The Military/LE’s Influence on Small Arms Technology

Change is always coming, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s new Coke. 

If you’ve ever wondered just who actually influences small arms design, I’ll give you a hint…they aren’t on Instagram.

John Instagram Star (3)
Okay, but lookin’ good for the ‘gram is what we DO.

From big military to small police departments, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that the government makes big impacts on our wallets and gun safes!

Table of Contents

Loading...

The Military/LE and Small Arms Tech

Does the military and law enforcement influence small arms technology?

In short: Yes, they do. But maybe not as much as you might think.

While there are many examples of the military or law enforcement influencing small arms development, the biggest impacts are in ways you may not have thought about. 

Testing a bulletproof vest, 1923
Testing a bulletproof vest, 1923

The first thing to consider is that in some areas the military is cutting edge, but when it comes to small arms they are often 10 to 20 years behind the civilian world.

In a few cases, even longer.

Consider for a moment the M16. While the AR-15 was first developed in 1959, the idea of a small caliber, select-fire, large magazine, easy-to-use rifle was introduced by the Germans in 1943 with the StG 44. 

StG 44
StG 44

A few years later the Soviets were the first to fully embrace the idea with the AK-47 in 1947.

It would take the US Military another 16 years before they started to field the XM16.

We’ll take a look at a few examples, but oftentimes the civilian world has more influence on the military than the other way around.

Military

In the grand scheme of things, the military will impact rifle development far more than pistol development. Mostly because that’s the small arm of choice for the military.

USMC Okinawa Thompson
A Marine named Sgt. John Wisbur Bartlett Sr. of the 1st Marine Division draws a bead on a Japanese sniper with an M1 Thompson as his companion ducks for cover. The division is working to take Wana Ridge before the town of Shuri. Okinawa, 1945.

While the military will occasionally make big waves in the pistol world, it’s only due to the adoption of a commercial product.

Take the Colt 1911, the Beretta M9, and the Sig Sauer M17 — these were major changes for the military, but with the exception of the 1911 these adoptions did not really impact the world of firearm development at all.

The adoption of the M16 was a huge change.

The progressive updating and modifications to the M16 and later the M4 platform have pushed the system to the edge in every way.

M16 Progression A1 to A4
From top to bottom: M16A1, M16A2, M4A1, M16A4

To learn more about the M16, check out our in-depth look here.

Police/Law Enforcement

While it’s easy to see the impact of LE on pistol tactics, training, and theory — as a whole, they rarely impact the technological development of small arms.

The exception to this rule is the FBI.

fbi warning
They seem a lot less intimidating when you remember they also do this stuff…

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation makes a new decision it is based on years of experience and research. The bureau’s adoption and recommendation are also relied on by many smaller agencies that rarely do their own testing.

While 50 local PDs might adopt something after the FBI does, in reality, it is often only the FBI that did any research.

Money

While I think we might like the idea of the military or SOCOM or DARPA or some other shadowy government entity running massive research and development projects, the reality is that this rarely happens.

Cash Cannon

As with most things in life it comes down to money. While the military will spend loads of money testing things, they rarely spend it on actual development themselves. 

If they are going to spend a load of money on something to be invented, they normally farm that contract out to someone else. 

Formal Adoption

The biggest way the military or police can influence small arms development is by adopting a new thing. Really, the thing can be anything — rifle, optic, medical kit, mounting system, etc.

Regardless of the product, adoption makes it important.

Normally, adoption follows testing. And if the military or a police agency conducts extensive testing, then that’s proof something works.

difference between screwing around and science

Adoption also means a large contract for parts and service. This massive influence of cash into a company’s coffers allows them to fund more R&D.

Consequently, they tend to make civilian versions of the product, expand production, or lower per-item cost and maybe pass that savings on to us (don’t count on it).

How much

This also works as the official signal to other companies there’s interest and a market for this item. In turn, they might put R&D into the field to come out with something better for the next contract.

Lastly, it puts the item in the hands of thousands or sometimes millions of people. Introduce a new tool to the US Army and hundreds of thousands of personnel might be trained on or use it daily.

What I Carried Beretta and KA-BAR
Two things Travis carried during his time in the USMC — a Ka-Bar and a Beretta

Extend that timeline for the 10, 15, 30 years that the tool might be in service and that number can grow exponentially.

