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SIG Sauer P226 Superb Service Auto

By Jan Libourel

First published in the May 1985 edition of Guns and Ammo

This pistol may well be state-of-the-art in defensive sidearms, but it does have one major shortcoming: It really strains the old saying, "Handsome is as handsome does," to its limits. I was mightily impressed by this pistol's performance, but it will be quite a while before I can regard it as a thing of beauty.

Let's face it, some handguns are loaded with glamour, allure, "sex appeal" or whatever you want to call it - the Luger is one such gun that comes to mind, the Colt Python another. The SIG-Sauer P-226 is not such a pistol; it's built strictly for business. If your primary interest in a handgun is as an object of aesthetic contemplation a lovely thing with lustrous polish and blueing and a figured exotic wood stock, I suggest you forget about the P-226 right now and turn to the next article. If, on the other hand, you might be interested in a superbly accurate, rugged, reliable service auto that may just be the best thing of its kind in the world today, then read on ...

The SIG-Sauer story goes back to the 1960s. The highly respected Swiss firm of SIG (Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft) had for some 20 years been manufacturing a splendid 9mm Parabellum auto based on the Petter modifications of the basic Browning locked-breech design. Pistols of the SIG 210 series are regarded by many connoisseurs as the Rolls-Royces of center-fire autoloaders, but even then their manufacturing costs were becoming so prohibitively high that the P-210s stood no chance of mass acceptance, despite their use as service arms by Switzerland and Denmark. Consequently, SIG's R&D staff turned their attentions to developing a pistol that could easily be manufactured with modern technology, yet would have the excellent accuracy and reliability of their famous 210 series.

Eventually, SIG's management determined that it would be more economically realistic to have their new design manufactured by a German company, and they entered into collaboration with the fine old firm of J.P. Sauer & Son. Before World War II Sauer had been located in Suhl in Thuringia-just down the road from Zella-Mehlis, the site of the Walther plant. When, after the war, the Americans turned Thuringia over to the Russians, Sauer, like Walther, reorganized in the Western Zone and set up a new facility in Eckernfoerde in the state of Schleswig-Holstein near the Danish border.

In the post-war years Sauer had made a variety of high quality firearms (including the "German-made" Weatherby Mark Vs), but they had not offered an auto pistol-despite having built one of the most advanced of all DA pocket autos ever designed, the Model 38 (H), during the latter years of the Nazi era. The final fruit of the SIG-Sauer collaboration shows certain influences of the old Model 38 (H), most notably in using a decocking lever.

In the mid-1970s, the first of the SIG-Sauer pistols made its appearance. This was designated the P-220. It was a double-action locked-breech auto using a Browning type tilting barrel lock-up. It differed from most DA autos in employing, in lieu of a safety, a decocking lever that lowered the hammer to a safety notch, and it was one of the first autos to incorporate an automatic firing pin lock.

This pistol was designed for modern manufacturing techniques, and German/Swiss mechanical ingenuity was applied to its fullest in creating such shortcuts without compromising the quality, durability and efficiency of the piece. Thus, the front of the ejection port in the slide mates with the squared rear of the barrel instead of the conventional barrel lug/slide recess locking arrangement. A separate breechblock is pinned into the slide, and a steel feed ramp/trigger housing is fitted into the alloy frame. Extensive use is made of stamped and welded parts. All of this reflected advanced engineering and progressive design, but the space-age appearance of the resulting gun was definitely jarring to traditionalist sensibilities.

The P-220 uses a single column magazine holding nine 9mm Parabellum, .30 Luger or .38 Super rounds or seven .45 ACPs. This pistol has seen considerable military acceptance, and it is the standard service sidearm of Japan, Thailand, Nigeria, Switzerland, Denmark and several other countries; it has also seen some use by the armed forces of France. It was imported into this country for a few years by Browning, who called the P-220 the Browning BDA.

