American Commandos Are Fed Up With Waiting for the Army’s New Pistol

War Is Boring
Sep 2, 2015 · 6 min read


America’s special operators are in a bind. The U.S. Army’s standard-issue handgun, the Beretta M-9, is getting old and the Army wants to replace it. But the process is taking forever, and special operators want new guns now.

On Aug. 28, the ground combat branch formally asked gun makers to offer up options for a new standard issue sidearm. The winner of the competition — tentatively dubbed the XM-17 — will supplant the current M-9s across the service. But the Army doesn’t expect the XM-17 to arrive until 2018 at the earliest.

“Since this capability is needed presently (with deliveries being needed in November 2015), this time-frame is unacceptable as it would cause mission failure,” stated a notice the Army itself released in August on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s contracting website.

With this and other no-bid contracts, the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey is buying up thousands of Glock pistols to help out the U.S. Special Operations Command and foreign allies.

Besides, there’s a troubled history behind the plans for a new standard handgun. America’s elite forces have reasonable concerns about how long the whole process will take … if it happens at all.

“A selection for the ‘next military pistol’ has been proposed numerous times but has been postponed due to the widely published estimated cost of $350 [million] for the effort,” another contract document put out by Picatinny in July stated. “Both cost and schedule risk are high to the government.”

The lack of faith in the Army’s current Modular Handgun System project is well founded. Since the service first picked the nine-millimeter Beretta M-9 to be its main pistol in 1985, the ground combat branch has tried and failed three times to choose something else.

Above - a U.S. Army soldier shoots an M-9. At top - a Special Forces soldier takes part in a competition in Colombia with his Glock. Army photos
Above — a U.S. Army soldier shoots an M-9. At top — a Special Forces soldier takes part in a competition in Colombia with his Glock. Army photos

Shortly after Beretta — an Italian gun maker — won the XM-9 competition, Swiss firm SIG Sauer complained that it only lost because of collusion between the Army and Beretta. After two years of bickering, Government Accountability Office investigations and pressure from American lawmakers, the Army agreed to run another shoot-off.

But the new XM-10 trials became dogged by more allegations of fraud and other delays. SIG Sauer refused to participate, believing it should have won against Beretta in the first place. Beretta also declined to submit new pistols, feeling they had already proven themselves the first time.

The Army spent a year just courting competitors. American gun makers Ruger and Smith & Wesson eventually agreed to participate in the project. Evaluators went out and bought Berettas as the control weapons. The Italian guns won out again, and the XM-10 was scrapped.

In October 2004, the Army decided to try again with the Future Handgun System. Before the program could make any progress, the Pentagon decided to merge it with SOCOM’s Special Operations Forces Combat Pistol effort. The result was the Joint Combat Pistol. But that program was short-lived, too.

The Army quickly bailed. Without the backing of the big service, the Pentagon’s special operations headquarters muddled forward on its own. In 2008, the Pentagon finally killed the project entirely. In the meantime, elite units looked to buy small numbers of other pistols to supplement their standard issue sidearms.

Enter the Glock.

Austrian gun designer Gaston Glock caused quite a stir when he introduced his Model 17 to the public in 1982.

Billed as a “safe-action” design, racking the slide does not fully cock the firing pin — which typically makes a handgun ready to fire. Instead, the shooter actually has to pull the trigger to move the mechanism into the right position.

Glocks have a number of other internal safety features, too. Many users feel that the gun is safer to carry with a round in the chamber than more traditional sidearms. With a plastic frame, the nine-millimeter pistol only weighs 22 ounces unloaded. The legendary .45-caliber Colt M-1911 is nearly 20 ounces heavier.

However, rumors began to circulate that metal detectors in airports and court houses wouldn’t pick up the Glock’s plastic body. In reality, all Glocks have a metal slide.

As the media frenzy died down, the handguns quickly became popular with troops, cops and private citizens around the world. American commandos — particularly Green Berets, Rangers and the Air Force’s special operators — have become fans of the pistols.

An Army special forces soldier shows a Glock to a civilian during a capabilities demonstration in 2012. Army photo
An Army Special Forces soldier shows a Glock to a civilian during a capabilities demonstration in 2012. Army photo

With the seemingly endless delays in the Pentagon’s search for a new service-wide handgun, SOCOM resorted to a particularly inventive method to get its Glocks. In 2010, the command cut a deal with the Department of Homeland Security for 2,500 Glocks.

“The transfer allowed DHS to divest itself of excess weapons and fill a USSOCOM requirement,” a public affairs officer at SOCOM told War Is Boring in an email. “USSOCOM incurred no obligation to DHS in return.”

Now the Army has taken to using “other than full and open competition” rules to buy the weapons. With the proper justifications, any service can avoid a lengthy competition and just award a contract to a particular company.

But the Glocks aren’t only for the Army’s crack soldiers.

In February, the U.S. Marine Corps announced that members of its special operations component — Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, or MARSOC — could carry Glocks as their official sidearm. Four months later, the Army announced plans to purchase more than 1,600 compact Model 19s and three fully-automatic Model 18s.

These guns are headed to the Marines, according to the SOCOM representative. MARSOC did not respond to requests for comment on the purchase or why it needed the blisteringly fast-firing Glock 18s. These machine pistols can burn through a special 33-round magazine in seconds.

Last month, Army contract documents spelled out plans to buy thousands more Glocks of various types during the next five years. While the exact number was redacted, the estimated cost was more than $12 million.

The list of variants included full-sized guns, compact versions such as the Model 19 and so-called sub-compact designs especially suited to concealed carry situations. The pistols will come in nine-millimeter, .40-caliber and .45-caliber flavors.

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On top of that, the guns could find their way to allies far and wide. Between 2010 and 2012, the Army shipped nearly 600 Glocks to Yemen, according to documents War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“Risks make it essential to procure Glock weapons in order to meet government requirements,” Army officials wrote in the notice last month. “Failure to procure Glock weapons and make deliveries by November 2015 will result in unacceptable delays.

By waiting any longer, “the ability to most effectively train and prepare troops for training and actual close combat situations/environments would be compromised,” the document explained.

With these plans in place, American commandos and friends will wield Glocks for the foreseeable future — no matter what happens to the Army’s latest handgun project.

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