May 2001

Full-Size Double Action .45 ACPs: We Like SIG’s TDA P220 Best

The SIG P220 and Smith & Wesson’s 4566TSW successfully bridge the gap between single- and double-action .45s. The polymer H&K USP45 offers cocked-&-locked operation.

The three pistols we looked at were the SIG
P220 ($880, top), Smith & Wesson’s $897 4566-
TSW (middle), and the $759 Heckler & Koch
USP45 (bottom).

To our minds “Traditional Double-Action,” or called TDA for short, seems misplaced when used to describe a semi-automatic pistol. After all, it is a term we more closely associate with a revolver. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, where it is indeed common for a semi-auto to feature two trigger pulls, modulating from a long first stroke to a single action position requiring a much shorter and lighter press for subsequent shots.

The way we see things, there’s no functional reason that makes the DA-to-SA stroke better in any way than cocked-and-locked SA carry, and we believe the reason for DA-to-SA action is not to offer advantage in a confrontation; rather, it’s to help define circumstances to those who might doubt one’s judgment later.

Most training mantras stress that the shooter should first perceive a threat, confirm a target and what is behind it, acquire an adequate sight picture, and only then should the trigger be engaged. But is this level of mental conditioning and clarity always at hand? No. Add to this the rise in civilian handgun ownership and the willingness to sue, and voilá, we see the reasons why TDA semiautos exist. Though we wholeheartedly believe that properly secured SA pistols are perfectly safe, others obviously disagree.

This assessment of TDA pistols sounds thoroughly negative, but that’s true only because the design asks the shooter to learn two triggers and still perform effectively under stress. Are there workarounds? Perhaps, because in this test, we look at three pistols that seek to overcome trigger problems by offering either a true cocked-and-locked option or, through refinement, encourage the use of a single technique for both double and single action trigger activation.

Our test guns were three high-end pistols, the SIG P220 ($880), Smith & Wesson’s $897 4566TSW, and the $759 Heckler & Koch USP45. Let’s see how our trio of full-size traditional double-action pistols overcomes the seemingly inescapable pitfall of being “bi-triggered.”

Range Findings
We can immediately dispose of one big problem we didn’t see: All three guns ran 100 percent reliably.

Given the barrel lengths of our test guns and their full-size frames, it would have been simple enough to prescribe shooting five-shot groups from a rest at targets 25 yards away and call it a day. But there is so much more to be considered when assessing the handling of a TDA pistol.

First, we chose to collect raw accuracy data firing single-action only, to give the truest reading of how well the guns could shoot, not how well we could shoot the guns.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

Otherwise, our get-acquainted sessions included all manner of fire from 7 and 10 yards, but we concluded our live-fire testing with a special 30-round, ten-string course of fire. Loading six rounds of Winchester 230-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition at a time, we engaged a corrugated Millpark target 12 yards downrange from the low ready position, i.e. muzzle at a 45-degree angle to the ground. The Millpark target is a rough approximation of a human head and torso, with the desired A-zone at center mass measuring 6 by 11 inches. Upon an audible start signal, we fired three shots, the first double action and then two more from the single-action mode. Every other string left the pistol empty with the slide locked back to test for an inordinate change in balance and check for flyers that may appear due to a sudden release of pressure from the unloaded magazine beneath the slide.

The main object, however, was to evaluate just how efficiently each pistol could be fired starting with the longer DA travel and transitioning to the single-action position. We feel this is central to the utility of a TDA pistol. In fact, it should be brought to the attention of the reader that the introduction of TDA pistols represents not only an evolution of pistol design but requires a change of shooting technique as well.

At the center of this change is trigger control and one basic principle —that is, where to place the finger on the trigger. For single action only, no more than the pad of the index finger is required. For firing double action only, the edge of the trigger sits inside the crook of the first trigger-finger joint. But in a gun that features both double and single action in rapid succession, you may be asking not only where to start your finger but also where to finish it. Certainly, the quality of triggers from gun to gun can vary, but misunderstanding how to work the trigger of a TDA pistol continues to be the greatest downfall of its design.

