Gun Review: SIG SAUER P226 Elite SAO

P226 Elite SAO left
by Christopher Barnett

My preferred, primary carry pistol is one with a single-action-only trigger and a full-size, metal frame. I realize there are many who would question that choice and for the most part I understand and even respect their arguments. Yes, the guns tend to be boat belt anchors. Yes, there is a manual safety to commit to muscle memory. Yes, modern, polymer-frame, striker-fired pistols tend to offer excellent reliability. I get it. However, my opinion is that you should bet your life on a weapon . . .

(1) that works, given its design and the degree of care you are able and willing to provide it, (2) that you really are willing to carry every day, and (3) that promotes the greatest level of confidence *with you* among all options satisfying the first two criteria. For a while, for me, that has been a government-size 1911. I am more accurate, quicker to target and more confident with a 1911, I do not mind the size, and I would rather train to develop my strengths on that kind of platform than to overcome my weaknesses on something else. Thumb safety be damned.

That said, I never have been a big fan of certain aspects of the 1911 design, such as the grip safety and the barrel link. Also, all things being equal, I would prefer the higher round count and even faster follow-up times I can get with 9mm. That leaves me with relatively few metal-frame alternatives to my 45, none of which has been quite compelling enough for me to adopt. For three examples:

Browning Hi Power

The Browning/FN Hi Power is a very elegant and (for its size) very concealable weapon offering a respectable 13+1 capacity with standard magazines. However, its trigger suffers miserably from a magazine disconnect “safety” (thanks, France) and from an obnoxiously stout mainspring that probably could hammer the firing pin through plate steel. Annoyingly, the Hi Power also has no tactile trigger reset.

CZ 75b

The CZ 75B is similarly svelte (as duty-sized pistols go) and well-balanced and can be carried either DA/SA or in Condition 1. However, the standard 75B’s trigger in SA mode in my experience is inferior to most any 1911 (or even to a Hi Power), and non-competition-grade CZs seem to be a little less polished in their production quality. There allegedly is a 75B available from the factory with an SAO trigger, though I have been unable to readily find examples for sale.

Lionheart LH9

The new Lionheart LH9 also is intriguing, in that it can be carried (1) cocked and locked or (2) DA/SA or even (3) “Double Action PLUS+”. It seems to be a well-made and good-looking firearm. However, that third trigger mode makes the fire control group relatively complex, and complexity to me means more things to go wrong. That may be an unjustified way to look at it, but it would affect my confidence level in the gun. I also agree with Nick that the safety levers seem to be too small.

And, with few exceptions that are even less interesting to me, that’s mostly been it. Until SHOT Show 2013, when SIG announced the release of the P226 Elite SAO.

P226 Elite SAO slide open

I admittedly have a general love of all things SIG, to wit (in part): My EDC companion has been a SIG 1911 Nitron, which never has missed a beat for me. (Nick’s reported troubles with the T&E gun he received baffle me.) It also has a very nice trigger that is as good as I have experienced in a mass-produced 1911 with a firing pin safety. I also have a P938 that I occasionally carry when circumstances warrant, and it too has performed well for me (though its stock plastic trigger is pretty miserable, in my opinion, and was quickly switched out for a stainless steel replacement).

I also always have greatly admired the “classic” line of SIG pistols descending from the P220. However, despite its awesomeness, the P226 has not in the past been a strong carry contender for me, since the standard configuration is DA/SA. Even if I were inclined to just deal with the trigger modes, my borderline little-girl-sized hands have to reach a bit too much for the standard P226 trigger in DA mode.

SIG’s release of the new Elite SAO model has fixed those issues.

Design

P226 Elite rear

The P226 is and always has been every bit a full-size, means-business duty weapon. The most obvious external difference between this iteration and the standard model is the lack of the left-side decocker and its replacement with an ambidextrous thumb safety. This setup is not unique to the Elite SAO in the P226 line, though. For some time, SIG has produced its X-Five and X-Six custom and semi-custom guns, which are long-slide P226s on steroids used mostly for competition and for looking fabulous. However, those pistols are heavier, owing to their steel frames (rather than the lighter anodized aluminum on most P226s), they have user-adjustable triggers, and they sport aristocratic price tags. I’d love to own one, but there’s no way I’d carry it for anything other than a barbeque.

Relative to standard P226s, on the Elite SAO SIG also has applied forward cocking serrations on the slide and a beavertail grip, both of which are fine, though not really deal-makers for me. The excellent and increasingly standard-issue SIGLITE night sites are a bigger win, as is the generous frame machining south of the trigger guard to afford a better grip (especially for us hand-size-challenged shooters). That ambi thumb safety also is a marvel, as manual thumb safeties go. Its levers stick out almost like little flags to remind you they’re there, and it’s in the Goldilocks Zone for positive engagement – not too tight and not too squishy…juuuust right. Also, unlike a 1911 or Hi Power (or even an X-Five), the SAO’s thumb safety does not lock the slide, which means you can clear the chamber or run a brass check without having to take the weapon off safe.

Takedown is typical P226 simplicity – drop the mag, safety check, lock back the slide, pivot the takedown lever, and slide the gun apart. That’s about as good as it gets with a semi-auto and far better than any 1911 (especially those that require tools…ick), Hi Power, CZ 75 or LH9. The SAO’s insides are P226-y, though there are obvious differences owing to the single action trigger mechanism.

