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

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. Also, to TTAC USA for building a perfect custom carry and competition holster for the RX with light. And thanks to Blue Ridge Arsenal for Southern hospitality and generous range time.

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.

Image Gallery

Glock’s 9mm 19 MHS entry has an unmistakably hard core military look and most of the box-check features like overall Coyote Brown finish, 1913 rail (oddly only one slot), ambi safety, slide release and user-reversible mag dropper, 17-round hi-cap mags. But close examination shows some shortcomings in terms of the Army’s specs. “Modularity” is nowhere near that of the SIG, although accommodation of dainty hands or beefy fists works with interchangeable backstraps. Remarkably, the pistol seen here has no cutout on top of the slide as specified for the Leupold red dot that’s likely to win a separate contract. It’s probably there in the two–9mm G19 and .40 S&W G23–actually submitted for Army evaluation. GLOCK

And the chosen ones! SIG’s M17 and shorter M18 (inset), both in 9mm NATO cal. and seen with 21-round and 17-round mags respectively. There’s a 4.7-inch barrel on the 17- and a 3.9-incher on the 18. Overall Coyote Brown, of course. Both use the same reinforced polymer Compact grip module that swaps out in sizes for small, medium and large hands. Ergonomics are excellent with optimum hand angle, finger grooves on both sides, textured surfaces for sure gripping, smooth contours and popular beavertail overhang. Looking from top to bottom, left to right on either one we see armorer-swappable SIGLITE Tritium sights for individual zeroing, black plate covering the slide cutout for addition of a red dot sight, cocking serrations fore and aft, 3-slot M1913 rail, ambi takedown lever, slide catch lever and thumb safety (up for SAFE). Its prominent, diamond-shaped mag release is user-changeable to the other side for southpaws. SIG SAUER

This excellent off-side view of the M17 with slide-locked back offers a wealth of information. Starting from the rear, the sight is marked HZ H3 16, allowing an armorer to immediately identify its characteristics, and we get a better look at the red dot sight footprint’s cover plate. At the rear of the ejection slot is the extractor and above that the loaded chamber indicator. Further down the stainless steel slide with its Coyote Brown finish applied by PVD process, we see handy front cocking serrations and the windage-adjustable front sight marked MH3 AO to facilitate identification. Poking out the front of the slide is the stainless steel barrel, finished in matte black. Its jaunty upward angle is, of course, due to the way it locks and unlocks when the slide cycles. We asked SIG how this affects double tap shooting with a suppressor. No reply so far. Also, poking out from the front of the grip module is the matte black finished recoil spring guide rod. Moving rearward, note the sharply defined 1913 rail and the annoying two-eyed spanner screw, supposedly barring operator removal of the takedown lever. There’s another one of these on the rear of the slide to keep bored and curious GIs from messing with the striker mechanism. Molded into the grip module is its point of origin–SIG’s Newington, New Hampshire factory. Peeking through a window is the weapon’s official serial number, deeply cut into the fire control module.

A close-in view of the business end shows how the slide rides in the frame with minimal clearance for debris to enter yet loose enough for positive functioning. The oval opening for the barrel is necessary due to the pistol’s “tipping” locking action. Some “GI proofing” may be hinted at in the shape of the front end of the recoil spring guide, requiring the soldier to assemble it in proper orientation. SIG SAUER

The standard size M17, seen here with extended 21-round magazine, has a 4.7-inch barrel. Note the nicely textured grip module and serrations on the front of the generous size, glove friendly trigger guard. Not apparent is the reported “dust flap” in the trigger channel to minimize entry of sand, dirt and snow. Three slots in the underslung Picatinny rail allow mounting a variety of aiming “enablers” (tactical lights and lasers). SIG SAUER

The compact FLVCPs at USASOC will be in 9mm, but here’s Glock’s long slide .45 ACP cal. G41 in action with the rugged Leupold Delta Point Pro red dot riding on top. This excellent electro optic is the odds-on favorite to win pending contracts for not only SOCOM’s Glocks, but all those SIGs soon to be rolling into the US Armed Forces. Robert Bruce

The lineage of the M17 and smaller M18 is obvious in looking at SIG’s P320RX Compact with its distinctive Romeo 1 red dot sight, brilliant-beamed Foxtrot 1 tactical light and tough steel 15-round magazine. Robert Bruce

Compare this view of the P320RX Compact to the similar one of the M17 (007) and be assured that only minimal adjustments needed to be made for SIG’s winning entry in the MHS competition. Both have the Compact grip module, and this RX has the medium size. Robert Bruce

Inner secrets are revealed here for both the P320 and the M17, most importantly the removable, serial numbered, stainless steel fire control module that’s legally and essentially the firearm itself. The slide and grip module are just added parts. The one in the Army version is slightly modified for a thumb safety, while most all of the P320 series civilian/LE models have only the internal striker and disconnect safeties. Some like this, some don’t. One vexing question concerns design of the recoil spring and guide, seen below the 3.9-inch barrel. Early P320s had a single spring, and that’s what we observed in G&A’s photos of the XM17. Our later-model 320 has this improved, dual action spring assembly. No answer yet from the Army and SIG on which type will be in the production M17s. Robert Bruce

Not all ammo is created equal. SIG gave us some of their superb Elite Performance ball and JHP ammo for our live-fire testing, and it performed flawlessly as expected. But there are lots of other types of 9mm, and we needed to find out how the little 320RX would handle some representative samples as seen here. In all, nearly 800 rounds of various types of ball and JHP including steel case, aluminum case, subsonic and even some interesting “cold tracer” loads that are visible from the shooter’s perspective in very low light. No matter what we fed, it functioned flawlessly. Robert Bruce

“Devil Dog” (US Marine Infantry combat veteran) Colin Bruguiere geared up for test firing and photos where he works part-time as an RSO (Range Safety Officer) at Blue Ridge Arsenal’s Winding Brook location, outside Ashland, VA. This ultra-modern, superbly designed indoor shooting facility and full-service gun emporium is the newest expansion of BRA’s original in Chantilly, Northern Virginia. Robert Bruce

Patrol Base Folad, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, July 2013. Cradling distinctive Accuracy International L115A3 rifles, Marine Lance Corporal Colin Bruguiere (third from left) and Sergeant Roberto Barajas, have swapped weapons with a couple of Brit snipers. “They really liked ours,” Bruguiere said, “particularly my HK.” (The USMC’s 5.56mm M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle is an accessorized HK416). Colin Bruguiere

Ready for red-dot shooting. Bruguiere spent 2013 in Afghanistan’s notorious Helmand Province, including time at Camp Leatherneck as an M27-toting, door-kicking raider with the USMC’s Heliborne Interdiction Force. He’s quite comfortable with a variety of infantry weapons including plenty of trigger time with Marine M9s and the full size P320 that’s his everyday carry. But today’s his first chance to test fire the P320RX Compact with distinctive holographic red dot sight. Robert Bruce

A very slow shutter speed allows the camera to catch this dramatic multi-shot string as the P320RX puts 9mm metal downrange. Apparent trace of the Foxtrot 1 tac light up and down shows how muzzle rise with each shot is easily countered by an experienced shooter and this very controllable handgun. Robert Bruce

The holographic red dot of the Romeo 1 is not on the target–it’s on board the pistol in the molded glass aspheric lens window. This gives the shooter an instant aim point with no critical time needed to line up rear sight, front sight and target. Its 3 MOA dot has multiple intensity settings for different ambient light conditions. Unlike a weapon-mounted visible laser, it doesn’t show the “target” where you are (unless, of course, your tac light is on too). Robert Bruce