SIG SAUER P232 .380 ACP Pistol
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
We first encountered the P230, predecessor of the P232, in the mid 1990's. It impressed us with its style, quality and simplicity of operation. We should have reviewed a P230 right then, but the press of other affairs put it on the back burner. There it stayed for what turned out to be 15 years, which must be some kind of record. We recently reviewed a sub-compact SIG P238 .380 (see the Handgun Articles and Reviews index page for details) and that reminded us that we have unfinished business with the P230. 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 Two-Tone .380 for this review. The Two-Tone features a natural finish stainless steel slide and a black, hard anodized, aluminum alloy frame with black plastic grips. We sometimes refer to pistols with such finishes as "Holsteins" (black and white) and we think the contrasting finish is attractive. For those who do not, SIG also offers the P232 in all black and all stainless steel metal finishes. The pistol came nicely packaged in a large, padded, polymer hard case with two magazines, 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.
The P232 is SIG's second smallest and lightest pistol; only the subcompact P238, which we believe is the smallest .380 on the market, is smaller. However, the P232 is not a subcompact pistol. It is about the length and height of a Glock 19, Baikal IJ-70A (Makarov) or Walther PP. We'd call it a compact service 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 in the world. This is a bold statement and we do not say such things lightly.
Like the original Walther PP and the somewhat simplified 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, at least if you are comparing the all stainless steel version of the P232. The alloy framed P232 tested here is 5.1 ounces lighter than the all steel version of the P232 and about 6.5 ounces lighter than an IJ-70A. 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 decocker located at the top front 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.
The P232's hammer is easy to thumb cock. It has a smooth, snag-free shape with a small hammer spur and is partly shielded by the rear of the slide, rather than the exposed burr hammer used in the Mak and PP. The P232 has a wide, smooth-faced trigger and the best out of the box trigger pull; it is, in fact, one of the few modern autoloading pistols that do 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 comes with excellent, high visibility, Patridge type, SIGLITE night sights, far superior to the sights supplied on competitive pistols. 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 Mak and Walther pistols. It has the trademarked, easier to grip, SIG SAUER slide serrations, which are particularly important on an inherently hard to rack blowback pistol. Finally, SIG gives you the option of a lighter aluminum alloy frame, better for civilian concealed carry purposes. Here are some P232 specifications:
The P232 is a lightweight pistol, but it is not tiny. At least for us, it is too large to carry in an ankle holster, vest pocket, pants pocket or inside the waistband, as one might carry a mini-revolver or .25 auto. Most users will probably choose to carry it, concealed or otherwise, 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 insure 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. Last, 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 almighty hard 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!)
This is a good time to point out that the P232 is more accurate, more comfortable to shoot, simpler to use, safer and recoils less than the P238 we recently reviewed. However, the P238 uses a locked breech, recoil operated action and its slide is therefore much easier to rack. For this reason, the P238 is probably a better choice for anyone who does not have strong hands. A generally superior pistol like the P232 isn't much good if you cannot reliably rack the slide. We did an informal test with women who were not experienced shooters and none of them could rack the P232's slide to load the chamber, even after we showed them how. This is one of the reasons we generally recommend revolvers for home defense!
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 traditional DA revolver.
When you want to shoot the pistol, you have two options. At very close range, essentially contact distance, 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 heavy at 10 pounds, but reasonably smooth. Practical accuracy is poor, because the long, heavy trigger pull makes it very difficult to hold the pistol steady during the firing stroke. As we said, the DA function is for immediate self-defense at contact ranges.
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 the initial, very light take-up) is short and breaks at about 4 pounds 6-1/2 ounces. This is how the pistol will normally be fired and the only way to take advantage of its intrinsic accuracy. Whenever you have time to do so, such as at the pistol range or any time you must shoot at greater than contact distance, manually cock the hammer for the first shot, as you would with a SA autoloader or a revolver.
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.
We found the one manual control lever SIG did include (aside from the trigger), the side mounted decocking lever, to be superfluous. The P232 has a rebounding hammer that is easy to cock and de-cock the old fashioned way, pressing the trigger momentarily to release the hammer while lowering the hammer slowly with a thumb; no decocking lever necessary. We would have gladly traded the decocker for a manual slide stop.
For experienced shooters with strong hands, the P232 is an excellent choice. Because it is a medium size pistol with good ergonomics, excellent sights and a decent trigger, it is easy to shoot accurately. Recoil is moderate and its fixed barrel design gives it an inherent accuracy advantage over tip-barrel designs.
The .380 ACP cartridge should not be under rated for self-defense purposes. Despite the tendency of .45 advocates to label the short 9mm 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 the .38 Special snub-nose revolvers. 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 the .45 ACP delivered 64% one shot stops with standard 230 grain "ball" (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, we did our test shooting at the standard distance of 25 yards, our usual range for testing handguns. The western Oregon Autumn weather was partly cloudy, with a high of about 68-degrees F. and 10 MPH winds.
