You should consider three things before you buy any tool, be it hammer, television, car, or vacuum cleaner. Or firearm.
The first is design. How well is that tool designed to accomplish the task for which it is intended?
The second is quality. How good are the materials used to make that tool, and how well are they assembled?
Third is ergonomics. How easy and comfortable is it for you to use that tool? The pistol that fits my hand perfectly and makes me shoot like a Grand Master (that gun has not yet been invented, by the way) may make you want to tear your hair out and take up needlepoint.
The first two are linked. The finest material and most meticulous attention to detail can’t overcome a bad design. The greatest design in the world can be outweighed by cheap materials and shoddy workmanship.
Unfortunately, that brings me to the SIG Sauer M11-A1. Before I go on, let me make it very clear that there is nothing cheap about SIG materials in either sense of that word. All SIG guns are expensive, and the cost is reflective of the intrinsic quality of the gun and the materials used to make it, quality you can feel when you pick up an M11. That said, SIG has severe quality-control problems.
I try to do my due diligence. Like everyone else, I tend to get swept away by enthusiasm and desire, but I’ve reached the age where I at least make an effort to look before I leap. When I decided to abandon my beloved M1911 as a carry gun, I played around with a variety of handguns. I quickly ruled out striker-fired guns because I just don’t like the triggers. I’m not a revolver fan, so that was out.
There are any number of excellent, well-designed and well-made double action/single action semi-automatic pistols out there, but concentrating on 9mm DA/SA, I narrowed it down to a choice between SIG and Heckler & Koch. That was—to a certain extent—predicated on reputation, availability, and personal prejudice as much as on my desire to play with a new toy.
And play I did. I handled a lot of handguns from both companies; I narrowed my choices down to certain models; then I went to a store where I could rent try-guns and I put several hundred rounds through several different model variations of each gun. I settled on the SIG M11-A1.
I love it and I trust it, but… But.
It wasn’t as if I had no warning signs. I had plenty, but I chose to ignore them. The trigger of the rental gun I played with was so rough in double action it felt as if it had pea gravel in the sear. When I commented on it to the gunsmith behind the counter at the gun store, he dry-fired it several times and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Even by SIG’s standards.”
That’s a loud and clear warning expressed succinctly in plain English by a good gunsmith and honest salesman.
I did some more on-line research, but for every negative review there was a positive one. The key is to consider the sources. Very, very few gun magazines will ever publish a negative review of a firearm from a major manufacturer. Times are rough in the gun industry these days, and no publisher is going to risk losing the few advertising dollars still out there by alienating a major gun company. Reputable, honest, knowledgeable, on-line reviewers can be a much safer source of information, but I didn’t start finding any really negative reviews from those sources until I already had my M11-A1, unexpectedly found and purchased at a gun show (following the usual background check, in case anyone out there still believes in the “gun show loophole” myth).
Let’s start with what’s good about the M11-A1. Design, design, design. Material, material, material.
The M11-A1 is an upgraded variant of either the P228 or the P229* (see below), the latter considered to be one of the best SIG pistols ever, and that’s saying something, considering SIG’s reputation for fine guns. It has a modified Browning locked-breech, tilting-block design that has been beefed up to accommodate the higher pressures of the .40 caliber and the proprietary .357 SIG. Either way, the increased weight of the slide is a significant factor in moderating recoil and muzzle-rise.
The frame of the M11-A1 is a high-grade anodized aluminum alloy and the slide is stainless steel. There is no Picatinny rail, which is one of the reasons I chose that gun, since I do not use a weapon-mounted light or laser. All interior parts are phosphate-coated to resist rust and reduce friction.
There is no external mechanical safety on the M11-A1, but if you look at it another way, there are multiple redundant safeties, none of which need to be activated. When the gun is loaded, with a round in the chamber, you press the de-cocker, which allows the hammer to lower onto the loaded chamber, but since there is an internal firing pin block, the gun cannot discharge even if dropped. (This is sometimes called the “firing pin safety.”) There is also a “trigger bar disconnector” that ensures the firing pin is separated from the cartridge during cycling. In short, the only way to discharge the gun is by pulling the trigger. The first shot will be double action, with a long and relatively heavy (ten- to twelve-pounds, approximately) trigger pull, which counts as yet another safety; after that, all subsequent shots are single action, with a four-pound (approximately) trigger pull and the shortest trigger reset of any gun I have ever handled. That’s great design.
