August 2001

.357 SIG Pistols: Three Winners, Two Maybes, and One ‘Must Buy’

We pitted three Glocks—the 31, 32, and 33 models—against three Sigarms products—the P229, the P239, and the 2340 Pro. One gun was so good we bought it for ourselves.

The Glock 31, left, and the Sigarms P239,
right, both tamed the powerful .357 SIG car-
tridge to our satisfaction.

The basic concept of the .357 SIG is to deliver the same stopping power of the feared and respected .357 Magnum revolver cartridge from a semi-automatic pistol. The .357 Magnum round, featuring a 125-grain bullet fired from a 4-inch duty revolver, is widely recognized to be a top-flight fight stopper. Unfortunately, the recoil and flash of this combination also has few equals. This recoil characteristic, in addition to the limited capacity of the revolver, has led to an evolution of the handgun in both police and civilian life. Just take a look at the action movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly everyone, bad guy and cop alike, carried a revolver. Today, the semi-automatic pistol is just as dominant in real life and film, where high-cap sidearms appear on troopers’ hips and in the world of celluloid villains.

Power and controllability have long been issues in pistol cartridges, as witnessed by the love/hate affair with 9mm rounds. Handgunners love to shoot the soft-kicking 9mm, but they don’t have confidence in the 9mm’s one-shot stopping power. A compromise has been to cram as many rounds in the handle as possible, essentially trading high capacity for power.

A more recent trend has been toward having fewer powerful rounds such as the .45 ACP and .40 Smith & Wesson in the magazine. Neither round is all that pleasant to shoot in a lightweight aluminum or polymer gun, but everyone believes they will stop whatever they hit.

The .357 SIG cartridge seeks to split the difference, offering the smaller rim diameter of a 9mm with nearly the punch of a .40 S&W. The Hodgdon No. 27 reloading manual says, “The .357 SIG is the .40 S&W case necked down to 9mm and effectively duplicates the .38 Super.” Its modest case diameter allows for the use of high-capacity magazines, and reliability is assured due to the “funneling” action of its necked down case. An added benefit to the shooter is less carry weight. While magazines filled with ten or more rounds of .45 ACP can make even a polymer pistol feel like a boat anchor, the .357 SIG pistol carries a payload weighing in much closer to that of 9mm handguns.

But even the best round in a sorry pistol package would be of no use to anyone, so we went a-searching for handguns that could fire the .357 SIG effectively. In this test we feature six pistols, a trio from Glock and a trio from Sigarms. The Glocks were the papa bear Glock GL31, $641; the mama bear Glock GL32, $616; and the baby bear Glock GL33, $641. The Sigarms siblings were the $795 P229; the polymer-framed SP 2340 PRO, $595; and the smallish P239, $620.

This is a particularly relevant test because the .357 SIG round is finding wider acceptance in the law-enforcement market and among civilians. The P229 now rides along with troopers for the Texas Department of Public Safety, along with law agencies in Delaware and Washington. The state police of New Mexico have adopted the Glock 31 for a primary duty weapon. Likewise, we sought to take an in-depth look from the civilian viewpoint, since the increasing number of guns chambered for the round and the larger number of manufacturers loading the round indicates the .357 SIG is strengthening its spot in the marketplace.

Range Session
Of the six guns in this test, only the Glock 33 is a true sub-compact. With the GL33 outvoted five to one, we chose to stick with the standard distance of 25 yards for our accuracy tests shot from a sandbag rest. For ammunition we chose cartridges topped with 125-grain slugs from Winchester, Speer, and Federal. Recently, .357 SIG rounds have begun to appear utilizing lighter (115 grain) and heavier (147-grain) bullets, but our decision to stick with the 125-grain slugs was based on the knowledge that the original incarnation of .357 SIG is a 125-grain round. With one full day of break-in for each gun, we then fired shots through an Oehler 35P chronograph and shot group painstakingly from the bench. Here’s what we found out.

