The semi-automatic pistol scene in the early 1970s was a lot different than it is today. There were fewer producers, and they didn’t offer as many variations. There were no polymer-frame guns, and the choices in trigger systems were few. You could choose a single-action gun, like the Colt and Browning, or a variation of the Walther-inspired double-action/single-action.
But the German police were in the market for a new service 9 mm Luger handgun, and that started some mighty clever minds to turning. Eventually, the German police pistol trials produced the Walther P5 and the Heckler & Koch P7, but the gun in the middle was the SIG Sauer P6, a size variation on the Swiss/German consortium’s P220. The other two pistols are almost forgotten, but the P220 is still here, and it has changed relatively little in the 35 years since introduced. One might conclude that they got it right the first time. They did—and the P220 has become a familiar friend to handgunners nationwide.
The P220 was a single-column, recoil-operated semi-automatic pistol with a first-shot double-action and subsequent-shot single-action trigger system. Imported and sold by Hawes and Interarms in the early ’70s, it was also offered by Browning as the BDA for a time. Eventually, SIG Sauer established a U.S. company in Herdon, Va., for the purpose of selling its own pistols, before moving to its present location in Exeter, N.H., in 1985.
The first P220s were built in 7.65 and 9 mm Parabellum, with small numbers added in .38 Super. When the gun came to America, .45 ACP was added to suit Yankee tastes. Today, P220s are only available in .45 ACP. Other calibers are in the extensive SIG catalog, but in different models. The first P220s reflected European tastes in other ways (such as the magazine catch location), but they had a host of innovations by anybody’s criteria. Mechanically, the gun was different in that it used a multi-piece slide formed from heavy sheet steel and fitted with a separate pinned-in breechblock. This feature made it easier to finish the gun in any caliber. Another significant innovation was the use of the ejection port as a locking point for the barrel. P220 barrels have a squared hood. Cams on the barrel’s underside work against a steel block in the aluminum receiver to index the barrel hood into the ejection port when the slide closes in battery. This feature has been copied all over the world.
However, it was an operational feature that distinguished the pistol in the wildly expanding marketplace of the ’70s and ’80s. The P220 had (and still has on most variations) a first-shot DA trigger pull. When the hammer is down in the carry mode, trigger pressure through an arc will raise the hammer to the fully ready position and then release it to fire. On firing, the slide cycles the hammer to the fully cocked position and the next trigger pull is a short and crisp single action. If the shooter needs to stop shooting, he can safely decock the hammer with a quick, downward press of the decocking lever. The point is simply that the P220 doesn’t have, and doesn’t need, a manual safety mixed into the functions of this lever. That is not the case with most of the P220’s contemporaries.
The P220 caught on big time, particularly in the law enforcement sector. With such a simple operating system, police instructors found the gun rather easy to teach, although the DA-to-SA transition was tough for some people to master. When other calibers became popular—9 mm, .40 S&W and .357 SIG—the company modified the basic pistol system to accept high-capacity magazines in these calibers and gave them different designations—P226, P228 and P229. Over the many years the P220 has been imported, there have been numerous small changes to the gun. One of the most welcome was one of the earliest—a late ’80s moving of the heel-mounted magazine catch to a more desirable spot aft of the trigger guard. In the past few years, the upgrades and modifications have come thick and fast, adding up to a major expansion of the P220 lineup. The current SIG Sauer catalog shows 16 .45 ACP P220 variations. By the time you add in finish and lockwork options, the number of variations has doubled. All of them are the same basic pistol, but SIG Sauer has responded to the desires of its customers by providing options in the size and finish of the gun, as well as the manner in which it is handled and fired—the lockwork.