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One of the big complaints voiced by gun enthusiasts (though hardly limited to this group) is how expensive things are getting to be. A decent, service grade pistol will cost $500 - $1000 or more today. There are cheaper guns being made, of course; but they are exactly what their name implies --- cheap! The most notorious of the cheapies come from either the so called "Ring Of Fire", a series of related gun manufacturers surrounding the Los Angeles area (makers of Raven, Sterling, and Davis guns, as well as some others), or from RG in Germany. For the most part, these guns are either underpowered, or undependable, and will not exactly last a lifetime. They are almost exclusively chambered in 25 ACP, or occasionally 22 LR, with a few examples being made in 32. Most of the guns in this class are manufactured from what is derisively called "pot metal", and can not be expected to stand up to heavy loads, or to long term service. Still, they do fill a market niche, or the companies that produce them would not be in business.
At the other end of the spectrum, are the "Fine Guns", which can cost many hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. With government regulation, tax, fees, and various requirements for manufacturers and dealers, complicating things, and driving the cost of doing business up, it seemed that the days of the affordable gun, of decent quality were gone. Manufacturing costs are higher than ever, as are insurance and material costs. On top of all of this, there are many who are trying their best to put modern gunmakers out of business, including a number of municipalities, and the vermin lawyers by which they are infested, and often run. With all of these pressures, it seems that the only way to make a profit on firearms, these days, is to either make the cheapest gun possible, so that even a low asking price will produce a profit, or make all guns up to the standards of "Fine Guns", and charge accordingly.
Over the last couple of decades, the two contrasting approaches to surviving in the gun market have just about squeezed out the regular guy, who just wants a decent gun, for defense, recreation, or sporting use. Gone are the days when less than a week's salary could get you a good Colt, S&W, or Walther. While modern production methods were bringing the cost of computers, electronics, and many other consumer goods down, the cost of firearms has been consistently rising. It is only recently, that firearms manufacturers have begun to use technology to reduce costs, and improve quality. This started with Ruger, and Glock; but has now been embraced by S&W. CNC, and injection molding techniques have made it possible to bring back the affordable, good quality, gun as a tool.
While Ruger began to make traditional steel guns, using more efficient, automated production facilities, Glock took things a step further. The frame of the Glock is made, using injection molding techniques, and plastic. The slide is made using CNC machinery, similar to that of Ruger (and now S&W, and others). The barrel of the Glock uses a tab at the rear to lock with a slot in the back of the ejection port, rather than locking at the muzzle, as in the traditional browning design. This is a system originally used by the Sig P220 series. This system streamlines the production process, and also makes barrel/slide tolerances quite a bit less critical. The system also essentially free floats the barrel, which some custom manufacturers have been doing to accurized rifles for decades. With all of these process changes, production costs of the Glock were greatly reduced, when compared to more traditionally designed pistols. Unfortunately for gun buyers, prices of the Glock were set by the market, rather than the cost of production.
A Glock sells for about the same price as a good service revolver, or M1911 pistol, around $600. This is despite the fact that injection molding and CNC manufacturing, as well as the use of stamped trigger group parts, make it about half as expensive to manufacture. Glock was able to make quite a bit more profit, on each gun, in comparison to other gun makers, due to the technology lead that it had. There was, for a time, literally no competition. Eventually, other manufacturers followed Glock's lead, and introduced their own polymer pistols. S&W was a bit late on the scene; but is poised to make a huge dent in the market. The reason for the delay has to do with the odd business structure and ownership of S&W, during much of this time. Until recently, S&W had been owned by a British holding company (tomkins plc), which was unabashedly anti gun, and essentially forced them into their very unpopular deal with the clinton administration. With S&W being sort of the hated step child of its corporate parent, the company was left to languish. Eventually, the company was disposed of, at a bargain price ($15 million). Almost immediately, things began to happen. The new X-frame was designed, along with the new 50 S&W. New lines of firearms were produced, and old lines were product improved. S&W now makes AR-15 rifles, and M1911 pistols, as well as rifles, shotguns, flashlights, knives, police gear, and a number of other things. One of the new developments of the S&W company is the Sigma line of handguns.
This is the second time that S&W, America's oldest gun maker, has surprised me (the first was with the 669). The sigma is essentially a Glock, made the way Gaston Glock would have designed it, had he been a firearms enthusiast. The design was pretty much lifted, intact, from that of the Glock, at least as far as the mechanics of the gun. Where it differs is in the S&W experience in designing firearms for shooters, rather than review boards, or purchasing committees. The most obvious improvements are in the grip area, the magazine, and in the sights. The grips are sculpted, and feel good in the hand, as opposed the Glock grip, which has always struck me to be a bit like holding a plastic brick with a pipe on top. Sadly, one area in which the gun has not been improved over the Glock, is in the trigger. I have never liked the trigger on the Glock, and the Sigma trigger is at least as bad. In all fairness, there is not much to be done about it, without redesigning the entire ignition system of the gun. A trigger actuated draw bar, pushes directly on the firing striker, both cocking, and firing the gun with one stroke. Striker fired pistols have inherently heavy, mushy triggers.
So similar were these designs, that Glock sued S&W, in a case which was settled out of court. Still, it may be enlightening to know that the Glock locking, and recoil system of operation was lifted, intact, from the Sig P220 series. This is how it goes in the gun industry, as in many others. There are no saints here, in regard to lifting the ideas of others. Indeed, the entire handgun industry, with very few exceptions, is pretty much based upon the designs of John M Browning. There is no shortage of M1911 clones, S&W revolver clones, or Colt SAA (not to mention AR-15) clones. The now classic S&W 59 series of pistols have essentially always been Browning P-35 clones. The most notorious clone maker of them all is Taurus, which makes S&W revolver clones, several different types of Beretta clones, M1911 clones, and their own version of a Glock clone.
