During the last 40 years, we have witnessed some dynamic developments in the evolution of semi-automatic pistol designs and equally, if not more so, in specific trends. By the mid-1970s revolvers and their limited firepower were clearly moribund throughout law enforcement agencies in the United States. The first clearly defined trend during that time was the development of service-size 9x19mm Parabellum pistols with high-capacity magazines.
Manufacturers scrambled to introduce handguns with the largest capacity magazines. More rounds meant more firepower, although in all likelihood less hit probability. Then, the .40 S&W cartridge was introduced and police departments raced hell bent to abandon their 9x19mm pistols and adopt those in the much ballyhooed new round, which eventually was perceived by many as neither fish nor fowl.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act) was a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a federal law passed by Congress and signed into law on Sept. 13, 1994. It included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of so-called “assault weapons” and magazines with a capacity greater than 10 rounds. As a consequence, manufacturers were forced to rethink the concept of large handguns that could hold no more than 10 rounds. Pistol envelopes almost immediately began to shrink and the dawn of the “compact” handgun was upon us.
However, this federal ban was for only 10 years, and it expired on Sept. 13, 2004. While large, service-size, high-capacity pistols were immediately reintroduced; something else was happening that drew everyone’s attention away from these immense artillery pieces.
There were blips on the screen, like the U.S. Army’s Request For Proposal for a large, high-capacity .45 ACP pistol. Although the Army walked away from it (at least temporarily), the project resulted in the commercial marketing of several handguns of that type that have seen some modest popularity.
But, prior to and after expiration of the ban, more and more states passed concealed carry legislation. This led to an overwhelming demand for really small, concealable handguns. As a result, everyone and his brother quickly introduced small “pocket pistols” chambered for the quite old .380 ACP (9mm Kurz) cartridge, which itself got a wound ballistics facelift by highly respected ammunition manufacturers such as Hornady.
But many were not satisfied, as the .380 ACP has always been labeled as only “marginally” effective, especially so in the United States, where for many anything less than the venerable .45 ACP round is disdainfully sneered at as being a pipsqueak.
In response to this, almost two years ago a genre of extremely small handguns chambered for the more effective 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge appeared on the scene. Referred to as “micro nines,” they are currently the hot ticket item among pistols. While very concealable, there is one fly in their ointment of no small consequence to a substantial group of shooters—ferocious recoil.
A firearm’s recoil impulse is a consequence of Newton’s third law of motion, which states that when one body interacts with a second body, the force of the first body on the second is equal in magnitude but opposite in direction to the force of the second body on the first. Other factors important in determining the magnitude of the forces involved are the mass (or weight) of the handgun and the force generated by the cartridge. The larger the caliber, the greater the force it will most often generate. And, the less the mass of the handgun, the greater will be the recoil impulse.
This is so because the greater the mass of the handgun, the greater amount of the force generated by the cartridge that must be diverted to overcoming the handgun’s inertia and the lighter the pistol, the less of the force generated by the cartridge that will need to be diverted to overcome the pistol’s inertia. Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion or state of rest.
There is certainly a limit imposed by human anatomy as to just how small these pistols can go. But, the real question is, have they already gone too far? Are they already too small for many shooters, especially women and the generally inexperienced? Shotgun News recently received a pistol from SIG Sauer that goes slightly back in the other direction.
The SIG Sauer P290RS (Re-Strike) is a somewhat improved version of the earlier caliber 9x19mm Parabellum P290, a DAO (Double-Action Only) handgun that’s larger than the immensely popular SIG Sauer P938, but smaller than Glock’s smallest nine, the Model 26.
Overall length of the P290RS is 5.5 inches (139.7mm), with an overall height of 3.9 inches (99mm) and a width at the grip panels of 0.9 inch (22.9mm). The 2.9-inch (73.7mm) barrel has six grooves with a right hand twist of one turn in 10 inches (254mm). The weight with an empty magazine is 20.5 ounces (581.2 grams).
The method of operation is a modified Browning-type: short recoil, locked-breech and a conventional cam-dropped barrel system, but with a squared-off area above the barrel chamber locking into the slide’s ejection port and additional locking with the bell-shaped muzzle end of the barrel locking into the front end of the slide.
