For many years now, the primary handgun defending America’s first family has been the Sig Sauer P229, chambered for .357 Sig. It replaced a similar Sig Sauer, the P228 9mm. With access to top authorities on wound ballistics, including the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the U.S. Secret Service had opted to load its 9mms with 115-grain jacketed hollow point bullets at +P+ pressure, for a muzzle velocity of roughly 1,300 feet per second (fps). The .357 Sig cartridge, with a 125-grain bullet loaded to the 1,350 to 1,375 fps velocity range, offered them more of a good thing.
It is my understanding that the compact P229 is the standard for the plainclothes personnel assigned to the Secret Service’s presidential detail. However, the Secret Service also has a uniformed arm. Recently, while teaching a continuing legal education course in Seattle, I found myself in the same hotel in which members of the uniformed unit were staying (President Obama was in the city campaigning). I noticed that they were carrying in their uniform holsters full-size Sig Sauer P226 pistols. The agents told me that their guns were indeed chambered for .357 Sig and loaded with the same Speer Gold Dot bonded, jacketed hollow point ammunition used by the Presidential detail.
The Sig Sauer P229 .357 Sig doesn’t just stand guard for those living under the umbrella of Secret Service protection. If you fly on commercial aircraft in the United States, it stands guard over you, too. The Federal Air Marshal Service also uses the P229 in this caliber. So happy were the air marshals with the .357 Sig that they decided recently to re-arm with new P229 .357 Sigs identical to their old ones. Like the Secret Service, they, too, had used the P228 9mm before adopting the .357 Sig P229; the marshals even use the same brand and bullet weight of .357 Sig ammunition:
the Speer Gold Dot 125-grain.
The Sig Sauer P229 has been with us for roughly two decades. It was announced in 1992, having been deliberately engineered by Sig Sauer as an upgraded P228/P229 platform built to withstand the much more violent recoil and slide velocity of the .40 S&W cartridge, which had been introduced two years before and was already rocketing in popularity within U.S. law enforcement circles. When the P229 was introduced, my old friend Walt Rauch wrote it up in the February 2004 issue of Combat Handguns magazine. Rauch, a highly respected firearms and tactics expert, described the P229’s construction thus: “The Sig Sauer P229 is one of the compact versions of the Sig Sauer P226 with one major change from its close relatives, the P225 and P228. The P229 slide is machined from a billet of stainless steel and then blackened to match the frame. The others use slides formed from stamped steel with a steel breechblock pinned into the frame.”
The P229 was quickly appreciated for its sturdiness and for its size: substantial enough for use in the duty holster, yet compact enough for successful plainclothes and off-duty carry. The gun was introduced at first in .40 S&W and the then-popular 9mm. San Diego police reportedly adopted the P229 in 9mm and found it to be very soft in recoil and, of course, very reliable. But the .40 S&W was where the interest was. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which had given its deputies a choice between the P220 .45 ACP and the P226 9mm, adopted the P229 in .40 S&W and found it to be an effective compromise. The Vermont State Police soon swapped its similar-sized P228 9mms for a new standard issue, the P229 in .40 S&W.
Sig Sauer executives had picked up a consistent buzz from certain law enforcement agencies who were adopting his company’s autopistols to replace their old .357 Mag revolvers: They loved their new guns, but missed the decisive stopping power of the 125-grain .357 rounds they had carried in their six-shooters. In response, the company got together with ammunition maker Federal, and in 1994 the .357 Sig debuted. .357 Sig ammunition is now produced by all the major makers in the U.S. as well as by most of the smaller “boutique” ammunition manufacturers.
The goal of the cartridge was to duplicate the ballistics of the 125-grain .357 Mag load, which ran in the velocity range of 1,300 to 1,450 fps, depending on the particular lot of ammunition and whether the service revolver was a detective’s snub-nose or a uniformed officer’s 4-inch barrel gun. At a nominal velocity of 1,350 fps in most iterations, the bottlenecked .357 Sig, with an overall length and base diameter comparable to those of a .40 S&W, achieved the stated ballistic goal. This writer has seen some Remington and Speer .357 Sig ammunition chronograph at 1,430 fps out of 4.5-inch pistol barrels.
The first major police department to adopt the .357 Sig was the Delaware State Police, who did so reportedly because they were dissatisfied with the terminal effects of the 147-grain 9mm subsonic ammunition used in their previous service pistols. The DSP has carried the P229 .357 ever since. Several of their counterpart agencies followed, and today the .357 Sig is very popular among state police departments. More of them issue the .357 Sig pistols than they do for any other brand, but the state troopers of New Mexico and North Carolina carry S&W Military & Police pistols in that caliber, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol is the one state organ-ization which issues it in the Glock 31.