In point of fact, the Glock should cost quite a bit less than its asking price of around $600. These are injection molded guns, with CNC manufactured slides, and stamped internals. The Sigma is remarkably similar to the Glock (See below). The original list price of the Sigma reflects the production costs, and is a more realistic, cost based asking price, than that of the Glock. S&W recently raised the price another hundred dollars, and still vastly undercuts the Glock. The comparison to the Glock is a natural one, as can be seen in the section below.
Details and Improvements
The New Sigma is more than just a Glock clone. It has been considerably product improved over the original. I have several Glock pistols, and in my opinion, the Sigma is a bit more user friendly, and better thought out. I am not knocking the Glock; but am merely commenting on the fact that S&W has had an opportunity to use their own experience, in the gunmakers art, as well as benefiting from the experiences of the large base of Glock users. During the design of the Sigma, S&W could draw on the 20 year base of Glock users, for likes, dislikes, and complaints.
There are only four controls on the Sigma (and the Glock). They are the slide release, the trigger, the magazine release, and the takedown lever. The takedown lever, and takedown procedure (detailed below) are the same as that of the Glock. The Sigma slide stop/slide release is redesigned and has a better look and feel. Neither gun has a magazine safety, and neither has a manual safety.
The magazine and magazine release are greatly improved. The release lever itself is plastic; but the internals are metal. The magazine itself is of conventional stamped metal construction. The metal to metal construction is quite a bit more durable than plastic. This was particularly a problem if metal aftermarket magazines were used. they would eventually wear down the plastic catch. The Sigma metal magazines drop free, when the catch is released, which is not always a given with the plastic magazines of the Glock.
The fixed plastic sights of the Sigma are ramped and curved, to prevent snagging, and use the three dot system, which is preferred by some shooters. They offer a very good picture, and I consider them to be an improvement over those of the Glock. The gun is also slotted, for installation of a laser sight or flashlight, to give some alternate sighting options. These are all small details; but they add up. Taken as a whole, they add up to a nicely thought out, and very polished handgun.
The trigger was changed; but in my opinion, not improved. It is wider and smoother than that of the Glock, and has a 12 pound pull. Still, even though it is heavier, it feels smoother than that of the Glock. Where the trigger of the Glock acted as a cocking indicator, that of the Sigma is positioned the same, whether the gun is cocked or not. To compensate for this, S&W put a loaded chamber indicator at the rear of the chamber. It is a simple beveled hole in the top of the gun; but it serves its purpose. The trigger is segmented, with the first segment being used to take off the internal safety. It does not compare to a single action, 1911, or P-35 trigger; but then what does? As with the Glock trigger, it is an acquired taste, and not one for which I care.
This particular example is chambered for the great new 40 S&W. Back in 1986, when I bought my Glock pistols, the 40 S&W had not yet been introduced. My small framed Glocks are both in 9mm caliber. In 1990, the 40 S&W was introduced to a very enthusiastic gun buying public. This cartridge generates half again the energy of the 9mm, putting it in the same league as the 357 Magnum; but is available in medium frame, 9mm sized, semi autos with high capacity magazines. The cartridge was essentially a shortened version of the10mm. The 10mm had been introduced as a police cartridge; but was (and is) widely regarded as overpowered for that role. I already have a Beretta M-96, in 40 S&W; but really did have a desire for a 40 S&W Glock; but I already had a pair in 9mm. What to do? The decision was made easier by a S&W promotion, offering a $50 rebate, and two extra magazines.
The handling characteristics of the Sigma will be familiar to anyone who has ever fired a Glock; but the ergonomics are better. The gun is a good natural pointer, and is quite light, when compared to traditional steel pistols. The recoil of the 40 S&W is considerable, in the light plastic framed gun; but it is no less manageable than that of a 45 A.C.P, with perhaps a slightly sharper recoil profile. Like the Glock, the Sigma is tight. Giving the Sigma a good shake produces no rattles, or other signs of looseness. Despite the heavy trigger, I was able to shoot into a couple of inches at the 25 yard range. I put two boxes of 180 grain FMJ though the gun, and another 50 rounds of hollow points, with no malfunctions. I have a box of Golden Sabers, which I will keep for defense; but these are far too expensive for me to use for target shooting.
The gun is nicely made, nicely packaged, and very nicely priced. I hate to keep harping on the price, because it can make one lose sight of the fact that this is a great gun, at the very least the equal of the Glock. It is now possible, once again, to buy a well made, powerful, service grade pistol, made in America, and reasonably priced. Actually, that's kind of unfair; Ruger has been producing good quality, reasonably priced pistols for years. It is a trend of which I heartily approve. This would make a suitable service pistol, kit gun, defense gun, or field gun. It is also nice to see S&W innovating, and once again placing itself in the forefront of handgun technology. And the trigger? Well, with any luck a couple of thousand rounds of 180 grain will smooth it out, and loosen it up.
All and all, I consider this to be the pistol that Glock should have made, twenty years ago. To add icing to the cake, this gun cost me less than $300, brand new. This included a locking case, gunlock, chamber indicator, and three extra magazines. There was, admittedly, a bit of a promotional event going on; but even so, in more normal times, the gun will not cost much more. Retail in a Sigma is around $400; but the guns are almost always discounted down to $325 - $350. If and when S&W introduces a full line of Sigma pistols, in various calibers and barrel lengths, Glock will have a real challenge on its hands.