Firearm History

Smith & Wesson: A History

Old Smith & Wesson M&P Revolver

I don’t know if we’re all just born with an inherent knowledge of the clout Smith & Wesson holds amongst the famous and infamous gunslingers of history, but we know… we just know.

We know S&W makes awesome handguns. We’ve seen them proudly displayed in westerns and even modern crime shows.

Many of us can testify firsthand to the quality and craftsmanship of a classic M&P. In our minds, the S&W really stands for “steadfast” and “won’t let you down.”

But, what many of us don’t know, is how this household name in firearms manufacturers got their start. How did a couple of average Joe’s become some of the best-known names in guns? Let’s take a look at their fascinating history…

Starting off with a Bang

Maybe this title is a little misleading. Well, actually a lot misleading, because, in truth, founders Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson failed gloriously at their first attempted venture, Smith and Wesson Company.

It was 1852, and the two met while working at the National Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. They came up with the idea to develop a fully self-contained cartridge called the “Volcanic Cartridge.”

They set up shop in Norwich, Connecticut, and developed and patented their new cartridge.

After falling on some hard times, the two were forced to sell their company and its assets to a small-time clothing manufacturer. You may have heard the name, though not for shirts.

Oliver Winchester (yes, thatWinchester) bought out the Smith and Wesson Company and took over production of the Volcanic rifle project. The new company became known as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

Most businessmen would have lost heart, but Smith and Wesson knew they had an extraordinary idea. They wouldn’t give up.

Smith & Wesson M&P Shield
The M&P Shield is a modern example of Smith & Wesson quality.

Forged by Fire

In 1856, after their first failed attempt, Smith and Wesson came back with a better, stronger business model and their innovative ideas for practical firearms. They established Smith & Wesson Revolver Company.

Their first manufactured revolver, the Model 1, marked the end of Civil War-era muzzle-loading percussion firearms. It used their patented self-contained cartridge chambered in .22 as a rimfire revolver.

While the Model 1 turned heads with its quick and precise shots, Smith & Wesson didn’t become a household name until the introduction of the Model 3 American Revolver in 1870.

It was the first large-caliber centerfire cartridge revolver in America and skyrocketed the company to fame, even becoming a favorite of the legendary gunslinger, Wyatt Earp.

Reaching for the Stars

After achieving such fame with the Model 3, S&W worked even harder to design and produce the most innovative revolvers ever seen.

The 1880s brought the unveiling of the .38 Double-Action Revolver to fill the demand for self-cocking handguns, and, later, the .38 Safety-Hammerless Revolver.

Teaming up with his son, Joseph, Wesson unleashed this new kind of concealed-hammer revolver like the world had never seen.

But even these triumphs would not be able to measure up to S&W’s most beloved model ever that came out in 1899.

It was a solid-frame revolver with a special hand-ejector system called the .38 Military & Police Revolver.

The M&P (now known as the Model 10) was met with unprecedented success, the only S&W product to be in continuous production since its creation.

To date, the Model 10 has sold over six million units and was used for years by law-enforcement officers.

Smith & Wesson Model 10
The Smith & Wesson Model 10 is a classic that has been used for personal defense for decades.

A New Generation

As a new century dawned, so did the creation of automatic firearms.

In 1913, Smith & Wesson released the .35 Automatic Pistol featuring two safety devices and retailed for $16.50.

Times were changing, and the company had to adapt to a new demand. Law enforcement needed a cartridge and a weapon that would be able to penetrate bulletproof glass and armor.

So, the FBI-favorite .357 Magnum Pistol was born.

1942 brought weapons manufacturing to a crescendo as WWII raged and, at the request of the British army, Smith and Wesson developed the Victory Model M&P Revolver.

This upgraded version of the consumer classic was used by more than 800,000 Allied troops in battle.

The last half of the century saw creative solutions to firearm demands such as the Model 36 Chiefs Special Revolver, the 9mm double-action Model 39 Pistol, and the first stainless steel Model 60 SS Chiefs Special.

These reliable weapons were used profusely by law enforcement because of their groundbreaking designs and deadly precision.

After whirlwind success with its first generation of products, S&W released their newest line of pistols, the Model 439s, as the Second Generation was born.

