“You William Blake?” yells U.S. Marshal Marvin Throneberry at the rapidly approaching outlaw, while cycling and shouldering his Winchester Model 1873. “Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?” responds the killer as he raises his 4¾" Colt .45 Single Action Army revolver and shoots Marvin in the heart.
Guns and poetry. None better illuminated their interplay than Jim Jarmusch in his 1995 movie Dead Man. To talk guns is to talk poetry. What follows is a riff on the latest incarnation of my favorite poem.
The great reward of my study of mechanical design is the “Aha!” moment of recognizing a clever accommodation of constraints on the form and function of its object. I owe many such moments to the inventions of John Moses Browning. The “sliding breechblock or bolt carrier” of his U.S. Patent No. 580926, evolved into the unit construction slide integrated with the breechblock of his U.S. Patent No. 747585, familiar nowadays as the slide of a self-loading pistol, is the very best sort of invention—obvious only when seen in hindsight, and no sooner so seen, than accepted as ineluctable. The Borchardt-Luger toggle action design of Hugo Borchardt’s U.S. Patent No. 571260 embodies another kind of ingenuity. Inspired by Hiram Maxim’s U.S. Patent No. 317162, it operates like a miniature cannon breech, lending immense strength to the self-loading pistol mechanism at the expense of ultimately prohibitive cost and fickleness of precision fitting. In the long run, Browning’s commonsensical approach prevailed. Most self-loading pistols inherited basic features pioneered by his designs, while the Luger ended up a fascinating curiosity.
29427: Swiss Ordnance Parabellum 29, 7.65 Para, SN 59951,
National Match model with a 170mm heavy barrel; and
29428: Swiss Ordnance Parabellum 29, 7.65 Para, SN 65721,
National Match model with a 200mm pencil barrel;
as used in the 1949 ISSF competition won by Heinrich Keller;
see Horst Rutsch, Faustfeuerwaffen der Eidgenossen, pp. 266ff;
29429: Swiss Ordnance trigger link regulator for Parabellum pistols,
for adjusting the pressure point by bending an annealed trigger lever;
29430: front sight pusher for Swiss Parabellum pistols;
I am one of many shooters, for whom the Swiss military SIG P49 autopistol along with its P210 commercial counterpart represent the epitome of Browning’s legacy. Accordingly, I had mixed feelings upon receiving the news of its 2010 revival by J.P. Sauer & Sohn after a five-year production hiatus. On the one hand, as a corporate sibling of Swiss Arms AG, the most recent manufacturer of the P210, under the corporate umbrella of Lüke & Ortmeier Gruppe, Sauer is in all likelihood best positioned to revive its storied brand. On the other hand, Sauer had its own handgun line resuscitated by SIG with their 1975 collaboration in the design and manufacture of the SIG-Sauer P220, the simplified and streamlined sidearm that under the P75 designation replaced the P49 in the Swiss military service. Accordingly, the stage was set for the anxiety of influence memorably diagnosed by Harold Bloom in his 1973 Freudian study of debts that poets owe to their precursors:
If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading. Criticism then necessarily becomes antithetical also, a series of swerves after unique acts of creative misunderstanding.—Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 93
Would this antithesis deform Sauer’s XXIst century descendant of SIG’s 1947 masterwork into a creative misunderstanding or a fallacious misinterpretation of its storied precursor? In my eyes, the P210 Legend has realized both of these extremes of its possibilities. It is the best remaining hope for reviving the Swiss prototype, even as it represents its gross adulteration as a target implement and fatal distortion as a fighting sidearm.
In the sequel, I summarize my technical impressions from testing two privately purchased and imported P210 pistols from Sauer’s recent reintroduction of that model. I am working on a detailed review and test comparing these pistols to their Swiss-made military and commercial precursors of several vintages and configurations. While I have a favorable overall impression of Sauer’s products, there remain serious issues that I have attempted to discuss with its staff prior to my publication, in the interests of fairness. Regrettably, Sauer’s engineers rebuffed my questions as “very deep detailed and touching present- and future developments”. What follows therefore is an unauthorized review of the P210 Legend.
