THE S&W M39-2

by AK Church

Updated 10/13/02 with new info about Badger Grips!

Updated 02/03/03 with exploded parts diagrams! (See bottom of page.)


39left.jpg (147037 bytes)

yeah I know, it's a 9mm.

(Free permission to quote Church's articles is granted, as long as proper attribution is given. We request that if you use our work, you give us credit.)

The only thing more exciting than turning 21 is having the money saved up for a new pistol. It was 1980, and I wanted nothing less than the perfected police pistols in double action, the Smith & Wesson Model 39. Why, the whole country was going 9 millimeter!

Smith and Wesson brought out their prototype for U.S. Army pistol trials in the early 1950s, the same trials which produced the Colt Commander. The Smith and Wesson is an interesting amalgamation of features. The double action and hammer dropper are certainly influenced in concept, if not in all mechanical details, by the Walther P38. The cam tracked dropping barrel lockup is mostly Browning HiPower. The location of the slide stop and magazine release are very wisely taken from Colt's Government Model.

Another feature in common with the Commander was the use of the then uncommon aluminum alloy for the frame. This brings the weight down to a spindly 26 ounces unloaded. Magazine capacity is 8 rounds, the original rear sight was adjustable for deflection only, and the original grips were mediocre walnut with poor checkering.

These pistols have a mixed reputation. Ergonomics are, to the thinking of most people, quite good. The grip is very comfortable, the slide stop and magazine release being right where most Americans feel they should. The Walther style hammer dropper is a feature which has taken years of getting used to.

Reliability is a mixed bag. Some pistols functioned wonderfully right out of the box, at least with hardball. Others jammed with dedication. My own, a 1979 gun fed hardball Remington right out of the box but, true to its era, choked on all expanding bullets. A ramp job performed by a long dead Missouri gunsmith (and none too attractively) eliminated that peccadillo. It is now, with 3000+ rounds on the frame, as reliable as could be wanted.

Accuracy was also regarded as a weak point on these pistols. Primarily, the fit between the barrel outside diameter and the inside diameter of the bushing tends to be casual at best. The fit on my example is certainly loose and sloppy on that dimension, but accuracy is entirely serviceable. Once, in an attempt to improve the accuracy, I measured out over half a dozen barrel bushings, with intentions of replacing mine with the tightest one. My original proved to be the tightest. It remains in place.

The aluminum frame makes this pistol questionable for use with +P ammunition. The Fiocchi load I use is not listed as such, but is quite hot, so it is shot sparingly. The Remington and Winchester loads are nowhere near that.

The following loads were fired at the JbarT Ranch range for accuracy (off hand @ 50 ft.) & velocity. 

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Winchester white box 115gr fmj avg. velocity, 1103 fps

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Remington UMC  115gr fmj avg velocity, 1104   fps

fio39.jpg (29950 bytes)

Fiocchi 115gr jhp avg velocity, 1209 fps!



To provide a control, shooting was duplicated with one of the Miles' Ruger P95s. The average "group" size was no different. To prove a point on the mediocrity of current U.S. civilian ammo, a five shot group was fired with Hirtenberger's +P+ 100gr jsp "polizei" load. It WAS NOT fired through the M39!

hbrg+P+95.JPG (20698 bytes)

Hirtenberger jsp @ 1315 fps!

this is what you should expect from GOOD ammo


Finish on these pistols were either blued, or bumper-chrome bright nickel. The latter, an extra cost option, is not that uncommon. During early production, a few were built as single actions (an illustration was the cover girl of "GUN DIGEST" 1955), and as steel frames. Both are rare indeed.


MSRP in 1980 was $211 for the blued gun, and $232 for the nickel. My bill of sale shows I paid $225 for my blued gun. The early 80s were not a proud era for American gun makers, and the finish on my pistol shows some shameful toolmarks, one - proximate to front sight - is fairly large. Bluing on the steel and anodizing of the receiver are not exactly color matched either. The slide has a weird purple tinge to it.

The 1980s seemed to be the era of autopistol gadgets, and while most of the articles of the era described the essentialness of rubber magazine bumpers and hex head grip screws for 1911 type pistols, the Smith was not immune (nor was its owner). Mine was eventually festooned with a MS Safari Arms ambidextrous safety, Badger laminated walnut/maple grips, a Smith & Wesson fully adjustable rear sight  (a pretty scarce item) and a Smith & Wesson spurless hammer. 


The front sight received the then customary blaze orange insert. 

Briefly, it carried a spring kit from a nameless still operating vendor which rendered it unable to break any but the softest primers. Springs are now back to factory. Note well, most of the other vendors are as dead as Lee Atwater. And Smith & Wesson may be dead fairly soon.

Double action on my pistol is pretty manageable, having smoothed up greatly after a few thousand rounds. Single action is full of slack, though pretty light in feel. It is no target trigger.

Call it a youthful indiscretion. I'm still fond of the odd duck 9.

