Before there was the current rich supply of ultra compact 9 mm pistols, someone had to have the idea for the first time. In fact, the idea of a small 9 mm carry gun was widespread long before any factory produced one.
The market answered, after a fashion: cut-down versions of pistols were produced. Some of them weren’t cut down much, like the P-38K and the Colt Commander. Others were not really practical, like Baby Lugers, and always appealed more to collectors than self-defense carriers.
But the natural host for these first-generation pocket nines in the 1970s and 1980s was America’s first pistol designed for what was then a European cartridge, the 9 mm Smith & Wesson Model 39. The M39 was a postwar design that sought to blend European and American design concepts, and not only did that but produced an attractive firearm at the same time. It combined a Browning-style tilting-barrel, and a Walther-like SA/DA operating system with a slide-mounted safety/decocker. Mag release and slide stop were also Browning style, and the barrel was positioned in the nose end of the slide by a collet bushing modeled on the one in the Colt Gold Cup.
The M39 was single-stack before single-stack was cool, and entered the market in 1954-55 after years of development. If you want to foray into the weeds of Smith auto pistol history, Chris Baker took a shot at decoding Smith’s nomenclature mess with the M39 and its legions of successors at Lucky Gunner Lounge last year, also producing the infographic on the right, which appears correct but incomplete.
But the reason that the M39 yielded those early conversions were (1) it was readily available, and (2) there was nothing vital and hard to relocate in the parts of the gun that a compact conversion hacked off. This picture from an S&W forum shows three cut-down 39s: from l-r, an Austin Behlert special on a Smith 59 (basically, a double-stack 39), a full Devel on a 39 with ambi safety, and a full devel (no ambi safety) on a 59.
The first, and most exotic small Smith was the ASP, made beginning in 1970 by New York artist and espionage agency hang-around Paris Theodore, who partnered initially with George L. Nonte. This ASP picture comes from the same forum as the shot above, and illustrates the somewhat industrial finish on ASPs.
The magazine was patented, specifically for the unusual laid-back pinky rest. The open side made the transparent/translucent segment of the grips practical.
One of the ASP features that will never show in a side view is that about 40% of the width of the reshaped trigger guard was milled away on the strong side of the customer, to provide faster access to the trigger. Theodore claimed that an ASP had 212 modifications from the factory M39.
Theodore’s spy stories seem to have been cut from whole cloth, but he died young — here is an interesting, if credulous, obituary in the late, lamented New York Sun. A definitive ASP was trimmed in height and length, dehorned and softened in its angles, and fitted with a patented “Guttersnipe” trough sight and see-through grips to facilitate round counting.
The Devel was devel-oped (you may groan) by Charlie Kelsey. They tended to be better finished and often had fluted slides to reduce weight. Here are three Devels, a 59 and two 39s.
This is a Devel on a Smith 39-2 from a current GunBroker auction, but supplied with two ASP magazines.
The seller says this about it:
Smith & Wesson Model 39-2 Devel Custom chambered in 9mm with a 3.5″ barrel. Used but in good shape! Frame and slide have some handling wear, couple scratches, and little bit of finish wear around the edges. Comes with two hard to find ASP magazines! Please look at the pictures for details.
The cut-down for Devel and ASP alike was usually 3/4 of an inch to the barrel and slide, and about a half inch to the butt. The package usually included replacing the collet bushing with a plain bushing, on reliability grounds, and bobbing the hammer.
As you can see, the gun is not only shortened but also “softened” or “dehorned,” but it’s not what Devel called a “full house” custom, as it lacks the squared-off trigger guard and lightening flutes in the slide.
Factory compacts like Smith’s own 3913 crippled the market for these niche firearms, and both ASP and Devel folded, victims of the success of their own product.
Like Paris Theodore, Charlie Kelsey died prematurely, but while Theodore lost a long and debilitating battle with disease, Kelsey was found shot and burned in a ditch in Georgetown, Texas. While there were indications he may have been suicidal, he certainly can not have set his own dead body on fire. His murder has never been solved.
