Smith and Wesson’s Third Generation Pistols
By R.K. Campbell

Smith and Wesson began development of the Model 39 9mm pistol in response to Army interest in a new service handgun. As it turned out, the Army took thirty years to adopt a 9mm pistol and the pistol wasn’t a Smith and Wesson when adopted as the M9. But the Model 39 proved a commercial success. Often called an Americanized Walther P38 development of the Model 39 began in 1949 and the pistol was offered for sale in 1955. The original Model 39 is the primogenitor of all of the double action first shot Smith and Wesson pistols that followed. The Model 39 used a double action first shot trigger, a slide mounted safety that also acted as a decocker, and was chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge. The pistol operated on time proven locked breech principles. In 1970, Smith and Wesson introduced the Model 59. The Model 59 incorporated a fifteen round magazine into the design making it the first “wonder nine” pistol as they would be called. The Model 59 used a straight back strap that most shooters found far less ergonomic than the Model 39’s arched back strap, but the new design was deemed necessary to house a fifteen round magazine.

The Model 39 and Model 59 9mm pistols are now referred to as first generation self loaders. The second generation was introduced in 1980. These pistols featured larger sights and a slightly different appearance. Some of these pistols were supplied with high quality adjustable rear sights. Second generation pistols were offered with steel, aluminum and stainless steel frames. This generation also introduced the first compact pistols as well as the first .45 caliber pistols. The Model 645 Smith and Wesson .45 enjoyed some popularity in law enforcement circles and so did the compact 9mm pistols. These pistols are sometimes called three digit guns as the numerical model number now contained three numbers. The Model 39 was now the 439 and the stainless Model 39 was the 639. These full size pistols, particularly the 659 high capacity 9mm pistol, were popular in law enforcement. However, the pistol’s sales suffered in comparison to quality European imports, particularly the SIG P series pistols. Smith and Wesson began an upgrade program to remain competitive. The result was arguably the finest semiautomatic pistols made by Smith and Wesson. The third generation pistols are true world class pistols that could compete on a level playing with any European pistol. However, they were designed to compete with Beretta, Heckler and Koch and SIG. The Glock was another matter. Today, the third generation pistols are out of production. The machine work and labor and material cost made the pistols prohibitively expensive for the police market. Polymer frame pistols such as the Glock simply outbid the third generation pistols. Just the same, the third generation pistols were excellent handguns well worth their price.

The third generation of Smith and Wesson pistols now included not only the 9mm pistols but .40, 10mm and .45 caliber models as well. There are many improvements over the first generation guns including positive firing pin blocks and ambidextrous safeties but most particularly the grip frame was redesigned to a more ergonomic shape. Many shooters said the pistols now handled like a SIG. There is some truth in this but the Smith and Wesson pistols also incorporated stainless steel options and a manual safety that the SIG pistols did not have. A feature that by repute has saved the lives of working cops is the magazine safety. By pressing the magazine release the magazine is disengaged and the trigger action will not function. The manual safety will also present a speed bump if not a road block to those that manage to gain control of an officer’s weapon. These are practical and safety features rather than tactical features but for those that are willing to master the system the Smith and Wesson pistols offer considerable advantages. The redesign of the pistols resulted in a great improvement in hand fit and handling. The pistols also possessed a smoother action than ever before. Reliability was a great concern, and while the earlier pistols enjoyed a respectable reputation the new handguns were considered an improvement. Accuracy is also improved over the previous pistols. The Model 59 in particular had been criticized for poor accuracy. This problem was addressed in the third generation handguns.

The 5906

Introduced in 1990, the flagship of the new pistols was the 5906, a high capacity stainless steel pistol in 9mm Luger caliber. The new pistol featured Novak Lo Mount sights with three dot inserts and a new one-piece wrap around grip in place of the three piece grips used on earlier pistols. New models included the very successful 4006 .40 caliber pistol adopted by the California Highway Patrol. The 4006 won the CHP contract in grueling competition. The 4006 earned a reputation as among the most accurate .40 caliber pistols. The new numbering system used the first two digits to signify the caliber and frame size. 39 meant single column 9mm, 59 high capacity 9mm, 69 compact 9mm, 40, as in 4006, a .40 caliber pistols and 10 and 45 the first digits of the 10mm and .45 caliber pistols. For some time the 4506 .45 caliber pistol was the most popular .45 caliber service pistol in America, and the 1006 10mm was adopted by the FBI. The third digit pertained to the action type while the final digit designated the frame material. The pistols were successful in garnering police sales, particularly with agencies such as the Illinois State Patrol that had used previous Smith and Wesson pistols. But market pressure from the inexpensive polymer frame pistols eventually made the higher priced Smith and Wesson pistols a very difficult sale. The training cost of addressing two trigger actions, both double action and single action, and the use of a manual safety also doomed the third generation pistols at a time when agencies were converting to simpler double action only polymer frame pistols. The double action only versions of the Smith and Wesson saw some success. The 5946 DAO pistol was adopted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Among the most popular of the Smith and Wesson pistols was the 5906.

