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.