forum home > articles home

(Note: this article was up to date when written a few years ago, and is still a good reference for SIG Classic models up until 2-3 years ago.  Since then however SIGARMS has introduced many new variations which of course were not covered here.)


The SIG P220 Classic Series

by Mark Freburg

Let's take a brief look at SIG pistols. While SIGARMS offers a number of other pistols, I would guess that the mainstay of their business is still the all-metal P220 series. This includes the P220, P225, P226, P228, P229, P239, and P245.

All of these guns have most features in common. In addition to being made of metal, normally aluminum alloy frames with either carbon steel or stainless steel slides, they all function the same and have the same controls. They are locked breech semi-automatics, feed via either single stack or double stack magazines, and are noted for their reliability and accuracy. Barrel lock-up is achieved via the external square-edge of the chamber mating with the ejection port of the slide. This is a common feature on modern automatic pistols but it was pioneered by SIG-Sauer. Like many aspects of the SIG pistols, the chamber/ejection port locking was probably intended as a cost savings because it meant that no internal lugs and corresponding recesses needed to be milled into the barrel and slide. Pistols that do feature internal locking lugs like the 1911, Hi-Power, and most Smith & Wesson pistols, do tend to have a little slimmer slides than SIGs, Glocks, and others which lock up externally. The early SIGs from the P220 to the P228 had slides formed by stamping heavy sheet steel on a mandrel and then welding on a front and back section. The breech block containing the firing pin is a separate steel piece that is secured to the slide with a roll pin. Later models including the newest P226, P229, and P239 have a traditional milled slide made from one piece of stainless steel. While the stamped slides were strong enough for the .45ACP and 9mm chamberings, SIG went to the one-piece slide when they adopted the very high pressure, larger caliber .40S&W cartridge.

As I said SIG frames are normally aluminum. They do offer the P220 and P229 in all stainless steel "Sport" models intended for the heavy round counts that come with competition. The aluminum frame has a heavy steel cross bar that the barrel cams against to move up and down for locking and unlocking. There is a steel insert in the frame that makes up the feed ramp, so unlike many aluminum-framed pistols, rounds do not slam into aluminum during the feed cycle. The only wear the aluminum frame experiences is the slide moving back and forth, so SIGs are strong, long-lived pistols despite the aluminum frame construction. Yet the aluminum makes them lighter than many of their similarly sized, all-steel competitors.

SIGs are usually traditional double action (or TDA), if I may use a term coined by competitor Smith & Wesson to differentiate between the standard or traditional double action and double action only (DAO). TDA pistols are double action first shot with the subsequent shots single action. DAOs are double action for every shot; the hammer never stays cocked. SIG does offer DAO as an option, but they are not common and mainly ordered by police departments.

Where SIGs are different from the vast majority of TDA pistols is in their decocker, which is located on the frame at the top front of the left side grip panel. This means the decocker falls naturally under the strong thumb of most right-handed shooters. Other TDA pistols almost always have the decocker on the slide where it may or may not be easily accessible depending on the overall shape of the pistol and the size of one's hand. For example, the decocker on S&W autos is fairly comfortable for my hands, while the decocker on Ruger pistols is too high for me to reach comfortably. Still, most all pistols with slide-mounted decockers require the decocker to be moved down to decock and on-safe the pistol, then back upward to fire. This is not really a comfortable motion for the thumb. The SIG on the other hand requires only a slight downward press of the decocker, which returns to the up position automatically. SIG decockers have no safety function, as the whole idea behind a double action semi-auto is identical to that of a double action revolver. The long and heavy trigger pull is all the safety one needs as one is unlikely to trigger a round accidentally via double action.

When the modern SIG is decocked the hammer does not drop to full rest position against the firing pin but instead falls to a safe, intermediate position. In addition, SIGs feature a firing pin block, as do most modern pistols, that prevents movement of the firing pin until the trigger is pulled fully to the rear. This will prevent the possible, if improbable, discharge if the gun is dropped.

SIGs normally come with fixed sights, the front and rear both dovetailed into the slide to allow for windage adjustments. The "Von Stavenhagen" bar-dot pattern is standard, reportedly named after a European target shooter of some repute. This has a white bar centered below the notch of the rear sight and white dot on the front sight. In practice the dot is set upon the bar to align the sights. I find this pattern to be extremely fast and an excellent pattern for a self-defense pistol. Three white dots are optional, as are the Siglite tritium-powered night sights.

Finishes on SIG pistols are normally blued carbon steel or blackened stainless slides with black anodized aluminum frames. A nickel finish is offered on some slides. While I think silver-colored frames are acceptable if it means a frame that resists wear and rust, a silver-slide is usually too reflective. I prefer the all black SIGs. Grips on SIG pistols are normally a slightly resilient synthetic with a stippled finish. Older SIGs came with a checkered plastic grip that some still prefer but I find the modern offering easier to handle. Checkered walnut grips are available from SIGARMS in New Hampshire, and high quality, smooth or checkered grips in different woods can be had from Hogue in California. Hogue offers rubber grips as well.

