The Global War on Terrorism has put to the test many new weapon systems adopted in the post Cold War period. Many of those weapons and tactics had never really been tested in a real combat environment. They worked well in the lab and in testing but never really saw combat until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Small arms were no exception; in fact they would be the first to be put on trial.
The venerable M1911A1 pistol, firing the hard hitting .45 ACP cartridge, was the standard service pistol for the United States from 1911 right up through 1985. The M1911-series pistols were outdated as it would be compared to the modern pistols such as those manufactured by Glock and Heckler & Koch. The M1911-series was a single action semiautomatic pistol that had a magazine capacity of 7 rounds. One of the major issues with the M1911-series was that the last run of pistols was procured by DoD in the 1950s. The pistols were old and in many cases towards the 70s and 80s you would have to take pieces from 5 pistols to make one work. The cartridge had proven itself throughout the last century and came well into the new one. The M1911-series suffered from some severe setbacks including no firing pin safety, not safe to carry loaded, heavy and a low magazine capacity. With the onset of the Cold War, there was another problem; the .45 Auto caliber cartridge did not conform to the new NATO standardization that specified 9mm as the NATO caliber pistol cartridge.
On January 14, 1985, after a very controversial and very thorough testing program, the U.S. adopted its first pistol in more than 70 years. The M9 would replace all the old and tired M1911 pistols. The new pistol was the Beretta 92F. This pistol was planned to correct all of the deficiencies of the M1911 that included a passive firing pin block and could be carried safely in double action mode yet the hammer could be cocked back to shoot in single action mode. There is a decocking/safety lever and the magazine capacity was double that of its predecessor with carrying 15 rounds of the NATO standard 9x19mm cartridge. However, the champions of the .45 Auto caliber cartridge ran very deep and there were those who would accept no pistol unless it was chambered in the .45 Auto caliber. In 1987, the U.S. Navy stopped procurement of M9 pistols due to “reliability” issues and procured 1,500 SIG Sauer P226 9mm caliber pistols. However, the M9 continues as of this writing as the standard issue military sidearm for all branches of the military and has served with distinction in both theaters of operation with more than 250,000 in service. The Marine Corps requested modifications to be made to the M9 to more closely fit the Corps needs hence the introduction of the Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) M9A1. In the spring of 2005, Beretta U.S.A. was awarded a contract for the United States Marine Corps for 3,480 M9A1 pistols along with 6,960 PVD nickel plated improved magazines. There were three main differences. First the addition of a Mil-Std 1913 rail to the front of the frame, second a more aggressive and thick trigger guard and third more aggressive checkering patterns on the front and backstrap of the pistol.
Although the M9 (Beretta 92FS) is the standard pistol, you will find a variety of handguns in the U.S. inventory whether it be by Special Forces or any other unit. These would include Glock, Smith & Wesson .38 cal. revolvers and so on. The first official departure to revert back to the legacy .45 Auto caliber was by MARSOC or the Marine Corps Special Operations Command in 1985. They went back to a M1911A1 (M45) but it was modified for their specifications. The Marines would continue to replace them with updated models in 2005 (Springfield Armory Professional Model) and a new requirement was issued in 2010 for another replacement which have three different manufacturers competing for that contract.
Special Forces at large saw the need for the .45 Auto pistol; they felt that the M9 is an excellent sidearm but did not fit the requirements of Special Forces. In 1986 USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) was formed bringing all branches of special operations forces under one central command/umbrella. In 1989 it was realized that the mission of SOCOM would be close quarter battle, operations made with small units in close proximity. Due to the uniqueness of the SOCOM operations they would be permitted to procure their own equipment that would fit the needs of SOCOM. The first commander of SOCOM was General Lindsey. One of his first orders of business was to have a study made of all of the small arms that were in use by SOCOM. Major Gus Taylor was tasked with this study and his finding was there were 120 different types/configurations of small arms in use by the different units that make up SOCOM. General Lindsey was very disturbed by these findings. The logistical burden alone in spare parts to maintain so many was a nightmare. With this knowledge General Lindsey tasked Major Taylor to work with all units of SOCOM to develop a plan to replace the wide variety small arms with standardized weapons to be used by all of SOCOM. The first weapon to be developed for unified use by SOCOM would be the Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS). The OHWS was to be the first joint SOCOM weapon. This was not simply because of the importance of the pistol but also it was the most controversial. If the different units could work together and agree upon this program, that would lead the way to a cohesive development of far more critical small arms. The purpose of the OHWS program was to replace the 9x19mm caliber M9/M12 service pistols with a pistol that would fit the requirements of SOCOM. The M9/M12 served very well for its intent, a sidearm for defensive use. They are light, high capacity magazines and have light recoil and have reasonable stopping power. The low recoil and accuracy advantage permitted multiple hits on the target increasing incapacitation probability.
