SIG SAUER P232 Stainless .380 ACP Pistol
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
We first encountered the all stainless steel P230, predecessor of the P232 Stainless, in the mid 1990's. It impressed us with its style, quality and simplicity of operation. In the intervening years, the P230 has evolved into the P232, which brings us to the subject of this review.
Our friends at SIG SAUER (www.sigsauer.com) were kind enough to consign a new P232 Stainless .380 for this review. Our test pistol came nicely packaged in a padded, lockable, polymer hard case with one magazine, an instruction manual larded with useless safety warnings, a small tube of "cleaner/lubricant" gun grease and a gunlock. It is a very complete package, except for the lack of a second magazine, an expensive oversight. (A spare magazine costs $46 from SIG SAUER as this is written.)
The P232 Stainless features a satin stainless steel finish with Hogue black rubber, wrap around grips. These have the usual Hogue deep finger grooves that we dislike. However, for once, the grooves approximately fit our fingers. If you are not a fan of Hogue finger groove grips, they can be easily replaced by the smooth SIG polymer grips that used to be standard equipment. We made this change immediately after the shooting portion of this review and are pleased with the result, both aesthetically and functionally.
We think this an exceptionally handsome pistol. For those who want something different, SIG also offers the P232 with a black (Nitron finish) steel slide and black anodized aluminum alloy frame, or Two-Tone silver/black stainless/aluminum versions. The aluminum frame guns weigh less than 19 ounces. We reviewed a Two-Tone P232 in 2010; see the Product Reviews index page.
The P232 is petite, but it is not a subcompact pistol. It is about the length, height and weight of a Glock 19, Baikal IJ-70A (Makarov) or Walther PP. We'd call it a compact pistol. It is similar to and directly competitive with the Walther and Makarov service pistols, with which it shares the same basic design. However, SIG has gone beyond those excellent pistols by simplifying and improving the Walther PP concept to produce the finest pistol of its type. This is a bold statement and we do not say such things lightly.
Like the original Walther PP and the somewhat simplified/improved Russian Makarov copy of the PP, the SIG P232 is a streamlined, double action (SA/DA), blowback operated, fixed barrel, autoloading pistol with a single stack magazine retained by a heel clip. All three of these pistols are similar in size, shape and weight. All three are handsome, accurate, well made, reliable pistols that are chambered for the .380 ACP (9mm Kurz) cartridge.
Why do we say the SIG P232 is the best? Because SIG has gone farther to improve the basic concept than anyone else. Here are the notable improvements incorporated by SIG engineers. They eliminated the slide mounted, dual function, safety/decocking lever and replaced it with a single purpose, frame mounted decocker. It is conveniently located at the top of the left side grip panel. This is a better, easier to operate design and there is no manual safety to fumble or forget in moments of high stress. The P232 has a very clean shape with smooth external contours and rounded edges for snag-free draws; the decocking lever is its only external operating control. Simpler is better.
The P232's hammer has a smooth shape with a small, conventional hammer spur that is partly shielded by the rear of the slide, rather than the exposed burr hammer used in the Makarov and PP. Not only is the SIG hammer design snag-free, it is easier to thumb cock.
The P232 has a wide, smooth-faced trigger and a useable out of the box SA trigger pull. (The specification is 4.4 pounds, although our test gun's trigger actually measured lighter.) It is, in fact, one of the very few modern autoloading pistols that does not require a trigger job before being pressed into service. The mechanism incorporates an automatic firing pin block and a rebounding hammer for increased safety.
The P232 is built on a one-piece frame/trigger guard. There is a small, flush mounted, takedown lever instead of the pinned in place, pull-down trigger guard used to release the slide for removal in the Makarov and Walther pistols. It has the wide, easy to grip SIG SAUER slide serrations, which are particularly important on an inherently hard to rack blowback pistol.
The P232 comes with high visibility, Patridge type sights that are far superior to the sights on most competitive pistols. (SIGLITE tritium night sights, as supplied on our test pistol, are a popular option.) Here are the P232 specifications as reviewed.