The frame (#1 on Sauer’s parts diagram) appears to be machined from billet. Sauer does not disclose its composition and manufacturing technique. Several changes manifested in its design include the elimination of cutouts for the magazine retaining clip at the bottom of the grip frame and the loss of the retaining pin for the slide catch lever spring (#17). In view of these production changes, I am led to wonder why Sauer chose not to add a curve to the front grip strap ahead of the magazine catch button, as is usually done in earlier designs that utilize such retention method, such as the M1911, TT33, GP35, Vis 35, M1935S, etc. While this practice follows the pattern established by the SIG-Sauer P220, the original Swiss P75 version of that pistol utilized a bottom magazine retaining clip similar to that of the P49. It would have made more aesthetic and technical sense to follow examples set by Sauer’s American, Soviet, Belgian, Polish, and French predecessors by accommodating the magazine catch (#4) within a modified frame profile.
(1) Petter Mod. 1, SN 4, 9mm; (2) Petter Mod. 2, SN 6009; (3) SP47/8 protos, SNs 6031-6060;
4) SP47/8 production, SN 6383; (5) P210-1; (6) P210-5 prototype;
(7) heavy frame; (8) CNC machined.
More generally, the heavy frame configuration adopted for all versions of Sauer’s P210 does not appear to add strength at stress points. The few P210 frame failures mostly seen in Scandinavia concomitant with the use of 9mm Para submachine gun ammunition, appear to take place at or near the barrel bed, as a result of the bottom barrel lugs butting against it at the peak of the recoil cycle. This stress point is unlikely to be reinforced by adding extra steel on the outside. Indeed, a comparison of the original multifaceted heavy frame profile developed by SIG in the early Sixties at the behest of the Swiss National Match pistol shooting team, to the latest streamlined heavy frame profile, originally introduced at the end of SAN’s production run, suggests that the latter functions mainly as a production line expedient meant to eliminate several machining steps. Likewise the new contour of the slide (#37), which dispenses with the tapering of the upper rail ahead of the frame, much like the P210 slide profile had dispensed with the removal of the lower rail in that area on the 1st KTA delivery of P49 pistols. This change makes the pistol ill suited to any kind of holstering by encumbering its muzzle end with a plethora of sharp edges, just as the heavy frame compromises its fit in holsters blocked for the standard P210. In fairness, the new slide may be meant as a natural fit to the latest progeniture of Sauer Waffen. The P210 Super Target appears to have been derived from an Ergosign design exercise long touted by Karl Nill. The slide of the P210 Legend mated with the extended frame of the Super Target would enable the frame rails to support the entire length of the slide by extending the dust cover of the frame to the muzzle end of the slide in accordance with Les Baer’s U.S. Patent 6345463. I cannot think of another functional reason for Sauer’s changes in the P210 profile aside from economic expediency.
The upswept beavertail that extends the top of Sauer’s P210 frame about 10mm over the length of its Swiss predecessor, is milled and channeled to receive and contain the newly undercut tang of the hammer (#22) at the apex of the recoil cycle. Sauer’s design protects the web of the shooting hand while relieving the points of hammer contact with the tang at the peak of the recoil cycle, as seen on the beavertails featured in final SAN production of P210-6S and P210-5LS. It does so at the cumbersome cost of requiring a thumb reach-around for manual hammer cocking, biasing the pistol towards range applications while making it far less suitable for social work. Anyone attempting to follow the horse pistol manual of arms by cocking the hammer of the Sauer P210 against his trouser leg would be sorely disappointed, as its beavertail gouges the flesh of his limb. The defensive use of the Sauer P210 would have been much better served by combining the reprofiled hammer with the traditionally shaped short frame tang.
