Be­hind the Scenes at Smith & Wes­son

TOUR­ING A TIME-HON­ORED MAN­U­FAC­TUR­ING FA­CIL­ITY

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Thomas C. Ta­bor

Tour­ing a time-hon­ored man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity

Dur­ing its ten­ure, Smith & Wes­son (S&W) has weath­ered some storms: the Great De­pres­sion, com­pe­ti­tion and dur­ing the time the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, it ran afoul of a gun-owner’s boy­cott when shoot­ers felt S&W wasn’t rep­re­sent­ing their best in­ter­ests.

Smith & Wes­son sur­vived those gloomy days, and now, af­ter ded­i­cat­ing more than 150 years to its trade, has re­mained one of the fore­most firearms man­u­fac­tur­ers. Let’s have a look in­side S&W’S Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts, man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity and see how the com­pany does things af­ter more than a cen­tury in busi­ness.

To­day’s Smith & Wes­son

I re­cently toured the Spring­field S&W plant, which gave me the unique op­por­tu­nity to see for my­self the com­plex­i­ties of its op­er­a­tion. On the tour, I was joined by sev­eral other gun writ­ers and ac­com­pa­nied by key S&W staff mem­bers.

I as­sumed the S&W fac­tory would con­sist solely of high-tech CNC ma­chines and other so­phis­ti­cated, mod­ern-day, com­put­er­ized equip­ment, but that isn’t en­tirely true. Sure, plenty of those op­er­a­tions ex­ist through­out the plant, but one area is far dif­fer­ent, like a throw­back to the dark ages. That op­er­a­tion is how the hand­gun frames are pro­duced.

Un­like how most hand­gun man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­duce their frames—melt­ing the metal and cast­ing them—s&w uses a unique forg­ing method. S&W of­fi­cials be­lieve that forg­ing pro­duces a bet­ter frame with fewer prob­lems and in­con­sis­ten­cies. To do that, S&W em­ploys an ar­chaic-ap­pear­ing piece of hy­draulic equip­ment that dates back to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent era.

Con­trary to forg­ing, in the cast­ing process, metal is heated to a molten state, then poured into the molds and al­lowed to cure. The down­side to cast­ing is that there is a higher prob­a­bil­ity of im­per­fec­tions within the part due to con­tam­i­na­tion and/or the re­sult of air be­ing trapped in­side the molten metal. When a part is forged, the metal never reaches melt­ing point, thereby elim­i­nat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of con­tam­i­na­tion.

In this case, an in­got of metal is su­per­heated only un­til it turns cherry red in color. Next, it’s sub­jected to an ex­treme se­ries of hy­draulic pound­ing in or­der to force the metal into a se­ries of step-by-step molds to form the part. Amaz­ingly, this en­tire process—cold metal in­got to the su­per­heated metal and fi­nally the formed frame—hap­pens in 1 ½ min­utes.

This process is so unique be­cause it is ac­com­plished by such a mas­sively large, oneof-kind, prim­i­tive piece of equip­ment. Stand­ing a cou­ple of sto­ries high, it re­peat­edly pounds the cherry red metal into each of the stepby-step molds un­til the op­er­a­tor is sat­is­fied with the frame shape. The force re­quired is so vi­o­lent that the of­fices up­stairs shake dur­ing the process.

In sim­ple terms, forg­ing pro­cesses re­sem­ble, to a de­gree, those that tran­spire in your own kitchen. Like the lid of your waf­fle iron is forced down, driv­ing the bat­ter out to the edges of the iron to en­sure a per­fect waf­fle, the forg­ing process does es­sen­tially the same thing. In this case, as the metal in­got is pounded into shape, ex­cess metal is also driven out the edges to en­sure a per­fect part is formed. Af­ter that, the ex­cess metal slag must be trimmed from the part. To do that, it is punched out hy­drauli­cally, sim­i­lar to how a cookie cut­ter might punch out cook­ies.

