SIG P-229: A .40 S&W Well Worth the Wait

By Frank James

The Sig P-229 in .40 S&W caliber was a long time coming. The first prototype was shown to a few writers at the 1991 Shot Show, but Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft, or SIG, unlike some other manufacturers, did not rush its .40 S&W caliber pistol into production. They waited until they were sure they had everything right. And let me tell you the P-229 is a pistol that was worth the wait. The past few years have witnessed a revolution in police firearms as American law enforcement agencies have finally embraced the semi-auto pistol. A number of different firms, both foreign and domestic, and an even larger number of competing designs have been struggling to capture control of this market. For a long time, in the beginning, it was anyone's race, but now it can be argued the leaders of the pack have thinned to three major competitors.

They are the Beretta Model 92, the Glock series of handguns, and the SIG pistols. The success of Beretta can be attributed to a number of factors, but the fact the U.S. Army adopted it to replace the venerable 1911 pistol is probably the most indicative aspect of its success.

Glock pistols are worn by an ever-increasing number of American police officers for many sound and logical reasons. The popular Glock series of pistols has been one of the most significant developments in handgun design for the past decade. Price, light weight, good ergonomics, and high round capacity are the four most obvious attributes of this well- received police pistol.

But, when you examine the handgun of choice used by the various federal law enforcement agencies of the United States government as well as the state and local agencies throughout the United States, one thing becomes increasingly clear. The SIG pistols are big winners.

SIG-produced pistols are used by the FBI, the DEA, the Secret Service, and the BATF, as well as a number of smaller federal agencies. The P-228 was recently adopted by the U.S. Army as the M-11, or the concealment pistol for undercover or plain clothes operatives for the military. The FBI experienced some problems with their version of the 10mm Smith & Wesson pistols, leading them to go to the SIG P-226 and P-228 for their newly trained special agents. (S&W, in the meantime, has addressed the FBI's concerns and is delivering pistols to the bureau.) The SIG pistols operate in a manner exactly like that required by the agency, and they operate with a degree of reliability that was unheard of only a decade ago for any auto-pistol, regardless of make or model.

Swiss Army Gun

Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft was established in 1853 to manufacture small arms for the Swiss Army. SIG has always been a Swiss firm, but in the 1970s it joined with the German firm of J. P. Sauer & Sohn to market handguns worldwide due to the limitations placed on the export of small arms by the Swiss government. This explains the name SIG-Sauer so often seen and heard in the United States.

Around the turn of the century SIG became involved in manufacturing parts and components for the Swiss service pistol - the Parabellum, commonly known in this country as the German Luger. The Parabellum served the Swiss well, establishing a good reputation for accuracy, if not complete reliability. The Swiss and SIG, in particular, began searching for a better design during the late 1930s and eventually settled upon a design sold to the French by Charles Petter.

A license for the 1935 French service pistol was obtained in 1937 from the French government and SACM, the French firm manufacturing the Petter design. A number of experimental models were built over an extended period starting before World War II and ending just after the war. Eventually, this pistol was adopted as the Model SP 47/8, which is known today as the Model 210.

The Model 210

By all standards, the SIG Model 210 is generally regarded as the most accurate 9x19mm semi-auto pistol in the world. It is often referred to as the most elegant and accurate of all 9mm service pistols available, anywhere! What isn't generally known, however, is the fact that in 1944 SIG developed an experimental model called the "Neuhausen 44/16" that was, essentially, an early high-capacity version of the Model 210 featuring a magazine that held 16 rounds.

Reportedly, it was a good design and it was not extremely large in the grip area, but there was little interest in a 16-shooter at the time, so the Neuhausen 44/8 was developed into the SP 47/8, or the 9mm Ordonnanzpistole 49 (with an eight-round magazine) as it was called initially. In 1957, the SP 47/8 was renamed the Model 210. Besides being an extremely accurate pistol, the 210 is also a very expensive handgun. SIG, realizing this high cost was hurting sales, began development of a new pistol in the 1960s.

In 1974, the SIG P-220 was introduced. The P-220 is a large pistol, chambered initially in 9x 19mm, and was almost immediately chosen by the Swiss military as the Pistole 75. The P-220 wasn't imported into the United States until 1977, and then it was by two different importers. Both Browning and Hawes National Corp. of Van Nuys, Calif., had import agreements to being the first Sig P-220 pistols into the country. The Sig P-220 was chambered for the 9x19mm, the .38 Super, and the .45 ACP rounds. Hawes soon fell by the wayside and Browning for a period of time was the sole importer of the Sig P-220.