While Sauer is to be commended for machining out of bar stock many parts that have been previously cast, it bears notice that many of them exhibit unsightly tool marks. In fairness, many of their SIG predecessors are marked no less conspicuously. The quench polish quench (QPQ) nitrocarburizing case hardening that Sauer employs on its P210 frames, slides, and magazines, helps to disguise minor imperfections the likes of which stand out in the traditional blued finish applied over the wire brushed and sandblasted surfaces of the SIG P210. According to practices that prevail in the firearms industry, it is no longer necessary to polish steel in order to deliver an attractive surface finish. Modern handguns can be finished with a minimal effort, by spraying, baking, and processing, to be represented in the marketplace as durable, tactical, and hi-tech, and sold as no-maintenance, easy-care, and Hollywood-cool. My readers will have to choose for themselves between vintage virtues and postmodern puffery. There is little doubt that the surface treatment of Sauer pistols is less liable to be blemished by abuse than traditional oxide-based steel finishes. The tradeoff in preserving its present looks is the loss of potential for patination to be prized by future collectors.
As postulated by design authorities from Michelangelo to Mies van der Rohe, God—or the Devil—is in the details. Turning to the details of Sauer’s P210 redesign, I found it helpfully replacing the originally fitted staked pins with conical concave ends shaped by SIG to require center punches, with standard pins retained by interference in the case with the extractor pin (#40), and a catch spring (#13) in the case of the trigger pivot (#12). In the latter instance, Sauer’s update enables target shooters to change the trigger weight according to the requirements of their discipline by swapping out the trigger bar spring (#11) for one of a different weight. In doing so, extreme care must be exercised both in retaining the trigger pin spring left unsecured within its slot machined in the trigger (#8), and in compressing the trigger bar spring into its place between the trigger and the trigger bar (#9). The new trigger is a metal injected molding that approximates the P210-5 and P210-6 trigger profile.
The integral lock housing (#20) appears to follow the pattern of older machined parts fitted to the P49 and forged P210 pistols. Early P49 and P210 lock housings were machined out of steel forgings to contain deep hardened firing system parts made to Swiss military specifications. In an effort to reduce production costs, around the SIG serial number range of P311000 onwards, the milled part was replaced by a hammer action housing cast by Grünig and Elmiger and packed with metal injection molded (MIM) internals. While I cannot confirm that the sear (#26) and the trigger take-up lever (#28) have been upgraded to the likes of “old school” milled and deep hardened parts, Sauer’s improvement of their housing is a step in the right direction, inspiring the hope that the new parts can be used to replace the old, and vice versa.
An unwelcome counterpart of the “Aha!” moment is the “Ugh” occasion of discovering a hidden flaw that compromises or undermines the use of a mechanical device. Regrettably, my study of the P210 Legend has resulted in several such occasions. Consider the newly redesigned safety lever (#14), which mates with the detents in the safety lever spring (#15). The SIG P210 incorporated its safety detents in the left side of the frame, after the fashion of its predecessors in the Swiss Army service, several variants of the Parabellum pistol. As with the Luger, this practice resulted in an arc inscribed in the surface of the frame by the hardened ball press fitted into the underside of the safety lever thumb pad. This design legacy bears special notice, in light of another trait the P210 inherited from its Borchardt-Luger predecessors. The oft-noted inward facing frame rails that guide and contain the reciprocating slide of the P210 have an exact counterpart in the generally overlooked, similarly oriented frame rails that guide and contain reciprocating barrel extensions of various Parabellums. Likewise, the unobjectionable feature of the Parabellum safety incorporated into its Swiss successor, has been deemed worthy of redesign in the Sauer P210. Its revised spring arrangement dispenses with the safety scratch mark by relegating the safety detent duty to a detachable and easily replaceable part mounted on the right hand side of the frame under the corresponding grip plate (#33) and retained by a Torx screw (#16), which is secured in the frame by a blue threadlocking compound. It replaces the old style magazine safety and requires plastic grips or wooden stocks to be relieved with a cutout for its mechanism. Sauer has retained the frame window that leaves open the possibility of reinstating the magazine safety by grafting an old style wedge on the tang of the safety lever spring.
