SIG SAUER P238 Rainbow Titanium .380 ACP Pistol
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
New for 2010 from SIG SAUER (www.sigsauer.com) is the P238 Special Edition Rainbow Titanium finish pistol with Rosewood Grips. The P238 is a sub-compact (5.5" long) .380 that weighs only 15.2 ounces with a six round magazine. It is one of the smallest .380's available and the Rainbow's mirror polished titanium slide finish makes it unique. It looks like titanium jewelry and shoots like, well, a SIG. It may well be the ultimate in an all-metal frame, concealed carry pistol. The P238 is built on an anodized alloy, beavertail style frame with rosewood grips for comfort and a secure hold. The stainless steel slide features the popular SIG SAUER slide serrations, corrosion resistant Rainbow Titanium finish and SigLite Night Sights.
This SIG SAUER P238 Rainbow is supplied in a very nice, padded hard case with instructions, gunlock, a polymer holster and a single six round magazine. Spare magazines carry a 2010 MSRP of $44. At present, there is not a "plus one" or "plus two" magazine option with a pinky finger rest, which is a pity. Such a magazine would make holding and shooting the P238 more comfortable, as it has a "two finger" length grip.
Included with the pistol is a simple, but functional, molded polymer holster. This right hand holster clips over the belt to the waistband of trousers and is worn externally. It holds the P238 by means of screw tension, which can be adjusted by means of an Allan-head bolt. This simple holster holds the pistol securely at the wearer's side, yet allows for a speedy draw. Worn behind the right hip and covered by a light jacket, such as a poplin windbreaker, it is quite inconspicuous. It can also be worn cross-draw in the spleen position. Unfortunately for left-handed shooters, it is not ambidextrous, but it is great for everyone else.
The Owner's Manual is so larded with safety warnings that it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Apparently, you should not buy a gun and, if you do, you should not handle it. Actually shooting a firearm is so dangerous that it should not be attempted. Keep your pistol locked away where no one can reach it. Ho, hum.
SIG currently offers eleven variations of the P238, differing mostly in finish and minor features. The basic, all flat-black Nitron model starts at $629 and other models sell for as much as $749 (the Tactical Laser model, which comes with a laser sight). The Rainbow Titanium, along with most other P238's sporting wood grips, carries a 2010 MSRP of $699. Other P238 models have been readily available, but the Special Edition Rainbow Titanium has been in short supply since it was announced. It was not until August 2010 that we finally received a sample for review. Fortunately, it was worth the wait. From a practical point of view, this pistol should be largely impervious to its environment due to its titanium-plated, stainless steel slide and hard-anodized aluminum alloy frame. One might think that a pistol this pretty would not be so durable, but it is. From an aesthetic viewpoint, the Special Edition Rainbow Titanium looks like jewelry. Not just the slide, but all of the visible steel parts are mirror polished and titanium plated. These include the Allan head grip screws, safety lever, take down/slide stop lever and magazine release button.
Unlike the previous fixed barrel, blowback action, DA/SA P230 and P232 .380 pistols, the P238 is a single action (SA), short recoil operated (tip barrel), autoloading pistol with an exposed hammer. In grip angle, silhouette and most other respects, it is a miniature 1911 Government Model pistol. Unlike most .380 pistols of any brand, it is a locked-breech design, not blowback operated. The locked breech design of the P238 makes it easier to rack the slide than with blowback pistols, which require a very heavy slide return spring to augment the inertia of the slide and keep it closed long enough for the bullet to leave the chamber.
There is a Colt Series 80 type firing pin block that prevents movement of the firing pin (and thus discharging the pistol) unless the trigger is pulled rearward. The rear of the chamber is wedged against the face of the slide to lock the pistol closed, much as with a Glock pistol and unlike the barrel lugs used in 1911 pistols.
This is a conventional SA pistol, despite its exotic and colorful Titanium finish. The P238 reminds us of the discontinued Colt .380 Mustang Pocketlite that it closely resembles (with minor changes by SIG), which was also a short recoil operated, locked breech, SA sub-compact. The word is that SIG SAUER purchased the rights and the machinery to produce the Mustang (as the improved P238) from Colt. The P238's external slide contours are SIG, but its frame is shaped almost identically to the Mustang and many of the internal parts appear to be interchangeable.
