NATICK, Mass. (July 25, 2013) -- When the M320 40 mm grenade launcher began replacing the M203 in 2009, it put a new and more lethal weapon into the hands of the Soldier.
There was one question, however. How would he or she best carry it?
An equipment specialist with Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment, or PM SCIE, is trying to answer that question. Darren Bean has been working at the Natick Soldier Systems Center since November 2012 on the M320GL Holster Soldier Enhancement Program, or SEP.
The detachable M320, named one of the Army's top 10 inventions of 2009, comes equipped with a sling to carry it when not mounted to the M4 carbine or M16 rifle, according to Bean.
"It was a one-point sling, so (the weapon) was kind of bouncing around," Bean said. "If you went down to the ground, you were dragging it through the dirt. Most people felt that protection was needed at some level because they were just getting dragged in the dirt and pounded on."
Some Soldiers began looking for a better solution than the sling for the M320, which weighs seven pounds with the butt stock.
"They decided they wanted to be able to put it in a holster rather than just shove it in their ruck sack," Bean said.
The SEP allowed the purchase of enough holsters to equip a brigade combat team. He said the "buy-try-decide" concept allows the Army to test the functionality of equipment without spending a lot of time on research and development.
Bean found three commercial vendors who make M320 holsters, so PM SCIE acquired 167 of each.
"They're of varying design," Bean said. "All three of them were very different from each other."
One model includes pockets for grenades but is bulky. Another is more streamlined but offers less protection for the weapon. The third is a cross between the other two.
Bean put the holsters in the hands of a dozen Soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga., who went through a set of standardized tests in mid May. The Soldiers filled out surveys after the testing.
The testing was to make sure it was realistic to go forward, Bean said.
"Now we can actually test them with an entire brigade," he added.
Each one of the holsters has had small issues, according to Bean.
"None of them have performed necessarily any better than the other ones," Bean said. "They all have some small things that need to be tweaked."
Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) from Fort Drum, N.Y., the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Vermont National Guard, and Soldiers in Afghanistan are currently evaluating the holsters. The Consumer Research Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center will collect data. PM SCIE officials will then make a recommendation to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning by the beginning of fiscal year 2014.
"The need is there, for sure," Bean said. "I think the end state of this will be that they will say, 'Yes, we need a grenade launcher holster for this when we use it in the stand-alone mode.'"