A New Handgun for the U.S. Army and the People
The XM17 Modular Handgun System
This article begins with a simple fact: SIG SAUER successfully won the military’s coveted XM17 Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition. The journey that saw the company come out victorious was not a linear one. It was, in fact, a series of twists and turns and fierce rivalries. To say that the M17 title was not deserved is false. SIG came out on top of a pile of excellent contenders. This story is not just the story of SIG SAUER’s victory, rather it is the story of all those that sought to win.
The XM17 competition originally began with the Army and Air Force during the height of the War on Terror back in 2011. The idea was to replace the aging legacy systems in current service, such as the Beretta M9, a firearm that had seen a couple decades of service. This is not an uncommon situation for the military, which is almost always forced to use and recycle existing systems over and over again until something better can take its place. This is common in both rifles and pistols, as well as other types of weapon systems. It was not that the M9 was a faulty weapon, it was that the vast majority in service were reaching the end of their product lifespan. Replacement was not just a suggestion, it was a necessity.
A public solicitation was announced, and 12 major competitors were entered into the contest. They were both American and international companies. The United States military has fielded weapons from foreign manufacturers for decades. When the M9 first was adopted, there was a degree of outcry not only about the fact that it was a 9mm, as opposed to the trusted .45 ACP fired from the M1911, but that it was manufactured by an Italian company.
The M9 system always struggled to gain widespread acceptance by the consumer market, and it never came close to reaching the popularity of other weapons that had once served. The 1911 platform is one of the most popular overall handgun types in the country, serving in various branches in various capacities in every American conflict in the last century. The AR-15 gained similar popularity, despite its initial problems in Vietnam. While the M9 is an excellent and accurate gun that is very reliable, there is no one single factor that resulted in its lack of popularity. Even today there is weak aftermarket support for it.
What was at stake in the MHS program is hard to describe. For many companies, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. For others it was a chance to prove themselves to a selective American consumer base. The enthusiasm generated by the MHS competition touched nearly every corner of the industry. Whoever won would receive more than just the laurels of the military contract. People were excited to see the M9 replaced with a next-generation system. The American people wanted a new handgun to love.
The author sat down and talked with a variety of individuals from SIG SAUER about their opinions on the MHS program. For security reasons their names have been omitted, but their enthusiasm for the competition and their products was impossible to hide. SIG had previously competed in the M9 program but lost to Beretta. It was not deterred.
According to Tom Taylor, Chief Marketing Officer, “SIG’s commitment to developing innovative designs for the military didn’t begin with the MHS program. In fact, it’s been in SIG’s DNA from the very beginning; when you look at the history of the company from its earliest origins you’ll see time and time again that SIG has been on the cutting edge of developing firearms that meet the needs of the military with products such as the P210, SG550, P229/M11-A1 and the P226/MK25. One of best examples is the P226/MK25, which would eventually become one of SIG’s most notable and most respected pistols. It was originally developed to compete in the U.S. military’s XM9 program in the 1980s. Ironically enough, it all came down to the P226 versus the Beretta 92. As we know, the U.S. military chose the Beretta, but the MK25 went on to serve with the U.S. Navy SEALs.”
Twelve models from six different countries went head-to-head in the initial rounds of the MHS competition. The designs from America came from STI, Smith & Wesson and KRISS USA. European companies GLOCK, Beretta, CZ, SIG SAUER and FN Herstal submitted a variety of designs. Surprisingly, Beretta did not look to repeat the success it had with the M9’s original contract with the updated M9A3—a new design called the APX, a striker-fired pistol.
Of great interest was the fact that the MHS program did not stipulate caliber for the pistols to be tested. This led many enthusiasts and experts to conclude that the military was dissatisfied with the performance of the 9mm cartridge as well as the outgoing M9 pistol. Many military purists wanted to see a .45 ACP put back into service, as the idea was that the 9mm lacked sufficient power for combat, despite offering double the capacity in a similar size of weapon. Weapons were submitted to the competition in a variety of chamberings.
There was significant doubt about the 9mm at the time that the MHS program was officially announced in the early 2010s. Due to the fact that the MHS program was not just meant to replace the firearm itself, it meant that the military would be overhauling all associated gear and ammunition and would be altering their training regimen to suit the new weapon. Many educated sources believed that the .40 Smith & Wesson would see resurgence in the MHS trials. This caliber, while powerful and accurate, had fallen significantly out of favor with law enforcement and most civilian shooters in America. The FBI switched to 9mm at approximately the same time, due to major advances in bullet technology that allowed for the deficiencies of the 9mm to be mitigated.
