A Brief History of the Smith & Wesson Model 1

The Smith & Wesson Model 1 was the first American metallic cartridge-load revolver. It was the firearm that singlehandedly put Smith & Wesson on the map, and in two short years its sales had generated enough revenue to catapult the company into its own purpose-built factory. Through the Rollin White patent that Smith & Wesson had exclusively licensed, they were able to maintain a near monopoly on the cartridge revolver market until the patent expired in 1868. The company was firmly entrenched as a major force in American arms manufacture by that time.

Smith & Wesson Before Smith & Wesson

Horace Smith (1808 – 1893) was born into a gun making family. His father, Silas Smith (1781 – 1858), had worked for many years as an armorer at the United States Armory at Springfield. From a young age Horace worked in the shops, starting as a “helper” in the forging department.

By 1842, Horace had left Springfield to pursue gun making with the firm of Allen & Luther in Worcester, Massachusetts. The gun making community was a tight one, and Horace worked for a few companies before ending up at the Whitneyville Armory.

Like Horace Smith, Daniel Baird Wesson (1825 – 1906) had been influenced by several gunmaker in his family—most notably, his older brother Edwin Wesson (1811 – 1849), who had a reputation for making some of the highest quality firearms in the Connecticut Valley.

Exactly where Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson met has long been a topic of conjecture, but the most credible evidence suggests that they met at the Robbins and Lawrence Armory in Windsor, Vermont, where they were working on a revolver that became known as the Wesson & Leavitt.

The two gun makers founded their first Smith & Wesson partnership in 1852, which resulted in the production of the Volcanic repeating pistol and carbine. The design was unreliable and the “rocket ball” ammunition proved troublesome, but the company attracted some interest from investors and was eventually financed by shirtmaker Oliver Winchester, who promptly renamed the company.

Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson took the money they earned from the sale of this company and focused their efforts on an entirely different gun design. Colt’s patent on the revolver was set to expire in 1855, and they believed that the revolver design—combined with a new type of cartridge ammunition—could be a winning formula.

The second Smith & Wesson partnership was founded on November 18, 1856.

1856 - 1857: Smith & Wesson's Earliest Days

Horace and Daniel brought more than a few thousand dollars to their company’s founding in 1856. They had a wooden model of the the gun they envisioned making, and a hand lathe they had purchased to make the model. Their initial investment in the company came to $3,650.31, after paying themselves back for the cost of the wooden model and the $500 fee to an inventor named Rollin White for the exclusive use of his patent.

The company’s first few months were laboriously slow. They bought two milling machines in December 1856 and a drill press in February 1857, but it wasn’t until March that they had a working prototype of the Model 1. They promptly sent this gun to a tool company in New Hampshire to have tooling made, which was shipped back to them two weeks later. They continued to setup their shop in Springfield during April, and in May they purchase a boiler and steam engine—and the pulleys and axles and belting necessary to power the machinery.

In June 1857, Smith & Wesson had taken on several workmen that began making the company’s first guns. Cash from the initial investment was running out, and Horace and Daniel both had to contribute more of their personal funds to keep the company afloat—which they did.

By November 1857, the company had produced five working firearms. Pictured below is serial number 5—the earliest surviving Smith & Wesson revolver in existence.

1858: The Breakthrough Year

Smith & Wesson only produced 5 guns in 1857. In 1858, they produced over 2,500 guns—and sold every single one of them in short order. The Model 1 was an overnight success owing to its ease of use and simplicity, and to its compact size—so much the better for residents of America’s growing cities, many of which were ridden with crime and grossly under-policed.

The Model 1 wasn’t without its problems, though. The gun’s delicate recoil shield (with its dovetailed retainer key) was notoriously difficult to make, and the entire mechanism proved unreliable. In May 1858 after only 220 guns had been made, the design was changed and made far more robust. After another thousand guns, the design changed again in October—this time, to replace the bayonet shaped barrel spring with a more robust spring-loaded catch.

Pictured below is one of the last guns that Smith & Wesson made in 1858. It was shipped from the factory on December 24.

1859: Planning for Growth

Even though Horace and Daniel had a winner in the Model 1, it was quickly becoming apparent that production capacity was hindering the company’s ability to grow.

The chief problem was the lack of space. Up until this point, they had rented the second floor of a stove and pipe factory. For a company in its infancy, the space had been fine … but they were becoming increasingly dependent on employees working from home (then known as the “putting out” system of contract labor), which made it more difficult to manage the flow of materials and parts. The solution was to be found in a single building that could accommodate all of the operations needed to make firearms—forging, casting, machining, finishing, plating, assembling, and fitting. By the middle of 1859, Smith & Wesson were making plans to erect a large factory on Stockbridge Street in Springfield, into which raw materials could be fed, and from which finished firearms would emerge.

Construction of the new factory began in the fall of 1859. Thankfully, demand for the Model 1 continued to remain high, and they sold over 8,000 guns that year. Among those guns was the one pictured below, which shipped from the factory on June 4, 1859.

1860: Redesigning the Model 1 for Mass Production

The construction of the Stockbridge Street meant that production could be streamlined, but the partners quickly realized that there were also efficiencies to be had in the design of the Model 1. Up to this point the Model 1 had undergone six engineering revisions, but those were all tweaks to the same basic design. To accelerate production the way that they wanted to, the Model 1 would need a much more significant overhaul.

At first glance, the Model 1’s produced in the Stockbridge Street factory looked very much like the ones from the rented Market Street factory. Both had the familiar flared grip, both had the octagonal barrel, and both had the smooth cylinder. But the frame underwent a significant redesign, and its formerly round profile gave way to flat sides—which were easier to manufacture and required less hand fitting. The side plate was enlarged, which made it easier to fit the redesigned hammer. The new design had about a half-dozen fewer parts, and it required much less hand fitting.

The new Model 1 (now known to collectors as the 2nd Issue) continued to sell well. Tooling the new factory took precious time away from manufacturing guns, but the company still produced over 5,000 guns that year. Pictured below is one of the Model 1’s from 1860—shipped from the factory on December 6 of that year.