A Decade Too Late, McCain Attacks The Army's Modular Handgun System Program

beretta m9
This Beretta M9 is unloaded, slide locked back, with the safety engaged. I think it’s safe, MP.

For someone that claims to be a pro-military Republican, Arizona Senator John McCain has an odd way of showing it, with a bizarre eleventh-hour objection to the Army’s Modular Handgun System (MHS) contract.



Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain will soon issue a report called “America’s Most Wasted: Army’s Costly Misfire.” It says the Army has spent 10 years preparing a competition for a gun that will cost about $500. During all that time, he says, the Army has little to show but a thick, complex requirements package that perplexes gun makers and may produce a rigged result.

“Worse, the Army may fail to field a handgun at all because of the way it has structured this weapon system acquisition,” said the upcoming report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

All the while, Army soldiers continue to pack the Beretta 9 mm, or M9, model handgun first introduced 30 years ago. As a comparison, law enforcement and special operations troops change out to a newer more advanced model about every 15 years.

A battlefield survey by the Center for Naval Analyses found 46 percent of soldier respondents expressed unhappiness with the M9 because of malfunctions and high maintenance. Twenty-five percent reported stoppages, or jamming, during a firefight.

“The Army has managed to create entirely new acquisition problems for what should be a simple, straightforward purchase of a commercially available item,” says Mr. McCain, who has made acquisition reform a hallmark of his chairmanship. The Arizona Republican has been particularly tough on the Pentagon’s largest, and, some would say, most cost-bloated weapons system: the F-35 Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps strike fighter.

Now he is targeting one of the smallest, the $1.2 billion Modular Handgun System. He concludes the Army simply does not know how to buy an off-the-shelf pistol.


The MHS program was created in response to complaints about the Beretta M9 that began almost immediately after it was adopted 30 years ago. The large-frame 9mm NATO-caliber handgun that is the least popular small arm in a U.S. military survey of soldiers that had fired their weapons in combat.

I’m sympathetic to parts of McCain’s argument.

It has taken far too long for the Army to get to where we are now in the process, and I strongly suspect that lobbying from well-connected gunmakers and corrupt program office policies and personnel have led us to our current sorry state of affairs. But that was an argument McCain should have been making years ago, much earlier in the process, when both the Army and the gun industry had far less invested in terms of time and energy into the project.

We are now less than three months away from companies submitting their final designs, after years of work and significant financial and time investments into this project. To cancel this project, now, with the end in sight would be even more shortsighted and counterproductive.

It’s a decision to abort the baby after the mother has already gone into labor.

Let’s get to McCain’s complaint about the length of the requirements document.

Is a 351-page requirements document too long? If it was just for a single handgun design, I’d definitely agree, but McCain is being duplicitous in asserting that the MHS program is just about a single gun.

The MHS contract includes:

  • service-grade full-size pistols
  • service-grade compact pistols
  • fancy “general officer” pistols both full-size and compact
  • cutaway and demonstration models of each pistol
  • blank conversion kits
  • various kinds of test barrels
  • man marker round conversion kits to be compatible with the M1041 9mm UTM round
  • standard and extended magazines
  • bore brushes
  • suppressor kits (full-size and compact)
  • prototype ball ammunition for the pistols (referred to as XM1152)
  • prototype hollowpoint ammunition (referred to as the XM1153 special purpose cartridge)
  • dummy cartridges
  • cutaway and demonstration models of each cartridge
  • profile and alignment gauges
  • several kinds of holsters
  • packaging for all of the above
  • technical documents for all of the above
  • training packages

When you know the number of variables, products, and the legalese required in such documents, 351 pages actually comes out looking like Cliffs Notes, which everything you need and little that you don’t.

Even more troubling for me is McCain’s argument that the Army made a mistake when it didn’t select a specific caliber for the pistol system, but instead established a baseline.

Quite simply, the Army has given the gun industry a huge opportunity here.

There is no specific caliber, but terminal ballistics at 50 meters through 14 inches of ballistics gel will assess lethality compared to M882 9mm rounds. Specific interest is given to pistols that can accommodate higher chamber pressures over 20 percent greater than SAAMI spec for the cartridge without degradation of reliability. The RFI calls for 2,000 mean rounds between stoppages, 10,000 mean rounds between failures, and a 35,000 round service life.


This was a frankly brilliant decision made by the Army.

Companies that believe that the .45 ACP is the be-all, end-all of fighting handgun calibers have a perfect opportunity to submit their ammunition designs. Companies that feel that modern hollowpoints make 9mm ammunition the best in the game can make their argument on a level playing field. Companies that believe that the Army is best served by another pistol caliber and/or bullet design can make their case as well.

Why on Earth would anyone want to stifle a chance to give our fighting men a significantly better handgun caliber and selection of ammunition after 30 years of complaints about the underwhelming performance of the last caliber and bullets forced onto the military by men interested in blind conformance instead of performance… men  like John McCain?

Why does McCain now stand, at this late stage, against giving manufacturers an opportunity to dazzle us with their engineering and insights?

Frankly, I suspect that something else is actually in play with McCain’s 11th hour complaints… and it isn’t pretty.

These late complaint reeks of not of a politician suddenly concerned about a tiny (in terms of military expenditures) contract, but of sour grapes from one or more gun companies with political connections attempting to get a senator to scrap a program for their benefit.

Look again at what the Senator proposed in the article.

The solution, Mr. McCain said, is to cancel the burdensome RFP, then make fast-track purchases of guns already evaluated and holstered by American special operations troops.

According to Military.com, special operations units carry a variety of sidearms. The Marine Corps, for example, two years ago began buying Colt .45-caliber Close Quarter Battle Pistols. SEAL Team 6 sailors pack the same caliber in a Heckler & Koch model. Some Army commandoes [sic]  use the M9A1, an improved Baretta [sic] 9 mm and also Glocks, which are popular with police.


Who do you think McCain’s “solution” would best benefit? It’s clearly one of the companies on this short list, which doesn’t include either of the companies that best fits the specs of the RFP.

I can tell you who isn’t served well by McCain’s questionable antics.

That would be the American soldier.

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