S&W Model 39-2, by Pat Cascio

I’m still getting some requests from our readers for more review articles on all-metal handguns, and any more, this is getting harder and harder to do. The trend has been, for the past 20+ years are polymer frame handguns. I must admit that, my small collection has fewer and fewer all-metal handguns, and more and more polymer-framed handguns. When the first Glock came out, it was called the Glock17, and even though the magazine capacity was 17-rounds, that’s not why it was called the 17, it was because it was the 17th patent issued to Gaston Glock. Even today, it can be very confusion on the Glock model numbers – guess you need a score card to keep up with all the various model numbers.

The first successful double-action/single-action handgun to be made was the Walther P.38 – and it came out in WW2, unfortunately, the Walther factory fell into the hands of the Nazis and they produced a lot of model P.38s during WW2, and those guns are still commanding big dollars, because of the Nazi markings on them.  (Both the pre-war and post-war production guns do not have the Nazi Waffenampt markings.) About 35 years ago, when I lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, there was a fairly new gun shop in town, which for some strange reason, always had German Lugers and Walther P.38 pistol for sale – and they all had Nazi Waffenampt markings on them. Someone who knew a heck of a lot more than I did, discovered that these two fellows were stamping their pre-war and post-war production guns with Nazi markings, making people believe they were buying Nazi Germany era-produced pistols. In short order, the BATF helped put these two fakers out of business.

Back to the Walther P.38, as I mentioned, was one of the first commercially made pistols that fired from both Double Action and the Single action modes. This meant that you could chamber a round, and de-cock the hammer – after that, the first shot was from the long trigger pull double action mode. All shots after that were in the single action mode – with a much shorter, lighter trigger pull. And, if you were done shooting, you could use the de-cocker to safely lower the hammer, and your next shot would be back to the long double action trigger pull mode. This was something that the Browning Hi-Power lacked. The P.38 de-cocker broke new ground in the gun world.  Around 1949 or 1950 – records are conflicting on this — the U.S. Military was in the market for a 9mm Double-Action/Single-Action handgun to replace the grand ol’ Colt Government Model 1911. This is where Smith and Wesson entered into the competition, not that there was any real competition.

S&W came up with the Model 39, and it was a single stack 8-round 9mm pistol, with an Aluminum frame and it weighted in at about 28-ounces. This was ground-breaking at the time, a full-sized 9mm handgun, that was lightweight, and it fired the 9mm round – wow! In 1954 the military again expressed interest in the S&W Model 39. But by today’s standards, it was rather rough around the edges. At some later point, the military decided to stick with the 1911. In 1955, S&W released the Model 39 for public sales, and it really didn’t take off — at least not  right away.

Today we’re looking at my classic Model 39-2 – and to be clear, my research shows there was NO Model 39-1 – the Model 39 was first, followed by the Model 39-2! There was also a Model 39-3 from my research, and then if I recall, S&W went to the 4 digit model system, and there was a Model 3904 – not any where near what the original Model 39-2 was. To my way of thinking, even to this day, the 39-2 was “the” gun to have in the early 1970s and beyond – for a lot of years.

Smith and Wesson Model 39-2The 39-2 has a de-cocker on it – only on the left side, on the 4-digit models, you could get an ambidextrous de-cocker model, with a de-cocker on both sides of the slide. The slide is made out of carbon steel, and the frame is Aluminum for lightweight carry. There is a bushing on the end of the slide/barrel – just like the 1911 has. The barrel was hi-polished carbon steel, looking like it was made out of stainless steel. The sights were “okay” for that timer period – with the rear being low-profile, and adjustable for windage only – the front sight was fixed and both sights were all-black. The slide was all-blue, while the slide was a bright anodized Aluminum – very attractive. The trigger is smooth on the fact, and believe it or not, it wasn’t bad at all to pull in the long double-action mode. The single-action mode was short and crisp. There is a hammer on the frame, and some models had a hole in the hammer ring, and some didn’t have this. Nicely checkered walnut grips were outstanding – very classy-looking pistol. The butt of the frame had a lanyard ring so you could attach a lanyard to the gun, so it wouldn’t be taken from you in a struggle. The magazines – they came with two – held 8-rounds each and were rather crude if you ask me, but they worked. The barrel was 4-inches long – just made the entire gun balance perfectly for me.

