In September 2015, the United States military issued a Request for Proposals (RFPs) to determine the next standard sidearm to replace the standard-issue Beretta M9 pistol and SIG Sauer M11. The XM17 Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition was conducted as a joint effort of the United States Army and United States Air Force, while the United States Marine Corps also participated and offered input on the source selection.
However, from the beginning, the program was wrought with controversy.
The House Armed Services Committee had actually sought to cancel the XM17 MHS program and called for an upgrade to the M9. Beretta even went so far as to create its M9A3 pistol upgrade to address the engineering change proposals (ECPs) under its contract with the U.S. Army. Yet in the end, the M9A3 upgrade was rejected and the House of Representatives backed a $5.4 million plan to procure 7,106 MHS-pistols for testing.
The maximum program value of the XM17 contract was reported to be worth up to $580 million – so not surprisingly it attracted interest from some of the biggest names in handguns.
The Army set out several requirements. That included a 9mm pistol that could be configured as both full-size (M17) and compact (M18) variants. Other requirements included a slide cut for mounting a miniature reflex sight; ambidextrous controls, including a thumb safety; a loaded-chamber indicator; an improved slide subassembly to capture small components when disassembled; a trigger design that prevents foreign debris from entering the action; and a corrosion-resistant PVD finish on metal components.
Barrel lengths for the M17 and M18 were to be around 4.7 and 3.9 inches, respectively, while the Army also required that the sidearms could use standard 17-round magazines, as well as extended 21-round magazines. Reliability was a major factor, and the Army expected 2,000 mean rounds between stoppages, 10,000 mean rounds between failures and a 35,000-round service life. A total of twelve pistols were slated to take part in the competition.
First announced in 2015, but due to multiple delays, the solicitation deadline was pushed back to February 2016.
Sig Sauer Selected
The entry from New Hampshire-based Sig Sauer, an off-shoot of the German Sig Sauer GmbH & Co. KG, was declared the winner on January 19, 2017, with plans to begin fielding before the end of that year.
The XM17 and XM18 versions of the SIG Sauer P320 were chosen for the full size and compact pistol versions, and after acceptance into service, the handguns received the designations M17 and M18, respectively. Each is configurable to receive suppressors and even though the 9mm was chosen, they can be adapted to fire other calibers such as .357 SIG and .40 S&W. All weapons were planned to be delivered in a period of 10 years. However, since its adoption, there have been concerns over the reliability and safety of the P320 with reports of accidental discharges – including those among military and law enforcement personnel.
XM17: The Other Entrants
Originally, a dozen pistols were entered into the competition. In addition to Sig Sauer, the other companies that sought to win the lucrative U.S. military contract included Beretta, CZ P-07, FN Herstal, Glock, KRISS, Smith & Wesson, and STI. Sturm, Ruger & Co. had also designed its Ruger American Pistol based on the specifications of the MHS, but declined to formally submit any variant for consideration.
In the end, there were eight major contenders that took part in the competition.
XM17 Entrant: The Beretta APX
While Beretta had come into the competition with an advantage – it had its M9A3, the improved variant of the incumbent M9, it actually chose not to enter that handgun in the MHS competition.
Instead, it went with its APX, a polymer-framed, striker-fired semi-automatic pistol. It had reportedly met all the specifications, but it may have been too new, having only been designed and released in 2016. The military apparently wanted a time-tested weapon, and perhaps Beretta should have gone with the M9A3.
XM17 Entrant: CZ P-09 MHS
The Czech-based CZ, which doesn’t have a long history of operations in the United States, was always a long-shot. But the company still offered its CZ P-09, an already well respected, modern, duty-sized firearm. The polymer pistol holds 19+1 rounds of 9mm ammunition in its flush-fitting magazine, features a double-action-only (DAO) trigger with a bobbed hammer. It also offers an integrated 1913 Picatinny rail, which makes the pistol readily adaptable to low-light situations. The P-09 also features an interchangeable ambidextrous, decocker/manual safety, and is available as a suppressor-ready model. The company also entered its P-07, a more compact offering, which also featured a DAO trigger.
The DAO trigger wasn’t a requirement, and it wasn’t particular favored either. That could explain why CZ ended up not formally entering the competition after the selection process.
XM17 Entrant: FN 509
The U.S.-based FN America, a division of the legendary Belgian firearms maker, Fabrique National Herstal (FN), entered an updated version of its FNS-9 Compact, redesignated as the FN 509. It is a striker-fired design without a manual safety. The company claimed that during the development and testing of its MHS entry and subsequent FN 509, more than a million rounds of ammunition were used.
While the U.S. military had adopted FN-designs in the past, notably the M249 squad assault weapon (SAW), FN was still another long shot. It was a proven design, but reportedly required too many modifications to meet the military’s demands.
XM17 Entrant: Glock 19X
One of the other entries in the program was the Austrian-made Glock 19X. The company’s handguns were already popular with law enforcement as well as civilian shooters in the United States. The entry featured a Glock 19 slide with a Glock 17 frame, and was produced in coyote color instead of the traditional black that Glock is almost universally known for. The frame also featured a lanyard loop as well as a front lip in the magazine to make changing magazines with gloves a little easier – a military requirement. However, that change meant that Glock Gen-5 17-round magazines couldn’t be used in the Glock 19X, but it was seen as a minor tradeoff.
Yet, it wasn’t quite the modular design the military wanted. Additionally, the lack of manual safety and a more complicated takedown were also considerations as why the military passed on the Glock. The company didn’t take it sitting down, however, and actually filed a protest of the contract award with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It was denied, but questions remain to this day whether the Army made a mistake in not selecting Glock’s entry.
XM17 Entrant: KRISS Sphinx SDP Compact
Insert riddle of the Sphinx joke here – as in, did the Swiss-based KRISS Group really think its DA/SA SDP pistols would be selected? While the company does have a track record with military contracts in Europe and Asia, it was largely unknown in the United States. The Danish and Norwegian Special Forces, as well as Swiss and Belgian police forces previously adopted the Sphinx 3000, a firearm noted for its hybrid metal/polymer frame.
Perhaps taking part in the MHS competition was an effort to gain some name recognition and attract attention from law enforcement in the United States. However, the U.S. military has typically gone with established companies, which is why the KRISS offering was likely never a serious consideration.
XM17 Entrant: Smith & Wesson M&P9
The Smith & Wesson “M&P” series was originally designed for military and police. The polymer-framed, striker-fire handgun was also fully ambidextrous, offered a Picatinny rail for various accessories and it even provided an optional manual thumb safety. The company had also teamed with defense contractor General Dynamics, so it was taking the MHS competition very seriously.
However, like the Glock entry, the Smith & Wesson M&P9 wasn’t really as modular as the military had sought. The publicly-traded company also filed its removal from the XM17 MHS competition with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), yet refused to offer any significant details.
XM17 Entrant: STI-Detonics STX
Another long shot was an entry from pistol maker STI and Detonics Defense. The STX was actually a truly modular design, and it was one of the only handguns in the competition that featured a metal chassis with four different length barrel/slide assemblies as well as a full-sized or compact grip. Yet, it was also based on an M1911 design from Staccato, which may have seemed like a step backwards for the military. Then there was the fact that Detonics found itself in a legal battle over the ownership of that design. In the end, the military may have dodged a bullet when STI and Detonics withdrew the STX from the competition.
Bonus: Glock 19X Photo Essay
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes Magazine.