Today, the compact service-caliber pistol is a staple of the gun industry: the Glock 26/27, Ruger LC9, Kel Tec PF9, Sig P290, Kimber Solo, Rohrbaugh, various Kahr models. But that is a recent trend. Until the last few decades, shooters had almost no factory options available to them if they wanted a compact pistol that fired a full-power cartridge.
The trend began on 2 paths: one path represented by the hard work that gunsmiths and manufacturers did to create the chopped-down Officer’s model of 1911, and the other path followed by the work of 2 gunsmiths to heavily modify full-size Smith&Wesson pistols into something smaller and handier. As there is no shortage of people to explore every aspect of the 1911 design, this article will examine that second path.
Smith&Wesson’s first double-action centerfire pistol was the Model 39, first sold in 1955. With a 4″ barrel and an 8-round magazine, it was more compact than the 1911 and Browning Hi-Power pistols that it was competing with in the American market. It was adopted by the Illinois State Police in 1967 as their official sidearm, which helped reassure the American public about the viability of centerfire pistols and the 9mm cartridge.
But it wasn’t really suited for concealment.
Enter a gunsmith & holster maker named Paris Theodore. Allegedly at the urging of a government agency that wanted small guns for its personnel, Theodore designed and built heavily-modified Model 39s and Model 39-2s with features designed to maximize concealment and combat usefulness.
Made between 1975 and 1987, the ASP (an acronym for Armament Systems & Procedures Corp., one of Theodore’s companies) featured modifications like: shortening the barrel, slide & grip frame; ramping & throating the barrel and adding a fixed bushing; smoothing all of the sharp edges; cut-away magazines and clear Lexan grips to let the shooter see how much ammunition they had left; a shortened & rounded hammer to prevent snagging when drawing from concealment; a hooked triggerguard; adding a Teflon coating; and replacement of the traditional front & rear sights with a single Guttersnipe sight (a narrowing channel designed for fast target acquisition).
As a custom firearm, the ASP was never made in large quantities. One story has a gunsmith named Charles Kelsey sending a Model 39 to Theodore and ordering an ASP but not receiving it. As a result, he teamed up with an instructor named Ken Hackathorn and designed his own “better” version of the ASP (as well as modified 1911s and Browning Hi-Powers).
Generically called “Devel”, Kelsey’s guns mimicked some of the modifications used in the ASP and created some of his own. Starting with a Model 39, Kelsey started chopping and changing the stock pistols to different degrees: shortening the barrel, slide and grip; using a fixed barrel bushing; cutting lightening channels into the slide; bobbing the hammer, laser-cut magazines with clear grip panels; narrowing the triggerguard and adding a small hook. Kelsey retained traditional front & adjustable-rear sights.
Kelsey took the process a step further by modifying high-capacity Model 59s:
Kelsey had a hand in many firearm innovations, but success eluded him. He developed a rimless .38Super cartridge, but it is known today as the 9x23mm Winchester. He created a firing-pin safety for the Browning Hi-Power for a friend at the FBI, but when he approached Browning to sell them the design, his “friend” had already shown the design to Browning. Kelsey designed an 8-round 1911 magazine but it proved unreliable; he sold the design to Chip McCormick who apparently fixed any shortcomings and has done pretty well with it. Kelsey was later murdered under suspicious circumstances.
While most manufacturers are victims of the NIH (Not Invented Here) mentality, Smith&Wesson was not blind to the merits of the ASP and Devel modifications to their stock guns. They belatedly released their own compact 9mm, the Model 3913:
Notice any resemblance to the ASP & Devel guns? Shorter barrel, slide & grip. Bobbed hammer. Better fast-acquisition sights.
And no royalties to pay. That’s the way business works. Just ask KelTec about Ruger copying their designs.
Today we have a lot of small 9mms to choose from. But they all trace their heritage back to the work of 2 under-appreciated gunsmiths.