A Visit with Smith & Wesson

 

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn

June 1st, 2007

 

 

 

About a week ago, I got on a plane in Nashville and headed for Massachusetts for a visit with the folks at Smith & Wesson. I had visited there briefly about two years ago, but this was to be a more in depth tour of the factory and other facilities, such as their very modern indoor shooting range.

Arriving at the airport in Hartford, Connecticut, I was introduced to two other writers who were guests of S&W for the week; Frank James and Leroy Thompson. I knew both of these gentlemen on sight, for I have read their work for many years. Both write for reputable magazines, and Mr. Thompson also has a book out that contains a lot of useful information on VIP Protection and such. Mr. James has written books on the defensive use of a handgun, and on the MP5 Submachine gun, and probably a few others.  Look for Gunblast reviews of some of those books shortly.

The first evening, we were treated to a private tour of the old Springfield Armory Museum, which is now under the administration of the National Park Service, and what a delight that tour was! I saw rack after rack of antique firearms dating from the American revolution, and progressing forward through the Vietnam era weapons. It was a history of our nation through firearms. It is amazing to me how the early Americans were able to manufacture that vast amount of arms without the benefit of electrical power. Even later during the two major world wars, Americans turned out a staggering amount of arms and ammunition to supply the free world. If you are ever near Springfield, Massachusetts, I highly recommend a visit to the old Armory Museum.  After that, we were off to a fine supper somewhere downtown.  Seems like a bit of everything was on the menu, but I settled on a huge piece of pork loin stuffed with ham and cheese. You just canít hardly beat pork stuffed with pork! Mighty fine eating.

After a good nightís sleep, we were off to the Smith & Wesson offices to have a look at some new products that are being introduced by S&W. Messrs. James, Thomson, and I were joined by another writer, but I canít remember his name at this time. Nice fellow though. In recent years, Smith & Wesson has been really aggressive in pursuing segments of the gun market in which they were not involved before, such as their 1911 auto pistol and the M&P AR-15 rifle. In both product lines, S&W didnít just stick their toe in the water to test the market. They jumped in with both feet, and it has paid off well. If you look at their quarterly profits, or have tracked S&W in the stock market over the last year, you know that they are definitely doing something right. I really like their 1911 pistol, and have reviewed a couple of them. I have also fired a couple of their M&P AR rifles, and find them to be superior to most of their competitors.

One of the newest product lines for Smith & Wesson is their move into the bolt action hunting rifle market. The I-Bolt has some interesting features that set it apart from the competition. S&W did not set out to copy a Mauser or Remington or some other rifle action. Instead, the I-Bolt is a strong, light, and rigid action set into a unique stock design that is also light weight but stiff to fully support the action. It has a place in the stock for an optional lead/oil recoil reducer, an adjustable Timney trigger, sixty degree bolt lift, and comes with a one-piece bridge scope base attached.  The first year will be long action cartridges only, such as the .30-06, .270, and .25-06. Good choices. Next year, we should see a short action .308 with a detachable box magazine and a heavy barrel.

In the handgun line, I got to handle the new .45 M&P auto pistol again. I have been and continue to be impressed with the M&P pistols from Smith & Wesson. They are world-class, and the .45 ACP version is a real dandy. It can be had with or without a thumb safety. Also shown to us were the M&P revolvers, and the anxiously awaited return of the beloved Model 63 J-frame .22 Long Rifle stainless Kit Gun. These new ones will feature an eight-shot cylinder and five inch barrel at first.

Smith & Wesson is the North American distributor for Walther pistols, and the new PPS is a very slim and light pocket auto chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge. The first ones will come with three magazines; a six, seven, and eight shot. It has good highly visible sights, a plastic frame, and a good trigger pull.

Also shown to us was the new line of high quality double barrel shotguns that I got to shoot briefly at SHOT earlier this year, along with their new gas-operated semi-auto shotgun. The doubles are very good-looking classy field guns retailing for just over $2000, and the semi-auto will be a very competitive field gun for hunters.