The SOCOM operator has very different needs than the average soldier. Their pistol may very well be a primary weapon, not a back up. The pistol becomes his offensive weapon in case of malfunction or running out of ammunition in his rifle or carbine. This transition would often take place in a firefight when he does not have time to reload or clear a malfunction due to the nature of the threat. Those seconds mean the difference between going home and being KIA.
The first order of business was to determine the caliber of the new OHWS. There was without a doubt no question the 9x19mm was to be ruled out. The poor performance/stopping power of a 124gr FMJ NATO round was well documented. At this time a new cartridge was being looked at by the FBI to replace the 9mm, the new and powerful 10mm auto. However, it was just plain to powerful. There were only 3 manufacturers who made pistols in this caliber and a couple of those have a very short service life due to the power of the cartridge so the 10mm was passed over. However, full circle was made and the .45 Auto was chosen. The stopping power of the .45 Auto was undeniable. It had proven this in its more than 70 years of service. It was not perfect; it did not always put a target down in one stop so SOCOM did feel there was room for improvement. The solution would be a 185 grain +P load that got SOCOM to where they wanted to be. It was settled, the OHWS would be chambered in 45 Auto. The central requirement around the OHWS was to achieve one-shot incapacitation of enemy personnel at close range and quietly at that. The new pistol would have to reliably be able to fire many different types of ammunition including this new high velocity +P cartridge. This is key in the requirement of the service life of the new pistol. It would need to have a significant longer service life using even this new high pressure ammunition. Tall order since no .45 caliber pistol in service could match this. This was the catalyst for the development of an entirely new weapon system not of M1911 origin.
Next was what the pistol was going to be. Early discussion was to base it off of the venerable M1911-series. This was quickly dismissed for several reasons. First the M1911-series frame would not hold up to the constant use of the new +P ammunition. Just the sheer amount of ammunition shot in training would destroy the pistols. The M1911-series is not designed for use with a sound suppressor and maintain semiautomatic function. To even attempt to modify the pistol to overcome these shortcomings would be far more expensive than starting from scratch. So the decision was a new pistol of modern design. The new pistol would need an improved maritime finish that could withstand being on a SEAL divers hip in the middle of the ocean protecting the weapon from harsh salt water conditions and the new pistol would need a greater mean-round-between-failure than any other pistol in the world.
As written in the RFQ (Request For Quote) the OHWS (Offensive Handgun Weapon System) was just that, a system. The system is to be made of a pistol, a sound suppressor and a LAM (Laser Aiming Module). The OHWS could serve as a sidearm but again, it is to be designed as a primary weapon for CQB and sentry incapacitation. The Navy Program Executive Officer for Expeditionary Warfare and their small arms department at Crane, Indiana was decided upon to be the lead agency to solicit, develop, test and procure the OHWS in December 1989. Chuck Zeller was chosen as the Program Manager and was the manager responsible to USSOCOM for research, development, testing, procurement and life cycle sustainment testing of weapon systems.
After testing several designs, in August of 1991, there were two manufacturers awarded developmental contracts for the OHWS pistols: Heckler & Koch and Colt’s Manufacturing Company. The developmental stages for the new OHWS would be divided up into three separate stages:
Phase 1: Both Colt and H&K were awarded developmental contracts to provide 30 prototype pistols, sound suppressors and laser aiming modules. After the submission Colt was eliminated and only H&K went on to Phase II.
Phase II: The H&K entry was subjected to durability, reliability and accuracy testing as well as an additional 30 pistols with suppressors only to be delivered. The Laser Aiming Module was put on hold. Result of this phase was the final production decision that was to move forward.
Phase III: On June 28, 1995, a production contract was awarded to H&K for 1,950 OHWS weapon systems or now type classified as the MK23 Mod 0 for a cost of $1,186 each.
The timing of this program was most opportune for H&K due to the ongoing development of a new class of modern pistol geared for the U.S. market that came out of the American market. This study was to determine the desirable characteristics of a new family of handguns. The results of the study determined desirable characteristics included reliability, durability, safety, high quality, advanced materials, low recoil, single/double action and perhaps most important for H&K; affordability. Pretty much every small arm manufactured for the commercial American market was out of reach due to the extremely high price tag. The price tag also affected the law enforcement market in the U.S. making H&K weapons out of reach solely based on price. Work on the new family of weapon began in 1989 and during the development in February 1991 the OHWS proposal was submitted to the industry.