One of the main complaints by traditional single action (SA) auto shooters, a group of which I've always been a part, is that TDA autos are difficult to shoot because of the transition from the long heavy DA first shot to the short light SA second shot. In the early days of DA autos when the standard example was something like the Walther P38 this was a valid complaint. When Smith & Wesson came out with the Model 39 DA pistol the trigger pull put the P38 and others to shame. Since then the mainstream TDA autos have had increasingly better trigger actions. Depending on brand, some have a longer or shorter stroke, and some have a heavier or lighter pull weight. SIGs tend to have very good triggers with very workable transition between the first double action shot and subsequent single action shots. It is my view that with a little practice the DA to SA transition should not be a concern with SIG pistols. If you like the inherent safety and convenience of an auto pistol carried with a loaded chamber and the hammer down with a long DA pull for the first shot, SIGs deserve a look.

The first SIG in this series, the P220, was originally made in 9mm Parabellum caliber. It was a single stack, full size service pistol designed and intended for European use. When it appeared on American shores in the mid-1970s as a .45ACP it was imported by Browning and sold as the Browning BDA, for Browning Double Action. It did not sell particularly well, but it gained a foothold and after a short time it was being brought in as the SIG-Sauer P220 in calibers .45ACP, 9mmP, and .38 Super. While it had been offered in 7.65mm Luger in Europe, there was no interest in such a gun in the USA. The P220 first came with a heel clip magazine release. While this is a secure system, Americans generally don't like this feature, and the P220 was soon offered with an American-style button magazine release located behind the trigger guard. This is the standard arrangement as found on most pistols today. The heel clip release version is still made and is sold as the European model, while the Browning style release is sold as the American model. Subsequent SIG P220-series models released in the USA all are of the American style.

The P220 continues to be offered in .45ACP and until recently in.38 Super as well. The 9mm chambering was long since discontinued. Normal magazine capacity is seven rounds of .45ACP but there are eight round magazines as well, apparently requested by law enforcement agencies. It seems the seven round mags have the better reputation for reliability. Nominal specs according to SIGARMS show overall length as 7.8", height as 5.6", and width as 1.4". Weight is 30.4 oz including the empty magazine. Barrel length is 4.4". While the P220 is a reasonably compact pistol for a .45, approximating the size and weight of the aluminum-framed Colt Commander, SIG has long offered a smaller pistol in 9mmP, the P225.

The P225 is a compact, single stack, eight round 9mm. It is the most widely used police sidearm in Europe, although it has never been a popular police gun in the USA. In size it is similar to the S&W Model 39, and people who like the feel of the 39 usually like the feel of the P225 as well. Although I have not seen it announced anywhere, it seems that the P225 is soon to be discontinued at least in the USA in favor of the new SIG P239, which we'll address shortly. Length of the P225 is 7.1", height is 5.2", and width is 1.3". Weight with empty mag is 28.6oz. The barrel is 3.9" long.

To address the desire from law enforcement for a higher capacity 9mm pistol, SIG reworked the P220 and came up with the P226. The P226 is the same size as the P220 but uses a double column magazine holding 15 rounds of 9mm. Of course these days citizens in the USA and Canada are only trusted with ten round magazines. That limitation saw the P226 temporarily removed from sale a couple years ago. SIG spent their time reworking the P226 to offer it in .40S&W caliber. The biggest change is that the .40S&W slide is now one piece of machined stainless steel rather than stamped and welded carbon steel. Specs on the P226 are OAL, 7.7"; height, 5.5"; and width, 1.5". Weight is 31.7 to 34oz between the original stamped slide 9mm and the later stainless slide .40/.357SIG. Barrels are 4.4" as on the P220.

While the P226 has had a successful law enforcement career and was the co-winner of the US military pistol trials that saw the Beretta M92 chosen based on price, SIG did not rest there. The next pistol to arrive was a compact version of the P226, known as the P228. The P228 is shorter in both directions. Length was reduced to 7.1", height to 5.4", while width remained 1.5". Magazine capacity was reduced to 13, although citizen purchases come with mags holding 10. The P228 is lighter than the P226 at 29.2oz empty. Barrel length is 3.9", same as on the P225. The P228 was adopted by the U.S. Army as the M11, an alternate choice for carry by female MPs, plainclothes investigators and others requiring a more compact pistol than the Beretta M9 (Model 92F).

Permit me to editorialize by saying that adopting the Beretta AND the SIG was a blunder. Instead of having two pistols sharing many parts, the military complicated logistics by choosing two pistols that share no commonality whatsoever other than ammunition. One would hate to be a quartermaster in the U.S. Army. The most ironic aspect of this blunder was that the P226 and P228 would have been the perfect compliment to each other. If the Beretta were preferred, the M92 could have been supplemented by one of the various Beretta 92 compacts now available, whether in double stack or single stack, with shorter butt and barrel. The decision as it was made is a waste of tax dollars.

