The SIG SG-551 has a short pattern 363 mm (14.3 in) barrel, gas tube and piston compared to the SG 550. The SG 551 series rifles have a 466 mm (18.3 in) long sight radius. The handguards were also changed and the bipod removed. The SG 551 cannot be used with a bayonet or fire rifle grenades. The SG 551 comes in several specialized variants designed for use with security and special forces. Among those variants are the SG 551-1P police carbine (designed to engage point targets out to 300 m; equipped with a Hensoldt 6x42 BL telescopic sight and detachable cheek riser), the SG 551 SWAT carbine (coated with a corrosion-resistant finish and equipped with an optical sight mount used with a wide array of sights, and can also accept mission-critical accessories such as a bipod, laser pointer or tactical light) and the SG 551 LB carbine with an extended 454 mm (17.9 in) barrel that enables the use of rifle grenades and a bayonet.
The rifle is hammer-fired and has a trigger mechanism with an ambidextrous safety and fire selector switch that has 4 settings: "S"—safe, "1"—single fire, "3"—3 round burst and "20"—fully automatic fire. The trigger is enclosed in a pivoting trigger guard which can be folded down to the left or right side allowing for unhindered operation with winter gloves. A bolt hold-open device locks the bolt carrier assembly open after expending the last cartridge from the magazine and is released by lifting the bolt catch lever located on the left side of the receiver. Alternatively, a left-handed shooter may release the bolt by pulling the rubber-coated charging handle to rear a short distance. The SG 551 has a side-folding skeletonized buttstock (folds to the right side of the receiver) and a lightweight aluminium bipod that folds into grooves in the lower handguard. The hinged stock is firmly locked in the folded position by a socket in the butt which clips into a plastic stud on the handguard; a firm pull will release the stock which is then swung into the closed position and locked by a button catch. A collapsible side-folding stock is also available. The stock, pistol grip, and handguards are made of a high-strength polymer, and are produced in either green or black colour options. The steel receiver housing and several other components are manufactured using stamping and welding; external steel surfaces are finished with a ceramic-reinforced enamel coat known as Ilaflon. The gas system's components are made of stainless steel. The barrel, bolt, bolt carrier, and firing pin are all made with steel that has been gas nitrided, hardened and tempered. The bolt and carrier, along with most other components internal to the receiver undergo a phosphating process. The heavy, cold hammer-forged barrel is screwed into the receiver and is equipped with a slotted "bird cage" type flash suppressor that is also used to launch rifle grenades (using standard, live ammunition) or attach a knife bayonet (the bayonet is supported by a lug located at the base of the gas block).
The weapon features 20-round magazines made from translucent durable polymer allowing the shooter to monitor ammunition levels visually. The magazines are molded from a translucent polymer and can be locked together using studs in order to facilitate quicker reloading; Jungle style. Also the SG-551 features Tritium-illuminated night sights.