The operation of the P238 should also seem familiar to any fan of the Colt Mustang. It works the same way and the control layout is the same.
The P238's ejector is a pivoting type pinned to the left inside of the frame. When reassembling the pistol after takedown, take care to depress the ejector as you run the slide assembly back on its rails.
There are three safety features. The first is a manual thumb safety. This disconnects the trigger and, if the hammer is down, prevents the hammer from being cocked or the slide opened. Apply the thumb safety with the hammer at full cock and the hammer cannot be lowered, but the slide can be operated; very handy for unloading a pistol carried "cocked and locked" (condition one).
The second safety device is an automatic firing pin block. This prevents the firing pin from moving forward unless the trigger is pulled rearward. (Pulling the trigger disengages the firing pin block.) It serves as a drop safety and might prevent an accidental discharge (AD) should the manual safety malfunction on a pistol carried "cocked and locked."
The third safety feature is a half-cock hammer notch. This is intended to catch the hammer should it slip when being manually cocked or lowered, as long as the trigger is not simultaneously pulled rearward. Using the half-cock hammer notch is NOT a safe carry method, as pulling the trigger will drop the hammer from its half-cock notch.
There is no grip safety or magazine disconnect safety on the P238. It will fire with the magazine removed or if gripped improperly, as long as there is a cartridge in the chamber and the trigger is pulled. Most shooters dislike these types of safeties and feel they are redundant. Real gun safety, of course, is between the shooter's ears.
The trigger of our test pistol released at a very heavy 8.5 pounds after a long, two-stage take-up. This is totally unacceptable for a SA pistol, whose primary reason for existence is supposed to be a short, light, clean trigger pull. The P238's trigger is clearly inferior to several staff owned Baikal IJ-70 (Makarov) .380 pistols that cost a fraction of the price of the P238. It is way inferior to the 4.4 pound SA trigger pull of contemporary SIG P232 .380 pistols. The P238 trigger is a disgrace and should be rectified immediately. Before we would consider using this pistol for serious self-defense/concealed carry, it will require a trigger job.
The P238's sights, on the other hand, are excellent. They are high visibility, Patridge type, three dot, tritium night sights. These sights are the best we have ever encountered on a sub-compact pistol, as good as the sights on SIG full size service pistols. For once, a manufacturer did not scrimp on a .380 pocket pistol's sights.
The .380 ACP (9x17mm) cartridge is considered a powerful stopper in Europe, where it has a long history as a police service cartridge, but a mouse gun cartridge in the U.S. The reality is somewhere between, but in this case the Europeans are closer to reality. Certainly, the 9mm Luger (9x19mm) cartridge can launch a heavier bullet of the same diameter somewhat faster and the .38 Super or .357 SIG are faster yet. All of these exceed the maximum stopping power of the .380 ACP, given JHP bullets of similar terminal performance. On the other hand, modern .380 loads using JHP bullets like the Federal Hydra-Shok deliver serious stopping power, similar to a .38 Special snub-nose revolver with similar JHP bullets. Thus, .380 pistols are certainly not mouse guns. Nobody in their right mind would want to be shot by a .38 Special revolver or a .380 ACP pistol, no matter how much they might belittle their stopping power! In their extensive stopping power study, Marshal and Sanow found that the Federal 95 grain JHP .380 factory load delivered about 65% one shot stops, compared to 64% one shot stops for the Federal 125 grain JHP .38 Spec. factory load fired from a 2" barrel revolver. To illustrate how important it is to choose a bullet that expands reliably, the (non-expanding) Federal 230 grain FMJ .45 ACP load delivered 64% one shot stops (mostly from a 5" barrel), virtually identical to the short barreled .38 snubby and .380 Auto with JHP ammunition!
Since the P238 is intended for concealed carry, how it is carried deserves comment. Like other traditional SA semi-automatics, there are three possible carry modes for the SIG P238:
None of these alternatives is ideal and all have advantages and disadvantages, so the intended condition of carry should be carefully considered by any potential P238 purchaser. SIG's other current .380 pistol, the DA/SA SIG P232, can be carried hammer down in complete safety yet fired simply by pulling the trigger. (There is no manual safety on the P232 to manipulate--and possibly flub--in an emergency). The P238 is smaller, lighter and easier to carry than the P232, but all three SA auto carry modes compromise either safety, simplicity, or speed. There is no "correct" carry mode for a single action autoloader. Choose the mode that suits you best.
