The 3rd Generation S&W Semi-Auto

If you pay attention to Gunbroker or to the inventory of various shops and distributors you might have noticed that there’s been a sudden uptick in relatively inexpensive Smith & Wesson 3rd generation semi-automatic pistols available for sale. Many of these are trade-in guns from various police departments who issued the weapons for a number of years.

In the revolver days, Smith & Wesson owned the largest chunk of the market for police sidearms in the United States. They owned a pretty big chunk of the police market overseas too, as a number of foreign police agencies issued S&W revolvers. In the early to mid 1980’s a spike in drug and gang related crimes combined with the aftermath of the Miami Shootout left police departments seeking to upgrade to sidearms that had higher capacity. Everybody knows about the Beretta 92 because the US Military adopted the weapon and very high profile departments like the LAPD started issuing the weapons to replace the S&W revolvers that had been standard issue since shortly after the turn of the century. Action movies and TV shows of the day often featured the good looking Beretta 92 in displays of gratuitous violence. The P220 and P226 from Sig Sauer (imported under the Browning label at one point and later by SACO defense and Interarms prior to Sig USA being established) saw significant adoption and some screen time, too.

Smith had been producing semi-automatic pistols for a long time and had some limited adoption of them, but in the mid to late 80’s as the semi-auto became the standard they offered a bewildering assortment of handguns to suit practically any taste. The “3rd Generation” semi-autos were available with different frame materials, in traditional DA/SA function, DAO function, and even SAO function. The DA/SA models could be had with de-cocker/safety systems, or in de-cocker only form. The pistols could be had in 10mm, .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm, and even a few in oddball semi auto calibers like 9x21mm or .38 spl. This was all accomplished with an almost incomprehensible series of model numbers that even folks who paid attention have a hard time keeping straight.

The 6946, 6906, and two 5906 pistols.
The 6946, 6906, and two 5906 pistols.

After a detailed analysis of the Miami Shootout, the FBI famously flirted with the 10mm cartridge paired with all-steel 10mm handguns manufactured by Smith & Wesson. The decocker-only configuration specified on those pistols proved to be problematic and the FBI also found that a full-power 10mm cartridge even in a big steel gun proved to be more than many agents could handle. A number of other police departments issued or authorized S&W pistols then and some still do today. The NYPD and Chicago PD authorized/issued DAO Smith & Wesson pistols for a very long time. The LAPD authorized the big 4506 for officers looking for more power than they had from their standard issue Beretta 92 pistols. The California Highway Patrol issued the all-steel 4006 for an extremely long time, well beyond the point at which S&W had tried to discontinue production of the rather expensive to manufacture 3rd gen pistols in favor of the new M&P range of pistols.

The service record of the 3rd gen S&W pistols was pretty good, for the most part. Pistols like the 4506, 4006, and 5906 proved to be very durable over the long haul and managed to keep working even when pretty poorly maintained. The S&W 3913 was one of the best concealed carry pieces ever made and to this day is revered and in high demand by those looking for the pistol’s blend of compactness and power. Smith & Wesson has transitioned to the M&P line of pistols as much as possible because making guns like the 3rd gens is an absurdly expensive proposition in today’s market. The cost and complexity of taking a roughly frame-shaped ingot of steel or aluminum and machining it for a few hours to whittle away 70-80% of the material and produce a frame isn’t sustainable in a world where there are companies injection molding plastic in a couple of seconds.

Despite being more expensive to manufacture and more difficult to maintain, the 3rd gen guns are still damn good guns. The trade-in guns now hitting the market can be had for a pretty reasonable price in most instances, and while the exterior of the pistols look rough from years of being banged into stuff while riding in police holsters most of them are still in good functional shape. The durable workhorse 5906, an all-steel double-stack 9mm pistol, can be found in trade-in condition in the $300 range these days which is a stupendous deal if the gun’s internals are in good shape. The all steel Smith & Wesson handguns have major components that can withstand some truly amazing round counts if sensibly maintained.

