March 2000

SIG, Smith & Wesson, Glock: We Test Approved Pistols of the FBI

The FBI has chosen three sidearms for new agents—the Glock 22, S&W’s 4586, and the SIG Sauer P239—each with a different design and personality. If it were us, we’d choose the SIG.

[IMGCAP(1)] Current FBI regulations stipulate that three handguns, the double-action-only Smith & Wesson 4586 in .45 ACP, the Glock Model 22 in .40 S&W, and the SIG P239 chambered for .357 SIG, are approved carry guns for its field agents. Notably missing from this list, of course, are any number of 1911-style .45 ACPs, one of which Springfield Armory already supplies to the FBI’s Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) agents. Why the disparity?

Bureau thinking has it that SWAT-force officers frequently train for high-threat encounters, thus, they fire many times more rounds a year in training and qualification than the typical agent. In this view, the 1911 pistol, with its short, crisp trigger, is a highly offensive weapon that is expected to perform in situations where a firefight is likely. The typical agent instead requires a weapon that provides a greater cushion for “shoot, don’t-shoot” situations, thus the exclusion of the tuned Springfield 1911s.

Far be it from us to question what law-enforcement officers should wear to protect their lives on a daily basis, but this difference nonetheless struck us as curious. Are the approved guns that a fresh-scrubbed recruit straps on a step below what the A-team SWAT guy wears?

Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask in light of who’s serving in the FBI these days. The design and function of each of the three FBI-approved guns we tested, the S&W 4586 ($822), the Glock M22 ($616), and the SIG P239 ($595, all consumer prices), have a place not only in dealing with crime, but also in accounting for changing demographics in the FBI. The profile of the typical FBI candidate has changed over the last generation. An FBI applicant in 1969 was likely a veteran of Vietnam and was already gun-savvy. At the time, the FBI also recruited heavily from other law-enforcement agencies, whose members likely had experience with guns either in military combat or in the street. The third group of candidates came from mainstream America, generally rural areas, but with firearms experience by way of hunting with rifle or shotgun.

Thirty years later, today’s FBI candidates are mostly urban dwellers with advanced education. Few, if any, have served in the armed forces, and even fewer have experience with firearms. While a sophisticated shooter might feel limited with any design but a match-grade 1911, today’s candidates likely have no bias toward one gun type over another.

At Gun Tests, of course, we have nothing but bias—we like good guns that shoot and handle well, so we wanted to shoot the FBI’s three approved pistols in a multi-caliber, multi-style match-up. Our goal was to evaluate which of the three pistols we’d most want to carry to protect our lives, either as Mulder or as Joe Sixpack. If one gun stood out because of its ballistics (.45 ACP, .40 S&W, or .357 SIG), its accuracy, its concealability, or its shootability, then in our minds we could recommend it both to aspiring agents and to discriminating gun consumers, who themselves must choose from a dizzying array of products when buying that one gun for self defense.

Here’s what we found, function by function, in descending order of importance:

Reliability
This section is short and sweet: All three guns ran flawlessly throughout our tests without break-in or additional lubrication. This made our job of picking a winner somewhat more difficult, since a jam, failure to feed, or some other operational problem would have reduced the field.

Accuracy
Our raw accuracy test was performed from a bench rest at 25 yards. We chose to fire the SIG single action. This paid off, with the P239 being the accuracy champ, averaging only 1.3 inches for all five-shot groups with the FBI cartridge of choice, Federal Hydra-Shok. All currently available .357 SIG cartridges (there aren’t many available, but more are arriving) feature a 125-grain bullet.

Out of curiosity we took a turn at shooting groups DAO with the SIG. To do so we simply de-cocked the hammer after every shot. The results were, in the case of the Winchester ammo, even better than when we fired single action throughout. However, the extreme spread from largest to smallest group was increased. Still, the SIG third generation trigger design makes the transition from DA to SA better than any other dual-triggered handgun we’ve handled recently.

Average groups from both the Glock 22 and the Smith & Wesson pistols measured more than twice the SIG’s group size. We could have limited our choice of ammunition to FBI-approved Federal Hydra-Shoks only, but we wanted to sample other brands that do not fall within the strict guidelines of the FBI.