These 3-digit serial numbered products were upgrades to already popular models, like the 39.

Smith & Wesson Model 60
The Smith & Wesson Model 60 is an incredibly concealable .357 magnum revolver.

The Legend Lives On

In 1987, Smith & Wesson developed a new line of semi-automatic handguns, known as the Third Generation, and became the most used handguns in the world.

One example of a popular Third Gen model is the Model 4006 Pistol that is preferred by law enforcement for its comfortable grip and double-stack magazine.

The 2000s brought about three new models:

  1. Model S&W500
  2. M&P Pistol
  3. M&P15 Rifle

The latter was Smith & Wesson’s dive into the modern sporting rifle arena, and they certainly haven’t disappointed.

Winning the 2011 “Rifle of the Year” from SIAE, the M&P15 .22 Rifle became a crowd-pleaser for sporting-rifle shooters, while the next year saw a surge in units sold of their new M&P Shield Pistol line.

In the last 5 years, Smith and Wesson has wowed handgun users with their SW22 Victory Pistols that feature a modular design with fiber-optic rear and front sights.

Their latest product, the M&P M2.0 Pistol took the well-loved M&P design and upgraded the trigger, grip, frame and finish for the modern user.

M&P15 Sport II
The M&P15 is a great AR-15 made with the expected Smith & Wesson quality.

Looking to the Future of Smith & Wesson

When I picked up my first Smith & Wesson handgun, I could feel the weight of doubt drop from my shoulders. It just felt right. It felt powerful, reliable, accurate.

The two innovators, while starting off slow, knew they had ideas that could change the world, and with a little hard work and a standard of exceptional craftsmanship, they did.

I don’t know what the legendary company will come up with next, but I can tell you this:

It will be unbelievable. It will be dependable. It will be accurate. It will be a Smith & Wesson.

Do you own an S&W firearm? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comments below!

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (40)

  1. I recently purchased a S & W model 60 revolver with a three inch barrel. Unfortunately I only got to shoot it once before COVID-19 lockdown hit. My range is open but I am high risk so haven’t gone. I will say my first thoughts after running around 100 rounds through it, is this is an extremely accurate pistol and fun to shoot.

  2. I own a M and P 9C, an M and P .40 and a SS 4517 which I absolutely love! I shoot them all but something about the .45 styling and the feel in my hand doesn’t happen with any of my other guns, and I have many! Cheers to S and W for being a great American company!

  3. I got a M&P AR-15 almost by accident. I only had a pistol at the time but after attending a shot show, I picked one up at a discount. It’s not top of the line but it’s adequate and more than enough for someone who doesn’t shoot often. I got the Shield chambered in .40 mostly because of its aesthetics. The only guns that to me look better are some of the pistols offered by CZ, but that’s like comparing a muscle car to a Bentley or Aston Martin. I slowly upgraded my Shield, even adding a superior spring recoil and rod. The only things I haven’t added are nights, because I don’t them, and trigger system. The trigger is adequate for me and I prefer to keep it that was if I’m ever granted a CCW for it.

  4. I own a S&W model 5904 .9mm semi automatic pistol purchased brand new in 1988. It is light, durable, deadly accurate with adjustable sights and accommodates 18 round double stack magazines. It’s my every day carry weapon. I also have a S&W 1911.45 cal semi auto. It was purchased used from the Houston Tx police department when they “upgraded” to Glock .40 cal in 2005. I put in a new barrel and springs and a new grip. It’s like a hand cannon. Not as accurate as the .9mm so I use it at home for close quarter self defense. It holds a single stack 10 round magazine, is a bit heavy and bulky but gives me a little more firepower than the .9mm.

  5. Fifty + years ago, I bought my first handgun. I’m sure I had the choice of buying a Python or a M&P. In my younger days, I worshipped Colt for their SAA but considered S&W the finest double-action revolvers ever made. I bought that first one in a blued 6″ model 19 Combat Magnum and still own it to this day. Never regretted that choice but I wish there had been enough money for both. Never did get a python, but own several other S&W revolvers. My favorite is still the model 19 Combat Magnum.

