Smith & Wesson 9mm Compacts: The GLOCK 19 Before the GLOCK 19

Believe it or not, there was actually a time when the GLOCK 19 didn’t exist and the masses were craving a compact, high capacity quality-made pistol. The options back then were pretty limited. This was the 1970s we’re talking about here. You could carry concealable pistols like the Walther PPK/S or maybe a Beretta M1934.

The majority of gun owners stuck with the tried and true classics of the era: the D-Frame Colt, the J-Frame Smith & Wesson or the odd man out, the Charter Arms Undercover. All in .38 Special and limited to five or six rounds at most. The market just didn’t have a high-capacity 9mm that was compact, lightweight and comfortable enough to carry concealed.

That is until an enterprising individual name Charles Kelsey teamed up with Ken Hackathorn. (Yes, the same Ken Hackathorn of 1911 fame.) Together they designed and built what was and still is considered the Goldilocks gun for conceal carry (for the time). A compact double-stack 9mm that can, in a pinch, be used as a primary combat service weapon that’s still light and compact enough to be easily concealed.

They started with aluminum framed Smith & Wesson Model 59 pistols and went to work; shortening the barrel, slide and grip. They used fixed barrel bushings, making lightening cuts and channels to the slide. They bobbed the hammer, narrowed the trigger guard and gave it an undercut. The laser cut large witness holes the magazine and used clear polymer windows on grip panels so the shooter could see their ammunition count in the weapon.

They called their pistol the Devel Custom and it was a great pistol — with one minor caveat. It was ungodly expensive. You had to buy a stock Model 59 and then send it off to get the work done. Not cheap, even in 1980s Cold War money. Charles Kelsey’s murder under mysterious circumstances didn’t help the company or the buyer.

With their introduction of second generation semi-automatic pistols like the S&W Model 459 and 559, Smith & Weston saw what the market wanted. They came out with the Model 469 and 669. (This is where the start of the insane numbering system was born.) A compact 9mm that looks strangely like the Devel Custom Model 59 right?

S&W Model 669, a 12+1 round capacity compact  aluminum framed pistol

Well, Smith & Wesson weren’t fools. As a company they never suffered from the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. They’re in the business to make money, and in the 1980s, business was good. Agencies all across the country were ditching their wheel guns and going for those newfangled wondernines. At the same time, the modern Concealed Carry Movement was born in 1987, when Florida went shall issue.

The Model 469 and 669 evolved into the third Generation series just like all the other pistols in Smith & Wesson’s lineup. The Model 6904 and 6906 came out and were instant hits.

S&W Model 6906, the updated and revised Wondernine Era classic

Finally, an affordable, well made, double action, compact aluminum framed, double 9mm pistol was on the market. With a normal capacity of 12+1 it made the last decade’s standard of the single stack .380s and .32 Autos look like something that belonged in a museum.

Even better: the new guns could use factory standard 15-round magazines from the full size models without a problem. Smith & Wesson even partnered with Precision Gun Specialties and sold their factory magazines with the PGS Grip 2 baseplates installed. Giving the shooter a full size grip.

Cops and other citizens alike across the country snapped them up in record numbers.

Early 1989 Production S&W Model 6904 with PGS Grip 2 baseplate on a 5906 15rd magazine

The Wondernine Era is long gone. The market is accustomed to the idea of the compact double stack 9mm. With the introduction of the GLOCK 19, The People of the Gun had another option.

Even so, the S&W Model 6906 and its ballistic brethren kept right on trucking. The S&W didn’t cease production until the early to mid 2000s, lasting on the market for close to 25 years. They were and remain reliable, compact, concealable 9mm pistols.

Photography done by A. Valdes


  1. avatar jwm says:

    I’ve had or have all the revolvers listed. The Colt, S&W and the Charter Arms. They worked then and now.

    I liked the single stack Smith 9’s. They always felt better in my hands. And I like an all metal gun. I think it’s called the 3913? if I ever find one again, I’ll buy it.

    This is CA. We’re limited to 10 rounds so an 8+1 semi ain’t a big handicap.

    1. avatar Rattlerjake says:

      I still carry a Mod 59 I bought from a friend in 1978!

  2. avatar Nine says:

    The 5906 and 6906 are still some of the best DA/SA nines on the market in my opinion, and usually a great bargain too.

