forum home > articles home

Sometimes it seems a shame that the gun companies stop producing some of the really good guns. No doubt this Elmeresque reflection owes much to feelings of nostalgia and not to the more practical considerations, but not always. Bill Ruger opened up new markets by bringing back such old-time boat anchors as single-shot rifles and single-action revolvers, and proved that a smart businessman could tap into old-timey markets that his competitors had given up on. This reflection introduces the mostly out-of-production, pre-polymer, double-action, Smith & Wesson autoloaders.

My first introduction to Smith and Wesson autoloaders came in the 1960s, when a friend I worked with in Ontario bought a Model 39. This was a small, single-stack 9mm. I was intrigued by the fact that it was double-action. I was familiar with the Walther PP and PPK and the P38 of World War II, and the Mauser Hsc, but didn’t know of any American-made gun with that action. After I moved to Virginia I looked around for one like it, but by then Smith had added the Model 59 to the line, a double stack version. I went right for it: who could pass up a 14-round magazine with a double action? Of course, there was no practical reason for having all that capacity. That was long before shall-issue laws became common, and I could see no prospect of ever carrying a concealed gun. Still, all those rounds in the gun appealed to me, even without any practical reason for them. Alas, the Model 59 was a disappointment. It handled like a chunk of 2x4, with its blocky short grip, and it was the most inaccurate handgun I had ever shot. My lead-bullet/Red Dot handloads might have had something to do with that; I was new to that game at the time and it didn’t occur to me to try some other load, but that fact didn’t temper my disappointment. The Model 59 had a poor reputation for functioning, although mine did well in that department. I can recall being in a gun shop around 1992 inquiring if they would take in my Model 59 on a trade. Before the clerk could answer, the owner, who had been listening from way down the counter, yelled angrily at the clerk, "No, we won’t take in any Model 59." 

When shall-issue came to Virginia, I immediately got my permit and began carrying a Glock 21 with an extra magazine in a fanny pack. Over the years I have carried either that gun or the G19 in fanny packs, or tiny Kel-Tecs in pocket holsters. I have never been satisfied with either solution to the problem, but couldn’t figure out anything better. Until now.

A few months ago I bought a gun I had been thinking about for some time, a used Smith & Wesson Model 3913. This is a revision of my old friend’s Model 39 of forty years ago. In the intervening years S&W revised its pistols several times. The M39 (from 1957, discontinued 1982)) and the M59 (1971-82) constitute the first generation of this series of guns. The second generation began with the M469 of 1979, the forerunner of a long line of pistols. In general, but not infallibly, the three-digit model numbers refer to the second generation of pistols. The third generation (four digits) began in 1989 with the 3904. It’s notorious that S&W for much of this period came out with many different models, and it’s a good memory indeed that can keep the lineup straight.

You can get these guns in 9x19, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP: you can get them in large size or compact: you can get them with steel frames or aluminum alloy: you can get them with safety levers on one side or on both sides: you can get them single-stack or double-stack: you can get them in blue or silver. (You can also get them in traditional double-action or double-action-only. -editor) And you can get them in almost any combination of these characteristics you want, mix or match. You want, for example, a large all-stainless .45? That means you want a M4566. And so on. Just looking quickly through the 2003 Standard Catalog of Firearms (the latest I have), I find the 39, 59, 439, 459, 469, 539, 559,639, 659, 645, 669, 745, 3904, 3906, 3913, 3914, 3954, 915, 59035904, 5906, 5903, 5946, 5967, 6904, 6906, 6946, 4003, 4004, 4006, 4026, 4046, 4013, 4014, 4053, 4054, 4056, 411, 4505, 4506, 4513, 4516, 4536. This list is not complete, but I’m tired of typing numbers and you’re probably tired of reading them. It doesn’t include the 10mm pistols, the variants like the TSW pistols or Ladysmiths, or the new, very small Chief's Specials.

When I got that 3913, I had just bought a belly band holster and immediately began carrying the Smith in that. At last I found what for me was an ideal combination. The 3913 is a single stack, 8+1 9mm, aluminum frame. It’s a good shooter.  Like the other guns in this series my 3913 has a slide-mounted safety, which some people think is redundant or worse on a TDA, but which I like for carrying in a belly band holster because it doesn't provide as clean a draw as a belt holster and it's possible to sweep yourself.  These guns also have a magazine disconnect about which I am indifferent.  But our resident cop, Jerry Webb, likes them and has stories of officers whose lives were saved in struggles with felons who had grabbed the guns.  If you can hit the magazine release and eject the mag the gun will not fire the cartridge in the chamber.  (Occasionally one finds a gun manufactured without the disconnect, probably on special order.  My 4013 states clearly on the slide that the gun will fire without the magazine being in place.) 

My experience with this gun, both shooting and carrying, was so good that I immediately wanted a counterpart in each of the other main self-defense calibers. I found a 4013 (.40 S&W) on auction (also 8+1) and three different .45 ACPs: 457S, 4513TSW, and 4566. I’m keeping the 457S (7+1) and selling the other two. They are both good pistols but the 4566 is rather large and all steel and I wanted three small or medium alloy pistols to carry more conveniently.  The 4513TSW is also a good shooter, but it had no advantage over the 457S to compensate for holding one less round.  (Newer versions of the 4513TSW have a longer grip and one more round.) The 457S and its blue counterpart, the 457, are part of what S&W called the "value-line." (Called the American Pride series today. -editor) It's supposed to be a cheaper version of the 4-digit models, but I can't see anything "cheap" about this gun except for the smooth frontstrap rather than a serrated one. All of these guns are good shooters. I have perhaps 600 rounds through them, mostly my reloads and haven’t had a single failure to fire, feed or eject. All shoot almost exactly to point of aim. All are comfortable to handle and all handle recoil well. They can be found on the used market for something around the $380 to $400 range. Check the auctions.

The single-stack feature means capacity is much more limited than the modern guns that have become so popular now. I think that’s meaningless for a private citizen. As I type, I have the 3913 under my shirt, along with 25 rounds of 9x19, but I still think it’s a joke to carry so much ammunition. I do it because I can and it’s no hardship or discomfort.

Here’s a picture of my three keepers, the 3913 on the left, then the 4013, with the 457S on the bottom.  Below that is a group I shot with the 457S.



text and photos copyright 2007 by the author, all rights reserved.

Uploaded: 12/5/2007