Smith and Wesson Model 39: The gun that wanted to replace the 1911 and helped inspire the modern generation of compact service pistols

Thirty-one years before the United States military adopted the the M9 Beretta as its primary service pistol, Smith and Wesson designed and submitted a 9mm double action pistol for military trials.  The year was 1954 and the pistol was the Smith and Wesson Model 39.  Borrowing heavily from the German P38 pistol, which impressed its US counterparts, the Model 39  was used by various law enforcement agencies, adopted by the SEALs in Vietnam as the infamous “Hushpuppy” (see Small Arms Review, The Hushpuppy) and later served as the basis for the iconic ASP Pistol designed by Paris Theodore- a revolutionary compact handgun that incorporated many ideas that are common to contemporary defensive handguns.

The first Model 39s had steel frames and slides.  Later, the steel frame was replaced with an aluminum alloy.

"Asp 9" by Mr vladamir - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asp_9.jpg#/media/File:Asp_9.jpg

“Asp 9” by Mr Vladamir – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asp_9.jpg#/media/File:Asp_9.jpg

I was first bitten by the ASP (and Smith 39) bug in the 1994 when my friend handed me the coolest pistol I had ever seen.  The smooth lines, transparent grips and unique guttersnipe sight left a lasting impression of the ASP.  So lasting,  that I am getting ready to build an ASP clone.  As part of that process, I picked up the used Smith and Wesson Model 39-2 shown here.

The 39-2 is like the 39, except it has a different extractor that uses a coil spring.  While the gun I purchased has an aftermarket nickel finish, factory nickel guns were available, and demand a premium nowadays.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 right side with magazine

Once you get past the crude machine work, the Model 39 points and handles well.  The double action trigger, single column magazine and slide mounted safety and decocker makes for a nice handling pistol.   Unlike more modern designs, the shooter’s hands sit lower over the bore axis and the sights are somewhat rudimentary by today’s standards.  That said, the gun shoots well, and was 100% reliable with the 200 rounds of 147 Bonded JHP’s I fired through it.

The single column 8 round magazine helps provide the shooter with a comfortable grip.  The double action trigger on this pistol was 11 pounds 11 ounces, and the single action trigger broke at 5 pounds 3 ounces.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 slide right side

Disassembled 39-2 slide.  Note the one locking lug on the straight, non-tapered barrel.  This is a secured by a barrel bushing (above, right) that is locked in place by the guide rod.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 slide

Left hand view of the slide, note the location of the safety/decocker lever.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 backstrap

The alloy mainspring housing of the Model 39-3.  Note the sloppy fit against the frame, especially by the beavertail.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 tooling marks by muzzle

The machine work on these early Smith and Wesson pistols was crude at best.  This is the front of the slide, not the tooling marks.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 bushing system

The barrel bushing is reminiscent of the 1911.  Instead of locking against a plug like the 1911, the Smith 39 and 39-2’s bushings lock in place with the end of the recoil spring guide rod.

Smith and Wesson 39-2 top

A view of the rear sight, note the large slide cut.

39-2 target 7 yards with DA trigger

I liked shooting the Smith and Wesson 39-2.  This target was shot at 7 yards, double action from the ready position.

While the design is over 50 years old, the Smith and Wesson 39 design doesn’t seem so dated.  It is still a serviceable pistol that is remarkably current despite it’s age.

I asked an established instructor for a well known and respected federal agency his thoughts on the Model 39 and 59.  This is what he told me:

