One of the best kept secrets of 1991 went public right after Labor Day with the announcement by Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc. of a contract award by the United States Navy for the research and "...development of a new handgun system to be used by all branches of the services."
A week later Heckler & Koch also issued a release that they too had been awarded a similar contract, worth $1.4 million, for the same project.
It's not, however, as confusing as it might seem at first. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) operating out of MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., formally drafted their requirements for an "Offensive .45 caliber Pistol" in February 1990 with a statement of need which included, under "Operational Deficiency," a notation that "The standard service personal defensive weapons are the M-9 and SIG-226. While such sidearms are adequate for conventional combatant defense, they are characteristically and operationally inadequate for special operations offensive combat requiring a handgun. ... The current personal defensive weapons fire the 9mm NATO cartridge, which trades off trauma-producing capability for ease of operation by average individuals, NATO interoperability and cost."
Also alluded to were the problems, characterized as "an inadequate mean-round-between-failure rate," the military had been having with the M9, Beretta's 92-SB/F. This problem had become sufficiently alarming to the U.S. Navy that the only M9s that branch has issued, to its elite SEAL teams, had been recalled in favor of the SIG Sauer P226.
(Interestingly, when the FBI had its own service pistol problems last summer, it was the very same SIG P226 to which it turned while S&W went back to the drawing board with the Model 1076, confirming something that savvy gun dealers have known all along: When the "church" comes, people who really need a reliable firearm will find the money to buy it.)
Citing the need for a "Special Operations Offensive Pistol Cal. .45ACP," a pre-solicitation conference was convened immediately following Thanksgiving 1990. The attendees included representatives from Colt's, Arms Tech Ltd., Saco Defense Inc., Glock Inc., Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Knight's Armament Co., Smith & Wesson, Olin / Winchester, Heckler & Koch, Sturm, Ruger & Company, Sigarms Inc. and Israeli Military Industries.
The "Required Physical Characteristics" of the SOCCOM pistol were outlined as: Caliber: 45ACP
Portability: Weighing less than 2.86 pounds (1.3 kilograms), with a basic length not to exceed 9.84 inches (25 centimeters), and no more than 5.9 inches in height and 1.4 inches in width. Action/Safety: Frame-mounted decocking lever as well as an external manual safety and a passive firing pin block or lock. The double-action trigger pull shall be between 8 pounds and 14 pounds, while subsequent pulls are to be single action (3-5 pounds). There will also be a frame-mounted manual external safety, the firing position of which is to be "down" in the traditional Colt/Browning style. Magazine: Minimum capacity of 10 rounds, and capable of freeing itself from the pistol when the left and right handed interchangeable magazine catch is operated. The SOCCOM pistol must be capable of firing without the magazine in place. Sights: Replaceable square post front sight and replaceable square notch rear sight, with interchangeable self-luminous or white-colored plastic capsules to form a three-dot sight system. The pistol must also have a detachable laser or infrared aiming module capable of emitting ordinary "flashlight" focused light for target acquisition and recognition.
Whew! All that in a 46-ounce package!?!
There are numerous other "bells and whistles" fully described in the 85-page document, including but not limited to an "integral recoil compensator," a "signature suppressor module" (silencer) and a "snag-resistant lanyard loop." Now, while all of this may sound to knowledgeable firearms professionals a little bit on the futuristic side, it should be remembered that the Special Operations' initial request is little more than an ordinance wish list for a certain, very limited portion of the military, and that what they are now asking for may not be what they will ultimately accept.
Phase II, after both vendors have delivered 30 prototype systems by late August of 1992, involves extensive testing of the one which the military deems the most successful system. The Navy recognizes that "minor additional design modifications may be required," so nothing is truly graven in stone. An original collateral specification that required development of "an enhanced 185-grain .45ACP FMJ-TC [truneated cone] round" has already been dropped, presumably due to the presence of the Remington 185-grain +P JHP which could readily be reconfigured into a jacketed semi-wad-cutter round which would be "lawful for use against human combatant targets protected by the Hague Convention." There is a strong possibility that, due to the intended use of the SOCCOM system, a commercial grade ".45 caliber +P, 185 grain JHP" might be acceptable, so dealers might look for Federal, Winchester and Hornady to soon follow Remington's lead as Cor-Bon already has done.
It may sound as if the SOCCOM pistol would be more appropriate for Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, but firearms retailers may recollect the number of inquiries received in late 1984 for "one of those neat laser sights like that Terminator guy used in the movie."
There was, at the time, nothing commercially available to satisfy the needs of film-going firearms enthusiasts but technology soon caught up with the illusions of the big silver screen. Today laser sighting systems border on the ordinary.
Retailers often find there's a run on a certain item because of sudden "popular" exposure. Many was the dealer who murmured fervent thanks to Clint Eastwood for the overnight demand for Smith & Wesson Model 29s at the beginning of the '70s, and the Beretta 92 became a hard-to-stock item in the mid-'80s after it won the controversial U.S. Military trials. Repeated exposure of a distinctive shotgun on the TV show "Miami Vice" allowed dealers across the country to move the usually sluggish SPAS-12 off their long gun shelves.
Despite the tide of sentiment which turned to the "wondernines" in the decade just past, there are still those who faithfully prefer handguns chambered in .45ACP. Witness the recent popularity of the finally released Glock Model 21 despite its "gunshop grapevine" reputation as being excessively large and bulky. (For the record, the author does not subscribe to that particular view!)
So whatever the final version of the SOCCOM pistol, if it is approved and adopted by the U.S. Military, there will be a clamoring for a commercial version by enthusiasts - not only those of the big bore persuasion, but those aficionada who absolutely must have in their collections whatever the services have adopted.
And whether it's Colt's of H&K who gets the final contract to produce the USSOCCOM pistol, firearms distributors and dealers are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with the demand, for high level sources within the Navy and Marine Corps have recently disclosed that their respective service branches are at the moment attempting to "make do" with existing inventories of sidearms until a "plain vanilla" edition of the new weapons system is available.