GAO Objects to DOD Handgun Replacement Program

I know everyone hates bureaucracy standing in the way of the military getting new weapons, but in this case, the GAO has good points.

Well, they did in March of 1982, that is.

While reading about the SIG/ATF handgun trial debacle, I decided to check out other GAO cases involving firearms manufacturers. That’s when I came across this report, detailing the GAO’s objections to the DOD program to replace the 1911A1 and various .38 revolvers as the sidearm(s) of the military. The GAO report can be summed up in one quote – “Our review indicates that the 9mm pistol program is questionable.”

Now, the DOD definitely had something to complain about on the revolver issue: there were several dozen different types of .38 revolvers in various inventories. But as the GAO pointed out, .38 purchases should have been handled collectively. Instead, each service simply purchased commercially available revolvers whenever and wherever it suited them.

So the DOD plan was to replace the 45s and the 38s with a 9mm handgun. They had other options – stick with what they had and fix the weapons as they broke, just use revolvers, just use 1911s, or go with a new 9mm handgun. For a number of reasons, DOD wanted the 9mm. I’ll run through them as briefly as possible. I encourage everyone to read the 30 page report when they have the time.

Who wanted the new handgun?

The Marines and the Coast Guard. Not surprisingly, these were the two services that had the hardest time getting spare parts for their current handguns – up to a three year wait, in some cases.

Why did DOD want a new handgun?

DOD also said that that the new pistol would be more accurate, that 9mm ball would have greater terminal effectiveness than 45 ball, and that it would be safer.

Ambidextrous operation, reduced weight and bulk, acceptability by female users, and the ability to be silenced were also important. Interestingly, the Army and the Navy said these features didn’t matter very much to them. The Air Force didn’t claim to care, but much of the testing cited that was favorable to the 9mm came from the Air Force.

How did DOD justify the accuracy claim?

The accuracy claim was based on testing a 9mm handgun at 50 yards alongside a military 1911 and .38 revolver. While the fixed sights of the .45 were effective at 25 yards, they did not prove effective at 50 yards.

What was GAO’s response?

GAO said that in its research, it found that most handgun engagements occured within 20 feet (or 21, depending on the source). Therefore, a 50 yard accuracy requirement was questionable.

How did DOD justify the terminal effectiveness claim?

DOD used the “Relative Incapacitation Index” to make this claim, stating that the 9mm was 1.6 times more lethal than the .45. It would also be more effective against body armor.

What was GAO’s response?

GAO found a quote by the author of the study used by DOD. The author said “Within the caliber range tested (9mm, .38, and .45), the stopping power increases with caliber, that is the .45 caliber ranks highest.”

On the subject of armor, GAO stated that armor-piercing rounds for both calibers were being developed.

It also stated that significant improvements could be made over the issued ammunition in both calibers. “If stopping power needs to be increased, DOD can explore improvements in the bullets rather than buying a new pistol.”

How did DOD justify the safety claim?

DOD stated that there was no safe way to remove a loaded round from the chamber of a 1911. It cited clearing barrels with bullet holes in them as proof that the 1911 was unsafe. At the time, clearing procedure involved pulling the trigger of the weapon after removing the magazine and racking the slide. In addition, the declining intellectual capabilities of recruits necessitated a safer firearm.

What was GAO’s response?

GAO stated that safety depends on how the weapon is used.”Safety features are only as effective as the user makes them.”

On the topic of a safer firearm – “No firearm is absolutely safe, and any attempt to design an absolutely safe weapon could result in a relatively inert weapon.”

On the topic of intellectual capabilities – “It would seem more appropriate to correct any intellectual deficiencies through recruit screening or improved training rather than procurement for a new weapon.”

What was DOD’s concern with female users?

DOD stated that females could not shoot the .45 effectively, and would need to use a smaller caliber.

What was GAO’s response?

Female users, in a study, shot better with a .38 revolver than a .45 1911 or a 9mm handgun. Weapons that were currently in inventory would satisfy this need.