Shooters who object to their guns being held together by chemicals will be disappointed to discover the tendency of the safety lever spring to back out under recoil, once the threadlocking compound’s seal has been broken. This development leaves the safety lever flopping around in the frame, liable to a spontaneous reversal of its setting. The security of Sauer’s P210 is compromised to an even greater measure by the omission of the retaining loop on the slide catch lever spring (#17). This modification results in the angled tang of the slide catch lever spring dislodging during the firing cycle from its locating pocket drilled into the frame, causing the slide catch lever to lose its downward tension and bounce under recoil, potentially locking the slide on its way to chamber the next round. Owing to the omission of the stud that retained the slide catch lever spring in the frame of the SIG P210, there is no simple way to cure this defect in its successor. For the P210 Legend owners, floppy controls are here to stay.
The lateral magazine catch button (#4) follows the pattern set by the SAN P210-6S and P210-5LS. It is retained by spring-loaded stop pin (#6 and #7) that latches against the edge of the frame cutout, and tensioned by a spring (#5) that bears upon the frame wall. A significant flaw of the SAN design was the built-in interference of the magazine catch with the threaded trigger stop pin (#2). In the Swiss pistols this layout resulted in jamming these parts against each other before the trigger stop pin could be properly set. In my P210-5LS, serial number P330061, backing out the trigger stop pin far enough to ensure a consistent hammer fall past the half cock notch, resulted in preventing the magazine catch from releasing a magazine that had been latched by it. Fortunately, I was able to cure this handicap by swapping in an older lockwork assembly that featured a longer sear tail. Sauer’s P210 copies the SAN design to the point of preserving this flaw. While Sauer’s parts diagram shows the trigger stop (#2) with its safety pin (#3), both of the pistols as delivered to me brand new by a German gun dealer omit these parts altogether, in a tacit admission of their conflict with the magazine catch. Thus the Sauer P210 controls trigger overtravel solely by the trigger back curve coming in contact with the frame. This is not an adequate solution for a sport pistol, but it looks like the only arrangement compatible with the existing design of the magazine catch.
The new drop forged magazine bottom (#60) presents a related difficulty by making it impossible to use the Sauer magazine with the old P49-style bottom magazine catch. By contrast, drop forged magazine floorplates for the P210, Nill’s part number SI91, work equally well with either kind of magazine catch, affording the additional advantage of a shooting rest parallel to the bore axis. Accordingly, Sauer could have shaped its floorplates to accommodate the traditional retention system. For reasons best known to themselves, they haven’t done so.
The firing system of the Sauer P210 boasts the newly incorporated passive firing pin drop safety assembly (#41 through #45). Its design is similar in conception and execution to the passive safety incorporated in the SIG 44/16 prototype and deleted from its successors. The fall safety device (#45) of the firing pin safety is tensioned by a spring (#42) directed by a guide (#43), to block the specially undercut firing pin (#47) until it has been actuated by the trigger bar (#9). This arrangement yields a crisp two-stage trigger action nominally rated by its maker at a pull weight of 1.5kg ± 0.3kg. In a standard military issue P210, the permissible first stage weight may range between 2.0 and 2.50 kg. Replacing the trigger spring of a SIG P49 with a sport trigger bar spring (Sportsabzugsfeder), the like of which is fitted to the Sauer P210 (#11), would reduce its trigger weight by about 0.5kg. Accordingly, Swiss service competitions allow a minimum trigger weight of 1.5kg. On the Lyman electronic trigger gauge, the trigger of Sauer’s P210, serial number P332136, weighs in at 1.7kg averaged after 10 pulls. Applying the same procedure to a heavy frame SIG P210, serial number P79608, yields a trigger weight of 1.2kg. Sauer’s 30% trigger weight penalty over a comparable SIG appears to be mostly attributable to its incorporation of a firing pin safety, in view of its extra parts impinging upon the trigger bar (#9). Swapping the slides between the Sauer and SIG pistols to measure the trigger pull on the resulting hybrids confirms this surmise. The trigger pull on the Sauer frame fitted with the SIG top end weighs 1.3kg, whereas the trigger pull on the SIG frame fitted with a Sauer top end weighs 1.6kg. Since the weights of springs mounted in parallel are additive, this penalty might be subject to a reduction by decreasing the weight of the trigger bar spring to the point that it achieves the minimally acceptable tensioning of the trigger bar by working in tandem with the fall safety device spring.