Glock GL31, $641
As recently as our July 2001 issue, we praised the Glock 9mm GL17 in concert with the model GL26, a subcompact of the same caliber. Test results bore out that within the Glock lineup the GL17, closest to the original Glock product, was the best shooting and to our hands and eyes felt like the most coordinated pistol of the “gun mates” bunch.

Click here to view the Glock GL31 features guide

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Glock adapted this same pistol to other cartridges, including the .357 SIG, and we found the fully loaded GL31 handled much like the model 17. If you have ever felt that the Glock pistol chambered for .45 ACP or 180-grain .40s were somehow out of sync, then the .357 SIG is a more natural fit. From the standpoint of recoil, however, the loss of gross weight could be seen as a detriment. Even in the full-size GL31, the shooter becomes aware that he has just launched a hefty round. But because the projectile is light, the recoil pulse is over quickly, and the recoil is predictable. In particular, due to reduced bearing surface of the bullet traveling through the barrel, the shooter feels little torque when he fires the gun. Also, with the amount of propellant inside the oversized case, velocity is high and the bullet spends little time inside the barrel.

In fact, the GL31 produced the highest velocity overall, firing the Federal Premium 125-grain JHP at an average velocity of 1,364 fps. The Speer Gold Dot Hollowpoints (GDHP) rounds averaged a tick behind at 1,358 fps. The Winchester round-nosed flat points described as target or training ammunition averaged a whopping 1,336 fps. That means muzzle energy ranged from 496 to 517 foot-pounds.

Click here to view the Glock Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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To put this into perspective, the muzzle energy generated by some previously tested pistols in .45 ACP ranged from 276 foot-pounds (Winchester 185-grain full metal jackets) to 331 foot-pounds firing the Winchester 185-grain SilverTip HP. In another test, Winchester’s .40 S&W 180-grain FMJ produced about 400 foot-pounds. Returning to our lineup of .357 SIG pistols, even the small GL33 easily eclipsed these marks.

Obviously, power out the muzzle isn’t an issue with the .357 SIG, but how does that oomph register behind the gun? We found that working from a rest or standing, the GL31 is the easiest of the Glocks to shoot. There is plenty of frame to rest on a sandbag and the gun offers 6.5 inches of sight radius. Felt recoil is sharper than with other calibers, but in this case the force is expressed directly rearward, not as muzzle flip. We theorize that since more of the energy is coming straight back into the hand, instead of torquing upward, the impact of the recoil seems greater. Working from a rest, for example, it is the wrist that takes a beating. This is because the recoil has nowhere to go but up.

In testing the Glock pistols, we felt the increased kick from this high-pressure round, but we didn’t think the wrist fatigue was overwhelming. However, we did feel more impact as the gun sat back into the hand. A firm grip with a focused intent is needed to fire the Glock .357 SIG pistols effectively.

The GL31 proved the least objectionable to shoot and also produced the most accuracy. While five-shot groups averaged a respectable 2.4-inch diameter with the Winchester FMJ rounds, the GL31’s performance with the hollowpoints were exceptional. The Federal shot the smallest single group (1.2 inches), but what impressed us more was the performance of the Speer 125-grain GDHP round, varying only 0.1 inch across the groups for an average of 1.9 inches.

Glock GL32, $616
What the midsize GL32 loses in control to overall mass it makes up in available grip. Holding it in your hand, you get the sensation of having every inch of the gun under your control. Nevertheless, there is a noticeable amplification of recoil compared to the larger GL31. The recoil sensation is unlike heavyweight .45s, but we found it hard to be casual in our firing session. We feel there is still a market niche for practice ammunition in this caliber that could run the pistol with considerably less power. This would help owners of the lighter pistols such as the Glocks get in needed rounds without punishing themselves.

