Automatic Alternative: SIG's New P-220

By Peter G. Kokalis

The beat goes on. No matter how many 9mm Parabellum pistols the U.S. military and politicians waffle, squabble and agonize over, Americans refuse to surrender their .45s. Tapping into that trend, SIGARMS, Inc. has just released a new version of their SIG-Sauer P220 .45 ACP pistol with the magazine release altered to better fit human anatomy and U.S. traditions.

Designed by the Swiss firm of Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG) at Neuhausen Rhinefalls, the "side-button" P220 is manufactured by the West German J.P. Sauer und Sohn in Eckemforde, Thuringia. This Teutonic coupling permitted SIG to dodge the stringent Swiss regulations controlling military small arms exports and provided Sauer with an opportunity to re-enter the field of military armaments.

During WWII Sauer produced high-quality 98k bolt-action service rifles, the legendary Luftwaffe drilling and the unusual 38H (H for hammer-fire) pistol (caliber 7.65mm). The clever hammer-type pistol was provided with a lever on the left side of the frame for both cocking and uncocking the hammer. As a result, the pistol could be fired either double-action or single-action at any time by manipulation of a lever. SIG is noted not only for the well-known P210 pistol, but also for 125 years of robust infantry rifles and machine guns.

In 1975 the Swiss armed forces adopted the P220 as the Model 75 in 9mm Parabellum; Japan, Denmark and France subsequently followed suit. This pistol, chambered in either 9mm Parabellum, 7.65mm Parabellum (.30 Luger), .45 ACP or .38 Super, was first marketed in the U.S. by Browning under the name BDA (Browning Double-Action). Eventually it was imported for a short time by Interarms under its SIG-Sauer designation. Currently, all SIG firearms are exclusively distributed by SIGARMS, Inc. (Dept. SOF, 8330 Old Courthouse Road, Suite 885, Tysons Corner, VA 22180)

Like the other pistols in this series (P225 and P226), the P220 will annoy those who must have milled forgings and wood furniture. Fabricated from an aluminum alloy, the frame has a durable, matte black, anodized finish. The aluminum frame is largely responsible for the pistol's total weight of only 25.5 ounces, without magazine. The slide is a mill-finished, heavy-gauge steel stamping with an electron-beam-welded forward extension and the breechblock as a separate component held in place with a roll pin. Unlike the SIG P210, the slide rides on rails located on the frame's exterior. The hammer,trigger and magazine catch button are investment castings. The disassembly, hammeramp and slide-stop lever, are sheet-metal Stampings. The ejector has been incorporated into the slide-stop pressing. All steel components are matte black oxide or phosphate finished. The grip panels are plastic. The recoil spring is made of multi-strand wire. As it has a full-length steel guide rod, you can't look professional and "press-check" your piece - just make sure your sidearm is loaded before you walk out the door.

Although blocky-looking, the P220's overall length is only 7.9 inches (0.1 inches shorter than the Colt Commander series), with a height of 5.7 inches and a thickness of 1.4 inches. Barrel length is 4.5 inches with a six-groove bore and twist of one turn in 16 inches.

The SIG-Sauer P220/225/226 series operates by the locked breech short-recoil method developed by John M. Browning. A single locking lug milled above the barrel's chamber uses the slide's large overhead ejection port as its locking recess. After ignition the slide and barrel recoil together 0.12 inches, until a cam slot milled into the bottom barrel lug contacts a steel block in the frame which draws the barrel downward, unlocking it from the front surface of the ejection port. By this time pressure has dropped to a safe level. The front contour of the barrel lug cam slot has been cut square to direct counter-recoiling forces up and forward into the barrel itself to reduce stress on the lug.

