November 1999

DA .40 S&W Defense Guns: S&W, Walther, and S&W/Walther

As Walther and Smith & Wesson go after the polymer .40 S&W market with the SW99, we wonder how the collaborative gun compares to S&Ws Enhanced Sigma and the P99.

[IMGCAP(1)] Elvis may not have been the first rock and roller and Glock may not have made the very first polymer-framed pistol. But like Elvis did in rockabilly, Glock made its big splash in the plastic-gun market, and to this day Glocks retain a positive brand awareness among consumers that other companies envy.

For evidence, the shooting consumer need look no farther than guns made by Smith & Wesson. To compete in the polymer defense-gun market, Smith & Wesson introduced the Sigma series pistols, the appeal of which are obvious. Capable of high capacity, they are snag free and ready to fire without a complicated safety system but insulated from accidental discharge by a long double-action pull and striker blocking systems. From the start the Sigma offered near perfect ergonomics, specifically what the Glocks have lacked. Moreover, to back up their play for the polymer market, Smith recently joined forces with Interarms/Walther to offer a variation on Walther’s P99 pistol, the joint project being designated the SW99.

Click here to view Gun Tests' .40 S&W Handgun Picks and Pans

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Naturally, when a new product appears—especially one with this gun’s lineage—in a previously settled niche, we’re eager to see how it stacks up against products we’ve already evaluated in Gun Tests along with other guns that might attract your money. Thus, we recently shot the SW99 alongside the original Walther P99 and Smith & Wesson’s Enhanced Sigma, the .40VE. Obviously, we were curious about the differences between the SW99 and P99, and we wondered why Smith thought the latest Sigma wasn’t enough gun to make the SW99 model unnecessary? It wasn’t long before we found out.

Range Session
We fired three rounds through our test guns, Federal’s American Eagle 155-grain Full Metal Jacket rounds, a more self-defense oriented load, the Federal Hydra-Shok 165-grain Jacketed Hollow Point, and a low-cost round, Houston Cartridge’s Factory Reload 180-grain FMJ Truncated Cone. As you might expect, the lighter American Eagle round ran the fastest, from 1,089 to 1,115 fps. It also developed the most energy. From a bench rest at 25 yards, the SW99 was the accuracy champ. The SW99 had a best overall group of 1.1 inches with a factory reload, but showed it could produce sub 2.5-inch groups with any bullet weight between 155 to 180 grains.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data chart

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Despite its aggressive-sounding name, the Federal Hydra-Shok ammunition recoiled the least in the Walther and its first cousin the SW99. Everything recoiled heavily in the Sigma, we thought. More detailed praise and criticism of the individual products follow:

Smith & Wesson Sigma Enhanced 40VE
Our recommendation: Pass. Intended for the lightweight carry of a full-sized pistol, the $602 Sigma series has a checkered reputation. Ours proved to be fussy about ammo and was long on muzzle flip when it worked.

The Enhanced Sigma is still one of Smith’s most economical guns, and it has a greatly improved trigger. The molded polymer frame features simple grip patterning, a pleasing grip-angle with beavertail overhang for support, and a well-placed mag release. This is one S&W model that will fire with the magazine removed, and this warning is molded into the frame. As is all the rage, there’s an indentation for a flashlight attachment on either side of the dust cover.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Sigma Enhanced 40VE features guide

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The slide is satin stainless with rear cocking serrations and a polymer guide rod. We judge the slide-to-frame fit to be quite loose. The front sight is staked in, and ours was crooked to the left. It featured a white dot, but this dot, although luminous, is painted on and is not protected by being inlaid. The rear sight is a no-snag Novak design and also features painted dots. The slide had a flat top to it, but the machining all around left much to be desired, in our view.

The first shooting impression we always look for is grip-to-trigger orientation. All three pistols offer an excellent grip. The SW99 and the P99 even offer the option of changing the back-strap to fit the hollows of different-sized hands, and both arrived with two extra inserts, but we felt the moderate sized one it came with was just fine. We felt both these guns were superior to the Sigma in grip.

The Sigma functioned best with the Hydra-Shoks, but found a way to jam repeatedly with our other test rounds. During break-in we used up our supply of Black Hills 180-grain rounds and experienced not a single malfunction. By the time we reached our bench-rest session, the Sigma mags had developed a penchant for not pushing the round up far enough so that the rim of the cartridge was hitting the forward lip of the mag body. The Sigma mags contain a follower of unique design that can prove stubborn when trying to load the first round.

The Sigma trigger area measures 1 inch from the top of its trigger to the bottom of the trigger guard (inside diameter). The trigger is a full 180-degree arc, which opens moves back about 30 degrees when pulled. This double-jointed action deactivates the safety (did anyone say SafAction?). The biggest drawback of double action on the semi-auto is finding the breaking point of the trigger. First shots generally prove to be the most important, and to date we haven’t had a crisp break in any DA-only auto-pistol. But the Enhanced Sigma is getting pretty close. We liked the Sigma trigger the best because it was easiest to find the breaking point of the trigger and activate it briskly.

