Smith & Wesson
Model 945-.40 Compact
Good looking and great shooting, Petty finds that there is a lot
to like about this new offering from the S&W Performance Center.
A couple of years ago the Smith & Wesson Performance Center introduced the Model 945. Simply described, it had a top half that was typical S&W, but the frame distinctly resembled the 1911 Government Model. Rumor had it that this was to be Smith & Wesson’s entry into the competition for a new FBI pistol, but that was routinely denied.
I had the opportunity to test the 945 and became more than a little enamored with it. The pistol looked great, felt good, and was joyously accurate. So instead of sending it back to S&W as is usually my custom, I sent a check. When I learned that there was going to be a 945 chambered for the .40 S&W cartridge, I made every effort (some might say it was more like sniveled and whined) to obtain an early sample. Either way… the gun is here.
One of the reasons for my begging is that I am a very staunch supporter of the cartridge. In just over ten years, it has become the number one choice of law enforcement at every level. Why? Because it makes sense. It is small enough to be used in 9mm-sized pistols and has enough oomph to be an effective defense cartridge. I never pass up the chance to say “I told you so” to those who dubbed it the Forty Short and Weak.
Now the power gurus still don’t like it, but it’s been so thoroughly embraced by the ammo companies that you can have pretty much any load you want, from mild to wild. It hasn’t been +P’d yet, but since it’s already pretty far up the pressure curve, there’s not much room. And we already know that it works on the street, so there’s nothing to fix anyhow.
Compact And Capable
But the gun that arrived from S&W was not exactly what I was expecting. The first 945 is a full size .45 with a stainless steel frame. The 945-.40 is a compact — really compact — single-action pistol with an aluminum alloy frame. In fact, if you put it on top of one of the current crop of compact 1911 clones, you’ll see that they’re very close to the same size. For another perspective, the 945-.40 compares closely in size to the very popular 9mm S&W Model 3913. So while the first 945 is a wonderfully accurate target pistol, the new one is a wonderfully accurate carry gun.
When we discussed the 945, it made sense to talk separately about the top and bottom halves, and the same applies here. The frame looks very much like a government model on the outside, but internally there is also a generous S&W influence. The trigger mechanism is very 1911-ish, with a beavertail and mainspring housing that could probably be interchanged. The firing-pin safety is cleverly keyed to the grip safety just as it was with the first Swartz safety on old Colts or the present-day Kimber Series 2 pistols. When the grip safety is depressed, the firing-pin is unlocked. The ejector is — just as it is on all S&W auto pistols — a pivoting lever that sticks up on the left side of the frame. The barrel seat is S&W. There is no link between barrel and frame, but the barrel rides within matching cam grooves cut in the frame. This arrangement has been designed to ensure adequate dwell time and prevent the barrel from unlocking before the bullet leaves the barrel. This was alleged to be a fault in early .40 S&W designs, although high-speed photography showed that to be untrue.
One very notable aspect of the frame is in the grip area. The mainspring housing is retained by a pin, just as it is on 1911. But just forward of it, the frame is cut away by a little over 0.2 inches. So even though the magazine holds seven rounds, it doesn’t stick out to impair concealability.
Regarding both mechanics and appearance, the slide is typical of Third Generation S&W pistols. There is a blued filler where the traditional double-action pistol’s safety and de-cocker would be. Most striking are the “dragon scale” slide serrations that were seen on the first 945. The remainder of the stainless steel slide has a fine matte finish. Sights are Novak with the typical three-dot markings.
The 3.8-inch barrel is supported in the front by a Briley spherical bushing that is common to many Performance Center autos. It is both a blessing and a curse. The design contributes significantly to the pistol’s accuracy but also complicates reassembly after field stripping. The brass element within the bushing must be aligned just so to permit reassembly. With the bushing correctly aligned, the barrel drops right in; if it isn’t, reassembly is a challenge. Patience, not force, is the only answer. There is a small U-shaped cut on top of the barrel’s headspace extension that permits visual inspection for a round in the chamber.
