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Handgun Reviews

The Smith & Wesson 99OL

by Frank W. James   |  September 24th, 2010 4

The latest offspring from the S&W-Walther alliance is a flawless performer, but it begs the question, “Just what is a DAO?”

The Smith & Wesson Model 990L is the latest variation of the Model SW99. Changes include a unique trigger mechanism and the elimination of the somewhat controversial decocker button on the top of the slide. Despite appearances to the contrary, the 990L isn’t just another polymer-framed semiauto, and working with it led to an exercise in defining the characteristics and key elements of a modern double-action-only (DAO) pistol.


The Smith & Wesson Model 990L is a solid design and from indications experienced during our testing is an accurate and reliable semiauto pistol that will serve both law enforcement and civilian markets quite well.

Is it time for a new and different classification for such semiautos? For years we have classified semiautomatic pistols with terms originally used for revolvers. Single-action revolvers are simple machines to operate and understand. The shooter is required to cock the hammer prior to pulling the trigger and releasing the hammer, which is powered by the energy stored in the mainspring. That is pretty straightforward.

The traditional double-action revolver has always offered the option of single-action shooting by means of manually cocking the hammer before the trigger is pulled to fire a single round. Double-action shooting was originally called “trigger cocking” by the British, in reference to the Adams revolver, which used a mechanism patented in the U.K. by Frederick Edward Blackett Beaumont in 1853. The term meant that the trigger was used to cock the hammer and, in turn, store energy in the mainspring prior to its release, which occured as a result of the completed trigger pull.

The introduction of smokeless powder in the late 1800s gave designers and inventors the opportunity to create firearms that utilized the energy contained within the cartridge to operate the gun. All of these early-model semiautomatics required that the hammer or toggle be cocked because the gun at rest was simply inert. There was no kinetic energy stored within its springs or mechanism. These pistols were all defined as single-action semiautos, although few shooters used the term since these were the only semiauto designs in existence at the time.

The main advantage they offered the shooter was the “automatic” ability to load the chamber from a reservoir of ammunition after the round in the chamber had been fired. However, it is important to note that none of this action took place without the shooter first manually cocking the gun in some way to deposit the requisite amount of energy in the mainspring necessary to fire the first shot.


SPECIFICATIONS
SMITH & WESSON MODEL 99OL
MAKER: Smith & Wesson
OPERATION: Qwik Action trigger mechanism, recoil operated, semiautomatic pistol
CALIBER: .40 S&W
OVERALL LENGTH: 7.25 inches
BARREL LENGTH: 4.125 inches
FRAME: Polymer
FINISH: Melonite
WEIGHT: 25 Ounces
SIGHTS: Interchangable front blade with single white dot. Windage adjustable rear with two white dots on either side of square-cut notch
CAPACITY: 10+1. Gun shipped with two 10-round magazines (12-round magazines available), three backstrap inserts, four front-sight inserts and a Master gun lock
PRICE: $694

Then Alois Tomiska designed the first pistol with a trigger mechanism that would fit the definition of a double-action semiauto trigger pull with the 6.35mm Little Tom in 1908 and began producing it in 1913. But few people paid attention to it or to the Mannlicher Model 1894 that some commentators feel was the first DA semiauto pistol.

Things changed when Walther designed the Model PP, which was a blowback-operated pistol that fired the first shot with the completion of a long trigger pull. All that was required was a loaded chamber. So while many writers and experts claim that the PP was the world’s first double-action/single-action semiauto pistol, the honor belongs to the Tomiska Little Tom or the 1894 Mannlicher.

The Walther PP was followed by the P-38, which was a recoil-operated, locked-breech DA pistol. Even though these guns were joined over the following decades by a wide number of products from other manufacturers around the world, the premise of operation followed that established with the double-action revolver. The premise was this: The energy of the mainspring that powered the hammer was empowered by the long, first-shot trigger pull of the mechanism. Prior to this first trigger pull, the mainspring and the hammer were at a position of rest.

All that changed when Glock’s Safe Action was introduced. Some elements of its trigger mechanism are similar to those found on the long-forgotten Austrian Roth-Steyr (from the same era as the Little Tom and the Mannlicher 1894).