In the case of the 4586, perhaps the FBI should consider endorsing the Cor-Bon 165-grain JHP, which was the second most-accurate combination of gun and ammo overall. Also, although its recoil was stiffer than the .45 ACP Hydra-Shoks, the Cor-Bon’s muzzle energy edged out the .357 SIG.

Trigger Response
Each gun was designed with a trigger mechanism that requires a willful, deliberate act to break a shot. The first shot of the SIG P239 requires a long, but very smooth, double-action stroke. If a firefight is ongoing, subsequent shots can then be fired with a short single-action press. The manual claimed standard trigger weights of 4.5 pounds SA and 9.5 pounds DA. We measured ours at 5.5 pounds SA and 11 pounds DA.

The Smith & Wesson design was double-action only (DAO), presenting a longer pull on all shots but offering the advantage of having to master only one trigger. The Glock’s SafAction is a little harder to pin down. The first pull is longer than subsequent trigger engagement, but the difference is hard to perceive, since there is little in the way of traditional trigger feedback.

All three pistols delivered 3.1-inch or better accuracy at 25 yards in a controlled trigger-press situation. But what about close-in, where hammering the trigger is called for? How would each gun respond? We decided to test the willingness of each gun to fire rapidly by firing six shots as quickly as possible at a target just 10 feet away.

In our opinion, the figures for total time and splits are the most telling reference within this test. In total time from firing the first shot until the last shot, the results are very close, except shooting the SIG DA to SA. The SIG’s total six-shot time span in that scenario were 1.23 seconds, the longest of the test. In contrast, shooting the SIG SA throughout yielded the least total time of 0.96 seconds. The S&W consumed 1.00 seconds for six shots, and the Glock 1.07 seconds. In the case of the SIG, we were less sure of ourselves going from DA to SA. In fact, moving from the very positive pressure presented by the initial DA pull the very short action of the SIG’s SA mode, we tried to cut our trigger return too fine and momentarily cramped up, producing one big 0.38-second split.

We recently attended an intensive tactical pistol seminar instructed by accredited law enforcement training personnel, and virtually all target engagement was from the de-cocked hammer down condition. Thus, the SIG’s SA-only data may be irrelevant.

[PDFCAP(2)].

In the Glock’s case, once a finger is on the trigger of this pistol, it is more likely to fire sooner than the other two guns. Yes, this is a professional’s weapon. In our rapid-fire test its firing sequence was the most consistent with splits of 0.21, 0.21, 0.20, 0.21, and 0.24 seconds.

The Smith & Wesson 4586’s narrow grip frame makes it all work, promoting the right grip for effective trigger work. If you come into the FBI ranks as an expert revolver shooter, the 4586 pistol is a good place to start. The trigger of the Smith & Wesson 4586 is hinged with an arc more commonly found on a revolver. Perhaps the lack of safety device beyond the prudence of the handler is a criticism that can be shared with the Glock. But, the trigger does have a predictable feel, and it will not fire with the magazine removed or slightly ajar.

It would seem by logic that the combination of a long trigger pull and the wait for cycling to complete would make for a slow-shooting gun. Not so, according to our rapid-fire test. The S&W shot split times of 0.21, 0.17, 0.20, 0.19, and 0.23 seconds. It should be noted this gun performed best with lighter bullets. The Cor-Bon 165-grain rounds were accurate but recoiled the hardest. We’d guess 185-grain slugs would be a good balance of accuracy and control.

Handling
We noticed during the rapid-fire test that the Glock’s balance changed in the shooter’s hand shot to shot. With only six shots loaded and a rapidly shifting center of gravity, the gun became less controllable with each shot. The grip frame is feather light, and the only moving part the slide is the heaviest. We like the slightly smaller Glock 23 better because the slide is shorter and lighter.

[PDFCAP(3)].

Regarding the grip frame, it is one piece, avoiding the possibility of a panel coming loose. Mild finger grooves have been added and a faux arched mainspring housing as well, but we still found the polymer plastic construction to be slippery. We’ll hazard a guess that the shooter with the most experience with handguns will choose the $616 Glock. Its handling requires more discretion than the others and even a little more skill, in our estimation.

