the formidable MK38 25mm Machine Gun and MK75 76mm Gun Weapon System, it is also where Small Arms Instructors learn their demanding craft.
Chief Gunner’s Mate Ronald Scoggin, who heads up the Small Arms Instructor School, had also participated in the morning’s round table discussion. It fell to him to explain how his operation contributed to the P229 transition.
The demanding four week SAI School has a reputation for being one of the hardest and most rigorous in the Coast Guard, Scoggin told us, an assertion strongly seconded in a later discussion with Gunner’s Mate First Class John Kelly, an International Training Division staffer, going through the course.
“It’s intense, but it has to be,” Kelly said. “Once a petty officer graduates and goes out into the fleet it means that he has the school’s seal of approval - total trust and confidence that we won’t deviate from anything we’ve learned here.”
Scoggin, a 19 year veteran of Marine Corps and Coast Guard service, heads up a team of similarly seasoned professionals with plenty of trigger time on boarding parties and other maritime law enforcement missions. They have the expertise and the judgment that headquarters was looking for to smoothly integrate the new SIG pistol.
As things worked through, Scoggin said, the SIG wasn’t all that different from the old M9. “Seems a little shorter and bulkier but carrying procedures are the same. The way it’s taken into service in boardings is the same. Even the basic course is the same as that of the M9. But the Practical Pistol Course, because of the magazine capacity - 12 rounds vs. 15 - now we have a couple more magazine changes.”
On the other hand, he noted some important differences. “The SIG’s DAO - double action only - takes some getting used to. Before they even go up and try a qualification course we give our students a box of 50 rounds and tell ‘em to get used to the weapon’s trigger squeeze, handling and function.”
Also the illuminated sights for night fire. “The first time I ever saw it was last class with the night fire. A reservist - a police officer in civilian life - qualified with a perfect score at night. A perfect 50. He said that because the way the (SIG’s) night sights illuminated he was right on target. He was tickled to death and that target’s now in our hall of fame.”
We joined the current SAI class on the range nearby, an austere but well designed multi-weapon facility with concrete floor and heavy wooden beams supporting a translucent roof for natural light. Open on three sides, we were particularly thankful for the luck of a sunny day with temperatures in the mid 50s - highly unusual for coastal Virginia in the dead of winter.
The fifteen students were beginning Week 3 by shooting the Practical Pistol Course with the new P229. One was acting as the designated Instructor, demonstrating his mastery of range commands and procedures that must be recalled exactly and given verbatim from memory.
Other students were demonstrating different firing positions and timed drills which included fast and slow shots at various distances from strong and weak hands with and without support. Magazine changes abound, reinforcing necessary muscle memory for instinctive action.
Interestingly, we noted a couple of “alibis” arising from function difficulties with the pistols and the ammunition. Observed stoppages included failure to feed, stovepipe, and one round needing two trigger strokes to ignite it. This was later explained by Scoggin as a natural consequence of brand new weapons needing more break-in time before they work well with the CG’s new environmentally friendly practice ammo, a big plus on ranges to minimize problems with high lead levels.
The Winchester Ranger Frangible SF is pushing a 135 grain no-lead composite bullet at 1,170 fps, and is a cartridge with less recoil impulse than duty issue ball and JHP. The solution, Scoggin says, is to “First run 100 rounds of hardball through each new gun, something we didn’t have a chance to do with some of these. “
Recent SAI grads, along with others who have attended Transition Train-the-Trainer Conferences, have gone back to their areas and units to conduct the ongoing pistol changeover, eliminating the need for outside contract personnel and reinforcing the “Team Coast Guard” concept of operations.
Sector Delaware Bay
The next step in SAR’s inquiry was to check in with some of the personnel who had recently completed transition training and were regularly carrying the new SIG on duty. Sector Delaware Bay, headquartered in Philadelphia, was identified as the CG’s first major user under Phase 2 of the Commandant’s plan.
