By Austin Knudsen
I return to these pages with yet another entry into my quest for quality, affordable handguns for the budget-minded shooter. This time, it’s a used Smith & Wesson 5906 chambered in 9mm. Built in the 80s and 90s, this “Third Generation” Smith & Wesson semi-automatic is likely a former police/law enforcement trade-in that found its way into the retail marketplace.
First a little background before we get down to brass tacks, as the history of Smith & Wesson’s semi-automatic pistols can be a little confusing. Smith collectors generally divide Smith & Wesson’s now-discontinued metal frame semi-auto pistols into three “generations.”
The “First Generation” guns were, naturally enough, the earliest versions and have two digits in their model numbers, such as the model 59 and 39. The “Second Generation” guns have three digits in the model numbers and contained engineering updates and improvements.
The final, “Third Generation” guns were the final run of metal framed semi-autos from Smith and have four digits in their model numbers. The model number can be decoded by the initiated, and tells you exactly the specifications of the pistol based on the model number.
While I won’t break it all down here, suffice it to say you could have a blued or stainless, full-size or compact, single-stack or double stack, DA/SA or double-action only, pistol. Available chamberings were 9mm, .40S&W, 10mm, or .45 ACP (not all variations were available in each chambering).
For those who are interested, the folks over at Lucky Gunner put together a handy visual guide to the confusing Smith & Wesson model number system on its 1st, 2nd and 3rd Gen semi-auto pistols. Bottom line: big blue finally quit manufacturing its metal framed semi-auto pistols in 2010 in favor of the polymer-framed M&P line.
I ended up with this particular well-used 5906 (so, 3rd Generation) in a trade. The 5906 model number means it is a full-size, double stack magazine, DA/SA, in stainless steel.
This was a very popular pistol in the late 80’s and through the 90’s, as many law enforcement agencies around the U.S. adopted this pistol as their service weapons. As these agencies transitioned to GLOCKs and other similar weapons in the 2000s, the used market was flooded with truckloads of used 5906s (and other similar Smiths) traded in and subsequently put up for sale.
I can remember not that many years ago seeing used 5906s for sale by wholesalers or in pawn shops for around $250. Nowadays, 5906s can still be found, but not in the quantity or at the price they could ten years ago. And there are minor cosmetic differences within particular models, too.
Smith made these guns with square and round trigger guards, with fixed Novak sights and with adjustable sights protected by large “ears” protruding up from the slide. Don’t be surprised to see different permutations, such as this one with squared trigger guard, adjustable rear sight with “ears,” and a rounded rear grip strap.
My 5906 is a later model, with a fixed Novak no-snag rear sight and a round trigger guard.
The trigger guard is coarsely checkered on the front for the 80’s-90’s era shooting style in which the off-hand index finger was placed on the front of the trigger guard.
The front strap has well-executed vertical grooves to aid with grip, and the trigger guard is nicely undercut to allow a higher grip on the pistol.
My 5906 has definitely seen some use and even a little abuse. As you can see in this picture, it was dropped on the muzzle at some point in its career.
My 5906 came with one factory 15-round magazine. When I acquired the pistol, it had a set of thick Hogue rubber grips on it, which made the grip circumference much too big for my hands. A little eBay shopping, and I found a decent set of the original S&W Delrin straight back strap grips that fit my short, fat fingers a little better. But honestly, the S&W double-stack pistols have always felt too big in my hands, kind of like holding a baseball bat by the wrong end.
The 5906 (and most of the metal-framed S&W semi-autos) is equipped with a magazine safety. This means the gun will not fire with the magazine removed. The idea here is that a cop who’s wrestling with a bad guy and is about to have his service weapon taken away from him can hit the magazine release, drop the magazine, and render the gun inoperable so he isn’t shot with his own gun.
Today, magazine safeties are controversial. I personally don’t care for them, but I understand the logic behind them. In any case, Smith put them on almost all of these guns (I believe), so just be aware.
The 5906 is a DA/SA (double action/single action) operating system pistol with an ambidextrous de-cock lever located on both sides of the back of the slide. This means the pistol can’t be carried “cocked and locked.” Rather, the pistol is designed to be carried hammer down on a loaded chamber.
The operator chambers a round (which cocks the hammer), and then “de-cocks” the pistol using the aforementioned lever located on the rear of the slide. This safely drops the hammer – or de-cocks – the pistol, now placing it in double-action mode, and it can be safely holstered and carried.
