Story & Photography by Oleg Volk
This article was published in Small Arms Review February 2022
SIG Sauer’s P210 has been in production since 1948, first in Switzerland, and now in the United States. This superlative fighting handgun has rather humble origins. It all started in 1914 France with the War to End All Wars.
The RUBY Era
The French Army, in common with all other participants of the Great War, had the pleasant delusion of adequacy to the task. One of the many immediate challenges it faced was a shortage of small arms. Well-made and accurate, if slow to reload, the standard issue M1892 Ordnance revolver in 8mm was too slow to manufacture to keep up with the French Army’s needs. Lacking a suitably expedient sidearm design ready for production, the French government contracted 7.65mm Ruby pistols from Spain. A little rough, but functional variation on the Colt 1903
Hammerless, Ruby was a plain blowback pistol with a slightly extended magazine.
Its chief virtues, besides mostly firing when necessary, was its low price and its availability. As the order volumes increased, and the original manufacturer resorted to subcontracting the production, the quality dropped. Parts between pistols were not fully interchangeable, and that included the magazines. Even so, more than 7,000 Ruby pistols were purchased by the French army in less than four years, twice as many as all M1892 revolvers produced from its adoption through 1924!
Post-World War I
After World War One ended, the French had the opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned. One of them was that 7.65x17mm, while adequate for police use, was not the best military caliber. Rather than seek a larger caliber, the French army went with a higher velocity cartridge of the same caliber, .30 French Longue. Compared to 32 ACP, it was an incremental improvement: a fractionally heavier FMJ bullet was launched about 125 fps faster for a 25% gain in muzzle energy. This round, also known as 7.65×20 mm, 7.65 MAS and 30-18 Auto, was an evolution of the cartridge made for the Pedersen Device, a semi-auto blowback adapter for modified 1903 Springfield rifles. The device was produced but not put into service, and most samples of it were destroyed. The ammunition found a second life as a French pistol and later sub-machine gun round. It was favored over larger bore options for the compact dimensions, allowing higher capacity in single-stack magazines.
Designed for the French Army trials beginning in 1935, the next military sidearm was designated 1935A. The brainchild of a French Foreign Legion officer turned engineer, Swiss- born Charles Petter, this very modern pistol was a massive improvement on the Ruby. Borrowing some features from the M1911, this short recoil design mirrored the evolution of the Browning Hi-Power with a bushing-less barrel and full- length guide rod.
The barrel retained the swinging link concept, though implemented differently from the M1911 with two links side by side. The recoil spring guide fits between them. Borrowing from the Soviet TT33, the entire firing mechanism is designed to come out, en bloc, for service, per army specifications. The manual safety lever is on the slide, very much unlike the M1911. When on, it blocks the sear while also preventing the hammer from reaching the firing pin. The upright, protruding safety lever is very obvious in the sight picture. A single leaf spring serves both the hammer and the sear, again per competition rules. The single-stack magazine held 8 rounds.
While 1935A won the army trials, its production ramped up very slowly, so it was supplemented with a 1935S and various 7.65mm Ruby-like and FN1922-like commercial pistols. Of the 85,000 1935As made by 1950, only about 10,000 were completed before the German occupation of the SACM factory in 1940. Combat performance of the 1935A must have been judged adequate, as the pistol remained in front-line service through the 1960s.
7.65x20mm ammunition was usually corrosively primed 77-grain jacketed ball in lacquer-sealed steel cases. Inferior to 9mm Luger and 7.62mm Tokarev, it compared favorably with other wartime calibers like .380 ACP and 8mm Nambu for stopping power.
In my testing with new manufacture Steinel ammunition, the 83-year-old pistol ran reliably and kept all shots on a steel silhouette past fifty yards. Drift-adjustable sights are small but clear. The pivoting single action trigger, while heavy at 8 pounds, is consistent and crisp. The new ammunition is a little slower at 1020fps and uses heavier 110gr bullet than the original military load, but it shot close to the same point of impact.