The military eventually settled on the 9mm in two forms for the XM17. The first of these was the XM 1152 full-metal jacket load, and the other was the XM1153 Special Purpose. Of interest, the special-purpose ammunition is a type of hollow-point. Previous problems with the 9mm came from the fact that it lacked expansion and what could be described as stopping power. This new ammunition was likely a major reason why the 9mm cartridge was chosen as opposed to other options. Winchester was chosen to manufacture the new ammunition for the MHS pistol.
And Then There Were Two
The major events that garnered public interest in the MHS program came when it was down to two primary competitors. GLOCK and SIG SAUER were locked head-to-head in a contest that a majority of American shooters felt was GLOCK’s to lose. Public support behind the Austrian pistol titan was overwhelming. The pistol submitted for the competition by SIG, the P320, had previously taken quite a beating in the media.
The P320 was an unlikely underdog that evolved from an unsuccessful line of pistols. SIG was ahead of its time when it introduced the P250, a strange hybrid of a semiautomatic pistol and double-action-only fire control. The most overlooked and yet revolutionary design feature was the fact that the serialized portion of the gun was on an internal metal chassis. Despite the fact that it was an unsuccessful design, it paved the way for what is now one of the most widely accepted pistol types in the country. So successful is the P320 that it is gaining acceptance internationally with police and military forces. One would have never guessed that it came from such humble roots.
The P320 was different from the P250 in the fact that it was striker-fired. This streamlined the fire control unit and allowed for true modularity, even between calibers. The external plastic grip frame, what SIG SAUER calls a grip module, is not serialized and is both cheap and easily replaced. End users are able to swap out the grip module to fit their hand and even their shooting style. There are even different shapes of grips available to suit different types of shooting. The nearly unlimited flexibility of the P320 is apparent even now in the current product lineup offered by the company.
There is currently no competing pistol in the P320’s class that offers the same modularity. One of the requirements for the MHS competition was that the design be a commercially available option, which is becoming more and more commonplace in military acceptance protocols. As a result, the P320 was well-suited to make headway in this great race.
“Whether our engineers are developing a system for a military tender or the civilian end-user, our success at SIG is driven by innovation. Many of today’s military requirements are ‘Current Off-The-Shelf’ (COTS) requested products, and therefore the same products being sold in the commercial market are being acquired for use by the military, so innovation, research and development, and the constant fine tuning of our products across all of our product lines, regardless of the end-user, [are] continuous[;] when we innovate for one consumer, it’s to the benefit of all.”
Trust in the P320 was slim in the beginning. During the timeframe of the MHS competition, the design was widely panned and criticized. In what will likely go down as one of the biggest rags to riches stories in modern small arms history, the P320 recovered from terrible press surrounding an issue with drop safety. Such a problem has spelled doom for many designs. Dozens of outlets began to report on the problems with the pistol, and it seemed they would also dismiss it. However, the design issue had already been phased out of the MHS pistols submitted to the military, and those changes were immediately carried over to all production models henceforth. With the issue gone, the game was again afoot.
It was during the annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas in 2017 that the winner of the MHS competition was announced. It was a massive victory for what was considered to be by many an inferior product. Almost immediately, there was massive outcry. A significant portion of the shooting and military community had felt that GLOCK offered a more reliable and better pistol. Shortly after the winner was announced, GLOCK filed a protest to the award with the government, but the protest was subsequently dismissed.
“Standing at the SIG booth at SHOT Show in 2017 when we heard the announcement about winning the MHS program was for some of us, a rather surreal moment. We knew we had done something historic and transformational for the company without question, but we also knew we had the best solution. We believed in what we were doing, and it felt like we had finally achieved a level of recognition that the company had strived for, but also that the countless people who had put so much into it deserved. We had developed something that wouldn’t just meet the need but would exceed the expectations.
The M17 and M18 have now shipped over 100,000 to U.S. Armed Forces and have passed every testing milestone above all set criteria for accuracy and dependability. It is in service domestically and in theatre all over the world.”
It seemed that, for the most part, the shooting public had made its decision as to what gun it believed had rightfully won. GLOCK’s MHS offering was an excellent and reliable pistol. The pistol brand is wildly popular, and there is a huge aftermarket following for it. At the time it was adopted as the M17, the P320 had very little if any commercial support beyond what was offered through the manufacturer itself. That has since changed. The P320 line is wildly successful and is currently exploding aftermarket. To add insult to injury, SIG’s P365 entered the carry gun market and took it by storm, further endearing the company to the American shooter. In just a couple years, SIG SAUER managed to not only win a major military contract, they did it again with their optics in the form of the TANGO6T and became the most popular carry pistol on the market.