Upon drawing the pistol, the first shot is fired with the hammer down with a long, heavy trigger pull which first cocks the hammer and then drops it, firing the gun. Hence the term “double-action.” As the gun has then been cycled, any subsequent shots are fired single-action, until the pistol is empty or the shooter is done shooting again de-cocks and holsters it.
I dislike DA/SA pistols personally. While originally designed by the Germans for the Walther P-38 9mm during WWII, DA/SA pistols were largely a fad in the 80s and early 90s. This era saw many law enforcement agencies transitioning from double action revolvers to high capacity semi-automatic pistols. Our own U.S. military transitioned from the single action semi-automatic .45 ACP 1911 to the DA/SA Beretta 92FS (M9) 9mm.
In my opinion, military and police brass at the time felt that the single-action trigger system found on semi-automatic pistols of the era (namely the 1911 and the Browning/FN Hi-Power) were “unsafe” due to their single action triggers and cocked hammers, and therefore perceived a liability issue. I grew up in this era, and was taught the same thing.
I can remember my father purchasing his first major-caliber semi-auto when I was a kid, a Beretta 92FS (we were always revolver shooters), and being taught that the double action/single action with a de-cock lever was much safer than a single action pistol. But experience, as they say, is the best teacher.
During college, I decided I needed a semi-auto pistol, and was convinced I needed a high capacity DA/SA 9mm. Manufacturers were nearly legion: Smith & Wesson, Beretta and SIG Sauer were the big three, but there were also a number of other quality DA/SA pistols.
After much experimentation, however, I found that I had the same problem with all of the various manufacturer’s DA/SA pistols: the grip frames were all too big and the DA trigger pulls were too far to reach with my short, fat fingers. I couldn’t get a comfortable grip on the pistols, and it was impossible for me to accurately fire the first, heavy, double action round when the tip of my trigger finger couldn’t adequately reach and controllably fire the DA trigger.
So, I abandoned the DA/SA platform and purchased a single action Hi-Power instead. To this day, it’s a rare DA/SA pistol that finds a permanent home in my safe.
So why did I acquire a DA/SA 5906? First of all, it was a helluva deal. Even today, these things can be had for quite a bargain. Second, Smith & Wesson makes a quality gun. These pistols are built like tanks, machined and assembled beautifully, and go bang every time. And third, I think there’s value to being familiar with and training with different operating systems. Besides, can a man own too many quality defensive pistols?
A handgun without a holster is of no use as far as I’m concerned. Finding holsters for Third Generation S&W semi-autos isn’t impossible, but certainly not as easy as it used to be. I lucked out and walked into a well-stocked gun shop in Helena, Montana, which still had an old Uncle Mike’s polymer belt slide holster in stock, with a faded price tag that still said “$14.99.” Home with me it went.
I tightened the tension screws, ditched the chintzy plastic retention strap, and was in business. The Uncle Mike’s certainly isn’t a concealed carry rig, and if I was going to carry the 5906 concealed, I would invest in a quality leather pancake OWB rig. But for wearing around the range or for general woods-stomping purposes, the Uncle Mike’s fits the bill just fine.
As an aside, the 5906 is probably not the best choice for concealed carry nowadays. This is a big, heavy, full-size steel pistol, and frankly there are too many better alternatives for concealed carry today for me to recommend the 5906. However, concealed carry can certainly be accomplished with the 5906, and many a LEO carried this very model for many a years. You certainly won’t be under-gunned with a 5906 on your belt.
So how does it shoot? I accuracy tested my 5906 with six different loads; five commercial, and one reload. The loads tested were the PMC Bronze 115 grain FMJ, Blazer Brass 115 grain FMJ, American Eagle 147 grain flat point FMJ, Federal Hydra-Shok 147 grain HP, Speer Gold Dot 124 grain HP, and my bulk reload consisting of a 115 grain Rocky Mountain Reloading 115 grain plated bullet propelled by 4.6 grains of Bullseye.
Accuracy testing was done while seated, from a rest at 25 yards. Five-shot groups were fired, with a sixth round loaded in each magazine to maintain consistent pressure on the bottom of the barrel hood (if you believe such things make a difference). All shots were fired single action.
Here are the results, from best to worst:
1. American Eagle (Federal) 147 grain flat point FMJ. This heavy target load put up a pleasing 2½-inch group at 25 yards, and began to show me that the 5906 prefers heavy bullets.
2. Speer Gold Dot 124 (not 127) grain +P hollowpoint. This premium defense load was my runner-up, with a decent 3½-inch group. Three shots of the group put up a stellar ½-inch group. If we use the Massad Ayoob “shoot five, the best three is probably what the gun is capable of” theory, this could be a real winner.