The German Police Trials of 1975 fostered development of the Sig P-225, which was a smaller version of the P-220. At first the P-225 was chambered for only one caliber - the 9x19mm. The P-225 was both smaller and lighter than the 9mm version of the P-220, but it suffered the loss of only one round in terms of its magazine capacity. (The P-225 magazine holds eight rounds, while the 9mm P-220 magazine holds nine.) The P-225 came out of the German Police Trials as one of the three finalists acceptable for duty. It became known as the P-6 in company with the Walther P-5, and the Heckler & Koch P-7.

The next 9mm SIG pistol was the P-226 and it came in answer to the request by the American military for a high capacity 9x19mm pistol to replace the aging 1911 pistols in U.S. inventory. The P-226 did quite well in the lengthy and extensive trials that followed, and was almost selected. The decision to adopt the Beretta 92 over the SIG P-226 reportedly came down to which pistol was cheaper, while some authorities have suggested that other, unseen influences were at work.

In any event, the P-226 did not win the JSSAP service pistol trials, but it did go on to establish an enviable reputation for reliability. This reputation for reliability and complete functioning combined together with a new attitude on the part of many in Ametican law enforcement, who valued only those firearms that worked, produced sales acceptance for the Sig. The sales success of the Sig 9mm pistols has gone even beyond the demand and acceptance seen two decades earlier for the Smith & Wesson Model 19 revolver. In the 1960s, it was almost impossible for the civilian consumer to locate and purchase a four-inch Model 19 .357 Magnum because S&W's total production was going to police sales. The Combat Magnum was far and away the handgun of choice of America's police officers during the 1960s.

Now however, esthetics, looks, glamour, history, or who made the pistol in question, are all considered immaterial to the basic need for an auto-pistol that works exceedingly well. The SIG pistols have found a home with a group of people who value results over hyperbole.

In 1988, the P-228 was introduced to the European market. The P-228 is, in concise terms, a P-225 with an enlarged magazine holding 13 rounds of 9x19mm. As you may have noticed, outside of the P-220, all of these handguns have followed the European acceptance of the 9x19mm cartridge as a "big bore" self-defense round, but Americans tend to have different perceptions and interpretations of their needs.

The P-220, while a very successful pistol, is also a large handgun. Certain segments of the market were uninterested in a pistol of this size. Nor were their needs answered by a 9x19mm pistol, so SIG like many others became interested in the .40 S&W cartridge.

Best of Both Worlds

The beauty of the .40 S&W cartridge is that it offers the best of both worlds: a big bore cartridge possessing the potential for large caliber effectiveness, while also fitting into smaller framed magazines sufficiently well to provide high magazine capacity. The downsides to the .40 S&W are the increased slide velocity and the greater recoil forces experienced when chambered in pistols that were nominally designed for the 9mm cartridge.

SIG pistols, while never revolutionary, are unique in terms of their construction. The 220, 225, 226, and 228 all use slides manufactured from thick-gauge sheet metal formed over a mandrel. The muzzle bushing is welded into the formed slide, while the rear piece of the slide is fitted via a keyway and then held in position through use of a rollpin.

Because these pistols are recoil operated, there is a need for some means of locking the barrel to the slide. That is accomplished by having the chamber block of the barrel fit closely into the ejection port when the gun goes into battery. It is a simple system, and it works. It also eliminates the need for machining locking lug recesses within the slide, and allows the use of thick gauge sheet metal in forming the contour of the slide. However, it soon became apparent this would not work for any pistol chambering the .40 S&W round. The increased power yielded forces that would be hard for the mandrel-formed slide to withstand.

SIG solved this problem by going to a machined stainless steel slide. It is significant, if for no other reason than to understand the importance of the American market, to note that this stainless steel slide for the P-229 is manufactured completely in the United States. The aluminum alloy frame is still manufactured in Germany and it says so on the right side, but the slide is a "Made In USA" component.

