The classic Browning Hi-Power P-35 is generally regarded as history’s first “Wonder Nine,” i.e. 9mm Parabellum semiautomatic pistol with a double-digit magazine capacity. Some nitpickers dispute that label because the P-35 is a single-action (SA) and not a traditional double-action (TDA).
That semantic tizzy aside, due to the fact that the BHP bears the name of one of America’s – and history’s in general – all-time great gun inventors, John Moses Browning (1855-1926), one might naturally assume at first that the gun is itself an American design; however, the gun is technically Belgian, since it was Monsieur Dieudonné Saive who finished designing the P-35 nine years after Mr. Browning’s passing, and Fabrique Nationale (FN) Herstal who put the legendary pistol into production.
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
The S&W M59 made its debut in 1971. Sixteen years after Smith’s M39, which in turn was the first Stateside-produced 9mm auto of any capacity (8+1 rounds). These two Smiths – later categorized under S&W’s First Generations autopistol series – along with the Colt M1911 .45 ACP, helped plant the seeds for the American law enforcement agency’s eventual large-scale nationwide transition from DA revolvers to semiauto pistols. Indeed, the Model 39 was the first TDA 9mm to be adopted by a domestic law enforcement agency, namely the Illinois State Police in 1967; the Model 59 continued this slow but steady trend of success when it was adopted by Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) in 1974.
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 frame was shaped to accommodate the thicker magazine which held 15 shots; in so doing, the voluptuous curves of the 39 backstrap gave way to a straight 59 version. The walnut grips of the 39 couldn’t be comfortably thinned to meet the new frame, so high-impact black plastic was used. The resulting pistol had a chunky, solid feel when fully loaded. Most agencies that were considering an automatic gave this new Smith & Wesson a long look. For the first few months, the guns were in such short supply as to demand premium prices. Most of them went large police orders.”
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
On the one hand, some old-school gun experts like Massad F. Ayoob assessed the Model 59 as having only mediocre accuracy; far more recently – as in December 2019 – firearms blogger “silverstring” had a more complimentary range report: “This particular pistol shoots like a dream, exceptional recoil control, great sight alignment … Just like a 9mm 1911, the model 59 is a very accurate shooter. Even in today’s windy and dreary conditions. It is hard to hit a paper target moving in the wind, but this excellent S&W shooter was up to the task.”
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.