By R.K. Campbell
In the heady days following World War Two, Smith & Wesson introduced a number of innovative designs. While aluminum is very common and hardly a rare earth element, the widespread use of aluminum in military aircraft made the technology feasible for handguns. The application of aluminum technology to lightweight revolvers came first but self loaders also benefited. Smith & Wesson President C. R. Hellstrom headed a company flush with funds from wartime contracts. But the company had to produce innovative and effective firearms to survive. Among the introductions were the new short action revolvers based upon work done by custom pistolsmiths prior to World War Two. But the most startling innovation was the Smith & Wesson Model 39; originally simply called the 9mm Automatic. The Model 39 is a double-action first-shot 9mm Luger caliber pistol with a single column magazine. The pistol has sometimes been called an Americanized P 38. The Walther P 38 was the first service pistol with a double-action first-shot trigger, slide mounted decocker, and a number of other features that marked it as an advanced design. The open top slide and oscillating wedge lock-up were definitely European in taste. The Model 39 featured an enclosed slide and the angled camming surfaces first used in the Browning High Power which were used for barrel unlock along with the obligatory American locking lugs.
Smith & Wesson’s engineer primarily responsible for the development of the Model 39 was Joseph Norman. The pistol’s main features were the double-action first-shot trigger and a slide mounted safety lever that acted to decock the hammer from the single action mode. When the safety lever is moved to the ON position, a safety lever is interposed between the hammer and the firing pin. This lever or bar also trips the sear, dropping the hammer safely. The pistol features the popular inertial firing pin. The pistol was supplied with nice looking checkered walnut grips and a single column eight-round magazine. At the time of its introduction, the Model 39 was designed to be competitive in military contracts. The pistol is light enough due to its aluminum alloy frame, thin enough, and boasted a total capacity of nine rounds of ammunition. When compared to other 1950s service pistols such as the Star Super, the Beretta 951, the Walther P 1 and the French M 1950, the Smith & Wesson Model 39 comes off well. Among the advantages of the Model 39 compared to other handguns is the thin cross section. While beefier than needed, perhaps, for the 9mm cartridge, the Smith & Wesson Model 39 was well within the parameters demanded by NATO specifications. A great advantage of the Model 39 over any other double action first shot pistol is the shape and angle of the grip frame. The Model 39 is extraordinary in its fit and ergonomics. It is lively in the hand in combat firing and the pistol feels good in the hand.
The original 9mm Smith & Wesson was officially introduced in 1955 though it did not garner any police or military contracts at this time. The pistol was originally offered with both steel and aluminum frames, but the steel frame pistols are quite rare. A single action pistol, the M 44, was also offered but did not prove popular and this particular model single action variant is a rare handgun. It should be noted that while exact figures are difficult to pin down, the general consensus is that less than one thousand steel frame 9mm pistols were introduced, with the single action even more rare. In 1957, the 9mm pistol became the Model 39 as Smith & Wesson moved to a new numbered system.
Illinois State Police Adoption
The reasons for the adoption of the Model 39 by the Illinois State Patrol in 1967 are often misunderstood. While higher capacity and greater hit probability compared to the revolver are often quoted, the real advantage was in its flat profile. The ISP demanded that all officers be armed on a twenty four hour basis. The service size .38 revolvers could be shot well but scores with the snub nose .38s carried off duty were dismal. The ISP was looking for a handgun that could be carried on a twenty-four hour basis and give the officers a greater overall proficiency with their sidearm. The ISP looked seriously at the .38 Super Colt, which had an excellent reputation from FBI use during the 1930s. However, the ISP preferred a double-action first-shot pistol over the single-action Colt 1911 type. The M 39 was the only domestic choice. Once the Model 39 was investigated and tested it was easy to exhibit the potential of the self-loader for law enforcement use. The overall efficiency of the units rose although the scores with the Model 39 were not as high overall as the service revolver scores. On the other hand, compared to the snub .38s scores with the Model 39 were much higher. The light four-inch barrel Model 39 offered excellent hit probability but not the pin-point accuracy of the .38 caliber revolvers then in use. As an example, the .38 Special Combat Masterpiece from the same maker was a far more accurate handgun at long range.
