Though Sammy Colt patented the first viable revolver in 1836, Smith & Wesson actually predates Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company — now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Company, LLC. That makes it the oldest of the “Big Three” American handgun manufacturers, with respective official founding dates of 1852 and 1858. (Sturm, Ruger, & Co. was founded in 1949.)
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what I consider to be Smith’s 5 best handguns of all-time.
Model 29 .44 Magnum Double-Action (DA) Revolver
We might as well start with arguably the most famous S&W product of the bunch, the one immortalized by Clint Eastwood in his role as “Dirty Harry” Callahan.
This N-frame (large-sized) series gun and its caliber came to us in 1955 courtesy of Elmer Keith (1899-1984), who developed it as a more powerful descendant of the .44 Special after handloading and tricking out the ancestral cartridge to its upper limits. But in 1971, thanks to Inspector Callahan’s cinematic debut, demand for the Model 29 rose to the point that people were easily paying three times the list price. Gun shops simply could not keep them in stock.
I purchased my own Model 29 in 2011, decades after the hyper-demand for the gun had cooled down. Though I no longer own the piece, it was definitely a memorable experience. The gun was smooth, accurate, and reliable.
Model 686 .357 Magnum Double-Action (DA) Revolver
My first inclination was to give the nod to the N-frame Model 27 in this slot. It was the very first Magnum ever produced, bursting on the scene back in 1935. But upon further reflection, I’d have to say that the L-frame (medium-large-sized) M686 is the company’s ultimate refinement within the .357 Magnum caliber.
Although the Ruger GP-100 is my all-time favorite .357 Magnum, I’d have to rate the Smith 686 a very close second after having fired both a factory-stock “Plus” (7-shot) version and the semi-custom Pro Series (with the typical 6-shot capacity), courtesy of my local indoor rental ranges in Maryland and Northern Virginia. Though not quite as strong as the Ruger gun, the Smith 686 definitely beats the GP-100 for sheer smoothness of DA trigger pull. That smoothness is exceeded in my experience only by the far pricier Colt Python, which is pretty much the Rolex of .357 Magnums. Its accuracy is incredible.
Model 41 .22 LR Semiauto Pistol
Although S&W is known first and foremost as a wheelgun maker, they’ve made some pretty darn good semi-auto pistols as well. Dating back to 1957, this model is not quite as popular as Ruger’s iconic Standard .22 auto, but it’s pretty high up there. As the manufacturer’s official info page proclaims, “The Smith & Wesson Model 41 is the top of the line in rimfire pistols. Used by national level competitors for acute precision in competition, the Model 41 is considered one of the best .22 target pistols ever manufactured.”
I haven’t yet had the pleasure of firing a Model 41, but it’s definitely on my bucket list.
Model 4506 .45 ACP Traditional Double-Action (TDA) Semi Automatic Pistol
Smith’s TDA foray into TDA autopistols kicked off back in 1955 with the First Generation Model 39, which became the first 9mm autopistol to gain significant acceptance in the American law enforcement community. But it wasn’t until the Third Generation series came along in 1988 that Smith’s TDAs reached their full potential in terms of intrinsic accuracy as well as reliability.
The Model 4506 was arguably the best-regarded of the bunch, with gun writers from Chris Eger of Guns.Com to self-defense guru Massad F. Ayoob noting that the M4506 was so reliable that it would even feed empty cases, as well as rounds such as the Speer 200-grain “flying ashtray” jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) that caused so many feeding issues in non-customized M1911 pistols in the same caliber.
For me, the 4506 only shot fair-to-middling, but I’ve long considered it one of the handsomest pistols ever made.
M&P Shield Striker-Fired Semiauto Pistol Series (Various Calibers)
Smith’s M&P (Military & Police) product lines date back to 1899. They started with the .38 Special DA revolver that is known nowadays as the K-frame (medium-sized) Model 10.
Fast forward to 2005, and after underwhelming somewhat with the Sigma and SW99, the M&P semiautomatics marked the company’s truly successful transition from TDAs to striker-fired autopistols, becoming a serious competitor to Glock in the latter arena. Fast forward yet again to 2012, and Smith came out with the Shield version of the M&P in 9mm and .40 S&W, which really took off in terms of popularity.
My friend Itshak “Ike” Sarfati, a veteran of many battles with the Israel Defense Forces, is especially fond of the Shield guns:
“The S&W Shield followed up with its better brother is one of the nicest carrying and shooting guns out there. The Shield with its 8+1 capacity and the Shield Plus with its 13+1 capacity stands equal to many larger, heavier and bulkier guns like the Glock 26, some HK’s, Walthers and many others. The Shield Plus also has a better grip and trigger from the factory than many other guns. I have owned a couple Shields and I currently own two Shield Plus, one with an RDS and an older Shield .45 that I shall never trade or sell.”
I myself tried out the S&W Shield EZ 9mm a few months ago and found it to be quite an enjoyable shooting experience.
In addition to traditional calibers like 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP, the Shield is now available in the newfangled .30 Super Carry cartridge.
Smith and Wesson: Through the Years
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.