Personal request from author Church: The distinctive grips shown were purchased by mail from the Badger Grip Company of Lockport NY in the early 1980s. I have been recently informed this concern is not out of business. I would appreciate early 1980s sales brochures from this concern, the "AMERICAN HANDGUNNER" advertisement they ran ca. '79-'83, hard verifiable information on the company status, and would happily buy another set of these laminated maple/walnut grips for Smith 39s or Colt Governments. 

Workmanship and fit on these near 20 year old grips is excellent. I just wish I knew more about them.

A K likes to attach useful or interesting letters from readers to his articles. Please state in your letter if he may use your correspondence. He can do this with or without your name or address, according to your wishes. Email him here.

NOTE: Author Church regrets that he is unqualified to do appraisal, and cannot establish a value on your gun. 

Read your article on the 39-2.  I have a 39 I bought in the 1960s.  Problem is the bbl bushing is getting a bit loose and I can't seem to be able to locate one. Can you point me in any directions? S&W send the wrong one, Brownell's doesn't have any  listed, etc.

Thanks for any help.


Does anyone have these early parts? --AKC

   Just read your piece on the M39-2. I must be very lucky as mine has been with me for over 20 years. More rounds than I can remember including reloads and including HP cast lead & +P loads. The gun has been used as a target pistol with reloads and groups at 1 1/4" at 50 yards. It is still tight as it was new. I put about 50 rounds through it at least once a week. Not a fan of the 9mm but this gun fees any ammo, including SWCs. Can't seem to part with it.

David--Just over the hill. Thanks for listening

Dear AK,

I had an un-used 9mm all steel finished Model 39 which was too good to
fire! I kept it for over 30 years until here in the UK we had the handgun
ban. I offered the pistol to the Imperial War Museum in London, by
arrangement. First, I had to hand it in to the police, who were supposed to
pass the S&W to the museum - guess what, it never arrived! 

You can guess that I am very bitter - I still can't get an explanation, and
the press are not interested!

Keep up the collecting and do not let your legislators go down the road of
handgun bans - in the UK there are now more illegally held handguns than
there ever where legally held ones!

Kind regards,

Chris G

(6 Aug 2002)

I spent many years carrying Model 39s as a police officer in the Chicago area. I always liked the feel and the "shootability" but was never thrilled with the caliber (especially with the 9mm ammo available in the 70s and 80s) My 39s have long been replaced with "more modern" pistols for duty use, however I still have two full size blue 39-2s and a Devel compact built from a 39-0 (Anyone still remember Devel?) in my gun safe. Just can't part with them. I've owned most and fired all of the S&W "wondernines" over the past three decades and still think the original 39 was by far the best. Too bad S&W lost their way.

(name withheld by request)

(Posted 13 Oct 2002!)

Dear AK,

Badger Grips are still being made in Lockport, NY by my brother, James Badger.  We will soon have a website available and will be a starting a long overdue dealer program.  Thanks for your kind comments.  I am taking Jim a copy of your remarks.  He can be reached at 716-434-8562. Have a great day.

Margaret Badger Magno

Added 25 Oct 2002:

I liked very much your article about the S&W 39.I got mine at a very good price from a friend few days after I bought a new model 59 in it's box. finally among that 59, a browning 35, a Commander in 38 super and others I keep only the 39 because is easy to conceal and to shoot, I only get hardball and hand loads with lead bullets and the functioned perfectly.

I had had it for about 20 years and keep it unloaded in my bed table, I carried the loaded magazines in my pocket or my briefcase because of my children, I like very much the magazine safety but I have more confidence in an empty chamber!   Sincerely:  Arturo Mtz

Added 30 Dec 2002:

I've got an old Illinois St. Police surplus M 39. At 30' you can cut the center out of the bull's-eye every time if you do your part, with ordinary Winchester 115gr FMJ. Now I'm not that good, so I looked into matters and discovered that the M 52 - a real target pistol - was built from the M 39! That explains things. The only trouble I have is finding good magazines at a realistic price.

I should add the footnote that of all the pistols I have, it's the only one I have ever used in a Police documented case of defending myself!

Tom Bowers

Selma, CA

Posted 03 February 2003:

Hi, AK. I recently acquired a Smith & Wesson Model 39-2, and I can't seem to locate a breakdown sheet (exploded view, parts) for my own use. Any ideas where I might look online ? I'd also like to know the proper method for field stripping this weapon. Any info would be handy. Feel free to use this post any way you'd like. Thanks.

Dan Whitley,  Illinois

Church answers: You got it Dan, here's Smith & Wesson's exploded parts diagram for the Model 39.



Oh for the good old days. At one time a dealer friend of mine in Oklahoma City had 5 of the steel frame 39's unfired and still in the box. Had we but only known at the time what they might someday be worth. There was a 6th one that had been used and we would on occasion take it out to shoot (shame on use). Not being an expert I don't even remember, if I ever knew, if the boxes were marked Model 39 or something else. You are probably more qualified than I to answer that.

Regards, Kent

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