For example, the Beretta M9 was adopted in 1986 and only replaced by the Army in 2017.

In that time, how many tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines trained on and carried one? A lot.

Life After Service

Take a look at the small arms industry and you will find a huge percentage of companies founded in part by or entirely by people that served in the military or law enforcement.

Being a professional that uses a type of tool day in and day out for years, you get to know what it needs and what it lacks.

freedom doesn't brew itself
Or you start a coffee brand, it seems. These have been popping up all over the place!

Taking that experience into civilian life and developing better ways of doing things is a pretty easy means to forge a career path.

While some of these brands and ideas are flops, some of them develop into the powerhouse brands that we use every day.

Request for Proposal (RFP) 

A more direct method the military uses to influence small arms development is called an RFP.

An RFP is basically an official document that open to public viewing. It details a list of requirements and goals for a new anything.

understanding an rfp
“Hey, Google — what is the process of an RFP?” “Oh…” image via SmartSheet

From battleships to rifles, an RFP asks anyone to develop or present something that fulfills the requirements.

Sometimes the RFP will be fulfilled by something already on the market. But other times it’s something freshly designed specifically for the RFP.

An interesting thing about RFPs is that they are not always realistic. Sometimes, they are more of a wishlist than actual requirements.

simple buzz lightyear meme
The faces of engineers when they read the latest DOD RFP

If someone is able to come up with something that fulfills all of the goals, that’s even better.

But even if that isn’t possible, it still pushes brands and inventors to present their best work, taking technology as far as they can.

90s Technology
Us too, kid.

Also, just because an RFP was issued doesn’t mean it gets fulfilled. If after a period of time, nothing is presented that fits the bill — the RFP might be rescinded and the military will try again later.

Or on the other side, a single product won’t be selected immediately.

If several designs look promising, but none of them are perfect — the department that issued the RFP might pick several to give development contracts to.

money-gone
How development contracts normally work

This pays for more R&D. Along the way, the military provides feedback on what they like and don’t like about the design.

RFPs are never fast, though. The process normally takes years. But, they often result in the biggest changes and some of the coolest stuff.

Special Forces

Big military branches normally run 10 to 20 years behind the curve of civilian development.

It takes about that long for something to become economically viable on a large scale and for a technology to really prove itself.

At center, South Vietnamese commandos with M-1 carbines. The U.S. Special Forces on both sides carry M-16s. Photo via Wikipedia
At the center, South Vietnamese commandos with M-1 carbines. The U.S. Special Forces on both sides carry M-16s. If you want a cool read on SF units with weird weapons, look at the SEAL teams during Vietnam!

However, special forces are often much more in tune with what is cutting edge on the market.

These smaller units commonly get more flexibility in how and where they acquire equipment. They can even buy commercially from a retailer or place a small(ish) order directly with a manufacturer.

Since they buy in smaller numbers, this keeps overall cost much lower. They also normally see much larger budgets per unit member.

SOPMOD 1.5 Clone (4)
SOPMOD 1.5 Clone, not cheap.

Custom orders and modifications to improve the design or better tailor the product to their needs aren’t off the table, either.

Finally, individuals using the equipment are better trained. More training allows for more familiarity with equipment and the ability to fully exploit an advantage.

All of this combines to cause large impacts and improvements on development — although it can go unspoken and unnoticed since this feedback cycle is proprietary and secretive.

Military and LE Innovations

Ready for real-life examples? We’ve gathered a few times the military and law enforcement have impacted small arms development.

Red Dot Sights

While not technically a red dot as we would consider it today, the first use of a…red dot aiming system designed for both eyes open shooting was first used in the Son Tay Raid in 1970.

Son Tay Raid
Capt. Dick Meadows before the operation, SinglePoint OEG on his CAR-15. via Son Tay Raid Association

American special forces conducted a flawless raid on the Son Tay POW camp and many of the operators used the Armson Singlepoint OEG.

This was an occluded eye gunsight — meaning you couldn’t actually see through it. The Armson Singlepoint OEG used fiber optic cable to illuminate the sight.

Using both eyes open, the image of the red dot would superimpose on your vision and allow for accurate, rapid shooting.

Red Dots Under $100
Thank the military for these.

It basically worked like a red dot does, but not as good.

While the raid failed to rescue any American POWs, by every other metric the mission was a complete success. And it helped prove this emerging technology.