    1. avatar Nate M says:

      I wish I had the money at the time last year, maybe it was 2 years, I would have snagged one of the Police Trade-Ins at Bud’s.

  3. avatar JR Pollock says:

    I bought a Model 469 back in 1993, and I’ve been quite pleased with it, overall. I was able to find a one-piece Pachmayr wrap around grip to replace the plastic factory grips. It’s a boat anchor to be sure, but a well made, dependable anchor. The only thing I don’t like about it is the bobbed hammer. I wish it had a conventional spurred hammer.
    The 669 was all stainless, the 469 was aluminum frame/blued steel slide.

  4. avatar Mark Lee says:

    My first pistol was a S&W 39-2, a beautiful pimp pistol that was an alloy nickel-plated 9mm single stack SA/DA that was very accurate and had a wonderfully smooth trigger out of the box. My first rookie “combat shoot” competition earned me second place in the amateur class, and I just loved it because my hands were trained to reload very quickly without looking.

    I hate myself for selling it because the friend promised to sell it back to me when my finances got better, but he failed to honor our agreement and sold it to a work-buddy pig with no respect for guns, who proceeded to trash it, never cleaning it and grinding the hell out of the finish. I almost cried when I saw it and rejected his inflated price. Today they are going for 2-3 times the $350 I originally paid for it new back in the early 1980s. They only thing that could improve it would be an extra 1″ to the barrel, day glow sights and perhaps an accessory rail.

  5. avatar JohnnyIShootStuff says:

    I had a S&W 4516, single stack 7+1 .45. That was an awesome gun. Foolishly I sold it like a decade ago, ironically when I bought G19, not realizing just what a gem of a gun I had. Those early to mid 90’s stainless Smiths are some of the best guns made. I was luck enough to snag a PD trade in 5906 a few years back. Every once in a while you can find a new old stock S$W 5646 at Cabela’s. Me feeling is that these were guns that S&W had in stock for agency purchases, like the NYPD, before the agencies discontinued them. Most of those Cabela’s guns are NIB and have a MFG date of 1999 on them.

  6. avatar nyglockowner says:

    My dad’s first center fire pistol was a S&W 59. Bought it for $200, sold it for $200, around 1985. I wish I still had it.

  7. avatar Tec's Dad says:

    I traded my 659 in 1986 for my Glock 17, a Gen 1 with an APxxxUS serial number…I still have the Glock and it looks brand new. I liked the 659 but it was huge and heavy…

  8. avatar Madcapp says:

    if the Browning hi-power had received the same kind of attention from independent gunmakers as the 1911 platform has had…all the tweaking, exquisite workmanship, better made parts and continuous improvement (such as ditching the mag-out safety), then you woulda really had something. I still think the Hi-Po was viable right up until the Glock era. Saddam Hussein coulda had any gun in the world, and he carried a fancy Hi-Power in “turd-world dictator gold” finish (as you might expect). Its a good case study of how manufacturers simply didn’t consider stagnation and obsolescence in their wares…the idea that you could just design something, and then continue to sell that same design for decades without any real updates or improvement, other than working on how to cut corners and save money on production. Sadly, its 50 years too late in the game to give that kinda treatment to the Hi-Power.

  9. avatar DrewR55 says:

    The worst firearms mistake I ever made was letting my 4506 go. I foolishly traded it for an Auto Ordinance 1911 and I wish I could go back fifteen years and slap the silly notion out of my head.

  10. avatar Ted Unlis says:

    Interesting that Luis seems to have selective memory about the reliability of those generations of S&W DA/SA 9mm semi-autos.

    Before Sig, Glock, & Beretta got a foothold in the LE duty carry market in the mid to late 80’s, Smith & Wesson enjoyed the #1 spot with their Models 19, 66, 586, & 686 as the preferred duty weapon for the overwhelming majority of LEO’s in the U.S.

    Had the S&W 39, 59, 659, 645, or any of the other variants been the nostalgic old reliable workhorse Luis recalls, the Glock 17 &19, the Sig P220, 226, & 228, or the Beretta 92 would have never had a chance in the American LE market.

    There’s a reason that despite starting with a stellar reputation and huge advantage in the LE market, S&W was never a serious contender when LE duty weapons transitioned from revolver to semi-auto.