If someone is looking for an affordable pistol suitable for self defense one of these Smiths could be a pretty good option. There are still plenty of holsters and accessories made for the pistols and spare parts are still available to support them for a good while. For the money it’s hard to think of anything else that really comes close to a good example of a S&W trade-in.

St. At Arms Kevin Vickers with the DAO S&W 3rd Generation semi auto he used to put down a terrorist who attacked the Canadian parliament.
Sgt. At Arms Kevin Vickers with the DAO S&W 3rd Generation semi auto he used to put down a terrorist who attacked the Canadian parliament.

Even the rough exterior doesn’t have to be an obstacle. The 3rd generation S&W’s can usually be refinished pretty inexpensively. In the case of the all stainless steel guns simply bead-blasting the guns leaves them looking as good as they did when they first left the factory if not even better. A number of S&W collectors have been happily buying up guns and restoring them to like new condition…which means that the current rock-bottom prices are probably not going to last very long.

Personally I think the 3rd gen S&W’s are underrated guns. They found their way into a lot of police holsters where they offered very good service for a long time. They might not be the “sexiest” of handgun options on the market today, but if you’re looking for something good and relatively cheap to keep handy in case of Zombie Apocalypse or something, it’s hard to beat ’em. They’ve done a lot of good work over the years…and as Kevin Vickers so ably demonstrated in Ottowa a couple of weeks ago, they’re still more than capable of getting the job done.



  1. I think the S&W 3rd gen are some of the ugliest guns I have ever seen.

    That said, if they work…

    How is holster/accessory support for them at this point?

    1. And they’re clearly very, very popular. Surprised that a manufacturer like Taurus, etc. hasn’t purchased the rights to reproduce their own variant.

    2. I had a really hard time finding an IWB Hybrid holster for my 4516-1 until I realized that the 3rd gen guns had a few identical form factors. I ended up buying a holster for the 4016 and it fit perfectly.

  2. There are flaws to consider.

    -On the DA/SA models, the DA pull is quite heavy. As in heavier then everything else on the market. Dragging an anvil with your finger might be lighter, but its close compared to the trigger weight of a 3rd Gen S&W. Paradoxically the SA pull is so short and crisp Herr Glock likely copied it when he designed the G17.

    -The ergonomics are 1960s era, and it feels it. Even with slim grips the gun handles like, well, a gun engineered in the Kennedy administration. Small handed folk need NOT apply.

    -The piece is heavy. Stainless steel construction being what it is, its no lightweight. If a Glock 17 feels heavy IWB after a few hours, don’t bother carrying these.

    -Lastly; parts support consists of “send back to S&W”. If the home office doesn’t have parts, you’re getting a new M&P of your choice. The last one of these guns sold to civilians was made at the turn of the 21st Century. If you’re the type of shooter who considers less then 200 rounds per session a waste of time, sooner or later attrition will make its presence known.

    I don’t want to impart that these are horrible guns. That being said there’s some good reasons why LE agencies all but ran to the Glock and similar offerings when they did.

  3. I might be a minority here, but I love the S&W Pistols, I own like ten of them now.

    Are they clunky?? YES

    Are they complicated?? YES

    Do they have a heavy DA Pull?? YES

    Are they flimsy??? HELL NO!!

    These things are tanks!!

    I picked up a couple of Parts ONLY 5906’s last year from Century, I must say they were in rough condition and Parts for some of them are like made of Unobtanium, but one of them just has a Broken Sear Spring, which is a Bitch to replace because of the Pin that retains it, but once I got the trick from Paul Pluff, I did it fast!! BTW, the part cost me all of $1.40 from Brownells and I had a perfectly useable Pistol!!

    Some of these had rough finish, nothing that a total Strip and Bead blast couldn’t fix.

    S&W doesn’t carry a full selection of parts, but with recent demand, they are now making some parts again, I know, I have received new manufacture parts from them recently and Brownells is working on stocking most of them now.