SIG P210-6 SN P79608, heavy frame, micrometer sights, Bern and German proofs,
with an extra barrel, recoil springs, and spare grooved Swiss Army stocks,
from the 100 pistol series exemplified in H.P. Doebeli, Die SIG Pistolen, p. 82;
In the October 1973 issue of Guns & Ammo, Jeff Cooper wrote: “Double action in an auto pistol seems to me an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” Two years later, the Swiss army replaced its single action SIG P49, with its manual safety locking the trigger alone, with a double action SIG-Sauer P75, fitted with an automatic firing pin block, and complemented with a rebounding hammer mechanism a few years later. It would be unfair to apply Colonel Cooper’s dicta to the firing pin block safety fitted by Sauer to its revived P210 in 2010, making it a handgun that won’t fire no matter what, unless the trigger has been pulled all the way back. On 16 April 2009, longtime SWAT Magazine Contributing Editor Steve Malloy was shot and killed in his home. The postmortem investigation attributed his death to an accidental discharge of the 1903 Colt Pocket Model pistol that Malloy carried in his waistband with a live round in the chamber. Upon falling onto the floor, the pistol discharged, propelling a bullet into its owner’s chest. A passive firing pin block safety activated by pulling the trigger would have prevented the pistol from firing upon being dropped. Furthermore, it would guard against unwanted firing in the event of a mechanical failure in the hammer/sear interface. Lastly, it yields forensic evidence attributing the shot fired to a trigger pull. Yet none of these factors relegate the shooter’s personal responsibility for safe handling of his weapon to its mechanical features. Thus Colonel Cooper cited a security organisation in Australia whose members had been carrying Browning Hi-Powers fully loaded, cocked, and without engaging the safety catch for several years without a single accidental discharge. The gunmaker’s proper job is to provide the shooter with the option of additional mechanical safety margins. The litigious nature of American culture does not deter Colt from omitting the firing pin block from its Series 70 Government Model pistols, while incorporating it into its Series 80 variants. Not does it debar Ruger from relying on a light titanium firing pin and stronger firing pin spring to ensure the drop safety of its SR1911 pistol. Neither should it discourage Sauer from releasing a “P210 Classic” model that duplicates the original contours, features, and finishes of Swiss SIG pistols.
As suggested in the beginning of this review, Sauer’s P210 “Legend” is a study in contradictions. Its newly encumbered and unbounded trigger action places it at a palpable disadvantage with respect to its Swiss precursors on the firing line. And while its rugged finish and improved safety features might have rendered it more apt for defensive applications, ill-secured and cumbersome controls undermine its ergonomics while fatally compromising its reliability. Even if to imagine is to misinterpret, I cannot imagine the debilitating misprision that caused Sauer’s engineers to degrade the retention of controls in their version of the SIG P210. Nor can I depend on a gun liable to spontaneous slide lockups and reversals of safety settings. I would have liked to receive Sauer’s response to these concerns. As long as they remain unresolved by the gunmaker, I must regretfully give the Legend a failing grade.
