Non-1911 .45 ACP Single-Stack Pistols: Sigarms Versus S&W
Two stock steel-framed .45s go at it in a match up of Custom Defensive Pistol Division shooting needs. Tested: The Sigarms P220ST and Smith & Wesson’s 4566TSW.
In the fall of 2003, Earnest Langdon captured the Custom Defensive Pistol Division (CDP) at the annual International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) championship match held in Little Rock, Arkansas. That Langdon, a top competitor in the Practical Shooting ranks, was victorious is not news. What was news is that he did it competing with a traditional double action Sigarms P220ST pistol rather than a custom 1911, the type of pistol for which the CDP division was founded upon. Naturally, we wanted to know what was so special about this gun. Taking a quick look at it, we immediately recognized that another pistol, the Smith & Wesson 4566TSW, was similar.
We couldn’t wait to strip these guns down and see if they differed radically on the inside, and then take them to the range. Keeping in mind that an IDPA Custom Defensive Pistol was allowed plenty of leeway in terms of modification we also wanted to find out if these pistols could be “hot-rodded” with aftermarket parts. What we found impressed us.
Sigarms, formerly known as SIG Sauer in the United States, has been quietly producing a traditional double action .45 with an eight-round single-column magazine for many years. To most Americans Sig made its reputation with this pistol. The gun’s appeal stemmed from the fact that it was a blend of European design and .45 ACP power. What kept it from being more popular was the price, which was higher than competing brands. But in recent years, paying in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more has become commonplace for a good .45 ACP pistol, so price has become less of a head-to-head factor. Another twist in the evolution of this line of pistols was that the sheet-metal slides that were being made in Germany were replaced by a forged-steel slide made at the Sigarms headquarters in Exeter, New Hampshire. This is why the frame reads, “Made in Germany,” and the slide is bannered with SIGARMS, INC, EXETER-NH-USA.
The P220ST is a variation of the more familiar model that features an alloy frame, the latter of which has a listed weight of 27.8 ounces. In comparison, the P220ST is marketed as a target model with added weight to fight recoil. Why this “target” gun needs an equipment rail puzzles us, but it does position additional weight in just the right position to add control. Our P220ST weighed in at more than 40 ounces.
The P220ST had a 4.4-inch barrel with a portion of the hood cut away for the purpose of visual chamber indication. The cut also served to impress us with just how beefy the barrel was. The slide was cut with rear cocking serrations only and topped with a white-dot sight up front and a white bar-notch sight in the rear. Slide to frame fit was tight. The accessory rail was not added to the frame. It was part of the contours cut from the original block of stainless steel. The frame also featured mild 20-lpi checkering on the front strap and a contour cut on the leading edge of the trigger guard to make room for accessories or facilitate a forefinger hold. The trigger guard was undercut slightly to lower the gun in the hand, and there was a beavertail-style tang in the rear. The grip was rubber contoured to cover the back strap. The finish was matte silver with black accents of the trigger, slide release, decocker, magazine release and breakdown lever.
Field stripping the Sigarms pistol was very simple. Lock back the slide, rotate the breakdown lever clockwise 90 degrees, and slide the top end forward off of the frame.
To collect raw accuracy data, we fired single action only from a sandbag rest at 25 yards. Our test ammunitions were a popular 230-grain FMJ round from Federal American Eagle, Federal’s 165-grain Hydra-Shok jacketed hollowpoint, and a 185-grain hollowpoint from Zero Ammunition of Cullman, Alabama, (800-545-9376), that we had not tried before. All rounds fired fell into five-shot groups measuring between 2.5 and 3.0 inches. Although this is not spectacular accuracy, this is one of the most consistent performances we’ve seen from an over-the-counter handgun. We might add that each of our three test rounds was very different. But what we found more remarkable was that each round recorded single digit numbers for standard deviation, as reported by our Oehler chronograph. The star of chronograph session was the Zero 185-grain JHP rounds that recorded an SD of 1.0 fps for five rounds, twice. We’ve never seen that before.
Both the P220ST and the Smith & Wesson 4566TSW are large guns built for larger hands. But the distance from the back of the gun to the front of the trigger in double-action on the P220ST was approximately 0.4 inch shorter, measuring 2.7 inches. Once these guns were in single action, the distance shrank nearly a full half-inch on both the Sigarms and Smith & Wesson models.
