Unquestionably, the most popular handgun in the United States today is the Colt Model 1911. Now nudging a century old, the 1911 is made by too many companies to list, in everything from full-size, full-bore, target and custom models down to the most basic carry guns for hard use. The 1911 has been scaled up, scaled down, trimmed, honed, beveled, rechambered and re-upped.

Combine the popularity of the 1911 with the current interest in concealed carry guns and a booming market for small semiautos of all kinds and the wonder is not that SIG Sauer adapted the design to a subcompact .380, but that someone did not do it earlier.

Well, actually, someone did. Twice, in fact.

Back before the dawn of time, the Spanish company Star-Echevarria made a variety of 1911-based pistols, including some scaled-down, almost-exact copies in .22 RF, .32 ACP and .380 ACP. More recently, for about a dozen years Colt itself made a cute little number called the Mustang, ending production in 1997. Ever since, the air has echoed with the sobs of those who wish they had bought a Mustang when they had the chance.

Along comes the P238, and the glad cries now echoing are of those who ordered one months ago and are only now receiving their guns–the demand took the company completely by surprise and left it wrestling with a reported backlog of 40,000 orders.

As I write this (July 2009), gun shops in the area around St. Louis are just beginning to see a trickle of P238s. Top Gun Shooting Sports in Imperial, MO, where I do most of my handgunning, ordered 100 at the SHOT Show in January and in late June received the first five with promises of more to follow–sometime. And Top Gun is one of the premier handgun sales outlets for greater St. Louis.

The shortage of guns was compounded by a severe drought in .380 ammunition. Through the spring shortages, .380 proved the most difficult to get. The cartridge is becoming more popular all the time, and the annual run of .380 (it is a seasonal cartridge, in ammo-production terms) was snapped up in a matter of months.

When my test gun arrived at Top Gun, there was no dearth of members, especially the .380 aficionados, who politely requested a chance to shoot it. In the interests of journalism, we doled out the precious supply of .380 ammunition in order to get some opinions on the gun.

Linda Robey shoots a SIG 239 and loves 9mm pistols, but she also owns several .380s and uses a Ruger LCP as her usual carry gun. She has had nerve problems in one hand, so she is especially conscious of how a grip fits and how much a gun recoils.

“I’m surprised at how comfortable the grip is,” she said.”Considering the gun is so thin. And,” she added, “it’s so cute. Oh, don’t say I said that!”

Debbie Thimmig, who shoots a Keltec .380, admired the P238 for its solid feel. It felt, she said, like a real gun. “The recoil is not bad at all, and the operation is very smooth. The recoil is really nice for such a little bitty gun.”

Little bitty and cute it may be, but the P238 shoots with considerable authority.

First, though, a look at what it is and what it isn’t. SIG has taken the essential 1911 design and scaled it down in every direction. With a 2.7-inch barrel, alloy frame and loaded six-round magazine, the gun weighs just 15.6 ounces. From end to end it is a mere 5 1/2 inches long and 3.9 inches high. Critically, from a CCW point of view, the gun is .9 inch thick through the grip and only .75 inch thick through the slide. The safety catch and magazine-release button are where you expect them to be, as is the slide release. Superficially, the gun resembles a 1911 only much smaller.

Now for the differences. There is no grip or magazine safety, and SIG has significantly altered the function of the thumb safety. On a 1911, with the hammer back and the safety on, the gun is truly “cocked and locked.” The P238, on the other hand, is cocked and unlocked. The slide can move back and forth with the hammer cocked and the safety on. This, according to Top Gun’s SIG specialist, Dennis Just, was done to assuage those who hate to have a loaded gun with the hammer back and the safety off while either loading or unloading.

“This allows you, with the gun empty and no magazine, to cock the hammer, put the safety on, then slip in a magazine and rack the slide to load it,” he said.

Conversely, with a round chambered, the hammer back and the safety on, you can remove the mag, eject the round and render the gun empty without ever touching the safety.

The drawback is that the slide can move back if you jam the gun into a tight holster, potentially ejecting the chambered round or resulting in a jam. The obvious way to avoid this potential problem is simple buy a holster that properly “fits” the SIG pistol.

Unlike the 1911, the safety can be placed on when the hammer is down, locking both slide and hammer.

Among five of us shooting the gun during a morning, we encountered very few problems. The gun arrived with just one magazine, so I bought a second one, which fit a little more tightly; with a round in the chamber and the slide closed it was difficult with that mag (but not the other) to seat a full magazine to achieve a seven-shot gun.

The message here is simple always check a new semiautomatic pistol for functionality in terms of both magazine and ammunition compatibility. Obviously, this is even more critical when you’re talking about a home defense gun.

That was the only problem in terms of operation. The gun fed every kind of ammunition without a hitch, regardless of bullet type; there were no stovepipes, jams or any of the other frustrating new-gun glitches that are so common, especially among semiautos.

And as for accuracy, absolutely no complaints. From a rest at seven yards, with Winchester’s standard 95-grain hardball range load, the gun shot a very gratifying 1.46-inch seven-shot group, starting with one in the chamber and a full mag.

Switching to the five brands of self-defense ammunition I managed to scrounge, I found the P238 liked it all almost equally. Shooting five-shot groups, the gun printed a .75-inch group with Cor-Bon High Velocity 90-grain JHP, 1.05 inches with Winchester 95-gr. SXT, 1 1/4 inches with 70-grain Pow’RBall, 1.57 inches with Hornady 90-grain FTX Critical Defence and 1 3/4 inches with Cor-Bon 80-grain DPX. The Cor-Bon High Velocity printed its group dead on the point of aim, with the other group centers no more than an inch away.

One can quote weights, lengths, capacities and group sizes all day without ever getting to the essence of what a good carry gun should be. How naturally does it point? How easy is it to shoot? Is it comfortable to fire and fun to practice with?

Five of us tried the gun. Joel, a high-level NRA shooting instructor and IPSC shooter, liked it a lot. “It’s easy to shoot, and it’s accurate,” was his assessment. Dennis was impressed with its solid feel and ease of shooting. Both Linda and Debbie preferred it to their current .380 carry guns.

In size, it is so close to Debbie’s Keltec that there is no advantage either way, yet the feel is quite different. The SIG has a solid, large-gun feel, without the bulk. Shooting one-handed, I was able to hold the gun on target and squeeze the trigger without pulling it off target, even in rapid fire. The trigger pull on this gun averages 7 1/2 pounds–nicely within the advertised range of six to eight–yet it is smooth and does not feel heavy. It’s not a target trigger, but it’s not supposed to be.

Having never shot a Colt Mustang, I cannot compare it with the P238. I can tell you it’s vastly superior to my old Star .380, however. Once the supply of P238s really starts to fill the demand, it should quiet the sobbing of those who regret that Mustang they never bought.

SIG Sauer's new P238 fills the gap left by Colt and Star.

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