What was DOD’s final justification for the new handgun?

Public Law 94-361 required standardization with NATO countries.

What was GAO’s response?

The law also required cost, function, quality, and availability considerations, and was not a mandate to discard satisfactory weapons in order to procure new standardized weapons.


I find it ironic that the different models and types of handguns in inventory was a driving force. Back then, we had one pistol – the 1911A1. Now the majority of the military uses the M9, but pilots and other troops use the M11 (Sig P228), the SEALs have both the Sig P226 and the H&K Mk23 (among others, no doubt), super high speed guys are using Glocks in .40, and so on.

I don’t think I need to say a whole lot here, but the military ended up with a handgun – the M9 – that was bulkier than the .45 it replaced, almost as heavy, and which has gained a (undeserved, in my opinion) negative reputation for reliability and (deserved, if ball ammunition is used) negative reputation for terminal effectiveness. If negligent discharges have declined, it’s due to training – but they definitely still happen. As for being suppressed, 9mm ball is supersonic, and 45 is subsonic. Yes, you can use subsonic 9mm ammunition – but reducing the number of ammunition stock numbers was another goal of the program.

It’s pretty clear to me that some folks in the DOD wanted a new toy, and would say anything to justify the purchase. The GAO made a lot of great points that have turned out to be quite prescient. In fact, they’re quite applicable today. Despite pushes to return to .45, the best way for DOD to increase the lethality of the M9 would be to select more capable ammunition – “land warfare legal” be damned.

Despite my personal affection for the M9, I can’t find a single good thing to say about this procurement program. The actions of a few people were downright stupid, and in terms of sidearms, have left the majority of the military no better off now than it was in 1980.



Filed under News Stories/Events/Opinion

8 responses to “GAO Objects to DOD Handgun Replacement Program

  1. willardcw4

    That’s a really interesting post. I personally would prefer a 1911A1 as a sidearm over the M9 in a combat situation, although I still feel that there is a lot the military can do with developing and optimizing ammunition in both 9mm, 5.56, and 7.62 to increase lethality and effectiveness at various distances for the current weapon platforms being used by our soldiers.

    The legendary battle between the military and bureaucracy marches on! (unfortunately..)

  2. 67mustang

    Another informative post. I’ve been carrying a 1911 in some form or another for over 15 years and never realized it was unsafe. Thanks to Uncle Sam, I now know better. Bullet holes in the barrel? I thought that was called the muzzle.

    • Andrew (Vuurwapen Admin)

      😉 Clearing barrels – barrels (or 55 gallon drums) full of sand where troops clear their weapons before entering chow halls, etc.

  3. Perplexed

    Outside of SOCOM units, aren’t handguns generally only issued to officers?

    I understand that- historically- it was primarily to maintain discipline among the troops.

    • Andrew (Vuurwapen Admin)

      No, many other individuals receive handguns. Corpsmen/Medics, machine gunners, NCOs, flight crews, etc. Beyond that, handguns may be issued to regular troops as availability allows.

  4. MarkM

    MP’s get M9’s, too, and use them every day on post. CID, or generals, no. Different models, again.

    Since the adoption of the M9 I have heard and read much of the final choice came because Italy pressured the US Govt to choose the Beretta. If we needed to maintain a seaport and land bases in Italy, then they preferred we buy Italian.

    I have to ask, with the ARX fielded, and our troops still stationed in Italy and the Navy using their port, will they play the same card again in the Improved Carbine trials?

    • I thought only Beretta and Sig finished the competition and Beretta won because it was the lowest bid? Isn’t it fact that the 92SBF and 226 won the trials and isn’t it fact that the price quoted to the Gov’nt was lower than Sig?

  5. MrMaigo

    LOW be damned indeed. In what interpretation are landmines, dumb cluster bombs that look like food drops and smart cluster bombs that can’t tell a row of tanks from fleeing civilians MORE legal than hp ammo? We don’t even try to follow the laws involving weapons, why are we trying on this?

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