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What is a Combat Handgun?

hkmk231.jpgRead this article the other day about the Air Forces $90 million request for new pistols getting nixed and instead they were granted $5 million to study joint combat pistol needs with the Army. This, in turn, reminded me of a piece Id written several years ago on the H&K Mk. 23 Mod 0 SOCOM.

A lot of money was invested in building that state of the art pistol, and theres no arguing that it is in fact, one hell of a handgun; but you dont see too many of them around. Of all the SOF personnel I saw in Iraq, none had anything other than the M9 Beretta, and of the several I spoke to about the .45 SOF pistol, none had ever seen one.

To be sure, Im sure there are more SOF folk than there are SOCOM pistols, and there might be some sort of SOP regarding the use of the SOCOM, but if that were the case, why go through all that trouble to make such a superlative firearm and either not issue it in greater numbers, or restrict the use of the ones you do have?Now, Ive said it before and Ill say it again. I am not a gun guy. As a soldier, I use firearms as the tools of my trade. I can take them apart and put them back together, and I know how to troubleshoot them when something does not work right.

What I cant do is quote chapter and verse on muzzle energy, knockdown power, stopping power, fit, feel, or functionality of any particular firearm or bullet. This having been said, however, I think, even given my own limited gun knowledge, I could come up with a replacement for the M9 for less than $5 million dollars.Take my experience with the M1911A1 .45 pistol and the M9 Beretta. The thing I liked best about the M1911A1 was the fact that it was made out of forged steel; You could drop it, kick it, crawl on it, you could do anything to it short of melt it, and you wouldnt affect its reliability. Moreover, properly blued or parkerized, the M1911A1 was very forgiving of the elements.

Not everything on the M1911A1, however, was perfect. I thought the ejection port on the slide to be too narrow and I remember that stove piping was a constant issue, where the spent casing would extract from the chamber, but would not eject clear of the slide. Now I dont know if this issue was the result of the small ejection port or some other issue, but it was something I noticed with the pistol. The lack of removable or adjustable sights seemed to me to be a viable point of improvement.

While I understand that the inclusion of such features would obviously drive up the price of the weapon, I would have, at a very minimum, liked to have seen replaceable sights on the pistol. Many, many of the .45s I saw had mangled front and rear sights, no doubt the result of decades of service. Adjustable sights might have been something of a luxury for a strictly defensive weapon, but I believe replaceable sights would have been an improvement.

Finally, some complained about the recoil from the .45, that it was too powerful, or that the weapon, being made from steel, was too heavy. I personally thought the recoil was manageable (more than the M9 to be sure, but not alarmingly so) and when compared to all the other gear I was hauling around, the extra 2 pounds from the M1911A1 was hardly noticeable (not to mention a loaded M9 weighs almost the same.)

As for the M9 Beretta, it fired well, it was easy to take apart and put back together, and since it was made of a non-ferrous alloy, it was again very tolerant of the elements. Moreover, it did have a nice big ejection port (right out the top of the slide.) On the downside the M9 was made of a non-ferrous alloy, which made it significantly more susceptible to damage from what I would consider routine exposure to the combat environment. Ive seen M9s crack when dropped off of vehicles, suffer significant gouging, and pinching of the frame.

With the M1911A1 if I could get the slide to work I had faith that the pistol would work, and work safely. Not so with the M9. Moreover, the M9 was a SA/DA (single action/double action) pistol, which meant that you didnt need to thumb cock it like you did with the .45 or rack the slide to cock the hammer, you could just pull the trigger and the hammer would cock itself and fire. However, with the Beretta the trigger, in DA mode (hammer down) was WAY out there and for some folk, reaching all the way out there with one finger was literally quite a reach (Ive even seen folk double pull the trigger where they pull the trigger partway and then readjust their finger position to complete the process.)

For me, coming from a M1911A1 background, I always thumb cocked my M9 during qualification. This may not have been the standard, but it was how I grew up and I didnt see the need to go to a different method simply because TRADOC said so. Others have also complained about the fat double stacked, 15-round magazine, but again, with my big hands, that wasnt an issue.

Finally, as with the M1911A1 the M9 does not have removable or replaceable sights, though again, in the grand scheme of things, this isnt really a deal breaker as much as it would have been means of maintaining the accuracy of the pistol over its service life.(Now, before anyone mentions it, I intentionally did not address the physical characteristics of the bullets themselves. Over the course of my military career the only thing Ive ever killed with my pistol was paper and plywood, so I cant comment on the combat utility of either the .45 ACP or the 9mm Parabellum. But bullet lethality is a whole nother can of worms, which we will get to shortly.)

My question before the court is this. What is a combat handgun and what is it that we really need and what do we want it to do. I would think that really what were talking about here is a defensive/back up/bail out weapon, not one that you would use as your primary offensive arm (yes there are many situations where a pistol is superior to a long gun in offensive operations, like searching confined spaces, vehicles, or what have you, but I dont think a pistol would be my first choice for assaulting an enemy position or defending my perimeter.)