Off To The Range
The whole package is a 28-ounce defensive handgun with impeccable credentials. As is my custom, it was tested in a three-part routine. First is just a short function test that also serves to help break in the gun. This varies but normally involves 50 to 100 rounds of assorted ammo. Afterward, the pistol is cleaned and inspected to see if anything is out of whack in the fitting. This will usually be revealed in the form of unusual wear marks.
The second phase is accuracy testing — preferably in the Ransom Rest. Ammo selection is always a problem here because I obviously can’t test a gun with every available load. My policy is to try to test with representative loads from the major manufacturers and to cover the range of bullet weights and velocities that are commonly used.
When it made its debut in 1990, the .40 S&W was loaded with a 180-grain bullet at around 950 fps. This duplicated the FBI’s 10mm Auto load that had been shown to be effective based on the FBI’s ammunition testing. But the success of the cartridge has encouraged ammunition development to the point that we now have bullets of 135, 155, 165 and 180 grains weight. The 155 came quickly in response to demands from the disciples of velocity. And, of course, we have widely disparate opinions on that subject. When the FBI considered adopting a .40 S&W pistol, they chose a 165-grain bullet loaded to 980 fps. This is the present Federal Hydra-shock load. But proportional pressure and velocity possibilities suggested that the 165 could be loaded to much higher velocities. All the other manufacturers who offer a 165, load it to a published 1,130 to 1,150 fps.
The latest bullet weight is a 135-grain hollowpoint at around 1,200 fps. This prompted a wag I know to comment that we had finally succeeded in inventing the 9mm Luger.
Our purpose here is not to debate which load should be used in any gun but to show you the available options. The velocities shown here are from factory catalogs, which are almost always higher than those we measure with real guns as opposed to test barrels. For this test, it was sufficient to select one load with each bullet weight and both high- and low-velocity loads with the 165. A few of each of those was used in the preliminary testing to be sure the gun functioned with them before the accuracy work began.
In the early days, the .40 had a reputation for less than sparkling accuracy. But in the Ransom Rest, it was quickly obvious that accuracy was not going to be a problem with the 945-.40. The plan was to fire three, 10-shot groups at 25 yards with each of six representative loads, and that was done uneventfully. While in the rest, the pistol experienced three incidences of a case failing to eject completely and being trapped between the barrel and slide. Try as we might, this malfunction could not be duplicated when shooting from the hand.
Groups were nicely round, which is always a good thing. There was, however, the occasional first-round flyer, which is not rare but has dreadful consequences when you get to group measuring. I’d estimate that about 25-percent of the time, the first round would deviate from the group by as much as an inch — usually at the 9:00 to 12:00 position. But since we don’t get do-overs in the shooting, the groups were measured warts and all.
The gun was again cleaned and inspected before the final part of the test, which involved some additional function shooting with all of the loads used in the accuracy test and other miscellaneous ammo. Frequently, I’ll finish a test with the 10 to 20 rounds of ammo left in a box. These tests are a good way to make use of those partial boxes, and mixing ammo in the magazine is a great test of reliability. Other than the stoppages mentioned in the Ransom Rest, there were no malfunctions. Nearly 500 rounds were fired.
Clean, crisp lines are evident on the 945-40. Notice also the exotic
barrel bushing and trigger over-travel stop.
Uniformly Good Accuracy
The accuracy results speak for themselves but deserve some comments. When I do one of these tests, it’s widespread for the gun to show a distinct fondness for one load or another. This one didn’t do that. The smallest average came with the 180-grain Speer Gold Dot, but there isn’t a big difference between smallest and largest. Even the first-round flyers didn’t hurt too much, and this tendency to throw the first round almost always improves as the gun wears in.
The manual of arms is the same as for the Government Model, and it shoots just as comfortable too. Even though it is light and compact, it is enjoyable to shoot — even with the hottest ammo. The somewhat short grip doesn’t quite fill a large hand, but the finger extension provided on the magazine compensates nicely, and there is no discomfort associated with the grip.
A series of fun drills on steel targets proved that this is an eminently shootable pistol. While the machine rest accuracy is great, the reasonable accuracy is just as impressive. Do your part — slow or fast — and the rounds go wherever you put the sights.