The Model 39 was largely ignored by law enforcement for the first decade or so of its existence:  it wasn’t a revolver.   Pistols were considered “unreliable”, “accident prone” and the 9mm in particular “under powered”. Considering that FMJ ammo was the only game in town at the time for the 9mm, the “under powered” statement was not too far off the mark – but so was the standard .38 Special 158 grain RNL round.  A significant number of law enforcement agencies issued the .357 Magnum revolver, and it’s 158 grain SWC bullet of the era was marginally more effective.  The few police that took to the Model 39 were mostly plainclothes men – the flat profile, and greater capacity (9 versus 6) they found meaningful.
Likewise the civilian market never really warmed up to it.  American pistoleros were 1911 shooters, with some Browning HP aficionados taking the minority.  Small pistols were Walther PP series and Baby Brownings.  That’s it folks.  The S&W Model 39 suffered from small caliber for a large size gun, an odd non-1911 grip, and clickety-clackety DA/SA trigger action that had little appeal to either the target shooter or the plinker.  CCW was not nearly as prevalent back then as it is today – in 1959 very few states had “shall issue” carry laws.  Even where allowed, few people carried guns for personal protection on a regular basis, as random violent crime was not as common as it is now, and “terrorism” was a non-event.  “Active shooter” was not even a term – social control and personal restraint were far more pervasive.  And the places  that you NEEDED to carry a firearm – New York City and Chicago – prohibited it.
Nonetheless, the events of the 1960s – social unrest, racial violence and increasing general crime – made many police reconsider the revolver.  In 1967 the Illinois State Police (ISP) Adopted the Model 39, the first significant agency to adopt a semi-auto pistol.  This put the Model 39 on the map.  What the police carry, makes civilians take notice.  The flaws of the Model 39 dash none soon became apparent.  Reliability with  early JSP and JHP ammo was spotty; the pistol was not especially accurate and was unforgiving of poor technique; the decocking safety would occasionally break and fire the weapon; and there was no drop safety.  Federal produced a special 95 grain JSP load with no lead exposed beyond the jacket:  it was more effective than FMJ but under penetrated on barriers (windshields and car doors) and over penetrated in flesh.  A few small agencies followed up on JSP’s lead, but the flash of its initial adoption soon withered.
S&W brought out the Model 59 in 1971 – basically the Model 39 with a 14 shot magazine for greater firepower, and the grip improved to a more 1911-friendly angle, albeit a very FAT 1911 angle.  This pistol came out at the right time and enjoyed more success than the Model 39.  It soon became a popular choice as a police pistol, in an era still vastly dominated by the revolver.  I remember seeing one for the first time in 1978, a nickel-plated version being carried by the manager of a Burger King in The Bronx at closing time.  He had it in a DeSantis horizontal shoulder rig, with an extra magazine on the offside.  Since carry pistol licenses were very rare in NYC at the time (still are), the few holders of this privilege liked to show off their heat when possible.  I asked him about it and he said he fired his 1000th round through it a week earlier and it was flawless. Hmmm… I had to get one!  Still, the weapon had to be carried on-safe due to the lack of a firing pin safety.
Still, the revolver held sway with law enforcement and civilians as high velocity JHP ammunition with exposed lead noses became available – such as the pioneering Super Vel brand – which was not completely reliable in pistols.  S&W made some changes to the extractor and magazines and around 1978 designated the guns 39-2 and 59-2.  In 1980 S&W added a more robust rear sight, a firing pin safety, and changes to the feed ramps.  They designated the pistols 439 and 459 respectively.  This change made the guns vastly safer to carry, more robust and reliable, and more agencies adopted them, soon rivaling the revolver as the preferred issued police gun.  Even the FBI adopted it for their SWAT teams, and with the event of superior and reliable JHP 9mm ammo with notched jackets and no exposed lead – such as the Winchester 115 grain Silvertip and Federal 115 grain JHP – the tide began turning against the revolver.  By 1988, the dismal fate of the revolver in LE work was pretty much sealed.  The S&W series of 39 and 59 and their successors were the primary pistol motivators and recipients of that tide.  
Still, law enforcement was not completely happy with the S&W guns, and the superior accuracy, durability and ergonomics of the SIG P226 and Beretta M92F soon made significant inroads with agencies seeking to replace their revolvers.  The Glock 17, introduced in the United States in 1984, undertook a strategy to undercut all of those guns on price in the LE market, and by then mid-1990s the Glock 17 and 19 were taking the majority of LE orders.
Time and life goes on, and it wasn’t until 35 years later I caught up with a nickel-plated Model 59-2 for a reasonable price.  I was like a teenager finding that comic book he wanted since he was 9.  Long before the glut of polypistols and Euroguns with massive magazines, the S&Ws and Browning HP were the only serious 9mm pistols in town.  Handling that S&W made me appreciate the manufacturing techniques and materials of that era – you can’t put a value on panache. The feature set back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were unique and special.  But not so much anymore…
Shooting it at the range was fun, and certainly you could use one to defend yourself – but the modern guns are superior.  My specimen broke it’s ejector while firing.  I returned it to S&W and it was repaired – for free.  That’s what I call a Lifetime Warranty.  This is a time capsule pistol – you might have to be an old guy to enjoy it.
If you get a chance to shoot a Smith and Wesson 39, don’t miss out.  It is a unique piece of firearm history.