Smith & Wesson Came Of Age During Revolutionary Changes in Markets And Industry.
There are many American-made products that have become household names. From Coke to Levi’s, these brands have been around for decades and have an impact on our culture. One of the most iconic firearms manufacturers is Smith and Wesson. This company has been around since 1852, creating some of the most well-known guns in America’s history. Today, Smith and Wesson are still making guns. But the history as a company reads like an episode of Game of Thrones. What came to be known as Smith and Wesson was created in a time of revolutionary changes in manufacturing and the markets they served. The telegraph, the railroads, machine tools, and improvements in printing and mail delivery all served to expand the reach of goods and services to towns and cities across this vast but relatively sparsely populated country of just thirty-four million people. Now, advertisements of a new product made in a small town in Connecticut could reach far-flung California in days and a product ordered by mail could arrive in as little as a week by rail. It was in this environment of expanding markets that Smith & Wesson was born.
Here are some key facts about this brand worth knowing.
The History of Smith and Wesson
In 1848, Walter Hunt was a prolific inventor and mechanic from New York. He had invented a new kind of internal mechanism for a rifle. Rather than load each shot by hand, Hunt had devised a method whereby bullets stored in a tube magazine would be loaded by means of a lever which would move the round from the magazine to the barrel and then after it was fired, extract the spent cartridge when the lever was pulled down and then insert a new one when it was pulled back up. It was a pretty revolutionary way to load a rifle in a time when most firearms were muzzleloaders and a shooter had to pour powder and shot into the barrel and then affix a percussion cap by hand This new lever-action design could get off nine shots in the time it would take to load just one in a musket. Hunt had sold the patents for both the mechanism and a new bullet and casing design to the Robbins & Lawrence Co who’s own gunsmith, Lewis Jennings was able to improve it and develop it into a fully-realized firearm, the Volcanic Rifle. Supervising production was a man named Ben Henry who was very particular about quality control and making a rifle that was perfect in every way known at that time.
Walter Hunt would take the money for his patent and move on to other inventions like the closed stitch sewing machine and the safety pin.
For whatever reason, the Robbins & Lawrence Co just couldn’t seem to make a successful business out of the Volcanic Rifle and had to close shop and ran out of money. Enter Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson in 1854 who owned a gunsmithing shop of their own in Norwich Connecticut. They had been invited to partner with one Courtland Palmer who had bought the patents owned by Robbins & Lawrence when they folded up. He wanted to further refine the cartridge and rifle and make another go of it.
This was the birth of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855. Smith and Wesson had indeed improved the lever-action design and perfected a rim-fired casing for this new bullet. They ended up creating not only a rifle from the new design but a lever-action pistol as well using the same cartridge. This was pretty smart business. Buyers of Volcanic’s products would have a rifle for hunting and a pistol for self-protection both using the same ammunition and all bought from one company.
They had also brought in an additional investor who had made a name for himself in the shirt-making business, his name was Oliver Winchester.
Oliver didn’t like the way things were run so he forced Volcanic Repeating into insolvency just a year later, took over the company and moved it to New Haven Connecticut, and hired Tyler Henry who had been working for Robbins & Lawrence to run the plant. Now named the New Haven Arms Company, Oliver Winchester began cranking out lever-action rifles of his own. In 1866, Oliver restructured the company under a new name yet again, The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and became the legendary maker of lever-action rifles that it remains today. Tyler Henry would go on to design a rifle of his own, the now-famous Henry Rifle that was the Rolex/Cadillac of its time in terms of prestige. Oliver would then take that design, refine it further and create the 1866 lever action model that everyone wanted to own.
Smith and Wesson briefly parted company on good terms to pursue their own interests, Smith went back to working on guns and Wesson remained with Winchester’s new company working in production. Then Wesson made an interesting discovery. The patent on the Sam Colt’s revolver was about to expire. Now anyone could use Colt’s original design to make their own revolvers. Wesson had been working on a new pistol cartridge and found another inventor named Rollin White who had a patent on a bored-through cylinder that was a perfect fit for the new cartridge.