These pistols have been designed for carry with the hannner down on a loaded chamber. Thus, although the hammer can be manually thumb-cocked to fire the first round single-action, it will usually be touched off with a double-action pull of the two-stage trigger. The double-action pull is about 0.6-inches, short enough for all those with normal-sized hands. There is no loading at the end of the stroke and negligible over-travel. But the double-action pull-weight on SOF's test specimen was a gritty 14.5 pounds, far too great a differential from the crisp 3.75-pound pull-weight when subsequent rounds are touched off single-action. As a consequence, double-tap group dispersion will be atrocious for all but the most experienced shooters.

When the trigger is pulled in the double-action mode, a trigger bar, engaging the double-action notch, cocks the hammer. In the final phase of movement the trigger bar pivots a safety lever upward to both rotate the sear and depress the spring-loaded firing-pin block in the breech and free the firing pin's movement. At the final instant the trigger bar disengages from the double-action notch by camming against the hammer pivot pin. This trips the hammer, which strikes the firing pin to ignite the primer. If the slide does not go fully forward into battery, contact between the firing-pin block and safety lever does not occur and firing pin movement is prevented. In this unlocked state, the slide also cams down the trigger bar and interrupts subsequent trigger function.

The hammer-drop lever is located on the left side of the fraine in the center of a triad of conveniently positioned controls, which also include the slide stop lever and the magazine catch-release button (relocated from the heel of the frame). Thumbing downward on the hammer-drop lever takes the sear out of register with the full-cock hanirner notch. As the hammer-drop lever is released, hammer spring pressure drops the hammer, which is then caught by the sear engaging in the safety intercept notch (the hammer's rest position when the hammer's coil spring is not compressed). While it's somewhat disconcerting to watch the hammer fall on a loaded chamber, they've been safely dropping in this manner since the Walther PP was introduced in 1929. During and after operation of the hammer-drop lever, the firing pin remains constantly blocked. No other manually operated safety is provided, or required, as the P220 can be discharged only if the trigger is pulled. There is no magazine safety, a dubious feature to say the least.

Grip-to-frame angle, at best a qualitative assessment, is perfect and superior to that of the M1911A1. Two-piece, black plastic grip panels, now in P226 configuration, wrap around and meet at the rear of the frame. They are sharply checkered on the sides and rear and swelled at the bottom rear to fill the natural contour of the average-sized palm. The grip panel screws, accompanied by lock washers, tum into threads tapped directly into the aluminum alloy frame. I prefer M1911A1-type bushings, as they can be replaced if the threads strip - and they will. The frame's front strap is smooth. Deep vertical serrations would be a useful touch here - far more so than the squared off and hooked trigger guard, which serves no purpose for those who fire from the correct Weaver stance.

In general, the P220 sights are quite adequate. About 1/8-inch thick, the fixed ramped front sight blade slopes to the muzzle and appears to have been electron-beam-welded to the slide. It's not about to fly away like they frequently do on the Colt Officer's Model. It also has a circular white dot painted on its face. You're supposed to rest this on top of the square white dot painted on the face of the square-notched rear sight. Replace these with self-luminous dots like the Armson Trijicon inserts and you've got something useful in subdued light or darkness. White dots, squares and lines are useless for stress firing in daylight. The rear sight is dovetailed into the slide and can be adjusted for windage zero. To prevent snagging, the sharp corners of the P220 rear sight need to be rounded. This should have been done at the factory. The sight radius is 6.4 inches. Eventually, the front sight on the P220 will be reconfigured to match that of the P226, which is dovetailed to the slide. When that occurs, tritium inserts will be available as an option.

P220 magazines are good and bad. They have a removable floorplate. That's good. The floorplate is held in place by the bottom end of the follower spring, which is bent outward (copied directly from the Czech Vz 52 pistol, a 9mm version of which was entered in the 1947-48v Swiss pistol trials). When you disassemble the magazine, which you should do as often as you disassemble and clean the pistol, the floorplate and follower spring will invariably shoot 20 feet across the room. That's irritating. Capacity is seven rounds in .45 ACP. All the magazine's components, including the follower, are steel and there are six indicator holes on each side of the body. They are slightly more difficult to load than M1911A1 magazines.

