Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Brief History of the Wundernine, Part I

I put it to you that all modern combat handguns can trace their lineage back to three guns: the 1911A1, the Browning Hi-Power, and the S&W Model 39. The 1911A1 was the first semi-auto that won over wheelgunners (though revolvers would be the most common service gun until the very early 1980s--with hangers-on carrying them until their retirement). The Browning Hi-Power was the very first Wundernine, doubling the capacity of the 1911 while slimming down the weight with an alloy frame. The S&W Model 39 was the first "duty ready" gun, right out of the box. A good trigger, big sights, and sturdy construction made it attractive enough that the Illinois State Police and U.S. Navy Seals carried it for a number of years, albeit with a few minor upgrades.

Because this is the history of the Wundernine, I'll dive right into the Hi-Power and the Model 39.

My FN Hi-Power upon return from Controlled Chaos Arms. Socom Blue and Satin Aluminum.

The BHP fought on both sides of WWII, being produced in Belgium. The Brits would go on to use the BHP in many formats (including a select-fire model) until the 1990s. The BHP has a storied history, being the favored sidearm of (Ian) Johnny Hopper--who was a real-life version of The Punisher during WWII in France. The BHP would also be at the forefront of Operation Nimrod, and would serve in Ireland during "The Troubles".

But service history aside, the BHP made two very big advancements in handgun technology. First was its 13-round magazine. Doubling the 1911's capacity, its original French moniker "Grand Rendement" ("high yield") was a hat-tip to the magazine capacity. Second, using an alloy frame and chambering it in 9x19mm (some models are marked 9mm NATO and have a better heat-treated barrel) made it lighter than any alloy-framed 1911 Commander, and still more powerful than most other handguns of the late 1930s. It's hard for me NOT to see this weapon as the groundwork for Glock and the following lightweight full-size duty guns.

A bog-standard Model 39.

In the early 1950s, S&W decided to get into the semi-auto game, and launched the Model 39 as an attempt to oust the 1911 as the Army's standard sidearm. S&W caught wind that the Army Ordinance Corps really liked the Walther P38s they captured, so the Model 39 ended up as a modernized P38 with bits of BHP sprinkled in the barrel and lockwork.

While it didn't get the Army's contract, the Navy Seals would order a variant known as the Mk. 22 Mod 0--the "Hush Puppy". In 1967, the Illinois State Police adopted the Model 39 as their standard sidearm. Somehow, the Model 39 never really caught fire the way the Hi-Power and the later Model 59-series did, and I suspect it has to do purely with magazine capacity. The Model 39--especially the older ones--is beautifully machined and finished. However, nine rounds wasn't particularly impressive in a world where the BHP had been around for 20 years. I suspect that had the Model 39 been released in 1935, it would have been a runaway success.

The Mk. 22 Mod 0

When you look at a Model 39, it is immediately evident where the Sig 225 and later the Ruger P89-P95 came from. S&W took the traditional DA/SA platform and gave it a shape for the modern world.

Though I've been talking about these two platforms as though I were speaking of a long-dead colleague, they are still useful and surprisingly easy to carry. Both are very light, despite being full-sized duty guns. The Model 39 is almost identical in size to a 1911 Commander, and the BHP has a very short grip and narrow slide, which is very easy to hide if you are tall and skinny like me.

You will encounter a few issues though. First, no one makes support items for the Model 39 anymore. It went out of production in the early 1990s, and is only carried by old men and nostalgic gun nuts like me. You will have to have a holster custom made, which is expensive. 1911 mag pouches should work for you though.

The BHP is still in limited production, but again, you'll suffer trying to find bespoke holster. Some of my 1911 holsters fit mine, but others don't. I use generic plastic Fobus mag pouches for mine and they work fine.

Next time you pick up your Sig or Glock, take a moment to remember their ancestors. Respect their elders, and maybe hit up Gunbroker and buy yourself a piece of history while they're still affordable. Mark my words: one day, the BHP and Model 39 will be highly sought-after collector's pieces.


Rick said...

More than a few errors here regarding the FN High Power.

First, it was not originally made with an alloy frame. Steel all the way - still is, for that matter. The only alloy framed HPs I can think of off the bat are the Detective versions that were made under license in Argentina.

Second, the HP is not in "limited production" - they are still very much alive and kicking and FN is still churning them out. FN used to import them to North America along with Browning (which is FN with Browning markings), but FN quit competing with Browning a few years ago, possibly as part of their business arrangement. Browning doesn't import many, as they're really not interested that much in handguns these days. However, all kinds of variants of HPs are available in Europe (i.e. the Practical models) that are not offered here.

Finally, it is not hard to find holsters expressly built for HPs. Safariland, Tucker, Galco, Bianchi... not as many choices as for a 1911 or a Glock, but if you can't find a holster you aren't looking very hard.

The Flatland Gun Nut said...

You're right, Rick. That frame is in fact steel. I must have transposed info from multiple browsers on that one (when I'm being factual, I like to have about a dozen browsers up to cite from).

As for "limited production" maybe I should have said "it's getting harder to find in my neck of the woods". I haven't seen a BHP or FNHP in a gun store in years until I saw the one I bought. Seriously probably the better part of a decade.

And the holster comment, well, you can find them, but you will be hurting for choice of style. I probably should have narrowed that one down too. What I was getting at is that you'll be hard pressed to find a decent IWB or otherwise CC holster.

Thanks for reading and keeping me honest.