SIG SAUER developed the P226 series of pistols for submission to the 1984 XM9 Service Pistol Trials. The XM9 program actually grew out of the Joint Service Small Arms Porgram (JSSAP) which had been started by the Air Force as early as 1979. The goal of both programs was to evaluate the current duty sidearm, the nearly 100-year-old 1911 design against current state of the art.
Most of the major players submitted designs, but when the smoke had cleared, only SIG SAUER’s P226 and Beretta’s 92FS had passed the trials. Ultimately, the Beretta would win the bid as the total package price of the pistol, magazines, and spare parts was lower than SIG’s package price.
After losing to the Beretta in the military trials, SIG turned to the police and commercial markets with their P226 design where it became a big hit. The decision to locate the de-cocking lever on the frame where it could be easily flicked by the thumb turned out to be very popular with police as well as citizen shooters.
While this may not seem like such a big deal today, it was innovative for its time as most other pistols featured an external safety. SIG’s design allowed the shooter to make the pistol safer by switching from a light single action pull to a heavier double action one while still enabling the shooter to discharge the gun without worrying about disengaging the safety.
The second thing that distinguished the P226 from most other guns of the day was that, instead of a machined slide, the slide on the early P226 was carbon steel that was pressed into shape and then had other parts welded to it. The upshot of this was that it was a less labor intensive process which made it easier and cheaper to build. While some “experts” at the time were concerned about the long term reliability of the stamped slides, many of those early 1980’s guns are still in service today.
In 1988, SIG released the P228 model. This gun was shorter in length and height than the P226, but with a 13-round magazine, which only gave up two rounds of 9mm capacity versus the 15-round magazine found in the larger P226. While no one today would consider the P228 a “compact” pistol, in its time, it was the smallest full-capacity 9mm available.
The compact size was a hit with both police and citizen buyers and, as would be expected, started to draw attention from the military. After a series of evaluations, the military selected the P228 to be used by its members needing a more compact gun and was designated the M11. Today, it’s used by military investigators in the Army, Air Force, and Navy as well as by DOD personnel. From what I have been able to gather, it appears that it found favor with naval aviators as well who value it compact size compared to the M9.
For several years, there was no real difference between the P228 and the M11. Civilians and Police bought the P228 while the military procured the M11. The only real difference between them was the model number etched into the frame. This changed with the advent of the P229.
The P229 was originally designed around SIG SAUER’s then-new .357 SIG cartridge. Given the .357 SIG’s much higher pressure (40,000 PSI) versus the 9mm (34,000 PSI), SIG realized that the stamped slide would probably not be a good choice, so they returned to the old methods and switched back to milled slides.
It didn’t make sense for SIG to have two different processes for making guns, so the milled slide design eventually spread to the rest of the P226 family and once the P229 was offered in 9mm, the P228 was retired. Unfortunately for SIG, once the military has standardized on a design, changes in it can’t be made without approval and in the case of a pistol, that approval would have required a new round of testing, which no one really wanted to do. So SIG SAUER continued to make M11 pistols using the carbon steel forged slide for the military and milled slides for everyone else.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq kindled interest in military weapons. Beretta saw the opportunity for what it was and released the M9 for civilian sales. There are only a few differences between an M9 and a 92 series gun. The shape of the trigger guard is different, the front sight on the 92 series is removable while it is fixed on the M9, and the magazines are different…17-rounders for the 92 series and 15-rounders for the M9.
But, for those who wanted to own exactly what the troops carry, the M9 was available. Unfortunately, for reasons that I have not been able to fathom, no similar concession was made by SIG SAUER for the M11. Few if any genuine M11s have ever made it into the private market and with the upcoming Modular Handgun System trials that will presumably select the next service pistol on the horizon, there is a good chance that M11 manufacture will ultimately fade away. Part of this is probably due to the fact that with the move to milled slides, SIG SAUER no longer has the manufacturing capacity to turn out commercial quantities of the forged slide design.
Early in the P229’s life cycle, there were two different versions of the P229 frame – the standard one for the .40/.357 and a slightly narrower one for 9mm. In yet another attempt to achieve better manufacturing efficiencies, SIG eliminated the slimmer 9mm frame and switched the entire P229 series to the .40/.357 frame. This enabled SIG to squeeze two more rounds into a redesigned 9mm magazine giving the P229 a 15 round capacity. SIG SAUER also made a front rail standard on all P229 pistols. As can be expected, SIG is eager to retire the forged slide design entirely, so it created a new version of the M11 based on the P229 but modified to military specifications. Dubbed the M11 A-1, it features a milled slide, no rail (in keeping with the original M11 design), and SIG SAUER’s DA/SA Short Reset Trigger. It also features the water resistant phosphate coating on all internal parts standard on SIG’s military pistols. It has been submitted to the military for review, but I don’t think that SIG has anyone stationed by a phone expecting an imminent call back. While the military noodles this one, SIG SAUER quickly saw this proposed military model as an opportunity to satisfy consumer demand for a civilian purchasable “military” version. Furthermore, since SIG eliminated non-railed P229s a while back, there has been growing interest in a non-railed version of the P229 among some aficionados. In 2012, SIG SAUER began shipping the M11 A-1.