The SW99 and Walther P99 were striker-fired pistols that duplicated the feel of the traditional double-/single-action semiauto, but many shooters did not care for the decocker button that was located on the top of the slide. It is noticeably absent on the SW990L slide.

The Glock, regardless of the model designation, is a striker-fired design, but when its trigger mechanism is at a position of rest, the striker is partially precocked. Th
e striker is not fully cocked–it isn’t even halfway cocked–but it is partially cocked. Most observers agree it is cocked about one-third of the total distance the striker must travel to gather sufficient energy to ignite the primer. The action of the trigger pull “cocks” the striker the remaining portion of its travel before sear release. The Glock is incapable of recocking the striker if the round in the chamber is a dud. This is because a subsequent trigger pull cannot cock the striker for the first third of its “cocked” distance.

There are many pros and cons to “restrike capability” in a semiauto pistol, and most of them are not germane to the following point: The inability to recock the trigger and firing mechanism through use of a subsequent trigger pull runs counter to the operation of the traditional double-action revolver. The earlier Walther PP and P-38 designs had a long-travel trigger-pull restrike capability and followed the operation of double-action revolvers.

When the Glock design first appeared on American shores, the BATF ruled the Safe Action pistol was a double-action design using the criteria established for revolvers. But what is the criterion for defining a DAO pistol, and do the definitions established for revolvers work equally well today for all modern pistols?

The Smith & Wesson Model 990L is very similar to other semiauto designs classified as DAO. It follows the basic design of the SW99, which was a variation of the original Walther P99.

The P99 was created by a team headed by Horst Wesp. One of the original design criteria for the P99 was to create a traditional DA/SA pistol with a striker-fired mechanism that duplicated the trigger feel and characteristics usually found with a hammer-fired DA/SA pistol. To this end the design team was successful, but it did not achieve the overall market acceptance it had anticipated. Additionally, many shooters objected to the decocker button positioned on the top of the slide. It was not easy to reach and engage with the firing hand.


This best five-shot group was achieved with the 155-grain JHP load from Black Hills, which chronographed at 1,091 fps. The target distance was 50 feet, and all groups were shot off-hand.

The semiauto pistol market, both civilian and law enforcement, was more than accepting of the design criteria established with the Glock format, i.e. a DAO semiauto that employed a partially cocked striker design in its firing mechanism. Yet, partially cocking the striker raises some questions as to the exact definition of the mechanism used in the pistol.

Why is this important? For one thing, it allows confusion to reign supreme when contract bids are let out by various law enforcement agencies because the police administrators may know nothing about a handgun’s internal operation but still have some fuzzy idea how a DAO semiauto should operate. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of officers pointing loaded pistols at citizens during the course of a felony arrest. Is the gun likely to go off easily or with little thought or preparation? Police administrators in an ideal situation would have the issue sidearm fire only after a deliberate act and with some concentration on the part of the involved officer.

Civilians may choose a pistol for reasons similar to those seen with law enforcement agencies but with one additional provision they find important: They want a gun that is easy to shoot accurately. This sets the stage for the classic conflict of easy trigger pull for easier hand/eye manipulation vs. the heavy trigger pulls often mandated by police administrators.

Additionally, how a gun’s operating mechanism is defined plays a key part in what class it is assigned in handgun competitions like IDPA. The unfortunate result of this definition confusion can be seen when competitors are forced to work from a technological disadvantage while competing against those using pistols with single-action mechanisms and corresponding lighter trigger pulls that are masquerading as DAO pistols.

Smith & Wesson’s Model 990L uses the same action the Walther firm developed to compete against guns featuring partially cocked striker-firing mechanisms. Walther calls it Qwik Action, and it works as advertised. But I am not going to call it a DAO mechanism because if you go back to the original revolver for an example, none of the traditional DA revolvers featured a hammer that was partially cocked before commencement of trigger pull or firing.