The P232 is a .380 pistol, but it is not tiny. At least for us, it is too big and heavy to carry in an ankle holster, vest pocket or pants pocket, as one might carry a mini-revolver or .25 auto. Most users will probably choose to carry it in a suitable belt holster, shoulder holster, fanny pack, purse, briefcase or other sturdy container that fits their lifestyle.
To field strip the P232 for cleaning, remove the magazine and ensure that the chamber is empty. Cock the hammer and then rotate the frame mounted takedown lever 90-degrees downward. (This is the small lever inletted into the forward left side of the frame.) Pull the slide all the way rearward and lift the back of the slide off the frame's slide rails. Then, run the slide forward off the fixed barrel. Pull the tapered recoil spring off the barrel. (Note that the larger diameter end of this spring is forward.) That is all the disassembly required for cleaning and normal maintenance. Reassemble in reverse order.
From the operator's perspective, the P232 is one of the easiest to use autoloading pistols on the market. The only fly in the ointment is that the slide is difficult to pull back. This is a common complaint with blowback pistols, as only the mass/inertia of the slide and the power of the recoil spring keep the breech closed when the gun is fired, so the spring must be heavy. One suggestion is to cock the hammer before attempting to pull back the slide. That way you are not fighting the recoil spring and the hammer spring. (Both are substantial in the P232.)
Once you have managed to rack the slide and load the chamber, operation is simple. Depress the left side mounted decocking lever to lower the rebounding hammer. There are no other protruding levers or controls to worry about. The extractor is raised slightly above the surface of the slide when there is a cartridge chambered and serves as a tactile "loaded chamber" indicator. Once loaded, the P232 is as simple to use as a double action revolver.
When you want to shoot the pistol, you have two options. At very short range, essentially arm's length, just pull the trigger through its double action stroke to fire. This is a true double action, trigger cocking mechanism and there is a double strike capability in the event of a misfire. The DA trigger pull is acceptable at 10 pounds and reasonably smooth. Practical accuracy is poor, because the long, heavy trigger pull makes it very difficult to hold the 1.5 pound pistol steady during the firing stroke. As we said, the DA function is for immediate self-defense at very short range.
After the first (DA) shot, the pistol will self-cock and subsequent shots will be fired single action. In other words, the trigger does not have to cock the hammer, so the trigger pull (after a long initial take-up) is short, although there is a lot of over-travel. The trigger pull of our test pistol measured 3.75 pounds per our RCBS pull gauge. Single action is how the pistol will normally be fired and the only way to take advantage of its better than average intrinsic accuracy. Whenever you have time to do so, or any time you must shoot at greater than contact distance, manually cock the hammer for the first shot, as you would a SA autoloader or a revolver.
The rebounding hammer is partially shielded by the shape of the rear of the streamlined slide to avoid catching on clothing, but enough of the hammer spur protrudes to make thumb cocking for the first shot easy. If you lack faith in the decocking lever, enough hammer spur is available to make lowering the hammer with the thumb practical.
The magazine follower automatically activates the slide stop after the last shot, holding the slide open. However, when you clear the pistol by removing the magazine and racking the slide to eject the chambered cartridge, you will find that there is no manual lever to keep the slide open. We found this a little disconcerting, particularly when handing the pistol to another person, as we are accustomed to doing so with the slide locked open. Conversely, if you rack the slide with an empty magazine in place, there is no way to close the slide short of removing the magazine. To chamber a round after inserting a loaded magazine, you must pull the slide back slightly and release. We understand that SIG dispensed with a manual slide lock to minimize the number of operating controls and to keep the pistol snag free and easy to use. Nevertheless, it is one manual control that we missed.
