G-Man Gun No More - Smith & Wesson's M1076

By David Tong

S&W M1076
Illustration courtesy of Smith & Wesson.

With the adoption by the U.S. military of the Beretta M9 in 1985, the high-capacity self-loader was legitimized in police departments all across the country. American police had until then almost universally used the six-shot double-action revolver, usually in .38 Special caliber. One exception was the Illinois State Police in 1967 adopting the nine-shot 9mm S&W M39 double-action automatic.

The reasoning behind it, besides greater ammunition capacity, included greater hit probability due to the shorter trigger stroke, at least in single-action mode. Departments are very conscious of the liability involved when a round goes astray, and the typical officer hit between 20-30% of the time with his revolver unless he trained incessantly. Compared to the revolver, the M39 was thought to have better recoil control due to the autoloader's action and lower bore center absorbing some of the backward push and flip normally directed to the web of the shooter's hand.

Interestingly, statistics showed first round hit probability with the long double-action pull of the M39 did not increase over the revolver, only the subsequent shots that were fired single-action. Also, the ISP issue 100 gr. 9mm JSP offered only a modest power increase compared to the commonly loaded 125 gr. non +P JHP used by most departments.

Despite this, the M39 was just the first of many 9mm service autos that found favor with police departments. Ammo manufacturers lined up to provide the new 9s with modern JHP rounds that emulated the late Super-Vel company's high velocity offerings from the late 1960s. Most fired a 115 gr. slug at about 1200 fps, the most famous being the Winchester Silvertip, so named for its aluminum alloy jacket construction. With typical stopping power for the .38 rounds used then in the mid-60 percent range (according to Evan Marshall's police shooting statistics), these hotter 9mm's ran the percentages into the lower 80s.

Then came the infamous FBI shootout in Miami in 1986. Despite two heavily armed felons wielding rifles (.223 Ruger Mini-14s), the FBI agents threw up a rolling roadblock with their cars and engaged them in close quarter combat armed only with pistols, not even putting on the body armor carried in the trunks of their vehicles.

In the ensuing battle, two FBI agents were killed. One of the 9mm rounds (actually a 115 gr. Winchester Silvertip) fired at one of the felons was judged to be a lethal shot, post mortem, but after penetrating through the felon's arm, stopped short of ending hostilities. Due to the inadequate performance of the 9mm in this incident, in 1997 the Bureau's Firearms Training Unit initiated a study of the terminal ballistics of the most common then-issued pistol rounds - the above-mentioned 9mm Silvertip, the old "FBI load" .38 Special 158gr LSWCHP +P, the .45ACP 185gr. JHP, and the 9mm 147gr. subsonic JHP.

Whether one agrees with their findings or not, the FTU determined that the 8-10" of penetration in ballistic gelatin afforded by the Silvertip was insufficient, even though it worked as designed. What they wanted was a round that could penetrate a maximum 18" (!) in tissue, or 12" minimum in 10% gelatin, replicated in the testing regimen by clothing the gelatin and placing the target behind common building and automotive construction materials, mainly sheet metal, windshield glass, and wallboard. Much of their use of gelatin was based upon the research of Dr. Martin Fackler, then director of the Army's Wound Ballistics Lab, who determined that the medium best replicated soft muscle tissue.

Earlier, in 1972, a ballistician named Whit Collins and Jeff Cooper, the "father of modern pistol craft," came up with a modified Browning Hi-Power chambered for a new .40 caliber/10mm diameter round, in order to render, in Cooper's opinion, the Browning pistol into something truly "high power". The good Colonel was, and remains to this day, distrustful of the Parabellum round for social work.

Norma of Sweden loaded the round in 1983, and the result was a 200 gr. flat point full metal cased round moving at 1200 fps, or a 170 gr. JHP at 1300 fps. These loads were considerably hotter than the ".40 caliber, 200 gr. at 1000 fps" Collins and Cooper had envisioned.

The Model 1076

Smith & Wesson developed a new handgun, of the so-called "Third Generation" autos, the Model 1076. (In "Smith-ese," 10 is the caliber, 7 means frame-mounted decocker, 6 means stainless.) This pistol dispensed with the usual Walther type slide-mounted safety/decocking lever that S&W had been copying for years in favor of a frame-mounted decocker a la SIG-Sauer pistols. There is no manual safety to fumble for to interfere with a fast first shot, but the pistol's trigger is thus always live.

The FBI adopted the Model 1076 in 1990, replacing their 3" Smith Model 13 .357 revolvers. For the first time in history, all Special Agents would carry an autoloader as their primary handgun.

Early FBI testing of the full power 10mm Auto Norma round found it was too high-pressure, was hard on the converted 1911 test pistol, and had "unmanageable" recoil levels. Special Agents, then being mostly accountants, attorneys or doctors, were not accustomed to that much kick. FTU personnel purchased 180gr. Sierra JHP bullets and handloaded them at a muzzle velocity of 980 fps. This reduced the recoil to tolerable levels, and the FBI requested the Federal Cartridge company to duplicate this reduced load.

