The item is from a a class of items in my campaigns, all suggested by Lew Pulsipher's (rather infamous) Batons of Fireballs. They are magic items that are really darn handy... for low-level characters or the henchmen of no longer low-level characters. These are combat-oriented magic items that are limited enough to not be unbalancing in the hands of your 3rd level magic-user (unlike, oh, a Wand of Conjuration with 77 charges). Here is my own favorite as an example:
Magic Item: Firelance- Originally made by the Flamelords of the Western Realms, firelances were originally used by their elite household guards. The secret of their manufacture is now more widespread. A firelance is carved from a single piece of wood slightly over 4 feet long. The tip (which is usually capped in bronze) is about one inch in diameter and the butt (likewise usually capped) is about three inches in diameter. There is a slight flare just above where it is held, similar to that in a jousting lance (giving it its name); below the flaring is a level identical to the trigger of a crossbow. To use the firelance the butt is place against the shoulder and the user aims, much like a heavy crossbow, and squeezes the lever - this causes a jet of flame to burst from the tip of the lance, travelling in a straight line at tremendous speed.
In game terms, a firelance is a variant of a wand; it fires a bolt of fire that does 2-12 points of damage (3-18 vs. cold-using or -dwelling creatures). It has double the range of a heavy crossbow (do use to hit adjustments for these ranges). Armor does not affect A.C. for purposes of to hit rolls but magic and Dexterity do (example: a paladin in +2 plate mail with a 16 Dex would be considered A.C. 6; +2 for Dex, +2 for the magical bonus on the armor). A firelance may be used by any class and does not require a proficiency for use. Each fire bolt uses one charge and a firelance can hold up to 20 charges. A firelance may only be fired once per turn. The secret of recharging firelances was lost with the fall of the Flamelords centuries ago.
There are a few variants of the firelance. The most common is the need to know the unique command word to fire a particular firelance. Many are also found with a spear point added just below the tip, allowing the firelance to double as a short spear (1d6 damage, -1 to hit because of the position of the spear point, requires proficiency in the spear). In a pinch a firelance can be used as a club, but each successful strike requires the 'lance to save vs. normal blow.
As you can see, the Firelance meets my objectives - limited in ability enough that you can give it to a 2nd level party, useful enough that a 12th level party still wants one or two around.