The SIG-SAUER P-220, P-225, P-226, P-228 and P-229 Series Pistols

By David Tong

SIG-SAUER P-220R. Illustration courtesy of SIGARMS.

These well established pistols date back to the early 1970's. Designed in Switzerland by Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft and manufactured by the German firm J.P. Sauer und Sohn, the original P-220 is a single column, short recoil operated (tilting barrel) autoloading service pistol.

It was the first (as far as I can recall) pistol to use the now prevalent method of keeping the action closed when fired by using an enlarged breechblock area of the barrel that bears directly against the top-forward edge of the ejection port. This is very solid and dispenses with the more difficult to manufacture annular barrel locking lugs and slide recesses found on the Colt 1911, the Browning P-35, or the CZ-75. The SIG locking system is much easier to fit precisely, which aids in accuracy.

Original P-220s featured a heel-type magazine release and the Swiss government adopted it as Pistole 75 to replace the venerated P-210 then in service. Browning Arms Company imported the piece from 1977-1980, but dropped it due to poor sales. These original pistols on the U.S. market were available in 9x19mm, .38 Super and .45ACP.

An interesting construction detail: the early P-220, P-226 and P-228 pistols had folded sheet metal slides. These had welded on nose caps that incorporated a fixed barrel bushing. Upon examination, one can see the evidence of the “SIG-Sauer” slide styling being a matter of this construction technique, as the “pinched in” areas of the slide above the frame rail area were guide ribs to center the barrel during recoil.

A side-by-side comparison between an early P-220 and P-226 slide show that they share the same slide stamping and mill finishing, while their pinned breechblocks differ for the spacing of firing pin, extractor and ejector made necessary to accommodate the 9x19 vs. the larger .45 ACP. Obviously, there were some cost savings in being able to use the same basic part for both small and large bore pistols.

Upon close examination, one can see the spot heat treatment given to the early slides. A spot can be seen on the forward top edge of the ejection port to provide a hard recoil abutment for the barrel. A second spot is located above the slide stop notch and a third is an approximately 1/8” wide, 3” long area located on the right side slide rail. This extends from the forward part of the ejection port to the first third of the cocking serrations.

These slides also had dovetailed rear and front sights, to ease replacement of self-illuminating units, as well as better secure the front sight from recoil forces. The slides also have the largest set of grasping serrations of any pistol extant, making them easy to use, even with slippery hands. These slides were simply finished in matte blue. They thus require a periodic wipe down with a silicone cloth or a coat of oil to keep them from rusting.

All of the first generation SIG's had hard-anodized, forged aluminum receivers. There were early problems with the metallurgy and I have seen several mid-1980s pistols crack their frame rails with very few rounds fired. One was a .45 P-220 whose owner stated had only fired 330 rounds of hardball, but several P-226 9x19 pistols had the same issue.

The company replaced these defective guns immediately and the problems vanished. There are many people who believe that these earliest, made wholly in Germany pieces are the best of the breed. While the company's quality control has slipped some, as the proliferation of trim variants has increased, I think this opinion is somewhat unjust.

The German police renumbered their service pistols in the 1960s. The old Walther P-38 was now designated the P-1 and Walther’s replacement arms were known as the P-4 and P-5. SIG-Sauer’s P-225, another 8 shot single stack, was known as the P-6.

Heckler and Koch’s innovative striker-fired, gas-delayed blowback pistol was the P-7 and that company’s even older roller-delayed blowback design was designated P-9. All served their municipal and national police forces with distinction and most became popular export items.

The P-226 was the main “other entry” in the U.S. military's mid-1980s Joint Service Pistol trial to replace the decrepit M1911 pistols still in service. In order to facilitate interoperability with other NATO nations, it was decided (poorly, in my view) to adopt the 9x19 cartridge. In the event of a shooting war with Warsaw Pact forces, the U.S. would be expected to produce the lion’s share of ammunition for the alliance.

Politics, as usual, entered this drama. The Beretta 92SB-F and the SIG P-226 tied in the trials and the cost per unit was equal, but the overall costs favored the Italians because of spare parts costs, including magazines. The SIG’s lack of a manual safety is another possible factor in favor of the Beretta, at least in the then mindset of the Ordnance folks. The Beretta pistol was chosen and the M9 was the result. In the strictest sense, both pistols are certainly serviceable and reliable. However, in the experience of most, the SIG product has proven more accurate, more compact, more durable and simpler.

The first generation SIG pistols were replaced in the mid-1990's, because of the advent of higher recoiling cartridges such as the .40 S&W and the .357 SIG. The new version's slides were machined from stainless steel billets. This adds a few ounces of weight to the slide, which must reduce the slide velocity somewhat, probably also aiding durability.

The P-228 is approximately ½” shorter in barrel and butt length compared to the P-226, and is somewhat easier to conceal. A U.S. manufacturing facility in Exeter, New Hampshire began in 1992 making the new slides on CNC equipment, and for many years the frames were marked “Made in Germany.” The first product from this plant was the P-229, replacing the P-228 with the new, machined slide and available in the .40 S&W and .357 SIG rounds, as well as the original 9x19mm.

While Beretta certainly garnered the lion’s share of publicity for their general issue service pistol, SIG-Sauer quietly captured the greatest share of Federal law enforcement contracts. An incomplete list of these agencies includes the Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Transportation Safety Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Air Marshals and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Many major police agencies use SIG pistols as well, possibly the most famous being the Texas Rangers.

