The Army’s New M17 Modular Handgun System

By Robert Bruce, Military Affairs Editor

The Battle Royale Comes Down to SIG & Glock, SIG Takes the Day!

“We are not talking about nuclear subs or going to the moon here. We are talking about a pistol.”
General Mark Milley, US Army Chief of Staff, complaining to the House Armed Services Committee in 2016 about the $17 million, two-year MHS competition process.

Soon after the billowing clouds of nitrocellulose fog from a full year of grueling formal tests and soldier evaluations cleared at the end of 2016, the Army announced selection of SIG SAUER’s modified P320 as its new Modular Handgun System. The best of a reported dozen rivals hoping to replace the worn out warhorse Beretta M9, this polymer-framed, striker-fired, innovatively modular pistol emerged seemingly victorious.

Formal Announcement

“The US Army awarded the Modular Handgun System (MHS) contract on January 19, 2017 to Sig Sauer, Inc. The caliber of the weapon is 9mm, and the XM17 MHS handgun is a variant of the Sig Sauer model P320. It is ‘Coyote Brown’ in color and has interchangeable hand grips and is ambidextrous allowing the user to tailor the ergonomics to best fit their hands and optimize their performance. The contract allows the Army and other services to procure Sig Sauer’s proposed XM1152 Full Metal Jacket, XM1153 Special Purpose ammunition and training rounds; their proposed full size and compact variants of the MHS; and ancillary components. The contract ceiling is $580M which is sufficient to procure Army requirements, other service requirements, and potential Foreign Military Sales requirements.”—US Army MHS Contract Award announcement

Predictably, this sent hordes of heavily armed pistol partisans rushing to man the bulletin boards for Glock and SIG, firing off fusillades supporting or condemning the Army’s decision. While a lively debate, this had about zero chance of swaying the Army’s decision.

But what quickly emerged from Glock’s USA headquarters did. Although fresh from winning the almost equally prestigious $85 million FBI pistol contract, Glock’s executives were understandably unhappy with what they considered unfairly losing this multi-million dollar opportunity; perhaps diminishing the prestige and some of the multi-national military, law enforcement and civilian market sales the firm has long been enjoying.

Protest March

Alleging a veritable catalog of errors and slights in the highly formalized administrative and evaluation process, Glock’s detailed protest wisely zeroed in on supporting real combat soldiers. “By not completing the testing on both proposals [by SIG and Glock] on a competitive basis, the Army never determined which pistol would better meet the warfighter’s needs,” said Josh Dorsey, VP of GLOCK, Inc.

But bureaucrats and lawyers at the General Accountability Office backed the Army. “Overall, despite the evaluation errors uncovered in the course of this protest, we have no basis to conclude that Glock would have a substantial chance at an award,” wrote Susan A. Poling, General Counsel. “Even when the errors are considered together, we find no prejudice to Glock. The protest is denied in part and dismissed in part.” (Search “GAO Glock decision” for a fascinating look at the whole 17 pages of classic government legalese.)

Over and Out

Based on results of an IOT&E (Initial Operational Test and Evaluation) that had been proceeding separately from the legal fight, the Army followed-up with a public relations announcement that delivered a virtual coup de grace to Glock’s effort.

Army News Service release, 20 Jul 17: Soldiers have many reasons to be excited about the new Sig Sauer modular handguns, which the Army will begin fielding in November, said Lt. Col. Steven Power, product manager of Soldier Weapons.

Testing of the modular handgun system, or MHS, this spring by Soldiers at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, resulted in overwhelmingly positive feedback, Power said, and 100-percent concurrence that the XM17 was an upgrade over the M9.

In this case, all of the Soldiers who tested the handgun said the MHS was more comfortable to shoot, and they had better confidence with it, Power said.

Cynics may be excused for observing that most soldiers would rate most any shiny new pistol an improvement over the 30-year-old M9; its reputation sullied by the Army’s lowest bidder magazines.

Assuming SIG’s M17 makes it safely through “Production Verification” (can SIG make ‘em well enough and fast enough at the same time), that seems to be it for “Big Army,” on track to deliver the first 2,000 in November to Screaming Eagles of the legendary 101st Airborne Division. This is to be followed by some 193,000 more, Army-wide over the next several years.

With a generous $580 million ceiling on the 10-year contract award, there’s plenty of room for others to climb on the bandwagon.
Indeed, in presentations at NDIA’s 2017 Armaments Conference, representatives of all major branches of the US Armed Forces signaled they were going to replace, at some point, their current handgun inventories with new SIGs; some sooner than others. USAF wants 130,000, Navy 61,000, and a certain group of traditionally amphibious warriors might eventually buy 35,000 but has more important things to do right now with their badly wounded weapons budget.

Snake Eaters

Meanwhile, US Special Operations Command seems perfectly happy with all its various Glocks. The Army part of this–Green Berets, Rangers and Night Stalkers–has announced plans to field nearly 12,000 new Glock 19s with red-dot sights and tactical lights in its Family of Low-Visibility and Concealable Pistols for covert carry.