In 1990, the Virginia State Police switched from the .38 Special revolver to a 10mm pistol similar to the FBI’s Model 1076, albeit with a slightly longer barrel, the S&W Model 1026, In 1993, they reportedly switched to the Sig Sauer P228 9mm, utilizing another FBI-recommended load, the 147-grain sub-sonic. Dissatisfied with the 9mm’s “stopping power,” the VSP replaced their P228s with P229s chambered for .357 Sig.
The VSP’s original P229s were conventional traditional double-action in design. That is, only the first shot would be fired double-action, and the design would cock itself to single-action for every subsequent shot fired until either the gun ran dry or the trooper decocked it using the handy lever on the left side of the frame behind the triggerguard. In the mid-2000s, the Virginia troopers decided to keep the P229 and the .357 Sig cartridge, but switch to the double-action-only, Keller-man (DAK) trigger system. Named after its designer, this fire control mechanism eliminates the need for a decocking lever and makes every trigger pull double-action, but in a manner smoother and lighter than was the
case with earlier models.
The .357 Sig has worked out remark-ably well. Texas and Virginia in particular have considerable experience with the Speer Gold Dot in actual gunfights, and both departments are reportedly very pleased. In one highly publicized Texas shooting, which took place not long after the state’s conversion to the .357 Sig, a rookie from the first police academy class to graduate with P226 .357s got into a gunfight alongside his field training officer, who was still carrying the older issue pistol, the Sig Sauer
P220 .45 ACP. The man shooting at them was ensconced in the cab of a massive 18-wheel tractor-trailer. The older trooper’s .45 ACP slugs apparently failed to penetrate the heavy steel of the big rig’s cab, but the younger trooper’s .357 Sig Gold Dots did, putting an end
to the shootout.
The several Virginia state troopers with whom I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the matter have to a man been very pleased with the .357’s performance. Two things kept coming up. One was that, prior to the change, pit bulls charging troopers soaked up 147-grain subsonic 9mms with equanimity before finally going down, but it takes only one or two shots of the fast 125-grain .357 Sig to stop them in their tracks. The other was that suspects hit with the .357 Sig would often collapsed instantly, even when the wound was not in a “vital area.” While that’s not something that one should count on, it is, when it does happen, evidence of impressive performance.
For the Secret Service and the Federal Air Marshal Service, the Virginia State Police and the Texas Highway Patrol, the 125-grain Speer Gold Dot has been working famously well “on the street.” It seems to be the most widely used ammunition among the law enforcement agencies who have adopted this caliber. However, other brands have also done quite well. Reports coming out of the Dallas Police Department indicate that the 125-grain Winchester Ranger-T—issued to those officers who buy the optional P226 .357 Sig rather than the department’s standard 9mm P226—has performed extremely well in actual shoot-ings. And in a recent Indiana shooting, a man trying to kill a police officer was instantly stopped by two rounds of 125- grain Remington Bonded Golden Saber .357 Sig, which pierced first a windshield and then the assailant’s body, reaching optimum depth inside the attacker’s body and expanding substantially.
The sample P229 came in a traditional double-action configuration with a short reach trigger. That and the latest Sig grips have a better trigger reach than do previous models—at least for this reviewer. Trigger pulls were tested from the center of the trigger with a Lyman digital gauge. Trigger resistance was very consistent pull-to-pull in both double-action and single-action modes.
Shooting single-action—the way in which most folks will shoot the P229
most often—ran to roughly five pounds (5.07 pounds, to be exact). Double-action pulls, which deliver what for most of us is the most important shot—the first one— averaged 11.03 pounds.
When I was writing the Gun Digest Book of SIG-Sauer: A Complete Look at SIG-Sauer Pistols a few years ago, I managed with a P226 from 25 yards to put five shots into exactly an inch. The ammunition used was the 125-grain Speer Gold Dot .357 Sig. I did the shooting on an indoor range. The pistol was one of the range’s well-broken-in range rental guns.
Testing for this article, we got darn near the same results with the P229. Our ammo was a Speer’s Lawman variation of the six-petal Gold Dot 125-grain bullet developed expressly for the .357 Sig, but in brass cases instead of the usual nickel. Four of the five shots went under an inch—0.95 inches, to be precise. The best three shots measured 0.70 inches. Unfortunately, one of those five shots blew the whole group out to 2.40 inches. The most likely culprit for that was me,
the guy behind the gun.