By having the frame made from aluminum, the P-229 follows the precedent established by the previous SIG pistols. A steel locking block is installed in the alloy frame to serve a combination of functions; the first is to act as the locking block for the barrel earn and to lock/unlock the barrel within the slide. The second is to serve as a feed guide for the cartridge entering the chamber, and the third function is to absorb the recoil forces without damaging the alloy frame.

The .40 caliber P-229 mimics the size and feel of the 9mm P-228, but they are not exactly identical. Outside of the obvious differences seen at the muzzle and the different methods used in manufacturing the slide, there are smaller differences.

The magazines are different for the 228 and the 229. The 229 magazine holds 12 rounds of .40 S&W ammo, while the 228 holds 13 rounds of 9x19mm ammunition. However, the 228 magazine will not fit inside the P-229. Why? Because the 229 mag is wider at its base than its 9mm counterpart and it narrows at two different locations on the magazine tube. In contrast, the P-228 magazine narrows only at the upper point where the tube starts to form the feed lips.

The control levers on the P-229 are the same as they are for the previous pistols. There are three. They are all on the left side of the gun and the most forward is the take-down lever for fieldstripping. The middle lever, just below the slide, is the decocking lever, and this is the key distinguishing feature of the SIG series of handguns.

The 229, like all SIG pistols, utilizes an automatic firing pin safety. This means the SIG operates without need of traditional safety control levers. It is a double action/single action semi-automatic and the first shot when the hammer is down requires a double action trigger pull.

SIG presently has a safety bulletin out advising shooters against lowering the hammer on their pistols with any method other than the decocking lever. When the shooter stops shooting, or if the threat is no longer present, the shooter should take his finger off the trigger and with a simple down-stroke of the decocking lever, lower the hammer on the handgun. The pistol is still instantly ready for action with a double action trigger pull. It is a simple and easy system to teach those shooters who formerly carried revolvers. There is no confusing abundance of safety levers or complicated sequences.

The third lever on the left side is the slide release. It is used to release the slide after it locks open, either for the reload or for inspection. The slide release's position relative to the decocking lever requires some training because a common error for new SIG shooters is to hit the decocking lever when they really want to release the slide after the reload.

Shooting the .40 SIG reveals a pistol with some recoil, but because the grip is so well designed the rearward push is more straight to the rear than that felt on competing designs. One of my complaints about the .40 S&W cartridge has been the fact that production .40 caliber pistols have seldom demonstrated what I would classify as "good" accuracy. Adequate is an accurate description for most of the past .40 S&W service pistols I have tested, but I was duly impressed with the accuracy of the test P-229. In short, it shot and shot well, even if the recoil proved tiresome and induced fatigue over a three hour test session.

At the distance of 50 feet it was not uncommon to keep 12 rounds within a 3 1/2" circle in continuous firing strings that offered no pause for rest. If I concentrated on my best five-shot slow-fire strings, I could easily tighten these groups by an inch or better.

The P-229 is a successful pistol. It combines high round capacity (12+1) together with a serious big bore cartridge, and it does it in a package that is both light to carry and easy to shoot. The feel of a SIG is legendary, but the most sterling quality of the P-229 is its reliability. These guns work!

It may have taken SIG a little longer to introduce and produce their .40 S&W pistols, but believe me the wait was worth it. The P-229 is a serious self-defense/law enforcement handgun.

First published in the 1994 Annual edition of Guns Magazine

Operation Semiautomatic, mechanically
locked, recoil operated
Trigger Double-action/single-action
or double-action only
Safety Patented automatic firing-pin lock
Caliber 9mm Luger .357 SIG .40 S&W
Length, overall 7.1" 7.1" 7.1"
Height, overall 5.4" 5.4" 5.4"
Width, overall 1.5" 1.5" 1.5"
Barrel length 3.8" 3.8" 3.8"
Rifling twist 1 in 10" 1 in 15" 1 in 16"
Rifling grooves 6 6 6
Sight radius 5.7" 5.7" 5.7"
Weight, w/o
27.5 oz. 27.5 oz. 27.5 oz.
empty magazine
3.0 oz. 3.0 oz. 3.0 oz.
Trigger pull DA 12 lbs.,
SA 4.5 lbs.
DA 12 lbs.,
SA 4.5 lbs.
DA 12 lbs.,
SA 4.5 lbs.
Magazine capacity 13 rounds 12 rounds 12 rounds