The P-226 also became the issue pistol for the U.S. Navy SEALs, which it remains to this day in the guise of the MK-25 that has a machined Picatinny rail dust cover. In addition, the P-228 in 9x19 is issued by the military for concealed carry as the M11, though these are probably going to be replaced with newer construction SIG pistols within the decade.

Thanks to marketing guys and gals and computerized machining centers, there are now a plethora of models and sub-types of each P-220 series handgun. So-called Classic models (now sadly discontinued) lack an accessory rail, while so-called Combat and Tactical Operations models usually have a short reset trigger system, accessory rail and night sights. I think that the short reset trigger is a good thing for a social pistol, in that it helps the trained pistoleer make accurate repeat shots. The company should fit this system to all their products.

Some versions have been manufactured entirely of stainless steel (quite heavy, naturally) and Compact and Carry models are also available with various finishes and features. There are even single-action-only versions of the P-220 and P-226, the company’s bread-and-butter standard bearers, complete with ambidextrous thumb safeties.

For the well heeled, SIG also offers X-Five and X-Six match grade target pistols, retailing for well over $2,000. I have shot one of the P-220 X-Five pistols and it was intimidating. One knows that there are no alibis when shooting one. If you miss, it surely isn’t the pistol’s fault. The trigger pull is about two pounds crisp, with no take up or over travel. It is imply a splendid shooting machine.

To me, the basic SIG design is admirable for its predictability. Every example I’ve ever handled, shot, or owned has worked without failures of any kind. All I have shot have been very accurate and, as a brand, possibly more so than any other standard production pistol.

When you place the barrel into its seat in the stripped slide, you’ll note that there is NO fore and aft play, indicating that headspace control is very good. Nor is there any play at the muzzle in the bushing area. This means accuracy with a capital “A.”

Trigger pulls are also usually boringly predictable. The first generation guns have a heavier DA first pull then the later ones, by a couple of pounds, but usually the SA release is a crisp four-odd pounds, although I’ve handled a few that exhibited very slight creep.

The SIG pistols have a standard firing pin block drop safety and also an intercept notch on the hammer, along with a rebounding hammer. This last feature is fairly unique among modern offerings and provides two levels of drop safety to prevent accidental discharge.

The single-action trigger’s stroke does have quite a bit of take up, compared to many other designs on the market. The SIG was one of the first pistols on the market that were so-called “point and pull,” meaning there is no manual safety to disengage before firing. The trigger is always live. This is a good thing for a police officer or civilian concealed carry wearer, perhaps not so good for households with untrained children.

The SIG pistol is also fairly thick, most examples exceeding 1.5” through the thickest part of the grips. This makes them more difficult to conceal than most and problematic for inside waistband carry.

In an age of plastic-framed handguns of feathery weight, even an aluminum alloy frame seems clubbish to some. Others take issue with the “two trigger pulls” of traditional DA/SA pistols. I feel that all pistols have their strengths and weaknesses. The SIG carries its relatively high weight well, due to its better than average ergonomics. While I respect the newer generation of pistols embodied by the Glock, because they work well, I am enough of a traditionalist to prefer a bit more heft in my pistol and the steadiness of aim it provides.

The inherent accuracy of the P-220 series means that they are fun to shoot. No handgun is perfect and the first thing I’d like to see is a decrease in the height of the barrel over the action, to reduce the amount of muzzle flip when firing. This would improve control between shots dramatically, especially for calibers larger than 9x19.

I don’t find the current stippled grips nearly as secure to hold as the first generation checkered grips. They are too smooth, especially if one’s hands are sweaty. Admittedly, some shooters prefer smooth grips.

The largely straight trigger bar return spring on the early guns is easily retrofitted with the current and more durable loop type item, but it requires replacement of the original grips for the newer ones. The older right grip panel doesn’t have the proper inletting clearance.

I have seen some cheapening of the SIG pistols in recent years. More MIM parts are being incorporated, including hammers and triggers, and they have always used stamped sheet metal slide stops and decocking levers. None of these things has decreased reliability, however.

They are currently supplied with only one magazine, when they should come with at least two, especially considering for their minimum $1,000 MSRP. Extras magazines cost about $45 MSRP and these are subcontracted to the Italian Mec-Gar firm.

Finally, it would be nice to have the company make small parts more corrosion resistant. Parts such as the barrel, grip screws, slide stop, hammer and trigger are simply hot blue finished. Most of the other players in the market have already done this and it makes good sense for those who carry in humid or coastal areas. While I admire the SIG design, it is nearly 40 years old. It is time for a “P-320” for the 21st Century that incorporates several of these suggestions.

I shot my 9mm P-226 one afternoon in February, during a brief respite from our late winter rainy season. Matter of fact, it was the first time I’d shot it since its purchase some two months ago. Both the Sellier & Bellot 124 grain FMJ and Winchester 127 grain +P+ JHP rounds worked without fail and eight rounds of the latter went into under two inches at 15’ in fairly rapid fire.

The large and somewhat heavy pistol worked well with the light recoil of the 9x19 cartridge and it was gratifying to see those 127's cluster about an inch to the left of point of aim. Incidentally, SIG does not recommend the use of +P+ ammunition. One can use the Speer Gold Dot or Cor-Bon 124+P and the pistol will do the job.

In all my years of being a Troglodyte, resistant to change, I have come to appreciate the overall excellence of SIG-Sauer pistols, more than the products of any other large manufacturer. One would hardly expect anything less coming from an amalgamation of Swiss ingenuity and German manufacturing excellence.

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Copyright 2012, 2016 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.