The Model 39 was deemed a reliable handgun but not perfect. The original extractor design was changed in the 39-2 variation. The sights were changed from simple windage adjustable to a much better grade in the 39-2’s late model incarnations. Nickel plating was not available with the original pistol but was made available with the 39-2. Among the most important changes was a major redesign of the feed ramp. The original feed ramp was an odd design with a hump in mid length. While pistolsmiths attempted to polish and reconfigure this ramp, the Model 39 was a difficult pistol to convince to feed hollow point ammunition. (The ISP originally used ball ammunition.) The 39-2 was a much improved pistol with a new design extractor, feed ramp and sights. The nickel option was also added to the Model 39. The 39-2 was introduced in 1971 and is the preferred service pistol over the Model 39 enjoying an enviable service career and is generally regarded as reliable, accurate, and fast handling.
Unfortunately, the next step in evolution was not as highly regarded by professional shooters. The Smith & Wesson Model 59 combined the double action trigger of the Model 39 with a double column magazine. The new Model 59 was the first of the wonder nines with a total capacity of fifteen rounds of ammunition along with a double-action first-shot trigger system. The feel was far different from the Model 39. The Model 59 was blocky and difficult to use well. Quality control seems to have slipped and accuracy wasn’t comparable to the Model 39 in most Model 59 pistols. The Model 59 was responsible for police qualifications being cut from fifty to twenty five yards in the opinion of many. Officers once posted perfect scores with the fifty round qualifications included when using the Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece or Combat Magnum revolvers. With the Model 59 fifty yards was practically hopeless. One cannot help but wonder at any number of events that may have played out differently had the police been able to deliver accurate fire at 50 yards. Smith & Wesson responded to market pressure with the introduction of the second and third generation pistols. These pistols, including the single column magazine 439, were much improved over the Model 59 series. The grip frames were redesigned and the pistols generally tightened up. Much of the work done was in order for Smith & Wesson to remain competitive with SIG Sauer. The third generation pistols were actually superior to the SIG Sauer in some regards, particularly as regards the safety system and stainless construction. But neither SIG nor Smith & Wesson could compete with the new polymer frame low bid pistols. The steel frame double-action first-shot pistols that were once the staple of Smith & Wesson service pistols are no longer in production.
The Model 39 continues to be popular with those who appreciate the ergonomic hand fit and handling of the pistol. As for collector interest, there seems to be some interest in new, in the box, pistols. The Model 39 was sometimes purchased by individuals that were curious about the 9mm Luger cartridge and self loading pistols and the pistols were shot a lot. But occasionally a truly excellent pistol is found in the box in practically unfired condition. These pistols bring a premium but the cost is modest compared to that of the Smith & Wesson Magnum revolvers and others. The Model 39 is an affordable field for collectors. However, the steel frame and single action variants are practically impossible to locate. The Smith & Wesson Model 52, a target grade variant chambered for the .38 Special cartridge, is also a highly desirable pistol.
Test firing the Model 39 is a pleasure. The pistol sets well in the hand and the recoil is modest as it is the norm for a 9mm pistol. Using the Black Hills 124 grain FMJ loading and firing from a solid bench rest, the vintage nickel plated 39-2 posted groups of two to two and one half inches for five shots at a long 25 yards. This is a good standard and one that is useful for personal defense. The Black Hills 124 grain +P uses a modern expanding bullet. This load is as accurate as the FMJ load and proved to upset as designed per our test program. Overall, the performance of the vintage 39-2 pistol and modern expanding bullet ammunition leaves little to be desired.
Smith & Wesson Model 39-2
Barrel length: 4 inches
Overall length: 7.44 inches
Weight: 26.5 ounces
Magazine capacity: 8 rounds
The Hush Puppy was special variant of the M 39 used in Vietnam, most notably by the original SEAL teams. This pistol featured a sound suppressor and this variant also featured a slide lock that locked the slide in place when the pistol was fired, eliminating even the motion of the slide from creating sound. The pistol was used successfully in action and was the primary test bed for early attempts at subsonic 9mm ammunition.
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