The .380 ACP cartridge should not be belittled for self-defense purposes. Contrary to those who call the 9x17mm a "mouse cartridge," it is not. Nor is the SIG P232 a mouse gun. In fact, with appropriate JHP ammo, the .380 ACP has a proven one-shot-stop record on a par with .38 Special snub-nose revolvers and .45 ACP ball ammo. The keys to quick stops are bullet placement and proper bullet expansion. Both can be regularly achieved by a P232 loaded with proper ammunition. Marshall and Sanow, in their seminal 1992 book Handgun Stopping Power, found after examining 106 actual shootings that the .380 achieved 65% one shot stops using Federal 90 grain JHP factory loads. For comparison, in the same study the .38 Special snubby delivered 66.6% one shot stops with +P 158 grain LHP factory loads and full size .45 ACP service autos delivered 64% one shot stops with standard 230 grain FMJ ammo.
For our test shooting with the P232, we once again visited the Izaak Walton gun range south of Eugene, Oregon. This outdoor facility has covered shooting positions with bench rests and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. Unlike many publications that shorten the range for .380's and other pistols they consider suitable only for close range defense to seven yards, we did our shooting at 25 yards, our standard range for testing handguns. The western Oregon spring weather was mostly sunny with a high of 71-degrees F and a gusty 15 MPH breeze.
Due to the ongoing Obama post re-election ammo shortage, our test ammo was limited to Remington/UMC 95 grain FMJ (MV 955 fps) and Blazer aluminum case 88 grain JHP (MV 1000 fps) factory loads that we had on hand. These are economy loads and we regret that premium ammunition was not available for this review. We shot five-shot groups for record at 25 yards using a Pistol Perch rest. Guns and Shooting Online Chief Technical Advisor Jim Fleck, Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays and Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks did the test shooting, with Technical assistant Bob Fleck and Technology maven Dave Cole spotting. Here are the shooting results:
As you can see from the results above, the P232's 25 yard accuracy was better than average for .380 pistols, particularly with the Blazer 88 grain JHP load. Except for a blown 4-5/8" group that skewed the average, the accuracy results with the Blazer ammo would have been even better. This time out, Chuck shot the smallest single group.
Unlike subcompact .380 autos, the P232 is a medium size and weight gun with a full size grip that aids accurate shooting. We have already mentioned the pistol's fixed barrel design, decent SA trigger and highly visible sights. The sights were factory regulated to hit about at point of aim at 25 yards, unusually good performance for fixed sights. These characteristics combine to make range sessions pleasurable and rewarding.
We used a small amount of the high-tech white "cleaner/lubricant" packaged with the pistol on the slide rails to avoid the functioning problems we had encountered with an aluminum framed P232 Two-Tone pistol we reviewed in 2010. (We discovered then that these pistols must be greased.) Our advice is to keep the P232's slide and frame rails lubricated, but avoid using an excess amount of grease that will attract powder residue and dirt. The all steel P232 functioned perfectly throughout our testing.
Naturally, we did our test shooting in broad daylight, when the P232's highly visible Patridge type sights could be conventionally aligned. At night, the test gun's SIGLITE tritium night sights provide a three green dot illuminated aiming system.
Some shooters, especially those raised on "modern" combat pistol technique (as promulgated by Jeff Cooper and his disciples since the early 1950's) will probably complain about the heel clip magazine release, since it makes for slower reloads than push button catches and drop free magazines. We found the heel clip positive and easy to use. It does somewhat slow emergency reloads, but how many private citizens will ever need to replace their magazine at maximum speed? It is unwise to drop empty magazines on the ground, potentially losing or damaging them, when you will need to reload them to keep shooting. (Civilians do not have an endless supply of magazines; we usually have two and we need to keep them in good working order.) With a heel clip you cannot inadvertently drop the magazine by pushing the wrong button. We have seen that happen many times with push button mag releases. While we are mentioning magazines, the stainless steel magazine supplied with our P232 fed cartridges perfectly.
To summarize, the SIG SAUER P232 is a deluxe compact pistol. For experienced shooters with strong hands, the P232 is an excellent choice. Unlike mini guns and subcompact .380 pistols, the all stainless steel P232 is a medium size pistol with good ergonomics, excellent sights and a decent trigger. It is easy to shoot and its fixed barrel design gives it an inherent accuracy advantage over tip-barrel designs.
Note: A review of the SIG SAUER P232 Two-Tone (stainless/aluminum) can be found on the Product Reviews page.
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