The solution we arrived at during our range sessions was to learn that the key to consistent accuracy is that the quality of how you press the trigger is never any better than the quality of how you release it. On TDA pistols, which feature hinged triggers, we used the double-action position of indexing the trigger to the first joint of the finger. Because the trigger will stay back after the first shot is fired, you must then release contact with the face of the trigger completely. Furthermore, for each stroke of the trigger your finger must move the same distance forward and back each time. Think of your finger as a pendulum describing a wide arc approximately two-thirds to three-quarters the length of travel measured from the trigger’s original rest position with the hammer decocked to break point. We found this technique to be superior. Too often, attempting to rapid fire by repositioning the finger or “chasing” the breakpoint created tension that not only pulled our shots low but inevitably cramped the trigger finger.

Heckler & Koch USP45, $759
Compared to the SIG P220 and the Smith & Wesson 4566, the USP45 is a hybrid, combining the characteristics of a TDA polymer pistol and the Browning 1911 design.

Click here to view the Heckler & Koch USP45 features guide

The USP45 first differs from both the P220 and the 4566TSW because it carries 10 rounds in a staggered, double-column magazine. Furthermore, this pistol offers cocked and locked carry in a polymer frame just like a 1911. The USP45 can also be decocked to fire first shot double action, and the very same lever you push upward to lock the hammer back also serves as a decocker when pushed downward. Among the three pistols featuring safety/decockers, the HK’s lever was the easiest to operate, because it was available to the right-hand thumb without a change in grip. This same lever can be transferred to the left side. The magazine release within the contour of the trigger guard is ambidextrous and offers operation to either the thumb or trigger finger.

Because the polymer grip frame is wide to accommodate the double-stack magazine, the USP45 felt slippery to us initially. On first impression we had to wonder how to connect our weak hand to the gun. However, our concerns regarding the grip while actually firing the HK turned out to be unfounded. We concluded grip pressure to the front and back straps were more important than pressure to the side panels.

The outer profile of the rear sight is slanted in a pyramid-like shape, which is supposed to bring the eye quickly on sight. However, we feel it is the available light that surrounds the front blade as seen through the rear notch that makes a bigger difference. We would rate the HK’s sight picture to be slightly behind the Sig P220’s. Our model featured a three-white-dot design, with both the front and rear units dovetailed into place. The rear unit is adjustable for windage by drift. There is an accessory rail molded into the dust-cover portion of the frame, beneath which is a metal inlay with the registered serial number to match the slide.

Heckler & Koch has managed to develop a clever and effective mix of old and new technology in the USP series, and it has added a nifty locking device as well. Referred to as the HK Lockout, a two-pronged key is supplied which fits a swivel inside the magazine well. When turned, it freezes the hammer by preventing action in the mainspring housing. It doesn’t interfere with inserting a magazine, loaded or otherwise, but is so well hidden no one would ever think to look there. Without the proper key to deactivate it, this pistol is out of commission. Good show, in our opinion.

Breaking down the USP45 for cleaning is simple. After clearing all ammunition from the action and removing the magazine, move the slide back until the slide release notch is visible and push the bolt from the right side through the frame. The top end can now be slid forward off the frame. The recoil assembly contains the springs, so there are no small parts to lose, just the slide, barrel, guide-rod assembly and frame. With the top end removed, the polymer grip frame is surprisingly light.

Frame-to-slide contact is quite brief, with only four points of metal inlaid to ride inside the slide rails. Still, checking the accuracy data, we see numbers that indicate good combat accuracy. However, these numbers hide the potential of this pistol, in that fliers account for sizable increases in the groups fired single action only from 25 yards. For example, within two of the groups firing the Winchester Silvertip HP rounds, we measured four-shot groups at 1.7 and 2.0 inches, respectively. Adding the fifth shot, they appear on the chart as 3.3 and 3.4 inches. The USP45 served up at least two fliers per lot of test ammo in our bench rest session, spoiling some exceptional groups.

Accurizing polymer-framed pistols isn’t a new problem, since mating a steel slide to a “plastic” frame demands some sort of intermediate material for contact. H&K offers an O-ring on its more expensive Expert models that surrounds the barrel just behind the muzzle. This serves as a bushing to promote a true lockup. If available, this modification might help the USP as well.