The P290RS slide is made of CNC-machined 416 series stainless steel machined from bar stock with a black Nitron finish (or an optional satin finish slide). SIG Sauer’s Nitron finish is a thin layer of amorphous “DLC” that both creates a hard protective coating and enhances lubricity. “DLC,” in turn, is the acronym for Diamond-Like Carbon. DLC thus has some of the properties of diamond.
Although it appears smooth to the naked eye, DLC actually has the form of a microscopic cobblestone street. There are seven different forms of DLC. The various forms of DLC can be applied to almost any material that is compatible with a vacuum environment. In short, the principal desirable qualities of a Nitron finish are hardness; wear resistance and lubricity, or “slickness.”
The P290RS employs a double nested recoil spring system riding over the polymer guide rod. This helps to insure reliable operation when a compact pistol’s slide recoils for only a very short distance.
The P290RS excellent high profile sights come with tritium inserts (SIGLITE). The tritium inserts have a white polymer ring around them. The front sight carries a single tritium insert and the rear sight has a tritium insert on each sight of its open square notch. The sights are drift-adjustable for windage and different heights are available from SIG Sauer. The sight radius is 4.3 inches (109.2mm).
Elevation adjustment is by means of different height combinations. Each open-notch rear sight moves the point-of-impact (POI) about 2 inches at 25 yards and each tapered blade-type front sight moves the POI approximately 1 inch at 25 yards.
A significant number of my personal carry handguns are equipped with self-luminous sights. Tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) provides the energy source for self-luminous sights of this type. Tritium gas and a phosphor particle are pressurized within a tiny glass capsule.
Tritium creates soft beta rays that are converted to visible light when they strike the phosphor particle. Because they are nuclear in nature tritium sights have a half-life that provides a useful life of about 10 years. The capsules are resistant to oil, water, corrosion and temperature changes.
While it has been my experience that white dots or outlines are never noticed under stress, self-luminous tritium sights are useful adjuncts to firing at night or under subdued-light conditions. They are, however, no substitute for a flashlight, as they do not illuminate or aid in the identification of a target as a potential threat.
The P290RS slide reciprocates on four steel rails in a manner now conventional with polymer frame handguns. The frame’s grip panels, frontstrap and backstrap have molded stippling that provides a really excellent gripping surface. The grip panels lie flush to the frame. They can be removed from their grooved tracks in the frame, and replaced by others made of aluminum, wood or polymer. Some of them can be engraved with your initials for a truly customized appearance. To slide the grip panels down and off the frame, you must first remove a steel crosspin at the heel of the frame.
Some of the P290RS improvements are found in the frame: a re-contoured and serrated magazine catch/release button (located on the left side, it cannot be changed over to the right side as suggested in the manual), a reshaped beavertail frame tang and a reduced and reshaped slide release lever.
As with the original P290, the frame is concave around the head of the slide stop pin on the right side, allowing the pin to be recessed and thus inhibiting accidental dislodgement. On each side of the frame, to the rear of the trigger, a scooped-out area—wide at the front and narrow at the rear—directs the trigger finger to placement dead center on the face of the trigger.
However, the most significant changes are in the DAO trigger system. The trigger now has re-strike capability, which means that in the event of a failure to fire, the trigger can be pulled again and the hammer will rotate rearward and back to strike the firing pin another time.
At the bottom of the trigger guard, a prominent bulge underneath the tip of the trigger naturally guides the trigger finger onto the trigger face. But most important in my opinion, the double-action trigger pull has been reduced (at least on our test specimen) from 9 to 10 pounds to a substantially lighter and fairly smooth 6.75 pounds, somewhat startling for a DAO system.
Up front on the dust cover is a recess covered by a rubbery projection. This cutout accepts SIG Sauer’s proprietary 290-ILM laser unit. The 290-ILM has a so-called “laser key” matching this recess. The slotted metal key is inserted into the recess and rotated in a figure eight, which locks the laser unit to the pistol.
The 290-ILM has momentary operating buttons on either side. The laser unit’s configuration matches the dust cover and forward trigger guard’s face. It weighs just .8 ounce. Adjustment for windage and elevation is by means of two Allen screws with a 1.5mm Allen wrench. The unit comes with a 3VCR1/3N lithium battery.