The initial success of the P-220 spawned several other pistols. The P-225 is a slightly "chopped" version of the P-220. SIG and Sauer also developed a graceful, blowback-operated pocket pistol in .380 ACP - their P-230. This pistol shares certain design features with the bigger autos, like the decocking and takedown levers. In common with other SIG-Sauer autos, it uses an alloy frame, and this keeps its weight down to a feathery 16 ounces (compared, for example, to the 23 ounces of the Manurhin/Walther PPK/S). Recently, a stainless steel P-230 has become available.

However, the most recent major development, and king of all the SIG-Sauer line, is the P-226-which many experts regard as the most wonderful of all the recent crop of "wonder-nines." Basically, the P-226 is the P-220 modified to accept a double-column magazine holding 15 rounds of 9mm Parabellum ammunition. It also uses a Colt 1911-type magazine catch, which most combat authorities consider preferable to the P-220's heel-clip magazine catch. It's the most advanced pistol in the SIG-Sauer line, and unquestionably one of the world's premier combat autos.

At first glance the P-226 does look like something that was designed and slapped together for the Volkssturm as the Red Army was closing in on Berlin, and this has doubtless caused many potential buyers to pass it by in favor of prettier guns. However, a closer examination will reveal that much of the money saved by advanced manufacturing techniques has been put back into quality control. At a suggested retail of $585.73, the P-226 is in no sense of the word a cheap pistol, and it is a worthy bearer of the SIG tradition of producing pistols of unsurpassed quality. This gun is extremely smooth to operate, with no trace of stiffness, yet there is virtually no slide-and-barrel or slide-to-frame play. Only a few tool marks hidden inside the top of the slide of our sample prevent me from proclaiming the finish and workmanship absolutely perfect. The fitting is simply impeccable. Steel parts like the slide are finished in a very even gray-black matte (the barrel is left bright), and the alloy frame is given a low-luster black anodizing.

This pistol measures 7.7 inches overall and weighs but 29 ounces. It is one of the most compact of the high-capacity 9mm autos, being similar in size to the Colt Commander, albeit a little wider.

The P-226 has one of the most compact, comfortable handles of any 9mm featuring a double-column magazine that I've ever tried. The frame has no rear strap, and the black plastic grips are of the wrap-around type. These factors doubtless help keep the bulk of the grip down. Trigger reach is not excessive when the pistol is used in the DA mode - unlike some of the SIG-Sauer's competitors. The front strap is serrated, and the front of the triggerguard is squared and serrated for those who favor a "finger-forward" two-hand hold.

Sights are naturally of the high-visibility combat type. They use the "Von Stavenhagen" type of white dot and bar inserts identical to those on the Manurhin/Walther pocket autos. Although nominally "fixed," both the front and rear sight blades can be drifted laterally to correct windage (a special tool is available for this), and replacement front and rear sight blades are available to adjust elevation. The SIG-Sauer system thus offers the best features of fixed sights together with extensive adjustment capabilities.

The trigger on our evaluation sample was first-rate. In single action it broke at just over 4 pounds. There was considerable take-up, but no creep and negligible overtravel. The double-action pull was around 12 pounds and extremely smooth - one of the smoothest I've ever seen on a DA auto.

This is a very easy pistol to strip. Make sure the piece is totally empty. Pull the slide back until the slide stop catches it. Remove the magazine and lower the dismounting lever on the left side of the frame. Keeping control of the slide with one hand so that it doesn't fly off, release the slide stop and let the slide assembly go forward and off the frame. The recoil spring and guide and the barrel can now be removed from the slide to complete the task of fieldstripping.

Shooting the P-226 was conducted by G&A's new Western states ad rep, Geoff Steer and myself at Angeles Shooting Ranges. With the pistol was a test target fired at 25 meters with five shots grouped into just under 2 inches. I felt I would have my work cut out to match this standard. Imagine my pleasure wben my very first group, fired with Federal's 123-grain FMJs, virtually duplicated the group on the sample target. (Okay, I admit, at 25 yards I was 6 feet closer!) A little later, using Frontier 115-grain JHPS, I printed an even smaller group, just over 1 1/2 inches, at the same range. This is the kind of accuracy one normally expects from a custom-tuned auto pistol, and I was very impressed, to say the least. We tried five different types of ammo in the P-226 - the aforementioned Federal FMJs and Frontier JHPs, Winchester 115-grain Silvertips, Frontier 124-grain truncated cone FMJs and a handload using the Saeco #377 truncated-cone style cast bullet. No malfunctions of any kind occurred.

