Army's New Pistols Often Eject Live Rounds and Don't Work Well With Regular Bullets
A Pentagon report reveals the guns continued to suffer jams and other malfunctions after winning an already controversial competition.
The U.S. Army’s decision to select two versions of Sig Sauer’s 9mm P320 pistol as the new standard sidearms across the service was not without controversy, including a formal protest by competing gun maker Glock, which claimed the service didn't complete certain critical tests. The Pentagon recently released a report that shows testing of the M17 and M18 handguns exposed a number of significant and persistent deficiencies, including firing accidentally if a shooter dropped the gun, ejecting live ammunition, and low reliability with traditional "ball" cartridges with bullets enclosed inside a full metal jacket.
These and other details were in the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation review of such work during the 2017 fiscal year, which it published earlier in January 2018. This regular report covers a wide variety of high profile weapon systems and other important equipment across the U.S. military, including the Army’s Modular Handgun System (MHS) program. In January 2017, the Army chose Sig Sauer to supply a total more than 300,000 of the full size M17 and compact M18 pistols as part of that project, a deal worth approximately $580 million. The other U.S. military services are now considering following suit and adopting the guns and the company is making essentially the same gun available to civilian shooters as well.
According to the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the guns experienced a number of issues in testing between April and September 2017, which is the end of the period the report covers. The first of these was a publicly known issue that the pistol could go off if the user dropped the weapon. Needless to say, an accidental discharge could be dangerous to the shooter or those around them.
The Army discovered this issue during the initial “Product Verification Test,” but it is unclear when specifically the service became aware of the problem. Sig Sauer did subsequently make unspecified changes to fix this issue in the M17 and M18 pistols.
It’s worth noting that in August 2017, Sig Sauer issued a voluntary recall for other P320 pistols due to the same issue, but implied in their press release that shooters had dropped the weapons in an excessive manner “beyond U.S. standards for safety.” That statement also stressed that Army’s new guns wouldn't need the replacement parts, but declined to mention that this was because they already had them, leaving open the interpretation that they never needed the update in the first place.
More worryingly, the Pentagon’s top testing office said that during further tests, the trigger assemblies in two pistols had splintered apart and this was potentially the result of the drop fix, presenting an entirely new issue. As of September 2017, the recommendation was to “work with the vendor to identify and eliminate cause of variability in the manufacture of the trigger group mechanism.”
Testing also revealed that the handguns had a propensity to eject a live round along with the empty cartridge case during normal functioning. There was no indication that this issue caused any malfunctions, such as “stove-piping,” which generally involves empty casing ending up jammed in place, typically sticking up from the ejection port.
The video below shows a stove pipe malfunction in a Glock handgun and a process for clearing the jam.
It is still a significant issue for shooters to be losing live cartridges during routine use, meaning they might run out of ammunition before they expect to or simply waste resources. The Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s said that the problem became more pronounced the more rounds evaluators fired through their M17 and M18 pistols. As of September 2017, the Army was still working with Sig Sauer to identify the root cause of the problem, after which they would need to develop another fix.
This wasn’t the only ammunition related issue, though. In tests, the M17 and M18 worked just fine with the Army’s new XM1153 “special purpose” cartridge, a hollow point round. They did not function reliably with the companion XM1152, a standard “ball” round with a bullet fully enclosed within a copper jacket.
The Army had a requirement for the new pistols to be able to shoot 2,000 rounds straight without a stoppage at least 95 percent of the time on average. The service defined a stoppage as any instance in which the guns stopped functioning normally, but where the user could get the weapon running again without the need for tools or replacement parts.
With the XM1153 hollow point, the M17 hit the 95 percent reliability mark, while the M18 managed just slightly better at 96 percent. But when troops loaded up magazines with the XM1152, the results were dismal. The full-size gun had only a 75 percent probability of functioning properly, while the compact version was barely over 60 percent.
The report does not say why this might have occurred and it’s not clear what the Army was doing to correct the issue. The problems had appeared during the Product Verification Tests and the service simply opted to conduct operational testing and evaluation with the special purpose cartridge only. This in turn suggests that troops getting the pistols will receive the hollow points as their standard round, a significant change from previous doctrine.
Only having one ammunition type available – not counting blank and dummy rounds for training purposes – could limit the utility of the new pistols. Traditionally, hollow points begin to expand after hitting their targets, generally creating more serious wounds, but also reducing their ability to penetrate through cover, such as car windshields and doors. Modern bullet design has greatly enhanced the hollow point's versatility and lethality, making it less limited and far more deadly than it once was, though, and pistol rounds generally are not suitable for piercing body armor or barriers to begin with.
There is a possible international law issue, as well. The Hague Convention of 1899, an agreement that the United States abides by, bans any bullet that has features that cause it to deliberately expand from combat use. The U.S. military has previously said that types with an open tip to improve accuracy aren't subject to the restrictions because expansion is not the primary purpose of the design, but it has generally limited the issue of actual hollow points to its internal law enforcement arms.
It has also made the argument that those rounds are legal for combat use when there is a “clear military necessity.” Some special operations forces already issue hollow point pistol rounds for specific combat missions with this justification in mind.
The Army began issuing the first M17s and M18s to units in November 2017, including members of its first dedicated advisory unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, which is heading for Afghanistan soon. The service also expects to hand out the pistols to more soldiers in total than it had done with sidearms in the past.
Without ball ammunition to issue, those troops and other personnel with the new pistols will have to stick to the hollow points for the foreseeable future. This in turn could prompt challenges from humanitarian groups and other advocacy organizations, potentially bogging the service down in protracted legal action.
Taken together, these issues also underscore complaints that Glock, another contender for the MHS contract, had leveled at the Army’s testing metrics and decision to choose Sig Sauer. In February 2017, the Austrian gun maker filed a formal protest, but focused on specific contract wording that allowed for a second run-off competition between multiple guns. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected the argument, stating that there was nothing that prevented the Army from skipping that additional evaluation and proceeding straight to picking one winner.
But after losing that challenge, Glock issued an open call to the Army suggesting that it had cut the developmental testing short, specifically deciding not to run “heavy endurance testing,” and asking the service to finish those experiments before following through with purchases of the Sig Sauer pistols. The firm noted that GAO had confirmed that its gun had already shown better reliability over the P320.
The new details from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation would seem to reinforce Glock’s contention that more tests could have been beneficial, at least in exposing issues of basic functionality with standard ball ammunition. The Army’s decision to effectively abandon that type of round in the interim is hardly a long-term solution.
The findings could open the service up to further legal action, even if Sig Sauer has already delivered subsequent fixes, or at least reignite the controversy over the decision to select the P320. This might lead the U.S. Air Force and Navy to reconsider plans to follow the Army’s lead and adopt the M17 and M18 in the interests of maintaining commonality in ammunition and spare parts.
Those few Army special operators who are still using older M9 Berettas were likely to end up with the M17 or M18, too, for the same reason. Glocks are already popular with U.S. special operations forces, though including both Army Special Forces and the U.S. Navy SEALs, and the U.S. Marine Corps has begun acquiring a limited number of them to issue to select personnel, which could open up an avenue for larger purchases.
Any future plans by any of these parties to purchase the new MHS pistols could depend heavily on the Army’s ability to work with Sig Sauer to fully mitigate these various existing issues.
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