From Military Into Law Enforcement: The SIG P320

A little more than 100 years ago the U.S. Army adopted the Government Model 1911 .45ACP as its standard issue handgun. The selection of that pistol was to replace the .38 caliber revolvers that they were using at the time and the focus had been on a weapon that fired a larger caliber projectile at a slower speed to achieve greater energy delivery and tissue damage to the intended enemy target. Fast forward roughly 75 years and we saw the adoption of the Beretta M9 chambered in 9mm. The change from .45ACP to 9mm and from single stack to double stack magazines was foreseeable given the NATO specification of a 9mm ammunition and the desire to have more ammo on the individual soldier. Given that 75-year service span for the Government Model 1911, it might have been expected that the military would have stayed with the Beretta M9 for a little longer, but with the approaching end of the pistol service life in 2015, the U.S. Army and Air Force began their search for a replacement pistol. While several respected and well-known manufacturers submitted models for consideration, the SIG P320 ultimately won out and came to be known as the M17 in its full size configuration or the M18 in its compact configuration.

The SIG SAUER name and reputation wasn’t anything new to the military in general. The U.S. Navy Special Warfare community had long been using the SIG P226—a 15+1 9mm pistol with its unique decocking lever, no manual safety, high slide clearance and demonstrated tolerance for unfavorable environmental conditions. The profile of the P320 is very similar to that of the P226, but the design features and modularity make them two very distinctly different pistols.

Let’s take a look only at the full size variant, chambered in 9mm as would be the M17 or usually carried P320 for law enforcement.

  • Length: 8”
  • Barrel length: 4.7”
  • Width: 1.4”
  • Height: 5.5”
  • Action: Short recoil operated, locked breech
  • Capacity: 17 rounds (9mm; +1 in the chamber for a total of 18)
  • Sights: fixed iron sights, blade front, notch rear; night sights are an option

The only significant differences between the P320 and the M17 are the maximum capacity limit and the sights. For the military version, magazines can hold 21 rounds and the sights are taller, presumably to allow for use with an attached suppressor. What makes the P320 so unique, however, is that it’s the first weapon to be identified by serial number on the fire control unit (FCU) which contains the trigger, slide stop and manual safety (if present). Around this FCU, the barrel, slide, recoil spring, grips and magazines can all be interchanged. Essentially, this defines the firearm as the FCU with every other part being modular and adaptable.

The military’s influence on LE handgun selection

Four decades ago you would never have discussed weapons systems in the law enforcement arena, unless you were in a very forward-thinking and highly specialized unit. The concept of a weapon system was a purely military concept that encompassed not only the weapon but the accessories, mounts, carrying systems and more that were used in conjunction with or support of that weapon.

When the military announced that it was searching for a modular handgun system to replace the M9, the solicitation requirements specified that the weapon be non-caliber specific and allow for adapting pistol grips, magazines, mounting accessories using Picatinny rails and readily accept a suppressor. The solicitation called for the submitted weapon to be more accurate than the M9 pistol with an accuracy requirement of “a 90 percent or more chance of hitting in a 4” circle out to 50 meters.” That accuracy was to be maintained throughout the service life of the weapon. Ambidextrous controls were set as a requirement and the weapon had to be compatible with tactical lights, lasers and sound suppressors.

There were reportedly 12 pistols entered for consideration, but SIG SAUER Inc. was awarded the contract and the SIG M17/18 was christened. As was proven in the mid-1980s after Beretta won the contract for the M9, law enforcement agencies nationwide paid attention to the benefits of the new military handgun selection and a great many of them began to replace their aging duty weapons with the new SIG P320. Thanks to the modularity built in with the usage of the FCU, agencies saw savings in the ability to purchase modular parts and pieces rather than having to purchase several pistols to accomplish the same goal. Additionally, for many agency armorers, this made inventorying weapons easier as there were fewer to keep track of.

In parallel with this choice by the U.S. Military, agencies across the country have begun to move back away from the .40S&W cartridge and back to the 9mm. There will always be debate about “what’s best,” and the same will continue regarding all serious service calibers. It may have taken awhile for law enforcement agencies to get on the semi-automatic pistol bandwagon after the Army did it in 1911 but they are firmly there now and not going back.

Given the totality of circumstances around the development and adoption of the SIG P320/M17 by the U.S. Military and law enforcement agencies across the country, it’s obvious that the new pistol is not only here to stay but will prove a strong concept foundation for SIG SAUER to continue to build on.

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