The 5906 features a stainless steel frame and slide. The trigger action is a double action first shot. The pistol is loaded by inserting a loaded magazine and racking the slide, or by locking the slide to the rear, inserting a loaded magazine and then dropping the slide using the slide lock. The manual safety is then pressed downwards to safely lower the hammer. This is a decocker function. To fire the pistol the safety is moved upwards to the off position. (Many chose to carry the pistols safety off and rely upon the long double action trigger action as a safety feature.) The pistol is fired by pressing the trigger through a long double action trigger press of perhaps fourteen pounds pressure. The pistol fires and the slide recoils, cocking the hammer. The hammer is now cocked in the single action mode. Subsequent shots are fired by a short press of the trigger. The single action trigger press is a manageable five pounds. There is almost no creep in the single action trigger and no backlash. Trigger reset is shorter and faster than most competing designs including the SIG, which gave the Smith and Wesson an advantage in competitive shooting. As double action pistol trigger mechanisms go the third generation Smith and Wesson is simply excellent. The 5906 features the magazine disconnect of earlier pistols. It will not fire if the magazine is removed. However, use caution when examining police trade-ins as a number of agencies ordered their pistols with the magazine safety removed. These pistols will fire without the magazine inserted.

The 5906 is heavy at just over forty ounces loaded. This is a full ten ounces more than most polymer pistols. This is a lot of weight over a long shift. However, the trade off is that the pistol is very controllable. Even with the hottest +P or +P+ loadings, the 5906 simply hangs on the target. Place the front sight in the x ring and the pistol hardly wavers, offering an excellent cadence of fire. I was able to fire the pistol with a number of loads. Accuracy is more than acceptable. Like all quality handguns, the 5906 prefers one load over the other but in the end the pistol was very consistent. A number of loadings such as the Black Hills 124 grain +P, an excellent service load, exhibited five shot groups of two and one half inches at twenty five yards. A service load must demonstrate a balance of expansion and penetration and the 124 grain Black Hills load offers excellent performance. The 5906 also proved accurate with the inexpensive blue box Black Hills loads.

During the firing of some 300 rounds there were no failures to feed, chamber, fire and eject. As a point of interest, the pistol was obtained used with one fifteen round and one ten-round magazine. The ten-round magazine is a relic of the assault weapons ban and a silly thing to intelligent individuals. The primary disadvantage of the attenuated magazine capacity was that it took longer to fire groups for accuracy testing. I cannot imagine how the lethality of a firearm is addressed by limiting the magazine capacity but I can think of many disadvantages to honest citizens. In the end, the 5906 gave impressive performance. The piece is reliable, well made of good material, and more than accurate enough for its mission.

The 3913

The opportunity to test a compact version of the third generation pistols came along and we also tested fired the 3913. This pistol featured the distinctive frame profile of the Ladysmith line, however, the pistol was not marked Ladysmith and was clearly marked 3913. These pistols are a single column design and the slim grip fits most hands well. The pistol is light enough for constant carry and the pistol action is at least as smooth and the larger 5906. These pistols have an excellent reputation for accuracy and this pistol proved more accurate than the full size 5906. This is despite a shorter sight radius and heavier recoil with the light gun. Just the same, off of a solid bench rest the pistol gave excellent results. Running a combat course the pistol did not achieve the results exhibited with the 5906, but this is due to the light weight of the 3913. When this pistol is found on the used market it is an excellent buy and a reliable and accurate handgun. Smith and Wesson third generation pistols are among the finest self loaders ever produced. At present they are available at bargain prices and spare parts and magazines are inexpensive. They are a good buy for both defensive and sport shooters.

5906 specifications
Caliber:     9mm
Weight:     40 ounces
Magazine capacity:     15 rounds

3913 specifications
Caliber:     9mm
Weight:     25 ounces
Magazine Capacity:     8 rounds

Accuracy results –average of three five shot groups at 25 yards fired from a bench rest position.

5906 pistol
Load / Accuracy
Black Hills 115 grain FMJ:     3.5 inches
Black Hills 124 grain JHP +P:     2.5 inches
Black Hills 147 grain JHP:     2.5 inches
Wolf 124 grain FMJ:     4.0 inches
Seller and Bellot 115 grain:     3.75 inches

3913 pistol
Load / Accuracy
Black Hills 115 gr. EXP:     3.0 inches
Black Hills 115 gr. TAC +P:     2.25 inches
Black Hills 124 grain JHP +P:     2.5 inches

This article first appeared in SmallArmsReview.com on July 26, 2013


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