The M17 Pistols Carried by the Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
February 28, 2019
Photos by Department of Defense and SIG SAUER
After visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and witnessing the changing of the guard, Beretta patriarch, Giuseppe Beretta, said, “We have to do something better for these men.” Consequently, presentation-grade M9s were built and carried by Tomb Guard sentinels beginning February 17, 1988, until October 11, 2018, for a total of 11,194 days. The Beretta M9 served well alongside American servicemen and provided a great legacy, indeed. The time has come for another change.
October 11th was a day that the men and women of SIG Sauer won’t soon forget. Four ceremonial M17s were presented to the sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and replaced the M9s in their holsters. Each is a work of art that was specially created by SIG Sauer for this duty.
The Old Guard
Serving since 1784, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — no matter the weather. Sentinels are all volunteers and considered to be the best of The Old Guard, the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia, next to Arlington National Cemetery. The Old Guard is the oldest active U.S. infantry unit.
Ron Cohen, CEO of SIG Sauer and a former artillery officer with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Steve Rose, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and military salesman for SIG Sauer, had the honor of laying a wreath at the tomb. It was Cohen’s first visit to Arlington National Cemetery, which left a sullen mark on the tough soldier’s heart. The ceremony is an event that touches a lot of visitors; you can feel the power of this sacred place.
The sentinels to Cohen’s front were walking their 21 steps with M17s on their hip. A momentous day for any company whose leadership and employees know men and women who have fallen on the field of battle in service of their country. The pistols carried by the Tomb Guards are laden with significant meaning, and special processes were developed to make each of the sidearms.
The Four Pistols
There are four pistols issued to the Tomb Guards. Named “Silence” and “Respect,” two are highly polished for daylight hours while “Dignity” and “Perseverance” are matte-black pistols for night duty and bouts of inclement weather.
Tim Butler of SIG Sauer, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was tasked with leading the design team and overseeing the delivery of these ceremonial service pistols. Each pistol’s frame was machined from aluminum and deeply engraved with their respective names on the underside of each dustcover.
The two M17 pistols destined to be carried during the day were polished to a brilliant reflection using a multi-step process that included three different materials being deposited on the aluminum frame as well as one precious metal. This process was completed with the application of Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC), a special treatment that protects the pistols’ polished appearance. I’ve seen them, and they are black as night.
Interestingly, the night-sight pockets on these M17s feature glass vials made with marble dust from the Tomb. The dust was recovered when the Tomb received the inscription “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” The inscription was added to the face of the crypt after Lieutenant Michael J. “Blaze” Blassie’s remains were identified and removed from the Tomb of the Unknown in 1998. The marble dust was introduced to glass by heating it to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and then formed for inserts into these pistols’ sights.
Alongside of the marble sight inserts is a three-dimensional engraving of three Greek figures: Peace, Victory and Valor. This was made possible with the help of the U.S. Parks Service who had digitized and created the image from the Tomb’s carving. The image was then laser engraved on the sight plate for each M17.
The three figures on the front of the Tomb represent Peace holding a dove, Victory holding a palm branch and Valor holding a sword. Victory stands between Peace and Valor to reward devotion and sacrifice that went with courage to make the Cause of Righteousness triumphant.
The frames of the pistols are also one of a kind. Dignity and Perseverance, the night and inclement-weather pistols, were finished matte black and have black grips. The day pistols wear grip inserts made of wood from the USS Olympia and finished with the Tomb Badge applied to the right-side grip.
The Tomb Badge is earned by sentinels since first being issued in 1958. It is one of only two badges that can be revoked if you dishonor the Tomb anytime in your life. Since its inception, only a few over 360 badges have been awarded.
The Wood Grips
The wood for the day pistols’ grip inserts was carved from the deck of the USS Olympia. The USS Olympia’s tie to the Tomb of the Unknown was that its final mission returned the remains of an unknown World War I soldier home to the United States.
On Memorial Day, 1921, four unknowns were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat, decorated for valor and received the Distinguished Service Medal in the Great War, had the honor of selecting the Unknown Soldier of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Châlons-sur-Marne, France, on October 24, 1921.
Sgt. Younger selected the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. He chose the third casket from the left. That unknown soldier was then loaded and transported to the U.S. aboard the USS Olympia.
To this day, the USS Olympia is the oldest steel-hulled American warship still afloat. Worth noting, this ship was Commander George Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. It now resides at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum.
The power that these historical elements add to the M17 is chilling. As I write this, I have to reflect on what soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have sacrificed to keep America free. Such devotion is awe inspiring.
The magazines for the Tomb Guard M17s carry 21 rounds of 9mm and feature aluminum base plates engraved with Peace, Victory and Valor on the sides. The bottom of the magazine has a space for the badge number of the NCO on duty who is in charge of the guard. Yes, the gun carried on duty is loaded.
Not a detail was missed. In fact, even the serial numbers of each pistol end in “21”. The full series of serial numbers are “LS02JUL37A21” for Silence, “LS02JUL37B21” for Respect, “LS02JUL37C21” for Dignity and “LS02JUL37D21” for Perseverance. The “LS” prefix represents line six of the Sentinel’s Creed, “My standard will remain perfection.” “02JUL37” signifies the first 24-hour guard posted at the Tomb of the Unknown on July 2, 1937, and “21” represents the 21 steps it takes to walk by the Tomb.
The number “21” is significant to the Tomb Guard, as it alludes to the 21-gun salute, the highest national honor. Look closely and you’ll see that the slides are engraved with the Roman numerals “XXI” to the same proportional depth that marble was cut when engraved on the Tomb. Unlike movements in our military ranks, the sentinels do not execute an about face when they reach 21 steps during their march. They stop, turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. Then they turn to face the opposite direction. However, before they begin marching again, they count 21 seconds before stepping off. This is repeated until the sentinels are changed. Duration of a sentinel’s shift can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as 2 hours.
The Cost of Honor
I tried to get an estimate on what these pistols cost SIG Sauer to produce, which was met with a simple reply: “The cost of honoring these soldiers and the dedication of the Tomb Guards isn’t something we can put a price on. It is an honor to be asked to help with such an important project. The reaction of current and past badge holders makes cost insignificant.”
The Tomb rests on hallowed ground. If you haven’t made a trip to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of the fallen and witness the solemn changing-of- the- guard ceremony, it should move to the top of your list. Words can’t explain the power of this experience. I have been there with soldiers and citizens and witnessed the Tomb’s effect.
We are blessed as a country to have such a memorial as the Tomb of the Unknown and to have guards who walk the line every minute of every day. It’s a fine tribute to the men and women that keep our liberties secure.
When you visit, you will be armed with knowledge of the significance of each pistol the Tomb Guards carry. Please, remember those who lost not only their lives, but their identity in the service of our great nation. SIG Sauer M17 Tomb Guard
Type: Striker fired, recoil operated, semiautomatic
Capacity: 21+1 rds.
Barrel: 4.7 in., stainless steel
Overall Length: 8 in.
Weight: 2 lbs.
Width: 1.4 in.
Grips: Polymer or walnut
Length of Pull: 2.71 in.
Finish: DLC; matte or polished
Trigger: 6 lbs.
Sights: SIGLite tritium; removable rear plate
Safety: Lever, ambidextrous; striker interrupter
Manufacturer: SIG Sauer, 603-610-3000,sigsauer.com