    Thanks for the report Caleb.

  4. “The NYPD and Chicago PD authorized/issued . . .”
    Neither NYPD nor Chicago PD issues any pistols. The individual officer must purchase his/her duty, backup, and off-duty weapons off a list of authorized weapons. The officer does, however, get a hell of a police discount.

  5. Had a 4006 for a while. Brick-like in weight, but it shot great. 11+1 capacity from a gun that big was an issue though.

  6. We issued the 3rd gen 9mms, starting with the 5906, for about 20 years at my job. Very solid guns, very underrated, especially when compared to the Sigs and Berettas. One could get a crazy smooth DA trigger, and extremely short SA trigger, with minimal work on these guns.

    My 5906 saw tens of thousands of rounds during it’s service life, and I sold it to a friend so it’s still chugging along.

    The 3rd gen S&Ws, IMHO from being an armorer for all of the above, are easier and simpler to work on or detail strip than the Sigs and certainly more so that the Beretta 92 series.

    1. Chuck,

      I picked up a Police Turn In 5906 back in the Late 90’s, I sent it to Briley and they turned that pistol into a Gem, New Barrel, Springs and a super Trigger Job, I still have it to this day.

  7. IIRC 5906s are still standard issue to the RCMP, which is why Sergeant at Arms Vickers (an RCMP vet) had one on him. I’ve always wanted one of these (preferably some flavor of model 39). Might be the time to start looking for one soon.

    1. You want to see one that is even rarer than a Model 39??

      Try finding a 3906, the Single Stack Version of the 5906, there were tons of 39’s, 439’s and 639’s made, but not many 3906’s!!

      I have one, and I think I was lucky to find one!!


  8. The DAO variants have excellent triggers. In fact with the exception of aftermarket triggers and the new crop of SAO striker fired guns, my S&W 5943 with reduce hammer spring has one of the smoothest cleanest triggers on any gun I have come across. To this day the 6944/6946 is perhaps the closest gun in size to the Glock 19 and the 3953/3954 was the Shield long before the Shield was even conceived of. There are still 5946’s in service in NY, Canada and elsewhere. Shooting a 5946 with its all steel frame is like shooting a .22LR.

    On a side note; MecGar still makes mags for 59XX series sporting a 100% reliable 17 round capacity versus the OEM 15 rounds.

  9. my dad has had a 3913 since the late 80’s/early 90’s and still running like a dream. great trigger and super accurate. completely agree with your assessment on that one. i have tried to talk him out of it many times. they made a “ladysmith” version of it that was basically the same thing with minor grip changes.

  10. Wow. I just spent like two hours falling down the rabbit hole of S&W auto pistols. Almost didn’t make it back. Thanks a lot Tim.

  11. The first centerfire auto I ever owned was a Model 59 that I bought for duty after a discussion with a fellow agent.
    Me: If you have a Model 19 with two speedloaders, that’s 18 rounds, that should be enough.
    Him: Yeah, but if you have a Model 59 with two extra mags, that’s a box of ammunition.
    I carried the 59 for a while, and I later tried a 559 and a 639. I never got to the third generation. The deal breaker for me was the magazine disconnector.

    1. Old 1811, you know that removing the Magazine Disconnector feature is really easy to do right?? It was a silly feature, but also easy to disable!! So was the FP Block!!

      1. Sure it is, but you can’t do it on a duty gun.
        I also wouldn’t want to be involved in a shooting and have the jury told that I disabled a “safety device.”

  12. I have a 915. Good gun, accurate and very durable. The problem is the DA/SA trigger, the first shot is a problem, very tough trigger even with a trigger job. The decocker is also a PIA. So I’m selling it to help pay for the M&P40 & Glock 26 I bought for Christmas for myself. It’s a bit heavy but shoots really well, it was my first handgun and I’m glad I learned to shoot with a heavy DA/SA gun.

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