Those of us who have been in the gun culture a long time have to keep reminding ourselves that a lot of the gun people we now find ourselves surrounded by are new to this. Compared to just a handful of presidential elections ago, the number of CPL holders is 10 times what it used to be. Those new shooters will be, and are, going through the same progression we did back in “the day.”
That is, when they get their new carry permit, they will immediately hurry to the local gun shop and cast about for the biggest gun they can manage. After all, isn’t that what all the gunwriters recommend? And when the fun of lugging an anvil wears off (and it quickly does), they swing to the other extreme: the most compact whatever that they can depend on. A few practice sessions with it and they get a bit less enamored of pocket guns. Easy to carry, yes. But deucedly difficult to shoot.
Maybe they bypassed the big gun and went right for the compact first. Now that they are accustomed to noise and recoil, they want something that produces braggable targets at the range. You know, identifiable groups, not a random scattering of holes in paper. Although those micro-guns do make small groups tough, it isn’t simply the pistol’s fault. It’s the combination of a short sight radius, small sights, a heavy trigger and small grips—all combined with a new shooter.
The mamma bear of carry guns is the bigger-than-micro, smaller-than-full-size that many of us settled on a long time ago, the compact medium bore.
And that’s the exact region the new P290 is aiming for. Sig Sauer calls it a subcompact, but compared with the micro-guns—the .380s and such—the P290 is a compact. Sig will extol its subcompactness, but compared with the .380s, it isn’t. And to my mind, that’s a good thing.
The P290 is a Browning-type tilting-barrel, locked-breech 9mm with a DAO trigger system, polymer frame and replaceable grip inserts. This is kind of like describing a luxury Euro-sedan as a car with four doors and four wheels.
Up top, the slide is a milled stainless steel part with obvious Sig Sauer styling cues and your choice of Siglite or nonglowing sights. Both front and rear sights are in dovetails, so you can swap them out if you have a favorite design that you prefer over the thoroughly excellent issue sights.
There are cocking serrations only at the rear, and except for the slide stop lever, the whole pistol has a refreshing lack of protuberances and fripperies.
The frame is a polymer molded shell, with the steel operating parts assembled inside and panels for a nonslip grip molded into the surface. The grip panels are held in by means of a crosspin on the bottom of the frame, in the exact location of such a pin on the 1911. Push the pin to one side and you can slide out that panel to replace it. Push back, then over a bit and slide off the other panel, then replace it in turn. No need to remove (and risk losing) the pin. Sig Sauer is telling us that the polymer plates can be replaced with wood or aluminum, and that brings up very interesting possibilities. The company will be offering replacements just as quickly as it can get them produced, so you’ll soon be able to accessorize your P290.
A Better Break
The frame encloses the trigger mechanism, which is ensconced inside the shell and works as a DAO mechanism. The pistol I received is a preproduction prototype. Once the design had advanced far enough to produce firing samples that could be run through high-volume shooting tests, Sig grabbed one and sent it to me. As such, there are details of the final design that will be worked out later, but the trigger is already very nice. It moves smoothly and evenly, without stacking and with a bit of overtravel that is easily managed. A bit of dry-firing and I had it under control.
The first trigger offering is a nonrestrike design. That is, if your first attempt to ignite a recalcitrant primer fails, you’ll have to rack the slide. Since most of us have had the “tap-rack-bang” response drilled down nearly to the DNA level, that won’t be a problem. Sig Sauer plans to offer a restrike capable version as well.
The barrel locks up by means of the hood and front ledge lifting up into the ejection port, as so many new designs do. The barrel has a sharply pronounced flare at the muzzle, so as soon as the slide begins its rearward travel, it has released the muzzle, and that allows it to tilt, dropping the chamber down into the cartridge feed path.
At just over 20 ounces, and with a short sight radius, the P290 is going to make you work for your groups. But any small, lightweight pistol is going to do that, so we should not expect the P290 to bend the laws of physics. In keeping with the Newtonian laws, it is snappy in recoil. With standard-velocity ammo that’s no big deal, but the muzzle does jump up a bit. Feed it some +P ammo and you’ll have your hands full. Again, all compact pistols exact this price, and the P290 has been built with +P ammo in mind. It won’t object, even if your hands do.