Of course, true Dedicated Followers of Browning would not be caught dead with a 9mm flyswatter: their pistol-shrinker of choice was Detonics, or Behlert (who called his bobbed .45 the Bobcat). But that’s another story!
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.
23 thoughts on “Before There Were Many 9MM Ultra Compacts, There Was One”
Nice write up. I remember reading those old b&w gun magazine articles about the custom mini 9mm automatics. These and the Star BK / BKMs were pretty much your options.
i own a 639, it is full sized and pretty heavy for an eight shot 9mm. One of my favorite ‘high milers’ is the long discontinued Star PD, a six shot .45acp that is compact and offered fully adjustable sights (no Kentucky windage for me! :^). Small autoloaders have a high customer appeal.
***: their pistol-shrinker of choice was Detonics, or Behlert (who called his bobbed .45 the Bobcat). But that’s another story!***
My pistol-shrinker of choice was Armand Swenson, who built a shorty steel-frame Commander-size Argentine M27 for me [before Colt offered the Combat Commander] using the slide from an aluminum LW gun whose frame had cracked. At the time I picked mine up, he was working on a 1911 for Thell Reed, and also had a Browning GP that looked so nice in satin nickel that I had him do one like that for me to go with my Renaissance Hi-Power. And the third gun he had in-process was a steel-framed S&W M39, either one of the rare early steel ones [something like 150 built. released, as I recall] or a target Model 52 with M39 parts. But it was steel, and it had a nice single action trigger, and as expected the workmanship was flawless.
I picked up one of these things in a trade long ago when I got a Theodore/Seventrees holster for one.:
There’s a steel M39 on gunbroker right now.
If one had purchased a bunch of those German cop turn-in 225/P6’s , those mighta been a good platform too.
Having recent shot a number of rounds through a pretty nice Polish P-64 I find my enthusiasm for little guns somewhat … less than.
My first pistol was a Star PD. I let it get away years ago. I just picked up another from a cop friend who got it as part of his uncle’s estate. NIB as far as I could tell. Got it for 350.00. Packs a heckuva wallop though. In my case, carried little, shot even littler.
***Before There Were Many 9MM Ultra Compacts, There Was One ***
Not an ultra compact, and mentioned in the text. Caught you skimming.
The P5 is like an improved, factory P38K. But the K has a definite Man From U.N.C.L.E. (the original, not the lame movie) appeal.
Not an ultra compact, and mentioned in the text. Caught you skimming.
Not exactly, just a matter of point of view. Circa ’96 when I relocated to Memphis, I found out that out CCH permits covered handguns only, and that a loaded rifle or shotgun in a car with you was still a no-no. On the other hand, there was no limit to the number of handguns you could carry, so I counted fingers and thumbs on one hand and came up with an average of three. Main, serious handgun, no prob, and a backup or hideout spare, again no prob, and pretty much what I’ve always done. And Number Three? I had a Memphis neighbor whose *car pistol* was an Auto-Ord 27A5 Thompson *pistol* with 10-inch barrel and aluminum frame, which didn’t help much because yep, he had a drum in it, with a pair of 30s for a reload. Carried it in a Craftsman woodsaw toolbox. Another pal had a Universal *Enforcer* in .30 carbine, and since Iver Johnson was making carbines and parts in Arkansas at the time, I thought one might turn up; likewise an SP89 was a possibility, though pricey. What I got instead was a Mauser C96 broomhandle, which I happily fitted with an extension mag for a second stripperclip full, totaling 20rounds, some of which were my reloads with .30 carbine tracer bullets up front. there had been a nighttime police vs. bad guy shootout with an extended magazine SKS versus various cop S&W .40 semiautos and 14-inch barrel shotguns across a 4-lane main thorofare and parking lot, about 200 yards worth. The bad guy killed most of their tires, drove off and got away untouched, ad I’m reasonably certain that in that situation my Broomie would have held to about a 4 MinuteOfFelon group @ circa 200.
