Today we are going to Switzerland, the land of fondue, nice watches, and private bank accounts, to look at the SIG SG 550 series rifles. These rifles, known as Sturmgewehr 90 and 07, have a fascinating design and are the backbone of the Swiss military.
The Swiss situation
Ahh, Switzerland, the face of neutrality. Switzerland faces a challenge tactically as it borders five countries. Five countries mean five borders, and in less civilized times that means five ways to invade. Thus a robust defensive presence is needed, and a solid, well-made, reliable, and accurate rifle is required.
Switzerland sits at the heart of Europe and is a beautiful country that’s very diverse. Yet, all Swiss come together under the Swiss flag to defend their country. Switzerland maintains mandatory conscription of all able-bodied adult men. These conscripts undergo a boot camp process in which they learn the basics of handling the SIG SG 550.
Conscription has been a Swiss tradition. Yet, it represents an interesting training conundrum as it necessitates a rifle simple enough to be used by a diverse group of Swiss people: It needs to be easy to use and maintain for both farm kids who may come knowing how to shoot and for city kids who’ve never handled a firearm.
One of the factors one must consider when choosing a weapon is the environment. Switzerland gets quite cold with an average winter temperature of minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit).
Cold can easily affect the reliability of a semi-auto rifle so that needed to be a factor in its design as well.
Further, while Switzerland is not a member of NATO, it made sense to standardize the rifle with the rest of Western Europe, so they chose the 5.56 caliber rifle round.
Introducing the SIG SG 550
Switzerland had to also think about domestic production. When you begin building firearms for military use, and you’re a famed neutral country, it makes a lot of sense to produce your own gun. So, a company called Swiss Arms, now SIG Sauer AG, created, developed, and built the rifle. (SIG Sauer AG is distantly related to U.S.-based SIG SAUER Inc. which produces numerous firearms for the United States military.)
The SIG SG 550 began service in 1990 and replaced the Stgw 57 battle rifle. The Stgw 57 was a full-powered rifle, much like the FAL and M14. Like most militaries, the Swiss military saw the benefit of transitioning to a lighter rifle that fired a lighter cartridge.
Reducing the weight of the rifle allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition. It also decreased recoil and muzzle rise allowing the rifle to be used comfortably and easily by a broad spectrum of soldiers.
The SIG SG 550 uses a long-stroke gas piston system that’s very similar, almost identical, to the AK series rifle system.
A long-stroke, gas-piston system is a straightforward system that’s inherently reliable. The AK also tends to work brilliantly in the cold, which must have been a significant consideration when they designed the rifle for the Swiss winters. Predictably the rifle is selective fire with a cyclic firing rate of 650 to 800 rounds per minute.
Not just an AK
The SIG SG 550 might use a system similar to the AK series, but that’s where a lot of the similarities end. The SG 550 adopted polymer furniture early and used a proprietary magazine. Additionally, its ergonomics are much more refined than those of the old AK series.
Engineers also implemented a rotating diopter drum that offers a variety of rear sight options. The rear sight has a different peep sight for 100, 200, and 300 yards. With a properly zeroed rifle, the shooter can rotate to the correct rear sight for the range the threat sits at.
For conscripts who are not professional soldiers, this system works very well; this is especially true if they are far removed from their initial training. The fourth sighting option is a set of open sights. These work well for quick, close-range uses. Modern SG 550 rifles have a set of night sights for low-light shooting.
The sights offer a long sight radius to make the most of the weapon’s accuracy. The Swiss chose a 20.8-inch barrel for the SG 550. This barrel length maximizes the velocity, range, and energy of the 5.56 caliber round. While many countries have moved to shorter barreled carbines for close-quarters fighting, there is a benefit to a slightly longer barrel.
At the rear is a folding stock to make the weapon more portable, easy to store, and easier to use in vehicles.
The Swiss went with a polymer magazine that is proprietary and locks in much like an AK magazine. I imagine this magazine locking system works much better with thick winter gloves than a small-button system would have. These magazines have slots that allow them to be interconnected so users can carry a spare magazine on their weapon for a quick reload.
We often refer to this as jungle style, although I’m sure why it gained that name. It’s been a tactic used repeatedly, and I’ve seen Marines with modern magazines do something very similar.
Models and accessories
The full-sized SIG SG 550 serves as the main rifle of the Swiss Armed forces, but is not the only model. Special units use the SG 553, a.k.a. the Sturmgeweher 07. This shorter carbine features a 13.7-inch barrel. It’s often found in the hands of special operations forces, the Swiss Grenadiers, the Army Reconnaissance Detachment, and the Parachute Reconnaissance Company.
In terms of accessorization, the Swiss military seems to be a bit behind compared to most of the world’s militaries. Optics have become a standard issue in most modern military forces, but they seem rare on Swiss rifles. However, we often see the SG 553 equipped with optics in the hands of professional Swiss soldiers, and those optics are unsurprisingly Swiss.
One of the best red dot companies in the world, Aimpoint, is a Swiss company. Numerous western military forces utilize Aimpoint optics, including the Swiss. The most common optics tend to be the Aimpoint Comp M4 and the Aimpoint T1 or T2 optic, sometimes backed by a 3X magnifier.
We’ve seen SG 550 and SG 553 rifles with various laser aiming units, but recently the German Rheinmetall won a contract to provide the Swiss Army with the VarioRay Laser Light Modules. These modules combine a flashlight, visible laser, IR laser, and IR floodlight. They seem to be a solid system that’s small and light.
Finally, like most modern infantry rifles, a grenade launcher can be attached to the weapon. Often, that launcher is the GL 5040. It launches 40mm grenades and can use a wide variety of explosives, flares, smoke grenades, and more.
The SIG SG 550 seems to meet the Swiss needs rather well. It’s an ergonomic, winter-ready rifle that’s light, easy to shoot, and plenty accurate. It’s a modern design that seems to be perfect for the Swiss army’s needs.
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