The indoor range where I first learned to operate defensive handguns was attached to a law-enforcement supply house. I feel lucky that’s where I got my start because of the staff members who worked there at the time. They were kind enough to take me under their wings and teach me how to make the most of the limited financial resources I had at the time.
When I announced that I was ready to buy my first handgun, they walked me around from the new gun section of their extensive and well-stocked handgun case to the side where the used guns were on display. They explained that for folks on a tight budget, previously owned handguns in good working condition could be found for a fraction of the price of similar models in factory-fresh condition.
But being able to sort the real bargains from the boat anchors is a skill that takes some practice to develop. Because I was a newbie with more enthusiasm than experience, they suggested I stick close to the law enforcement (LE) surplus and trade-in guns for my first purchase, especially if I was going to use it for self defense.
LE guns tend to be durable, reliable models purchased new from reputable manufacturers. They are then issued to officers who count on them to protect their lives and the lives of others. This means the guns are well used, but rarely abused. They tend to be carried a lot but shot little. Even though the exterior of a surplus gun exhibits dings, scratches and holster wear, the action and barrel are still in great condition.
Recently, I found retired SIG Sauer P226 pistols for sale on the AIM Surplus website for $379.95. Brand new, the P226 can cost upwards of $900. Chambered in .40 S&W, these particular models have smooth dust covers (no accessory rail) and ship with night sights, factory polymer grips and one 12-round magazine. Additional surplus magazines were available for $14.95 instead of the new magazine price of $40. At these prices, I had to give the P226 a try. Here's a walkthrough of the audition process the P226 went through and how it fared.
I knew, up front, that I was looking at a top-quality pistol from a reputable company. The SIG P226 is closing in on four decades of military and law enforcement service around the world. Its durability, reliability and accuracy have been proven in the field time and again. Holsters, magazines and accessories are all readily available for this model. Whether or not buying a SIG Sauer for under $400 was worth the investment would boil down to the condition the gun was in when it arrived.
The key to purchasing a surplus gun is being prepared to receive a less-than-perfect product. I have yet to buy a used gun that didn't need attention or modifications of one kind or another. That's the trade-off for the deep-dish discounts. That said, guns that are a different grade than advertised, or that don't work properly, should not be altered before consulting with the seller. Fiddling with the gun may violate the seller’s policies and leave you stuck with a lemon. Make sure to understand what your return options are before making the purchase.
I was quite pleased with the P226 that AIM Surplus sent out, but let's go ahead and nitpick just a bit. The pistol arrived without a storage case, lock or an owner’s manual. These days, owner's manuals are just a few taps of a touch screen away. But if you don’t have a case and lock on hand, they'll run you about $20.
The pistol does have a set of metallic night sights as advertised. But sight sets powered by tritium lamps have a limited working life of 6 to 10 years, after which they slowly fade to black. These particular sights offer a dim memory of the bright green glow they once provided. The P226 shipped with the factory-installed polymer grip panels, but they were rubbed smooth by daily carry. To provide additional purchase, the previous owner applied a piece of rough skateboard tape to the front strap of the grip. That too was well worn and falling apart. And, as expected, where was cosmetic wear and tear to the slide and frame.
How much did these short comings really matter? Not a bit! These are all negligible issues that had little bearing on the performance or reliability of the pistol. The black-nitride finish of the stainless-steel slide was in top condition. The aluminum frame had little in the way of physical blemishes. Some of the anodized finish was rubbed away around the trigger guard and beaver tail grip extension with more rubbed away around the opening of the magazine well. But this surface damage is purely cosmetic in nature.
The features and functions that really count for defensive pistols were in place and working properly. There were no mechanical issues, broken components or worn-out springs. This P226 sailed through a series of bench checks with green lights across the board. The slide cycled cleanly, the trigger pull was smooth, the controls worked properly and the magazines locked and dropped just like they were supposed to.
The pistol was dismantled for a detailed cleaning and inspection. Two steps that folks sometimes forget when cleaning a used gun for the first time are to remove the grip panels and to break down the magazines. The interior of the gun looked almost factory fresh but there was build-up under the grip panels and one of the surplus magazines contained a surprising amount of lint.
At the end of the inspection and cleaning process, I was left with two optional fixes: the dim night sights and the worn grip panels. The night sights have white outlines around the now dim Tritium lamps, so they look just like typical non-illuminated three-dot combat sights. They can be replaced for between $100 to $150, but I've opted to save that money and use them as-is for now.
However, one thing I've learned is that an uncomfortable grip fit can be a deal breaker no matter how good the gun may be. I knew before pulling the P226’s trigger that the worn smooth plastic grip panels and frayed skateboard tape would be miserable to hold on to with the more vigorous levels of felt recoil .40 S&W ammunition produces. In this case, there were two easy and inexpensive fixes to improve the grip.
First, the skateboard tape was carefully lifted off the front of the grip frame using isopropyl alcohol to neutralize the adhesive. The straight line texturing cut into the front strap of the frame, which had been covered by the tape, was still intact. The plastic grip panels were replaced with a set of Hogue Inc. P226 Rubber Panels (No. 26010). This grip set covers both sides of the grip frame and fills in the back strap with a soft, pebble-textured rubber that hugs the shooting hand like a glove. It made a night-and day-difference in the handling and comfort level of shooting this gun for less than $30. It was definitely a worthwhile investment.
The final portion of the audition was a trip to the shooting range. Defensive handguns, new or used, should be given at least a 100- to 200-round work out before being cleaned again and staged for use. A minimum of 2-3 magazines worth of the ammunition test fired should be the same defense grade cartridge the gun will be loaded with for personal protection.
In this case, the P226 demonstrated acceptable defensive accuracy levels with groups between 3" to 3.5" at 25-yards. It proved to be utterly reliable with all of the ammunition it was fed, including practice-grade and premium hollow points. The following table shows the formal accuracy and velocity results using ammunition provided by Federal Premium Ammunition, Hornady and Winchester:
The advice to keep an eye out for LE surplus guns has served me well over the years. Not only has it reduced the cost of guns I simply liked, it's also turned up reliable firearms for personal protection when belt tightening measures were in place.
Great deals like the SIG Sauer P226 from AIM Surplus are part of the surplus market’s ever-shifting inventory. Do your research, decide what you want and work out a budget ahead of time. Then be patient. That way, when a deal like this one crops up, you'll be ready to grab it before it slips away.
Specifications: Distributor: AIM Surplus Manufacturer: SIG Sauer Model: LEO Surplus P226 (AIM Surplus Item #: F1SIG22640) Action: DA/SA Semi-Auto Caliber: .40 S&W Slide: Black Nitride Finished Stainless Steel, Rear Cocking Serration Frame: Hard Anodized Aluminum, Black Accessory Rail: No Grips: Removable Textured Black Polymer Sights: 3-Dot Combat Night Sights Double-Action Trigger Pull: 9 lbs. 3 oz. Single-Action Trigger Pull: 4 lbs. 13 oz. Barrel Length: 4.4" Overall Length: 7.7" Height: 5.5" Slide Width: 1.05" Grip Width: 1.45" with Hogue Upgrade Weight: 33.6-oz. with Empty Magazine Capacity: 12+1 Rounds Twist: 1:16 RH Rifle Grooves: 6 Accessories: One Surplus Magazine Suggested Surplus Price: $379.95 - Condition May Vary Grip Panel Upgrade: Hogue Inc. P226 Rubber Panels (26010) $29.95