It is also, hands-down, the easiest gun to field-strip and maintain that I have ever encountered. And with the exception of steel-case ammunition (which, apparently, no SIG gun likes, and which is hard on your extractor in any event) it is not a finicky gun and will eat anything and everything you feed it.
The ergonomics of the grip are good and comfortable, and the slightly undercut trigger guard allows you to grip the gun well and high. Accuracy is excellent, far better than this shooter. Wait, let me rephrase that. Accuracy became excellent after I had the gun fixed.
SIG has a serious quality control problem. My usual rule of thumb is to never do anything to a gun until I have put at least five hundred rounds through it. However, this SIG’s initial, double action trigger pull was soooo heavy that I gave up before I reached two hundred rounds and sent it to the geniuses at LRK Mechanical in Prescott, AZ.
Cutting to the chase, the first thing LRK found was that the hammer spring was a twenty-six-pound-rated spring. It is supposed to be a seventeen-pound spring. That is completely unacceptable and careless assembly and should have been caught by quality control. The next thing LRK noticed was the crude finish of the trigger mechanism. LRK had to hand-stone and polish the entire trigger mechanism—the sear bar, the sear, the hammer, and the trigger itself. Consider that this is a $1000+ handgun (the MSRP is $1,149); for that price, stoning and polishing should have been done at the factory and—at a minimum—the right spring should have been used. I paid $120 to have it done.
I went back to the range. After LRK’s tender mercies, the gun shot like a dream. Unfortunately, my groups were all high and to the right. I thought it might be me, so over several weeks, I tried shooting from multiple positions at multiple distances, both with a rest and without, and finally I asked one of the range masters, the finest shot at our range and a former Special Ops guy, if he would try it. He got tighter groups than I, but they were all (drum roll, please) high and to the right.
Back to LRK Mechanical.
It turned out the front sight was crooked, and it wasn’t even properly aligned with the rear sight. I paid $192.47 to have that fixed (that price included an upgraded Night Fision tritium front sight for aging eyes).
When you buy a $1000+ gun, baby, you shouldn’t have to then spend an additional $312.47 to get it shooting well enough to make it properly functional. That is (expletive deleted) poor quality control.
Nor am I alone. Like a newly divorced person whose friends come out of the woodwork to tell him or her of all the terrible things they knew his or her ex-spouse did during the marriage that the friends never mentioned, I began to run across SIG owners and stumble over online review after review all saying the same thing: great gun, but…
Again, I want to stress that this is, fundamentally, an excellent firearm, an ideal balance of size and weight, accuracy and reliability, ergonomics and durability. It is a civilian variant of the gun carried by many elite federal law enforcement agencies and specialized military units, the kinds of men and women who are not restricted by low-bid guidelines, so that should tell you something. But be aware.
One last comment: I discussed this at length with one of the gunsmiths at LRK Mechanical and he said that all firearm companies go through this, that for approximately ten-year periods they will build guns that approach perfection, and then, unexpectedly, quality will drop off and stuff is churned out that would better serve as a paperweight. Since this is what he does for a living, and since he has forgotten more about guns than I will ever know, I suspect he’s right, but that doesn’t make it any easier on the customer.
*There is a confusing plethora of SIG pistols: the P210, 220, 225, 226, 228 (discontinued), 229, 238, 320, 356, and conflicting claims as to which one is the ancestor of the 229. The closest contender appears to be the 228, which is a compact version of the 226, both of which—all SIG’s, actually—are descendants of the original 220, the granddaddy of the modern SIG, the one that spawned all the rest. If all that sounds confusing to you, you are not alone. On the SIG Sauer website, when you work your way to the page for the M11-A1 Compact, there is a short video where a gentleman gives a brief and rapid overview of the components of the M11-A1, during which he states that it is an upgraded variant of the 228, chopped down from the 226. I suspect he’s right, in part because the numerals 228 are on the grips of mine. However, as you watch the video, look at the printed text next to the video screen, text that states unequivocally it’s an upgraded variant of the 229. Not only that, but the gun is carried on their website on the 229-page. Huh? Perhaps it’s an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, and we shouldn’t embarrass it by inquiring too closely about its parents and ancestors. Or perhaps the quality control on the SIG website is no better than the quality control in their factory.