Long-Term Observations & Short-Term Hopes: SIG-Sauer P220

In 1975 the 9mm P220 was adopted by the Swiss military, replacing the legendary SIG P210. A year later, it was brought out in .45 ACP, presumably for sales in the western hemisphere where this caliber enjoys continuing long-term popularity, and was imported as the “Browning BDA” early on.  Over the years, this single-stack design has undergone several design changes as has the rest of SIG-Sauer’s line of pistols. The original pistol had the magazine catch at the bottom rear of the magazine well. The “P220 American” transformed it into button form and relocated it at the rear of the trigger guard just like the 1911, Hi Power, and many other semiautos.  The folded-and-stamped slide was replaced with a machined one and the extractor has gone from internal to external. Blued slides, prone to corrosion, have gone the way of the goose.  Current P220’s enjoy corrosion-resistant stainless-steel slides along with Nitron finishes. The original P220’s front sight was integral to the slide.  For years now, both the front and rear sights are attached via the familiar dovetail.  There have been internal changes to the action as well as the magazine and this model is available in several variations, not just the traditional DA/SA. It can be had with the incredibly smooth DAK action (Double-Action-Kellerman), one of the very best double-action-only designs that I’ve ever shot, or in single-action-only, complete with thumb safety. This pistol has been offered with stainless steel frames rather than the traditional aluminum and now sports the seemingly mandatory integral accessory rail on the dust cover. It can be had in barrel lengths longer and shorter than the tradition 4.4” length, depending on the version.  Some variations of the P220 theme include adjustable sights from the factory, but I suspect that most folks will opt for this pistol with fixed sights.

As might be expected, each P220 alteration has garnered both accolades and damnation from the shooting community.  Some users embraced these changes as refinements to a grand design while others saw them as sacrificing quality on the altar of cost-cutting.

The focus of this article will be to report personal observations of the continued performance of a 1991-vintage P220 that I bought NIB in 1992 and have shot off since that time. During my years as a police firearm instructor, I’ve seen quite a few of these things on various police ranges.  I have shot a few of the newer P220’s (two traditional DA/SA and two with DAK), but none repeatedly over a period spanning nearly two decades as with the ’91 pistol.   Still, perhaps at least some useful comparisons can be made with a NIB P220 I recently purchased.  I will seek to be objective, noting subjective observations as such.  There will be no silly and derogatory terms like “fan boys” or “Kool-Aid”.  Rather than the “in-your-face” approach to “discussions”, this article will seek to convey my perceptions of this pistol in a straight-forward, adult manner.

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On the left is my ’91 P220 as it came from the factory.  The front grip strap is not stippled; I stuck a piece of anti-skid tape on it.  The cartridges visible in the spare 7-shot magazine are the now-discontinued 200-gr. Speer JHP’s as loaded by Corbon.  These +P loads averaged 975 ft/sec from this pistol and functioned flawlessly in it. On the right is the old P220 as it is today.  The stocks are checkered Pau Ferro from Hogue. Anti-skid tape is still on the front grip strap.  Ammunition in this picture is Winchester’s 230-gr. “Subsonic” JHP which averages an extremely consistent 845 ft/sec over the chronograph from this pistol.

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Here is the P220 as currently produced.  It is actually the P220R, “R” designating the accessory rail visible on the dust cover. Rails of this sort are common these days. It has an external extractor and came with thinner profile textured polymer grips. As with the older P220, the frame is anodized black but the slide is finished in corrosion-proof Nitron compared to the matte blue on the ’91 pistol. The older gun had standard fixed sights (vertical bar on rear with white dot on front).  The new one has conventional three-dot night sights and came from the box with thinner textured grip panels than in years past. I really appreciate the vertical serrations on the front grip strap and wish that my ’91 P220 had them as well.