I want to say, when I got my Model 39-2, it was in late 1973 or very early 1974, and I carried that gun almost all the time doing private security work, and PI investigations – it just felt absolutely fantastic in my hand – still does. If you recall reading my book Street Combat, This Ain’t No Game that our editor, Jim Rawles, published online a few years ago, I related just one story about using that Model 39-2 on-duty – although there were other occasions where it was used. However, let me digress about this one incident. There were 6 of us working at this one outlet store the two weeks leading up to Christmas – we were all Private Investigators, plus there were two off-duty Chicago police officers, working up at the front of the store, wearing security officer uniforms. We were hidden behind two-way mirrors in a booth about 6-feet off the floor – again there were 6 of us crowded in this both. On most days, we averaged about 20 arrests per day for people who were shoplifting, and this store was in a fairly bad neighborhood, and many of those arrested were wanting to fight us. During lunch one day, everyone went to lunch except me, and I spotted a professional shoplifter, he had booster pockets sewn into his long cashmere dress coat. In no time at all, he folded-up two dress suits and hid them in those booster pockets.

Now this guy was tall, very tall – but I didn’t know how big he was until I stopped him…remember I was looking downward at him, from our booth, but I didn’t know how tall he was, until he walked towards me – he had “made” me – and dumped the suits, but I only had to prove intent to steal – which was easy enough to do because we had cameras all over the store. Anyway, as this guy was walking towards me, my eyes just kept lifting up higher and higher – he was easily 6-foot 6-inches tall. Wow! When he approached me, I showed him my badge, and I was always polite to shoplifters until they got more than a little rude with me. I explained to him, there was a “problem” and would he please turn around and go back into my office. Well, he flat out told me “I’m going to walk all over you….” And, during that time, I was heavily into the martial arts, but this man was big enough to walk all over me. There in this thing called disparity of force…he was quite able to do what he said he was going to do, and I wasn’t about to test the waters to see if I could beat him in a physical contest. Instead, I pulled out my Model 39-2 and put it right against his nose, and told him: “No sir, you are not….” And he turned right around and went with me to the office – ‘nuff said, and no problems.

I’m not bragging in the least in recounting this incident, just relating how much confidence I had in that S&W back in the day. I also arrested a lot of burglars at gunpoint, when I was answering burglar alarms for another company. I usually carried a 4-inch barrel .357 Magnum some of some time, but also switched to carrying that Model 39-2 at times. If a handgun just feels “right” in your hand and you can hit what you aimed at, what’s not to love about a gun like that?

Smith and Wesson Model 39-2Today, you have to search around for a S&W Model 39-2, but there’s quite a few out there. Depending on the condition of the guns, some really used and abused models can be hand for $350 – and more pristine models, like mine, can cost $1,000 or more. So, be sure you know what you are looking at, before you buy one. The 39-2 is not rated for +P or +P+ 9mm ammo, so be advised…however standard velocity 9mm JHP ammo will get the job done if you put your rounds where they are supposed to go.

My oldest daughter considers my 39-2 “old school” by her standards…all the handguns she owns have a polymer frame and hold a lot more ammo than this old S&W does. Still, if all I had was this gun, I wouldn’t be afraid to go to war with it – I have a lot of confidence in it, and it’ll get the job done.

Smith and Wesson Model 39-2In my tests, I used standard 8-round magazines that were produced by S&W.   During my testing, I ran some Black Hills Ammunition 9mm ammo through tehe39-2 – most was 115-gr FMJ ammo, and some of their 115-grain JHP – I was getting groups dead on at 3-inches if I did my part, and that’s nothing to sneeze. Most professionals, myself included, think if you can get groups at 4-inches or less, that great “combat accuracy” I like groups smaller than that, and the old Model 39-2 could easy get those groups at 3-inches without a lot of effort.

If you run across a 39-2 at a gun shop, ask to handle it – I think you’ll love the way they feel in the hand.




13 Comments

  1. Yes sir. I’m normally toting a Browning High Power, because of the extra capacity BUT my no-dash Model 39 shoots like a laser and eats everything I’ve ever fed it. S&W clearly hit a home run with this one.

