Special Forces pulls new pistols from service after soldier injured in misfire

A member of Canada's elite JTF-2 counterterrorism unit was injured last fall after his brand new handgun fired by itself. The incident has prompted special forces to pull the SIG Sauer P320 out of service. The military is facing question about the choice of weapon in light of lawsuits filed against the manufacturer in the U.S.

Incident at Ottawa-area range prompted special forces to pull SIG Sauer P320 pistols out of service

A member of Canadian Forces Special Operations JTF-2 unit takes part in an annual training exercise off the shores of Churchill, Man., in August 2012. A member of the unit was wounded last fall when a newly-purchased handgun inexplicably went off during a training exercise. The military has since withdrawn all its SIG Sauer P320 pistols. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A member of Canada's elite special forces counterterrorism unit was wounded last fall when a newly-purchased handgun, with a history of misfires and injuries in the U.S., inexplicably went off during a training exercise at an Ottawa-area range, CBC News has learned.

The soldier, belonging to Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2), was hit in the leg and received a flesh wound as a result of the accident, which took place Nov. 5, 2020 on a firing range at Dwyer Hill, the unit's principal base.

Consequently, the military has withdrawn all the brand new SIG Sauer P320s from service and members of the unit will — for the time being — rely on their old model SIG Sauer P226 pistols.

The incident raises troubling questions about the due diligence conducted by the military and defence officials when they went shopping for a new handgun, in light of the fact that misfires involving the weapon have been the subject of multiple lawsuits in the United States over several years, including at least one class action case that was settled last summer.

The SIG P320, which has been manufactured since 2014, is known to go off without the trigger being pulled if it's dropped and lands on the ground at a certain angle. 

JTF-2 is the only unit in the Canadian military currently using the SIG P320.

Details of military misfire scarce

The Department of National Defence belatedly acknowledged the accident after questions were raised by CBC News. 

"One member sustained a minor gunshot injury during the incident, was treated and released the same day and was returned to duty,'' Capt. Ian Grant, a spokesperson for Canadian Special Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) said in a written statement.

The military would not say how the misfire happened, whether the weapon was dropped or went off in the holster, as has been documented in U.S. court records.

"Immediate actions were followed, including quarantining the weapon and the ammunition in accordance with Canadian Armed Forces standard operating procedures. An investigation is ongoing to determine the cause of the incident," the statement read. 

The name of the soldier was not released, nor would Grant say how many weapons have been taken out of service, saying only that the weapons are on the shelf "until the investigation is completed and a determination on the results is made."

A defence source said as many as 400 of the ultra-modern 9-mm pistols, which have a different firing mechanism, have been withdrawn. (The SIG P320 is a modular designed pistol that utilizes a firing mechanism that is different from a traditional hammer-strike gun.)

"CANSOFCOM does not disclose information related to weapons and capabilities due to security requirements," said Grant.

The review, however, is expected to take a "number of months" and involves consultation with the German manufacturer, SIG Sauer Inc., which has its U.S. headquarters in Newington, N.H.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he was upset by the absence of transparency on the part of the defence department, adding that if the weapons are permanently withdrawn it "is another example of the Liberals failing to get the right equipment for our troops."

The pistols and other SIG weapons are sold in Canada by M.D. Charlton, based in Victoria, B.C., under an exclusive distribution agreement. The company bills itself as Canada's largest distributor of police and tactical equipment.

SIG Sauer did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at M.D. Charlton, contacted on Tuesday, did not return calls.

According to federal procurement records, M.D. Charlton received a $4.5 million contract in 2017 to supply "miscellaneous weapons" to the special forces, an ongoing deal that was updated on July 7, 2019.

A convention attendee looks at a handgun at the Sig Sauer booth at a Las Vegas, Nev., trade show in January 2018. The SIG Sauer P320 pistol used by Canada's elite special forces counter-terrorism unit has a history of misfires and injuries in the U.S. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

U.S. military demanded upgrades on SIG P320

Part of the Canadian military's attraction to the SIG P320 is that in 2017, the U.S. military selected the pistol as its standard issue sidearm, redesignating it as the M17 and the M18 (depending on the branch using it).

However, four months after signing the $580 million US contract, the Pentagon proposed what amounted to an engineering redesign for the guns it was buying.

A copy of the engineering change proposal, filed as part of one of the court actions in the U.S. and obtained by CBC News, shows the U.S. military essentially demanded major upgrades to the weapon. 

"While it is couched in terms of a performance upgrade or enhancement, [the document] basically shows that the Army demanded that the entire internal fire assembly of the [SIG] P320 be ripped out and replaced with different and improved parts," said Jeff Bagnell, a lawyer in Westport, Conn., who has litigated 10 cases, mostly commercial gun owners, related to SIG P320 misfires across several U.S. states, and is about to file two more.

"So, the military got the improved, safer version of the [SIG] P320, but SIG did not make those changes to the commercial version which went into the distribution to civilians and law enforcement federal, state and local in the United States."

A sign at the entrance to German gun manufacturer SIG Sauer's U.S. headquarters Newington, N.H., is seen in 2016. The P320 pistol, manufactured by SIG Sauer since 2014, is known to go off without the trigger being pulled, or if it's dropped and lands on the ground at a certain angle. (Lisa Marie Pane/The Associated Press)

Lawyer recommends recall

In 2017, following reports of misfires, SIG Sauer offered a "voluntary upgrade" program for the P320 pistol sold commercially and to police forces, stating in its media release that the pistol meets "rigorous testing protocols for global military and law enforcement agencies."

In a New Hampshire U.S. District Court filing on July 2, 2020, Bagnell challenged the assertion and noted the upgrade "was presented to the public as purely optional, not urgent, and not mandatory."

In a recent interview, Bagnell estimated about 20 per cent of customers generally take advantage of such recalls.

He has tried to convince the company that there should be a total recall, but his plea has fallen on deaf ears and courts in the States are loath to wade into the issue of the U.S. constitution's Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.

"You know, as long as this keeps happening, I'll keep bringing the cases," Bagnell said. "I mean, I think the gun needs to be recalled. It's never too late to do the right thing."

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he was upset by the lack of transparency from the defence department and said it should have known about the safety issues in the U.S. (CBC)

Call for accountability in defence department

Bezan said the defence department should have known about the safety issues in the U.S., and someone needs to be held accountable.

"This has been the subject of multiple lawsuits," he said. "Why would we procure a firearm for our JTF-2 commandos that may be inadequate and has a history of being unsafe?"

Canada's defence department refused to answer questions about how the weapon was selected and what it knew about the safety concerns and misfires.

"To maintain the integrity of the ongoing investigation and owing to security requirements, we are not in a position to provide detailed information on the procurement of the small arms weapons system involved in this incident," said Grant, who added the government's procurement regulations are clear and that military purchases are subject to rigorous trials.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.