An unfinished Beretta M9 lays on top of stand at the Beretta factory in Accokeek, Maryland.
An unfinished Beretta M9 lays on top of stand at the Beretta factory in Accokeek, Maryland. - 
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Today, the official handgun of the U.S. Army is the Beretta M9. But it may not be that way for long.

The Pentagon is searching for a new handgun for its soldiers. The request for proposals envisions a modular handgun system. Sounds simple, but the Army has only been in the market for its official gun twice before, so gun manufacturers have a lot riding on the contract. And it’s not just about the money.

Beretta learned that lesson when it won the Army's gun contract back in 1985. It was something of a coup for the Italian company — until then, the company was best-known for making boutique-type hunting rifles.

Beretta has made the Army's M9s in its Accokeek, Maryland headquarters since 1987. At the height of the Army contract, it employed about 500 people, but today it’s around 300. Gabriele De Plano, Beretta’s vice president of military marketing and sales, says that when Beretta won the contract, the impact was immediate.

"Law-enforcement agencies started to adopt the Beretta M9 or the equivalent commercial version, a lot of state-police agencies adopted the M9, the civilian market all of a sudden took greater note of our products," he says. 

But the Army’s new request for proposals for a modular handgun system is a sign that the military isn’t satisfied with the M9. There are some well-known complaints: its magazines get stuck in hot, sandy environments like Iraq and its grip is too big for those with small hands, like female soldiers. De Plano says Beretta tried to address some of those complaints with an updated version called the M9A3.

"The pistol itself operates exactly the same way, which is one of the great advantages," he says. "If you know how to shoot the old pistol, you know how to shoot the new pistol."

Beretta submitted this updated version as an “Engineering Change Proposal” to the existing contract, but the Army didn't bite. 

Brian Friel, a government-contracts analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, says that's because the government wants a wide-open competition for its new modular system. And it's no wonder Beretta submitted the M9A3 to try to keep its contract. 

"The value of a government contract is beyond its nominal dollar amount because there's something of a good housekeeping stamp of approval that comes with the Army or an agency picking your gun to put in soldiers' hands," Friel says. 

That nominal dollar amount is actually low, in the grand scheme of Pentagon acquisitions. The Department of Defense only spent about $400 million over the life of the 30-year Beretta contract. Contrast that with the overall civilian gun market in America, which is worth around $7 billion per year, or the hundreds of billions spent on the yet-to-be-delivered F-35 fighter jet.

Mike Greene, an analyst with defense consulting firm Avascent, says gun manufacturers want this contract so they can be "The Army Gun."

"There are six, seven, eight million concealed carry holders in the U.S., which is a lot larger number than most people realize," Greene says. "Those people are carrying a firearm, those are regular civilians who are carrying a firearm every day."

Because the consumer-handgun market has grown so exponentially since the last Army gun contract in the 1980s, "in this case, the consumer market may drive what the military chooses," Greene says. "The research and development is all on the consumer side."

Even if Beretta doesn’t win this contract, its relationship with the Army will continue to have cachet. Its predecessor, the Colt M1911, was the army’s gun for 70 years. And to this day, it still has a devoted following.

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Follow Tim Fitzsimons at @@tfitzsimons