So Wesson convinced Smith to join together again on a new venture, this time for a pistol using a revolving cylinder that held a self-contained charge, primer, and bullet. It could fire in the rain or humid weather was quick loading and small enough to fit in a coat pocket.
Taking a lesson from their previous experience with Oliver Winchester, they declined to bring on White as a partner in the new venture and instead paid him twenty-five cents for each pistol they sold using his patented cylinder design.
Fame and Fortune
Smith & Wesson went on to create some of the most important and iconic firearms in U.S. history for the military, law enforcement, and civilians. Most of them were revolvers. These pistols served in every American conflict and were the most popular guns in America. Not because they were cheap, but because they were well made, reliable, innovative, and a good value for the buck.
Here is a shortlist of the most famous Smith & Wesson handguns in American history.
The Smith&Wesson Model 1
When the Smith & Wesson Model 1 came out in 1857 it proved to be truly revolutionary. It used the first metallic cartridge, rimfire ammunition produced in the U.S. and maybe the entire world as well. The ease of loading and storing its ammunition made it an instant hit.
And it proved itself to be reliable and reasonably priced too. Then came the Civil War. The Model 1 was probably the most common pistol on the Union side in that conflict. Between 1857 and 1884, the company would sell 250,000 pistols in three versions. While the pistols themselves made tons of money, the real moneymaker was the fully enclosed rimfire ammunition patent that Smith and Wesson would go on to license to other gun makers. That’s where they really cleaned up.
Smith & Wesson were now multi-millionaires with contracts from the government to produce arms, which later became a strong preference among citizens who had carried Smith & Wesson firearms in the service. During the Civil War, soldiers would go out of pocket with their own pay to buy an S&W Model 1, if they could find one. Orders for the pistol far exceeded Smith and Wesson’s manufacturing capacity.
The Model 686 in .357 Magnum. The innovation in the 686 is its ability to shoot both the high-powered .357 Magnum and lighter .38 Special ammunition. This allows the owner to train on less expensive .38 Special ammo to hone their marksmanship and then load up the lethal .357 Magnum when they need it.
The Model 29 invented in the 1970s is still popular today. It may also be the most famous inanimate object to ever co-star in a movie. Of course, I’m talking about “Dirty Harry” with Clint Eastwood who was all but upstaged by his pistol when he drew his .44 Magnum out. Being one of the first pistols chambered for this all-powerful .44 caliber handgun round it became popular as a hunting pistol since it could bring down everything short of a fully grown bull elephant.
Model 442 Pro-series. This innovative hammerless design was created to be flat and easy to draw for concealed carry. The flatness came from a slimmer chamber holding five rounds instead of the standard six. This pistol became very popular with law enforcement as a backup pistol carried in an ankle holster.
The Smith & Wesson Model 10. This may be the most common pistol of the last half of the 20th century. Introduced in 1899 more than six million were made. Watch any cop movie or TV series until the mid-1990s and you will see the police carrying the Model 10 in .38 caliber. It was also the standard-issue sidearm for the military with some exceptions given to the Colt 1911 and Baretta M9, but remained the sidearm for aircrews into the 1990s. For aircrews, it was preferred over the Colt or Barretta because if these semi-automatics got immersed in water, the internals would rust almost instantly and the rounds would jam. With the Model 10, you could just quickly shake the water out and pull the trigger and it would shoot perfectly. As a survival weapon, revolvers were also easier to keep clean, they don’t need the constant lubrication that semi-auto handguns require to function smoothly.
The Model 60. First produced in 1965, this was the first stainless steel revolver ever produced. Stainless steel had been around since before WWI and prized for its ability to resist wear, corrosion, and rust. In the 1960s, handgun ammunition had become more powerful and heat erosion was eating into the chrome-moly barrels widely used in handguns at the time. Following WWII, steel manufacturing in the U.S. became big business and the cost of ordnance quality steel became much more affordable for use in firearms. It is especially useful in the hotter more humid areas of the country. Smith & Wesson’s innovation in 1965 opened the door wide. Today, Stainless barrels are a preferred choice for competition rifles, all-weather hunting rifles, combat handguns, and marine shotguns. Barrels made of stainless steel are more expensive than those made of alloy steel, but if you wanted your grandchildren to have one of your guns and have it still look nearly new one hundred years after you bought it, buy one in stainless steel.
