Shooters beware: Adding to the unsettling category of weapons that are dangerous in ways other than they're designed to be, Swiss-German firearms manufacturer SIG Sauer Inc. has issued an advisory--not a recall--about one of its popular pistol models. While I always applaud a proactive effort to prevent injury or death, a couple of details about this situation gave me pause.
Which Products Are Affected?
According to SIG Sauer's press release, the gun in question is its P320 model pistol, marketed as a "next generation" firearm that supposedly addressed several of the quirks of more traditional handguns (more on that in a minute).
While the P320 is popular for being highly modular and customizable, the problems in question seem to arise from its internal firing mechanisms, which don't see much variation.
Who Makes This Product?
SIG Sauer is a distinguished weapon maker with a long history. Since its first rifle design was adopted by the Swiss army in the mid-19th century, SIG has produced civilian and military weaponry that retains solid market presence worldwide. While it's not one of the "Big Three" gunmakers (Sturm Ruger, Remington Outdoor, and Smith & Wesson), the company's products are respected and generally well-reviewed by shooters and sportsmen.
SIG was actually contracted recently by the U.S. military to produce and deliver a 9mm variant of the P320 to the U.S. military. Intended to replace the M9 Beretta as the standard sidearm for infantry, the military-specific model of the P320 (designated the M17) allegedly does not suffer from the same issues as the civilian models.
What's Wrong With The Gun?
When thinking of shooting a pistol, many think of pulling a cocking a hammer and then pulling the trigger. The hammer then strikes the dimpled primer of the bullet and fires it. Hammer-fire guns have been marketed for a couple of centuries now, and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future, but they have their issues. One such problem is a tendency to misfire if dropped.
Not everybody handles a shootin' iron like Doc Holliday; sometimes a gun slips out of a shooter's hand and hits the ground. Obviously nobody wants to drop a loaded gun, since there's a lot of potential for damage there, so by law firearms are constructed to withstand drops from a certain height without firing. Safeguards are also built into guns to keep their hammers from fully engaging in a drop fire situation, but they aren't always enough to prevent a stray bullet from flying due to a clumsy cowboy.
SIG Sauer claimed to have resolved such problems by removing the hammer from the equation. Instead, the P320 and several other SIG pistols use the striker fire system, in which the pulled trigger engages a rod inside the assembly to strike the bullet's primer. This system supposedly offers significantly more protection against drop fires, going so far as to claim that "The P320 won't fire unless you want it to."
Bottom line: The P320 is supposed to be safe for reasonably-prudent amateurs and trained professionals alike. Fumble-fingered shooters were meant to rest easy knowing that dropping the gun isn't guaranteed to spell disaster, but that rhetoric got a lot shakier recently when gun blogs published videos showing the P320 failing specific drop tests.
Don't want to watch? Here's the gist: Dropping the P320 so its frame and slide hit the ground together reliably creates misfires.
SIG alleges that the P320 passes all mandated drop tests, including those conducted by the Sporting Arms Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, Inc. (SAAMI), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Beyond that, it admirably withstood various stress tests conducted by military and law enforcement agencies from around the world. The drop angle in question isn't common enough to require testing by oversight agencies, but while it may be rare, it's still not out of the question for someone to be shot if the pistol hits the ground wrong.
How Big is the Problem?
The precise number of P320s on the market and in shooters' hands and homes is uncertain, but SIG stated the following in its press announcement:
"There have been zero (0) reported drop-related P320 incidents in the U.S. commercial market, with hundreds of thousands of guns delivered to date."
The company itself cites the sale of "hundreds of thousands" of these units in the U.S. alone. That figure could easily climb to millions over the course of the next few years as SIG fulfills its contract with the Army. In using the above quote, though, I shouldn't ignore its real point: No deaths have been caused by drop-related misfires. SIG's assertion of "zero" incidents may be slightly optimstic, as a police officer from Stamford, CT has sued the company after dropping his P320 and receiving a bullet through his leg. With the case not yet decided, though, the officer's injury can't truly be laid at the feet of the gunmaker. Because of that, SIG is so far correct that the P320 hasn't been the proven cause of any specific incidents.
Concerns such as these have led many private shooters and some organizations to discontinue use and sales of the P320 until the issue is dealt with entirely. Omaha Outdoors (creators of the above video) have stopped selling the weapon, and the Dallas Police Department briefly stopped approving its use by officers. They have since hesitantly resumed its use as they keep a watchful eye on the situation.
What Can Be Done About The Issue?
According to recent news, SIG has discontinued production of the P320 until it is has conducted a broad "voluntary upgrade" to existing handguns. The upgrade's new "enhanced triggers" evidently have a lighter trigger shoe and a new, more robust disconnector apparatus. The combination of these refinements allegedly prevents the misfires at the 30-degree angle drop.
Popular shooting blog The Truth About Guns was invited to SIG's manufacturing plant in Exeter, New Hampshire, where its writers witnessed the replacement assembly in action. In over 200 live drop-tests, engineers did not reproduce the issue with the upgraded triggers. Based on those results, the company has commenced the upgrade initiative.
SIG isn't proposing this remedy as a fix or replacement, or even as a formal recall; instead, it's an "upgrade" that just happens to resemble a recall. In response to input from law enforcement, government and military clients, SIG cites "a number of enhancements in function, reliability and overall safety including drop performance." To participate in the "voluntary upgrade," customers must send in their whole pistols because the frame and the slide must both be altered. Details of how to do so are available through the company's website, and I strongly encourage any P320 owners to check whether their pistol needs attention.
So What Does This Mean?
SIG has something of a reputation in the gun community for experimenting with new and interesting options for firearms. Obviously a drop-fire flaw isn't a desirable innovation, but luckily it hasn't caused any proven injuries to date (though it seems pretty hard to argue with the cop who took hot lead to the leg).
To the company's credit it has not blamed gun owners for the malfunctions. It's not uncommon for businesses to quote a "party line" about irresponsible users being liable for their own injuries, but SIG's upgrade advisory is pretty clear that while its weapon exceeds all federally-mandated safety standards, they didn't anticipate the P320 could be triggered by a 30-degree drop. Shooters may not be thrilled at having to surrender their weapons to SIG for the upgrade, but I think we'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks a safer firearm is a bad investment, especially when the improvements are free.
The element of the upgrade that really gives me pause is the speed with which everything occurred. No sooner had SIG learned of the unexpected drop-fire malfunctions than it rolled out the notices of a pending upgrade plan (which I keep starting to type as "recall," but to-MAY-to/to-MAH-to I suppose). If we learned anything from the ongoing Takata airbag debacle, it's that companies aren't usually prepared to immediately correct mistakes in their widely-distributed products. How was it then that SIG's already prepared to take and fix potentially hundreds of thousands of drop-dangerous P320's?
Maybe SIG already recognized the potential for something like this and began generating "upgraded" trigger assemblies long before they were outed by the first butterfingered shooter. If they had been announced solely as a matter of refining the weapon's overall weight profile--enthusiasts can go bananas over even fractions of an ounce--SIG might have been lauded for continuing to innovate and refine its art. In light of the issue at hand, though, it seems like they're trying hard to put that spin on it while they're actually conducting a fairly standard recall-and-replace operation, for which they were mysteriously already prepared.
As long as nobody is provably hurt by the flaw, it makes sense for SIG to spin straw into gold, turning a manufacturing flaw into an opportunity for an "upgrade." Hopefully the other
gun shoe will never drop.