Still, bench work isn’t the only measurement of a gun’s fighting qualities, so a more telling portion of our test procedure was the stand-and-shoot session from 12 yards, which included the transition from double to single action. We used a Competition Electronics timer to produce a start signal and record elapsed time at the sound of every shot. Ten separate runs produced an overall elapsed time, and the elapsed time (splits) between the start signal and the first shot produced double action. Also, we recorded the split time between the first shot (double action) and the second shot (single action). Last, we logged the split between the second and third shots fired single action only.

Bottom Line: The USP45 proved to be the fastest of our trio. But there was a downside. The HK USP45 produced only 28 out of 30 hits on the Millpark target, with 21 landing in the A-zone. Two shots were lost on the very first run, when the shooter dipped the trigger by mishandling not only the first DA shot but failing to land with the second shot fired single action. Part of this we attribute to the HK being up first, but the other factor was the gun had the least refined double action of our test guns. It did have the best SA pull, which accounts for SA-to-SA splits being up to one-tenth faster than either the SIG or Smith & Wesson pistols. Certainly, the initial DA trigger can be refined, and with that done enthusiasm for this gun should soar. In a nutshell we’d say the USP45 is like a good, lightweight, higher-capacity 1911 that has been saddled with the option of a mediocre DA first shot.

Smith & Wesson 4566TSW
The first impression one gets handling the 4566TSW (Tactical Smith & Wesson) is a sense of its narrow grip and heft. The plastic grip engulfs all but the front strap and blends very well with the 20-lpi checkering on the front strap. Finished in a pleasing satin stainless, highlights are in black, including the hammer, the safety/decocking lever, slide release, trigger, genuine Novak sights and the accessory rail beneath the dust cover that is distinctly fashioned like an upside down Weaver base. We rate this base to be the most utilitarian of its kind. The magazine release is brief, but checkered, and mags leave this gun enthusiastically.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 4566TSW features guide

The 4566TSW will not fire without a magazine in place. Capacity is 8+1, allowing this pistol to share the advantage of a thin 1911-style profile, but this is a TDA pistol through and through. The DA trigger is buttery smooth and is radiused perfectly, probably because Smith & Wesson has taken advantage of knowledge it gained from producing DA revolvers. We rate the trigger’s transition from DA to SA to be among the best we’ve seen and tops in this test. Slide-to-frame contact runs the full length of the frame in the TSW models, and a full-length guide rod is in place. The decocker and safety lever is available on either side of the gun. Also, releasing the safety requires an upward rather than downward stroke. Unfortunately, this negates the possibility of riding the safety to consistently locate the thumb and also counteract recoil. However, we do feel that the 4566TSW handles recoil better than either the SIG P220 or the HK USP45, mainly because of its weight.

At this point, we would like to point out a characteristic that we feel affected the TSW’s accuracy results. The fact that the muzzle area showed more carbon and debris after firing than the other two pistols may only be due to the 4566TSW being stainless while the others are black. But, this did affect our ability to clearly define the front-sight blade. Accuracy tests at 25 yards featured placing a set of black sights at 6 o’clock on a black bull printed on white paper. Sometimes, we also reference a front white dot to form a vertical “figure eight” with the bull, but in the case of this Smith & Wesson pistol, this soon became difficult because the front sight became blacked-out, or more accurately, blacked-over.

At the bench, this pistol proved to be more finicky than the other guns. While both the USP45 and the SIG P220 produced average group sizes that vary only 0.20 to 0.70 inch, the 4566TSW spread shots over an average of 1.5 inches among our three test rounds. It didn’t really connect with Winchester’s 185-grain Silvertip Hollowpoint and even varied from 3.4 to 2.6 inches with the venerable 230-grain FMJ round.