A couple of decades later in 1993, US Army Delta Force and Rangers used early Aimpoint red dots in Mogadishu. 

Delta Operators in Somalia
Delta Operators in Somalia, 1993. Far right, two CAR-15s with Aimpoint 3000 red dots.

Famously, many operators involved with Operation Gothic Serpent had Aimpoint 3000 or 5000 red dots on their rifles during the 15-hour battle.

Again, proving the technology.

Delta would continue to heavily employ the use of red dots from then on.

However, the first red dot to be fully adopted by the military wouldn’t come until 2000 with the Aimpoint CompM2.

Aimpoint Comp M5 Left Side
The Aimpoint Comp M5…a successor to the Aimpoint Comp throne.

Keymod Vs. M-LOK

Many of us remember this happening, 5/5/2017 the day that Keymod just…died. Almost overnight, Keymod handguards were on sale for 10, 20, 50% off. 

Star Wars Million of Voices

Just a few months later I remember seeing discontinued banners on websites proclaiming that their entire Keymod inventory was 75%+ off.

I scored a sweet Aero handguard for like $20.

Keymod vs M-Lok
Keymod vs M-Lok

Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division is a testing ground for the DoD and Navy. 

One such test, sponsored by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), tested what mounting system was better, Keymod or M-LOK.

This, to my knowledge, was the first major test of the two systems conducted by a real authority in the topic.

Office Space Smash
What we assume testing looked like.

The results of the test are pretty interesting, but outside of the scope of this article. Basically, NSWC-Crane bought a bunch of handguards off the shelf and beat the crap out of them.

They beat them in the cold, they beat them in the hot, they beat them with attachments, you get the idea.

The result was that M-LOK was better. So said NSWC-Crane, and so USSOCOM officially adopted M-LOK as their standard.

Trying to find an AR-15 *without* M-LOK these days is hard to do

Once M-LOK had the nod, nothing else mattered.

Rest in peace, Keymod.

XM17 Modular Handgun System

This program would result in the adoption of the Sig Sauer M17 and M18 pistol in 2017, but the process to get there actually started in 2011.

The M17 is a formidable weapon designed to operate in the military theater
P320-M17

While the Air Force kicked off testing in limited ways in 2008, the official RFP from the Army wouldn’t come until January 2015.

The delay allowed brands time to understand what the military wanted, develop it, get feedback, and build it. Also, the government is slow as hell.

The end of that story is Sig won. But the untold part is that the other competitors didn’t just vanish.

Gene Wilder You Won
The military telling Sig the news.

Beretta and CZ offered up basically what they were already producing in their APX, P-07, and P-09 pistols. Smith & Wesson submitted their M&P M2.0, KRISS and STI also were in the game with a modified Sphinx and STX.

CZ P-07 Outside
CZ P-07 Outside

But the most interesting ones were from Glock and FN Herstal.

Glock submitted the 17 MHS and 19 MHS in 9mm and the Glock 22 MHS and 23 MHS in .40 S&W. 

They didn’t win, but they didn’t waste the development either.

The Glock 17 Gen. 5 is basically a copy of what they submitted for trials. A much more modern and modular version of their decades-old classic design.

Kat shooting G19
Kat with the first Gen. 5 she ran when they were first launched in fall of 2017.

FN spent a massive amount of development on their submission and they claim fired over 1 million rounds during testing. 

Basically, a version of their FNS was used — not long after losing, they would release that pistol as the FN 509 Tactical.

10mm, .40 Smith & Wesson, and 9mm

This is a story that could go on for pages of detail, but the short version is that the FBI chose 10mm for its effectiveness, dropped it due to recoil, helped develop and adopted the .40 S&W, and then dropped it for 9mm once technology finally caught up.

conspiracy theory guy
Me if I ever do an article on the development, adoption, and abandonment of the 10mm Auto

While the FBI put a LOT of research and development into each of these decisions, the larger impact of their studies and choices impacted firearms and sales for years every time.

Each time they made a change there were dozens of smaller agencies that quickly followed their example and changed standards. 

This resulted in thousands of trade-in firearms on the market and boosted the sales of new firearms in their respective calibers.

North Slope Borough Police Department, the only US department to adopt a variation of the AK. The dream police trade-in find!

It also pushed ammunition brands to develop different and better loadings for each caliber to try and outdo one another.

