It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s robust, it’s intimidating, it’s a single-stack .45, and it’s a very nice shooting pistol. And no, it’s not a 1911.
The gun I am talking about is the Smith & Wesson 4506 (and specifically the 4506-1 – we’ll get to the difference in a moment).
There is no other handgun in the world that has pleasantly surprised me as much as the 4506 has. Simply put, this is one of the softest shooting .45 pistols I’ve ever shot. In fact, it’s one of the softest shooting pistols I’ve ever shot period! It’s also dead reliable and accurate.
I’m eager to talk to you about the 4506, so let’s dive right into it.
Background of the 4506
In the 1980s, you basically had two choices for a .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol: the 1911 (and its many variants) and the SIG Sauer P220.
The Smith & Wesson 4506 was an upgrade from the earlier Model 645 pistol.
Smith & Wesson saw a massive opportunity for introducing a new .45 duty semi-auto pistol into the market, and they took advantage of it. The company had already seen big success with their two 9mm duty pistol offerings, the Model 39 and the Model 59. In the 1980s, Smith & Wesson upgraded both guns with their new second generation variants, namely the 639 and the 659.
Smith & Wesson’s first .45 pistol came as part of this second generation series of handguns in 1985. They basically took their existing 9mm handguns and beefed up the size and strength of the slide and frame considerably to accommodate the larger .45 Auto cartridge.
The result was a nearly two and a half pound .45 ACP pistol made of pure stainless steel, christened the Model 645.
The Model 645 followed the same basic design of Smith & Wesson’s earlier 9mm pistols with a double action single action trigger (which immediately set it apart from the 1911) and the presence of a safety and decocker lever on the slide (which immediately set it apart from the P220).
From the get go, the 645 was designed to be exceptionally reliable. It was tested thoroughly by Smith & Wesson with multiple types of .45 ACP hollow-point ammunition prior to release to confirm reliability. Keep in mind, this was in an age where many 1911s would not reliably feed hollow point ammo.
In fact, the 645 (and the 4506) became famous for being able to cycle through empty shell casings. Not that there’s a practical reason to do so, but it’s pretty cool that you can and goes to show the inherent reliability of the gun.
The 645, while a big hit, had a very short production run and was discontinued in 1988. But that wasn’t because Smith & Wesson was done with .45 pistols. Rather, it was because they were about to unveil an upgrade.
Enter the 4506
The Model 4506 was essentially a third generation version of the Model 645. The most obvious visual difference is the 4506 has one-piece wraparound grips versus the separate grip panels of the 645.
The 4506 also featured a dovetailed front sight (versus the 646’s integral front sight) as well as an improved trigger.
The three words I’d use to describe the Smith & Wesson 4506-1 are big, trustworthy, and dependable.
Like the 645, the 4506 was a big hit. It became a popular gun with many law enforcement departments all over the United States that carried the gun into the 21st Century. In the civilian market, the 4506 carved out a niche in the market for shooters who desired a well-made and rugged .45 ACP alternative to a 1911 or a P220. The 4506 had the ‘luxury’ of being available for less money than either a P220 or most 1911s at the time as well.
Then the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994-2004 hit, magazines were restricted by Federal law to holding a maximum of ten rounds. This turned many people away from 9mm Wonder-Nines back in favor of the single-stack .45 Autos, which were legal everywhere.
After all, one of the main advantages of going with, say, a Glock 17 or S&W 5906 or Beretta 92FS in 9mm was the high round count of 15-17 rounds. By restricting magazines to 10 rounds, the idea of owning a larger capacity 9mm was severely negated.
This was one reason why 1911s became even more popular during the 1990s than they were previously, and it’s also one reason why the 4506 found wide acceptance as well.
4506 vs. 4506-1
In the early 1990s, Smith & Wesson updated the 4506 to the 4506-1. The most clear visual difference is the rounded off trigger guard.
At first glance, it may seem like that’s the only difference between the two guns. In reality, Smith & Wesson made over twenty updates. The biggest difference is that the 4506-1 has a beefier frame and slide, which increases weight but also helps to control recoil due to the greater weight of the pistol.
Smith & Wesson had used the 4506 as the basis for their 10mm pistol (the 1006) and added more metal into the frame and slide to accommodate the hotter ballistics of the 10mm cartridge. It was then questioned why the 4506 didn’t have the same frame and slide in order to simplify production.
My S&W 4506-1 in case with a Bianchi Black Widow holster and Galco double mag carrier with two spare magazines.
Subsequently, the 4506-1 was born. It remains one of the most reliable and over-built .45 ACPs ever made, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
Official production of the 4506-1 unfortunately ended in 1999 (as the company started to focus on polymer-framed pistols, starting with the ill-fated Sigma and later the highly successful M&P line), but Smith & Wesson continued to produce batches in limited numbers for law enforcement for a few years afterwards.
Why The 4506-1 Today?
I admit I originally had no intention of ever owning a 4506 of any kind. My curiosity in the gun was activated when I began reading and watching numerous reviews of the gun that all attested to its inherent reliability, maximum strength, and was very pleasant and easy to shoot.
I started keeping an eye out for 4506s on the used gun market. I found plenty of examples for sale, but most were in rather rough shape or otherwise being sold for a very high amount. I eventually found a 4506-1 that was being sold in excellent shape with three magazines for under a thousand dollars. I went ahead and got it, figuring I’d sell it if I ended up not liking it.
Well, long story short, I’m not going to be selling this pistol.
Having owned and used numerous .45s over the years (from 1911s to USPs to P220s to XDs and so on), I can safely state that the 4506-1 is the most pleasant shooting .45 I’ve ever shot. It also cycled through all types of ammunition I fired through it (including aluminum steel cased and hollow-point ammo) without fail. The gun did get very hot after repeatedly firing to the point that I had to put it down to cool off, but it never stopped working.
I went ahead and started packing the 4506-1 on hiking and motorcycle trips out into the woods as well. To carry the pistol, I purchased a Bianchi Black Widow leather holster that holds the gun close and tight to my hip.
Dirt biking in the backwoods of Idaho with the 4506-1 holstered on my hip.
I’m not saying I now prefer it over a 1911 (the Colt Mark IV Series 70 in particular has long been my favorite handgun of all time), but I do saying I find the 4506-1
As for negatives, the 4506 does come standard with a magazine disconnect safety, which I’m going to figure out how to get rid of. And since the 4506 has been out of production for a number of years, spare parts or magazines may be difficult or expensive to come by. I was lucky enough that my gun shipped in with three.
Other than those things, I can’t think of anything to complain about the pistol. Yes, it is big and heavy, but then again if you don’t want a big and heavy pistol you probably shouldn’t look at the 4506 in the first place.
Conclusion: Smith & Wesson 4506-1 Review
At the end of the day, whether you like this gun is going to come down to whether you want a big and heavy .45 Auto pistol. If the answer is yes, give the 4506 a look. It’s commonly overshadowed by other .45 pistols when it shouldn’t be.
I feel confident in stating that the 4506-1 is one of the finest .45 pistols ever made. It may be massive, but it’s also trustworthy, dependable, and will get the job done when other .45s might not.