I compared the M11 to my P229. Overall size is pretty similar. What is interesting was the weight of the two guns. The Carbon Steel slide on the M11 (10.2 oz) was indeed than the milled slide of the P229 (11.7 oz). What was surprising however is that the difference in weight for each gun completely assembled with one empty magazine was extremely close (1 lb. 13.1 oz for the M11 and 1 lb. 13.3 oz for the P229). The M11 made up most of the carbon steel slide weight savings in its heavier frame and believe it or not, heavier magazine. Yes, the M11’s 13 round magazine actually weighs more than the P229’s 15 rounder.
With the history of the M11 behind us, where does this leave us today? Well, aside from the pseudo-military M11 A-1, civilians have never been able to legally acquire a genuine M11s and once SIG started making the P229 in 9mm, the 228 was discontinued. Fortunately, if you are patient and lucky sometimes opportunities present themselves.
Towards the end of 2012, SIG SAUER had a quandary. The Air Force had ordered a number of M11s but decided to close the purchase order out about 50 units short. SIG SAUER wound up with about 50 M11s on their hands that no one wanted. As these pistols retail for close to $1,000 (although the military probably pays a lot less), there was close to $50,000 of unsaleable inventory. Under contract with Uncle Sam, SIG cannot sell M11s to civilians. The frames had already been etched with the model and serial numbers, so what was SIG to do? Well, some bright person on marketing realized that the contract with the government stated only that no M11 pistols could be sold to the public. If the gun had a different marking, there would be no problem. The simple solution was to add one additional character to the model designation and the guns would no longer be M11’s. Since the letter A had been used already, the letter B was chosen. 50 odd guns went to the engraving department.
As the number of units was pretty small, SIG really couldn’t send this out through their normal distribution channel, so they did what they usually do with small quantity runs and sold them through their Exeter, NH Pro Shop. I’m told that they did not last long.
Upon opening the box, the first difference that one notices is the manual. Gone is the standard SIG SAUER manual that accompanies every gun in the 226 series. Instead you find the U.S. Military version.
The manual is interesting in that in addition to the normal operating instructions for the pistol, it includes a fair amount of military specific information. Examples include what sort of ammunition is authorized to be fired through it (M882), who to report errors and omissions in the manual to, who to send reports of malfunctions or failure, operational instructions including reloading while shooting, safety practices, specific maintenance procedures for various extreme environments (cold, humid, dry, etc.), emergency procedures for malfunctions while under fire, an extensive troubleshooting table, and a detailed description of lubrication requirements and places along with the exhortation that performance of proper lubrication is mandatory. Basically, you could hand this manual and the gun to someone who had never shot this weapon before and they could become proficient in its operation in fairly short order (which is the intention). It’s really a shame that this level of detail is not included with guns sold to civilians. What was refreshing is the absolute lack of any of the common lawyer-speak and disclaimers that make up practically half of any commercial firearm manual. One interesting thing though that I’ve never seen in a civilian manual was this warm and fuzzy warning:
Fortunately, this pistol is an Air Force version, which lacks the deadly tritium sights, so it will have to be something else that kills me. The second thing that you notice is that the M11 package includes three 13 round magazines. Even though the M11 is of recent manufacture, it is based on the original P228 design, so it still requires the older 13 round magazines and will not accept the newer 15 round ones.
Overall, this is an interesting collector’s piece. Pricing for this gun was about $100 more than a bone stock P229 w/o night sights. When you figure the cost of the third magazine in, the difference drops to about $60. That said SIG certainly did not lose money on the deal. Given the prices the military pays for things in quantity, my guess is that SIG still made a good bit more on these guns then they would have from Uncle Sam. On the other hand, considering how unique these guns are, SIG certainly could have commanded a lot more for them, but chose a fairly reasonable price, so kudos to them.
These guns sold out pretty fast last year so what is a collector to do now if he/she wants one? Well, there’s always Gunbroker, but be prepared to pay a fairly steep markup. In February 2013, one of these M11-B guns sold for north of $3,000. Currently, there’s a seller on Gunbroker who is looking for $3800 for his. He’s been trying to move it for most of August and has come down from his initial price of nearly $4K. Is this gun worth that much? Well, I guess that kind of depends. It is a rare piece, but rarity alone does not make it valuable. To wit, my son’s first baby tooth to fall out was a one-of-a-kind item, but about the only people who put any value on it were his mother, me, and the tooth fairy.
Ultimately, the extremely limited distribution of this gun may work against it. For something to be truly valuable, enough potentially interested buyers need to know about it and information on the M11-B has been pretty scarce. If the right people know about it (and can trust its provenance), then perhaps you can find someone willing to pay a substantial premium for it. After all, collectors drop serious cash each year on “special edition” versions of popular guns that in form and function are no different than their regular brethren.
At this point, no one is going to buy it as a basic carry gun. If you want a P228, hit the used market. If you want a SIG SAUER military style gun of similar size and weight without the rail, then grab an M11-A1. That will set you back less than $1,000 and that gun has night sights and 15 round magazines. On the other hand, if you are a serious collector of military and/or SIG SAUER guns, then consider this little writeup as your introduction to what may be the only batch of M11 pistols ever legally sold to civilians.