ACCOKEEK, Md. — The letters gave Cpl. Ernest Langdon “freedom of movement” in the Panama Canal Zone.
The United States maintained control of the canal in 1989, when Langdon, a Marine, was stationed there. But as tensions mounted between President George H.W. Bush and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Langdon and his comrades were ordered to test the lines of the Panama Defense Forces to see how far those papers would take them.
On patrol in the muggy jungle, Langdon often reached for his pistol, the only weapon he carried, for a pinch of firepower — just in case. It was a Beretta M9 pistol, standard issue for U.S. servicemembers.
Here in Accokeek, at Beretta’s U.S. headquarters, workers kept those M9s rolling off the line, supplying the military long after Noriega was ousted. Production ramped up as U.S. soldiers moved on to the war zones of the Middle East: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.
Now, the military says, it’s time for a modern handgun for modern warfare. The M9 has long been a sturdy standby when things fall apart in battle — a defensive weapon. The military wants soldiers to reach for the new gun — the XM17 — going into battle.
The military’s move to retire the M9 poses a new business challenge for Beretta on top of other change. After 40 years in Maryland, it’s moving its manufacturing — and more than a hundred jobs — out of the state in response to new gun laws that limit the sale and possession of firearms and threatened its commercial business.
And Beretta is suddenly fighting for a military contract worth $580 million with rivals it normally competes with in gun shops, not in defense contracting: Traditional military suppliers such as Beretta and Colt are facing competition from civilian manufacturers including Glock and Sturm, Ruger & Co.
Commercial handguns are sophisticated enough that the military would ask gunmakers to modify a civilian product to meet battlefield specifications. They’re durable, accurate, high-capacity weapons, perhaps giving civilian gunmakers the upper hand for the first time in military contracting history, gun experts say.
Losing a military contract can spell disaster for corporations that have relied on them to carry their brands. Colt, which made the M1911 pistol, the military’s sidearm for 70 years before the M9, filed for bankruptcy this summer, capping a decades-long decline touched off by the loss of the M1911 contract.
“When the gorilla is your only customer, you’re really hogtied,” says Brian Rafn, research director at financial firm Morgan Dempsey, where he specializes in firearm sales. “You’ve got nothing to fall back on. It’s much quicker selling to Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops.”
The M9 is the pride of the Accokeek plant. Gabriele de Plano, Beretta’s vice president of military and marketing sales, picks one up and turns it in his hands.
It’s jet black with a walnut finish on the handle and silver bevelling into the barrel that reads “U.S. ARMED FORCES” on one side and “30 YEARS OF SERVICE” on the other.
“Now, these are not the guns we’d sell to the military,” de Plano says.
De Plano pats the shoulder of a gentleman polishing the weapons.
Beretta isn’t selling these 30th-anniversary M9s to the military, but it is selling M9s — the all-black kind packed in cartons designed to sit in warehouses for decades until the weapons are called into service. Beretta makes a point of telling every visitor to the plant all about that.
In the lobby is a target signed by every factory employee who helped make the first shipment of M9s for the military in 1985. Before that contract, there were 50 employees in Accokeek. Now there are 160.
“All this,” de Plano says as he strolls onto the factory floor in a dark suit and eye-protection goggles, “this is because of the M9 contract.”
But Beretta, an Italian company, is gearing up to move its U.S. manufacturing to Gallatin, Tenn. Maryland’s gun laws played a part in that. Gallatin did its part to sweeten the deal, giving Beretta $4 million worth of tax incentives over a 10-year period and 100 acres in the city’s industrial park free of charge. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) flew to Italy to lobby the Beretta family to bring the headquarters to Tennessee.
Industry analysts say the cost-cutting measures involved with the move will be crucial if the company doesn’t win the XM17 contract.
“The [Modular Handgun System] kind of snuck up on us,” de Plano says.
The Army, the main driver behind any services-wide small-arms deal, didn’t ask for any technical advancements as the M9’s lifespan wore on, de Plano said.
Soldiers, however, were more candid in their critiques of the sidearm.
In 2006, the Center for Naval Analyses, a military nonprofit, surveyed soldiers who had fired the M9 during their previous deployment. Only 58 percent of them were satisfied with the M9. It didn’t have accessories — or modularity, as the military calls it. It’s range was poor in comparison with long-barrel rifles. And it was clumsy.