Click here to view the Glock GL32 features guide

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In the heavier, slower-moving calibers any pistol with a hinged trigger and double-action-only type movement is asking for trouble in the form of scooping the trigger, or dipping the muzzle as the trigger is pulled back. Bigger bullets exacerbate the problem because they take so long to leave the barrel, and the continuous subtraction of substantial weight keeps interfering with the gun’s balance. But, chambered for the lightweight and speedy .357 SIG round, the GL32 was almost completely devoid of this problem fired from a rest or standing unsupported. This led to a consistent level of accuracy ranging between 2.1 and 2.2 inches for all shots fired. While the GL31 is the choice of at least one state police agency, we would guess that the GL32 would be the choice of civilian handgun licensees. At only 24 ounces unloaded and near 2-inch accuracy at 25 yards, this Glock pistol will likely make shooters grit their teeth and learn to love the .357 SIG.

Glock GL33, $641
It may be apparent from the descriptions of the Glock 31 and 32 that neither of these pistols is for a beginning shooter. They are accurate, and ours proved reliable, but they are not the friendliest companion during longer practice sessions. We haven’t mentioned the durability question, because we would require much more shooting time to judge these pistols than we have offered. But in the case of the GL33, it is our opinion that the adaptation of the Glock system to the short-gripped subcompact frame is where we draw the line. We have tested the subcompact frame in 9mm, .40 S&W and even .45 ACP. We found that the short frame in 9mm was not so bad. But our acceptance of the subcompact Glock pistols ends with the .357 SIG round. While all the Glock subcompacts look as though they might just pop out of your hand upon firing, the GL33 may be the only one that actually will. Still, if you have a strong grip and the hankering for real power in a small package with exceptional capacity for a little gun (9+1), the GL33 will deliver more power than many full-sized guns with better or comparable accuracy. There are quite a few full-sized pistols on the market that can barely match the GL33’s 25-yard accuracy that for us ranged from 2.9 to 3.3 inches per five-shot group.

Click here to view the Glock GL33 features guide

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In terms of power we have already stated that the GL33 delivers more muzzle energy than many full-sized pistols in larger calibers. In fact there was a difference of only 23 foot-pounds between the “target” ammunition and the aggressively constructed Federal Premium 125-grain JHP cartridges. Though the GL33 offers accuracy, higher capacity, and power, this last attribute may be too much for the casual shooter.

SIGARMS P229, $795
The Texas Department of Public Safety, along with the states of New Mexico and Delaware, have chosen the P229 in .357 SIG as their primary sidearm, beating out other SIG models, namely the P226 and P229 in both 9X19 and .40 S&W, which are favored by as many as eight other states.

Click here to view the Sigarms P229 features guide

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After reading the evaluation of the Glock pistols above, it is easy to see why state agencies—which generally have higher training standards than smaller local departments—would readily accept a more powerful caliber, even if it did require better fundamentals to be fired effectively.

Of course, the balance between power and control is difficult to assess for every customer in the marketplace, but on the point of recoil control, compared to the Glock pistols the P229 is a model subject. Weighing just seven more ounces than the GL31, we felt the P229 was far easier to control from shot to shot. Certainly, the nearly extra half-pound is one reason for this, but so too is the mechanism. While both are linkless designs, the weight of the P229 is more evenly distributed. The frame is alloy, and while substantially lighter than a comparable model would weigh if fashioned from steel, the frame alone is still surprisingly light. The slide is stainless steel, but it’s presented with a blackened finish. The weight differential between the slide and frame is less than on polymer pistols, so this deducts a significant percentage of reciprocating mass. The SIG pistol also fires with a hammer assembly, which requires a small amount of recoil energy to operate. Some of the SIG’s extra weight is due to a more complex firing mechanism than the striker-fired Glocks. A decocker assembly is included for safe hammer-down carry with the intent of creating a buffer between accidental and intentional discharge.

We judged the grip on the P229 to be the most comfortable of all six pistols, with the GL32 coming in second. During all phases of this test we found both the P229 and the compact P239 to be the most comfortable to shoot. In fact, we thought these pistols harnessed the powerful nature of the .357 SIG caliber without making the shooter pay the price.

