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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.

More Than A .45

The single-stack 9mm version of the P220, of course, won the title of official Swiss military sidearm. Oddly enough, Japan adopted the exact same gun in that caliber, too, as a military pistol.

I’m told that a handful of these pistols have also been produced in .30 Luger. Never saw one, though, and Sig Sauer couldn’t find me a 7.63mm Luger barrel for a P220 when I tried to get one.

The Browning BDA was produced in .38 Super…for only a few hundred units, I’m told. It was the first accurate factory-produced .38 Super, because it was the first to headspace on the case mouth as is customary for autopistol cartridges, instead of on the “semi-rim” with which that cartridge was designed, and for which it was headspaced, circa 1929. Today, all .38 Supers are made that way. Some American style P220s were subsequently produced for the Super round, and were reportedly tested by U.S. Secret Service, but this caliber just never caught on in this particular gun.

Once the P220 came out with a stainless steel frame as the P220 ST, it was obvious it was going to be able to withstand hotter loads. There are Sig Sauer fans, and there are 10mm fans…and, inevitably, there was some crossover between the two. At the spirited shooting forum sigforum.com, demand arose for a P220 ST chambered for the potent 10mm. It has been answered by Bruce Gray of GrayGuns (grayguns.com). I first got to know Bruce when he and I shot together on the “pro tour” with the Heckler & Koch factory team under John Bressem. A fine man, and a very skilled shooter and instructor, Bruce is also one of the top pistolsmiths around for Sig Sauers. At this writing, Bruce is taking orders for a limited number of custom Sig Sauer P220 ST pistols that will leave GrayGuns chambered for full power 10mm.

Finally, Sig Sauer itself offers a .22 LR conversion kit for the P220. I ordered one as soon as I saw it, and am glad I did. I have been extremely pleased with its reliability and accuracy.

All that said, though, the SIG P220 is seen primarily in the United States as a .45 ACP. Of the many law enforcement agencies that adopted it or approved it over the years, while a great many issued (and many still issue) the P220 in .45 ACP, I don’t know of a single one that has issued it as a required duty pistol in any other caliber.

P220 Reliability

Two questions tend to come up in regard to any defense/service pistol that fires the .45 ACP. One is, “Will it feed every conceivable .45 ACP hollow point round?” The other is, “Is it rated for Plus P ammunition?”

I found over the years that about the only JHP load the Sig Sauer .45 wouldn’t run just fine with was the old 200-grain Speer load, known as the “Inspector” back in the day. Its nose cavity yawned so wide that gun writer and reloading expert Dean Grennell famously nicknamed it “the flying ashtray.” Exacerbating the problem was that the short, wide bullet made for a short, relatively wide cartridge, in terms of overall dimensions.

Even so, in all the P220s I shot, that load would only jam when you were reloading from slide-lock. The topmost cartridge – not always, but now and then – would catch on the feedway. I found that if I inserted a magazine with the slide closed, then racked the slide to chamber that topmost round, it would go into the chamber just fine. I’d then withdraw the magazine and top it off. The gun would then fire all eight rounds with perfect reliability. (Remember, we only had 7-round magazines for these guns back then.) Since that Speer load was “the hot setup” back in the 80s, I carried it loaded with that ammunition with perfect confidence and then simply used a different JHP round in the backup magazines.

The P220 magazines evolved over the years, going through at least four generations. First came was the smooth-front magazine, needing no cutouts for a side release since it was the catch at the heel of the butt, which held it in place. The next evolution was the first magazine for the P220 American. It had notches on both sides along its front edge (to allow for the magazine release catch being reversed for southpaws). This P220 American magazine would work just fine in a BDA or P220 European pistol with the butt catch, but not vice versa, since the earlier magazines had no notches with which to engage the internal portion of the P220 American’s side-button magazine release.