Smith retired in 1873 selling his share of the company to Wesson, who brought his two sons in to help run the company. The company continued to grow and prosper being one of the largest exporters of firearms in the world. Even the Russian government was buying pistols from the company
Smith & Wesson experienced a boom during both WWI and WWII and by 1965 was profitable enough that it was acquired by the Bangor Punta Alegre Sugar Corp. in Bangor, Maine. This conglomerate had interests in railroads, textiles, foundry equipment, sewage, yacht manufacturing, commercial banking, agricultural equipment like grain elevators. Bangor Punta is believed to have paid $22.6 million to the Wesson family to take over the company. In January 1984 Santa Monica, California-based Lear Siegler Corporation gobbled up Bangor Punta. Then Siegler in turn sold Smith and Wesson to a British conglomerate called FH Tompkins PLC in 1997.
A Sudden Fall From Prominence And a Rebirth.
Just two years later in 1999, the company was almost destroyed. Under pressure from the government which hinted at allowing crime victims to sue gun manufacturers, and after the mass shooting in Littleton Colorado, Smith & Wesson announced they would develop “smart guns” and childproof trigger locks(Neither of which would have stopped the shooting in Colorado). Smith & Wesson at that time was the largest U.S. firearms manufacturer and the agreement was characterized as a “settlement” by the White House to avoid a suit. To gun owners and the NRA, it looked like the government had found a way to impose restrictions on guns by threatening gun makers with financial ruin unless they passed unpopular measures that Congress could not find the votes or public support to pass themselves. The furious reaction from gun owners felt quickly. Police and Sheriff’s Departments switched over to Glock and Sig, gun dealers and wholesalers refused to sell or carry Smith & Wesson products and the NRA called them “Sellouts” to the Second Amendment. What is more, firearms makers much smaller than Smith & Wesson refused to join the “settlement” with the White House and vowed to fight it out in court to that last dollar they had. Smith & Wesson found itself way out on a limb and holding a saw.
Smith & Wesson stock tanked, there were public boycotts and demonstrations against the company. And now the White House was facing scrutiny in the press over what appeared to be extortion against a public company to impose gun regulations as ad hoc law. Following a series of layoffs, the British holding company that now owned S &W sold it for about 15% of its prior valuation to yet another company, Saf-T-Hammer Corporation in 2001.
Ironically, Saf-T-Hammer was a maker of gun locks.
It took several years after that to restore the Smith & Wesson name to good standing with gun owners and the NRA but they did it, along with a turnaround in quality and profitability. The new owners backed away from the deal made with the Clinton administration publically. By 2004 the company was making money again and had returned to being the largest handgun maker in the U.S.
Once Again Government Action Puts The Future of Smith & Wesson In Peril.
Recently the company faced its latest challenge. In September 2021, Smith & Wesson announced that it would be leaving Springfield, Massachusetts where the company was incorporated in 1852. They would make their new home in Marysville Tennessee.
As Mark Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer described the move, “This has been an extremely difficult and emotional decision for us, but after an exhaustive and thorough analysis, for the continued health and strength of our iconic company, we feel that we have been left with no other alternative.”
Smith went on to cite legislation proposed in Massachusetts that would ban the manufacture of certain firearms in the state. “These bills would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing firearms that are legal in almost every state in America and that are safely used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens every day exercising their Constitutional 2nd Amendment rights, protecting themselves and their families, and enjoying the shooting sports. While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60% of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.”
This would be the second time government would be in the position to wreck the company.
Smith and Wesson have been around for over 150 years under various owners and has seen its fortunes rise and fall many times, but somehow this iconic brand, as famous as American Express, Coke-Cola, or Chevrolet has always found a way back to prosperity.