    1. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the M39 and M59 was my duty weapon. I have always marveled that no officers were killed due to the unreliability of those guns.My department
      ( because of liability concerns) finally went to real quality side arm.The Beretta 92-F or a .357
      magnum wheel gun.
      The best that can be said about the early Smith 9mm. autos is that if you had enough of them in gunny sack with a rope you then had a dandy boat anchor.

  2. Back in 78, a friend loaned me his Model 39 for a camping/hunting trip in the mountains of Arizona. I liked it so much that when the Army announced they were going to transition to a 9mm, I went out and bought a Model 59, which I expected to win the competition. Now that the M92 is being replaced, I still carry the M59 whenever I need to keep a round in the chamber.

  3. This was a fun read. I remember when the Illinois State Police adapted the M39. Few others flipped to the semi-auto during the 70s.
    My local department adapted the SIG P230, a DA/SA .45 ACP. The SIG is a fine pistol, and I even carried one for a time but my short fingers never could properly access the trigger in DA mode. The DA/SA trigger was a solution in search of a problem, since with a bit of training, the SA Only auto pistol is safely carried cocked and locked. I carried the Government Model 1911 every day for 19 years this way and no one died. No furniture of flooring got hurt, either.
    Back to my local department. The training officer was an idiot and eventually shot one of the officers dead in a locker room prank…but he taught his officers to dump the first round into the ground on the draw to get rid of the arduous double action pull and then raise the pistol to sight plane. I’m writing this with a straight face. So many officers had trouble with the transition from the two pull weights that this reckless solution was selected. Eye rolls are appropriate here.
    The other feature I dislike about S&W’s 39/59 series pistols was the maladroit safety/de-cocker location. Like the Browning Hi Power, it is very inconvenient to use. Gaston Glock solved the trigger transition problem, as well as the manual safety issue.
    For some time, the Federal system insists on pistols with striker firing system, no manual safety, and polymer frame. How long did it take Uncle Sugar to adapt a modern system? What, 25 years? I took me only 15 years to realize all the advantages of the Glock and my 1911s now gather dust in a safe place.
    I am glad the huge shoplifter went along quietly. He could have snatched Pat’s pistol away and created a different ending to the story. Maybe he didn’t want to upgrade the shoplifting charge to murder. Now days, disarming techniques are widely taught, both in the prison yards and in decent pistol courses. Never poke your weapon where angels fear to tread. Especially long guns.
    I do own a Model 28 Highway Patrolman. It is a heavy, bulky revolver! I can’t imagine ever carrying it all day. I now have TWO S&W revolvers that have suffered broken parts in the clockwork. Yes, revolvers CAN fail. Both broke right in the middle of classes, being used in battlefield pickup drills. I thank the Lord above that they broke in a place where it was safe to fail.
    In the last quarter century of pistol courses I’ve attended, both as a student and assistant instructor, I have watched the 1911s fade away and nearly all students show up with Glocks. We get the odd XD every few years. I’ve only seen ONE Beretta M92…and it’s been our service pistol for over 30 years. I’ve still yet to fire one.

  4. I prefer the Taurus G3 or G2C as my EDC! I have never had a FTF or FTE after 100’s of rounds fired with 115 grain JHP, 124 grain+P, and 147 JHP! Pat would you please review these great pistols!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. My late father had one of these, not sure the exact model number but I definitely recognize the pistol from the pictures here. Unfortunately he had a dud, it was a jam-o-matic and I never found any ammo that would work reliably. Seeing that pictures sure brings back memories though, thanks for the article.

  6. I BOUGHT A 39-2 SOME TIME BEFORE 1972, and carried it as a security guard while working my way through college. It was one of my favorite guns to carry. My daughter decided she liked it and when she married, it went with her.

  7. Pat ,,,,,,back again ,,,,,,,you either love or hate a 39 ,i carried one 3 years in nam Off and on ,the steel one was a heavy thing ,i was in water alot and it was not happy , in all fairness it did as well as a 1911. I still have a aluminum frame that I was issued ,lost and to made to pay for. Yes I have a receipt ,it eats anything ,ww2 ball ,super vel hollow point ,chi com steel ,squib most of the time down to about 600fps, think the longer threaded barrel helps with that ,,
    Like the feel ,and I know I can trust it with my life ,Like a 1911 too ,hard to beat a real ‘old’ colt,
    Just for fun have a 1911 in 9mm again a ‘colt’
    I guess a Glock is ok but don’t feel right.

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