For test ammunition we used Remington/UMC 95 grain FMJ (955 fps), Winchester/USA 95 grain FMJ (955 fps), Blazer 88 grain JHP (1000 fps) and Hornady Critical Defense 90 grain FTX (1000 fps) factory loads. (For those who are curious, the soft polymer tipped Hornady 90 grain FTX load has 200 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy.) We shot five-shot groups for record at 25 yards using a Pistol Perch rest. Guns and Shooting Online staff members Jim Fleck, Gordon Landers and Chuck Hawks did the test shooting. Here are the shooting results:
AVERAGE GROUP SIZE FOR ALL LOADS TESTED = 2.26"
This time out, Gordon Landers shot the single smallest group. Unlike subcompact .380 autos, the P232 is a full size gun with a large, well-shaped grip that minimizes recoil and aids accurate shooting. We have already mentioned the pistol's fixed barrel, good SA trigger and highly visible sights. These characteristics combine to make range sessions pleasurable and rewarding. As you can see from the results above, its accuracy did not disappoint, particularly with the premium Hornady Critical Defense ammunition that it preferred.
We had one stovepipe jam, two failures to feed and four times the slide failed to hold open after the last round was fired, all in the first half of our testing. We wondered if perhaps this was a lubrication issue. After the first few groups, the slide seemed very dry and it may have been. We used a very small amount of the white "cleaner/lubricant" packaged with the pistol on the slide rails and after that the malfunctions ceased.
Naturally, we did our test shooting in broad daylight, when the P232's Patridge sights could be conventionally aligned. At night, the SIGLITE tritium inserts do an admirable job, providing a three green dot illuminated aiming system. Our only suggestion is that using a yellow front tritium tube would more positively differentiate the front sight dot from the rear sight dots. The softly glowing sights also make the pistol easy to find in the dark if left on a shelf or nightstand. From the target's position in front of the muzzle, no glow is visible, so the shooter's location is not betrayed by the sights.
Some shooters, especially those raised on "modern" combat pistol technique (meaning 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, such as used by Government Model 1911 pistols. 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? How wise is it to drop empty magazines on the ground, anyway, 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 have two and we need to keep them in good working order.) We are inclined to think that in most self-defense situations, if you can't do it with the first seven shots, you probably cannot do it at all. At least with a heel clip you cannot inadvertently drop the magazine by pushing the wrong button--and we have seen that happen many times. While we are writing about magazines, both of the mags supplied with our P232 fed cartridges perfectly.
To summarize, the SIG SAUER P232 is a deluxe, compact service pistol. Although not an extreme lightweight, most owners will find the alloy-framed versions light enough for extended and comfortable concealed carry. Unlike mini guns and subcompact .380 pistols, the P232 is fun to shoot and this should encourage owners to practice. It is practice, after all, that makes perfect and you want to be as "perfect" as possible if you ever need to use your pistol for self-defense. We are going to keep the P232 around for our personal use and further testing. It should, for example, fit nicely in the Blackhawk Urban Carry Case (fanny pack) that is on its way to us for review and we have a .380 comparison article involving the SIG P232, SIG P238 and Walther PPK in the works, so stay tuned!
ADDENDUM BY ROGER MILLER
After the publication of this review, we received an e-mail from Guns and Shooting Online member Roger Miller about his experiences with his P232 that we feel is worth repeating. Here are his comments:
Just like your review, my P232 stove-piped and failed to feed, because I decided good ole Rem-Lube should work just as well as the supplied lubricant. Bad idea on my part to try that theory out when I was trying to qualify for off duty carry. Luckily for me, I still can tap-rack-bang good enough to get 29-30. I came home and took the gun apart and noticed it looked pretty dry. I applied the gun grease and fired two mags rapidly with no malfunctions.
Today, I was finally able to have some range time and wanted make sure my new Sig was working properly post proper lubrication. I was shooting Winchester/USA white box and it failed to feed after about 50 rounds. I took it apart and could see there was still lube inside, but it was pretty dirty from the cheapo rounds, so I gave it just a small swipe with a Q-tip w/gun grease and it fired fine for the next few magazines.
I went to holster the P232 in my fancy Sig Sauer paddle holster and it would not go in. I inspected the gun and observed the take down lever was lowered enough to catch on the holster. I figured I had failed to fully close it and pushed it up the rest of the way. After a few more rounds, I noticed the lever had sagged back down. This time I took the gun apart and flicked the take down lever up and down, making sure nothing was obstructing it, then put the gun back together.
This time I watched the lever as I fired each round. Every time I fired, the take down lever sagged a little more, to the point it was half way opened. Needless to say, I was upset about this.
I called Sig Arms and spoke to a repair technician, explaining what was happening. The tech was quick to take my info and set me up with a warranty repair order. As we were concluding our conversation, I asked if this was a known problem with the P232.
The tech said, "Well, it's not a recall issue, but it is a known problem for this specific model. Sig has re-designed replacement parts to fix the problem and we have had to fix a good amount of P232's with this same problem."
My instant thought was, why would Sig continue selling the P232, knowing they were defective? The way the tech explained it was very laid back, like "no big deal we will fix it." I was not impressed.
Sig e-mailed me a Fed-Ex return label and said 2-3 weeks. I wanted to share my experience with you and your team, as a follow up tid-bit of info. I still think the .380 is very accurate and stylish (in a 007 way), but now I am second guessing its reliability. If Sig had done a recall, instead of letting buyers figure it out for themselves, I would not be writing this and giving them a bad rap.
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