Compared to the GL31, which produced the most velocity and muzzle energy, the P229 is a smaller gun. To date Sigarms has not released a large-framed pistol in .357 SIG, and it’s overall size and resulting chronograph data is much closer to the mid-sized GL32. Measured against the GL32, the P229’s ballistics are nearly identical. But a comparison in accuracy shows that the P229 performs more like a full sized pistol. The Winchester 125-grain FMJs averaged 1.6-inch group sizes over five shots, and the Speer GDHP rounds were only a tick behind at 1.7 inches (while producing 491 foot-pounds of muzzle energy). On balance, the average group sizes for all shots fired were nearly identical to Glock’s full-size pistol.

Click here to view the Sigarms Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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Part of the P229’s accuracy was due to its sights. Night sights are available, but we found the basic Sigarms package of a standard notch and post to be effective. The front sight sports a white dot that can be aligned quickly with a wide vertical stripe inside the rear notch. We couldn’t decide if this was distracting during the bench rest session or helping. Under slow-fire conditions, we generally favor focusing on the light bars that surround the front sight blade. Looking at the results of our test, it might be accurate to call the choice between the light bars and the “dot on a stick” a draw.

Firing the P229 is more complicated than a single-action 1911 or a Glock. After a round is chambered, the hammer is ready to fall. The trigger is positioned toward the rear of the trigger guard, requiring only a short single-action press to fire. At this point you have the option of decocking the weapon, bringing the hammer down to a safe position. The hammer can subsequently be pulled back (preferably by the weak-hand thumb) if a return to single-action fire is desired, but the intent of the design is to decock the action and so the first shot is fired double action. After the first shot is fired, the pistol returns to single-action mode. This system requires more shooting practice than the Glock trigger, but we felt safer handling the loaded gun with the firing system decocked.

To shoot the P229 fast, the owner must follow the trajectory of the trigger backward and forward not only between single-action shots but during the transition from DA to SA as well. Compared to the Glock trigger, the SIG pistols in single-action mode have an advantage in cycling speed. This is partly because there is far less disruption in sight alignment.

SIGARMS SP2340 SIG PRO, $595
The SP2340, better known as the SIG Pro, is not actually a plastic version of the P229, but a separate pistol unto its own. In this pistol the frame is polymer and the stainless-steel slide (blackened) rides on steel frame rails somewhat like the Glock. The rails are replaceable in case of excess wear. The magazine release can be changed from left to right if desired. For our taste, the magazine release on the SP 2340 is a bit remote, which can be a good thing. Still, the release on the P229 is far more efficient. We could reload the P229 in a flash, but it still offered mistake-free operation.

Click here to view the Sigarms SP2340 Sig Pro features guide

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The SP2340 trigger is profiled differently than the P229. We feel this shape may suit the SA mode on this pistol better than the trigger on the P229, but in our opinion it is not as efficient when engaged for double action. Breaking down the SIG Pro is more complicated, and in our opinion less sure, than either the P229 or P239. On the P models you simply lock back the slide and rotate a latch on the left side, then release the slide catch and slip the top end off the frame. The SP2340 asks you to remove the slide-catch lever while aligning it with a notch controlling the slide against the strength of the recoil spring. Of course this is nothing new, but it is less convenient than breaking down the Sigarms P models.

One feature unique to the Pro is its modular grip, which can be removed and replaced with an optional panel of different size and shape. This makes the Pro adjustable to a variety of hand sizes. The smooth-faced model is larger and fills more of the palm. We did our testing with the smaller grip in place (as the PRO was shipped). We changed grips a few times and for some reason, sometimes it was a cinch and at other times, usually when removing the larger panel, it was difficult. Either way, this is a nice option for a model that is significantly less expensive ($596 versus $795 base price for the P229) than its stablemate.

The lighter Pro recoiled more than the metal-framed P229 did, but it didn’t pound as much as the Glocks. However, it did muzzle flip significantly. In our opinion this was because even with the smaller grip in place, the pistol seems to ride markedly higher in our hands. Also, the grip profile doesn’t seem to blend like on the P229, where it is integrated exceptionally well.