After a morning of fondling the new guns, we were fed a big lunch, and then headed down into the factory for a close-up look at the making of the Smith & Wesson firearms. I was very impressed by the use of the most modern CNC machines available, along with the use of the old behemoth hammer forge that has been around for decades. In the forge, workers take a red-hot piece of steel, and the big machine slams it into the shape of a revolver frame, pistol slide, or other such part. Also present were parts that were obviously not handgun or AR-15 parts at all. Smith & Wesson forges parts for other companies also, some within the gun industry, and others in the automotive and other industrial sectors of manufacturing. Same thing with Smithís heat treating facility. They contract heat-treating for others within and without the gun industry.  The CNC milling machines were very impressive. S&W has invested over eighty million dollars in new machinery in the past five years, and it is paying off in terms of both quality and speed of production. What used to take 127 different operations to complete a revolver cylinder now takes only sixteen minutes and one machine. An operator loads a length of steel into one end of the machine, and finished cylinders come out the other end ready for final polishing, which is also done by a robotic machine. Revolver side plates that were once tediously fitted by hand are now made exactly the same by a machine that is constantly measuring and adjusting for tolerance. The result is revolvers with parts fitted much better than they were just a few years ago, and cost increases held to a minimum. Another way in which S&W holds down costs and pumps up quality is that they have their own tool-making shop, producing the cutters and end mills for their CNC machinery in-house. While S&W handguns have never been cheap to purchase, in todayís dollars, they are more affordable than ever before. All this is made possible by constantly upgrading their equipment for tighter tolerances and faster production. Tighter tolerances mean less time fitting, and a better quality product. While some in the gun industry, Winchester (USRAC) being a recent example, refuse to modernize and cannot compete and stay in business, S&W is at the top of their game. I am also a bit worried about a couple of others in the gun business that operate on old machinery and with antiquated union rules that prevent the company from making a product that shooters will buy. The Winchester lever and bolt rifles that were built in New Haven, because of stupid union contracts, will likely never be built again in the US, at least for a few years anyway.  With such archaic agreements with the union, Winchester loses, the workers lose, and shooters lose. Nobody wins. S&W isnít afraid to modernize, and that allows them to compete with the best firearm designs in the world. They sell their M&P pistols, for example, competitively with those brought in from Eastern Europe and South America, and provide a product that is second to none.

Anyway, after a long day at the factory, we were again fed like royalty and sent to bed tired and full. The next day was a day at the S&W shooting range.  We got to shoot several revolvers and auto pistols. Especially popular with Messrs. James, Thompson, and myself were the M&P .45 auto pistols and the Walther PPS. I was impressed by the accuracy and shooting qualities of both of these pistols. I also really liked shooting the lightweight 386 ScS seven-shot .357 magnum revolver. It was very accurate as well as a  fun-to-shoot handgun.  Shooting offhand at seven yards, 35 shots clustered most shots into about two inches, then I started to pull the shots out of the group, so I stopped shooting that lightweight .357 magnum. Recoil is a cumulative thing, and the effects were starting to show in my shooting ability.  Same thing with the 9mm PPS. It also turned in a very respectable showing on target, grouping 24 shots a bit low and left for me, but tight enough for social work nonetheless. I really like the PPS, and requested a test gun for a full review as soon as possible.

It had been a couple of years since I was last at the Smith & Wesson factory, and I came away very impressed by the facility, the tooling, and the people. They told me that the average tenure of workers at the factory is twenty-seven years. Equally important, many of the top managers started  years ago on the production floor, and have a vast knowledge of what it takes to make a quality handgun. They are also shooters and hunters.  Everyone that I met, from the President on down, seemed genuinely interested in providing products that shooters want, and they listened to the opinions of their guests on those three days at the factory.  Smith & Wesson is a company that combines the old with the new, making classic revolvers and world class auto pistols, along with rifles and now a line of quality shotguns that are being built by S&W in Turkey. The Performance Center turns out some very high quality production runs of special handguns for shooters who demand the very best. Smith & Wesson handguns and rifles are built in America with American labor and materials. That means a lot to me. There are some fine weapons made elsewhere in the world, but it pleases me to see American workers once again making weapons that are second to none in quality, design, and workmanship. In that respect, Smith & Wesson delivers. Look for full reviews on their new products very soon.  Check out the full line of S&W products at:  www.smith-wesson.com.

It was a good three days in Springfield, Massachusetts. I want to thank the management and workers at Smith & Wesson, and the good folks at Blue Heron Communications for putting it all together.  I had a good time, and made some new friends.  I also want to thank Frank and Leroy for sharing their knowledge, experience, and expertise in the brief time that we spent together, touring, eating, and shooting both the weapons and the bull in Massachusetts.

I also want to take this opportunity to welcome Smith & Wesson as our newest advertiser. While that wasn't a goal of this trip, the subject came up one night at supper, and I am glad to welcome them to Gunblast.com. We have reviewed their products for many years, and they build guns that I can recommend to other shooters, as I often buy them myself, and I carry one daily in my pocket.

Jeff Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

A view of the safety lever on an M&P .45.

 

 

.44 Magnum "Survival Kit".

 

 

The Walther PPS.

 

 

S&W engraver at work.

 

 

John Ross Limited Edition Performance Center revolvers.

 

 

Performance Center Model 60 .357 3-inch "kit gun".

 

 

Performance Center .460 XVR.

 

 

Engraved nickel-plated Model 29 .44 Magnum.

 

 

Parts awaiting assembly in the Performance Center.

 

 

M&P .45 slides go through the forging operation.

 

 

S&W helps control quality and costs by making their own cutting tools.

 

 

S&W successfully combines old-world craftsmanship with state-of-the-art CNC machinery.

 

 

Polishing operations.

 

 

M&P AR-15 rifles.

 

 

Revolvers are assembled by hand.

 

 

Frank James shoots the M&P .45.

 

 

Leroy Thompson (top) and the author (bottom) shooting the Walther PPS 9mm.

 

 

M&P .45, 16 shots at seven yards offhand.

 

 

Walther PPS 9mm, 24 shots offhand at seven yards.

 

 

S&W 386ScS revolver, 35 shots offhand at seven yards.