However, the one 2.6-inch group did contain a flyer that made us curious. Purchasing additional ammunition in the form of Winchester’s 230-grain SXT (Personal Protection) brand, we shot a 1.6-inch group that also contained a flyer which spoiled what was nearly a one-hole group. But to achieve this, we also had to make an allowance for the blacked-out sight, by leveling the gun beneath a white sheet of paper for this improved result. Otherwise the Winchester 185-grain FMJ (truncated cone shaped) rounds were far and away the most consistent, and at 185 grains recoil was so light we were surprised there was enough power to cycle the gun. Even the hotter Silvertips that also weighed 185 grains felt relatively mild. Perhaps hollowpoints with the truncated cone shape are the best answer, and Federal’s Hydra-Shok ammunition comes to mind.

During the Practical test we landed all 30 rounds on paper with 19 in the A-zone. Ten of the 11 shots that fell outside the A-zone were low, showing how easy it was to overpower the trigger and dip the muzzle. Had we used the 185-grain rather than the 230-grain FMJ rounds, results might have improved, but in our opinion training and familiarity with the weapon is the biggest factor.

SIG P220
We ordered our Sig P220 with SigLite night sights, and we feel this made a difference in every aspect of our test session. From gun to gun we are reminded that what you see is what you get. No, we didn’t fire in darkness or even dim light, but the sight picture here still gave us the most reconciliation of perspective and control during trigger operation. This is one reason why there is so little variation across the board on the accuracy chart.

Click here to view the SIG P220 features guide

In our Practical test, the 220 had the highest score of 22 A-zone hits, and all 30 shots were on the paper. We found the transition of the P220’s trigger from DA to SA to be very predictable. Elapsed times were second fastest behind the USP, but we noticed ourselves slipping into a consistent tempo instead of pushing it. This is actually a good sign and resembles a training exercise referred to as the Breakout Game. This is where the timer is set to sound off not only a start signal but a stop signal as well. The object is not to go faster and faster, but have the control and perspective to complete the string of fire at the same speed every time. This exercise builds awareness and perception as well as precision, three key elements not only of sporting competition but also self-defense.

Another feature of the P220 that makes it an exceptional weapon is the layout of the controls. The HK pistol offers safety-on/safety-off with one hand, a possible necessity when clearing an area with gun at high ready. The 4566TSW offers a similar arrangement, but the Sig P220 prefers that availability of the slide release take precedence. Here is the likely reasoning. Once the shooter has begun firing, should the gun lock back empty, the weak hand can retrieve and load the spare magazine. Once inserted, releasing the slide need not wait until the left hand is in position. Had we recorded reload times, this characteristic would have likely given the HK with its wide-mouthed magwell and tapered magazines a run for its money.

Like the Smith & Wesson pistol, the SIG’s grip is plastic and wraps around the backstrap. The grip is at its narrowest along the line following the index finger connecting the trigger to the undercut of the backstrap. Although textured, the plastic grip is a little slippery, which would be fine if only the front strap were checkered. Grip tape on the front is an inexpensive alternative.

Field stripping is as simple as locking the slide back and rotating the slide lock. Release the slide and the top end comes off. Revealed is a tubular full-length guide rod surrounded by a multi-filament recoil spring. To reassemble the Sig P220, simply apply the slide to the frame, lock it back and rotate the slide lock. Then release the slide and lower the hammer.

Slide and frame rails are full length, and you have to wonder what kind of alloy is used to make the frame assembly. It feels almost as light as the HK’s plastic frame. This adds to the SIG’s appeal as an everyday gun, lending it to carry or driving options. Actually, the frame weighs 14 ounces, still very light but not quite the feather weight of the HK, which goes only 9 ounces. The Smith & Wesson frame at 20 ounces more than doubled that heft.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson 4566TSW, $897. Conditional Buy. Recoil-dampening weight is a plus or minus depending on how the weight sits on your body. The only all-steel gun in the test was the most pleasant to shoot, but proved picky in terms of accuracy.

Heckler & Koch USP45, $759. Conditional Buy. With 22 of its 31 ounces in the top end, recoil can be stout at times. The option of cocked and locked carry can be a big plus, but more must be done to improve the first shot double action.

SigArms P220, $880. Buy It. Designed and built without apology to other designs, we feel this package offers simplicity and control throughout the traditional double-action manual of fire. If a full-size 1911 isn’t right for you, then this full-size 220 may be.


Also With This Article

Click here to view Practical Test Data