Updated on 15 August 2014: Sauer’s Legendary P210 is now available in three variants. The standard fixed sight model is complemented by two adjustable sight variants, the Target with its standard 120mm-barrel and the 150mm-barreled Super Target. The original Swiss micrometer sight fitted into the standard milspec dovetail is no longer available. Sauer’s new adjustable sight shared by the Targets and the Super Targets, with its housing milled en bloc with the slide, is a less dedicated bullseye shooting setup, moderately compromised in its sight picture, stability, and adjustment in comparison with its dovetail-mounted predecessor. On the other hand, the expansion of the slide allows for easier manipulation in stoppage clearance drills.
The Super Target’s frame also differs from the standard frame employed by SAN in its 2003 longslide version of the P210, in its newly extended dustcover, presumably adding a little extra precision to its alignment with the slide. It bears notice that unlike the traditional Swiss oxide finish, Sauer’s Nitron, a vacuum furnace heat treatment of physical vapor deposition, creates a surface buildup that results in tolerance stacking and complicates the assurance of proper clearances. The safety lever of the Super Target has been made more familiar to M1911 shooters by relocating its pivot behind the hammer action retained by a staked Torx T15 screw, from its traditional forward position in the foregoing P210 variants. This semi-permanent mounting rules out routine lubrication and maintenance of the firing system, thus eliminating one of the greatest advantages of the Neuhausen design over most other Browning system, short recoil, tilting barrel autopistols.
All Sauer P210 variants are built on heavy frames, descended from P210-5 SN P54980 designed by the Swiss marksman Reiny Ruess and his friends at SIG. A special series from SN P79101 to 79150 has a heavy frame. Around three hundred of P210-6 pistols with forged heavy frames, for example those numbered between P76521 and 76620, or between P79621 and 79720. According to Vetter and Armbruster, CNC guns with heavy frames are found numbered P309600, P309650, P309660, P312382, P316550, P321108, etc. All P210-8 variants made by SIG were built on the heavy frame. Most of the Swiss Arms Neuhausen (SAN) P210 production, including all of their P210-6S and P210-5LS variants made with a lateral magazine catch, had a simplified heavy frame that omitted the shallow relief cut on the dustcover ending in a ridge below the frame rail housing. If the reconfigured spring did not fail to secure the slide stop in the frame of the P210 Legend, the Sauer heavy frame design might have represented an improvement over the Swiss frames, in virtue of deleting the slide stop spring retaining pin, originally press fitted into a hole drilled in the frame at a location subject to stress during the firing cycle. SIG Sauer deleted this pin in order to finish the P210 Legend with its Nitron QPQ (quench purge quench) process, inapplicable to components held together by interference fit. Nevertheless, given that reports of fractured Swiss heavy frames remain conspicuous by their absence in hundreds of thousands of recorded individual round counts, the structural benefits of this arrangement are likely to be moot. Meanwhile, as explained above, the control levers of the Legend remain poorly secured, while the reconfigured U-shaped slide stop spring flops in the frame, susceptible to dislodgment, jamming, and loss.
Sauer’s firing pin safety, their counterpart to Colt’s universally loathed Series 80 system, accounts for four additional moving parts. The magazine catch and the safety detent add two more each; the recoil spring assembly, three more; and the trigger assembly, one more. All that adds up to twelve extra potential failure points. This is not a big concern in a range gun, but neither is it something I want in a service sidearm.
The slide stop spring sitting loose in the frame cutouts of the German P210 variant is a deal breaker for me. The SIG P210 is a military sidearm. A small part liable to shift or get lost in field stripping is a clear disqualification from mission critical service. If I want a target pistol, I reach for a target pistol. If I need a tool for social work, I reach for a milspec SIG P210.
In sum, SIG Sauer took a unique sidearm, a bullseye target grade military issue autopistol, and compromised its accuracy and reliability in one fell swoop. While German gunmakers may have the capacity to improve on the Swiss originals in the long run, their initial efforts to do so have failed in several ways. Five shot test targets fired at 25m have shown a spread comparable to that of SIG’s original ten shot test targets fired at twice that range. Until and unless its shortcomings have been remedied, I give Sauer & Sohn’s P210 Legend a failing grade.