For our test shooting with the P238, we journeyed to 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. With the sub-compact SIG P238, we conducted our test shooting at 25 yards, our standard range for pistol testing. The western Oregon summer weather was partly cloudy, with a high of about 75-degrees F. and 10-15 MPH winds. Nice pistol shooting weather!
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 Federal Premium Personal Protection 90 grain Hydra-Shok JHP (1000 fps) factory loads. We shot five-shot groups for record at 25 yards using a Pistol Perch rest. Guns and Shooting Online staff members Jim Fleck, Robert Fleck, Gordon Landers and Chuck Hawks did the test shooting.
This time out, Jim shot the smallest group. We were pleased that the P238 did its best work with the Federal Premium Personal Protection 90 grain Hydra-Shok load, as this is the load we would choose for concealed carry.
The primers of the fired cases that we inspected evidenced a light firing pin blow, but there were no malfunctions from this. The P238 fired the first time and every time the hammer dropped.
Unfortunately, the super heavy trigger made a mockery of our attempt to shoot the little P238 for accuracy. It is impossible to consistently shoot decent groups or explore a pistol's accuracy potential when the trigger pull is nine times the weight of the gun itself! The lighter the gun, the lighter the trigger pull should be. All shooters felt that with a decent trigger pull, the P238 would deliver much better groups and the occasional good group we fired tended to confirm that thinking. Unfortunately, because of the terrible trigger, the practical accuracy of the P238 is unacceptable and all three shooters had tender trigger fingers from the super heavy pull by the end of the test shooting. The wear on trigger fingers was accellerated by the sharp longitudinal grooves cut into the face of the trigger. We'd like to see a smooth trigger in this pistol.
Our staff gunsmith, Rocky Hays, is going to see what he can do to lighten the P238's trigger pull. We have ordered a reduced force mainspring from Wolff springs. (The P238 uses the same springs as the Colt Mustang.) The sear engagement notch on our test pistol seems smooth and clean, so it is unlikely that much would be gained by honing these engagement surfaces.
While we are on the subject of springs, the necessarily small recoil spring in the P238 (after all, the effective length of the recoil spring guide rod is only 1-7/8"), takes an unavoidable beating during operation and SIG recommends it be replaced every 1500 rounds. Some owners have reported recoil spring life as short as about 500 rounds. Either way, that is a considerable amount of shooting with a .380 pocket pistol, so recoil springs are unlikely to become a serious financial drain. SIG offers P238 replacement spring packs and Wolff sells both standard rate and heavy duty recoil springs for the Colt Mustang/SIG P238.
We had two malfunctions in the course of our test shooting. Both were failures to feed that resulted from the slide locking open. In both cases, the fired case was ejected cleanly. This happened once with the Federal Premium Hydra-Shok load with Chuck shooting and once with the Winchester FMJ load with Gordon shooting. We were unable to determine the cause of these malfunctions. We suspected that, as the pistol recoiled, the shooter had accidentally bumped the slide stop upward with his thumb. We did our test shooting with a two-handed grip and the shooter's thumbs wound-up positioned directly under the slide stop. It is, after all, a very small gun.
For comparison, we had an all stainless steel Walther PPK at the range. (There is a review of the PPK on the "Handgun Articles and Reviews" index page of the Handgun Information Page.) It was interesting that, although the P238 is smaller and lighter than the PPK, it also (subjectively) kicked less. We attribute that to its locked-breech action; the Walther uses a blowback action. On the other hand, the Walther had a much better SA trigger pull and a fixed barrel and it easily out-shot the P238 in the accuracy department. In terms of recoil, though, the little SIG is a comparatively pleasant gun to shoot.
Everyone on the Guns and Shooting Online staff was favorably impressed by the little P238 Rainbow Titanium. It is not perfect, but with a trigger job it will be very nice and there was an immediate rush to claim first dibs for personal purchase of the pistol after completion of this review. We cannot think of a better recommendation than that.
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