Again, Im not a gun guy so Im not going to tell you what that ought to be, but let all of you take the ball and run with it. To better organize the discussion, though I thought it might be helpful to break down the discussion into a couple of functional areas.Automatic or revolver? Yes, it seems a bit antiquated to ask the question, but its as good a place as any to start.

In terms of sheer reliability I would thing there would be nothing more reliable than a revolver. Up until the introduction of the M9 in fact, aviators were still issued a .38 revolver. They were small, easy to operate, and very reliable. On the down side however, I would think that, unless you trained regularly with one, reloading one under combat conditions would be something of a disaster waiting to happen (I have visions of Stanley Baker as Lt. Chard in Zulu trying to reload his revolver with shaking hands) but the same could be said of any weapon I suppose.

Something else to consider is action type. Should the pistol be SA (single action) only DA (double action) only or SA/DA? Many law enforcement agencies are adopting DA only pistols for liability purposes, but should this be a consideration for military personnel as well?

Construction. Steel or alloy? As I said, I grew up with the all-steel M1911A1 and then transitioned to the alloy M9 and now there are plastic polymer handguns, of which I have only very limited experience with (while deployed in 05 I carried a Glock Model 19 9mm compact.) I like the durability of the steel over the alloy M9, but the Glock also seemed to hold up well (it had a steel upper on a polymer lower.) Furthermore, what kind of finish should the pistol have? Blued? Parkerized? Stainless steel or some other exotic metal?

Size. How big should the pistol be? Full size (4+ inch barrel) or compact (2 inch) barrel? Should it have a double stacked magazine or single stack? Over the years many folk have complained about the weapons they were issued, that there were certain aspects regarding them that they didnt like, but Ive never heard any say that they couldnt use a weapon. Another question along these lines is, should the services field different sizes of the same caliber, or just a single unit? Should we have a pistol with a single stack or double stacked magazine? More is always better, but as would be the case with a double-stacked .45-style pistol, youre talking a lot more (in terms of grip size, that is.)I think there is a tendency now a days to look for a satisfy everyone approach (the XM-8 with its golf bag of mission flexible barrels, for example) rather than a satisfy the requirement and learn to deal with it approach (heres your M1911A1, have a nice day.) We dont have his and hers M-16s or M2s or M249s, so coming up with five different flavors of handgun so that everyone can pick the one that feels best to them is, in my opinion, a waste of resources.

Cartridge. Ok, here comes the can of worms. Traditionally, this discussion tends to degenerate into .45 v. 9mm. Again, I have absolutely zero experience with actually using either cartridge for anything more than killing qualification targets, a task for which both are more than adequate. What I do know about them is they have both been around FOREVER, and their ballistic characteristics are well known. At a purely visceral level, when it comes to bullets, I tend to believe that bigger is better, so I like the .45, but is that really a proper basis for selecting a cartridge? Moreover, while the 9mm and the .45 are proven, theyre also old. There are many new (relative to the .45 and the 9mm) cartridges out there, such as the .357 SIG, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto, just to name a few. Should we consider one of those?

Economics. While talking about guns is great and wonderful, buying them is a completely different experience, and the bottom line here is, regardless of what the services decide to adopt as their service handgun, economics will play an important, if not THE most important, roll in the process. We currently have a lot of 9mm pistols in our inventory, and a lot of 9mm ammunition to go with them. So do our allies. Complain all you want about the 9mm, but it will require big bucks to replace the Beretta and its legacy (ammunition, spare parts, etc) But it can be done. The Coast Guard did it just recently when they dropped the M9 and went to the SIG-Sauer P229R DAK in .40 S&W while the USSS (United States Secret Service) went to the SIG-Sauer P229 in .357 SIG, siting its armor penetrating qualities among others (thats something else that has advanced significantly since the introduction of the .45 and 9mm; the proliferation of both soft and hard body armor.)

Finally, there is the question of going custom or COTS (Commercial, Off The Shelf.) Every couple of years someone will write in to ARMOR magazine about the need for a PDW (personal defense weapon) for tankers and other armored vecicle crewmen. The M4/M16 are too large they say, the M9 is too small what tankers really need is a custom weapon that is sort of M9ish, and sort of M4ish, but completely unique to their needs.

Rubbish. If tankers really needed a bail out gun, and there is a compelling argument for such a need, especially with all the urban action going on (though seriously, unless the tanks on fire, youve lost turret power, none of your MGs work, or your stuck in front of an enemy ATGM factory, you are generally safer inside the tank than outside) there are plenty to choose from.

Yes the M4 (or the full auto version, the M4A1) will work just fine, but if you want something more exotic then go with something from the Heckler&Koch MP line, such as the MP5K-PDW. I thought it sadly humerous that the Army announced the development of a combat shoulderbag after claiming that they couldnt find a suitable bag on the civilian market. To say the same about a handgun I think would just border on criminal insanity.

The bottom line here is there are enough guns out there that surely we can find one that meets our needs (youll notice that there isnt a member from any law enforcement agency in all of America walking around without some sort of duty weapon) and I dont think it would take $5 million to figure out which one we need.

-- Eric Daniel

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