What I’m looking for are the additional magazines that should be available soon. The P290 comes with a pair of flush-set six-rounders, and for a compact carry gun, that may be all many of you want. But the company has also said it will have eight-shot mags.
Since the P290 is a single-stack, that means longer magazines. The eight-shot magazines will have a sculpted baseplate with a spacer to fill the gap around the magazine, in essence making the P290 a pistol with a longer grip. With my big hands, a longer grip would make recoil a nonissue. And since the part that makes carry uncomfortable for me is the longer slide, the extra mag length would turn the P290 into a compact with a hand-filling grip and a good supply of ammo (a P290, with eight-round mag—and a pair of extras—comes to 25 rounds of 9mm).
Disassembly is easy and straightforward. Obviously, first unload and check. Then pull back the slide until the release notch in the slide rail lines up with the tip of the slide lever lug. Then push the slide lever out from the right side. Sig has provided a spring clip to keep the slide stop attached to the frame during disassembly, but it is not all that secure. No slam here, for it would be a rare compact 9mm that could keep the slide stop securely attached and not do so with a lot of extra bulk. Just keep in mind that when you take apart the P290, the slide stop will come off. Then you won’t lose it.
The recoil spring is a dual-spring assembly, and when you have the P290 apart, you have five parts to keep track of: slide, barrel, recoil spring, slide stop and magazine. Given the stainless parts and noncorrosive finishes Sig is used to working with, you will have an easy job of getting rid of dust, dirt, lint and powder residue.
A Bright Alternative
Also in the case was a laser and a spare magazine. Now, I was initially cool toward lasers, but as they have evolved I’ve been warming up to them. An acquaintance just told me of using the laser on his pistol to drive knife-wielding would-be robbers into the arms of the police. The laser alone was enough to give them religion, and no shots were fired. A laser alone isn’t always enough, but as a force multiplier it can be very useful.
OK, so there’s a laser in the box. It took me an embarrassingly long time photographing the P290 before I realized that the frame does not have the ubiquitous rail on it. What? So how does the laser attach? Very cleverly, as it turns out.
The frame has a figure-8-shaped slot in it. The laser has a similarly shaped paddle on it. Take out the rubber gap-filler, insert the paddle on the laser, and turn the screw on the bottom. The laser is now locked in place. One thing time and advancing technology have done for us is increase the brightness of the lasers we have. The Sig laser is bright. Even in daylight, it is a bright red dot, flitting about the aiming point on the target.
The magazines have dual locking slots machined into them, indicative of a reversible magazine catch. Without the owner’s manual, I didn’t want to apply tools to a loaner gun, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for our left-handed shooters to delve into. I also ascertained that the P290 lacks the infernal device known as a magazine disconnector. It’ll fire with the magazine, so keep that in mind.
As mentioned, the P290 sent to me is a hand-built preproduction prototype, and it looked it. The sights were not pretty, and there was a smear of Loctite or some other shmooey on the slide. The barrel and extractor showed a lot more wear than the slide did. The gun our photographer had to work with was a showgirl; the one they sent me is a plowhorse.
It took a couple of magazines to work out just where the pistol was hitting, but once I had that down it wasn’t too difficult to print nice groups at 25 yards. In the course a couple hundred rounds through it, I had no failures to feed, fire, extract or eject. For a lightweight gun, the P290 did not leave my hand hurting after that much shooting, and some of it was with some pretty hot loads.
It’ll take a short while for the holster makers to make model-specific holsters for it, but until then you can pack your P290 in a generic holster such as one of the many made by Uncle Mike’s.
So where does the P290 fit in? Simple. If you want something bigger than a .380, something easy to carry but that won’t pull you under if you hit soft ground, the P290 might be for you. If you are not enamored of cocked-and-locked carry, the P290 would move higher up your list. And if a striker-driven firing system does not set your heart a-pitter-pat, then the DAO of the P290 makes it perfect.