Nine years later, the military announced the XM17 contract, looking for a gun with more accessories — such as a rail to mount lights or laser guides on, or better sights on the barrel, or a slimmer grip for better control, or a lighter gun in general — anything to boost confidence in the Army’s arsenal.
The last time the Army commissioned pistols was in 1985. The M9 replaced the ailing Colt M1911, better known as the Colt .45, as part of the Reagan administration’s Cold War arms buildup.
The U.S. military had used the Colt .45 since World War I. And they were good enough for troops decades later in Korea and again a decade after that in Vietnam. But by 1985, the Colt .45 was falling apart. It disintegrated when fired. It jammed. Screws came loose. Bullets didn’t leave the barrel in straight lines.
“You had to know your pistol to know where to aim,” says Steven Bucci, a Heritage Foundation director and a former Army special operator.
It was long past time for a tuneup.
“Manufactures have to introduce new models just like vehicles,” says Greg Danas, president of G&G Firearms Experts. “We haven’t had a new military gun for 30 years. Think about how much technology is behind.”
Handgun design has not changed much in hundreds of years. That’s a point of pride for most gun manufacturers.
“Made in the USA since 1852,” Smith & Wesson boasts on its Web site. Samuel Colt began making pistols in 1836. Beretta was founded in Italy in 1526. Sturm, Ruger (1949), an American company, and Glock (1963), from Austrian, are the new kids on the block.
And handguns aren’t exactly ideal for firefights, military experts say. If for some reason you need to pull out your sidearm during any kind of operation, odds are the mission isn’t going well.
“A handgun is not going to help us win battles,” says Langdon, who exited the Marines as a staff sergeant and is chief executive of firearms training firm Langdon Tactical. “And if it is, we’ve got problems.”
They are small-caliber weapons, which means they don’t always “neutralize” targets on the first shot. Their firepower is limited — 20 rounds at most. Soldiers don’t get much handgun training.
“They don’t exactly become experts with them,” Bucci says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s the bad guy, get [the pistol] out.’ ”
But military-grade pistols are available on the civilian market; buyers are eager to carry whatever has the U.S. military’s stamp of approval, industry analysts say.
The civilian market accounts for 4.5 million firearms sold each year, according to Andrea James, a vice president at Dougherty & Co., who follows military and aerospace businesses. It pushes innovation simply because gun owners are such a vital and diverse consumer base. To meet customers’ needs, commercial manufacturers consistently introduce modular features, which make a gun easier to adapt to personal preferences. The military has begun to invest in that level of innovation.
“I think the civilian market drives everything,” Danas says. “That’s where the sales are. The firearm manufacturers pay attention to recreational shooters, and recreational shooters are lucky enough to have the quality that their colleagues in law enforcement use.”
As others see it, civilian technology changes because gun manufacturers are looking for new features to offer military clients — and then seize on the mass-market opportunity.
“Now the civilians want to have all the bells and whistles they could sell to the military,” Bucci says.
That’s given rise to cottage industries to furnish gun users with specialized gloves and goggles, tactical kneepads and suppressors, and more.
Likewise, if the Army gets a new pistol, it needs a new holster and maybe a new belt and vest and magazine holder. And soldiers need new training on operating the new firearms.
That $580 million contract amounts to more like $1 billion in work, Beretta’s de Plano says, when you put together the cost of research, production, accessories and disposing of old weapons, also the job of a manufacturer.
Still, gun companies will line up for the contract because that extra business cost pays off in other ways.
“The benefit of an Army win is the intangible advertising value for the individual consumer,” James says.
“That’s what’s driven the manufacturers,” Rafn of Morgan Dempsey says. “We’re going to have military-type hardware. We’re going to have military accessories and we’re going to sell you the look, too. That’s a great margin business.”
That’s not what Beretta is after, de Plano says, as he admires the M9A3, the M9’s new cousin. It’s desert tan with a slim grip, accessories rail and brighter sights. He holds it in his left hand, then his right.
“See, it’s modular,” he says, but not modular enough. The military wants more than this in a new pistol.
“Ironically,” he says, eyebrows raised, “all these things they were asking for were on our commercial pistols. It’s not like this is science fiction stuff.”