The next generation had a different follower to bring the 7-round capacity up to 8 cartridges, and was known among Sig Sauer fans as the DPS magazine because it was created for the Texas Department of Public Safety when that agency adopted the P220 .45 as standard issue. You can’t fool Mother Nature: I found it very difficult to get the eighth round into a DPS magazine, and a nightmare to get it back out without the amateur’s resort of hand-cycling the live cartridges through the pistol’s action. The cramped stack of cartridges also eliminated the last bit of flexibility inside the magazine, and you practically had to hammer a full DPS magazine into a P220’s butt to get it seated. Sig Sauer quickly realized that this was unacceptable, and evolved the current magazine, lengthened with a protuberance that doubled as extra space inside and a bumper pad outside, as its floorplate. This accommodated the eighth round very comfortably, and is my choice today in any American style P220. It won’t work with the old BDA or P220-E pistols, though, because the magazine extends down below the locking point of those old guns’ butt-mounted magazine catches.

Where It Counts

All who’ve seriously tested the P220 .45 have come away with an extremely positive impression of its inherent accuracy. I’ve found several 4.4-inch and 5-inch P220s that would put five shots in an inch or slightly less at 25 yards from a solid bench rest. Usually, those groups were accomplished with 185-grain Federal JHP, a load that used to be marked “Match Hollow Point” on the package, for very good reason. I’ve seen one P220 SAO break that magic inch at 25 yards with generic 230-grain hardball.

The P220 is a shootable, ergonomic pistol. It has no sharp edges to bite the hand. A few years ago, if for no other reason than to prove it could be done, National IDPA Stock Service Pistol Champion Ernest Langdon shot a National event with a Sig Sauer P220, firing double-action every first shot, in the Custom Defense Pistol division against all the easy-trigger 1911 pistols. Darned if he didn’t win that national championship with the P220, too.

Life Lessons

Properly executed, a combat match is a microcosmic test of street survival abilities. When those situations have come up in the real world, the Sig Sauer P220 has likewise acquitted itself well. With swift, sure handling, a high order of reliability, and accuracy-delivering ergonomics, the P220 has saved many a good guy’s – and gal’s – lives.

One of our graduates in California was a police officer who was sucker punched by a burglary suspect. She fell to a sitting position, and saw the man reaching for a 9mm in his waistband. Recently trained to fire from awkward positions, she cleared her P220 from its duty holster and, before he could shoot her, center-punched him with a 230-grain hollow point. He collapsed, and died — she survived with a broken nose.

Another officer was stepping out of his patrol car when a suspect swung a semi-automatic rifle up at him. Ducking for cover, the lawman fired from a bent-over position with his P220 horizontal to the ground. No matter: its fire went true to the center of the gunman’s torso. The perp was down and done, and the officer survived unscathed.

In Florida, a friend of mine who is a K9 officer cornered an armed man who decided to shoot it out. The lighting conditions were poor, but the natural pointing characteristics of his P220 paid off, and my friend killed the assailant before the man could shoot him.

Private citizens have likewise used the Sig Sauer P220 to good effect. A powerful, enraged man in Louisiana overpowered a police officer and was in the act of taking his service pistol, with the obvious intent of murdering him with it. An armed citizen intervened, drawing his P220 .45 and killing the madman with accurate fire from his Sig Sauer, saving the officer’s life. In New Hampshire, a citizen saw a man shoot a local police officer in the back. The citizen grabbed the officer’s P220 .45, and shot and killed the suspect. The officer’s wounds proved to be unsurvivable, but the private citizen’s ability to use the officer’s P220 .45 effectively took a cop-killer permanently off the street, only moments after his murderous act.

Final Notes

have lately gone toward polymer pistols in both the law enforcement sector and the world of the law-abiding armed citizen, and even Sig Sauer is aggressively marketing its own ingenious polymer handgun, the P250. Nonetheless, the Sig Sauer P220 .45 is present in several forms on their website and in their catalog. A great many law enforcement officers still carry it by choice, as do many private citizens.

Tastes and trends change. But when something works well for its intended task…well, that just never changes. Find out more by visiting sigsauer.com or calling 603-772-2302.

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