Sunday, May 26, 2013

Classic gun review: German SIG Sauer P220

Some years ago, back in the nineties, I went into town with the intention of buying a Colt Commander .45. I came home instead with a German made SIG Sauer P220 in the same caliber, and it has turned out to be a truly outstanding sidearm.

It did not look to me like a great pistol. The dull black finish and utilitarian plastic grips were plain and even homely alongside Colt's blue and walnut splendor. The SIG also looked rather square and blocky. I looked at the plain jane imported pistol, sitting there in the counter, then at its hefty price tag, and wondered what was going on. How could they charge that much for an ugly gun?

Doesn't look like much. Appearances can be deceiving.
The clerk explained that cops were buying SIG's to replace their revolvers. See? There is no safety catch, just a decocker that lowers the hammer safely when you press it. The first shot fires just like a DA revolver. After that the gun fires single action, as the recoiling slide cocks the hammer for each shot. I found it had a very good single action pull, at that: two stage, like a Mauser rifle, but crisp after the takeup. As a revolver guy myself, this setup made sense to me. I took another look at that rather hefty price tag, took a deep  breath, and wrote the check.

At the range, I found the SIG to be very  accurate,  and the fixed sights so close to being perfectly regulated with 230 grain bullets as to make no difference. Because the sights did not need monkeying with, I put away my brass drift and my file. Apart from one failure to eject in the first box of ammunition, the gun proved reliable as well, feeding any bullet weight or shape I tried and flinging the empties against the side of the stall.

The gun I bought is a P220 "American" model, meaning that the magazine release is a thumb button in the 1911 location; you also see SIG's with the European style magazine catch at the heel of the grip. I don't know why Europeans want the mag release there but they also eat snails. You can't expect everything they do to be reasonable.

The slide is pressed out of heavy steel sheet and a milled and drilled breech block is pinned into the stamping. That is engineering genius. It limits the machining to the place where it is really needed. Time is money on a production line, and if most of the slide is formed in one "Ah-woomph" of a big pressing machine, you're ahead on time. The frame is aluminum.

Current production SIG Sauers have their slides machined from bar stock. I think this is most likely due to the versatile and cost effective CNC machines available in the present day. It may also have something to do with customer acceptance; the former method was a  departure from common practice, though an ingenious one.

The 220's development began with a Swiss military requirement to replace their SIG P210 9mm service pistol with something more modern and cost effective. The SIG 210 is a grand pistol but it is old school. It is finely machined, elegantly designed, and very expensive to produce. It requires a lot of machining time to turn one out. It's the Swiss watch of the pistol world. The idea was, the Swiss wanted something that shot as well and cost somewhat less. The result was a robustly built single stack 9mm, the original 220. The designers gave the new gun a generous action throw and a largish grip frame, so that it could be chambered for longer cartridges, such as the .45 ACP and the .38 Super.

Browning, for a while, imported the P220 in .45 ACP, marketing it as the "Browning Double Action .45," or BDA for short. These guns have the heel magazine release. The quality of these Browning SIG's is first rate.

Lock back the slide and turn
the takedown lever downward
Note that there is only partial interchangeability of magazines between heel catch 220's and "American" thumb release models. The heel catch cannot engage extended magazines, and of course the thumb button pistols require notches in the magazine body to engage the magazine catch. The heel release SIG 220 .45's, including the Browning version, will not work with current production eight and ten round magazines. The seven round .45 caliber magazine with the thumb button notches cut into the magazine body will work in all .45 caliber versions  of the pistol, both the heel release and the thumb button models. This magazine is easily recognizable because its floorplate is thin sheet metal.
Now the slide will run
forward off the frame

Field stripping is very easy. Lock the slide to the rear with the slide catch. Rotate the takedown lever downward until it stops. Holding onto the slide, release the slide catch. The slide, barrel, recoil spring and recoil spring guide come forward off the frame as a unit. Push forward on the guide rod to release it from the barrel lug. The spring, guide rod and barrel can now be lifted out of the slide. Reassembly is in reverse order.

It's easy to take apart. More importantly,
it's easy to put back together.
The single stack P220 was the father of all the double stack P22x pistols in 9mm, .357 SIG and .40 S&W. You can see the family resemblance. The chunky, purposeful profile of the SIG Sauers is now seen in police and military use worldwide. The SIG Sauers are accurate and reliable. As to economical, a modern SIG Sauer does cost less than the old SIG P210, so in that respect the design is a success, but it's still not cheap. As for looks, I suppose the best thing one can say is, as Samwise's gaffer was wont to say, handsome is as handsome does.

The SIG Sauer's system of operation, double action transitioning to  single action, and no safety catch, has several advantages. A gun that works this way is as safe to carry as a double action revolver and as simple and quick to get into action. It gives you a very good single  action pull for your follow-up shots, and for the first shot if you cock   the pistol with your thumb. The SIG also gives you the ability to take a second whack at a bad primer,  just by pulling the trigger again. It is endlessly debatable which design is best, this gun's, the Glock's or some other, but it must be allowed that this one is very good. The SIG Sauer pistols are safe, accurate, dependable, easy to clean and simple to use, thus they well deserve their place as some of the leading pistols of our times. But they're not as nice looking as a highly polished Colt.

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