We were initially puzzled to learn that headquarters directives specify that the “large cutters and tactical units will receive the handgun last.” It didn’t seem right to us that tip-of-the-spear Coasties would have to wait, until it was explained that DoD facilities won’t allow the .40 cal. commercially procured ammo on naval vessels or installations until it undergoes the type classification process. Score another one for the bureaucrats who aren’t willing, even in wartime, to make a common-sense adjustment in the rules.
Less clear was the current prohibition against tactical lights of any kind on the pistols, even for those who would buy their own. The weapon has a MIL STD 1913 rail on the front end of the frame, just begging to be geared up with any combination of laser, IR and visible illuminators in the DoD supply system or otherwise available. Headquarters directives charge units with the responsibility for buying suitable holsters, but caution that those allowing carry with attached tac lights are a no-go.
We invited official CG comment and what was forthcoming fits the big picture. “The Coast Guard will not authorize attachments ... until applicable Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) are developed and incorporated into the training (documents).”
Headquarters put us in contact with Lieutenant (JG) Marvin Kimmel, who recently assumed command of SDB’s Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security Division. He told us that some of his Gunner’s Mates were on the 5th District team that implemented the Sector’s transition. Kimmel and his Coasties, along with other units, went through qualification conducted at the CG’s Pomona, NJ, facility over a period of twelve days in December 2005.
First came several hours of classroom instruction to familiarize students with the weapon, its handling, loading and unloading, stripping, cleaning and reassembly. This was followed by unscored practice firing with two full magazines, helping shooters get used to the feel of the pistol, sight alignment, double action only trigger, and recoil. Then record fire to validate those newly qualified to turn in their old Berettas and begin carrying SIGs in the line of duty.
Kimmel says things went very smoothly for the most part. “The GMs handled the whole thing with no need for outside contract instructors. Classroom and range activities proceeded well but there might be some issues with the (frangible) ammo.”
Since the “new pistol shooting frangible ammo” situation had caught our eye at TCY, this flagged a question for further investigation. Was this, we asked, caused by the pistol or the cartridge?
Careful to note a relatively small number of misfires and other stoppages during his unit’s transition firing, Kimmel said the GMs believed these were more a frangible ammo factor than the weapon. No problems with Ball and JHP were reported.
It is instructive at this point to take a close look at a portion of an official transition program message issued by headquarters, addressing a “subtle” drop in qualification rates for a test sample of individuals with the new pistol: “This was attributed to a number of reasons including handgun break in, double action trigger, frangible ammo quality. The slides in the new handgun are tight and, combined with the light projectile weight of the frangible ammo, created a number of jams for shooters. Additionally, the .40 caliber handgun’s double action trigger is significantly different to that of the 9mm handgun.”
Headquarters provided a very practical set of steps in the same message to deal with what seasoned observers recognize as all but inevitable when everything is brand new. First, each pistol will have to be fired with 100 rounds before issue for training or operational use. Then, rookie shooters on the Basic Pistol Marksmanship Course will use only ball or JHP ammo. Finally, those graduating BPMC will get frangible to fire the Practical Pistol Course, starting with 24 unscored rounds for familiarization.
SAR spoke with knowledgeable representatives of SIG, Winchester and the CG. The new pistols work great with the duty ammo they were designed to shoot and the frangible training ammo’s specially formulated non-toxic primers are sometimes a bit harder to light up. Particularly in fanny-freezing cold like SDB Coasties had on the transition range. No big deal.
Kimmel agreed to solicit comments from PWCSD Gunner’s Mates Irby and Wood, experienced handgunners with a few years in the job, along with some others under his command. Some selected responses:
SAR: Any specific advantages of the new round and pistol over the M9?
- More accurate, more durable, less malfunctions.
- I like the stability of the weapon. The old M9 was unstable. If you would shake the weapon it would rattle. The new round is more conducive to our job. If one was to discharge a 9mm ball round from the M9 then it had a high probability of ricochet. The new hollow point has less of a chance of passing completely through a person and ricocheting off of a steel bulkhead.
