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Classic Carry: The Smith & Wesson Model 39

Imagine a world where a major Ameri – can firearms manufacturer could name their new pistol offering the “9mm.” That feels like the equiva – lent of naming a new pistol “Semiautomatic” or “Magazine-Fed,” right? And yet this is exactly where things were in the early 1950s.

Smith & Wesson dropped a new model and named it the “Nine Millimeter,” and they could do it because, well, there hadn’t been an American pistol designed for this Euro cartridge yet, despite 9x19mm being nearly a half century old at this point and widely used in two World Wars.

Actually, there was the Colt Commander of 1949, but that was just a Government Model with a smaller hole in the barrel, three quarters of an inch whacked off the business end, and an aluminum frame.

The backstory is that Smith & Wesson had upheld what’s practically a time-honored tradition of American gunmakers at this point: nearly going bankrupt during a major war.

The Springfield, Massachusetts-based company was already hurting in the late 1930s following the Great Depression, which had unfortunately coincided with the failure of their first attempt at a self-loading pistol, a weird little .35-caliber pocket pistol thing based on the Belgian Clement design.

While they were teetering at the brink, the British government showed up in 1940 with a request for a handy little carbine chambered in 9x19mm, along with a million-dollar advance. Alas, the resulting Smith & Wesson Light Rifle was an overweight, underperforming lemon.

The Brits wanted their advance back, but S&W had already spent almost all of it on R&D and tooling and wound up having to pay the debt back in free revolvers.

The man who brokered the revolver deal, C.R. Hellstrom, became president of Smith & Wesson in 1946. The new pistol chambered for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge was part of his plan to modernize S&W and restore their fortunes.

Designed by Joe Norman, S&W’s new 9mm was a pistol that fed from a single-stack eight-round magazine and combined the slide-mounted hammer-dropping safety/decocker and double-action mechanism of Walther’s P-38 with the more conventional Browning-pattern short-recoil tilting barrel lockup, allowing for an enclosed barrel and much more conventional lines.

Initial versions with steel frames were shopped around to the military and some police buyers, but the downsized postwar military was hip deep in M1911A1 pistols and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. were still largely wedded to the revolver, so a lightweight alloy-framed version of the new pistol was released on the commercial market in 1954.

In 1957, just a couple years after it entered the catalog, S&W relabeled all their offerings, substituting numerical designations for the earlier romantic names: the Military and Police .38 Special revolver became the Model 10, the Combat Masterpiece wheelgun became the Model 15, and the still-new 9mm pistol became the Model 39.

Acceptance grew over the years. Navy SEAL teams in Vietnam used Model 39 pistols, most famously adapted to use suppressors as the Mk. 22 Mod. 0 “Hush Puppy,” and it was adopted in 1967 by the Illinois State Police as their standard issue duty sidearm.

As might be expected by its origins as a pistol shopped to government entities, the 39 was a pretty decent sized pistol. While light in weight when compared to service pistols of its era, thanks to its aluminum frame, and slim due to its single stack magazine, it still featured a 4-inch barrel and a frame sized for a full four-fingered grip.

As a result, a cottage industry sprang up among pistolsmiths to downsize the Model 39. Most famously characterized by the ASP, popularized by the controversial Paris Theodore and later mainstreamed through Charles Kelsey’s Devel, these conversions whacked length off both the slide and the grip.

The result was a pistol that was chambered for real, honest 9mm but barely bigger than a Walther PPK, and they grabbed the imagination of the gun nerd press in the ’70s and ’80s.

The popularity of these “chopped and channeled” subcompacts (as they were referred to by gunwriters of the era) couldn’t go unanswered by the powers that be at S&W.

From the earliest solid-frame Hand Ejectors to the Sigma and Governor, if there’s one thing S&W has always been good at, it’s noticing that it’s raining soup and sticking a bowl out the window to catch some.

Seemingly inexplicably, S&W’s first “mini-gun” 9mm offering came in the early ’80s with the Model 469. While it had a shortened barrel and reduced-length grip like the ASPs and Devels, it also had a widebody grip frame to accommodate a 12-round double column magazine. It wasn’t until later that the reasoning behind this — an attempt to be picked in the U.S. Army pistol trials that eventually led to the selection of the Beretta 92 as the M9 — came to light and made sense of the choices.

The thing is, while the 469 may have been decried by the cognoscenti as way too portly for ideal concealed carry, it still sold like gangbusters. It was the ’80s, after all, and most of the USA had no clue what made for a good CCW pistol.

It wasn’t until they dropped their third generation of autoloaders at the dawn of the ’90s that the ultimate concealed carry iteration of S&W’s Model 39 came to be.

Incorporating all the Wayne Novak-inspired modifications of the Gen 3 Smith autos, indicated by the four-digit model numbers, the 3913 and its offshoots hit like a bomb and wiped out the market for chopping older Model 39s into subcompacts.

With factory Novak sights, a bobbed hammer spur, factory frontstrap checkering, wraparound Delrin grip panels, ambidextrous safety/ decocker levers, and more, the 3913 was an answer to the pleas of the cognoscenti that the second-gen 469, with its chubby double stack grip, hadn’t addressed. There was a hot minute in the early ’90s when the 3913 was the CCW darling of the cognoscenti.

