The Army began issuing the M17 handgun, the newest addition to its soldiers' gear, in late November 2017, distributing them among members of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
The new sidearm is only the third handgun the Army has fielded widely in the past century. It will replace the M9 pistol and will be distributed to a broader segment of the force than previous sidearms, which were mainly carried by officers and soldiers in special roles.
Wider distribution of the sidearm comes after 16 years of combat operations in which U.S. troops often found themselves in close-quarters engagements, and it's the Defense Department's first step toward better preparing and training soldiers for the demands of combat operations in the future — whether that means fighting in dangerous, close-in situations or meeting with local leaders.
Sgt. 1st Class Rocky Butler, a signal support systems specialist from Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, lays in the prone position with the new M17 Modular Handgun System for the first time during the troop's weapons qualification range Jan. 19, 2018 at Fort Hood, Texas. The 3rd Cavalry Regiment received the new weapons system at the beginning of January, making it the first unit on Fort Hood to receive the Army's upgraded pistol.
The decision to arm the 101st's team leaders with sidearms in addition to their main weapons stemmed directly from feedback from soldiers' battlefield experiences, an Army official told Army Times, and commanders will have the option to put the pistol in the hands of soldiers at even lower levels.
"It just improves our lethality as a force to have more soldiers armed with this weapon," 2nd. Lt. Connor Maloney told Army Times. Maloney's company in the 101st Airborne Division now has 46 M17s, rather than just nine M9s.
But a review of Pentagon programs in fiscal year 2017 conducted by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation found that the M17, and its counterpart, the more compact M18, both exhibited persistent problems during testing.
The DOT&E report was compiled from April through September 2017, but the problems it documented were not revealed until the report was issued in January 2018.
During drop-testing the weapons accidentally discharged — a problem that appeared in the another version of the Sig Sauer-made pistol. The manufacturer introduced safety upgrades for the problem, though the fix may have contributed to the splintering of two triggers during testing, the DOT&E report states.
Both versions of the pistol also "experienced double-ejections where an unspent ball round was ejected along with a spent round," the report found. The Army established a root-cause analysis team to find the reason for double ejections, but, the report notes, "As of this report, this analysis is still ongoing."
Both the M17 and M18 experienced a higher number of stoppages — a deficiency that keeps the pistol from operating as intended, but can be fixed through immediate action — when firing with ball ammunition than they did when firing special-purpose ammunition. Both failed the mean rounds between stoppage reliability requirement when firing with ball ammunition.
Officials from the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier, which oversees the programs that provide most of a soldier's gear and weapons, and from Sig Sauer, which won the 10-year, $580 million Modular Handgun System contract to provid M17s and M18s in January 2017, have both downplayed the concerns raised in the DOT&E report.
A Soldier with C Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) fires the new M17 or Modular Handgun System at the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) indoor range, Nov. 28. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Samantha Stoffregen, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Public Affairs)
A Sig Sauer spokesman said many of the problems outlined by the report were from the weapon's early testing period and that the company stood by the thousands of M17 and M18s it has shipped so far.
Army PEO Soldier spokeswoman Debra Dawson told Army Times that all of the MHS weapons currently field meet all safety and operation requirements. Even though the weapon fell short of reliability requirements for ball ammunition, it was still safe to use with that type of round, the spokeswoman said.
The drop-test problems had been publicly addressed, Dawson said, noting that the weapon had passed the Army's drop test. She added that the trigger-splintering incidents only happened to two of some 10,000 purchased weapons and were not related to design flaws or manufacturing issues.
While it doesn't appear the root cause of double-ejection issue has been found, Dawson said it may be related to the magazine and could potentially be resolved with minor adjustments.
Slide stoppages led to 50% of the M17 stoppages and 75% of the M18 stoppages, the DOE&T report said.
The predominant cause of such stoppages was the slide failing to lock after firing the last round in a magazine, which is meant to tell the shooter when to reload.
The report noted that the stoppages appeared to stem largely from the use of a high pistol grip and cited Army marksmanship experts who called it an "insignificant problem" that could be resolved with more training and experience with the weapon.
PEO-Soldier officials told Army Times the "anomaly" would be addressed by modifying marksmanship training.
Officers and senior noncommissioned officers from Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Troop and the Regimental Support Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, qualify with the M17 Modular Handgun System for the first time during a weapons qualification range Jan. 19, 2018 at Fort Hood, Texas.
Despite the issues raised by the DOT&E report, the M17 had been well received by the troops who have gotten it.
"It is easier to fire and simpler to operate," Sgt. Matthew J. Marsh, a member of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, said at the end of November 2017. "The pistol felt very natural in my hand. I am excited to take my experience back to my unit and share it with my soldiers."
"It handled really well, very reliable," Cpl. Jory Herrman, a team leader in the 101st Airborne, told Military.com at the time. "We slung a lot of rounds down range today had little to no problems out of them... I think it is going to be a great sidearm."