Three Generations Of S&W Semiautomatics

Solid semiautomatic handguns as made by the premier revolver maker.

by Wendell Dwight Deaner

Concealed carry permit holders have the best assortment of suitable guns for this purpose available than ever before. A plethora of .380s, 9mms, .40s, and .45 semi autos have been introduced to cater to the demand of a public fed up with being disarmed and helpless in the face of vicious criminals who don’t obey laws, gun controlling or otherwise.

Back in the day, before the high-capacity 9mm revolution when revolvers ruled as defensive weapons, you had choices including all the snub-nose revolvers from Colt and S&W; about the same as the Model T as long as it was black. Those preferring an autoloader had to be content with Colt Commanders or European Walthers and such (along with James Bond.) These guns were not bad choices, and still do the job today, but firearms evolution in America produced something a little different.

It seems a long time ago but the first centerfire, self-loading pistol of double-action type designed and produced for the commercial market by an American firm was the Smith and Wesson Model 39, introduced in August 1954. In my 1964 Gun Digest the blued gun was listed for $89.00 and the nickel-plated version at $95.00. Before that, most of these types of pistols were of European manufacture, the most notable being the P38 that was made in large quantities as the official German service pistol.

Double action in these types of guns means that when the safety is released and the hammer down the gun may be cocked and fired by pulling the trigger. The subsequent shots will then be fired single action with the hammer already cocked. Also, if there is a misfire on the first shot another trigger pull will give the firing pin a second chance without having to pull back the slide to eject and replace the cartridge. I don’t know if that is a big deal. If the piece fails to fire on the first strike, and the pistol is in proper condition, a second blow probably won’t make any difference. However, I do think this is a worthwhile safety feature, especially on a duty pistol or one being used for self defense as a cocked pistol has a much lighter trigger pull. In a tense situation a trembling trigger finger can let ‘er go bang almost as easy as blinking an eye. That’s the same reason I will not cock a double-action revolver unless I know I’m going to shoot. Many police departments around the country agree with me and require double-action pistols.

That being said, these little pistols can spit out a bunch of lead in a hurry if need be. The 39 was made with a single-stack magazine that held eight rounds and was adopted by the Illinois state police in 1967, giving a positive bounce to its popularity. In 1971, S&W responded to public demand by bringing out the same pistol with a fourteen round capacity—the Model 59. The grip contour of the original was made straighter and the grip panels changed from walnut to a thinner nylon to accommodate the larger magazine. In 1989 the stainless steel model 5906 was introduced and became immediately popular with many law enforcement agencies. You may encounter model 39s with either an alloy or all steel frame. In 1981 the gun was designated the 439 for the standard blued version and 639 for the stainless steel version.

Read more in our February 2014 issue. Back issues are available.

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