P226 Elite inner workings

The worst thing I can mention about the design of the gun is its size. Even among full size sidearms, the P226 is a long (8.2″), tall (5.5″), fat (1.6″) weapon that really is meant to be worn OWB or in a chest or thigh rig. Concealing it presents challenges. However, living in Texas means I don’t have to worry about printing (or, come September 1, 2013, the occasional gust of wind or trip to a mattress store), and I have found that a quality IWB holster like the Comp-Tac Minotaur MTAC is all I need to carry comfortably. YMMV, depending on your body type and tolerance for 2.5+ lbs of extra weight at your side.

I also probably could do without the SIG rail at the dust cover, but it’s certainly not a problem for me, either.

 

P226 Elite SAO right

 

Ergonomics

The only bad thing I can say about the standard P226 ergos is the aforementioned trigger reach, which means the only bad thing I can say about the SAO ergos is nothing. Since the trigger is always in single-action mode, it is always positioned further to the rear in the trigger guard. My index finger naturally comes to rest on the trigger right at the middle of the pad of the fingertip. Right where I like it.

The grip is great. It fills my hand without being too cumbersome, leaving no part of it without something solid to squeeze into while I’m firing. Most 1911 grips are dimensionally fine for me, but they never seem to fill the hand particularly well. The standard X-Five-style plastic grip panels provide a satisfactory degree of grippitude. I might consider some aftermarket grips at some point (Hogue makes some), but it’s not a priority at this stage.

Finally, as with all P226s, the slide stop is in a useful position that I can actually reach. Not so on my SIG 1911, unless I were to fit in an extended slide stop. The magazine release also is larger and more reachable, though still just a hair’s breadth from me being able to hit it without slightly changing my grip. I’m neither a SEAL nor a competitive shooter, though, so no big deal.

Shooting Experience

The SAO has a hinged trigger like its other P226 stable-mates, but it is a nice one. At the tip, I notice about 3/16” of light/smooth Takeup Part I, followed by about 3/16” of slightly less light/smooth Takeup Part II – Revenge of the Firing Pin Safety. Then a wall, and then about 1/16” for the hammer to fall. No noticeable overtravel. It’s a reasonably crisp break that, according to SIG, requires about 5.0 lbs of pull. I do not own a scale to measure it myself, but 5.0 lbs seems accurate to me just based on past experience. I think it is a good single-action weight for a defensive gun, though competitive shooters likely would find it to be a bit heavy. My SIG 1911 has a slightly lighter, crisper break (though, SIG also advertises it at 5.0 lbs). I suspect mine is a little lighter than that, but I have shot the thing a bunch.

At the range, the gun handles as one would expect from any P226. It has a fairly high bore axis, compared to most of the competition, but the weight and superior ergonomics beat the felt recoil into submission.

Accuracy also is typical SIG excellence. Again, I do not compete, and while my marksmanship abilities may be serviceable, they definitely are not superior to any quality, full-size, semi-automatic pistol. I will say that I still am slightly more accurate with my 1911 than I am with the P226 Elite SAO, likely owing to my longer history with the former and to its lighter trigger. However, the difference between my performance on the 1911 versus the P226 at typical defensive distances is negligible.

Specifications:

Caliber: 9mm
Barrel: 4.4″
Sights: SIGLITE night sights
Finish: Nitron slide, black hard anodized frame
Overall Length: 8.2″
Overall Weight: 34.4 oz (with mag)
Cost: $1,218 MSRP (street price around $1,000)

RATINGS (out of five stars):

Style * * * *

I think SIG’s “classic” line includes some damn fine-looking weapons, and this one is no exception. That said, my personal ne plus ultra of “modern,” production handgun style is the Hi Power. Or the 1911. Depends on which day you’re asking me.

Ergonomics * * * * *

I think this gun’s ergos are superior to just about any production pistol, regardless of platform or material. The grip fills my hand perfectly, and the weight minimizes whatever felt recoil a 9mm can throw at me. I like my GLOCK 17 just fine, but it feels like a Nerf-y plastic block by comparison.

Shooting * * * *

The trigger is a bit heavier than a typical 1911, which, absent practice, practice, practice may mean slightly less accurate shooting. However, the sublime feel of this pistol coupled with the lighter recoil of the 9mm round means that all that practice, practice and practice can last – enjoyably – for as long as your wallet will allow.

Reliability  * * * * *

This is predictive on my part, since the gun is so new. However, I have had no failures of any kind so far, having fed it a variety of ammo selections. Given the P226’s reputation, I expect none.

Customize This  * * * * *

It’s a standard-size P226 with a SIG rail. Other than the holster, I don’t intend to add anything to it for now, but the options are legion for those who do. Holsters, sights, lasers, lights, grips, mags, barrels…the mag opening is even machined for a “jet funnel,” for those who like magwells. Have at it.

Overall Rating  * * * * *

“If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” SIGs generally aren’t cheap, and this one is no exception, with an MSRP of $1,218. The retail market probably will knock off $200-300. That said, I stumbled upon a truly excellent price for mine while perusing Gunbroker, so keep looking and you might find yourself a deal. Cost aside, I believe this is one of the finest (if not the finest) mass-market, single-action defensive 9mm pistols ever produced.