We like the way the SIG feels in the hand. Take one look at this pistol, and it would appear that SIG began its design from the human hand and worked inward. The Smith’s 4586 has also made strides in this area, but we feel the Glock is still playing catch up. Too many pistol designs seem to start with the slide or bulk of the mag and work outward. The P239 will certainly work best for people with smaller hands, and this is the only weapon in the test that will stow away smartly in the concealment pouch of a purse or attaché. Among the shooters we introduced these guns to, those with the least experience picked the P239 based on handfit alone. The SIG gave them the greatest feeling of control.

Sights
Both the Glock 22 and the Smith & Wesson pistol feature a three-dot system, but the relief of the Novak sights on the 4586 proved clearer, faster, and less fatiguing, in our view. But the SIG, with a sight radius almost an inch less, was better yet. By placing a bold white vertical line within the notch of the rear sight and a white dot on the front sight blade, SIG has been able to reduce eyestrain.

Reason: Generally, with open or iron sights the shooter is challenged to reconcile three separate planes, the front sight, the rear sight, and the target. Furthermore, the shooter checks windage by measuring the light bars on either side of the front blade. With the SIG arrangement, we ignored the light bars and placed the front dot directly above the rear line, then stacked the target above this little white stick figure. This allowed us to put both the front and rear sights in the same plane.

The line-and-dot configuration of the sights proved self explanatory. Whenever the SIG was put into the hands of a new shooter, no explanation of aim was necessary, or the instruction remained brief.

Other Factors
The Glock 22’s consumer-magazine configuration puts ten .40 S&W rounds at the ready, a big plus over the others.

The SIG Sauer P239 is the smallest gun of the trio offering genuine concealability. Capacity is sacrificed, but the rounds you do have (7+1) pack the biggest wallop. The larger-framed models in .357 SIG carry more rounds, but we feel the SIG design is at its best in this $595 package. That it is the least expensive of the three should do nothing to hurt sales among consumers. It should be noted that SIG also offers the Blue Line series of pistols with high-capacity mags and less adornment for a lower price to law enforcement personnel.

By the time you read this, Smith & Wesson’s $882 DAO 4586 “Government” model will be replaced by an upgrade of this same pistol with the TSW (Tactical Smith & Wesson) designation at a comparable price. The 4586TSW should be an excellent weapon. Upgrades will include full-length rail-to-slide contact, which should make the gun more accurate. Its all-steel construction is well balanced for a consistent feel, and we think the full-sized frame not only indexes the trigger well but spreads the hand just enough to offer the right amount of leverage for the trigger pull.

Gun Tests Recommends
They all work, they all shoot well. Why do think the FBI picked and approved them? Still, we believe each gun has strengths and weaknesses that can help you decide which one might be best for you, whether you’re an FBI agent or not:

SIG Sauer P239 .357 SIG, $595. Buy It: The speed and accuracy with which the 239 and the .357 SIG round deliver energy are exceptional. We like the handfit, the concealability, and the sights a lot.

Don’t Buy It: If you’re not sure about your ability to master the DA-to-SA transition, if you don’t have access to competitive sources of pricey .357 SIG ammo (or if you don’t handload), or if the lower round count (7+1) is a problem, other guns are better picks, in our estimation.

Glock 22 .40 S&W, $616. Buy It: If you already know and like the Glock design, this gun won’t disappoint. Also, it’s your first pick if round count is a priority (12 rounds of .40 S&W in law enforcement trim), and it can be fired very aggressively.

Don’t Buy It: If you handle the gun and the grip isn’t immediately comfortable, move on. Some people just never adapt, and this gun’s tendency to handle differently as the magazine empties won’t help your control.

Smith & Wesson 4586, $822. Buy It: If you like grabbing onto a piece of steel and squeezing out the good-natured, inexpensive, battle-proven .45 ACP round, then the 4586 is worth a look. Bonus: If you can find a 4586, they’ll probably be reduced in price as soon as the new TSW version arrives.

Don’t Buy It: Pass on the Smith if double action is not your game, or you’re too small to carry this pistol comfortably.

Click here to view the SIG Sauer P239 .357 SIG features guide

Click here to view the Glock 22 .40 S&W features guide

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 4586 .45 ACP features guide