Shortly after the military adopted the P228, SIG decided to chamber the same basic pistol in .40S&W. The stamped slide was replaced by a stainless slide and the model designated the P229. The P229 actually appeared before the P226 was reworked to handle the same chambering. For a time the P228 and P229 co-existed, but eventually SIG chose to offer the P229 in not only .40S&W and .357SIG, but also 9mm. For all practical purposes the P228 has been discontinued for civilian sales, and is made only for the military. As I write this in November 2000, P228s are still available in the distributor's supply lines and are going for bargain prices, but I don't expect this to last.

The P229 shares identical specs with the P228 (OAL 7.1", height 5.4", width 1.5", barrel 3.9") except for weight, which because of the slide construction is greater at 32.2oz to 32.4oz., depending on caliber.

The next SIG pistol appeared in the mid-1990s. It was called the P239, and initially was offered in only 9mm caliber. Designed as a personal-sized pistol for the growing concealed carry market in the USA, the P239 is a single stack pistol holding nine (8+1) rounds of 9mm. It is slightly smaller than the previous P225 at 6.6" in length, 5.1" in height, and 1.2" in width. Barrel length is 3.6" and weight is 27.5oz. The P239 has a remarkably slim grip that should fit small-handed people very well, and yet my hands, which take a man's size large glove, find it comfortable as well. Shortly after the introduction of the 9mm the P239 was also released in .40S&W and .357SIG. Specs changed ever so slightly as the slide was beefed up to handle the new chamberings. Externally the height went from 5.1" to 5.2", and the weight to 29.8oz. Capacity of the P239 in .40 and .357 is eight (7+1)rather than nine rounds.

As I mentioned earlier, it appears that the P239 will supplant the P225 in the SIG line-up, for a number of reasons. First, the P239 is almost entirely made in the Exeter, New Hampshire plant of SIGARMS, rather than at the Sauer factory in Germany. This means that the price on the P239 is much less because the exchange rates between the German Mark and U.S. Dollar do not have to be addressed, and it is competitive with other lower-priced offerings from other makers. This even though the P239 uses the one piece machined stainless steel slide, while the P225 relies on the older stamped slide. While my personal opinion is that the P225 is a wonderful pistol, the P239 will do everything the P225 will do and will do it a little better. The fact that the slightly smaller P239 can be had in harder hitting calibers than the P225 is icing on the cake. I look for the P225 to be dropped at least in the USA, and as I write this P225s are being sold new for far less than they have sold for in the past.

The last pistol of the all-metal P220 series is the compact P245 in .45ACP. For years fans of the P220 waited the same chambering in a P225 size pistol. They didn't get exactly that, but the P245 is similar. Built just like the P220, the P245 is different only in size. Specs show OAL at 7.1", height as 5", and width as 1.3". Weight is about 29oz.; again I have conflicting reports in front of me as I type this. Magazine capacity of the P245 is six rounds. In my hand, the P245 feels too short in the grip. Many people will have difficulty getting more than two fingers around the grip. This is even more pronounced than with the little P239. My opinion is that the slimmer P239 in an 8+1 .40S&W is probably a little better choice than the P245 in a 6+1 .45ACP, especially since the P220 is not that much bigger than the P245 and holds one or two more rounds. Nevertheless, the P245 will appeal to the hard core .45 auto fans who are just not gong to feel comforted unless they can carry a .45. I certainly understand that feeling!

Other minimal differences exist between models in the SIG line. The P220, P225, P226 and P245 have the hook at the front of the triggerguard for the finger forward hold that was so popular twenty years ago. The P228, P229, and P239 have a more rounded trigger guard keeping with modern appearances. The P225 never came with the more recent stippled grip, and the P220 only recently was changed to this grip. The others mainly have the new grip panels exclusively. Later SIG pistols have a rounded hammer spur less likely to bite or poke than the sharp ended spur of earlier models. The new style has been redesigned into all models. The latest triggers have a shorter reach than earlier triggers as well. Lastly, the earlier SIG P220 hammers would only engage the safer half-cock position when using the decocker. Users who lowered the hammer by hand--never a good idea!--could circumvent that and lower the hammer to full rest. SIG redesigned the workings to prevent this no matter how the hammer is lowered. Still, one should use the excellent decocker provided. At the same time the P220 frame was strengthened to better handle +P (higher pressure) ammunition.

I have owned and shot handguns for twenty-some years. Even though I fired my first SIG around 1982 or 1983, I wasn't greatly impressed. (What did I know.) That has changed. Today I think the SIGs are about the best thing available in a TDA automatic. The only downside to SIG pistols is that they are expensive, even in this day when all guns are fairly expensive. Still, you get what you pay for, and as long as you choose carefully in terms of size and caliber to meet your needs and desires, I think the SIG P220 series of pistols will provide everything you might desire and more. Give them a look.

copyright 2003 by the author, all rights reserved.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004