But not to worry, all the other SPECOPS components say they’ll likely begin integrating SIG M17 and M18 pistols a couple of years down the road. Assuming, of course, their very justifiably opinionated “users” concur with this phase-in. (Who’s gonna be make macho MARSOC operators surrender their high speed M1911 .45s or steely-eyed SEALS toss their Glock G9s overboard?)

Sighting in on SIG

So, the US Armed Forces Modular Handgun System is SIG’s M17 and M18, both in 9x19mm NATO caliber. Perpetuating this relatively puny cartridge is a bitter pill to many advocates of the venerable .45ACP cartridge, but made more palatable by the prospect of pumping out Winchester’s wickedly effective XM1153 “Special Purpose” hollow points. If the Pentagon’s notoriously liberal lawyers will allow .... (Calling Colonel Hays Parks to come out of retirement and rescue real warfighters once again).

Now, as painstakingly discovered from research in a number of authoritative sources and seen in the accompanying studio photos that SIG kindly provided, we offer some RKI observations.

Meaningful differences between the already quite nicely modular civilian 320 family–the NRA’s 2016 Handgun of the Year–and the military M17/M18 include an ambidextrous thumb safety, loaded chamber indicator, orange tritium in its metal sights, a cover plate atop the slide for later installation of a red-dot sight, dust shield in the trigger opening, anti-corrosion coating for the fire control module (SIG calls it a “frame assembly”) and an RFID chip. That’s pretty much it.

Some lesser points are overall “Coyote Brown” finish and two annoying “pin spanner” screws the Army reportedly insisted on to keep GIs from taking it apart more than allowed. (Hint: Small needle nose plier points do the trick).

If you’re curious as to why the Army wants its MHS in two sizes, the smaller M18 is slated to replace all those M11s (SIG P228) that some special type units have for concealed carry.

It’s a testament to the original 320’s excellent design and performance characteristics that this is all that was needed to meet solicitation specs and to excel in the ensuing torture tests. While the Army seemingly considers the test regimen to be Top Secret, it undoubtedly included dropping, drowning, sanding, salting, beating, baking, freezing, marathon firing and worse.

Building Blocks

“Modularity” was baked-in the borderline-absurd 350-page original solicitation. SIG has it; Glock not so much.

While the Glock entry boasts interchangeable backstraps for different sized hands, SIG includes three different sizes of grip frame modules that come with each pistol. All that’s needed to swap ‘em out (once the damnable pin spanner is defeated) is to remove the serial-numbered fire control module and install it in the desired grip module. A task about as challenging as opening an MRE.
Because their grip modules are the same Compact version, the standard SIG M17 becomes the stubbier M18 just by swapping the regular slide and barrel for the shorter ones. Need a red dot sight? A Leupold Delta Point Pro just happens to fit perfectly in that hole on top of the slide (and it may emerge the winner in a separate contracting effort). Tac light and laser? The Army’s got plenty already, and any other that grabs tight on the grip module’s Picatinny Rail is good to go.

Non-lethal force-on-force training? There’s UTM’s kit with marker rounds. Need to use a suppressor? Install a threaded barrel on either model and screw on the can. 9mm not doin’ the job even with JHP? Power up with a caliber conversion kit (not now approved by the Army but certainly available if needed).

Consolation Prize

While we weren’t able to test an XM17 for evaluation, they did send us the closest cousin; a nice little P320RX Compact, complete with blazing hot Foxtrot 1 tactical light. This allowed us and several other lucky shooters the opportunity for plenty of live fire drills under various conditions. In all, we went through about 800 rounds of various 9mm ball and JHP types including steel case, aluminum case, subsonic and even some interesting “cold tracer” loads. No problems were encountered.

Caliber: 9 x 19mm NATO (Luger)
Action: Striker-fired, semi-automatic, recoil-operated, tipping barrel locking
Feed: Standard 15-rd. detachable steel magazine, higher-capacity available
Trigger: Double-action only, 6.5lbs. pull
Barrel: 3.9in. 6 grooves, right twist
Overall length: 7.2in
Height: 6.1in
Weight: 25.8oz
Sights: SIGLITE Tritium front and rear, co-witness with Romeo 1 holographic red dot
Materials: Polymer grip frame, stainless steel slide and trigger frame module, carbon steel barrel
Finish: Matte Black Nitron
Notes: Modular design with choice of interchangeable size grip frames, slides, barrels, caliber conversion
MSRP: $1,040 SIG SAUER, Inc., Exeter, New Hampshire, USA www.sigsauer.com

We Report, You Decide

Much has been made of the assertion that the paltry per-unit cost of pistols in SIG’s XM17 bid is approximately $207. Certainly a bargain-basement price, but will it be the best value in the long run?

Glock doesn’t think so, as evident in a press release at the time: “In fact, Sig Sauer was awarded the MHS contract prematurely based on price.”

While SIG’s M17 is roaring down the track to be US Armed Forces Standard, Glock fans have plenty of reasons for pride and optimism. As previously mentioned, they’re the handguns of choice for USSOCOM, the FBI and plenty of other LE entities, as well as mucho military worldwide.

And we may even see Glock winning the contract to arm all components of the sprawling US Department of Homeland Security. Game on!