Speer’s Lawman line is for the most part a full metal jacket duplicating the bullet weight and velocity of the duty load it is intended to match. Velocity and energy are the same. From the P229 tested, five .357 Sig 125-grain Lawman FMJs achieved a 3.7-inch group, with four of them landing within a range of 1.5 inches and three landing within 1.05 inches. The hell of it is, I didn’t notice any particular “four-plus-one” syndrome, with the one errant round out of five being the first hand-chambered cartridge. As I recall, the “flyers” happened at random.
Federal’s American Eagle line has a 125-grain, 1,350 fps .357 Sig load that I’ve found very accurate in other pistols of this caliber. In the P229, it delivered a 2.3-inch group for all five shots, with the best three achieving a grouping of 1.10 inches.
For most calibers today, this reviewer vastly prefers premium ammunition to
old-style, simple copper jacket and lead hollow points. The .357 Sig round, however, has enough velocity to open up damn near anything with an open nose, and, if Winchester’s excellent Ranger loads happen to be unavailable, the company’s relatively low-priced USA (“white box”) generic JHP should make do. The test P229 put its five Winchester bullets into a 2.85-inch space, with four of them measuring 1.75 inches, and the best three 1.10 inches.
Suffice it to say, the grouping ability of the P229 in .357 Sig did not prove disappointing. Less pleasing, however, was that other element of accuracy,the correlation of point of aim to point of impact. With the gun indexed at 25 yards, and using the conventional post-in-notch sight picture, hits landed inches below the point of aim. I tried aiming with the three dots of the night sight vials, and that brought the point of impact up slightly, but it was still grouping low. Fortunately, this is correctible. Law enforcement agencies can simply return the gun to the department armorer, and private owners can ship it back to
the factory in Exeter, NH. I’ve found Sig to be excellent about taking care of customer complaints.
Recoil is a subjective thing, and the relative kicks of the .357 Sig and the .40 S&W is often a matter of heated debate. (The answer frequently comes down to what .40 load is being used for the comparison, since 125-grain has pretty much become the standard in .357 Sig.) The muzzle rise is exacerbated by the Sig Sauer’s relatively high bore axis, but it’s nothing a good shooter with a strong stance can’t control in accurate rapid fire. The P229 almost makes the .357 Sig versus .40 S&W argument moot, since by simply installing a barrel of the opposite chambering, the owner can switch calibers: The same recoil spring system and the same magazines work with both. This, of course, adds versa-tility to the package. (But it also requires the shooter to be careful that the barrel and the ammunition at hand are the
Two features aided control: Sig Sauer’s short trigger and the E2 grip treatment. The short trigger reduces the distance the finger has to travel to make contact. This gives the finger more leverage and, therefore, more control of the “go-button.” Reset was fast and positive.
The folks at Sig Sauer pronounce E2 as “ergonomics squared.” The E2 grip configuration is slimmer than earlier versions, and it helps the shooter “get more hand around the gun.” This aids in steadying the pistol against the weight of the trigger pull, which becomes more important the faster we shoot, and it seems to make the pistol’s recoil easier to control as well. During testing, the finely-stippled surface of the E2 grip prevented completely any slippage in the hand, and sure control always helps the user shoot his best. I can’t top the description of the E2’s texture offered by a very smart lady of my acquaintance, who’s very good with pistols and very good with words: “The E2 feels like hard velvet.”
The test gun was a P229R with a light rail. I shot it with a SureFire 200 light attached. The light, which hung off the front of the dust cover, had no effect on the relative point of aim and impact; nor were there any of the reliability problems that some lights have caused when attached to some other types of pistols.
Carried for a day in a Ted Blocker 5B thumb-break concealment holster, the P229 offered no surprises. Weighing about 32 ounces empty—that is, without its 12-plus-one complement of cartridges—
it’s not at all uncomfortable for a person accustomed to carrying a serious hand-gun. Rounded edges kept any metal from digging into the wearer’s body.
Reliability throughout our testing was 100 percent. That was expected. Law enforcement agencies, which have issued vast numbers of P229s, shooting the hell out of them, also report a very high order of reliability. Reliability is one of the things you’re paying for in a Sig Sauer. And you do pay. Manufacturer’s suggested retail on the P229R that we tested, with the night sights, is $1,068.
A significant benefit of having a defensive gun accessible is confidence. It’s pretty confidence-inspiring to know that you’re carrying the same gun and even the same ammo as what the President’s bodyguards have strapped on. I figure, if it’s good enough to protect the President and his family, it’s certainly good enough to protect me, and mine. For more information, visit sigsauer.com, or call 603-772-2302.