Introduced in 1976 as a single-stack 9mm with a butt heel magazine release, the Sig Sauer P220 was quickly adopted as the standard service pistol of Switzerland. There was, of course, a home court advantage: SIG stands for Schweizerische Industrie Gesselschaft, which in direct translation from German means Swiss Industrial Company.

The P220 was designed by SIG in Switzerland, and manufactured by Sauer of Germany. With its long history of peaceful neutrality secured by a citizenry heavily armed by its Government, Switzerland has a similarly long history of choosing particularly fine small arms.

Within a year, Browning had contracted with SIG to build this pistol in more powerful chambering, branding it as the Browning BDA, which redundantly stood for Browning Double Action. Where the BDA captured interest stateside was with the .45 ACP version. Over the years, a handful of cops had been permitted to carry cocked and locked 1911 .45 autos, but most chiefs (and a good number of handgun-owning citizens) were horrified at the concept of a duty handgun carried visibly cocked in its holster. The BDA of course lived up to its name: It was a double-action design, meaning that the hammer could be down at rest in the officer’s exposed holster, like the service revolver it replaced. That put some fears “at rest,” too. The BDA was approved by forward-thinking police departments such as that of Huntington Beach, California. Double-action S&W .45 autos, starting with the Model 645, were still years away, as was the Glock, whose G21 in the same caliber would not appear until 1990. The success of the SIG-made double-action .45 very likely hastened the introduction of that first S&W .45 autopistol. Thus, one can honestly suggest that the SIG P220/Browning BDA was the pistol that made the .45 ACP generally acceptable in mainstream American law enforcement.

Browning’s customer base had been accustomed to finely polished blue steel and handsome checkered walnut; the flatter, grayer finish and plastic grip panels of this European-made service pistol apparently caused a mass outbreak of cognitive dissonance among Browning’s fan base, which ignored the BDA in droves. SIG responded with a corporate shrug, returned the name Sig Sauer P220 to the pistol, and continued to market it, under its own name.

American Changes

In both police and private citizen circles, the desirability and therefore the popularity of the P220 were greatly enhanced by SIG’s introduction of what was then called the P220 American, in the early 1980s. The key change was replacing what was perceived as an “old fashioned, European style” butt-heel magazine release with one more in keeping with Yankee tastes: a push button located behind the trigger on the left side of the frame, exactly where had been on the 1911 since, well, at least 1911. (And on the German Luger pistol before that.)

At the same time, SIG changed the grip configuration of the P220. The result was a little bit fuller grasp, with a curve that descended outward on the lower rear edge. As an analogy, consider the original slim-handled P220 with the butt heel release as comparable to the original 1911 pistol, with its flat mainspring housing, and the more curving back of the P220 American as the analog to the arched mainspring housing of a 1911-A1. In any case, this redesign kicked popularity of the P220 .45 into high gear.

Over the years, the P220 design slowly, incrementally matured. Some subtle changes were made in the 1990s to the fire control system. The company switched from hollow pins and folded metal slides to solid pins and milled steel slides. It took them until the 1990s, but they finally figured out that the magazine release springs on the P220 American were a little light, and prone to accidental dropping. The sharply pointed hammer spur of the early P220, which could dig mercilessly into “muffin tops” when the gun was holstered tight to the waist, gave way to a gentler, rounded profile.

In the late 1990s and even more in the 2000, SIG experimented with expanding the line. There were short barrel versions, the P245 and the P220 Carry. There were 5-inch “longslides.” (Yeah, I know…but since the P220’s traditional barrel length has been 4.4 inches since its inception, for that gun a 5-inch barrel does make it a longslide.)

The P220 has been produced on special order with a magazine disconnector safety, not a standard item on Sig Sauers by any means.

Midway through the first decade of the 20th century, the firm debuted the P220 SAO. Yep, you read it correctly: SAO, as in Single Action Only. It was the first P220 to be so configured, and also the only one to be commercially offered with a manual thumb safety. This pistol’s is ambidextrous and frame mounted, pressed down for “fire” and up for “safe.” On two out of three, I found it stiff to on-safe left-handed, but for off-safe on either side and for on-safe with the right thumb, they always seemed perfectly adjusted. I thought these were neat pistols, and bought more than one of them. Because of the big triggerguard, it was one single-action auto I found particularly comfortable with in winter with heavy gloves on. A gun-wise friend who works as an appellate attorney in New Mexico has one of these, and it has become a staple in his “concealed carry rotation.”

A big advance was the P220 ST, introduced early in the 20th Century. Shortly before the turn of that century, Sig Sauer had produced the all-steel P220 Sport with a 5.5-inch barrel. It shot sweet, but just seemed to be too big. The market was much more receptive to the P220, which had the conventional service pistol’s 4.4-inch barrel length. Its solid steel frame wasn’t any big deal to those of us who’d grown up carrying all-steel 5-inch 1911s, and it had the added advantage of being railed for light/laser attachments.

The weight of the P220 ST dampened muzzle jump. It also made the gun rugged enough that Sig Sauer was finally comfortable approving it for +P .45 ACP ammunition, something I don’t believe they ever did for the aluminum frame P220s.

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