Parting Shot

With the tantalizing likelihood of ODCMP selling US military surplus M1911 .45s, will Uncle Sam eventually hold a clearance sale for all those hundreds of thousands of now-obsolescent Beretta M9 pistols? Oh, and SIG M11s too?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to SIG for the loaner 320RX, all those great things seen in the studio photo setups and for providing essential pictures including the M17 and M18 MHS. sigsauer.com Also, to TTAC USA for building a perfect custom carry and competition holster for the RX with light. ttacusa.com And thanks to Blue Ridge Arsenal for Southern hospitality and generous range time. blueridgearsenal.com

A Veteran’s Report on the SIG P320RX

Talking with Range Safety Officer Colin Bruguiere

23-year-old Colin Bruguiere, our primary pistol tester for this feature, works part-time as a Range Safety Officer at Blue Ridge Arsenal’s Ashland, Virginia, location while attending a local university.

He’s a Marine Corps veteran of a combat deployment in 2013 in Afghanistan’s hotly contested Helmand Province as an MOS 0311 Infantryman in Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; he spent most of the time as an M27 Squad Auto Rifleman with the “door kickers and trigger pullers” of the Heliborne Interdiction Force, a rapid reaction asset for a variety of critical tasks.
Following our extensive live fire test and photo session on BRA’s excellent indoor ranges, we sat down with Bruguiere to get his impressions from his first time shooting the SIG P320RX Compact.

SAR: Along with the Corps’ M9s, what handguns have you had experience with?

Colin Bruguiere: Primarily SIG’s because we sell a lot of different ones here. I’ve been carrying this 9mm 320 full size now for several months. The Beretta PX4 series, 1911 style .45s like Springfield, various Rugers, Smith M&Ps. Anything we’ve got or when somebody says, “you wanna shoot this?” I used to carry a Glock 43; nice and small. I chose the SIG over a Glock or an M&P–and I’ve seen this for other people–because out of the box it shoots like I want it to. I feel like I could go out and shoot a competition with this stock 320 and do pretty well.

SAR: How about the Army’s new M17?

CB: (Studying photos of the pistol) The thing that gives me pause about the M17 is the thumb safety. Because, like with the M9, you have to train and train to draw and take that thumb safety off as soon as it clears the holster. What’s the point of having it? I like the SIG’s double-action-only trigger. Also, the three grip sizes to fit a wider range of hands.

SAR: Overall fit and finish of the 320RX Compact we shot?

CB: Well made, looks good, shoots well, fits in the hand (medium grip installed) pretty solid. Polymer frame can still take a beating. Looking at the removable stainless steel trigger group (SIG calls it the frame assembly), they haven’t over-engineered the thing but come damn close (laughs).

SAR: How did the Compact size test pistol handle in shooting?

CB: Because it’s a relatively lightweight pistol, there’s a tendency to have to force it back in place when kicking off a triple tap, even with the full size; the best balanced because of the longer barrel and slide. But in the rapid fire drills for the test and photos, I didn’t feel like it was going everywhere. Maybe the weight of the tactical light up front helped.

SAR: How about the sights? Not only the red dot Romeo 1, but also the backup iron sights.

CB: I like the SIGLITE Tritium night sights already installed as standard on the RX version. Bright in low light. Because they’re taller, they co-witness with the red dot. And there’s probably a clear path when SIG’s new low-profile suppressor is in place.

SAR: How about iron sight shooters getting used to that red dot. Do you have to retrain your brain?

CB: I think it’s a one-magazine training exercise. You shoot a couple rounds and see “OK that’s where I’m hitting with the red dot.” You pick up on it pretty quickly. One of the things about the red dot I was really impressed with was when we were shooting through all that fog machine smoke, the red dot came through. I like the Romeo’s wide field of view, variable brightness and size of the red dot. It’s sturdy enough to hit with the web of your hand for fast cocking. Or in a one-handed scenario maybe you can push it against your gear or your boot to cock it.

SAR: Any likes or dislikes in the loading and make-ready sequence?

CB: Over the M9, the SIG’s mag release protrudes a little more, making it easier to quickly hit. Even with cold fingers or bulky gloves. You can switch it to the other side if you’re a lefty. And if a gritty magazine doesn’t want to drop, those cuts at the base of the grip are nice for pulling it out.

SAR: Stripping, cleaning, reassembly?

CB: I’d say the SIG, the Glock and the M9 are all pretty close in ease of stripping down. Simple, no issues. No hard to get to places inside to clean.

SAR: Suggestions for making it better?

CB: I haven’t had any issues slapping in a new mag, but maybe beveling inside the opening to the mag well? I think the Army version has a loaded chamber indicator. Other than that, they’ve pretty much covered the bases.

SAR: When it came down to the wire there were two M17 MHS contenders: SIG and Glock. Do you think the Army made the right choice?

CB: Absolutely, I think they made a fantastic choice.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to the fine folks at Blue Ridge Arsenal for shutting down an entire shooting bay in their state-of-the-art facility for several hours to accommodate our live-fire test and photo session. blueridgearsenal.com

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N9 (November 2017)
and was posted online on September 22, 2017


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