Tuesday, August 30, 2011

SW99 - Smith & Wesson's forgotten stepchild

First introduced in March of 1999 the Smith & Wesson SW99 was a joint effort between the Massachusetts company and Carl Walther of Germany. S&W's new handgun was an offshoot of Walther's own P99 and like that pistol was initially offered in 40S&W and 9MM. Unlike Walther however, Smith & Wesson would also eventually produce the design in .45 ACP.

In time the SW99 would be offered in several calibers and configurations, the full sized models (12, 16 and 9 rounds normal capacity in 40S&W, 9MM and .45 respectively) and in a smaller compact model in 40S&W and 9MM (8 and 10 rounds respectively). All of the SW99 series pistols were based on the same polymer framed, striker fired design with a traditional double action/single action trigger. The TDA SW99 would be the first of two variations the gun was offered in, the 99 and the 99QA (Quick Action). Walther produced the frames and internal lockwork in Germany and then sent them to S&W who made the slide and barrel and finished assembly here in the United States. Pistols were supplied with three front sights of different heights and three (two in .45 and compacts) interchangeable back straps so that each owner could modify the pistol to their individual needs. It also had other useful features like loaded chamber and cocked striker indicators, windage adjustable back sights and equipment rail.

In addition the SW99 introduced features not usually seen like a decocking button located on top of the gun's slide and a new magazine release that departed from the norm. Instead of being the typical button on the left side of the frame, the type of magazine release known to generations of American shooters, the SW99 featured an innovative ambidextrous lever design. While the more conventional type was pressed in to release the magazine the SW99 was pressed downward. With the S&W the shooter could drop the magazine with their trigger finger and with one hand, never having to change their hold on the gun. While very effective it didn't "feel" right to many traditional gun owners. The magazine release and odd decocker location were probably major contributors to the gun's less than spectacular reception in the U.S. market.

In 2004 the SW99 was remade into the SW990 and the SW990L (Lightning). It was still offered in all previously available calibers and sizes. The main difference between the new models and its predecessor was a redesigned trigger that functioned like a DAO pistol. With that change the decocker was no longer needed and also eliminated. With continued lackluster sales S&W would drop the pistol from its catalog entirely for 2007.

Unfortunately the odds were against the SW99 from the beginning with several varying factors contributing to the demise of this fine pistol. First was the pricing, having a suggested retail nearly a third more than the most popular polymer handgun, the Glock, was a major problem. To many shooters "plastic is plastic" and they buy what is most affordable. Another problem was Smith & Wesson. They never really seemed to get behind this product and (in this author's opinion) only did a half-hearted job of marketing their newest offering. Maybe the complexities of production and profit sharing with a foreign company were too much to bother with. Another issue that certainly didn't help was the agreement that S&W made with the Clinton era HUD department in 2000. That deal significantly hurt the company's reputation and caused their sales to plummet overnight, including the SW99 that was only introduced a year earlier. But ultimately the biggest factor of all was the gun itself. While numerous reviewers reported it to be a solid, reliable sidearm, well designed and executed, it just didn't seem to matter. The SW99/990 was perhaps too innovative, too different to be successful with American gun owners.

Nowadays the SW99 and SW990L are seen for sale most often and can be found relatively cheap for a high quality semi-auto pistol. A brief tour of the various internet gun websites found many excellent condition used (some new old stock) in the $300-400 range. By far the most common are the SW99 full size in 40S&W followed by the 9MM and finally .45 model. The compacts and SW990L (especially in .45) are seen for sale less often. While the SW99QA and the SW990 seem to be the hardest variations to find.

I've been interested in a .45 model since they first came out ('03) but the suggested retail at the time of over $800 stopped me even considering one. I've kept my eye out for a used pistol since. I just recently purchased this SW990L in .45ACP. A well made, new in the box, American/German .45 for $399.99 seem to me a real bargain.

I just finished my first range session with the Smith & Wesson model SW990L and here are some immediate thoughts. While I am very happy with the S&W (overall) I did have two minor issues with the pistol and will cover them first.

The bad - The back sights could be the only real weak spot on the gun. They're adjustable for windage and my first impression is that they're not very robust, they might be susceptible to drifting or breakage. The jury is still out on that one for now. But even if it were to become a issue later the slide does appear to have a standard dovetail cut and if needed replacement shouldn't be a problem. Another (very minor) concern I have is the finger grooves in the grip. I am not really a fan of finger grooves but I must say that these are more conservative than others I've seen and fit me fairly well. Although I don't have an issue myself I could see them being a problem for people with smaller hands and fingers.

The good - How a gun fits the user is one of the most important issues when choosing a gun, the 990L fits me very well. With the exception of the Glock 21 and my HK USP every other .45 I've ever owned had single column magazines so I'll use these two for comparison. Actually I owned two Glock G21s over the years, both first and a second generation guns. I really wanted to like the Glock but ultimately never could. My biggest issue was the size of the grip. 13 rounds of .45ACP is a great idea but I found the G21 just too much for my hands. While the HK with 12 rounds is also a big gun I find it much more comfortable than the Glock. The main issue with the Glock (for me) was not only the large grip but also its shape, the Glock just seems more square and "blocky." The SW990L has the Glock and HK both beat in that regard. The grip itself is a good size and shape and I consider it one of the gun's best features, it fills the hand without being too much. The S&W seems to be a good compromise between comfort and capacity. To quote Goldilocks it feels "just right." No, 9 rounds are not as good as 13 (or even 12), but then I also don't feel like I'm losing grip on the gun when trying to fire it fast like I did with the G21. The sides of the grip also have a raised dot pattern and the front and back strap have a modest checkering that allow for a firm hold without being abrasive. Another area where the SW99/990 has the Glock beat is the takedown lever. That was always for me the most annoying feature of Glock pistols, those two tiny take down levers were always a chore to use. The Smith & Wesson (and Walther) is a similar idea but much easier in practice. As for the trigger the S&W is like a Glock having the same pull each time. My trigger scale measures it at nine pounds but I must say it feels lighter because of its very short travel (less than .5 inch). It is also very smooth with no stacking which contributes to the perception. The magazine release is very similar to the HK USP and they are the only two pistols I own that I can drop mags one handed and without taking my sights off the target. With every other handgun I own I must either use my weak hand to release the magazine or shift my shooting grip. I find this type of magazine release very quick and instinctive and I like it more every time I use it.

After my initial workout with the SW990L I am very impressed overall with its quality and performance. Although there is a lot more testing to be done, so far it seems to be well made, well designed and a bargain.


Tookie said...

I had one in 40sw and it was a great gun. Very accurate and reliable.

North said...

I have the cousin Walther P99 and it is a great gun.

Wilson said...

@ Tookie – The 40S&W was the first produced and from the number of used ones I’ve seen the most popular.

@ North - I’ve got to fondle a couple P99s but never got to shoot one. I assume they are a similar experience to my S&W. Of course Walther never made one in a .45…

David's Dad said...

Tried them both (Walther and S&W)but couldn't get past that mag release. Would have to relearn everything.