Besides standard accuracy collection, we also tested the ability to transition between DA and SA fire. Also, we wanted to find out how easily we could track and reacquire the sights during rapid fire. The drill consisted of a series of 10 strings of three shots each at 7 yards. (A string was a separate and complete succession of shots). To be successful, the shooter had to be physically smooth and precise. We wanted to know how each pistol helped or hindered this process.
Because the Zero ammunition had proven to be consistent, we used it exclusively for this part of the test. We began with the gun on the center mass (A-zone) of a Hoffner’s ABC16 target. The first shot was fired double action, and we followed through with a second shot at the A-zone via single action. Then we transitioned vertically to the B-zone, or cranial cavity as portrayed on the target. This shot was also single action. Setting the fastest time was not the objective, but we did challenge ourselves to move quickly. We measured the two groups and noted the point of impact relative to our point of aim. The stock P220ST delivered a 20-shot group in the A-zone of DA to SA hits measuring 6.8 inches. More impressive was the “head” shot of 10 rounds that measured only 4.4 inches. Better yet, all hits were dead center, indicating that the shooter had no trouble avoiding sight deflection or difficulty with the trigger.
We haven’t had a look at the championship pistol of Earnest Langdon but we did gain access to a P220ST being campaigned by master gunsmith Ross Carter (870-741-2265). Carter is best known for his 1911 work, but he recognized the value of the heavy P220ST right away. Finding that the P220ST recoiled less than the typical 1911 single stack, he set about modifying his P220ST to his personal taste. The IDPA Custom Defensive Pistol division was meant to be shot by expensive custom 1911s, so there is quite a bit of modification allowed.
Not seeing any need to refine barrel or slide fit, Carter concentrated mostly on making it fit his hands and eyes. This began with a wooden grip from Hogue that was shaved to fit his hands, including a relief to guide his thumb to the magazine release. Trigger work dropped the DA pull to 10 pounds and the SA pull to 6 pounds. Length of pull was not affected, but the trigger was polished and rounded, letting the finger glide across the face during double-action fire. The slide was flat topped to reduce weight and allow the sights to be mounted lower.
Carter thinned the front sight and installed a rear unit with the face lined and patterned for both glare reduction and faster acquisition. The new sight also sat way back on the slide, increasing sight radius by more than 0.4 inch. Having already enlarged the magazine well Carter is in the process of producing a magazine guide to make reloading even faster. Using this tweaked 220ST, we revisiting our drill and were able to tighten up the A-zone group that was composed of DA to SA shots by almost 2 inches.
Carter admits that his gun, just like any other racing machine, is a work in progress. But the book on available go-fast goodies for this gun is barely past the first chapter. That said, we think that The P220ST is a big leap forward for traditional double-action pistols in competition with more established designs.
Since reorganizing under new management, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based firm of Smith & Wesson has moved forward by expanding its lineup with new products such as the mighty .500 S&W Magnum revolver and, for the first time, a 1911 pistol. Somewhat hidden in the shadows of newer models is a line of traditional double-action and double-action-only pistols wearing the suffix TSW, for Tactical Smith & Wesson. Although some consider these steel-framed pistols to be too heavy, they have had success in the past in Police Pistol Competition (PPC). In particular, the Mississippi Highway Patrol team led by Philip Hemphill has favored the TSWs.
Like the Sigarms P220, would the 4566TSW have the potential to win in IDPA competition? The overall length of the Smith & Wesson is just 0.2 inch shorter than the 220, but the barrel of the two guns is nearly the same length. The key to the success of the Sigarms P220ST may be its extra weight, but the Smith & Wesson pistol, which weighed only about 3 ounces less, has always had this characteristic just waiting for someone to call it an advantage.
