Would a U.S. Marine Corps officer carry an Italian-made sidearm?
Would the U.S. Army side with James Bond over Mike Hammer?
Would the U.S. military abandon its trusty Colt .45 after three-quarters of a century?
To the dismay of armed-forces traditionalists, the answer to all three yesterday became "yes."
The Army announced it has ended years of contention and competition by selecting the Beretta 9mm "personal defense weapon" -- as the Pentagon calls a handgun -- to replace the Colt .45 as the standard issue for officers, military police and other personnel who normally carry sidearms.
The 9mm automatic, the Army said, is lighter, safer, more accurate and more reliable than the .45 that the Army has used since 1911. The Beretta also will bring the U.S. military into line with other NATO countries, most of which have been using 9mm guns for years.
The shootout between the 9mm (used by Bond, the fictional spy) and the .45 (preferred by Hammer, the fictional investigator) was small potatoes by normal Pentagon budget standards, with the transition likely to cost $200 million-plus. But the competition sparked major disagreements in Congress and the Army, with opponents citing cost, overseas competition, tradition and the new gun's lighter and less-macho image.
"You can see it's more delicate," an Army public affairs officer said yesterday as he pointed to design differences in the two guns. He quickly added, "No, that's the wrong word -- don't use that word."
The .45 became the standard sidearm for the Army after the United States quelled an insurrection in the Philippines in the early 1900s, during which Moro rebels wrapped themselves so tightly in cloth that no projectile smaller than a .45 could make them bleed. Since then, the Colt .45 -- manufactured in Connecticut -- has been the sidearm of officers, many military police, truck and tank drivers, air crew members and others whose jobs prevent them from carrying rifles.
Some military law-enforcement agents carry .38 pistols, elite Navy SEALS use 9mm guns and, overall, the military uses more than 25 different models of sidearms and more than 100 types of ammunition, according to a 1978 study by the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. The subcommittee instructed the military to standardize, and the Pentagon opted for the 9mm.
At that point, however, members of the House Armed Services Committee told the Army they did not share the concern of their colleagues on the Appropriations subcommittee. They questioned the need to spend so much on new guns when the .45 seemed adequate, and they expressed concern that a foreign company would win.
The Army was caught between the two panels for years. A lawsuit filed by Smith & Wesson, charging that it was not treated fairly in the bidding, also has complicated the competition, according to Army officials. But after months of dropping competing guns in mud, sand and water, shooting them 5,000 times each and testing "such human factors as hit probability," the Army selected the Beretta.
The initial contract, which is expected to be signed in about 30 days if the lawsuit does not interfere, will cover 315,930 weapons, with the first batch produced in Italy.
Beretta will promise to manufacture at least 134,000 guns at a plant in Accokeek, Md.
The .45 has nostalgic appeal for some officers, but others long have complained about its inaccuracy, its heavy recoil, its weight and its less-than-foolproof safety features. "I'm sure that thing has shot more Americans than enemy," one retired Marine said yesterday.