U.S. Government Handguns: Who Carries What?

U.S. Government Handguns: Who Carries What?

As FBI Special Agent Urey Patrick wrote in 1989, “. . . no law enforcement officer should ever plan to meet an expected attack armed only with a handgun.” This tactical principle is not limited to law enforcement officers, however.

In anticipating danger, the first choice should be a shoulder weapon — a service rifle or repeating shotgun. The handgun is, primarily, a reactive weapon; its purpose is to be immediately available, carried to repel unanticipated violence.

Regardless of whether its primary duties consist of domestic law enforcement, intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism, or overseas military operations, each U.S. government entity has had a need, at one time or another, to issue a sidearm to its personnel.

FBI: Glock 17 & Glock 19

FBI Handguns

The FBI has issued its field agents several different handguns over the years, but a significant doctrinal change occurred in the aftermath of the infamous Miami shootout of April 11, 1986, which left two special agents dead and five seriously wounded. Facing off against two bank robbers, one of whom was armed with a .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 rifle, the agents found themselves severely outgunned.

As a result of this incident, the Bureau decided to retire its revolvers and begin issuing semi-automatic pistols. After evaluating several weapons, establishing new guidelines, and conducting a series of tests, the FBI selected the Smith & Wesson 1076 chambered in 10mm Auto as its new sidearm in 1990.

Never one to settle, the FBI adopted its first Glock pistol in 1997, chambered in .40 S&W. As the .40 S&W cartridge was initially designed to replicate the ballistics of the reduced-power 10mm FBI load but in a shorter cartridge, this decision made sense.

In 2016, the FBI announced it was again adopting a new sidearm — the full-size Glock 17 and compact Glock 19 pistols in 9mm.

The reasoning was simple — ammunition technology had advanced considerably in the 30 years since the 9×19mm Luger cartridge had been rejected in favor of the 10mm. With modern combat loads, the 9mm was now a viable cartridge, and 9mm handguns have two distinct advantages — higher magazine capacity and less felt recoil.

The Glock pistol is a polymer-framed, striker-fired, semi-automatic pistol developed for the Austrian Army and adopted in 1982. Its compact variant, the Glock 19, was introduced in 1988 and has since overtaken its predecessor in popularity. Fed from a 17- or 15-round magazine, the Glock is a law enforcement favorite in the U.S. and abroad.

CIA:  Glock 19 & SIG Sauer P226

CIA Handguns

Although not limited to a general-issue sidearm in the same way that the U.S. Army is, CIA agents having more options to choose from, they tend to use the weapons that other branches of the U.S. armed forces have adopted.

As the CIA regularly collaborates with special operations forces (SOF) via its Special Activities Division, it’s not hard to see why. While it wasn’t uncommon for armed CIA personnel to be carrying Beretta M9 pistols, the trend appears to have shifted more toward the Glock 19 and SIG Sauer P226.

Department of Homeland Security

While the Department of Homeland Security is composed of several agencies, the sidearms issued by the two largest constituents, CBP and ICE, are listed individually.

  1. US Customs & Border Protection: Glock 19, 26:

    US Customs & Border Patrol Handguns


    In 2019, it was announced that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had awarded an $85 million contract to Glock to supply the agency with several duty handguns, comprising the Generation 5 Glock 19 compact, 26 subcompact, and 47, which is designed for the CBP and unavailable to private consumers. The Glock 47 pistol mates a Glock 17 MOS (Modular Optic System) slide to a Glock 45 frame. Improvements include the frontal slide charging serrations, Glock Marksman Barrel (GMB), which substitutes polygonal rifling, AmeriGlo sights, and a flared magazine well to accommodate faster reloads.

  2. ICE: SIG P320C 
    ICE Handguns
    Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency tasked with enforcing laws against illegal immigration and unauthorized border crossings, adopted the SIG Sauer P229 DAK, chambered in .40 S&W, in 2009 before replacing it with the SIG P320C. The P320C, or Compact, is not that different from the MHS M18 adopted by the U.S. military. The most apparent differences are the lack of a manual safety lever and slide cut to attach optics.

U.S. Secret Service: SIG Sauer P229 DAK and Glock 19 

Secret Service Handguns

The U.S. Secret Service has issued its agents the SIG Sauer P229 DAK handgun for years but is planning to replace it with the Glock 19. The standard P229 is a semi-automatic, double-action/single-action (DA/SA), hammer-fired pistol, available in three different chamberings. Until recently, the Secret Service opted for the .357 SIG option due to its increased penetration and kinetic energy.

The DAK (Double Action Kellerman) variant, however, is double-action-only with two separate trigger resets. The standard long trigger stroke breaks at 6.5 lbs. However, if the agent short-strokes the trigger, it will still reset but at an increased weight of 8.5 lbs. This is designed to increase the resistance to fire if the operator short-strokes the trigger unintentionally. Alternatively, it permits faster follow-up shots when using the short reset only, but this requires additional training.