Then I got away from Memphis, having semiretired from the news paper/magazine biz after Y2K. Around 12 September 2001, I came out of retirement. And after the Broomie, the P-38k just didn’t seem so large.
Your mentioning Austin Behlert, brings me back a bit. In a former life, I made many trips to Pipersville PA to Austin’s shop. He accurized a Smith M14, .38 spl for me, his hammer & sear kit in my match 1911 helped me to master classification in NRA bullseye. A bit gruff at times, but the quality of his work and parts was second to none.
“Your mentioning Austin Behlert, brings me back a bit.”
Had the chance to look at a cut down M29 S&W about ten years back. It was hard chromed and had what felt like a worn out main spring. Turned out that the “worn out” spring worked just fine and Mr. Behlert was the gunsmith who tuned it to about 8 lbs., double action. That was a hell of a nice N frame…..
***Had the chance to look at a cut down M29 S&W about ten years back. … .That was a hell of a nice N frame…..***
I had a pal back in the 1970s who had an 8 3/8-inch barreled Model 29 that had been worked over by Behlert. The part its very happy owner liked was when he touched off six rounds- hot ones- opened the cylinder and pointed the muzzle skyward, and all six empties fell right out. Nice.
You’ve set the hook with the reference of the ‘smith Buhlert. Could the same who lived nearby. Went to two garage sales run by his son, cleaning out the house.
I’ll wait your your next article to learn more.
Not 9mm para but I certainly enjoy my 9mm makarov in that classic all-steel, single stack vein.
Got a little trigger time with the ASP. Seemed to run OK but I never came to terms with the “guttersnipe” sight.
I had S&W 39-2 Absolute piece of junk. couldnt hit a turd on the floor. One of the worst weapons I have ever owned. wouldnt hit the same spot twice.
Friend of mine has an Asp with all the original “stuff”; box, holster, belt pouch, and small-of-back holster. Neat piece, but I like my Smith M-3914 that I modified by the replacing the bobbed hammer with a standard hammer. It’s about the same size and a whole lot less expensive. I also like the Star PD. If I can figure how to do it I’ll post a picture of the one I have that a friend did some engraving on. It had an original “Metalife” finish – kind of an electro-less nickel before there was such a thing, heh. Makes for a different BBQ gun.
” and the barrel was positioned in the nose end of the slide by a collet bushing modeled on the one in the Colt Gold Cup.”
Collet bushing? Like a MKIV Colt collet bushing? Not on any of mine. One-piece and two-piece bushings, but never a collet.
Plus the 39 predates the Gold Cup by a couple of years and the MKIV Gold Cup by a decade and a half.
Or am I the one having brain fade?
Also of note: Behlert’s chopped Brownings.
You mentioned it, I brought it… the Combatmaster.
(Replaces it in waistband…)
Paris Theodore was an extremely interesting person.
His claims to have been a secret agent, may or may not be true.
He certainly invented many secret agent guns including a clipboard gun.
The first see through magazine, effective concealment holsters, and many other firsts as well.
He reminds me of “Q” from James Bond.
He was quite keen on that comparison, himself.
The Thunder Pro Ultra Compact features a comfortable, hand-filling grip with finger grooves, making it much easier to stay in control during rapid-fire strings.
Hog nose , could u email me ?
Back around 1981 I was down at FLETC for an instructors’ course. I skipped out on a class on how to field strip the 1911 (which I had been doing since age 16) to talk to Jim Cirillo about real world stuff. After a couple of hours the place closed down, and he invited me out to the range. He pulled out a Devel 39, pointed at a steel silhouette target at the far opposite end of the 50 yard range, and said, “This is my subway gun. Like to try it?” There was no way to weasel out, so I took the little stinker, got the best sight picture I could with whatever it had for sights, and with a heartfelt prayer (“Lord, don’t let me miss…”) and touched her off. Miracle of miracles, there was a nice “tink” from way down there. I put the safety back on, handed it to Cirillo with a huge sigh of relief, and said “Nice gun.”