    LEO’s and LE agencies were loyal S&W customers and wanted nothing more than for S&W semi-autos to be as reliable and flawless as the S&W revolvers that had served them so well over the previous decades; but they weren’t while Beretta, Sig, and especially Glock were; and the rest as they say is history.

    I had a nickel plated Model 39 that I bought at a fire sale price that was as reliable as any Glock I’ve ever owned and I still regret selling it even though I doubled my money. But I also vividly recall the various malfunctions I witnessed all too often on the firing line qualifying shooters from multiple agencies who were carrying those generations of S&W semi-autos.

  11. avatar Dan l says:

    For how long, back then, did the fbi stick with the sw in 10mm? 3 years, 5? And the whole 40sw travesty was begun and still causes herpes…

  12. avatar Ralph says:

    The third generation S&W pistols were wonderful. They were, and IMO still are undervalued in the secondary market. The second and first generation pistols, not so much.

    1. avatar Ted Unlis says:

      Had the 3rd generation been the S&W semi auto competing with Glock & Sig while those two companies were gobbling up market share, S&W might have gotten a larger slice of the pie, but by the time S&W tweaked their more complex pistol design that was still inherently less reliable that the European competition, it was already a done deal with Glock comfortably the #1 choice for LE with Sig trailing in second place. Maybe the S&W 3rd gen could have been competitive price wise with Sig, but they never could have hoped to compete with Glock in price, simple design, or reliability; that’s what they attempted years later with the M&P.

  13. avatar Chris Dumm says:

    Many of today’s shooters don’t remember that the S&W Model 39 was called the “Jam-O-Matic” for good reason. Its reliability with anything but standard FMJ ammunition was a random hit-or-miss proposition, and many LE agencies found them completely unsuited for police work.

    The Model 39 was developed after the Korean War, and hit the civilian marked in the mid-1950s. Its reliability problems were legendary, and they continued to plague most of the 3-digit S&W semiautomatics as well. Unless you can get your hands on an actual Devel (which you should never use as a carry gun because of its enormous value) only the 4-digit Smith automatics can be considered reliable with modern hollowpoint ammunition.

    1. avatar Ted Unlis says:

      You’re right Chris, the 59 as well had a reputation for jamming. Not sure why that nickel 39 I bought for $100 and sold for $200 was an anomaly, but it had a decent trigger and was reliable with any type of 9mm ammo. A friend of mine bought a 59 on the cheap that seemed weird when he took it out to test fire the first time, he quickly diagnosed that the pistol would reliably fire two rounds each time he pulled the trigger without jamming. Go figure. He quickly resold the pistol.

  14. avatar Joel says:

    Third generation Smiths are, in my opinion, one of the finest series of American craftsmanship ever assembled. I carry a 6946 (compact DAO) daily. I have a 6906 and 3913 sitting in my gun safe for when my daughter is older and needs a carry gun.

    The police dept with which I wore a uniform
    carried 4006 models. We loved the reliability and accuracy. Glocks were available; many departments around us used them, but we stayed with the 4006 until Smith decided they couldn’t afford to fix the machinery on which they were made and dropped production.

    I love my Glocks too, but they are the ugly stepsisters to my Cinderella Smith.

  15. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    The Third Gen S&W’s have as their advantage quality construction from all metal parts. They can be made to have a very nice trigger.

    They have as their downside a more complicated function, using more parts, than either a 1911 or a Glock. I think for most owners of these pistols, a detailed strip/reassembly is probably too challenging for most owners. Until & unless you’re willing to take pictures and make drawings as you take one apart, an owner probably should limit him/herself to a field strip for cleaning.

    But they do work, and they work well. And, right now in the used firearm market, they’re available for a very reasonable price for what they are.

  16. avatar justin says:

    The 3rd gen Smith’s just had the look. Especially the ones with the adjustable rear sights. I had wanted a 4506 with adjustable sights for years, but could never find the right one ($$$). I finally got my 3rd gen fix last year when I went shopping for a cheap “Car/Trunk” pistol and bought an early model 5904 for around 350.
    Only other option that I was considering in the same price range was a Ruger P Series. And in the looks department, the Smith is a supermodel to the Ruger’s Janet Reno.