Elsewhere on the gun, the pro shares the same sight style as the P229, but the hammer tang was abbreviated and more difficult to thumb, in our view. Also, we had to pay more attention when firing the Pro or recoil would raise our point of impact. Average group sizes were very respectable, ranging on average from 2.1 to 2.5 inches for all shots fired from a rest at 25 yards. Thus, with the accuracy numbers close, the main advantages the SIG SP2340 Pro has over the P229 are its lower price and lighter weight.

SIGARMS P239, $620
Within the Sigarms lineup, a large frame does not necessarily ensure higher capacity. The P220, for example, carries only 8+1 in a single-stack .45 ACP magazine. The P239 is much smaller than the P220, but with the smaller cases to contend with, this “single stack” with short grip still packs 7+1 capacity. We first tested a P239 in our March 2000 issue and found that it was fast and accurate. How accurate? We shot an extraordinary average group size of only 1.3 inches at 25 yards firing 125-grain Federal Hydra-Shok ammunition. Also at that time, the Winchester 125-grain FMJ rounds printed 1.7- to 1.8-inch groups consistently. Speer ammunition averaged 2.4 inches.

Click here to view the Sigarms P239 features guide

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In this test, the P239 continued its love affair with Federal rounds. Federal’s Premium hollowpoints grouped from 1.9 to 2.1 inches on average. Muzzle energy from the P239’s 6.5-inch barrel topped out at 475 foot-pounds firing the Speer GDHPs, as much as 175 foot-pounds more than the result of shooting the .45 ACP P220. The P239 was also fast to shoot. We credit its rapid cycling speed to a combination of the high pressure .357 SIG cartridge and the reduced mass of the shorter slide. While the P229 is rated as a compact and many concealment holsters, including inside-the-waistband (IWB) holsters are available for it, the P239 is by far the easiest carry in the Sigarms lineup, in our view.

The P239 also shares the same one-hand operation with the P229 and other Sigarms pistols. By this we mean, that once a magazine is inserted, the gun can be controlled and fired with the right hand only. The right-hand thumb can release the slide and chamber a round. If desired, the right-hand thumb may then lower the hammer by pressing the decocker. The slide release is toward the rear with the decocker just ahead of it. However, for the left-handed segment of the population, there is no similar accommodation.

As previously mentioned, firing a Sigarms pistol is by traditional double action, or first double then single action. Of course you can bypass the DA position, but this leaves out the safety mechanism. The double action pull will appear easier to work on this pistol than on other models if only for the fact that the smaller grip frame will position the hand with more strength.

When we weighed the P239, we realized that its slim, compact design had tricked us into believing it was much lighter than the scale read: 30 ounces. This is the same as the polymer SIG Pro and just 3 ounces less than the P229. This weight, even with a full magazine, is evidently well placed. Also, felt recoil was less a problem than with the polymer Pro and even the largest of the Glock pistols. We feel the P239 is a very good choice for a 21st century Officer’s Model.

Gun Tests Recommends
Glock GL31, $641. Buy It. The large frame offers the most sight radius and comfort. Potential capacity is highest, and the polymer frame could use the extra ballast. Simplicity and the power of the .357 SIG cartridge are reasons enough to buy this pistol.

Glock GL32, $616. Buy It. Concealability is better than the GL31, but recoil jumps, too. But the GL32 is perhaps Glock’s most ergonomic pistol, helping you tame the power.

Glock GL33, $641. Conditional Buy It. This subcompact offers accuracy, power, and high capacity, but you have to hang on with only two fingers. This frame size is for those who have a stout grip.

Sigarms P229, $795. Buy It. The P229’s combination of grip, capacity, accuracy, and power should be enough to convince anyone to take advantage of this firearm.

Sigarms SP2340 Pro, $595. Conditional Buy. If you are willing to trade some recoil control for lighter carry weight without a compromise in capacity, the Pro will do just fine. Interchangeable grips and a lower price than its alloy siblings is a plus.

Sigarms P239, $620. Buy It. The P239 is one of the most accurate and reliable small guns in recent memory. Its balance belies its actual weight, which, thanks to the lightweight .357 SIG cartridge, increases little even when fully loaded. Though other guns mentioned above certainly are worth the money, we gave this gun our highest accolade—we bought one for ourselves.