Smith & Wesson – An Inside the Gun Factory Look

By Tom McHale

Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson Factory Tour
Tom McHale
Tom McHale

USA –-(Ammoland.com)- You think Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Alimony From Tyrannical Little Ex-Mayors With Serious Napoleon Complexes (MDAFTLEMWSNC) has serious armed security?

If so, you should check out Smith & Wesson’s Springfield, MA manufacturing plant.

We’re talking motorized vehicle barriers, iron gates, metal detectors, and security guards armed with – you guessed it – Smith & Wesson M&P pistols. Of course, one of the many differences between Smith & Wesson and Shannon Watts is that the Smith factory actually warrants tight security.

That and the Smith & Wesson folks make a productive contribution to society.

I had the distinct pleasure of touring the Smith & Wesson factory this month to see exactly how their guns are made. Wow. I’m still stunned by the complexity, equipment, people, scale and history. The current facility was built in 1945 using a war-footing design. It’s engineered to keep operating during a direct aerial booming attack. The idea was that the catacombs, built under dirt, steel, and loads of concrete, would house operating machinery and workers even while the above ground part was flattened. That’s pretty hard core.

Smith & Wesson Factory tour
This is less than a seven-day supply of future guns. Who says Americans aren't buying guns in record numbers?

It all starts with steel. Lots and lots of it of various types and grades. Like other modern manufacturers, Smith & Wesson streamlines efficiency using LEAN manufacturing techniques, so raw materials are delivered continuously. What you see in the photo here is only about a seven-day supply.

Bar stock like this is headed for two potential fates - the forge or the mill, and sometimes both.
Bar stock like this is headed for two potential fates – the forge or the mill, and sometimes both.

When steel arrives as bar stock, it faces two different fates, and I'm not sure which is more violent. First, it can head to the forge, where giant, two-story transformers machines pound them into gun frames and various other components. Second, the raw stock might head straight for computerized milling, where it will be transformed into things like barrels, slides, revolver cylinders and other miscellaneous parts.

We'll start with the forging process as forged parts also head to the milling machines after they're stamped out.

A set of revolver frame forge dies. Note the increase in detail from left to right.
A set of revolver frame forge dies. Note the increase in detail from left to right.

A forge is a giant, and really scary, piece of equipment. The big ones are about two stories tall and smash weights heavier than Rosie O'Donnell over and over again onto red hot steel, thereby causing it to take the desired shape.

You'll know when the forges are running at Smith & Wesson as the entire eastern seaboard shakes.

Smith & Wesson's forges
Just a couple of Smith & Wesson's forges. The one on the right resembles a Transformer does it not?

The forging process does not produce completed parts. It gets you close as you can see by the bar stock to 1911 frame forging steps.

A future 1911 frame gets mashed into shape from a bar of steel.
A future 1911 frame gets mashed into shape from a bar of steel.

As you can see from the sequence above, forged parts require further work, which leads us to the second potential fate of all that incoming steel – milling.

This area shows a small fraction of the CNC and traditional milling machines used at Smith & Wesson.
This area shows a small fraction of the CNC and traditional milling machines used at Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson continues to make massive investments in CNC machines to perform this kind of work. New machines are brought in and fired up on a regular basis. With each new generation of milling machine technology, great strides in efficiency become possible. For example, the process of milling revolver cylinders used to require 60+ milling steps. Now, two machines complete the whole process.

The newest CNC machines offer up to seven axes of operation. In plain english, that means the machine can vigorously attack the metal from lots of different directions without removing and reorienting the raw material. This means that more of a part can be made in a single machine setup step.

One of the most complex parts to manufacture, revolver cylinders are now made in two machining steps.
One of the most complex parts to manufacture, revolver cylinders are now made in just two machining steps.

All the milling that goes on requires thousands of tool heads – those scary looking cutters and blades that cut, grind and shape steel and aluminum pieces and parts.

Smith & Wesson custom tool heads
A small sampling of some of the custom tool heads used at Smith & Wesson.

No, contrary to what MSNBC tells you, the tools above are not used for enhanced interrogation techniques at Club Gitmo. They’re machining tool heads. Over the years, Smith & Wesson has figured out that they’re better off making their own tool heads from scratch. They have an entire section of the factory dedicated to machining and sharpening tool heads like those above.

The net result of all this machining is thousands of parts - like these snubbie revolver barrels.
The net result of all this machining is thousands of parts – like these snubbie revolver barrels.

After parts are forged, milled and otherwise abused into the proper shape, many are destined for yet another insult – heat treating.

On the right is a giant vacuum chamber used for heat treating components from the inside out - evenly.
On the right is a giant vacuum chamber used for heat treating components from the inside out – evenly.

You'll see different ways to do this depending on the specific requirements. Some machines resemble giant Burger King flame broilers, where parts are conveyed through a flaming chamber. Others go into huge and very well-insulated ovens. Some even head for giant vacuum chambers that provide heat treatment all the way through the components – not just the surface layers.

Most components get some type of finishing treatment like bluing or anodizing. While most finishing facility's looks like an EPA nightmare, this one is not. A few years back, Smith & Wesson invested in a hazardous materials treatment plant right here next to the finishing area. Nasty chemicals go in one end, through a myriad of pipes, filters, valves and such, and come out the other end as drinkable water. I didn't try it though…

Got barrels? Remember, Smith & Wesson also makes Thompson Center rifles.
Got barrels? Remember, Smith & Wesson also makes Thompson Center rifles.

Once all the parts are made, finished, polished and checked, it's time for assembly. This is the step where the human element comes in to play. Small groups of technicians work together to assemble completed guns, with each checking the work of the person before them in the line. These small teams of three to six people ensure mutual accountability and a high level of quality control.

