Founded in 1852 by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson the original Smith & Wesson Company, then based in Norwich, Connecticut, has few rivals as an American company not just a firearms manufacturer. It would take complete failure and the help of two unlikely sources – neither being the U.S. government – before it would become the company that is a household name around the world.
The company’s first offering was a lever-action pistol containing a revolutionary self-contained cartridge. This feat accomplished, the gun became know as the Volcano. Unfortunately, the Volcano or Volcanic was not a commercial success. Within two years, the company was broke. A name familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a gun came to the rescue. Oliver Winchester – successful industrialist – stepped in and saved the company.
In 1855, Wesson and Smith sold their shares to Winchester and the company reformed in New Haven, Connecticut as Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. The name derived from the first gun. For 11 years the new company would benefit from the Volcano and other patents. In 1866, the Volcanic company became Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and like many small businesses the story should have ended. However, this was a different time and men were made of different stock. “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently,” so said Henry Ford. He invented something that slips my mind at the moment. Smith and Wesson were men cut from that cloth.
In 1856, the two made another run at their dream. The gun was to be a small pocket pistol in .22 rimfire caliber. Daniel designed the weapon and with joint ideas from a Rollin White, resulting in the Smith & Wesson Model 1. For a whopping 25 cents, you could be a proud owner of this gun. That is still just over six dollars in 2012. At that price it was a hit and the company was forced to move to another location on Stockbridge street in the center of Springfield, Massachusetts. A story was taking shape.
Men of this caliber do not rest on their laurels. They kept moving. They knew the patents would run out and needed something new and fresh. Furthermore, the vultures were constantly trying to feed off the ideas of these two men. It would require more than 25 lawsuits to keep them at bay. However, the best was yet to come. That would come in the Model 2 in 1861, just as a big get-together started in the U.S. that required a lot of guns.
With the end of festivities between the North and South the venture was again in serious financial jeopardy by 1867. The team would look beyond the shores of the United States for the next opportunity to raise its head. Europe could always be counted on for a good war every few years.
While in Europe, the Grand Duke of Russia, Alexis, saw and sent home a Smith and Wesson gun. Due to the solid sales in Europe, Horace and Daniel went back to the drawing board and the first real iconic Pistol came to be in 1869, the Model 3 in .44 rimfire. Picked up by another Russian, ironically in Washington D.C. and sent home to the Motherland. General Gorloff, the military attaché to the U.S. knew a good weapon when he saw it. In 1871, the Russian government made an order for 20,000 guns, which would quickly be known – more famously – as the .44 Russian. Over 131,000 eventually made it to the Russian Army.
Thus, a firearms company was launched; it would have few rivals over its 160 year history. With such classic designs as the .38 Military and Police, later the Model 10 (1899), the N Frame .44 S&W Special (1908), and .357 Magnum (1935), The Model 39 9mm (1955), the awesome Model 29 .44 Magnum (1956). The list goes on with modern M&P models chambered in various calibers – including – the best cartridge on the market the S&W .40 caliber. Recently, the addition of the M&P AR platforms has brought Smith and Wesson into a completely new arena.
In almost two decades of law enforcement, I carried nothing other than a Smith and Wesson. My career consisted of the Model 25-5, to the Model 686, onto to the Model 19 4” on duty and the 2” off, with a Model 60 strapped to the inside of my left ankle. From there it was the Model 5906 on duty and the Model 6906 off. There are many more choices in guns than there was back then. Nevertheless, I was willing to trust my life for many years to Smith and Wesson, and I would be hard pressed not to go with the M&P in .40 S&W today.
Through wars on foreign soil and wars at home with self-righteous politicians the Smith & Wesson has remained, survived and now thrives. While this is not the whole story, it is the best part. A company that almost was not. Yet through determination and old fashion persistence it has become one of, if not the premier firearms manufacturer in the world.