Reliability: With but one exception, my old P220 never missed a lick, as in zero malfunctions with any handload or factory round fed it. The exception is the handloaded cartridges using 200-gr. cast SWC bullets based on the old Hensley & Gibbs’ No. 68.  With those, this pistol was reliably unreliable if more than five rounds were loaded in the magazine.  With five or less, it fed and functioned just fine.  Frankly, I do not hold that against this pistol in the least.  The H&G No. 68 was enormously popular with handloaders in its day and was designed for 1911-pattern pistols.  Though it would be nice if it did, I do not consider it a sign of “unreliability” that my P220 didn’t feed flawlessly using bullets created before it even existed!  This pistol came with the then-standard 7-shot magazines having steel floor plates and the “dimpled” steel follower.  I estimate that it has fired between 2800 and 3000 full-power rounds. My new P220 has fired slightly less than 500 rounds, but in this count are FMJ, JHP’s of both standard and +P ratings, as well as handloaded cartridges using H&G 200-gr. CSWC bullets, which work just fine in it…at least so far.  (I’ve not yet checked to see if this is solely due to the newer magazine design, but will.)

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Both of my P220’s have functioned flawlessly with a wide variety of factory ammunition including that shown above.  From left to right: Federal Classic 185-gr. JHP, Corbon 185-gr. DPX +P, Corbon 200-gr. JHP +P (discontinued load), Federal 230-gr. Hydrashok (old style), Winchester 230-gr. “Subsonic” JHP, Federal Classic 230-gr. JHP, Remington 230-gr. Golden Saber, Winchester Ranger 230-gr. SXT, and Remington 230-gr. FMJ.

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Left: The flat steel “dimpled” follower in this 7-shot P220 factory magazine were the type that came with my 1991-manufactured pistol.  They have proven both reliable and durable.  They do “positively” hold cartridges, but the dimple does make it difficult to “thumb” rounds from the magazine. Right: Here we see a current stainless steel 8-shot P220 magazine, which uses a plastic follower.  Notice the indention above the “2”. (There is another on the other side of the magazine.) It helps hold the top cartridge in position, providing the same function as the dimple on the older steel follower design.  Holding the cartridge fully rearward helps insure reliable function as well as allowing the magazine to drop free if this is desired while rounds are still in the magazine, as in the case of a “tactical reload”. The newer magazines can be more easily unloaded by hand.

Though I have yet to experience a malfunction with any factory ammunition in either of my P220’s, problems with some lots of Remington 230-gr. Golden Sabers in some SIG-Sauer factory 8-shot magazines have been reported.

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(Left)It appears that the Golden Saber’s wide ogive and LOA can sometimes contact the rounded front of SIG-Sauer factory 8-shot magazines, which can result in a stoppage. This is shown in the photograph above, but was done by hand.  During the firing process, using cartriges bearing the same lot number in this and other magazines, no binding occurred. LOA for the Golden Saber is not excessive, usually measuring approximately 1.235”, well below the maximum length of 1.275”. (Right) Here we see relatively blunt Remington 230-gr. Golden Saber next to a handloaded cast 200-gr. SWC based on the H&G No. 68 design.  LOA on this one is 1.25”.  This bullet was never intended for use in the P220. It was designed for Mr. Browning’s 1911-style pistol and may or may not function in the P220.

I have noted no excessive wear to either pistol’s full-length guide rails and the close fit between them and the slide have yielded no reliability issues.  I have not run any “torture tests” on the P220, but have purposely neither cleaned nor oiled  one until 700 rounds were fired.  Function was perfect and figuring that I’d surely have time to clean and lube a pistol after a 700-shot gunfight, I broke down and did so.  Would it have gone longer and for more shots without doing so?  Yes, I do believe so, but saw no point in it; still don’t.

Production Differences: Typical for its era, my 1991 P220 sports a stamped, folded slide with pinned breech block, internal extractor and the “pointy” spur hammer without the reset common to later P220’s.

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In the picture on the left, the hammer is all the way forward as it would be at the instant the hammer strikes the firing pin. If the trigger is pulled on an empty chamber and then released, the hammer does not reset, i.e.; it does not move slightly rearward. On the right is the same hammer positioned at the safety intercept (“half-cock notch”) as it would be when safely dropped using the pistol’s decocking lever.

