Even though “Shark Week” is over, a sharknado of internet voices formed when they saw blood in the water regarding the SIG Sauer P320. “The P320 pistol meets requirements for industry and government safety standards; performance enhancements optimize function, safety, and reliability,” stated an August 9 release from the company. “Recent events indicate that dropping the P320 beyond U.S. standards for safety may cause an unintentional discharge.” Look for details on a voluntary upgrade from SIG Sauer on Monday, August 14.
Last week the story broke across gun websites that the Dallas Police Dept. had declared the P320 pistol not safe as “there is a defect that could cause the weapon system to go off when dropped.” Note the P320 is not the main duty gun for that department but is allowed to be carried by officers. The warning went out in an official memorandum, which was soon leaked. This began wild internet speculation, the first shark sucked into the waterspout, including a post that indicated an officer had been injured when he dropped his pistol. That turned out to be spurious. No Dallas officer had been injured, and no P320 from that department had discharged when it was not supposed to do so.
Sources at SIG Sauer told me that the memo came out due to wording in the manual for the P320. In the legal warnings of many handgun manuals, there is language to the effect that if a loaded pistol is dropped, it may discharge. That’s pretty common verbiage written by lawyers to protect the manufacturer. “If dropped, the pistol may fire. Keep the chamber empty unless actually firing!” As a guy who actually reads gun manuals, I've seen that sort of language time and time again.
SIG Sauer immediately issued statements regarding the safety of the P320. “The P320 meets and exceeds all U.S. standards for safety, including the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc. (SAAMI), as well as rigorous testing protocols for global military and law enforcement agencies.” Here’s the part that matters: “All SIG SAUER pistols incorporate effective mechanical safeties to ensure they only fire when the trigger is pressed. However, like any mechanical device, exposure to acute conditions (e.g. shock, vibration, heavy or repeated drops) may have a negative effect on these safety mechanisms and cause them to not work as designed. This language is common to owner’s manuals of major handgun manufacturers.”
While one could call the Dallas PD memo as leaning on the side of officer safety, what followed became a full blown sharknado. Like feeding hammerhead sharks into a waterspout, people started trying to induce the condition specifically to post it in online articles and videos. One in particular got multiple P320s—including guns that had been previously “torture tested”—to discharge by dropping them on the top rear of the slide. It is clear from the video that the guns did discharge when dropped. There was no finger on the trigger and, when dropped a specific way, subsequently termed “negative 30 degrees,” the guns’ firing pins struck primers.
Then more and more websites tried to replicate this condition, chumming for likes or clicks. And others succeeded. I've no idea how many P320s have been dropped on concrete over the past week, but I imagine it's just not the few that you can see with a quick Google search. A word of caution, don't try this at home. Viewing “Jackass”-like behavior might satiate juvenile urges, but that sort of behavior should never be combined with firearms. It seems most P320 Sharknado bloggers have put out a subsequent post telling people not to try and induce this unsafe situation with their own guns. And as this was written, another person posted a video of banging away at the rear of P320 with a hammer. Enough.
SIG Sauer had a problem on its hands, a public relations morass for one of the most respected gunmakers in the world. This is a company that spends $2 million a year on drop testing with about 50 engineers on the payroll. And this is a gun that has passed every drop safety test in the United States, and quite a few more overseas. The engineers replicated the discharges, and they went to work on the “negative 30 degree” drop. And then SIG invited the media in to see what they learned about how the discharges could happen and what the fix for a problem that may never have occurred on its own really is.
My friend and veteran journalist Jim Shepherd from The Outdoor Wire was at SIG Sauer on August 8, and he reported on the changes the maker is planning to execute going forward on P320. There is also excellent reporting on the nuts and bolts of the testing SIG Sauer did from Soldier Systems Daily with details of the 2,200 drops SIG’s engineers did with 11 guns.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the P320 Sharknado was that websites and individuals immediately made the leap to the XM17 and XM18 currently being tested as the Modular Handgun Systems. Some even went so far as to suggest that SIG Sauer was jeopardizing the lives of U.S. Army soldiers. According to SIG Sauer, the situation that occurred on the videos were not replicated on the XM17—which also has an ambidextrous manual safety—and a different sear, striker and trigger than the commercial P320. They tried.
The XM17 version of the P320 with the original fire control components went through Army testing—including drop testing—and then SIG requested to make a change to the trigger that eliminated the so-called “double-click,” improving the pull without increasing the weight. The Army accepted that change and the 50 guns in the hands of the 101st Airborne right now at Fort Campbell incorporate it. The sear, striker and trigger are about 30 percent lighter, and it is the MHS fire control group that will be the basis of the upgrade, with the addition of a disconnect.
The ironic thing about the recently announced change to combat the negative 30 degree drop is that SIG Sauer was moving toward that upgrade of the components anyway.
The first lesson is that dropping guns, regardless of on what axis, is bad. With the P320, an issue was identified, and SIG Sauer already had the fix. After identifying the problem and making sure the replaced components worked, SIG stood up and announced a voluntary upgrade for the 500,000 or so P320s out there. The odds of a P320 dropping at the exact angle requisite to induce a discharge might not be as long as a real sharknado occurring, but no one is spending time and effort to induce the latter for YouTube. We can at least be grateful for that.