LONDON – Britain's army is bidding goodbye to the Browning pistol it's used for more than 40 years, opting for faster and lighter Glock 17 pistols for its secondary sidearm.
The defense ministry said Friday it has signed an 8.5 million pound ($13.6 million) contract for more than 25,000 of the Austrian-made pistols.
It joins a host of law enforcement agencies and other militaries, including the Dutch, Norwegian and Austrian armies, opting for a Glock 17, which has a larger magazine than the Browning currently in use by the U.K. armed forces.
Britain's defense ministry said the decision to abandon the Browning came after it became increasingly expensive to maintain the steel-framed pistol as its parts — from barrels and slides to trigger mechanisms and springs — wore out.
"When it came out in the 1960s, it was a fantastic pistol, but technology advances," said Warrant Officer 1 Mark Anderson, who tested the sidearms competing for the U.K. contract after the defense ministry put out a tender for a replacement pistol two years ago.
The faster and more accurate Glocks are considered a boon for troops increasingly facing threats in close quarters, like in Afghanistan where soldiers are clearing compounds and also dealing with the risks of insider attacks.
Anderson said the Glock earned the confidence of the troops and passed tests of extreme temperatures and climates "with flying colors."
In addition to their durability and extra firepower — the Glock magazine capacity is 17 rounds, compared with the Browning's 13 — the new pistols are quicker on the draw.
While the Browning had a manual safety catch that needed to be switched off, with the Glock "you just draw it and engage," Col. Peter Walden told reporters gathered at a London military barracks to see the new weapons.
That's because the Glock has three internal safeties and can be kept loaded in a holster, unlike the Browning, Walden said. Saving those vital one or two seconds could be the difference between life and death, according to Walden.
"If you're in a panic situation and it's the last thing you're going to do to save your life, you don't want to have to start thinking about too many steps," he explained. The faster system "does improve the ability of the guys to fire back" in potential insider attacks, he added.
The defense ministry said the Glocks should be deployed in Afghanistan by the latter part of 2013.
The Glocks are being issued as secondary weapons mostly for personal protection in case the primary firearm fails or soldiers are in close environments, like compound-clearing operations, where short-barreled weapons are considered a smarter choice.
Beyond Afghanistan, Walden expects the Glocks will be used more than Brownings were because the need for a fast-reaction capability — or even a pistol at all in addition to a standard rifle — has increased as warfare has changed over the years.
While soldiers in the Cold War were engaging enemy troops from 400 yards away, U.K. servicemen now are seeing threats in much closer quarters.
"Since Iraq and Afghanistan, we're not in a position where we're going to have to look at having a secondary weapon as an alternative," Walden said. "If you're in a close quarter area in a certain area and your rifle fails, you need to have some other way of defending yourself."
The Glock's polymer frame also lends itself to customizations that weren't available with the Browning, like three different grip sizes. That's of increasing importance given the variety of shapes and sizes of soldiers in the modern armed forces. Plus, flashlights and laser sights can be added to its rail.
Soldiers have already taken note.
"The easiest way to say it is we've been driving around in a Fiesta and now we've got a Ferrari," Sgt. Steve Lord, a weapons inspector, shouted over the sound of bullets at the London media event. While the Browning "got the job done," he explained, "now we're going to work in style."
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd