The nine-millimetre Browning High Power, which serves as the soldiers' "weapon of last resort" in southern Afghanistan, has been in service with the Canadian military since 1937 and the average Browning -- commonly known as the "nine-mill" -- now being used by the troops is 63 years old, according to Canadian Forces small-arms experts.
Major Gary Vassbotn, the army's section head for small arms, said the Browning was adopted as a sidearm in 1937 and the last pistol was produced by John Inglis & Co. in 1944. But while the handguns may be old, he said they are in excellent condition.
"A large number were immediately stored in unused condition in the CF supply depots," he said in an e-mail from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. "While the average age of these pistols is approximately 63 years, these are still in like-new condition."
The bulky, black handguns are used by officers and senior non-commission officers of the 2,000-strong battle group now deploying to Kandahar, as well as by soldiers who need them for "close protection" -- for when the enemy gets within very close range and rifles or machine-guns are impossible or impractical to use.
"They're our weapon of last resort," said Capt. Dave McKeever, the operations officer for the Canadian contingent in southern Afghanistan.
"They're the last weapon you would draw when someone's coming at you at very close range."
He would not say how many sidearms have been issued to the troops arriving in Kandahar, citing operational security, but McKeever said the Brownings are usually issued to commanders of units, warrant officers or sergeants.
But he added they are also handed out to other soldiers.
"A lot of the guys who have to do lifting, loading and carrying are issued nine-mills because carrying a C7 (assault rifle) when you're climbing up and down a ladder would be kind of awkward," he said. "Or the gunners in the turrets (of G-wagon vehicles) who don't have a lot of elbow room, sometimes are issued nine-mills ... Whoever needs them, gets them."
Vassbotn said the military inspects the Brownings regularly "so any problems associated with age such as worn slides and bodies are detected and the pistol removed from service."
However, many of the soldiers who have to use the Browning have little faith in its ability to protect them should the need arise.
"I don't trust them," said one junior officer, who did not want his name used. "They're prone to jamming and I hear they have a habit of going off when you jostle them. They ought to be replaced -- should've been a long time ago."
The handful of military specialties who are more likely to use handguns -- military police, naval boarding parties and the commandos of JTF2 -- switched to more modern SIG-Sauer nine-millimetre sidearms several years ago.
"The nine-mills are junk," said one MP posted to Kandahar Air Field, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They're too old. Handgun design has passed them by ... and they're always jamming. I was at the range last week firing my SIG-Sauer next to a guy with a nine-mill and his weapon had four stoppages. That'll get you killed in a combat situation."
David Rudd, the director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, said it is high time the Browning was replaced, especially for use in Afghanistan.
"A replacement is both overdue, desirable and necessary," he said. "Guerrillas and insurgents often cannot be distinguished from ordinary civilians. They can therefore get close to Canadian troops before setting off a bomb or an explosive belt. Purchasing a modern handgun would allow the army to select a model that is better suited to this (Afghan) environment."
Rudd said if the Browning is not good enough for the commandos of JTF2, naval boarding parties or military police, it should be replaced for the army too.
"There must be a reason for that. How strange that the rest of the army should be short-changed."
Warrant Officer Len Aubin, the weapons technician for the Canadian battle group, acknowledged there have been some problems with some of the Brownings. "If you take a weapon and beat it up over a period of years, then yes, it's going to fail," he said. "But the maintenance system has identified those problems and dealt with them."
"If it's used properly, there is no problem ... my personal opinion is that this is an excellent combat weapon, when it's used in the proper context."
Aubin said the heat and ever-present powdery dust of southern Afghanistan may be harder on the Brownings than on other weapons. "If you use it in a place like this ... the sand and the dust, that's just like sandpaper on the weapon's action."
But he added so far, he has seen few problems with the Brownings issued to the soldiers in Kandahar.
"It's a good, reliable combat weapon."
Most of the weapons used by the Canadian troops in Afghanistan are fairly new, "Gucci kit" as the soldiers refer to them. The C7 assault rifle was revamped and improved last year and vehicles such as the LAV III armoured troop carrier are among the best of their kind in the world.
Vassbotn indicated, however, there were no plans at present to replace the Browning, the oldest weapon still in service with the Canadian Forces. "The Browning still meets the sidearm requirement for the majority of soldiers in the field, and there is no plan to replace the pistol in the near future."
However, Rudd said a new weapon is needed and should be able to fire "a larger, more powerful round ... The nine-millimetre cannot impart enough energy to take down an opponent who is determined to get through."
"These are more likely to stop a suicide bomber in his tracks."