Our accuracy work finished, Geoff and I repaired to Angeles' combat range for some fast 'n' furious shooting. Using the Weaver stance and firing rapidly from 10 yards, I had little difficulty keeping all my shots from a 15-round magazine either in-side or nearly touching the X-ring of the half-scale silhouette. Despite the pistol's light weight, controllability was excellent.

I also tried some instinctive or "hip" shooting at five yards. I don't claim any great proficiency in this art - I'm certainly no Bill Jordan or Thell Reed - but I managed to keep all but a couple of my shots in the lethal "K-5" area of the silhouette. As far as I could judge, the P-226 seemed to have good natural pointing qualities.

Do I have any criticisms of this pistol? Well, not exactly, but a couple of items do call for attention on the part of the user. First of all, it is possible to insert the magazine so that it is almost, but not quite fully, engaged by the catch. Then the gun doesn't feed. Be sure the magazine always snaps completely and positively into place. My second criticism is that shooters who have long been habituated to Browning-style auto pistols like the Colt 1911 or the P-35 may find the arrangement of the levers on the SIG-Sauers a little confusing. Thus the slide stop is where we normally look for the safety to be, and the decocking lever/safety is where we normally expect the slide stop. Both Geoff and I found ourselves on several occasions reaching for the decocking lever when we meant to release the slide. No doubt extensive familiarization and training could overcome this tendency, but it might resurface under the extreme stress of a combat situation.

Actually, I prefer the location of the slide stop on the SIG-Sauer, where it is much less likely to be inadvertently disengaged by the thumb at the end of a shooting string - or, worse yet, engaged in the middle of a string. However, shooters like myself who have fired tens of thousands of rounds through Colt, Browning and S&W autos will find the SIG-Sauer takes some getting used to.

Many industry insiders had regarded the P-226 as the front-runner in the U.S. military's recent tests for a new service sidearm, and the decision in favor of Beretta's entry came as quite a surprise to those who claimed to be "in the know." At this writing all sorts of recriminations are flying, and rumors are circulating that international political considerations influenced the final decision. The official military position is that Beretta and SIG-Sauer were the only two pistols that successfully completed all tests, and Beretta had the low bid. I don't want to get caught in the middle of this because I have a lot of respect for both pistols, and I am glad Uncle Sam had two such excellent pistols to choose from (even if they weren't American designs). Speaking personally, I find that the grip, sights and trigger action of the SIG-Sauer seem to suit me a little better than the commercial Berettas I've tried, but, then, I haven't yet checked out the final version selected by the military.

SIG acquired J.P. Sauer & Son a few years ago, and recently SIG-Sauer, now the firearms division of SIG, set up its own agency - Sigarms, 8330 Old Courthouse Road, Suite 885, Dept. GA, Tyson's Corner, VA 22180 - to handle importation and distribution of their fine line of auto pistols in the U.S.A. (Previously, Interarms was importing these pistols, and many guns presently on sale will have Interarms markings.)

Although the military's decision must have been a major disappointment to the folks at Sigarms, a number of law enforcement agencies, including certain elite Federal services, are taking a long look at this splendid pistol - and well they should. It's a top-flight service sidearm; it is presently the official police pistol of several West German states and was recently adopted as the issue sidearm of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the famous "Mounties." The ordinary civilian may well consider the P-226 an ugly duckling as it repines on a dealer's shelf, but I'll bet it will transform itself into a majestic swan in his eyes if he gives it half a chance on the shooting range and on defensive duty. I've personally checked out a dozen or so different models of 9mm autos, and I've yet to encounter one that I liked better than the SIG-Sauer P-226. Set your prejudices about its looks aside, and I don't think you'll go wrong with one either.

First published in the May 1985 edition of Guns and Ammo

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