FORT BRAGG, North Carolina -- Over 150 Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines of various military occupational specialties (MOS) descended here to conduct initial operational testing (IOT) of the Army's new Modular Handgun System (MHS).

The MHS is a possible replacement to the aging M9 Beretta with a focus on modernizing the Army's weapon systems, improving modularity, reliability, and Soldier performance.

"The Chief of Staff of the Army's top priorities are modernization and readiness," said Col. Brian McHugh, director of the Maneuver Test Directorate (MTD) at the U.S. Army Operational Test Command at Fort Hood, Texas. "Getting the right equipment that is tested and proven out to the Soldiers is critical to supporting these priorities."

MHS Test Officer Guy McSweeney said, "The MHS IOT's purpose is to gather operational data to verify if a Warfighter using the handgun can maintain, accurately engage, and hit targets in an operational environment."

Performance and human systems integration data is collected along with feedback from the Warfighters throughout the test.

"Warfighters' feedback from the different Services arms the decision makers with information necessary for the full rate production decision," McSweeney explained.

Soldiers from Fort Bragg's Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 16th Military Police Brigade were among the many Warfighters who tested the pistol.

"Getting this system into the hands of real Soldiers in a realistic operational environment is critical to the operational testing process," McHugh said, "and the operational Soldier's opinion is what Senior Leaders want to hear."

"This test really gets at the fundamental readiness skill of marksmanship," said Major Jermaine Hampton, an MTD test operations officer.

"Proof of this is that according to Army regulations, Soldiers are provided between 160 to 240 rounds of pistol ammunition annually," added Hampton. "However, in the test, each Soldier fired over 550 rounds during several iterations of qualification, rapid fire/weapon transition, and a realistic tactical course.

"Daily training during an operational test, conducted in realistic environments by real Soldiers, is the commitment necessary to maintaining a ready and capable force."

Sgt. Emily Todd of the 16th Military Police Brigade was excited about the amount of rounds she was able to fire and her participation in the test.

"I have gotten to shoot more rounds over the past couple days than I have all year in my unit," she said. "It's a great opportunity, and it's nice to have a forward look into what the Army might use some day."

Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Custer, of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, said, "It's been great being able to shoot this weapon. I like being able to give my opinion."

Custer also seemed to appreciate that his feedback was important to the test team and could impact the decision the Army would make regarding the handgun.

McSweeney described the IOT as, "A composition of three realistic firing courses that were designed to test the functionality and performance of the handgun."

One of the ranges described was the rapid fire/weapon transition firing course.

"For Soldiers who use the M4 rifle as their primary weapon," said Mike Hallman, the MHS assistant test officer, "this course requires them to transition to their handgun when their primary weapon is out of ammunition or is inoperable."

Todd said, "It was a great experience. It is really important because as MPs we use our M4s as our primary weapon and we usually don't get to train on the transition."

According to Mark Sury, OTC's test management division chief, operational testing is about making sure that the systems developed are effective in a Soldier's hands and suitable for the environments Soldiers train and fight in.

"With the increasing demands on the nation's military forces," he said, "it is more important than ever to ensure that our Warfighters have the right equipment for the current and future threats that they may encounter."

McHugh said the job of OTC and its test team members is an essential component of handgun testing at Fort Bragg.

"OTC is an independent agency that conducts operational assessments utilizing real Soldiers in realistic conditions," he said. "Realistic training increases individual training readiness, and is one goal of every operational test we conduct."

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As the Army's only independent operational tester, OTC tests and assesses Army, joint, and multi-service warfighting systems in realistic operational environments, using typical Soldiers to determine whether the systems are effective, suitable, and survivable. OTC is required by public law to test major systems before they are fielded to its ultimate customer -- the American Soldier.