Unfortunately, the magazines submitted for test and evaluation with our early production series pistol were defective. Fabricated by a Swiss subcontractor, the magazine-catch cuts were improperly located on the magazine's body. With infuriating regularity the magazine would slip out of its latch in the frame during the slide's recoil stroke and thus the slide would return in counter-recoil to close on an empty chamber. In addition, the follower's front tongue was too narrow and it frequently overrode the hold-open protrusion on the slide-stop. Result? The slide went forward into battery and the empty magazine could not be removed until the slide was racked to the rear and the magazine follower depressed below the hold-open. Merely irritating on the range, but potentially fatal in serious encounters. By the time you read this, SIGARMS will have equipped all "side-button" P220 pistols with new magazines.

Fortunately, the P220 is much easier to disassemble than its magazines. Just retract the slide and lock it rearward with the slide-stop lever. Remove the magazine and make certain the chamber is empty. Rotate the disassembly lever, located on the left side of the fraine, downward 90 degrees. While holding the slide assembly, push down on the slide-stop lever and draw the slide assembly forward until it separates from the frame rails. Remove the recoil spring and guide rod. Drop the barrel out of the slide. No further disassembly is required, except to remove the grip panels. Re-assemble in the reverse order.

Four different types of ammunition were fired through the SIG-Sauer P220: Winchester 185 gr. Silvertip hollowpoints, Remington 185 gr. Targetmaster wadcutters, G.I. ball (headstamped 'WCC 71') and reloads with medium-hard cast round nose bullets in front of 6.3 grains of Hercules Unique - a total of 500 rounds altogether.

The P220 has been subjected to some unjustified criticism to the effect that it will not reliably function with reloaded ammunition. Pure baloney. Yes, the chambers on all P220 caliber .45 ACP barrels are tighter than most Colt barrels. But if SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer's Institute) specifications are adhered to, this pistol will pop all the practice caps you'll ever need. Two hundred rounds of our test sequence consisted of reloaded ammunition pumped out of the Dillon RL1000 progressive reloader. This is my Tommy Gun garbage and there were more than 20 different case headstamps in this lot, including several made at the Frankford Arsenal in 1925. There was only one feed ramp failure and one failure to go into battery. You don't need better reliability than that for blasting targets. G.I. ball, Winchester Silvertips and even the Remington wadcutters will churn through the P220 without missing a beat.

Felt recoil is sharper than that percieved with Colt's 39-ounce Government Model. But the P220's excellent ergonomics effectively moderate this, and target re-acquisition is satisfactory providing a firm Weaver stance is employed.

Out-of-the-box accuracy is above average. At eight yards, the P220 will dump all seven rounds from its magazine into a 1.5-inch circle when fired single-action. Empty cases eject with vigor 12 feet to the right.

Fitted with some proper magazines, I wouldn't hesitate to pack this pistol anywhere. Suggested retail price is $581 with two magazines, but do shop around for the best deal.

Anyone looking for a lightweight concealment pistol in [.45 ACP] is well-advised to examine the P220 closely.

First published in the February 1987 edition of Soldier of Fortune Magazine

Operation Semiautomatic, mechanically
locked, recoil operated
Trigger Double-action/single-action
or double-action only
Safety Patented automatic firing-pin lock
Caliber .45 ACP .38 Super
Length, overall 7.8" 7.8"
Height, overall 5.6" 5.6"
Width, overall 1.4" 1.4"
Barrel length 4.4" 4.4"
Rifling twist 1 in 16" 1 in 10"
Rifling grooves 6 6
Sight radius 6.3" 6.3"
Weight, w/o
25.7 oz. 26.5 oz.
empty magazine
2.4 oz. 2.9 oz.
Trigger pull DA 12 lbs.,
SA 4.5 lbs.
DA 12 lbs.,
SA 4.5 lbs.
Magazine capacity 7 rounds 9 rounds