The S&W 5906: America’s Surplus Pistol
For a brief time between the decline of the service revolver and rise of Glock, US police carried a quintessentially American Wonder Nine, the S&W 5906. A solid stainless, 4 inch barreled, 2.5 lb autoloader. This pistol has flown under the radar for nearly two decades since its production ended. It wasn’t until recently that this underrated handgun has begun to be realized.
Manufactured in Springfield, MA from ’89-’99, the S&W 5906 is a quintessential example of American firearm design which perfectly reflected the period in that it was introduced. A descendant of the also under-appreciated 59 and 459, the four digit 5900 series, was Smith’s full size 9mm platform for their metal framed third generation guns. The S&W 5906 was 100% stainless steel. These guns were prolific among both large departments like the NYPD and LAPD, as well as smaller sheriff’s departments across the country.
When these used police guns started to show up on the market, they were as cheap as $250, but usually capped out around $350 at the highest. What’s significant, is that after doing a bit of topical research in checking forum posts from the early 2000’s to now, $350 has essentially remained the price you can pick one of these up for. I can’t think of many guns that have stayed this consistently low a price for that amount of time.
Approximately midway through production, the fire control parts (hammer, trigger, sear) went from a forged stainless finish to forged blued, and then briefly to MIM with a blackened finish. It can be tough to tell the difference between the latter two, but the MIM variants have a few dead giveaways: The lightening cuts on the hammer, and a line on the trigger where the mold halves were fused together. MIM sears are always paired with a MIM hammer, but in case you ever need to replace one and need to differentiate from a forged part, a MIM sear will actually have “Use only M hammer” molded into it.
Pages of S&W forum posts have been dedicated to debating the merits of forged vs MIM parts. Some argue that the forged parts, while inherently more durable, tend not to be finished as cleanly as the MIM parts would be. This could lead to a rougher trigger pull. While its near universally accepted that one shouldn’t go through the trouble of replacing the MIM parts with forged, a well polished and broken-in forged variant would be the one I’d look for, if practicable.
Sights on these are also very distinctive with the two major types being Novak style snag free type and the very sexy adjustable rear sight with protective wings. The adjustable sights are less likely to be seen on trade-in examples due in part to higher cost, but principally due to being less “holster friendly” than the low profile Novak style.
My personal S&W 5906 was an unspecified LE trade in, nabbed from Gunprime for a reasonable $330. A friend of mine took the plunge a couple weeks before I did, and his initial response was less than reassuring. His example was an earlier model with forged parts, but it also had some nasty corrosion under the grip panels that required quite a bit of effort to remedy. Mine was a newer example with MIM parts, and thankfully came with less gunk than my comrade’s did. It cleaned up nice and easy with some oil, a brass brush, and a bit of elbow grease. The benefit to stainless is that you can wail on it with brass or steel and not worry about a pretty blue finish getting messed up.
Before shooting, the first thing I did after removing the magazine safety (more on that in a bit) was replace the recoil and mainspring. The commonly heard mantra on police trade ins is that they’re carried a lot and shot a little. But these 2 components usually total about $5-10, and along with a thorough cleaning (and a couple new mags) goes a long way to making these trade ins feel tuned up and ready for action. Smith doesn’t sell these parts directly, but I had no trouble locating factory new replacements on Numrich and Midway by searching “S&W 5906”. Aftermarket springs can of course be sourced through Wolff.
The take-down is simple Browning style: Slide comes back a hair, line up the take-down notch to the slide stop, and push it out. Top half comes off, remove guide rod and recoil spring, barrel slides out, and Bob’s your uncle. Another nice benefit of the stainless parts is that carbon is easier to spot during clean up.
Onto features, I’ll start with negatives. As mentioned earlier, something I would consider to be one of the few downsides of this pistol is the magazine safety. Thankfully it’s easily removable on the user’s part by pushing out the rear sight halfway (to the right) and taking out the plunger and spring. I say halfway because the rear sight retains both the magazine disconnect safety and the firing pin block; the latter I would advise leaving in. Looking down the gun, the magazine safety is on the left and the firing pin safety is on the right.
Another downside, depending on your preferences, is the slide mounted safety/decocker combo. I’m not the biggest fan, but I did find it easier to manipulate than the Beretta due to the Smith’s aforementioned smaller proportions. (Fun fact, the ambi safety also makes it easy to flick off with either thumb while dual wielding. You know… if you’re into that sort of thing).
Last downside I can level at is its weight. There’s no getting around the fact this gun is a pig, and you’ll notice it on your hip if you carry it. As a duty gun, it’s a valid consideration. As a range gun (my intended use), the weight offers more benefits than detriments.
So let’s get into those benefits. Weight, as I alluded to, is also my first upside. The trade-off of the considerable weight is that someone like me who has never shot this particular pistol before could pick it up, and with minimal effort, keep this flat shooting full size on target for the duration of its 15 round magazine (or 17 if you purchase Mec Gar’s excellent aftermarket mags).
Grips are wrap-around thin plastic, and solve a problem that I have with the original 59, which is the absolutely massive grip frame. By eliminating the back strap in favor of grip panels that double as a mainspring housing, the grip frame is thinner, but still fills the hand comfortably. Many departments and aftermarket customers (my friend included) opted for Hogue overmolded grips. And while I can see the appeal, as it dissipates recoil even more, it also considerably widens the grip frame, which didn’t appeal to me personally.
The double action is not quite as good as your average 226/229, but I would say it stacks up on par with a Beretta 92, and better than an HK USP/P30. The single action is impressive, with many heralding it as superior to even modern DA/SA offerings. I found mine pleasant, with a pronounced wall that very closely rides the line between “crisp” and “heavy”.
Overall, I would say that this is probably my favorite 9mm handgun to shoot at the moment. I’ve been able to get hands on experience with most classic wonder nines (Beretta 92, CZ-75, Browning Hi Power, Sig 226) and I think the often neglected Smith stacks up against all of them, if not exceeding in certain features. I can probably shoot my P-10 just as well, but that honestly extends to any mid-full size polymer framed striker fired handgun. The sensation of shooting the 5906 is much more enjoyable to me, and that’s the cultural niche I believe it represents. If you are looking to diversify your handgun collection to include a good quality metal DA/SA for a great price, I would recommend picking up a S&W 5906.
I wrote this piece before Corona-Chan swept the nation. Gunprime is out of these right now and prices are starting to creep up on Gunbroker, as well as other auction sites. I would recommend trying to find one locally in a private sale, or keep an eye out for auctions that are obviously examples purchased from a lot. As I said earlier in this piece, 5906’s have been holding steady at $300-350 for years, but if you want one, I wouldn’t delay. It might not be the case for long.
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