The older P220’s trigger face is grooved and slightly narrower than current ones.  I find its profile more “graceful” than the new one, but that is purely subjective.  As far as I know, there are no cast or MIM parts on this pistol.  This one was built before P220 frames were slightly strengthened for regular use with +P ammunition. From what I have read, this change took place at serial number G219166 circa 1994.

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On the left is the 1991 P220’s grooved trigger compared to the current smooth version on the right. I think that the old one looks better, but prefer the feel of the smooth trigger, which does appear to be of MIM construction.

The breech block attached to the slide in older P220’s via double roll pins should be checked to be sure that no play exists between it and the slide. If play does exist, reliability can be adversely affected and this condition can reportedly cause the frame to crack. The solution is simply to replace the double roll pins securing the breech block to the slide, which is neither difficult nor expensive and should be done whenever any looseness between the breech block and slide is detected or about every five-thousand shots.

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This pistol came with the heavy-duty braided recoil-spring identified as such by green paint and the recoil spring guide rod is steel.  It is a conventional spring and reportedly rated at 20-lbs.  Using this spring in my older P220, function has been fine with all factory standard pressure or +P rounds. My new P220 also came with the “green spring” but has a plastic guide rod. Though I have fired a few hundred +P rounds through my older P220, the vast majority have been standard pressure…as is the case in all of my .45 ACP pistols. Though I have only fired a few hundred rounds through the newer P220, its plastic guide rod does not show wear. The traditionalist in me prefers the steel guide rod, but I honestly have noted no problems with the plastic one so far.

The older P220 is equipped with an internal extractor; the newer one’s is external.  Both have performed perfectly and without fail.  I believe that replacing a worn or damaged extractor would be easier with the external version.

Both P220’s have anodized aluminum frames, but I prefer the newer pistol’s corrosion-resistant Nitron finish on the slide to the older pistol’s matte blue.

The textured, thin grip panels supplied on the new pistol provide slightly more traction to my grip than the slightly thicker ones on my older pistol, though I think they actually feel more comfortable, but that is completely subjective.

Mechanical Accuracy: I am not the first to note that with most ammunition, P220’s are capable of exceptionally tight groups compared to other service sidearms. Some scoff at this point, suggesting that such accuracy is not necessary for either combat or defensive work, but I respectfully disagree. Since the pistol’s inherent accuracy potential does not appear to come at the cost of reliability, I welcome it. I like the idea of a pistol capable of dropping bullets closer rather than farther from POA should I have to make a statistically unlikely defensive shot at greater-than-normal distance or have but a tiny portion of my opponent visible from behind cover.

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These targets were shot from a standing position and using a two-hand hold. The DA target was done entirely in double-action. I simply decocked the hammer between each shot. These were fired with the ’91 P220.

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Both of these 25-yard groups were fired using only single-action. I shot the target on the left while seated and with my wrists resting on sandbags. The group at the right was fired from a standing position and using an unsupported two-hand hold with the older P220. POA is at the 6 o’clock position.

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Using my new P220, the group at the left was fired using DA for the first shot and single-action for subsequent shots from each of the two magazines fired. The 25-yard group on the right was fired using single-action only, with a two-hand hold from a seated position and bracing my wrists with sandbags. POA is at the 6 o’clock position as with the older pistol. In this pistol, the night sights appear to be sighted in for a “dead on” hold.

All of the groups shown were done in slow-fire, my goal being to demonstrate that the pistol is mechanically capable of more than “adequate” accuracy.  How well it can be handled at speed in more realistic “practical shooting” exercises depends upon a particular person’s training, reflexes and skill level.  That said; I do not find the 45-caliber P220 a difficult pistol to shoot at speed.   I am not particularly fast, but can repeatedly draw from a strong-side OWB holder and fire a double-action shot into the upper center-chest area of a man-sized silhouette target. I have used the P220 (starting with a DA first-shot) and passed Jim Higginbotham’s “Standard Controllability” test.  Using a two-hand hold and starting from the low ready, one must keep 5 shots on a rectangular 5 ˝” wide x 11 ˝” tall target, i.e.; a folded piece of typing paper at 5 yards’ distance and in no more than 2 seconds total, albeit barely so sometimes! I’ve seen others using the P220 repeatedly perform this and similar drills considerably faster than I can, which convinced me long ago that the P220 design can be very effectively handled at speed by people willing to put forth the effort…as is the case in competently using any firearm in my opinion.