A technician bore sights a new M&P 15 to get the iron sights aligned.
A technician bore sights a new M&P 15 to get the iron sights aligned.

There's one last step before shiny new guns are put into boxes and shipped. Smith & Wesson has at least three (I lost count) indoor ranges where employees test fire every gun to make sure it works properly.

As an avid reloader, I begged and begged to take home just one of the dozens of 55 gallon drums full of shiny once-fired brass, but alas, the airlines wouldn't let me carry it on the plane.

After touring dozens of factories like this one, I always have to chuckle when I see an internet rant about who makes good guns and gear and who doesn't. You tend to gain a whole new appreciation for what gun and accessory manufacturers do when you walk the halls, understand the processes and meet the people that make our guns.

Next time you think about buying a Smith & Wesson, take a look at these photos – it might give you a whole new appreciation for what you're getting when you unwrap that shining new S&W firearm..

About

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon . You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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Heed the Call-upEvelyn GuzmanMike MoseleyCharles GillJane Recent comment authors
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Evelyn Guzman
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Evelyn Guzman

I have an idea to help make your gun weapon more safe in the home of families.

Heed the Call-up
Guest
Heed the Call-up

Evelyn, we, as firearm owners, already know the safe way to handle firearms that does not involve government interference in our lives. It’s called teaching firearm safety, starting the learning process in children at a very young age. That has worked for the hundreds of years firearms have existed – well before anti-rights Democrats decided that it had a part in controlling our lives. I learned firearm safety so young that I can’t remember not knowing. I also taught my daughter the same way. When she decided to learn to shoot, I was not concerned with her not being able… Read more »

Mike Moseley
Guest
Mike Moseley

Does any company make forged or tool steel parts for your new Revolvers, I have had to many problems with your mim parts, Had to replace broken trigger and hammer, and peening of hammer from hitting firing pin, Worst thing you ever did was use these cheap parts. If you know of a company please let me know, Otherwise i will just sell these revolvers. and let someone else have the problem. Thanks, Mike Moseley.

Charles Gill
Guest
Charles Gill

Do they make their own ar15 barrels anyone?

Jane
Guest
Jane

I have a straight .38 special snub nose. It is all in the ammo you use. I always use a 148 grain lead wadcutter with very little recoil. It has great penetration and accuracy with hardly any recoil. It would stop anybody in a conceal carry situation. For target practice, I can fire off 100 rounds and not feel a thing. (This is after having had a shattered wrist in my shooting hand two years prior.)

Michael J.
Guest
Michael J.

With such low quality products coming from overseas it is great to see an American company and workforce more concerned about the quality of the product they put out then working to keep the price as cheap as possible. Every S&W I have ever handled was of the highest quality. My wife and I love our S&W 386 (.357/.38 Spcl) most of what we own. God bless!!

Fred
Guest
Fred

When do they get serial numbers?

Tom
Guest
Tom

We didn’t cover that specifically on the tour, and my impression was that it’s a security thing. The further a gun moves through the process, the more rigid the security measures – with good reason of course.

JiminMaine
Guest
JiminMaine

When you take the tour do they give your free samples like at the the Budweiser brewery?

Tom
Guest
Tom

Of course! They let us run amok for an hour and a half with a grocery cart, scooping up as much as we could!

In my dreams…

Capn Jack
Guest
Capn Jack

“Everyone else makes a gun. Smith & Wesson makes a revolver.”
Still true, though my carry is a S&W 469

james
Guest
james

I recall an article in G&A years ago before S&W was sold off to the UK conglomerate,
workers were paid by the piece, problem is the quality took a back seat to quantity.

Now with new ownership and management in place, the CNC operations produce quality parts.

Lincoln Electric uses piece work but their quality is very high, the workers enjoy a nice profit sharing each year.

I enjoy my M&P15x, 686+ and several other models that I purchased used as police trades.

John Hebb
Guest
John Hebb

I have taken the factory tour and took a number of classes at the Smith and Wesson Academy back before I retired from police work. It is an impressive place. They turn out a quality product. You are right that the factory could be relocated relatively easily. The workforce at the plant is incredibly talented and experienced. You could not start fresh somewhere else and put out the quality product that they do without the current staff. I am a New Englander and a Massachusetts native. I am glad that they are here. Despite the fact that I am politically… Read more »

sturmwolf
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sturmwolf

Awesome, wish they would move it and its loyal employees to Dixie, lock,stock and barrel.

MyGunCulture
Guest

I;m going from memory here, so I may have the actual figure wrong, but I believe the average tenure of employees at that facility is something like 18 years. Given that level of experience on the job, it sure would be tough for a company to relocate. The equipment and facility is (relatively) easy compared to trying to rebuild a workforce with that kind of tenure.

Of course, selfishly speaking, I would love to see them move on down south too 🙂

Robert Nimmons
Guest
Robert Nimmons

I have had a snub 357,38 special that I bought for my wife but a little to powerful for her so I sold it. I then bought an 8 cyl 22 rev which I feel is one of the best pistols in my safe and one which my wife can handle very well and she used it in her CCW up date. She has had her CCW for 7 years. Thank you.
Robert Nimmons,
Northern California

Steve K
Guest
Steve K

And then they destroy the beauty of stainless steel by applying a bead blasted finish that makes it look like cheap aluminum. When they show me some satin or polished stainless revolvers I’ll be back.

jet22
Guest
jet22

Had to laugh when I seen the tool heads photo, an on left were hand cuffs.
Got to keep um working Ha Ha

Thanks Ammoland

MyGunCulture
Guest

While on the tour, I saw lots of handcuffs being made, but couldn’t for the life of me find any fur-lined ones 🙂

61Deacon64
Guest
61Deacon64

Ahh, 22Jet. One of my favorite revolvers. And a noisy little bugger she is too.