The 1935A pistol compared very favorably to most of its contemporaries in terms of accuracy, low recoil and ergonomics. It’s no surprise that SIG licensed it as a potential replacement for the 7.65mm Luger that was the Swiss sidearm from the start of the 20th century. Over the next twelve years, SIG engineers substantially revised Petters’ design to create the SP47/8, the precursor to P210.
My total round count with the P210 is around 800 rounds, spread across at least five pistols of various vintages. All guns were older models with the heel magazine release. Sig-Sauer now produces the P210A with a push-button release like the 1935A, but my experience with it is minimal.
Due to their age, every surplus P210 has substantial round count and considerable wear, yet they all share two useful features: accuracy and reliability. With ball ammunition, the P210 is accurate enough for consistent unsupported 100-yard hits on a silhouette target. The original acceptance standard for Swiss military pistols was 5 cm (2-inch) dispersion at 50 meters (55 yards). No matter the brand of ammunition, every P210 I’ve shot ran reliably. Although designed before hollow points were common, they fed modern defense loads just fine. Felt recoil and muzzle flip were minimal, and the thinner slide contributed to excellent balance. Much like a P08 Luger, the P210 points very well. Unlike the P08, it has enough space on the frame for a solid two-handed grip. The performance noted, let’s see how it was accomplished.
The most visually obvious change from the 1935A to the P210 is the switch from external to internal side rails. The slide rides inside the frame, enjoying almost full-length support for minimal wobble. Pushed from the side, 1935A slide will wobble noticeable, while P210 slide has no movement. Later, this arrangement would be used on the Czechoslovak CZ75 series.
The 4.7-inch barrel is linkless. In photos, an additional alignment groove is visible on the breech end. The safety lever is moved to the frame, fenced against accidental activation by the grip panel. The magazine release reverted to the old-style heel catch; it’s uncertain if that was done to aid magazine retention or to prevent accidental drops. The older ring hammer gave way to a spur, and the left-side lanyard loop was retained. Wooden or plastic grip panels wrap around for a more comfortable grip.
The rear sight remains a drift-adjustable square notch, while the front sight evolved from the target-style vertical blade to an angled form that catches light better and snags less on presentation. The top of the slide is even textured against glare in the sight picture.
The trigger is of the same pivoting design, but the pull weight is reduced from 8 to 6 pounds. The P210 is made with very tight clearances. Combined with the high quality of manufacturing and close tolerances, it adds up to repeatable and reliable performance with no peening or friction wear on the internals. Every element of this gun, including the 8-round magazine, feels robust and solid. It’s definitely a battlefield weapon more than an officer or non-commissioned officer’s adornment.
With the scaling up of the caliber from 7.65x20mm to 9x19mm Luger, the pistol gained considerable weight, from 26 to 34 ounces. Only slightly longer and taller, the larger caliber pistol was necessarily a bit thicker, as well. The grip fills the hand well, but still allows an easy reach to the trigger. As seems common to many Swiss and German designs, neither the slide stop lever nor the manual safety can be reached by a user with average or smaller hands without shifting the grip. Extracting the magazine requires both hands.
While most military P210 holsters hold only one spare magazine, it’s likely that more were carried in the field on the weak side. We can’t speak to the use doctrine of the post- World War II Danish army which adopted this gun as M49, but the Swiss doctrine has always been of fire superiority through better training, equipment, and tactics. The P210 fits solidly into that mindset, being accurate enough to reach as far as a typical open bolt submachine gun, and reliable enough for adverse conditions.
Still Used and Sought
While both Denmark and Switzerland have phased out the P210 as the primary issue sidearm, Latvia, Monaco and Kazakhstan use them in limited quantities. The P210 remains in the Swiss Army inventory for the Militia, and many of the 350,000 handguns made have been surplussed to the US market. SIG also imported a limited number of Swiss- made the P210-6 target variant: it shared the original P210 mechanics but offered anatomical grips, a lighter trigger, a target style front sight, and a micro-adjustable rear sight. Once available for a reasonable price, all versions of P210 bring such a collector premium that the current production SIG 210A looks like a steal. Both the old and the new guns shoot well: the classics often shown an edge in mechanical accuracy, while the new production guns win on ergonomics and sight visibility.