On January 17, 2017, virtually in the middle of the SHOT Show, the U.S. Army announced the results of its highly controversial Modular Handgun System Program (MHS). The announcement caught the whole world of combat handgunning off guard, not to mention the program’s participants, who hadn’t any idea the announcement was forthcoming.
To the winner, the MHS contract was worth a hefty $580 million over the next decade, with the potential via additional service adoption of hundreds of millions of dollars more. So, naturally, the two actual finalists in the program—SIG Sauer and Glock—were vitally interested.
After many years, during which the MHS program had been severely criticized (including by the U.S. Army chief of staff and the secretary of defense) for being unnecessary, too costly and taking too long, the winner was finally announced: The SIG Sauer entry, a variant of the P-320 designated during the program as the P-320/XM-17, was the winner and is being officially adopted in both its full-sized and compact versions as the M-17.
Naturally, Glock immediately protested; after all, 287,000plus pistols is a huge order, with commensurate prestige and profit. However, as we saw back in 1985 with the Joint Service Small Arms Project (JSSAP) adoption of the Beretta M9/M92SF, the protestation process has occurred before—with few results. The decision of the judges is final, regardless of the complaints of the participants. Like it or not, that’s the way it works in the military weapon procurement world.
Since then, rumors have abounded, the most amazing of which is that “the powers that be” within the MHS program never actually tested the XM-17 and that the whole thing was rigged, etc. Without a doubt, history has shown us that U.S. government programs are hardly immune from skullduggery or incompetence, but I simply cannot bring myself to subscribe to such an outrageous claim.
From the outset, the MHS program clearly specified what was needed: a handgun that could be adapted into different configurations and calibers, handle a sound-suppressor and, in every way, provide superior performance to the M-9/M-92SF. Interestingly enough, one of the major goals of the project was to adopt a cartridge with better terminal ballistics than the M882 9mm 124-grain FMJ. The .40 S&W was a leading contender, but when the dust finally settled, the Army chose to stay with the 9mm, mentioning that it might also adopt some form of frangible or JHP load.
SIG Sauer’s approach to the modular concept was to utilize a central trigger group that could be switched back and forth to different grip frames, which it calls “grip modules.” This ability, along with different combinations of slides and barrels, allowed the weapon to take different forms (full sized, compact, etc.) and utilize different cartridges, the three most common of which were the 9mm, .357 SIG and .40 S&W.
Yet, when it came right down to it, the Army stayed with the 9mm, making this requirement an interesting, but entirely theoretical, concept, because there hasn’t been a case since the Civil War in which the Army adapted an existing weapon platform to a new cartridge. Still, in these days of tight military budgets, it’s difficult to escape the tendency for the procuring agency to try to get the most “bang for its buck” with such one-size-fits-all criteria.
From a civilian self-defense and/or law enforcement standpoint, the ability to reconfigure the weapon and the cartridge it utilizes is, for obvious reasons, a boon. However, inasmuch as the U.S. military is hardly likely to stockpile a variety of barrels, slides and grip modules in its arms rooms to allow this to happen, from a military perspective, this approach rings hollow.
Another issue was the ability to easily mount an optical sight; and the XM-17 has that capability, whereas the standard Glock Gen4 does not, except in its MOS version. Information on this particular point is vague, but I’m guessing that the Gen4 version Glock submitted to the tests did, indeed, have this ability.
Either way, the only ones who might mount an optical sight on their handguns are a few Special Ops operators. Regular Army soldiers certainly would not have such a capability.
The paramount issue, of course, was the per-unit price. SIG Sauer managed to outbid Glock, with a final price of $207 per gun. No doubt, this warmed the cockles of the MHS’s heart. And why not? That’s a terrific price for any handgun these days, much less for one that’s supposed to satisfy all needs.
This particular feat surprised me—and probably many others, as well—because for decades, Glock has consistently demonstrated an ability to provide its guns to military and police agencies for very low per-unit prices.
And will the U.S. military adopt some form of frangible or JHP 9mm load to enhance terminal ballistics? Who knows? But if it does, it would be legal, because the United States didn’t re-sign the last ratification of the Hague Accords. Moreover, the countries we’ve fought since World War II either didn’t exist at the time or didn’t sign it either. The continuing use of the 9mm suggests that in lieu of the .40 S&W or .357 SIG, some form of frangible or JHP load might well be in the offing. Time will tell.
The Glock’s reputation for ruggedness and reliability is legendary. These photos are of the author’s Gen 2 Glock 17 during a long-term torture test conducted to determine the Glock’s true toughness. Purchased new in 1988, it has digested more than 365,000 rounds and been subjected to a phenomenal amount of abuse. That’s 29 years of highly strenuous use, but it’s still in service.