  6. I own three S&W firearms and am getting ready to purchase an AR 15. The guns are made to perfection and firing them is easy and on point. I also enjoy taking my guns apart and cleaning them after the second trip to the range and they are extremely easy to breakdown and clean and reassemble.

  7. Love my S&W Model 66. I wish they still made metal DA/SA semi autos. The Model 59/ 915 semi autos were great.

  8. I love the All-American Smith and Wesson Co. We have SW M&P semi-auto pistol in 40 cal, a SW-SD40VE, a SD9 in grey frame, a M&P Shield 9mm but the best is the M&P Shield 380EZ which is the BEST new design yet. My daughter loves it. I am a over-the-road truck driver and is so assuring knowing my family can and have the RIGHT to defend themselves in this day of political unrest.

  9. Before WWII my father entered law enforcement and was advised to”go buy a Smith 38″.
    Pearl Harbor was bombed and the next day he enlisted.and he quickly became a chief working in the armory on various bases and was issued a Smith 38 again. The war ended and he became a Deputy Sheriff and again found himself carrying a Smith model 10. Along the way when. Smith came out with the Chief Special model 36 he bought one which became his constant companion and back up till he died. When the model 19 357 mag came out he upgraded his primary weapon. When he retired I gave him a round but 2″ model 19 that I had gold inlay and fitted with sanbar stag grips. On his deathbed he repeatedly made sure that I knew his grandson got “The Chief ” and the model 19 was mine!
    As a ex Range officer I shoot a lot and have shot a lot of different weapons, but Smith and Wesson revolvers of any caliber hold a special place in my heart and in my hands.

  10. I hav been an owner of and fan of S&W as long as I can remember. My first pistol was the model 422. It is still among the best shooting and most accurate .22 pistols I own. The M&P automatics are the best thing since the model 10 came out. The are fantastic shooters straight out of the box. I hope I live long enough to see the S&W laser pistol come to fruition. What a legacy!

  11. I bought a S&W model 10 in 1968. I carried that as my duty weapon for 10+ years then opted for the .45 auto. I still have the model 10, still shoot it, very accurate as always. Also have a model 36 I bought in the early 1970’s. Still have it. Bought them both new, the model 10 was $90. and the model 36 was $60.Very fine weapons that never let you down.

  12. I have had wonderful service by Cheaper than Dirt. I buy quite a bit of ammo and have always been satisfied. Could you answer for me? I have an old S&W can’t get grips for it. This is the serial #307314 any help would be appreciated.

    1. Hi there, thanks for your support. I ran the serial number and it didn’t come back with anything. Do you know anything else about the gun, such as the model?

      Thanks,
      Editor

  13. In 1962 I went to work as a deputy for our county sheriff. He didn’t have an issue revolver so I purchased my own 4″ Mod 29 S&W. A local peace officer and I shot nearly 1,000 rnds a month using the Bill Jordan style of handgunning. In the ’80’s. it was kinda hard to convert to the Weaver but it did pay off. That old .44 is long since gone but it sure packed the power and never failed to fire when called upon. I couldn’t stand it recently when a friend was selling his guns. His 4″ Mod 29-2 now resides with me, although most loads will be mild mannered .44 Specials. I have owned more than 15 S&W’s of various calibers and they are still my favorite, even over a 4″ Python from that same era.

  14. The gun I ever bought was the model 629 with 8 3/8” in 1991. That was my favorite Gun for deer Hunting. Bought my first S&W40 Shield last fall and it was immediately favorite gun. Then at Christmas I bought a S&W40 M&P with a double stack magazine. That is my everyday carry now. I gave the Shield to better half. I have probably put at least 5,000 rounds through it without a single problem. I love all my S&W’s but my M&P’s are by far my best guns in my collections

  15. My first handgun was a S&W Highway Patrolman MOD 28 and that grew to 50 some S&W guns in a short time. I sold some many years back but my collection of 15 has grown considerably and only have about 6 guns from othe makers. By far the S&W is my favorite gun and my EDC. I still have my eye on two or three more.

  16. I have a few handguns, including a S&W 629 Classic Powerport 44 Mag and a S&W 686 SSR 357 Mag.
    There is nothing like an S&W wheelgun !!

