They say two minds are better than one. That seems to be the case for Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. They revolutionized the gun industry in the mid-19th century with the introduction of their self-contained cartridge and Model 1 revolver. But their first foray into the industry as partners failed, forcing them to return to the drawing board. Overcoming this setback, they reunited and gave it another shot. As a result of their determination, Smith & Wesson is arguably the most popular handgun manufacturer today.
Smith and Wesson
Rufus Wesson, born in 1786, excelled at making wooden plows. His sons inherited his mechanical ingenuity. At the age of 18, his fourth son, Daniel Baird Wesson, worked in a shoe factory with his older brothers Rufus and Martin. He disliked it so much that he returned to the family farm. In search of a new trade, Daniel became an apprentice to his older brother, Edwin, a gunsmith that produced quality target rifles. Rufus provides a glimpse of Daniel’s newfound passion for gunsmithing in a letter to Edwin dated October 13, 1842. “Daniel likes to hunt,” he told his son, “but he had rather be at work in the shop on gunlocks, springs or something of that kind.” Tragically, in January 1849, Edwin died of a heart attack, derailing the Wesson Rifle Co.’s success. It closed due to financial difficulties, leaving Daniel to bounce between employers.
Also a native of Massachusetts and 18 years older than Daniel Wesson, Horace Smith became an apprentice at the age of 16 for the U.S. Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. He started forging bayonets, but four years later became a journeyman, manufacturing tools. One of his first inventions was a hammer check machine. Around 1843, he went to work at the Whitney Armory in New Haven, Connecticut. After 15 months, he became an employee for Allen & Thurber. By 1846, Smith began to produce his own firearms and even manufactured a whaling gun that propelled harpoons by gunpowder. In 1851, he took a position with Allen, Brown & Luther manufacturing rifle barrels.
Smith and Wesson likely become acquainted sometime in the early 1850s. In 1856, the two partnered and established a company in Norwich, Connecticut, to manufacture a magazine pistol based on Lewis Jennings’ rifle. The gun fired a self-contained rimfire cartridge that bundled together the bullet, gunpowder and primer — modeled on the French inventor Louis-Nicolas Flobert’s cartridge. Cortlandt Parker, a wealthy New York investor who owned the rights to several important patents, financed the new company. Despite the ingenious design of the Volcanic pistol and its ammunition, the two didn’t perform well together. The Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. went bankrupt as a result. Smith and Wesson sold the company to the successful shirt manufacturer and investor Oliver F. Winchester. It seemed like an end of a promising partnership between these two entrepreneurs. But Wesson wasn’t one to give up easily. After his brother’s company failed in 1849, he wrote, “no thing of importance will come without effort.” This mindset would propel him into greatness.
The Innovators Reunite
After the collapse of Volcanic Repeating Arms Co., Wesson worked as a plant superintendent for Oliver Winchester. Meanwhile, Smith returned to Springfield and operated a livery stable with his brother-in-law William Collins. Wesson continued to experiment with the self-contained cartridge and eventually designed a .22 cartridge rimfire to be used in a revolver instead of a lever-action pistol. In 1857, Samuel Colt’s monopoly on revolvers expired, and Smith and Wesson sensed an opportunity. They reformed their partnership to produce a revolver that could handle the self-contained cartridge.
In March 1857, the Springfield Republican reported that the two leased a floor of William L. Wilcox’s building on 5 Market Street in Springfield. They purchased and signed an exclusive use agreement for ex-Colt employee Rollin White’s patented cylinder. The cylinder’s chambers were pierced all the way through, permitting the revolver to be loaded from the rear. The following year, Smith and Wesson began to produce the .22 caliber Model 1. The barrel opened up (“tip-up”), instead of down (like a top-break revolver). “The advantages claimed for the arm,” the paper stated, “is its lightness, entire immunity from all danger of a double discharge of barrels, security from water, ease and rapidity of loading, etc.” A much larger version of the Model 1, the .32 caliber Model 2, followed soon after.
Demand for Smith & Wesson pistols was so high during the American Civil War that by 1862, the company had to stop taking orders because it couldn’t keep up. Smith & Wesson manufactured more than 100,000 revolvers during the war. By 1865, the company’s owners were the two wealthiest men in Springfield.
‘Every Nook of the World’
In 1870, the company introduced the Smith & Wesson Model 3. The top-break revolver automatically ejected its .44 caliber cartridges when the barrel was pushed down after being released. This allowed the user to rapidly unload and reload the revolver. While the U.S. Army and police departments were supplied with some Model 3s, they were popular with the Russian Army. The Russian government initially ordered 20,000 in 1871. “The Russian Model completely changed the Smith & Wesson position in the world, for it established the factory as a world-famous arms manufacturer, helped the company to establish financial stability, and also precipitated orders from other nations,” Smith & Wesson historian Roy G. Jinks stated. “[F]rom the first Russian contract stemmed the growth and success of Smith & Wesson.” Different versions of the Model 3 were sold to the Argentine, Ottoman, Japanese and Australian governments.
In July 1873, after a partnership of 20 years, Smith sold his shares in the company to Wesson. Smith continued to work as an independent firearms contractor in Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts until he died in 1893. He left most of his $3 million fortune to charities and religious organizations. Twelve years later, Wesson died at the age of 81. At the time of his death, Wesson was said to have been worth $25 million. Like Smith, Wesson contributed to charitable organizations, including $350,000 to establish the Wesson Memorial Hospital and $400,000 for a maternity hospital.
Daniel Wesson’s family members remained involved in the management of the company until the death of his grandson, Harold, in 1946. Daniel B. Wesson’s obituary notice published in Forest and Stream 116 years ago said that the company’s firearms “reach every nook of the world.” The statement wasn’t an exaggeration then, and it certainly isn’t now.
Boorman, Dean K. The History of Smith & Wesson Firearms. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2002.
“Death of Daniel B. Wesson.” Forest and Stream (August 11, 1906): 231.
Eliot, Samuel A., ed. Biographical History of Massachusetts: Biographies and Autobiographies of the Leading Men in the State. Vol. 1. Boston: Massachusetts Biographical Society, 1911.
“Half of His Fortune Devised to Charity.” New York Herald (New York City, NY), January 22, 1893.
Jinks, Roy G. History of Smith & Wesson. North Hollywood, CA: Beinfeld Publishing, Inc., 1977.
Jinks, Roy G. and Sandra C. Krein. Images of America: Smith & Wesson. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
“Million’s for Charity.” Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, SD), January 20, 1893.
Pate, Charles W. Smith & Wesson American Model in U.S. and Foreign Service. Woonsocket, RI: Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2006.
Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), March 26, 1857.
“The Death of D. B. Wesson at His Home in Springfield.” Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), August 5, 1906.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. 10. New York: James T. White & Co., 1900.
Van Slyck, J. D. New England Manufacturers and Manufactories. Vol. 2. Boston: Von Slyck & Co., 1879.