Two single-column, detachable box magazines are included, a six- and eight-round, respectively. The stainless steel bodies have five and seven indicator holes on each side, respectively. The followers are also of stainless steel. The six-round magazine comes both flush (for maximum concealment potential) and with a finger extension polymer floorplate. The eight-round magazine comes with a stippled extension that extends the grip frame and adds almost an inch to accommodate even the largest of hands.
All four variants ship with the two magazines described, a trigger lock, a glass-filled nylon holster, instruction manual and lockable storage case. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the four variants is as follows: 290RS-9-BSS (Nitron finish, night sights), $758; 290RS-9-TSS (two-tone finish, night sights), $772; 290RS-9-BSS-L (Nitron finish, night sights, laser), $829; 290RS-9-TSS-L (two-tone finish, night sights, laser), $843.
Test and Evaluation
This pistol was designed as a backup or hideout handgun for carrying in deep concealment. It will be used, if at all, for the direst of emergencies. It was further intended for those who do not feel comfortable with the wound ballistics potential of now immensely popular .380 ACP cartridge.
And, just why is that so? Undoubtedly, the 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge really does provide somewhat superior wound ballistic potential over the .380 ACP round. However, there is most certainly a psychological factor involved in this equation as well.
American shooters have long been enamored with cartridges of great “power” (whatever that is, or is supposed to be). Hence, the popularity of the .45 ACP round for over a century, while the 9x19mm Parabellum has always more than sufficed in Europe. In this country, the .380 ACP round is viewed as “minimalist,” while in Europe the military and police were satisfied with the .32 ACP cartridge and usually preferred it, as the very same pistol in .32 ACP always held one more round in its magazine than the .380.
Four different loadings were used in the test and evaluation, covering the full range of projectile weights commonly available in 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition. Black Hills Ammunition provided three of the loads: 124-grain Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) round-nose, 147-grain FMJ subsonic flat-nose, and 147-grain Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) subsonic. The other round, the classic 115-grain FMJ round-nose was provided by WPA—Wolf Performance Ammunition. These were the very same rounds we used in our recent test and evaluation of the SIG Sauer P938 pistol.
Although much maligned of late, and abandoned by many police departments in favor of the supposedly superior .40 S&W cartridge (once more the so-called “power” factor at play), in fact, the 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge is perfectly capable of effective wound ballistics performance if the right ammunition is selected.
In general, the heaviest hollow point bullet available in any pistol caliber will be the most effective, as it will usually do the most damage. The best choice in 9x19mm Parabellum, with a clearly demonstrated record of performance in law enforcement, is without doubt the 147-grain subsonic JHP load. It will penetrate about 13 inches of tissue simulant and usually expands to more than .60 cal. It’s an excellent choice when the 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge is mandated.
Ball ammunition in this caliber should never be selected, except by military organizations forced to use it as a consequence of Article 23 of the annex to the Hague Convention, No. IV of Oct. 18, 1907, which proscribes the use of bullets without full metal jackets, as it will invariably over-penetrate.
All of the loads tested performed with equal reliability and there were no stoppages at any time throughout the course of the test firing. Accuracy was also approximately the same. Test firing was conducted at a range of 7 yards, as the vast majority of gunfights with handguns take place at that distance and less and few will engage targets at greater distances with a subcompact or so-called “micro nine.”
I am not accustomed to shooting DAO pistols and find their heavy trigger pulls difficult to master. Thus, at 7 yards the best I could do was place six shots into a group dispersion of about 2 inches, which is still entirely adequate for close range gun fighting. Others have claimed 1-inch groups with this pistol and others (probably more honest) have stated that 3 to 4 inches was the best they could do.
Like all of SIG Sauer’s firearms, the P290RS is well made. There were no malfunctions of any kind during SGN’s test and evaluation of approximately 400 rounds. Most important, we found that the P290RS pistol’s recoil impulse was significantly less than that of the P938.
So, it appears that the seemingly only small increase in mass from 16 ounces (P938 without magazine) to 20.5 ounces (P290RS with an empty magazine), plus the bulkier and more easily held and handled P290RS, results in a noticeably reduced recoil impulse. If you can master the DAO trigger system, then the SIG Sauer P290RS may just be the micro nine for you.