Smith & Wesson autos still rank among best ever

Smith & Wesson doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its innovations in the auto loading pistol’s history.

Well known for its revolvers, the company has  dabbled in manufacturing bolt action rifles and rebranding other rifles and shotguns. However, it pretty much leads the charge in American semi-automatic pistol development and manufacturing. Many would probably think of Colt as the leader but it really only made the 1911 and its variants.

S&W’s first real, modern pistol design was the Model 39; a single-stack double-action pistol built specifically to compete in the military trials of the late 1940s/early ’50s to replace the .45 caliber 1911 pistol.

Colt brought out its Commander for the same competition. It was decided way back then that the 9mm was the cartridge of the future and a bid was put out for a medium size, lightweight service pistol in that caliber.

As an aside, the Colt was simply called a Commander. It was only in 9mm and only made with a lightweight frame. Later, a steel frame was made available and called the Combat Commander. The standard Commander became the Lightweight Commander and was also available in other calibers, including .45 ACP. This made for one of the greatest carry pistols ever.

Now back to S&W. The 39 is one of the most comfortable pistols in the average size hand ever made. It fits me better than any other pistol ever made.

The Illinois State Police made it their duty gun much earlier than it ever occurred to any other large agency. One advantage of the original S&W pistols for police duty (especially uniformed officers) was the magazine disconnect safety. This safety disables the firing mechanism of the pistol if the magazine is removed. If an officer gets in a struggle with a suspect over his pistol, he can hit the magazine release, jettison the magazine and “kill” the pistol until a magazine is re-inserted.

This was a double-edged sword for the ISP however. They were so happy with the performance of the Model 39 that when its double stack magazine brother came out, which held 15 rounds instead of only nine, they jumped right on it. The thought process was that the same duty holsters could be used and, sure enough, the new pistol slid right in.

However, the holster was designed for the 39, not it’s fat-butt brother and part of the holster would sometimes depress the magazine release which let the magazine pop out. This most often would go unnoticed because the angle of the grip while in the holster would allow gravity to keep it in the magazine well.

When the pistol was drawn, gravity turned from ally to enemy and the magazine would fall out. And, since there is a magazine safety, not even the round in the chamber could be fired.

These two-digit model number pistols are known as the “first generation” S&W pistols. There were a few minor and rare variations, the most interesting of which was a .38 Special single-action Model 52. Because of magazine length restrictions in the grip of the pistol, only wad cutter bullets could be used. These bullets are flat-pointed and loaded flush with the case mouth. If viewed from the side they appear to just be empty shell casings.

The purpose is to cut virtually perfect holes in targets in bulls eye competition so that there is no question whether a bullet cut a scoring ring. They don’t tear through a paper target like a standard bullet. They “cut a wad” out of it. This was an all-steel Model 39 with target sights and fantastic fitting and accuracy. Of course, the price was higher as well and they are relatively rare today.

In the 1970s the whole line of S&W duty pistols were updated and changed to a three-digit model numbering system. About the only thing that I have noticed to be different is that the trigger guards were enlarged and a hook with aggressive checkering was added to the front face of it for those of us that shoot with our support hand’s index finger around the front of the trigger guard.

The compact models 469 and 669 were also introduced. These pistols were a revolution for their time. All of a sudden you could get a 13-shot pistol that was light and easy to carry, chambered in a serious defense caliber. Inexplicably, these shorter pistols were also more accurate than their full-size brotheren.

During the reign of these second-generation pistols, a.45 caliber was introduced for the first time; the model 645 made famous by Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett on “Miami Vice.” The other, much less known, version was the grown-up Model 52, the 745. Amazingly accurate and reliable, it never could compete with the 1911 even though it shot as accurately as the best custom 1911s and would feed anything, even empty casings.

The reason was most likely due to the awkward safety. It worked just like the ones on the double-action pistols, mounted on the slide. It had to be pushed forward and up to disengage and is not nearly as fast or natural as the simple downward sweep of the 1911’s safety.

This didn’t detract from the Model 52 sales, as they were intended for slow-fire bulls-eye shooting, but the 745 was intended for fast-action IPSC competition.

In the 1980s the semi-automatic service pistol (most in 9mm) was taking over the police market and had already taken over military service. S&W lost out on the military contract to the more reliable Beretta and Sig Sauer offerings, but cashed in big time on law enforcement sales. Their only real competition was Glock; Sig was in the game as well, for sure, but they were much more costly than the other two and lost out many contracts due to that fact.

Smith & Wesson had a big “in” with the police departments because until the “Wondernine” came along, virtually every police holster was filled with a wheel gun wearing the S&W logo. It was natural in the early transition to autos for departments to be distrusting of the “plastic” newfangled Glock and stuck with the old standby…..Smith & Wesson.

The Springfield, Mass. firm had also very wisely hired famed pistol smith Wayne Novak to redesign its pistols and issued the new pistols’ four-digit model numbers. Many also incorporated Mr. Novak’s legendary rear sight.

Many departments were not very good at picking their duty ammo and the 9mm started to get a reputation as a poor man stopper. These same departments were reluctant to go to the bigger caliber and pistols like the .45 and the 10mm that the FBI adopted.

Someone at S&W got the bright idea to take the long 10mm and shorten it enough that it would fit in a 9mm-sized handgun. Pure genius!

Introduced in 1990 in the appropriately named 4006 model, the 40 S&W took the police market by storm and reigns till this day with no serious contender in sight. S&W got a slap in the face, however, when Glock actually got pistols on the market in S&W’s own caliber faster than S&W did.

Glock simply marked its .40 Cal., not even acknowledging S&W on their pistol.

The model naming system for S&W pistols seems convoluted but there is actually a code that makes perfect sense.

The Model 39 is a 4-inch barreled 9mm. All of the subsequent model numbers have their genesis with this model number.

The 59 was the same pistol with a double-stack magazine. The third generation just added a 4 to designate a blued finish and a 6 to indicate stainless. So a 639 is a stainless steel model 39 in the second generation, as an example.

When the the third-generation pistols came out, they could be even more specific by even designating the frame material in the expanded model number. The most popular model was the 5906. The 59 means it is a full-size, double- stack 9mm, the 06 means it is of all-stainless constriction.

The 5903 was the exact same pistol only it had an aluminum alloy frame and stainless slide. The 5904 was the 5903 except with a blued slide and alloy frame. The 5946 is a stainless, double stack 9mm with a double action only trigger system. The 4506 was an all stainless 45 caliber pistol, and so it goes.

If you get a grasp on the numbering system, then you can tell exactly what the pistol is just by the model number.

One of the more revolutionary third-generation pistols was the Model 3913. This was the right answer at the right time.

S&W took the single-stack “39” series, cut a half inch from the barrel and shortened the frame one round. This created an excellent pistol for concealed carry or police back-up use. If the officer already carried a S&W auto for duty use, the same manual of arms worked for his off-duty pistol/back up piece.

I’m not sure exactly what happened but the conventional S&W auto is almost extinct in police duty holsters. I’m doubt that there is any department still using them and Smith & Wesson completely discontinued their manufacture a few years ago.

Just before their death, S&W experimented with a 1911/S&W hybrid that worked and shot very well but I think most shooters would just rather have a true 1911.