Smith & Wesson: A Long History and Current Success

In the United States, Smith and Wesson has been a part of the fabric of guns and gun culture along with companies such as Remington, Winchester, Browning, and Colt since the mid-1800s. Though Smith & Wesson’s supremacy in the U.S. law enforcement and civilian handgun markets has given way in the recent decades to newer companies such as Glock and Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson has started to reclaim their previous dominance in those markets in the past few decades. Unlike many other companies that tend to focus on a narrower selection of products, the company has diversified to produce semi-automatics, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. Today, Smith and Wesson is the largest manufacturer of firearms worldwide (not counting multi-company conglomerates), with over 1 billion in sales and over 2 million firearms produced yearly.

Although the oldest worldwide company still making guns today goes to Berretta (1526), Smith & Wesson is in the big three oldest companies in the United States:  Remington is the oldest, having been formed in 1816, followed by Smith and Wesson in 1852 and Colt (now owned by Colt CZ Group) in 1855. These three companies framed the firearms industry and American gun culture both in the past and present. Before discussing Smith and Wesson today, let’s review their history.

A Storied Past

Smith & Wesson was founded in 185 as the Smith & Wesson Company, established by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. The purpose of the company (based in Norwich, Connecticut) was to develop the Volcanic rifle and the first self-contained cartridge, which was patented by Horace Smith in 1954. The company later changed its name to The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. However, that company became insolvent in 1856 and eventually became Winchester Repeating Arms Company by 1866. The modern Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc. (Smith & Wesson Revolver Company) became a legal entity in 1856 as Smith & Wesson left their partnership with the likes of Oliver Winchester and went their separate ways.

The year 1856 turned out to be a momentous one for the Smith & Wesson company. Colt’s patent on the revolver was set to expire that year. Capitalizing on this, Smith & Wesson reunited and collaborated with Rollin White, a former Colt employee who owned the needed bored-through cylinder patent. With these turns of events, the Smith & Wesson Revolver Company was born, producing a new line of revolvers, starting with the Model 1 in 1857. Rollin White was not a partner but was paid a fee for each gun using his patent, also leaving him to have to legally defend challenges to that patent. This situation turned out to be to Smith & Wesson’s benefit and White’s detriment as issues with the patents spiraled through the upcoming American Civil War.

S&W 1857 and 1880 revolvers
Smith & Wesson was very well placed with its initial entry into the revolvers market in 1857, and it continued to build on its reputation with the release of a double-action revolver in 1880. Photo: Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson was well positioned at the start of the American Civil War to provide additional revolvers (generally bought by individuals as additional firepower) to both sides of the conflict, with orders outpacing production. After the end of the American Civil War, Smith & Wesson turned from smaller pocket revolvers favored during the war years to larger framed models designed for open use with the expansion into the American West. In 1870, the Smith & Wesson Model 3 was released becoming the Schofield revolver as it was adopted by the U.S. Army chambered in .44 S&W (later in .45 S&W). The Model 3 became the first cartridge-firing handgun adopted by the U.S. Army.

The same revolver was also adopted by the Russian Empire in .44 Russian. This popular top-break single-action revolver remained in production into the early 20th century. 1880 saw the release of the first double-action revolver by Smith and Wesson (the 38 DA). With the popularity of double-action revolvers, the 19th century ended with the release of the Model 10 double-action revolver (also known as the .38 Military and Police), which went on to dominate police sales throughout the first and later half of the 20th century. The Model 10 was also manufactured in the millions for use in the U.S. Army in World War I and the allies in World War II.

Wyatt Earp's S&W Schofield revolver
With the introduction of the top-break Model 3, later known as the Schofield, in 1870, Smith & Wesson started seeing more governmental contracts. Photo Credit Wikimedia

With the start of the 20th century, Smith & Wesson was becoming the dominant manufacturer of revolvers for the U.S., whether it was police, military, or civilian. Smith & Wesson also released their first semi-automatic pistol, the Smith & Wesson Automatic in .35 caliber, in 1913, which marked the beginning of their expansion into non-revolver handguns. In 1935, Smith & Wesson released the first magnum cartridge, the .357 Magnum, and followed this up in 1955 with the .44 Magnum.

Clint Eastwood would further the impact of Magnum revolvers in his Dirty Harry movies in the 1970s using a Smith & Wesson Model 29 chambered in .44 Magnum. In 1965, the company sold its controlling interests to an American conglomerate that diversified the company into non-firearm gear aimed primarily at law enforcement. These moves would continue to drive success until the 1980s, when the polymer and semi-automatic revolutions started pushing Smith & Wesson revolvers out of the dominant position in U.S. police departments.

Smith & Wesson once again changed ownership in 1987 with a renewed focus on production and product quality. Despite these improvements, the company continued to suffer a decline in sales throughout the end of the 20th century as police department after department switched from Smith and Wesson revolvers to modern semi-automatic guns such as the Glock.

S&W ads for their Semi-automatic handguns
Though Smith and Wesson would continue to be known primarily for their revolvers through most of the 20th century, their first semi-automatic was released in 1913, and the line was heavily expanded in 1979. Photo Credit Smith and Wesson

The start of the 21st century was not auspicious for Smith & Wesson as the current CEO moved to work with the Clinton administration to fast-track ‘smart guns’ and self-imposed restrictions on sales to private individuals in 2000. These actions resulted in the near ruin of the company and the resignation of the CEO. The company again changed hands in 2001 after this debacle and was now headed up by a previous employee of Smith and Wesson’s previous owners.

The company was rebranded as the Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation with a focus on getting Smith & Wesson back on top of the firearms market. Although the next 24 years were not without some issues, Smith & Wesson focused on retaking its position as a primary supplier of American law enforcement. The company released its first polymer striker-fired handguns in 2005, and these new M&P (Military and Police) handguns were adopted by over 100 police departments in their first year alone. The M&P lines of semi-automatic handguns and AR-15 rifles became favorites of law enforcement and civilians alike.

2016 saw the company become a part of the larger American Outdoor Brands Corporation, and then in 2020, Smith & Wesson was spun back off into its own company and has shown record sales every year since.

S&W M&P 9mm
With the release of the M&P (Military and Police) 9mm striker-fired polymer handguns in 2005, Smith & Wesson began the process of winning back U.S. law enforcement agencies. Photo: Wikimedia.

Smith & Wesson Today

Today, Smith & Wesson has been posting over a billion dollars in yearly revenue producing semi-automatic handguns (over a million a year), revolvers (over 200,000 a year), rifles (over 400,000 a year), and a small number of shotguns. Smith & Wesson is generally listed as the largest (or in the top 3) manufacturer of firearms worldwide and has over 1,500 employees.

With recent releases in shotguns (the M&P12), foldable pistol caliber carbines (M&P FPC), lever-action rifles (Model 1854), and handguns in novel chamberings (the M&P 5.7), Smith & Wesson seems focused on maintaining the top spot moving forward. Though Glock still has the majority of U.S. police departments, Smith & Wesson holds a very respectable second place, and the number of departments using Smith & Wesson firearms continues to grow every year.

Additionally, top civilian handgun sales are often traded out between companies such as Glock and Sig Sauer. Smith & Wesson M&P polymer striker-fired guns have been in the top five lists for almost a decade. Smith & Wesson offers a diverse collection of firearms, and it is easy to see how they have become one of the top firearms manufacturers today.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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