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The Lost Boys of the Wondernine Years

If you had to break law enforcement firearms down into eras, you'd have three. The first being the Revolver epoch, which lasted from the introduction of modern policing in 1838 when Boston established the first official police force, until 1985 when the US military adopted the Beretta M9, kicking off the Wondernine Years, a nickname for the newly arriving pistols. This lasted until 1997, when the FBI adopted the Glock 22. The FBI selecting a polymer framed striker fired pistol not only shut the book on the Wondernine Years, but also landed us right here in the Polymer Period. Today, the most common gun you'll see in a cop's holster is some kind of polymer framed, striker fired 9mm or 40 S&W. It's been this way since Glock, through some clever marketing and even more clever business, took over the lion's share of the law enforcement market from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. While it may have only lasted 12 years, the Wondernine's reign produced some phenomenal guns. It also produced a few guns that have largely been shuffled out of our memories: the double-action-only semi-auto pistol. These are the Lost Boys of the Wondernine Years.

Changing from revolvers to semi-autos

To understand the DAO auto, you have to understand the culture of law enforcement administrators in two major cities: Los Angeles and New York City. In LA, the PD's standard issue revolvers had been converted to fire double-action-only by having the hammer spurs removed and the single action notch taken off the gun. The intent was to eliminate the possibility of a negligent discharge if an officer thumb-cocked his or her revolver. As it was standard training doctrine at the time to place your finger on the trigger as soon as possible, cops were less likely to discharge a 12-16 pound revolver trigger than a light, cocked single action trigger. In New York City the logic was much the same. Unfortunately, there is no official record of NYPD mandating double action only revolver conversions, there are a considerable number of unofficial sources that show officers carrying DAO revolvers.

Fast forward a few years when 9mm semi-autos with 15 round magazines are grabbing attention, some police administrators are concerned that people are going to “spray” bullets out of these new guns. A more rational line of thought was that a DAO auto would ease the transition from DA revolvers to the new pistols. At the time, Beretta and Smith & Wesson were the leading providers of semi-auto pistols for law enforcement; Beretta with the 90-Series and Smith with their wonderful 3rd Generation autos. Both of these companies answered the call for double-action-only semi-auto pistols. Beretta created the 92D, and Smith introduced the 5946. Both companies offered guns in 40 S&W as well.

Beretta 96D and SNES controller

Two 90s icons

In fact, Beretta's biggest DAO sales hit was the 96D in 40 S&W, which was for some time the standard service pistol of the US Border Patrol. The Border Patrol guns were also produced for the consumer market as the Border Marshal model, which reproduced the same specifications as the BP contract. Border Patrol 96Ds featured a Brigadier slide, a shortened barrel, but retained the full size frame, offering 12+1 rounds of ammo.

On the Smith & Wesson side, their double-action-only semi-auto offerings were quite popular with four major agencies. In New York City, NYPD administrators mandated heavier triggers in their autos, fearing the boogeyman of the “hair trigger.” During the Wonderine Years, NYPD had an enormous list of authorized firearms, which included the DAO offerings from Smith & Wesson. At the same time, Chicago PD and Cleveland PD both started issuing the 5946 to their officers. The Smith & Wesson 5946 was the DAO full size gun, and like its full size brother the 5906, it held 15 rounds. The fourth agency that loved the DAO Smith was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who were as recently as 2017 still using the 5946 as their primary handgun. During the 2014 terrorist attack on Parliament, Sgt-at-Arms Kevin Vickers used his issued 5946 to stop the terrorist.

Enter the Glock

But for all their brief popularity, the DAO autos largely vanished. Sure, there are a few agencies still using them, but almost as suddenly as they appeared they disappeared. The DAO auto fell victim to the two pronged attack of the Smith & Wesson Clinton Deal and the phenomenally effective marketing and sales tactics from Glock. The S&W Clinton Deal is best discussed in a different article, but when it was struck, Smith & Wesson was the leading producer of DAO autos. The backlash from the deal was monstrous. But the real dagger to the heart of the DAO auto was Glock's excellent marketing.


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Beretta 92D-LTT

There is at least one modern version of the DAO gun out there

Unlike other modern striker fired pistols, the striker spring in the Glock isn't fully compressed when the gun is loaded with a round in the chamber. Pulling the trigger completes the act of compressing the striker spring as well as releasing the striker to fire the round. Glock did two things brilliantly: the first was marketing their pistol's action as double-action-only, and the second one was selling guns to PD's at near cost, and buying that PD's existing DA/SA or DAO autos. They'd take those trade in guns and dump them on the secondary market for cheap. It was one of the most brilliant and effective sales and marketing tactics the gun industry has ever seen, and has led to the 20-year and ongoing Reign of Polymer over LE handguns. Sig tried one last double-action-only semi-auto gasp with the Sig P250 in 2007, which had a phenomenal DAO trigger, but came too late to make a dent. The P250 was the first chassis-type firearm, which you can see the heritage of in the Sig P320 lineup.

Sig P250

Sig P250, image from Sig Sauer

Sure, the Lost Boys of the Wondernine Years are still around. You can snatch a 96D off Gunbroker for $400, and double-action only semi-auto 3rd Gen Smiths are about the same. Our message to the RCMP's public affairs office wasn't returned, so we can't confirm they're still carrying their 5946s, but given that gun's outstanding durability, there's no reason to assume they aren't. The double action auto was a strange transitional product, a gun that was born between eras and never really found a home. It's a shame, because many of them really were wonderful guns.


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One response to “The Lost Boys of the Wondernine Years”

  1. Dale Mancini says:

    I sold my 96D a few years ago. Couldn’t hit the planet with that thing – grip was way too big for me. I did not know DAO revolvers were a thing.

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