  17. I learned to shoot a handgun with my Dad’s S&W K-22 Masterpiece in the late 1950s. Still have te gun and box it came in. And it still shoots very well. I also have an S&W 422 in 22 cal that is probably my most accurate handgun. I am also a big fan of my 686 Plus in 357 mag. Runs like a great watch. Very precision made.

  18. I own a 40-year-old stainless model 60 in .38 special. I bought it in 1991 for $295, and it was my EDC till 2015 when I replaced it with a Sig P938. After all those years of concealed carry, the S&W still looks like new except for the rubber grip.

  19. I carry a S&W Pro Series Officer Model 1911, been carrying it for over 10 years.

    I also have Two S&W Revolvers:
    One is chambered in 32/20 and the other is chambered in 38 S&W (some of the markings show it to be a Victory model and it is stamped Bavarian Police Department

  20. My first semi-auto pistol is my beloved Model 39 I’ve owned it for 40+ years and it’s still my favorite for carry. I’ve fired hundreds of rounds thru it. It’s simple to take down for cleaning and has never had a FTF. I now own pistols and revolvers of several brands but my 39 is the one I keep by my bedside.

  21. I have owned S&W revolvers for about 50 years. I tend to keep them, shoot them and reload for them. Currently I have a 4″ model 28, a 27 with an 8 3/8″ barrel and 2x scope and a 29 with the 10 3/8″ barrel. I shoot them all and have very accurate loads for each

  22. Don’t own one but have the grips I used when carried a USAF M15 during my Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) duty from 1974 until it was replaced by the M-9 Beretta. The stock wood grips didn’t fit me well so I bought the Pachmayer SK-L presentation model rubber grips. Whenever I moved to a new unit, I put the wood grips back on the pistol at the old unit, then put the Pachmayer grips on the M-15 I was assigned at the new unit. When the USAF issued the M9, I removed the grips from the M15 and still have them!

  23. Great article on S and W. I know they have made a lot of different pistols but two in particular were not mentioned. My favorite semi auto 9 mm is the Model 59. It was a mid 1970s double stack, double action semi auto packing 14 shots. Very accurate and safe to handle and carry. The other favorite is the model 41 target semi auto in 22 rim fire. I’ve “killed” a lot of bowling pins with that fine hand gun and it is still a joy to shoot. You also did not mention their large magnums which are of stunning quality and power.
    Love the info you provide

  24. In ’70s I had both a mod 39 and later a mod 59 –neither were dependable-crappy ammo and gun. I was LEO and carried either a Mod 19 or 58 then a M 66 ..last two I still have.
    I obtained a M 60 while MP
    in the Army, overseas…Loved it. Had to work for ammo though..
    Unit didn’t see fit to issue us long guns, but didn’t seem to care if we ‘obtained’ something.. I went for M1 or M2 carbines.
    Also the WWII .45s issued mostly loose, shot out junk…

  25. I worked at S&W in the 1970s as a toolmaker, QC was an important part of the production program.
    Today I carry a S&W 4566 tactical as a primary defense weapon, I keep away from the plastic framed weapons, too old a bird to change! Believe it or not my backup for it is a S&W mod #3 hammerless!, nickel plated. lt is a !!0 years old, but unfired in all that time, a bureau drawer special to be sure.
    I also have as a treasure, a WW2 Victory model in new unfired condition. I have a reasonable collection of S&W revolvers and automatics which I am fortunate to have including 41 and 44 magnums, blued and SS.
    The mechanical design is far superior to the Colts’ internal design, I work on both as a pro gunsmith everyday of the week, colt repairs are 8 to 1 of the Smiths and have been that way for decades.
    I have recently worked on collection original S&W Schofield revolvers, the only problems were hardened grease and one broken trigger spring which I had to make.
    Everyone of the above mentioned pieces are of outstanding machining quality.
    I have no qualms about putting my life on the line with anyone of them that I own.
    My midnight go to door gun is a S&W SS 1911 with crimson trace green laser grips, Wilson-Rodgers mags feed in the ammo.

