with Andrew L. Butts
Firearms Review: The SIG 551A1
The SIG 550 is the current battle rifle of Switzerland and is in use in limited numbers by military and police forces worldwide
Two rifles have come to symbolize the political and military turmoil that dominated the last half of the 20th Century.
Many western nations, encouraged by actions and choices of the United States, have chosen to arm their forces with the M-16 rifle.
Eastern nations — controlled by Soviet doctrine — chose to arm their troops with the AK-47.
Good Iron is Good Iron
While there are other designs out there, none has gained the broad acceptance of either the American or Russian rifles and these two firearms have come to symbolize the struggles between good and evil with the M-16 representing freedom and truth and the AK-47 representing darkness and oppression.
Politics aside, good iron is good iron and both rifles have survived into the modern era based on their own merits. Both rifles are durable, reliable and effective at close to medium range. Both rifles are lightweight, have low recoil and good ammunition capacity.
While there are a few people who shoot and enjoy both rifles based on these attributes, there are many who see one rifle as being greatly superior to the other. The fans of the M-16 deride the AK-47 as a crude and inaccurate rifle that lacks any thought to ergonomics and human engineering.
Fans of the AK-47 point out that the M-16 can be finicky with certain brands or types of magazines and is sensitive to dirt and fouling due to its direct gas system.
Fans of the M-16 point out that their rifle has excellent user interfaces and is an extremely accurate design. Fans of the AK-47 point out that their design is sturdy and durable and reliable as a stone.
Both camps are correct and each rifle does have some amazing characteristics that make it a premier choice for service. So what happens when you combine some of the best features of the AK-47 with some of the great things about the M-16?
A Collector’s Treasure
SIG Sauer has answered this question with the SIG 550 series of rifles. The SIG 550 is made in Switzerland and was developed in the early 1980s when Switzerland was looking to switch from her domestic rifle cartridge to the more common 5.56 NATO round.
The 550 takes the gas piston and operating system that makes the AK-47 so reliable and pairs these with the ergonomics and high velocity cartridge of the M-16.
The SIG 550 is the current battle rifle of Switzerland and is in use in limited numbers by military and police forces worldwide.
Original Swiss rifles are rare and expensive in the United States, having been banned from import by Bush 41. This rarity has given the SIG 550 legendary status among rifle collectors and an authentic SIG is seen by many as the ultimate gem in a rifle collection.
Few shooters in the U.S. have had the chance to shoot one of the Swiss originals and the 550 seemed doomed to be something we all wanted but couldn’t get.
All that changed a few years ago when SIG Sauer in Exeter (New Hampshire) decided to avoid import restrictions by making the rifle in the United States. The first guns produced differed from the original design by utilizing cheap and easily-found M-16 magazines rather than the expensive Swiss magazines.
These original U.S. guns lacked the folding stock found on real Swiss rifles and instead used an M-16 collapsing stock. Due to market feedback, SIG changed the design to use a folding stock that many users wanted.
Several Good Variants
Now, based on additional feedback, SIG has started making a rifle that runs on authentic Swiss magazines. The original M-16 magazine model is still available and is called the SIG 556.
The model that uses Swiss magazines is called the SIG 551A1. There are several good variants among these two lines and there’s also a Swiss variant of the 550 with a fourteen inch barrel that’s called the 551.
All this can get rather confusing but suffice to say you can now choose to buy a rifle that uses easily obtainable M-16 magazines or one that uses Swiss magazines for authenticity. Also, SIG Sauer is currently selling the Swiss magazine lower receiver as a retrofit for those wishing to use Swiss magazines with their existing rifle.
SIG 550 magazines are made from a sturdy yet lightweight translucent plastic and can be purchased in 20- and 30-round capacity. These magazines have a tab in the front and a lug in the rear that latch into notches in the rifle’s receiver and must be rocked into place.
Once locked in, the magazines are firmly held in until the magazine release lever in front of the trigger guard is pressed. This is taken directly from the AK-47 and, while not as fast to reload as the M-16 system, is not as dependent on the magazine well to support and stabilize the magazine in the rifle.
Magazine insertion aside, the SIG’s controls operate much like the M-16 with the rifle’s safety lever being positioned above the pistol grip rather than alongside the ejection port as it is on the AK-47. The safety lever operates on a 45-degree rather than a 90-degree arc and is ambidextrous.
While I found the safety easy and quick to manipulate with my right thumb, it may be difficult for some lefties because the stock’s folding hinge mechanism sticks out slightly on the right side of the rifle.
This protrusion is located in such as spot that it made running the safety with my left thumb difficult. Continuing with the M-16’s superior handling characteristics, the SIG features a bolt latch that locks the action open when empty.
On the left side of the receiver is a bolt catch lever that can be used to lock the bolt open when unloading or used to release the bolt during reloads. This is a feature that is lacking on most of the world’s AKs.
On the range, the SIG 551A1 handled nicely and there were no malfunctions of any kind while firing a mix of factory and reloaded ammunition. As can be expected with a rifle chambered in .223 Remington, recoil was mild and the rifle was easy to keep on target.
Accuracy was good and the SIG will hold its own against most rifles in its class and price range.
Using a mix of live ammunition and some spent cartridge casings, I experimented with inducing different malfunctions and found that the techniques used to clear an AK-47 work equally well with the SIG 551A1.
Basically, if the rifle fails to fire, take the mag out, tip the ejection port down while cycling the action and then reload the rifle. This got things cleared out and got the SIG back in action regardless of what type of stoppage I tried to induce.
A Solid Performer
Despite the SIG’s potential as a patrol, defense and recreational rifle, there are some who are disappointed that SIG chose to make a copy of the Swiss original for sale in the States rather than import the genuine article.
While I have to admit some disappointment with the very early rifles, the current SIG 551A1 is, in my experience, a solid rifle that’s well built and reliable. SIG has continually taken strides to meet customer demands and improve the furniture used on these American copies.
Given my limited experience, I’m confident the SIG 551A1 will be a solid performer based on its own merits even though some of those wanting an authentic original will never warm up to it.
Regardless, Swiss original rifles would likely run three or four times the cost and would be priced too high for anyone other than an advanced collector. SIG has provided us with a copy but it is a good gun at a reasonable price.
Back in August 2011, I attended a tactical handgun course taught by Scott Reitz of International Tactical Training Seminars. During one of our lunch breaks, I noticed that Reitz had a SIG 556 stowed in the rifle rack on the range.
I asked him about it and he said he had been running the rifle on a regular basis and had been pleased with its performance.
Looking the rifle over, it was obvious that the gun had been well used — but not abused — and was not something that he’d been babying. If you can find one of these at a decent price, don’t be afraid to give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.