History’s first “Wonder Nine,” or 9mm Parabellum semiautomatic handgun with a double-digit magazine capacity, is usually considered as the iconic Browning Hi-Power P-35. Because the P-35 is a single-action (SA) rather than a conventional double-action (TDA), some nitpickers take issue with that designation.

Putting aside the semantic squabble, one might initially assume that the BHP is an American design because it bears the name of one of history’s and America’s all-time greatest gun inventors, John Moses Browning (1855–1926); however, the weapon is actually Belgian because Monsieur Dieudonné Saive completed designing the P–35 nine years after Mr. Browning’s passing and Fabrique Nationale (FN) Herstal produced the renowned pistol.

So then, what was the first truly all-American born and bred Wonder Nine? It’s the Smith & Wesson Model 59.

Smith & Wesson Model 59 History and Specifications

In 1971, the S&W M59 was introduced. sixteen years after Smith’s M39, which was the first 9mm auto of any calibre to be made in the United States and had an 8+1 round capacity. Together with the Colt M1911.45 ACP, these two Smiths—later grouped under S&W’s First Generations autopistol series—helped lay the groundwork for the American law enforcement agency’s eventual widespread move from DA revolvers to semiauto pistols. The Illinois State Police, which accepted the Model 39 as their first TDA 9mm in 1967, was the first domestic law enforcement organisation to do so. In 1974, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) adopted the Model 59, continuing the slow but steady trend of success.

The highly respected longtime gun writer Wiley Clapp, in his 1986 book “The Gun Digest Book of 9mm Handguns” – co-authored by Dean A. Grennell, provides us with a good bit of detailed history about the S&W M59:

“The sensuous curves of the 39 backstrap gave way to a straight 59 version as the frame was modified to fit the bigger magazine that contained 15 rounds. High-impact black plastic was used instead of the 39’s wood grips, which could not be suitably thinned to fit the new frame. When fully loaded, the resulting weapon felt substantial and substantial. The majority of departments who were contemplating an automatic took a close look at this new Smith & Wesson. The first several months saw a severe shortage of the firearms, which led to high costs. Most of them complied with strict police commands.

The Model 59 even gained a wee bit of TV cop show stardom, as noted by Chris Eger in a June 2020 article for Guns.Com: “Heck, the sought-after pistol even made it into the original Starsky and Hutch TV series as Starsky’s duty piece.”

Specifications included a barrel length of 4 inches, an overall length of 7.55 inches, and an empty weight of 30 ounces. A total of 231,841 M59s were produced before the gun was discontinued to make way for S&W’s Second Generation autopistols such as the Model 459.

Range and Real-World Combat Performance

One the one hand, some traditional gun experts like Massad F. Ayoob evaluated the Model 59 as having only average accuracy; on the other hand, much more recently – as in December 2019 – firearms blogger “silverstring” had a more favourable range report: “This specific pistol shoots like a dream, exceptional recoil control, great sight alignment… The model 59 is an extremely accurate shooter, just like a 9mm 1911. even in the windy, grey weather of today. Even though it is challenging to strike a paper target that is moving in the wind, this superb S&W shooter succeeded.

In case anybody is wondering, I own a M39-2, the closest I’ve come to experiencing the M59 is the Third Generation equivalent/successor, the M5906, which I found to be a very pleasant shooter.

As to the Model 59’s field performance, we again turn to Mr. Clapp: “The early model 59s got a bum rap from the jams and ruptured cartridges that could usually be traced to poor ammunition. Unfortunately, it also happened with factory fodder … The factory responded very quickly to the complaints about the gun, from both agencies as well as individuals. In a relatively short period of time, the production guns were coming off the line both reliable and durable.”

Want Your Own?

True Gun Value states that “A SMITH WESSON 59 pistol is currently worth an average price of $538.29 new and $440.31 used. The 12-month average price is $538.29 new and $463.32 used.” (Seeing how long the gun has been in discontinued status, I’m guessing “new” in this context means “unfired and therefore as good as new”).

Two Model 59s are listed on Guns.Com. One has been refinished in Bronze Cerakote and has a dirt cheap price tag of $350.99, but includes this caveat emptor/Buyer Beware warning in the Seller Description: “The gun fires as it should and functions properly, however, the decocker is NON FUNCTIONAL. To clarify that again, the decocker DOES NOT work, but the gun fires just as it should.” (Which means you would have to manually decock it by carefully lowering the hammer under thumb pressure whilst squeezing the trigger, just like with the CZ-75 or the aforementioned Browning Hi-Power and M1911.) The other specimen has a nickel finish and carries a much bigger price tag of $1,000.99 and presumably has a working decocker (knock on wood, I should darn well hope so, especially at that asking price).

Meanwhile. GunsAmerica.Com has seven different specimens currently listed for sale, at a price range of $449.00 to $1K.

Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He has 34 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.

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