Behind the Scenes at Smith & Wesson
TOURING A TIME-HONORED MANUFACTURING FACILITY
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