  17. avatar Mmmtacos says:

    A S&W 5906 has been on my wishlist for a while. Every time I handle one I get *this* close to walking out with it but normally I somehow talk myself out of it. Everything I’ve seen about them is just fantastic, they feel right (with the Delrin grips), Mec-Gar makes flush fit 17 round mags, they look good (well, in my opinion), they’re reliability is untold, they’re cheap, the trigger is pretty good and I like a DA/SA hammer fired gun personally.

    I really need to snatch one up before they sky-rocket in price, one day they will when they become the next used-gun craze.

    1. avatar justin says:

      The prices on the 5906 are going up, but the 5904 Aluminum frame and blued pistols are still available in the 300-350 range.

  18. avatar Kirk says:

    First pistol I bought for myself was a S&W 559. The experience I had with that gun soured me on anything S&W forever after. It jammed consistently with any ammo, seemingly unable to feed even FMJ reliably. I tried dozens of different brands and types of ammo, and never found anything it would accept and be consistent with. Then, there was the accuracy with it, which even from a Ransom Rest was inconsistent as hell. I finally traded it off for a Browning Hi-Power, and I still feel a little guilty about that one. The guy I persuaded to do that trade with told me that he’d grown so disgusted with the pistol that he’d sent it back to S&W, and they’d offered him one of the then-new third-gen pistols of his choice, which he jumped on.

    The only other pistol of similar unreliability I’ve ever owned was the Action Arms AT-84, which I bought because I wanted a CZ-75, and I foolishly thought that anything with “Solothurn” on the side would have to be reliable and accurate. Apparently, not. I had more patience with that gun, sending it back to the importer three times before my dealer and I wearied of the experience, and said “Screw it…”. That gun went in on a Glock 19, which I still own.

  19. avatar gargoil says:

    cool, i know someone who actually still carries on one these.

  20. avatar MichaelDsez says:

    I’ve got a nickel plated 59 that I’ve had for over 25 years. Never had a problem with it. Feels good, shoots good. And NOW, I’ve got a Keltec SU-2000 in 9mm that uses S&W 59 mags to go along with it. I really like that flexability. But, alas, they’re range toys.

  21. avatar BeoBear says:

    My first duty gun was a Model 59. I bought it used from another officer who was “upgrading” to a 4506 back in the heyday of the Gen 3 models. I loved the gun, the capacity was amazing and it ran perfectly. I carried a full mag with four spares on my duty belt. It was comforting to have that much ammo on tap but back then even the Black Talons and Hydrashok’s that most of us carried were pitiful compared to today’s ammo. No doubt in a gunfight I would have been better off with a .45acp, which I did not long afterwards, upgrading to a G21. That said, the Model 59 was a fantastic pistol for it’s day and is still a good choice with modern ammo. It makes me sick to my stomach to this day that I sold it years ago. I never realized the sentimental value my first duty gun would have later in life.

  22. avatar Chris Hogan says:

    Late to the game but….When I worked for a private security company in late 90s-early 2000 we were issued the 6906. Shortly there after they switched to the Beretta 96 DAO. I bought the 6906 that I was issued for $275 and $15 transfer. I still carry it and believe it one of the best double 9s ever made. The Glock is a good gun but that grip angle just won’t work for me.

  23. avatar Kiefer says:

    Thumbs up Chris. I recently started collecting my Soc. Sec. & decided to collect something sweet as ‘my own’ Xmas gift. I’d seen the most pristine ‘nearly new’ S&W 6906 recently & went back for er’. A sweet lil’ 25 yr.old! Even got a S.S. extended slide release lever on er’. Purtiest thing since a K22 Target Masterpiece I once had. I give er’ 3 short range sessions & abt. 250 rds., most action she’s ever seen I spect. She won’t be an EDC, just a sparkle for my eye. I’ll not torture her with any more Win. ‘Forged Case’ range ammo though. She ‘burped’, try’n to spit out some of those ‘nasty’ cases, but ‘slurped’ through any brass-cased ammo with ease. Seems to do her job fine if I can keep my old eyes focused. She’ll mostly keep my Italian Beretta 92A1 company in storage, whilst’ I keep pack’n my Ruger SR9c. Shure nice for an ole’ coj’ to still find a ‘really good’ ole gal. Some ole’ S&W revolvers been good for me too! Thanks, fellers for some good info. Keep er’ go’in!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email