May 28, 2010: The British Army, underfunded and lacking massive injections of new equipment for several years now, has managed to forge ahead in both Iraq and Afghanistan on its well-deserved reputation for professionalism and discipline. But the equipment and money crisis has affected weapons systems and equipment from aircraft, and now, all the way down to small arms.
The 9mm Browning Hi-Power automatic, designated the L9A1 in the British military, has been the Brits' standard issue sidearm since 1954, when it replaced the .38 Enfield revolver. Even this elderly pistol can still be found in service. Prince Harry famously sported one tucked into his body armor in a photo shot while he was serving in Afghanistan. But it was the British LRDG (Long Range Desert Groups) in World War II that had started the trend of using the 9mm Hi-Power, a decade before that pistol was adopted by the entire British Army.
The Hi-Power has long been considered a durable, accurate, reliable pistol that packs a lot of man-stopping power, making it perfect for urban or anti-terrorism warfighting. The SAS CRW (Special Air Service Counter Revolutionary Wing), who executed the famous 1980 hostage rescue at the Iranian Embassy made the Browning Hi-Power famous due to their groundbreaking development of close-quarter battle techniques using the pistol. The British have carried the Browning in conflicts ranging from the Falkland Islands mountains to the streets of Northern Ireland.
The Hi-Power is still produced, by Browning in the U.S. and Fabrique Nationale in Europe. Despite being over 50 years old, the handgun, like the 1911A1 .45, is far from being considered obsolete. The problem, for the British Army, however, is that the Brownings in circulation within the British Army are often older than the men who use them. Pistols are sometimes 20 or 30 years old. While the British have upgraded their standard issue assault rifle, the SA80, and their squad automatic weapon, the L86A2, and other infantry weapons over the course of the last 50 years, little to no attention has been paid to either finding a new sidearm or purchasing newer versions of the L9A1. Meanwhile, the companies that produce the L9A1 offer upgraded, more modern Hi-Power models. Thus, aside from a few special ops units, the majority of British officers are stuck using well-worn, beat-up 9mms that are not aging well. Reliable weapon though it may be, a 30 year-old pistol that has been issued to, and used by, dozens of officers, and spent a lot of time outdoors, is not going to be as reliable as a newer sidearm. Troops are often wary of using such equipment, knowing that a malfunction or a jam in an old handgun could very well cost them their lives in combat.
Serious attention to the handgun problem is only recently creeping into the British military. The Special Air Service recently transitioned away from the Hi-Power and adopted the Sig-Sauer P226 9mm as their standard sidearm, and a smaller compact pistol for undercover operations. Other units like the Special Reconnaissance Regiment likely have more latitude in their choice of, and access to, newer sidearms in better working condition.
Instead of gradually phasing out the Hi-Power or purchasing a newer model of the weapon, the British government, unsurprisingly, seems content to ignore the problem until it can no longer be ignored.