This "FBI-lite" round became the standard issue. If those ballistics look familiar, it is because Smith & Wesson became the progenitor of the 10mm's replacement when it developed the shorter-cased .40 S&W cartridge with identical ballistics to the "10mm lite." This cartridge would run through the double-stack 9mm-sized handguns already available from S&W and others. In fact, the Ten has been on a downward spiral ever since the .40 S&W ("small and weak") came out.

Most buyers of protection pistols wanted "high capacity," over ten rounds per magazine. The .40 S&W has proven itself in the hands of law enforcement and has all but supplanted the 10mm and, to a lessor extent, even the 9x19. Smith & Wesson has "seen the handwriting," and has now discontinued all of its 10 mm autos.

The 1076 had a very short life span with the Bureau, less than five years, making it their shortest-lived duty handgun. They now issue the Glock M23 in .40. This means that ex-FBI issue 1076s are relatively plentiful and affordable on the used gun market.

Construction and Features

The S&W 1076 pistol is of all stainless-steel construction and thus weather and sweat resistant. It was produced with the then-latest CNC machinery. Metal injection molded (cast) parts included the sear and extractor, although the barrel, frame, and slide were all forgings. Weight is 40 ounces, barrel length is 4.25", the same as a Colt Commander, for (relative) comfort when concealed or seated in a vehicle.

It has one locking lug in its otherwise typical Browning tilt-lock action, and has very good chamber support for high pressure. The original FBI grips are a "palm swell" single-piece nylon plastic design similar in outline to the butt of a Czech CZ-75, with its inset recurve at the web of the hand, and a gently curving backstrap terminating in a rounded butt at the heel. Magazines are also stainless, with a nine-shot capacity. I have heard of, but never examined, Bureau-issue backup magazines of 11 and 15 shot capacity, which would obviously protrude well beyond the pistol's butt. Sights are of the three-dot variety, with the FBI-mandated tritium night sights standard.

Personal Experience

In the example I have examined, the double action pull is fairly smooth but excessively heavy at about 12 lbs. I am not a DA auto guy at all, though there are police administrators who are fond of them for the "safety" afforded by the heavy first shot pull against negligent discharge. There has been a factory recall involving the decocker function, and Smith & Wesson will honor it even if the pistol was purchased second-hand.

FBI pistols lack the magazine disconnect found in the standard production model, as their requirements dictated being able to fire the chambered round without a magazine in place, and the right-side slide markings on former Bureau pistols will state "Caution-Capable of Firing With Magazine Removed."

Surprisingly, without even a trace of lubricant, my example has a single-action release of about 5 lbs., absolutely crisp. Moreover, the trigger reset is quite short, certainly shorter than that of a Browning if not quite so short as the best pistol in this regard, the 1911. Shooting rapid controlled pairs or hammers is quite easy even with my size 9 medium hands.

Additionally, comparing the 1076 to a 1911, the grip angle and low bore center dimension are virtually identical, thus the slim feel and recoil pulse tends to minimize twist and muzzle flip. Felt recoil, despite the shorter barrel and lighter recoil spring compared to a 10mm Colt Delta Elite, is actually milder by a significant amount, though it's a bit sharper than .45 ACP standard pressure rounds.

The ergonomic issue is more significant than many realize. Law enforcement officers, as well as participants in "practical pistol" shooting, often stage weak-hand only drills to replicate the wounding of one's strong hand, or shooting around a barricade from cover. Large butt sections that may feel fine when shooting two-handed strong side may become more than a bit clumsy when your weak hand has to do the grasping and trigger squeeze, whether it be with a DA revolver or auto.

Accuracy is adequate for short range defensive use. With either 200 gr. TCFMJ loads at 1100 fps, or factory Winchester Silvertip 175 gr. JHPs at 1250 fps, groups averaged less than 1.5 inches center-to-center. I suspect load development can improve this somewhat, though the barrel hood and slide-to-frame fitting are a bit loose for reliability purposes.

Final thoughts

The 10mm cartridge's primary advantage is that a slim autoloader of considerable power can be carried concealed, if you don't mind lugging around a 40 ounce pistol. The two power levels offered by most ammo manufacturers give the option of relatively soft-recoiling home defense rounds, or magnum revolver performance for hunting or defense from medium-sized carnivores like cougar or black bear.

I also find that, despite the intrinsic accuracy advantage of a fixed-barrel revolver shot single-action, I can shoot a slender auto better rapidly, and accurately enough, simply because the butt design allows me to command the grip and trigger with a bit more hand wrap. Plus, it offers a 60% ammo load increase versus a revolver of comparable power.

Power the 1076 has. Dispensing energy comparable to a .357 Magnum, it does fall short of the .41 Magnum. Typical external ballistics show a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 1050 fps with 490 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. This is nothing to sneeze at!

My thought for the use of the 1076 is for personal protection in the Oregon woods against cougar or smaller black bear. I find it handier than a magnum revolver, and when worn concealed it may not alarm the tree huggers on a hiking trail as a large revolver, worn openly, might.

Offering better energy figures, flatter trajectory and greater penetration than the .45 ACP, the Smith 1076 should be able to find a place with the savvy handgunner on a budget who can appreciate what it offers.

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Copyright 2005 by David Tong. All rights reserved.