The result? A golden age of lethality from pistol caliber cartridges.

For defensive use, hunting, and duty carry — these advancements have helped shape the current market.

If They Do It, Should You?

This is a common fallacy that I want to quickly address. Just because your local PD or the military adopts something, doesn’t mean you should too.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Really it doesn’t mean anything on a general scale. Each change must be taken individually.

Indiana Jones Holy Grail meme

When a major agency picks something, it is usually chosen so that the cost is right and the item can be used by as wide a range of people as possible. 

The Glock 17/19/22/23 is a great example of this.

Glock, when bought on a large scale, is very economical. It’s also generally simple to use by almost anyone with no modifications. And this holds true in your hands as well.

But that doesn’t mean that a Glock is the perfect platform for you. It might be, but the FBI adopting it doesn’t make it so.

For me — Glocks fit my hands poorly. The Gen. 3, the only easily accessible generation in California, is positively horrible for me.

11. Two Glock 19s
(top) my Glock 19LS with Holosun Green Dot, (bottom) Eric’s Glock 19 with Streamlight TLR-7 weapon light

Since wide-ranging compatibility, mass purchase of replacement parts, and simple training are not major concerns for me as an individual — I can choose a firearm that fits me personally better.

Even if it isn’t what the FBI or military has adopted.

A real-world example of this can be seen in the XM17 program. Glock and Sig were neck and neck in the testing in almost every way with Sig taking a small lead in several areas.

While the exact numbers aren’t public, both firearms performed amazingly well.

What really came down to it was largely based on price.

Sig Sauer won the contract because they fulfilled the requirements and bid the contract a hell of a lot cheaper than what Glock wanted.

While the price is normally the least important factor, it was the deciding factor in this case. Adopting the Sig offering saved the DOD over $100 million throughout the course of the contract vs. Glock’s bid.

Conclusion

The civilian world and military/law enforcement have influenced each other’s small arms design since the first shot was fired. Normally, this is for the better. But it takes a bit of wisdom to decide what changes are best for you.

sig military use
Sig has a long history of making guns for the military.

What do you think of military and law enforcement’s impact on the market? Let us know in the comments below. If you want to see more civilian/MIL relations, make sure to check out Civilian-Legal Versions of Military-Only Guns.

The Best Gun Deals, Coupons and Finds

Subscribe to Pew Pew Tactical's sales and deals email.

3 Leave a Reply

  • William R. Duey

    Fantastic article. Love the snippets of movies to make point. Right on. Keep up the great work. I would like to see a survey of military issued sidearm carriers and their opinion on the Sig selection. Especially after some time has passed since first issue. Not my first choice for sure. Thanks for working this article up. Very good.

    3 weeks ago
  • Bob

    While you mentioned the M1911, the whole story is worth telling. The smaller sidearms used in the military at the time proved inadequate to stop a rebellious Huk tribesman from killing you as he charged with his machete raised high over his head. Even if you shot him, his forward momentum would propel him forward and he'd still slice you with the downward moving blade. The M1911 projectile would actually blow him backward and save you. Sometimes it not just the weapons, but weapon add-ons that make major changes. The totally passive, long range, low power, small sized bolometer sights soon to hit the market will be game game changers. These miniaturized versions of the technology used for night vision in the Apache helicopter were first used in small arms in the ill-fated XM8 and XM29 systems. The size of your thumb, they could reach out for multiple kilometers, providing a highly accurate image good enough to not only detect targets at extended ranges, but to identify them in detail. When in development by Picatinny Arsenal, their cost was unacceptable for commercial markets. But that cost has consistently been decreasing. The benefits of this technology are the extended range compared to other night sights and the fact that it is totally passive. Most other systems commercially available require "painting" the target with IR energy, much like shining a flashlight at it. These new systems are totally passive, "uncooled thermal sights" that do not require such illumination. While that may not be important if your target is a deer, if it is a bad guy with thermal capabilities, it can save your life. And keep an eye out for "XEROWIND", a laser system designed to detect the wind velocity throughout a sniper's shot, all the way to the target, not just at the shooter. Developed for Special Forces, XEROWIND has been designed to address a commercial market in the future.

    3 weeks ago
  • Tom

    Great article! Thx for the info.

    3 weeks ago
New to Guns ? Check out our beginners guns video course. Start Now