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The fortunes of Canada’s defence industry have fluctuated over the years. At one stage this industry was capable of designing and building advanced combat aircraft and their engines. It built tanks and self-propelled guns, over 800,000 military trucks and other support vehicles between 1940 and 1945. It has built:

  • air defence systems
  • transport aircraft
  • helicopters
  • light armour
  • naval combatants

Today, inevitably, the industry is much smaller, even so Canada’s industry manages to have some world class capabilities.

Defence Industry Strategy

During the 1970s, Canada’s authorities realised it had to retain centres of excellence in key strategic areas, principally those of small arms, ammunition and related systems. To achieve this objective the Munitions Supply Programme (MSP) was created and eventually some five companies, were covered by the programme. These were:

  1. General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems – Canada (GD OTS-C) for the production of small, medium and large calibre ammunition, propellants and explosives.
  2. Magellan Aerospace for rockets, illumination flares and rocket propellant.
  3. IMT Defence for forged projectiles and specialised machining.
  4. Colt Canada for the manufacture and provision of life-cycle support for small arms fleets.
  5. HFI Pyrotechnics Inc. for search and rescue markers, training equipment and other pyrotechnic technology.

The MSP has sustained the Canadian small arms sector to the present day and this has set the scene for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to embark on a programme known as the ‘Assault Rifle Project.’ The aim here is to replace the existing C7/C8 assault rifle, according to the official description: ”The project could include a new or same calibre weapon with improved design and materials that improves performance, day and night optics, the ability to share power to devices through a powered rail, and the ability to integrate with soldier information and sensing devices.” The Assault Rifle Programme is in the definition phase, programme implementation will commence in 2025/2026, with initial deliveries in 2026/2027.

Canadian soldier with the C9A2 light machine gun and ELCAN C79 optical sight on the Patrol Pathfinder course in Quebec. In the late 1980s ELCAN and the Canadian Government joined together to develop the C79 sight, since then the company has delivered some 475,000 optical sights to a global customer base. (Photo: MCpl Genevieve Lapointe, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Armed Forces)

Building a Capability

In the 1980s the CAF replaced their C1/C1A1 (license produced FN FAL) 7.62×51 mm battle rifles, with the C7 assault rifle and C8 carbine in 5.56×45 mm manufactured by Dimaco (later Colt Canada). They decided that they would need an optic for these new rifles and they wanted it to be a Canadian optic. To this end, the Canadian Government worked with, and helped fund, ELCAN to design, develop and produce an optic for their new C7/C8 weapons. The end result was the SPECTER OS, a 3.4x optic, which was given the C79 designation by the CAF.


The story of how Canada got a weapon optic industry, started in 1952 when German company Ernst Leitz set up a facility in Midland, Ontario, Canada, to build and repair Leica cameras for the North American market. Over the years the company would expand into optics for medical, cinema and space applications, as well as meeting diverse optical requirements across the aerospace and defence industry. The company became part of Raytheon in 1997.

As previously noted, ELCAN started with the C79/SPECTER OS optic at the end of the 1980s, since then they have built some 475,000 sights and they have customers in 40 different countries. Now the company is entering a new era, in November 2021, working with Leonardo Germany, ELCAN won the German military main combat sight (HKV) contract covering the supply of 107,929 SPECTER DR 1-4x optics. Germany has an option to increase the size of this contract by 50 per cent.

Infantry soldier of 1 Battalion, Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1PPCLI), with a C7A2 rifle and its attached ELCAN C79 optical sight, during Exercise Patricia Spear in March 2022. Canadian Forces are now defining a new assault rifle to replace the C7/C8, with first deliveries in 2026. (Photo: Corporal Daniel Chiasson, Canadian Armed Forces)

Optical Importance

The importance of high performance optics for small arms is now acknowledged, bearing that in mind one would have thought that Canada would have looked to include ELCAN in the MSP as a key national capability. One would also hope that the CAF will recognise that the optic is far more than just an accessory that can be provided by the weapon manufacturer as an add-on for its future rifle, and treat it as a mission-critical system.

As for the future, ELCAN have developed the SPECTER Digital Fire Control Sight (DFCS), to meet integrated optic/fire control system requirements. They are also looking to compete in some important European programmes such an optic for French Army FN MAG machine guns, an optic for French Special Forces FN EVOLYS light machine gun and an optic for the British Army L85 assault rifle replacement.

David Saw