Similarities between the two pistols abound. The frame had a healthy beavertail, and like the P220ST, the SW grip wrapped around the backstrap. But the Smith & Wesson grip was narrow, and the plastic was slippery. We liked the Sigarms’ grip better. There was also a mild dose of checkering on the front strap. The 4566TSW is slightly taller (5.6 versus 5.5 inches), and the trigger guard was not undercut as much as on the Sigarms pistol. The result was a slight advantage to the P220ST shooter getting the pistol lower in the hand, which should add control. The accessory rail on the 4566TSW was bolted on instead of being integrated into the frame. This upside-down Weaver rail was aluminum, partially accounting for the difference in weight. Replacing it with a tungsten replica would be a good way to add weight.
The biggest difference between the two pistols was how the slide worked. The 4566TSW decocker lever was mounted on the slide instead of the frame, but this gun had two additional safety features. After the shooter rotated the decocker from the 9 o’clock to the 7 o’clock position, the hammer fell harmlessly against the block. The gun was now on safe with the trigger completely disconnected. Returning the lever to the 9 o’clock position readied it for double-action fire.
Another safety was the magazine disconnector. Without a magazine in place, the trigger would not function. The decocker was ambidextrous and rear-cocking serrations adorned the slide. We did not feel that the decocking levers were in the way or interfered with manually racking the slide. If anything, the levers helped us grab the slide. The barrel hood was cut for a chamber indicator just above the breechface.
The process for field stripping the Smith & Wesson resembled 1911-style disassembly. With the magazine out and chamber empty, the shooter moved the slide back until the slide stop was aligned with the breakdown notch. The slide stop was then pushed out from the frame. The 4566TSW had the lighter frame and the heavier slide. A portion of this extra weight in the slide was likely a result of the decocking mechanism. Slide to frame contact in the Smith & Wesson design was significantly less than the Sigarms design. The bevel of the Smith & Wesson magazine well, however, was more extensive, especially in the rear of the well, which is the most important surface. The magazine release was simple and understated but easy to find and operate.
At the range we couldn’t wait to find out if many of the small differences between the two pistols would affect performance or merely be written off as theory. In raw accuracy we found that the 4566TSW was not as consistent as the P220ST. Firing the Zero 185-grain JHP ammunition, the Smith & Wesson was a close second with a 2.9-inch average five-shot group. The Federal American Eagle 230-grain FMJs shot average group sizes of more than 3.0 inches. The Federal Hydra-Shok 165-grain hollowpoints did best in the Smith, shooting one tight group of 1.8 inches. The 4566TSW was originally designed as a duty gun at a time when the Federal Hydra-Shok was the recommended ammunition, so we think this may be more than coincidence.
In our practical test of firing double-action then single action at center mass and following with a single action shot to the head, we learned still more about the Smith & Wesson 4566TSW. We actually had a tighter group in the A-zone with the Smith & Wesson than with the P220ST. Our 20-shot group measured 4.6 inches. But the group was left of center with two shots fully out of the A-zone. We blamed the slippery, narrow grip that did not completely fill our hands. This may have allowed the grip to shift, or simply encouraged us to overpower the trigger. We never really settled on how to hold this gun. In the upper portion of the target in the B-zone, our 10-shot group measured about 6 inches. We thought the sights on this pistol were not distinctive enough and were difficult to track.
As close as these two guns performed, the Sigarms P220ST is match proven and consistent. We think it is ready to go right out of the box. Still, the Smith & Wesson 4566 could be a real sleeper. Some competitors are beginning to have success with similar Smith & Wesson pistols in the USPSA Production Division. For example, Master class shooter John Flentz has had success competing with a S&W 5906 with basic modifications from the Smith & Wesson Performance Center. But more often than not it takes talented and inventive individuals like Earnest Langdon, Ross Carter and John Flentz to develop stock pistols for the highest level of competition. Should Flentz choose to enter the IDPA’s CDP division with a model 4566TSW where just about anything goes the results might be worth watching.
Gun Tests Recommends
SIGarms P220ST .45 ACP, $861. Our Pick. This may be the best of all full-size TDA pistols currently available. You might want to buy the alloy-framed P220 for carry and an “ST” model for sport. For under $1,000 you can go up against the best 1911s in IDPA competition and, in our opinion, have a darn good chance of winning.
Smith & Wesson 4566TSW .45 ACP $961. Buy It. Careful choice of ammunition and personal modifications should help it eclipse many better-known pistols. Off the shelf, we’d watch how it fits your hands, but otherwise, this is a solid performer.