“Winning the MHS contract was without question a major step forward for SIG, but it hasn’t stopped there. SIG has been awarded several major government and military contracts recently, including the P320’s selection by Department of Homeland Security, the SIG TANGO6T variable powered optic was selected for both U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and for the U.S. Army’s Squad Designated Marksman Rifle program, [and] the MCX SURG (Suppressed Upper Receiver Group) was selected by USSOCOM along with the MCX Rattler. And more recently, SIG’s MG–6.8 and MCX–SPEAR machine guns, SIG Hybrid ammunition and suppressors were down selected in the process to develop the Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon system, which is one of the most significant weapons programs in the last 50 years. Other SIG SAUER products are in use with multiple U.S. and NATO Special Forces units but cannot be specified at this time.”
It has been repeated, sometimes to the point of ad nauseam, that SIG only won the $500,000,000+ contract because they willingly underbid their opponents. Unfortunately for the reader and the author, there is a tremendous amount of information that cannot be disclosed as to the full support system surrounding the M17. The author, while visiting SIG SAUER’s New Hampshire facility, was able to stand just outside the shrouded and enclosed area where the M17 is made. No journalists were allowed inside, and even then not all SIG employees are either. The author was told scarce highlights of the program details and, while they are the work of masterminds and deserving of press, they must remain hidden to protect the amazing system that is now working to give the American soldier the most advanced handgun system on earth today. It will likely be a number of years before the full and amazing details of this remarkable and integrated weapon system can be fully revealed.
Comparing SIG SAUER’s P320-M17 and GLOCK’s 19X
The story of the M17 is not yet over on these pages. For the purposes of this article, the author acquired the commercial version of the M17 and a commercial version of GLOCK’s entry, the 19X. While it did not win the contest, the 19X is a fine pistol in its own right and is arguably the best of GLOCK’s current product line as far as features and ergonomics. The 19X took great criticism as well upon its introduction, as the fan base had been expecting a version with a longer barrel and shorter grip as opposed to the shorter barrel and longer grip featured on the 19X.
The author went through extensive effort in his own testing to see how these two guns stacked up against each other for the civilian shooter. Each gun was subjected to 5,000 rounds without cleaning or any type of maintenance. While 5,000 rounds are not a tremendous amount for a military gun, it is more ammunition than many shooters will put through their gun in a lifetime.
A baseline standard was established with both guns. Accuracy was tested from the bench at 15 yards for five, five-shot groups. Velocity was measured with an Oehler 35P chronograph 5 feet from the muzzle. The majority of ammunition tested was from Hornady, but Black Hills and a couple other bulk brands were tested as well to reach the final number of rounds fired.
The average accuracy and velocity with Hornady 135gr +P Critical Duty®, the primary load tested, came in at 1,180fps and 2.0 inches. The 19X came in slightly slower at 1,171fps but at 2.2 inches for general accuracy. For all intents considered, this is essentially an identical performance. It should be noted that during the course of testing neither gun had a single failure to feed or fire and remained quite clean internally.
The guns were subjected to a myriad of difficult conditions, including being fired in extreme heat and humidity and in below freezing. Michigan’s weather can have blistering summer heat and a month later have 10 inches of snow. The guns were thrown on the ground, into dirt, snow and mud. They both were complete troopers and just kept chugging along. Neither showed a great deal of corrosion or any substandard parts. Clearly, these were both fine guns, but there were several areas where the P320-M17 began to show its colors.
The first was the factor of ergonomics. The P320-M17 grip that the gun came with felt large in the author’s hand, so a quick call to SIG SAUER resulted in a new grip module which fit like a proverbial glove. The GLOCK’s grip is fairly static; with the only way to adjust the grip is by using different backstraps. A fitted grip allows fighters of different stature to become more effective, which in turn reduces training time and increases personal confidence in the weapon. The P320-M17 offers the exact opposite; the common one-size-fits-all approach to military arms.
Where shooting was concerned, the superior trigger was clearly on the P320-M17. The pull itself was never heavy, instead being a crisp two-stage with minimal stacking and overtravel. It had a positive reset and was very easy to control. Longer distance targets out to 50 yards were easy pickings. The overall feature set of the P320-M17 made it hard to beat in nearly every range challenge. It is a simple and safe gun to use that demonstrated superior handling characteristics, despite similar specs to its primary competitor.
The Right Choice
The overall characteristics of the M17 show that the military made the right choice in the long run. While GLOCK made a fine pistol, the results of the competition show that the future is indeed modular and not just reliable, a characteristic that GLOCK has always dominated the market with, accuracy and modularity being second. The fact that the M17 is not only completely modular, it should lend itself to a long system life and endear itself to the American and international consumer. Never before has there been a pistol system that has offered so much to so many.
Many excellent guns competed for the title of M17. SIG SAUER won, and their victory is rightfully earned. The military now has a truly modern and modular pistol system that represents the best of the technology available to the arms industry today. Small arms are the backbone of any armed escapade, and, while tanks and drones are a huge plus to our warfighters, the individual lethality of our soldiers should never be in doubt.