The big difference with the Smith & Wesson Model 990L is that it features a partially cocked striker that is more than halfway “cocked.” The exact percentage remains in doubt, but the S&W factory representatives with whom I spoke agree that the striker on the Model 990L is more than halfway back. This creates a definition dilemma because in no way does this condition resemble anything experienced with the traditional DA revolver.


As the trigger is pulled, the striker assembly is moved to the rear and will start to protrude from the witness hole at the rear of the slide. Shown here, the striker has reached its most rearward movement just before the trigger trips the sear for firing the pistol.

Therefore, I believe it is an error in terminology to call this action a DAO. But then the 990L is not alone; it now joins a select group of products like the previously mentioned Glocks, HK’s L.E.M. pistols, the Para-Ordnance LDA series (which features a totally and completely cocked mainspring assembly) and the Springfield Armory XD series of pistols, which feature a striker assembly that is 95 to 99 percent precocked.

Para-Ordnance uses the original British definition of “trigger cocking” to classify the LDA system as a double action and does not refer to it as a double-action-only. This definition is based on the fact that the system must cock the hammer prior to releasing the energy stored in the mainspring. The two actions used in this definition are the movement of the hammer coupled with the release of the energy stored in the system. The movement of the trigger is “light” in comparison to other systems, hence the moniker “Light Double Action” for the LDA line of pistols.

None of these pistols can fire a round through the action of a long-travel trigger pull if the mainspring is inert and devoid of any stored energy. This should not be interpreted as a good or bad thing; it is merely an observation of the increasing “definition creep” and how confused many of us are, both inside and outside the industry, as to how these things work.

The 990L has a trigger pull that is relatively short and in no way resembles anything originally experienced with the SW99 or the previous Walther P99. The total travel
in terms of measurement of the trigger is approximately half an inch. This is a measurement using an ordinary straight-edge ruler, a technique used in a recent field trial by a federal agency.

Using the ruler as a guide, the bottom of the trigger on the Model 990L moves approximately one-half inch in its total travel and then resets after approximately .314 inch of forward movement. A competitor’s design won because it reset its trigger after only .25 inch of forward movement after the first shot had been fired.


The end of the striker is not visible after the trigger is pulled on an empty chamber. The striker assembly is fully forward, and the trigger is incapable of recocking the mechanism. To recock the striker, the slide must be recycled.

Because the striker on the 990L is more than halfway cocked, the trigger pull only moves the striker a short distance before the gun fires. The Smith & Wesson people felt the striker moves a total distance of approximately 1/8 inch. I feel that measurement is overly generous and believe it is shorter. Nonetheless, the striker moves a very short distance before the gun fires. The resistance of the trigger scaled between 91⁄2 and 10 pounds on my trigger-pull scale.

On the firing range this relatively short trigger travel took some familiarization on my part. I’m used to the Walther P99 and SW99 long-travel first-shot trigger as I’ve worked with both designs since the initial introductions. I had to relearn the old rule about watching your front sight as I had trouble during the group accuracy tests with the front sight wandering left during the completion of the trigger pull. Early on I experienced difficulty with unexpected let-off during the pull because I was anticipating a longer pull and the front sight was not where it was supposed to be.

Throughout all the testing of several hundred rounds, the sample Smith & Wesson Model 990L performed flawlessly. It has many of the same features found on the SW99, like the interchangeable and optional backstrap pieces so the consumer can fit the grip to his particular hand size. This is an excellent design feature. The sample Model 990L also came with different-height front-sight inserts so the pistol’s point of aim can be adjusted to the point of impact of the customer’s ammunition.

Smith & Wesson has been the distributor of Walther products in the U.S. since 2002. This relationship has led to several joint-effort designs between the two manufacturers, and the 990L is the latest example. The frame is marked “Walther patented” while the rollmark on the slide reads “Smith & Wesson.”

To summarize, the 990L is not, in my mind, a DAO semiauto–but then neither are a number of the other designs I’ve mentioned. The 990L features the Qwik Action firing system, and, as such, it joins those pistols already on the market featuring partially cocked striker assemblies or fully cocked mainsprings. It is a solid design, and from indications experienced during our testing, it is both accurate and reliable and will serve both law enforcement and civilian markets quite well.

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