No one seems to know much about the ori­gin

of S&W’S forg­ing equip­ment, in­clud­ing how old it is, or where to pur­chase re­place­ment parts, should it break down. Nev­er­the­less, this equip­ment and process are stark re­minders that some­times old ways are sim­ply bet­ter.

The S&W Way of Do­ing Things

Once the frames are forged, they must un­dergo a se­ries of high-tech CNC ma­chin­ing op­er­a­tions, and then are held to the same in­house stan­dard of +/- .010 inch, just like all of the other parts the com­pany pro­duces.

To en­sure dura­bil­ity and wear re­sis­tance, it’s

“Every­one I en­coun­tered seemed to be proud of both their com­pany and the part they play in pro­duc­tion.”

nec­es­sary to heat treat many of the firearm parts. This is most com­monly done over an open flame or in a heated oven, but S&W once again takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. It heat-treats its parts by sub­merg­ing them in su­per­heated, liq­ue­fied baths. The com­pany feels this process pro­duces bet­ter over­all parts be­cause the metal comes from those baths not only heat treated on the sur­face, but all the way through the metal.

At one time, a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual or some­times a small group of work­ers was re­spon­si­ble for a par­tic­u­lar firearm’s en­tire assem­bly. That has now been changed to pro­mote ef­fi­ciency and im­prove qual­ity con­trol.

To­day, this process takes on more of an assem­bly-line ap­pear­ance. Other than be­ing more ef­fi­cient over­all, it en­cour­ages each worker within the assem­bly process to re­view and eval­u­ate the pre­vi­ous em­ployee’s work. If a prob­lem is en­coun­tered, it is fixed be­fore the part ad­vances. But, to en­sure to­tal per­fec­tion and over­all qual­ity, ev­ery firearm must un­dergo a se­ries of per­for­mance checks, in­clud­ing live­fire test­ing, be­fore it leaves the fac­tory.

The S&W plant con­tin­ues to run at full ca­pac­ity to­day, work­ing 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Rather than have a back­log of in­ven­tory set­ting in a ware­house await­ing ship­ment, S&W moves all of its firearms to mar­ket within a few days.

It Takes a Team

Dur­ing my tour, I found that S&W em­ploy­ees are ded­i­cated. Every­one I en­coun­tered seemed to be proud of both their com­pany and the part they play in pro­duc­tion. At each work­sta­tion, ev­ery per­son seemed to be dili­gently work­ing at their du­ties and ap­peared knowl­edge­able, happy and well-trained. It was ob­vi­ous that the em­ploy­ees took great pride in their work.

On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, when talk­ing with those in­di­vid­u­als, they would proudly ex­press how many years they’d worked for S&W. One in­di­vid­ual even pointed out that she was a fifth gen­er­a­tion res­i­dent of the area and a fourth gen­er­a­tion S&W em­ployee. With that type of ded­i­ca­tion, I now know how S&W per­se­vered through tough times to pro­duce some of the shoot­ing world’s top firearms.

(top) I sup­pose beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, but cer­tainly this rack of fin­ished pis­tols would qual­ify in most shoot­ers’ eyes as a beau­ti­ful sight.

(op­po­site, top) The op­er­a­tor is re­mov­ing a still red-hot forged re­volver frame from the hy­draulic forg­ing press.

(op­po­site, bot­tom) This S&W re­volver is un­der­go­ing a fi­nal check to make sure it is per­fectly func­tional. PHO­TOS BY THOMAS C. TA­BOR

(right) Smith & Wes­son hand­guns run the gamut, of­fer­ing some­thing for every­one. Their taste­ful ap­pear­ance im­parts a no­tion of qual­ity, and hand­gun con­nois­seurs of­ten mea­sure other brands’ qual­ity and per­for­mance against S&W’S.

above) The in­her­ent beauty of this sup­ply of ri­fle bar­rels ex­cited the au­thor. (op­po­site) This young lady is putting the fi­nal fin­ish­ing touches on a Thomp­son/cen­ter Tri­umph muz­zleloader be­fore pack­ag­ing it for mar­ket.

PHO­TOS BY THOMAS C. TA­BOR

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