This brief flowering before the arrival of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, however, left the 3913 vulnerable to being outflanked on the magazine capacity front.

The third-gen Smiths, even with all the manufacturing shortcuts that could be applied, were still late-’40s designs, and the ’70s SIG Sauer P-228 and ’80s Glock 19 could be made far more cheaply. The 3913 faded from view, lingering only in extremely cheapened form as the Value Series Model 908 before being discontinued entirely.

The most significant offshoot of the Model 3913, deluxe carry gun of the ’90s, was the 3913LS variant.

The “LS” stood for “Ladysmith,” and it was marketed toward women in the CCW market. While a lot of ink has been expended on how these were specifically intended for the women’s carry market, we can’t find positive proof that they used lighter recoil springs to make it easier to run the slide or lighter hammer springs to reduce the trigger pull.

But what can be verified is that the swoopy angular dust cover on the frame of the 3913LS was so cool-looking, especially when combined with the dove-gray wraparound grips, that dudes would buy these things and then Dremel the “LADYSMITH” script off the gun. So many guys did this that S&W went and produced a pistol with the same aerodynamic frame but no “Ladysmith” engraving. It was called the “3913NL.”

If you want to interpret “NL” as meaning “Non-Ladysmith,” well, that’s on you.

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7 Comments

  • Pigpen51 says:

    I have a model 3913 that is in nearly perfect condition, having well under 100 rounds through it. I got it from my son who got it from his MIL, who was from California. She apparently bought it new, as a home defense gun, but never shot it.
    I gave him $400 for it, along with an Alien Gear IWB holster. I am considering selling it, and buying a 1911 9mm pistol, since the 1911 is the gun that I shoot the best. And 9mm is the only round that I stock, which is why I sold my other 1911 in .45 ACP.
    I have a Ruger SR9c that I carry, a very nice gun, like most Rugers I have shot. Before that, I carried a Taurus G2 for several years, post recall. Not the top of the line I will admit, but it never gave me a problem, and was serviceable.
    I have to say, for the shooter like myself, who has in the past 20 years likely put less than 5,000 rounds through my centerfire pistols, I think that most of the modern guns by quality companies will likely serve well. My first centerfire carry gun was a Radom P64, which actually was brand new, made in 1969, and never messed up, other than one bad round, which failed to fire, even though the primer showed the firing pin strike.
    Thanks for a fair writeup on a nice little carry gun, that got passed by with the changing times. It could still do the job, if need be.

    • Tam says:

      Tank you for the kind words!

      • Greg Chabot says:

        The Model 39 was the only decent auto Smith ever made. That piece of junk in the pictures shouldn’t be compared to it at all.

        A wise man once said “Smith &Wesson should have stuck to revolvers. And Colt should have stuck to SAA and 1911s.” He was right.

        • Tam says:

          The 3913 is a better pistol in every meaningful way than the unreliable and breakage prone 39.

  • Matthew Carberry says:

    I found an 3914NL in a gun shop for something like $375 going on probably a decade ago.

    It is unfortunately now near the top of my “What kind of idiot sells that?!” list.

    Right after the two(!) 3″ Mdl 66’s I’ve owned.

  • TA says:

    Only thing wrong with this article is that it’s far too short! Very well written! “NL as meaning Non-Ladysmith”; fantastic stuff there!!

  • Caltrapper says:

    I was told by a S&W rep years ago, that the NL stood for No Logo. Just a bit of trivia…

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  • I have a model 3913 that is in nearly perfect condition, having well under 100 rounds through it. I got it from my son who got it from his MIL, who was from California. She apparently bought it new, as a home defense gun, but never shot it.
    I gave him $400 for it, along with an Alien Gear IWB holster. I am considering selling it, and buying a 1911 9mm pistol, since the 1911 is the gun that I shoot the best. And 9mm is the only round that I stock, which is why I sold my other 1911 in .45 ACP.
    I have a Ruger SR9c that I carry, a very nice gun, like most Rugers I have shot. Before that, I carried a Taurus G2 for several years, post recall. Not the top of the line I will admit, but it never gave me a problem, and was serviceable.
    I have to say, for the shooter like myself, who has in the past 20 years likely put less than 5,000 rounds through my centerfire pistols, I think that most of the modern guns by quality companies will likely serve well. My first centerfire carry gun was a Radom P64, which actually was brand new, made in 1969, and never messed up, other than one bad round, which failed to fire, even though the primer showed the firing pin strike.
    Thanks for a fair writeup on a nice little carry gun, that got passed by with the changing times. It could still do the job, if need be.

      • The Model 39 was the only decent auto Smith ever made. That piece of junk in the pictures shouldn't be compared to it at all.

        A wise man once said "Smith &Wesson should have stuck to revolvers. And Colt should have stuck to SAA and 1911s." He was right.

        • The 3913 is a better pistol in every meaningful way than the unreliable and breakage prone 39.

  • I found an 3914NL in a gun shop for something like $375 going on probably a decade ago.

    It is unfortunately now near the top of my "What kind of idiot sells that?!" list.

    Right after the two(!) 3" Mdl 66's I've owned.

  • Only thing wrong with this article is that it's far too short! Very well written! "NL as meaning Non-Ladysmith"; fantastic stuff there!!

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