The Secret Service is currently phasing the P229 DAK out in favor of the Glock 19 in 9mm. Although the .357 SIG cartridge is more powerful, it also produces more recoil and causes service weapons to wear out more quickly.

U.S. Army: Beretta M9 and SIG Sauer M17

US Army Handguns

The U.S. Army adopted the Beretta M9 in 1985. The M9, a modified 92F, is an aluminum-framed, semi-automatic, double-action/single-action (DA/SA), hammer-fired pistol with an open slide. Its recoil operation is comparable to that of the WWII-era Walther P38 — the barrel reciprocates linearly rather than tilting as in the Browning system.

Fed from a 15-round magazine, the M9 had almost twice the magazine capacity of the .45-caliber M1911A1 that it replaced. However, due to many ongoing complaints, it is being phased out.

First announced in 2011, the XM17 Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition was held from 2015 to 2017 to find a suitable replacement for the 9mm Beretta M9.

Several well-known manufacturers submitted sample weapons, from Beretta and Fabrique National to Glock and Smith & Wesson, but in 2017 a modified SIG Sauer P320-M17 was declared the winner.

The SIG MHS comprises two models — a full-size service pistol (M17) and a compact (M18). Regardless of the variant, the MHS is a modular semi-automatic, striker-fired, recoil-operated weapon fed from a detachable 17- or optional 21-round magazine.

One complaint regarding the M9, as demonstrated by soldier surveys, is that there’s no provision for attaching accessories. The MHS incorporates a MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail, integral with the frame, and a slide cut to accept an MDR (miniature red dot) sight. In contrast to the commercial P320, the MHS also has a manual safety lever.

Although chambered in 9×19mm Parabellum as standard, the MHS can be rechambered to fire the more powerful .357 SIG and .40 S&W cartridges. As the MHS is, as the name suggests, modular, several parts can be swapped out as needed, including interchangeable grip modules to accommodate a variety of hand sizes.

U.S. Navy: Beretta M9, SIG Sauer M11, and M18

US Navy Handguns

The United States Navy is currently replacing its issued sidearms with the new SIG Sauer M18. Among the weapons the Navy is scheduled to replace are the Beretta M9 and SIG Sauer M11, the military designation for the SIG Sauer P228, a compact variant of the P226.

While the Navy is ordering tens of thousands of new MHS (Modular Handgun Systems), the Navy SEALs have chosen to replace their aging SIG pistols with the Glock 19, citing improved performance.

Beginning in 1989, the SEALs have been fielding the P226, designated the MK25. The P226 was chosen as part of a series of trials held by the SEALs to find a new sidearm. A malfunctioning Beretta M9 injured a member of Naval Special Warfare, and they sought to replace it.

U.S. Air Force:  Beretta M9, SIG P226, and M18

US Air Force Handguns

As the XM17 Modular Handgun System competition was jointly held by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, it’s not a surprise that the USAF adopted the winning design. The M18, the Modular Handgun System’s compact variant, will replace the Beretta M9 and P226, another SIG handgun, used by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Another sidearm that still sees some use in the USAF, which is also being replaced, is the M15 — a U.S. Army pistol issued to general officers. The M15, chambered in .45 Auto and based on the M1911 design, is not that different from the Colt Commander.

The U.S. Air Force adopted both the Beretta M9 and SIG P226 handguns in the 1980s. Both guns exhibit traits common to that era — double-action/single-action triggers and decocking levers (P226) or manual safeties that decock when engaged (M9).

U.S. Marine Corps: Sig M18  

US Marine Corp Handgun

The Marine Corps Combat Development Command worked alongside the U.S. Army to devise the M18 requirements. Like the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps formally adopted the Modular Handgun System, specifically the M18 compact variant, as an intended replacement for several handguns carried by different units. 

As a result, the M18 is scheduled to replace not only the Beretta M9 and M9A1, but also the Colt M45A1 — a modernized M1911-pattern handgun chambered in .45 Auto — and the newly acquired Glock 19M (designated M007), issued to the Criminal Investigation Division and Helicopter Squadron One.

The M18 is 3.4 oz. lighter and, with a 3.9” barrel instead of the standard 4.7”, 0.8” shorter in overall length than the full-size M17. Don’t be fooled by its compact size, however — it suffers no detriment to firepower, using the same 17- and 21-round magazines.

Final Thoughts

Most branches of the U.S. armed forces, and many domestic law enforcement agencies, have either phased out or are in the process of phasing out the Beretta M9 and SIG DA/SA pistols, in service since the 1980s and early ‘90s, in favor of a Glock variant or the new SIG MHS. Both firearms are reliable and durable enough to be trusted by U.S. military and government personnel at home and abroad.