- The new PDW has several advantages over the M9 including increased stopping power. But the main advantage, in my opinion, is the compact design of the weapon despite its larger character and the more consistent trigger pull when compared to the M9.
- Despite its increase in caliber, the new PDW has a slight increase in recoil that does not interfere with target acquisition or the ability to remain on target. I find the new PDW to have very good accuracy which is comparable to the M9.
- The .40 cal hollow point round has much more stopping power. No one is going to keep going after a direct hit from that round, whereas a 9mm may take two or three rounds to take down a subject - especially if the subject is using a narcotic.
SAR: Like or dislike the SIG’s handling compared with the M9 (weight, balance, grip size and angle, etc.)?
- I found the SIG’s handling to be new, not better or worse, just a variation to get used to for the new PDW.
- As an SAI, I feel the SIG is 100 times better than the M9 in every aspect.
- The weight and balance of the new weapon is nicer. It feels more secure in one’s hand. The grip size has been a plus for personnel with smaller hands. Personnel with larger hands don’t tend to have much of a problem with it either.
In a follow-up telephone interview, Kimmel took a bit of exception to the last comment. “I have to remind myself that my big meaty hand sometimes interferes with inserting a new magazine. Also, my long index finger makes it hard to pull straight back on the trigger. If I’m not careful I’ll tweak it to the side. This wasn’t a problem with the Beretta.”
SAR: Anything else that needs to be said?
- Better weapon all around. Better looking weapon. We definitely look like we have newer technology than 1980s. Officer presence is increased in my opinion, in that a newer, more advanced weapon helps us to be viewed as advanced federal officers....
As the transition program expands throughout the Coast Guard, postings on numerous internet bulletin boards frequented by GMs and other Coasties are noting a percentage of failures to qualify with the new weapon on the first go-round. Typical entries cite the DAK trigger and the pistol’s more energetically recoiling round. But all of this was put into perspective by one salty old GM who had been around for the transition from .45 M1911 to M9: “Takes practice.”
“Semper Paratus” Always Ready
The US Coast Guard is a military, multi-mission, maritime service and one of the nation’s five Armed Services. Its mission is to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests - in the nation’s ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security.
SAR’s experience with Strasburg, Scoggin, Kimmel and other Coast Guard professionals inspires great confidence in the smallest of the US Armed Forces. While urging the best of America’s young men and women to enlist for any of the CG’s many ratings (telephone (877) NOW-USCG or log on to www.gocoastguard.com), we at SAR are naturally inclined toward that of Gunner’s Mate. Check out the Weapons School at TCY for apprentice level and advanced training opportunities at their website www.uscg.mil/tcyorktown/tew/gm.shtm.
Homeland Security Pistol
SIGARMS’ great line of handguns and other weaponry may be explored in depth at www.sigarms.com. One particularly interesting product is the limited-edition .40 S&W caliber “P229 HSP.” It’s just like the ones now in use by the Coast Guard, complete with barcode on the slide, Picatinny rail, DAK trigger, NITRON finished slide, and SIGLITE night sights. Only 1,000 were made and they’re going fast!
As seen in the accompanying comparison table, the Coast Guard’s interesting choice of SIG’s stubby P229 with double-action only and midpower cartridge departs from predecessors in some noteworthy ways.
|P229 SIG||M9 Beretta|
|Caliber:||.40 S&W (10 mm)||9mm (.355 cal.)|
|FMJ Projectile Wt:||155 gr.||124 gr.|
|Muzzle Velocity:||1,190 fps||1,250 fps|
|Length:||7.1 in.||8.54 in.|
|Sight radius:||5.7 in.||6.2 in.|
|Width:||1.5 in.||1.5 in.|
|Height:||5.4 in.||5.51 in.|
|Weight:||29.5 oz. w/o mag.||35.3 oz. w/o mag.|
|Trigger:||DAO, 6.5 lbs.||DA 1st round, SA|
|all others. DA 12.3 lbs., SA 5.5 lbs.|
|Other:||M1913 rail on frame||No|
|Tritium night sights||No|
|Slide NITRON finished||Conventional bluing|
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