Glock responded to the modular requirement by adapting its highly successful Glock G17 Gen4 to accept four differently configured backstraps, which are snapped onto the gun and held in place by one of the takedown pins. Unfortunately, although the idea is remarkably ingenious, it wasn’t enough to sway the folks at MHS.
In every other respect, however, the Gen4 Glock matches the P-320/M-17 feature for feature: Both are simple and easy to field strip and clean. Both have a roughened grip texture to allow a good grip with wet or cold hands. Both are available with 3-dot, horizontally patterned, tritium, high-visibility sights. Both have heavy-duty extractors and a relieved ejection port. Both have provisions for mounting a tactical light. And both feature a well-located and nicely configured magazine-release button and an easy-to-access magazine well for rapid reloading or freeing a stuck magazine.
Even so, both have small slide lock levers made of stamped sheet metal that needs bearing surface polishing to remove bearing surface burrs. Otherwise, manipulation is difficult and can cause problems during a speed reload or clearance of a type 3 (feedway) stoppage.
Both also have a small ridge beneath the lever, itself, which is intended to protect it from inadvertently being pressing upward into the slide notch, causing it to lock open when it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, in conjunction with the lever’s small size, the ridge can interfere with accessing when it is appropriate. The best solution for this is to replace the lever with an extended version. But at this time, while there are several available for the Glock, there isn’t one available for the P-320/M-17.
My initial impression of the P-320/M-17 is also that its manual (thumb) safety, although ambidextrous, is located a bit too far to the rear for efficient operation. It’s also a little too close to the slide lock lever for my tastes. Under the stress of deadly action, this is an open invitation for trouble. All things considered, I’m not surprised that the military would stipulate a manual safety, but with the standard commercial P-320, it is optional, and I prefer to do without it.
The slide lock levers of both guns are small and not easily operated under stress. Although intended to prevent inadvertent engagement of the lever, the protective ridge beneath both also hampers fast access to lock the slide open during a type 3 (feedway) stoppage.
The P-320/M-17’s takedown lever is well located, but on the test gun, it was so stiff that its rotational operation was diffi cult. The Glock 17’s takedown lever is also well located but requires the gun to be uncocked to operate, whereas the P-320/M-17 does not.
Each of the guns has a large, easily accessed magazine well with provision to easily remove a stuck magazine or one that fails to fall free when the magazine release button is pressed.
As for the Glock G17 Gen4 and P-320/M-17’s actual performance against each other, I chose to utilize the CTASAA Handgun Combat Master Qualification course as an evaluative mechanism. I was already thoroughly familiar with the Glock, but in order to ensure objectivity and complete familiarity with the P-320/M-17, I spent a week carrying it, dry-practicing every aspect of its operation and running a substantial amount of ammo through it before attempting to use it for the HCM qualification. Inasmuch as the actual military M-17 is unobtainable at the present time, I procured a full-sized P-320 in 9mm as being representative.
However, during my initial sessions with it, I discovered a couple of disconcerting issues: First, the takedown lever, while well located, was so stiff that I couldn’t conveniently operate it. Both thumbs were required, and it took nearly a minute of fumbling around with it to generate the leverage needed to rotate it. Gunsmithing was required to correct the problem. Conversely, the Glock’s dual takedown lever posed no such problem. It was manipulated in seconds, and the slide was easily removed.
Second, to ensure it was well broken-in, I ran 200 rounds each of a variety of ammunition through it, discovering that it wouldn’t function reliably with many loads that used light bullet loads and some lighter-loaded factory FMJ practice ammo.
These weren’t feedway stoppages; they were type 2s (failure to eject). The slide would not reciprocate far enough rearward for the spent case to strike the ejector with enough force to be ejected clear of the gun, resulting in a horizontal “stovepipe.”
Investigation disclosed the culprit to be the 20-pound factory recoil spring. Fortunately, I was able to correct the problem with an aftermarket 15-pound spring and new guide rod from Gray Guns, which is the go-to place for anything SIG.
Further investigation showed that the problem wasn’t unique to my particular P-320. There is also considerable discussion about this issue on a number of Internet sites.
Once the new spring and guide rod were installed, the weapon functioned without further mishap with whatever type of ammunition I cared to feed it. Presumably, this problem will not be an issue with the M-17 version!
At this point, it needs to be said that Glocks have a proven record of functioning with virtually any kind of ammo you stick into them in nearly any kind of environment and have a service life far in excess of the 35,000-round requirement stated in the MHS program.
For example, I have a Gen 2 Glock 17 that has so far fired more than 365,000 rounds of assorted ammo, been subjected to 29 years of phenomenal abuse (including six months’ submergence in the Pacific Ocean) and is still quite functional. The P-320, on the other hand, has only been on the scene for a couple of years; its toughness and longevity remain to be proven.
