Wednesday, November 14, 2007

SIG/Hämmerli Trailside

I love old guns.

My previous two (poorly monikered) range reports are for guns made in 1954 and 1887 (!) respectively, so this should come as no surprise, but it bears repeating. My motto is thus: "New guns are practical. Old guns are interesting."

However, my SIGArms/Hämmerli Trailside (4.5", adjustable target sights) never fails to attract interest. For those not in the know, sometime in the 90's SIG came to their subsidiary/partner Hämmerli (late of many Olympic shooting competitions; the name is most often attached to frighteningly well-made .22 pistols with price tags somewhere near the price of my car) and requested a line of plinking and competition autos to Swiss standards of accuracy of craftsmanship but with a more Plebian MSRP. And, boy, did they deliver. Usually, upon handing someone the Trailside and my trusty bottomless-ammocan-of-.22, the comments go as follows:

1. "Wow, this is a really nice grip."
2. "Wow, that is a really nice trigger."
3. "Wow, those holes are really close together."

And indeed, those holes can get even closer together, judging from the thoughtfully-provided factory target - an FDR-sized group shot at 25 meters! I suppose I'll have to splurge for Eley Tenex, at $15 for 50, to really achieve such groups - the Big 5 bulk ammo probably won't quite suffice - but I suppose it'll be a while until I hold up my end of the bargain, and anyway it's fun and educational to pop off 150 rounds per range session for the price of a Chili-Cheese dog at Casper's. As it stands, the cheap stuff is frightfully good at cycling the gun (nary a hitch with 36gr copper-jacketed Federal, though the dirtier 40gr CCI LRN does on rare occasions produce a stovepipe) and has allowed me to shoot 1" groups at 50ft on a good day with the planets (and the four humors, plus caffeine) in proper alignment. (Oh, and those pesky 'shooting fundementals.') The Trailside (and its "targeterized" cousin, the Xesse, which is the same thing with nicer grips and a selection of barrel weights) does routinely show up on the bullseye circut, which is (to put it mildly) a shining endorsement. For a mere plinker, the Trailside is probably overkill. As the old saying goes, though, nothing succeeds like excess.

Hämmerli built this gun rather like they build their professional-caliber ones - with a typically Germanic attention to detail and an untypical simplicity. The frame and barrel are all one chunk of metal, and the slide runs both along rails to the rear and in a long notch under the barrel. The fit is damn near perfect - this gun does not rattle, no matter how hard you shake it, partly because of the very small number of moving parts. The lockwork contains maybe six levers and a return spring (in addition to the mainspring), and the slide-mounted safety is a one-piece affair that blocks the hammer. Very elegant, and very functional. All in all, it looks a lot like a Hämmerli 208 or 215, and the price is approximately 1/5 of those guns.

The grips are black-plastic two-piece affairs, which affix to the gun with a single screw and nut. They fit my hands very well. Actually, they fit the hands of every person I've ever handed the gun to very well, and the range of hand sizes is not insignficant. After a while, one forgets the grip entirely and focuses on the shooting, so comfortable are they. The combination of good balance (a bit of nose-heaviness from the chunky barrel cross section goes a long way) and good grips makes rapid fire very manageable, even for a .22. If these grips fail to impress, one can either seek out the chunkier Xesse grips (which are essentially the same with a more pronounced palm swell and iMac colors) or go whole-hog and get custom-fitted rink grips. That the latter are available is yet more evidence of this weapon's good standing in 'proper' target-shooting circles, the fellows who develop an unmatched spiritual devotion to punching wee little groups in targets a long way off. The grips in question also cost half of what the gun does. When's the last time you paid, for the sake of comparison, $400 for a set of SIG P226 grips? Still, it's cool that they're there if you want them.

The sights are standard Bo-Mar style target affairs, and my piece has click-adjustable rear sights, which double as fixed sights on those range days when you leave your toolkit at home somewhere and change your ammo or shooting style. Once the gun is sighted in, striking the desired target is embarrasingly easy. Blasting away at practice plates at a steel shoot is child's play, and a great way to practice double-taps. About the only complaint I can level at the sights is that they're a bit tricky to acquire in a low-contrast situation, for instance indoors shooting at a dark bullseye. This is consistent to all sights of this style, and doesn't seem to be a problem with the right target (If I turn the paper over and stick a 1" Shoot-N-C in the middle, the problem mysteriously vanishes). This is why I usually prefer a sighting system with a pronounced white front sight, such as 3-dots or the standard SIG "pumpkin-on-a-post" sights - it's easy to focus on the front dot, regardless of target. Then again, putting Novak sights on a plinker/target pistol seems heretical, to say the least.

No gun is complete without personality, and while it's definitely not the borderline-alcoholic uncle with a strong opinion about everything that you dread Thanksgiving because of, it does show some odd character traits from time to time - mostly the magazines. They're plastic. They cost $35 to replace. And they do have some odd feeding problems on rare occasion, especially when filled to capacity. The most common one is a failure to feed the first recoil-cycled round (the first being hand-chambered). This doesn't happen often, mind you, but enough to make you groan when you hear the far-too-loud hollow snap of the non-dry-fire-safe pin hitting an empty chamber. A minor complaint, but it does seem odd that an otherwise masterfully-crafted gun would have such a critical component be of less-than-ideal design.

The Trailside is probably the nicest plinker out there, because it straddles the worlds occupied by field guns and target guns so well. In honor of its Swiss heritage, I have christened it "Der Häschenpistole." (It's the umlauts, man.) Tt never leaves the range case, and I always stock at least a thousand rounds for it. A range day is never complete without at least a little playtime for the .22, and rarely is it more pleasurable than with a gun as fine as the Trailside.

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