Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sunday Smith #61: Model 5906, 199(8?)...


When Smith & Wesson introduced the first double-stack DA/SA pistol to the market in the early 1970s, in the form of the Model 59, it didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Some law enforcement agencies switched over, and the pistol saw reasonable sales success with the general public, but America was largely the land of the revolver for nearly another decade and a half. The introduction of the Second Generation of the double stack Smiths, epitomized by the Model 659 in 1982, didn't do a bunch to change that.

The 1980s, however, saw some important events. Both SIG Sauer and Beretta did well in the U.S. XM9 military pistol trials while the 2nd Gen Smith 459 did not, with the Beretta 92 becoming the new M9 service pistol in the middle of the decade. Meanwhile, Hollywood bad guys in Miami Vice and real bad guys in the FBI's infamous Miami shootout led to the perception that the police were getting "outgunned".

SIG and Beretta began picking up LE contracts and so Smith revamped their autopistol line again, with arguably the most important variant, the Model 5906, being released in 1988.


Largely a suite of improvements suggested by Wayne Novak, the Third Generation 5906 remains one of the best pistols of its type ever marketed.

Compared to its predecessor, the numerous changes included an improved extractor, a beveled magazine well, a longer beavertail. The grips went from a pair of glossy nylon slabs to a wraparound matte-textured grip molded of a hard wearing polymer Smith called Xenoy. Ambidextrous safeties were now standard items.

As the production run went on, the backstrap shape changed from arched to flat and Novak lo-mount sights became an option.

Unfortunately, the Smith was still an expensive pistol to make. Fit and finish were at high levels and regular old duty-grade 5906's actually compare well in this department to most non-hand-built 1911s.

The SIG P226 of the day, with its stamped slide, was actually a fairly simple pistol to manufacture relative to the machining-intensive Third Gen Smith. Also, both Beretta and SIG benefitted from the cachet of being European goods in a market that had come to associate "imported" with "upscale", as well as having Hollywood cachet (especially in the case of the Beretta, which was practically the Official Action Movie Hero Gun of the '80s and '90s.)

By the time I was working gun counters in the early Nineties, customers tended to look at a 5906 next to a 226, and see a Chevy next to a BMW, such were consumer perceptions at the time. Worse, both wore the same ~$600 price tag, and there was no convincing people how inaccurate that analogy actually was.

Smith introduced some cost-cutting features, but by the mid-'90s it was too late. The competition by then, whether for consumer or department sales, was no longer against other metal DA/SA guns, but against the polymer striker-fired Glock, and there was no way to compete on price there.

The 1994 Crime Bill with its so-called "Assault Weapons Ban" was probably the final nail in the coffin for the full-featured 5906. They were last listed in the catalog in 1998, although it made sort of a last hurrah, reappearing as the heavily de-contented Value Series Model 910S from '03-'07. That was a 5906 with an alloy frame instead of steel, plastic magazine release and plastic Novak-esque sights, a single-sided safety/decocker, and simple flat bevels replacing the radiused curve for the top of the slide.

The pictured pistol is a very late production law enforcement trade-in. At the earliest the serial number puts it around 1998, but they were still made for LE contracts after they'd been pulled from the commercial catalog, so an exact date is hard to place.

Later features include the Novak lo-mount sights, polymer disconnector (which is actually more wear-resistant than the original metal one), the MIM hammer shared with the Value Edition guns, and the flat backstrap on the Xenoy grips.

The pictured pistol, which was picked up for $350 at Indy Arms Co. a couple years ago, made it through 2,000 rounds of assorted ammunition with zero maintenance of any sort and no trouble at all, save a dud primer and that's not the gun's fault.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday Smith #60: .38 Double Action Perfected Model


Certain models of Smith & Wesson have bits of apocryphal lore that become permanently entwined with them. You can't see a top-break .44 Russian without someone telling you that the weird hook on the trigger guard was to parry saber slashes.

People like to repeat the myth that the tiny M-frame .22 "Ladysmith" was discontinued because a puritanical D.B. Wesson heard that it was popular with "ladies of the night", because that's sexier than the fact that it was selling poorly, expensive to make, and constantly broke when people ran the then-new .22 Long Rifle cartridges through the fragile little guns.

Similarly, there's a legend involving Mr. Wesson that's attached to the final iteration of the .38 Double Action, as pictured above. In this case, the story goes, D.B. heard the tale of a police officer who, while arresting a miscreant, had the offender reach over and pop the latch on his top-break Smith, dumping the rounds on the ground, like Jet Li with the slide of a movie prop Beretta. The officer, goes the legend as it was told to yours truly, was killed in the ensuing struggle.

Moved by the fate of the dead officer, the apocryphal tale has Mr. Wesson designing the Perfected Model top-break. This model features a Hand-Ejector style cylinder latch that must be operated in conjunction with the more normal "T"-shaped barrel toggle in order to break the revolver open.

This origin myth is almost certainly, to use the technical term, a load of hooey.

For starters, the Perfected Model was designed by Joe Wesson and hit the market in 1909, three years after D.B. Wesson was in the grave.

While Roy Jinks' History of Smith & Wesson does make the claim that Roy was worried about the possibility of a policeman's revolver being popped open in a tussle, it's presented as more of a hypothetical concern rather than the response to some specific incident. I'd say it's safe to file that under "stuff that didn't happen".