Excessively heavy triggers were also noted on both the Gen4 Glock and P-320. The Glock’s pull was a hefty 8 pounds, while the P-320’s was 8.25 pounds. Both are way too heavy to expect either gun to reach its highest performance level.
I solved this problem by installing a new Zev Industries 3.5-pound connector in the Glock (bringing its pull down to a crisp 4.5 pounds) and one of the new Gray Guns trigger kits in the P-320. This kit claims to reduce the P-320’s trigger pull by 2 to 2.25 pounds. Mine ended up being a clean 4.25 pounds. Both guns were then capable of performing to their best potential.
I also noted that the P-320 was muzzle heavy, even with a fully loaded 17-round magazine in it, and that it had considerable slide mass well above the shooting hand. Still, I thought that perhaps its muzzle heaviness would aid in highspeed controllability. Unfortunately, this premise turned out to be incorrect.
The CTASAA Handgun Combat Master Qualification course is very tough and has long been known to bring out not only errors in operator gun-handling and shooting technique, but the design deficiencies of the weapon used, as well. I’ve long used it to analyze and evaluate handguns; and, without question, in that role, it has been exceptionally effective. It consists of 11 stages and includes virtually all the relevant gun-handling and combat shooting skills.
When the smoke cleared, and both guns had finished the qualification course, the Glock’s score exceeded the 90 percent (360 points) threshold needed to qualify—compared to a score of 84 percent (338 points) for the P-320.
The P-320’s muzzle heaviness didn’t aid in reducing muzzle flip. During high-speed, multiple-shot sequences, it was noticeably greater than the Glock, and its tendency to point low without “cocking” the firing wrist upward to compensate hindered fast sight acquisition. At the super-fast time levels of the CTASAA HCM Qual, these tendencies were a definite handicap. The Glock suffered no such issues, allowing faster sight acquisition and more of each available timeframe to be spent actually shooting. It “flipped” far less with each shot fired. This was more than proven by its 93.5 percent (374 points) score.
Having said this, I must also suggest that at less than HCM speeds, these issues wouldn’t be as serious. In fact, at the basic or intermediate levels, they wouldn’t even be apparent. Only at the advanced or master level do they exert such serious influence.
So, am I saying that the P-320/M-17 is an unsatisfactory gun for military adoption? No, I am not, because performance, alone, isn’t the only criterion involved here. Remember that the MHS project’s original criteria stipulated that the gun selected had to outperform the M-9/M-92SF in every respect.
Both the Glock and the P-320 easily satisfy that requirement, and the SIG’s low unit price and, in theory at least, its superior “modularity” gives the Army just what it wants. As a result, it’s easy to see why SIG Sauer walked away with the contract.
Simply put: In business parlance, that’s called “the art of the deal,” so congratulations to SIG for its win. And let’s not forget that part of that win is the fact that American soldiers will have a better handgun than they’ve had for the past 30-odd years.
SIG P-320 vs. Glock G17 Gen4
CTASAA Handgun Combat Master Qualification Course
AMMUNITION: Federal American Eagle 9mm 124-grain FMJ
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Excellent (clear and sunny; sun behind shooter; calm)
ELEVATION: 1,312 feet above sea level
TEMPERATURE: 72 degrees (F)
|Responses L, R and rear||63||75|
|Targets at odd angles||50||50|
|Malfunctions, type 1, 2, 3||OK||OK|
|TOTAL||336 / 84%||374 / 93.5%|
NOTES: The P-320’s muzzle flip was noticeably greater than that of the Gen4 Glock 17. Performance was significantly affected on all stages for which fast, two-shot strings were required.
WEIGHT: 29.4 ounces (empty)
LENGTH: 8.0 inches
BARREL LENGTH: 4.7 inches
WIDTH: 1.4 inches
HEIGHT: 5.5 inches
ACTION: Striker-fired, DAO
MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 17/21 rounds
SIGHTS: Fixed; blade front with white dot or tritium insert; notch rear with white dots or tritium inserts
MANUAL SAFETY: Yes; optional ambidextrous
MODULAR CAPACITY: Yes; the modular trigger group can be swapped out into various grip frame configurations and caliber conversions.
OPTICAL SIGHT CAPABILITY: Optional for commercial; integral to XM-17 military variant
Glock G17 Gen4
WEIGHT: 25.06 ounces
LENGTH: 7.95 inches
BARREL LENGTH: 4.48 inches
WIDTH: 1.18 inches
HEIGHT: 5.43 inches
ACTION: striker-fired, DAO
MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 17 rounds
SIGHTS: Fixed; blade front with white dot or tritium insert; notch outline rear with white outline or tritium dots
MODULAR CAPACITY: Yes; four variablesized backstrap panels
OPTICAL SIGHT CAPABILITY: Yes: Available commercially on MOS model; probably integral on MHS-submitted version. (Confirmation unavailable at this time due to lack of data release by the U.S. Army)
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.