Walther P99 & S&W SW99
Our recommendations: These two pistols are very similar. The Walther carries an MSRP of $799, and the SW99 runs $735. Like the Sigma, the SW99 pistol showed an unwillingness to feed, but on a smaller scale, in the neighborhood of 3 percent. Certainly no amount of malfunction is acceptable, but along with a minor rough spot in the trigger, it would seem this is a fixable annoyance. We’re never quick to give up on a gun that wins the accuracy part of a test. If you plan to buy this gun, be sure to check its functioning thoroughly.

Click here to view the Walther P99 features guide

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As tested in the December 1998 GT, the Walter P99 displayed some feeding problems as well. This latest-issue P99 ran flawlessly and drew praise from our test team, including IPSC shooters and members of a municipal SWAT team. Buy it.

The grip areas of these guns are identical save for a difference in patterning and relief for their respective logos. Each gun allows for changing the overall dimension of the grip by removing a single roll pin and substituting backstraps. The slide release is the very same close-fitting lever relieved with a different-style cut. Each gun drops its magazine with a downward stroke of ambidextrous levers blended into the trigger guard. The trigger mechanisms on these guns are the same, but the S&W action begins with a click as it bypasses what we surmise to be a “last chance” safety.

After the first shot, these pistols revert to single-action only. Save for the striker protruding from the rear, there is not much difference between the double- and single-action triggers. To be sure, the break point is more clearly defined because the trigger must be staged further back when in single-action mode. But the best way to shoot these guns is to effect an even, full, sweeping stroke wherein the switch from DA to SA may not be apparent. We wish more DA to SA pistols could perform this transition so discreetly. Another reason you may miss this feature is because the decocker is not a lever at all, but an area cut out atop the left side of the slide that sits flush and is operated by depressing this lined and spring-loaded inset.

Each gun offers a flashlight rail. The Walther rail is inlaid in a nicely undercut dustcover. The SW99’s rail is open-ended on the front and offers more room for mounting. Both pistols use a polymer guide rod, but their barrels are crowned differently. The P99 ends just short of the muzzle in a fade. On the SW99 there is a more traditional angle cut steeply into the tip. This alone may account for the slight difference in accuracy we found during testing.

The front and rear sights on each gun are identical, with the rear sight controlled by an odd-looking windage adjustment screw. The top of the Walther slide is lined, and the cocking serrations are fine and angled forward only on the rear of the slide. The SW99’s slide is bare, and the cocking serrations are mild but are cut both fore and aft of the ejection port.

A safety mechanism similar to the Sigma’s is activated within the frame of the SW99/P99 pistols, deleting the hinge at the center of the trigger. While the triggers are identical on these two guns, the P99 offers a squared trigger guard, which is much bigger inside than the SW99, but each is encumbered by a rise on the inside of the trigger guard sculpted to meet the tip of the trigger. One tester with larger fingers complained that the SW99’s guard pinched the finger. We feel both guns promote contact between the trigger finger and the inside of the guard, a no-no in our book.

Click here to view the S&W SW99 features guide

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The SW99’s first-shot trigger began with a short take up punctuated by the feeling of it catching and letting go of a notch, then a long take up and “bang.” With the gun then in single action, subsequent shots skipped this notch feeling, so long as the gun remained cocked. Somehow, the first-shot trigger of the P99 is devoid of this interruption, but the trigger is still long and very smooth.

At combat distances we shot a series of rapid-fire or “hammer” drills and found the P99/SW99 pistols were more controllable than the Sigma. One tester commented that since each of the three pistols feature flashlight rails molded into the dust cover, any additional weight attached to the front of the pistol would aid in reducing shot-to-shot split times.

Gun Tests Recommends
S&W Enhanced Sigma .40VE, $602. Don’t buy. Now that Smith & Wesson has gotten the short-stroke trigger to be smooth and predictable, perhaps the company should upgrade the gun that surrounds it. In our opinion, S&W can and should do better if it intends to maintain this product line.

Smith & Wesson SW99, $735. A Conditional Buy. This gun shot accurately, but there were some glitches in it’s operation, so we can not give it an unqualified recommendation. S&W’s lifetime warranty could make a big difference in making sure it is 100 percent reliable.

Walther P99, $799. Buy it. In this test, this gun showed the best execution of a DA polymer defense gun. It was 100 percent reliable, it fit our hands, and the trigger proved smooth and predictable. In borrowing a patent or two from Walther, it would seem that the SW99 learned everything it knows from the p99. But the P99 didn’t teach the SW99 everything Walther knows about making these types of guns.