  26. Your article on Smith and Wesson was interesting to say the least. I own several S&W revolvers and am well pleased with my favorites, a model 25-5 (1955 Target in .45 acp and .45 auto rim caliber), an original 6 shot Model 686 with a 6 inch barrel, and a trusty old model 645 in .45 acp. I carried the 686 as my duty revolver as a Police Officer until revolvers were replaced by the original Glock 17 pistol. After the introduction of Glock pistols in the U. S., Smith and Wesson became “design pirates”. Their introduction of the Sigma striker fired pistols so closely copied the Glock design that S&W was sued by Glock. This resulted in an undisclosed out of court settlement in favor of Glock. Later in the 90’s Steyr designed the M series of pistols and introduced their line in 1999. The Steyr design incorporated many elements of the Glock design, which Steyr paid Glock for. The original Steyr M9 had several new design features that were improvements on the original Glock design. There was a disassembly lever, a steel sub frame within the polymer grip frame, a manual safety within the trigger guard, and a unique sight picture with a pyramidal front sight and angled, white outline rear sights. Fast forward to today and we have the S&W M&P 2.0. I own one in .45 ACP. I like it well enough. I wasn’t surprised to find a steel sub frame ala Steyr with many of the internal workings looking extremely similar to both Glock and Steyr pistols. Don’t get me wrong, I like my S&W handguns.

  27. Recently bought 2.
    1. .380 Bodyguard. Consistently dropped magazines while firing. Replaced Mag. Release with Galloway Precision part. Prob solved.
    2. M&P Shield Performance Center .40 S&W. Sights, useless in dark replace with Trijicon. Trigger, less than desirable, replaced with HYVE Technologies trigger. All good now. Too bad you buy brand name Pistols and both require gunsmithing to be effect

  28. As much as I agree with this posting and cannot believe there was no mention of the Model 19 .357… the weapon was carried by ever law enforcement agencies across America…
    I purchased mine in 1978 I still have the original box and the weapon looks brand new till this day (yes I fire it often target practicing)

  29. I have the M&P9 Shield and the M&P15 Sport ll. They are both solid, reliable and fun to shoot. The history of S&W along with the other great American firearms companies, are a tribute to this great country!

  30. I actually switched from Glock to Smith & Wesson when I saw their M&P 2.0 line of pistols. My favorite for Concealed Carry is the Compact .40S&W with it’s 3.6″ Barrel and 13 round Magazine. The additional, easily changed Back straps allowed making this pistol “Just Fit” my hand. I only wish the S&W Performance Center would take this pistol for their modifications.

  31. I carried a Model 15 thought the Vietnam War in my flight vest. I have a personal one I keep in the truck purchased around 1957-8 at the GEX store in Charleston SC. It remains one of my most accurate weapons.

  32. First S&W was Model 10 with the skinny barrel. Had to buy my own weapon for police use. Liked it but could not wait to get the bull barrel. Wish I still had that old gun. Do have a Mod 64. Still shoots to point of aim. Gray gu.

  33. Nice article but let’s show both sides. Let us not forget that Smith and Wesson was the only major firearms manufacturer to bow down to Bill Clinton and demand for ‘safer’ guns. Since that time, the ‘new generation’ of revolvers do not hold a candle to the older ones, A model 686 is not near as smooth and accurate as a model built in the 90’s. While I am not a fan of their magazine disconnect safeties, I consider them a good idea, especially for new firearm owners with children. Overall Smith and Wesson manufactured some great weapons but since they are no longer owned by an American company, their product quality as suffered.

  34. Nice and respectful article about a great company. I currently own only 2 S&W firearms a Model 66 and a M&P9 .. But I like both.

  35. I own several S&W revolvers, from 38 S&W, to 38 spl, 357 mag, 41 mag, and 44 mag. All have been magnificent.
    I have just bought 2 M&P Shield EZ’s for training. In the 2 classes I have just used them in, several of my students already want to get them also.

  36. Family has been connected with S&W for years, even my mother worked there before I was born. Agree that the Model 10 is the role model for other .38 revolvers. The history of S&W would fill several books to cover it properly. S&W has even survived mis-management by prior owners. That alone is a wonderful story.

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