While the old 5th Model .38 Double Action remained in the catalog alongside the the Perfected Model for a couple more years, it soon went away while the Perfected Model remained until 1920, selling alongside the more modern .38 Regulation Police Hand Ejector for the last three years of its lifespan. Nearly sixty thousand were sold over its eleven year run, in barrel lengths ranging from 3 1/2" through 6".

The pictured gun, a 4" model with a serial number that dates it to the last few thousand made, was acquired at a gun show back in 2014.

Note that the photo shows the two most notable oddities of this chimeric little wheelgun: From the cylinder window back and the frame latch down, it's pretty much a straight I-frame Smith. It shares the lockwork of the I-frame hand ejector and is therefore the only top-break with a trigger guard integral to the frame and the sideplate on the right-hand side.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday Smith #59: Model 696, 1996


The compact large-bore revolver has had a devoted following in the United States ever since the first Webley "British Bulldogs" were imported in the 1870s. They were copied far and wide and the name "Bulldog" just became generic slang term for a small-frame revolver chambered for a .44 or .45 cartridge. It was a cheap Belgian copy of the Webley original that was used to assassinate the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield.

In the 1970s, Charter Arms launched a compact five-shot .44 Special revolver, called the Bulldog in a sort of homage to the 19th Century snubs, and it was a runaway sales success for them. By the early Nineties, you could even buy Brazilian alternatives to the domestic Charter Arms, in the form of Taurus's Model 431 and Rossi's Model 720.

Not being a company that would pass up the chance to stick a pot out the window when it was raining soup, in late 1996 Smith & Wesson added their own compact 5-shot .44 Special to the mix in the form of the Model 696.

Based on the L-frame, which was the beefier of Smith's two medium frame sizes that was intended to stand up to extended use of hot .357 Magnum ammunition, the Smith was slightly larger than its competitors at the time. They featured a 3" heavy barrel with a full underlug, a round butt, and adjustable sights.

Very early in the production run, distributor Lew Horton ordered a batch of 286 guns that they shipped to Mag-Na-Port, and this is one of those guns.

Two other quirks common to very early production 696's are also apparent in this piece. First, the chambers on some of the earliest guns were cut too long and they will chamber and fire .44 Magnum rounds, which is unsafe so don't do it. (Yes, I know of people claiming they've had no problem with milder 240gr loads. It's still a bad idea. Don't.) The second quirk is that the forcing cones on some of the early barrels were cut at the wrong angle, causing them to blow out easily. If you look closely at the silhouette of the forcing cone in the above photo, you will know what a blown-out forcing cone looks like.

The pictured revolver was a gift from a friend, as it had been sitting in his safe, unfired and unfireable for...well, a long time.

Getting it sent off to Smith to see if it can be re-barreled is on my list of things around to which I need to get.
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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sunday Smith #58: Model 59, 1978.


After the failure of their first semiautomatic pistol design, Smith & Wesson wouldn't return to the autoloader business for almost three decades. Instead, they stuck to building revolvers, where they were a dominant market force.

After the Second World War, however, influenced by the double-action Walther P38 with its hammer-dropping safety, and with the possibility of military contracts dancing in their heads, Smith decided to dip their toe back into that market again.

Carl Hellstrom had recently become president of the company, the first time that post had been held by anyone without the last name "Wesson". Pledging to revive the fortunes of Smith & Wesson, which had nearly gone toes-up during the collapse of the Light Rifle program for England, Hellstrom tapped chief designer Joe Norman to come up with a modern 9mm pistol.

While the US military did test some prototypes, interest in contracts didn't materialize. Smith went ahead and launched the 8-shot single stack 9mm in 1956, dubbing it the "Model 39" the next year, when model numbers were assigned to all Smith handguns.

During the Vietnam War, suppressed Model 39's (referred to as "Hushpuppies") were used by Navy SEALs, and Smith dabbled with a couple samples that were altered to accept double-column Browning High Power style magazines.


In 1971, these widebody pistols entered commercial production as the Model 59, incorporating the latest updates from the newest Model 39-2 variant, including a narrower, shorter extractor that was tensioned by a separate coil spring, to replace the long, flat, self-sprung extractor earlier 39's had used.

Even in a side view from a distance, the Model 59 can be distinguished from its lower-capacity forebear by the step in the aluminum alloy frame just aft of the slide stop, where it's widened to accommodate the fatter double-stack magazine, and by the flat backstrap, replacing the arched curve of the one on the 39. This helped keep the grip diameter to manageable proportions.

By combining the double-stack magazine of the Browning High Power and the DA/SA action with hammer-dropping safety of the Walther P-38, the Smith & Wesson 59 presaged the next generation of autoloading pistols, called "WonderNines" in the gun rags of the day.

They were increasingly successful with law enforcement agencies in the US and remained in the catalog through 1982, after which it was replaced by its improved "Second Generation" successors: the Model 459 (carbon steel slide, alloy frame), Model 559 (carbon steel slide & frame), and Model 659 (stainless steel slide & frame).

The above example, a nickeled version, was purchased from my local gun shop late last year for around $400. It shows few signs of use, and all the controls and small parts still show the high-polished blue finish they came with from the factory.
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