3. Federal 147 grain Hydra-Shok hollow point. Another premium defensive load, this was putting up a respectable 2-inch group that was spoiled by a flyer.
4. Tied for last: PMC Bronze 115 grain FMJ, Blazer Brass 115 grain FMJ, and author’s reload of 115 grain plated Rocky Mountain Reloading bullet and 4.6 grains of Bullseye. All equally crappy. This gun REALLY doesn’t like light bullets. ‘Nuff said.
For a defensive pistol, my 5906 performed acceptably. It definitely prefers heavier bullets, with the 147 and 124 grain loads showing the best accuracy performance. As a plus, it performed quite well with two premium commercial defensive loads, the 124 grain +P Speer Gold Dot, and the 147 grain Federal Hydra-Shok.
I was quite surprised that all three of the 115 grain target/plinking loads grouped so poorly out of the gun, even the normally well-performing PMC Bronze load. The pistol’s sights could probably use a little touch-up with a sight-black marker to sharpen them up a little, but they’re still very good for defensive use. They are a little too thick and coarse for target shooting, but serviceable.
The 5906’s single action trigger pull is a bit heavy at over five pounds (it maxed out my trigger pull scale). However, there is zero creep and it breaks cleanly. You have to concentrate when shooting for groups with the 5906, but it can be done.
SPECIFICATIONS: Smith & Wesson Model 5906 9mm Pistol
Sights: White three dot: Novak rear, dovetailed front post
Weight: 38.3 ounces
Length: 7 ½ inches
Height: 5 ½ inches, from top of rear sight to bottom of inserted magazine
Slide: stainless steel
Frame: stainless steel
Barrel: 4 inch, stainless steel
Grips: S&W Delrin one-piece
Magazines: one 15-round
MSRP: We’re way past MSRP. Used prices on GunBroker range from $350 to $550, depending on condition. Bud’s Gun Shop has them online in stock listed for $419.00.
Ratings (out of five stars):
Ergonomics * * *
The metal-framed Smith & Wesson double-stack semi-autos always felt slightly strange in my hand. The 5906 is no exception. They are very thick through the grip and frame, and then quite narrow in the slide. This is the exact opposite of the SIG Sauer “top-heavy” problem, so muzzle flip is minimized, but it still feels a little strange. Controls are workable and not offensive. There are no sharp edges that irritate the hands while operating or shooting. The slide-mounted de-cock levers are a bit of a high reach to operate, but nothing I’ll downgrade the gun for. If I have one gripe, it’s that I have to be careful that my thumbs-up shooting style doesn’t inadvertently rest on the large slide stop and prevent an empty magazine from locking the slide back.
Cosmetics * * * * *
I’ll rate the model, not my particular used/slightly abused specimen. This is a good-looking, all-business pistol. The Novak rear sight looks great, and I love the bead blasted matte stainless finish. Even the factory plastic grips I think add to the no-nonsense appearance of this pistol.
Accuracy * * *
Accuracy is relative. Were the 5906 a target pistol, I would have been harsher and dinged it more. But this isn’t a target pistol, nor was it ever intended to be. This is a duty pistol that was/is meant to be carried a lot, function in all conditions, and deliver acceptable combat accuracy. The 5906 does just that, especially with quality ammunition. Honestly, I probably could have done a little better off the bench with a lighter single action trigger pull.
Trigger * * * *
For a pistol built and designed as a cop’s sidearm, the 5906’s trigger is actually quite good. The double action first shot is smooth and not stagey or creepy (though it does stack a little under spring pressure, which is common). The single action trigger is a bit heavy, but the weight is probably appropriate for a service weapon. The single action trigger is consistently crisp and breaks cleanly every time. This means quality manufacture.
Reliability * * * * *
I’ve owned my 5906 for over a year now, and had no reliability issues with it. In full disclosure, I haven’t carried it much, and it’s basically just a plinking/utility pistol. However, it’s functioned with everything I’ve put through it, from premium hollow points to reloads to the cheapest range ammo.
Overall: * * * *
I’m generally pleased with my used 5906, and can recommend it. These are brute tough, heavy pistols that were well-built right here in ‘Merica. They come with decent sights and a useable single action trigger. It’s also 100% reliable and acceptably accurate for defensive use. Certainly, this is not a target gun. A $350 used police trade-in isn’t going to be confused for a target pistol. The 5906 is a solid, dependable, affordable tool that you can use to defend yourself and your family at a hell of a good price. A great buy, highly recommended.