Other Observations, Comparisons and Preferences: Current P220s have machined slides, dispensing with roll-pinned breech block, as well as the additional aluminum alloy for the accessory rail on the frame.  According to SIG-Sauer, these pistols weigh 30.4 oz with an empty magazine in place. The 1991 P220 tips the scales at 28.1 oz, or 2.3 ounces less and some shooters describe newer P220’s as feeling top-heavy.  Even handling side-by-side, I just do not feel this difference, but evidently others do.  Is this a potential problem? For me, it is not, but just as felt recoil can be very subjective, so is “feel” and something individual shooters will have to determine for themselves.

SIG-Sauer’s specifications describe trigger-pulls of 10 and 4.4 pounds for double and single-action, respectively.  My ’91 P220’s double-action trigger-pull measured a smooth and consistent 10 pounds. Single-action repeatedly dropped the hammer at precisely 5 pounds with a crisp, clean break. The new P220R’s yielded a double-action pull of 11 Ľ pounds and 5 pounds in single-action.  The single-action break has some “grittiness” to it. I expect that it will smooth out with use, but right now, the older P220’s single-action pull is better.  A faint vertical seam or line is visible on the rear of the newer P220’s hammer, indicating that it is of MIM construction.  The more pointed spur hammer on the ’91 pistol is machined. Does the use of MIM parts explain the grittier trigger-pull on the new P220 or will this smooth out with use…or is it just a very slightly flawed trigger-pull in this individual pistol?  Time and rounds downrange will tell. My guess is that with use, the single-action pull will smooth itself a bit.  We’ll see.  I do not find either trigger conducive to “staging” the double-action pull as can be done with many S&W DA revolvers and note slight “stacking” toward the end of the pull.  I do not find the DA trigger-pull on either of my DA/SA P220’s as user friendly as with the DAK version.  If a person cannot tolerate Condition One Carry due to regulations or personal concerns, but desires a defensive arm having a solitary trigger-pull, I (strongly) suggest looking into SIG-Sauer’s DAK-equipped pistols.

Felt-recoil is subjective.  Individual shooters experience and describe it differently.  My impression of recoil with these P220’s is that either is quite controllable for an aluminum-frame 45-caliber pistol. I do not find them any more uncomfortable to shoot than my well-used Colt Commander, which tips the scales at about 26.5 to 27 ounces, depending upon what stocks are on it. I think I experience slightly more muzzle rise or “flip” with the P220’s, but have yet to find a way to accurately measure this.  Using an electronic timer, split times remain essentially the same between the two so for me, the P220’s slightly higher bore axis means little if anything in real-world performance.  It does seem less streamlined or “taller” in hand than my 1911-pattern pistols and has approximately 2/10” higher bore axis. Firing both against an electronic timer yields pretty much equivalent results in my hands; on one run, the Colt wins and on the next, the SIG-Sauer. A more skilled shooter might very well have different results.  I prefer the “feel” of the 1911, but that could be because I’ve shot the things for four decades now, side-by-side with my Hi Powers.  To me, the all-steel, full-size 5” 1911 style of handgun remains the standard by which to compare any 45 auto’s “shootability”.

Other than the newer P220’s tritium night sights obviously being easy to see in dim light, I do not find either them or the older gun’s to be better.  Both offer a very useable sight picture for either precision slow-fire work or find-in-a-hurry-and-shoot training.

I plan to keep and use both of these P220’s.  At the current time, if a person inquires about DA/SA autoloaders in .45 ACP, I will be suggesting that they take a long hard look at the SIG-Sauer P220 and its variants.  I trust either of mine for the serious business of self-protection.  As time progresses and more rounds are sent downrange, I’ll report any significant problems if any develop with either of these pistols.


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