Smith & Wesson’s Great Migration

After 170 years in Massachusetts, S&W has moved its headquarters to Tennessee and launched a new lever action.

Smith & Wesson’s Great Migration

Milking cows to fund grad school and feed a .22 match rifle on weekends left me little more than the fiver I handed the gun show gate-keeper. The S&W caught my eye on my first pass. I’d never owned one. This .357 looked almost new. Meekly I asked: “Would you take one-twenty-five?” The old fellow ran a gun shop; he knew that 27 was worth its $150 tag. And the show had just started. 

He smiled. “Sure, son.”

As I dug in my pocket, a big man stepped between us, two C-notes in hand. “I’ll take that Smith.”

After a long second of silence, the seller said quietly, “I’m sorry. It’s sold.” He laid the revolver on its oiled brown paper in the blue box and handed it to me. “Take care of her.” 

New Beginning

Many moons have since passed. So has that fellow. But his kindness and integrity stay sharp in

memory. I still have the .357. And S&W still manufactures the Model 27 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“Yes, the company is moving,” Dave O’Connor told me last year. “But not all of it.” O’Connor works for Smith & Wesson as media relations manager. He’s based in Springfield, S&W’s home since 1856. “The headquarters and manufacture of autoloading pistols and AR-15 rifles will shift to Maryville, Tennessee. So will the injection molding shop and many distribution functions. I’m one of about 1,000 employees who will stay in Springfield, with forging, heavy machining and metal finishing operations — also revolver production and assembly.”

S&W announced the $120 million move in late September 2021. President and CEO Mark Smith said the company “had little choice” but to leave Massachusetts, as proposed legislation there, “if enacted, would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing [in Springfield] firearms … used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens … protecting themselves and their families and enjoying shooting sports. These products made up more than 60% of our revenue [in 2020].” Massachusetts had banned the purchase of “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines” in 2004 and was bent on more restrictions.

After vetting several candidates, the decision-makers chose Maryville, Tennessee, as S&W’s new digs. This suburban city of 32,000 lies about 17 miles south of Knoxville and is home to the University of Tennessee. Besides its ready access to higher education, Smith noted the area’s pro-business environment and strong support for the Second Amendment as influential in site selection. Maryville’s location made it a good choice for a U.S. distribution center. The availability of qualified workers also figured in. 

At 193,000, Knoxville’s population is 23% greater than Springfield’s. But the cost of living is about 10% lower in east Tennessee than in Springfield. Notably, Massachusetts taxes rank among the highest in the nation. 

As workers began building a 650,000-square-foot complex on S&W’s 230 acres, relocation offers went to 750 employees in Springfield. Those choosing not to move got enhanced severances. A Missouri facility housing S&W’s distribution hub was sub-leased, while the company divested itself of an injection molding plant in Connecticut. S&W operations in Houlton, Maine, were not affected by the move. 

On October 7, 2023, Mark Smith hosted a ribbon-cutting event at S&W’s new headquarters, 1852 Profitt Springs Road, Maryville. The highlight: a steel-target performance by S&W revolver ace Jerry Miculek. At 7 yards, six shots from his 9mm flattened six plates individually in 1.88 seconds! An NRA speed record!

Added Leverage

Best known for revolvers, S&W has built fine autoloaders too: the 39 and 59 as well as 1911s and the 41, the gold standard in rimfire bullseye competition. Since 2005 the M&P series has brought S&W a big slice of the striker-fired market. M&Ps point naturally and cycle reliably. Ditto their Shield progeny. I’m sweet on the full-size M&P 2.0 in 10mm, a polymer-frame Performance Center pistol with an embedded stainless chassis and 5.6-inch ported stainless barrel. The optic-ready slide wears tall white-dot sights. Four grip options give fumble-free control in slick hands. There’s an ambidextrous thumb safety, a smooth flat-face trigger. With two 15-shot magazines, this 31.4-ounce M&P lists at $749. The 10mm hits harder than most .357 loads, giving it an edge in bear country. And the M&P has twice the capacity of a .44 revolver.

S&W introduced its first AR-15 rifles in 2006. A suite of variations, priced from $819 to $1,779, now include the Volunteer series (S&W’s nod to Tennessee, the Volunteer State). It comprises 11 models. The direct-impingement Volunteer Pro comes in 6mm ARC, a short-coupled Hornady hotrod. Thanks to G1 BCs of around .530, its 103- and 105-grain bullets still clock nearly 2,000 fps at 500 yards, out-pacing many 100-grain .243 loads. This Volunteer has an aluminum frame with forged, integral trigger guard, a butt-stock by B5 Systems, a 16-inch 4140 barrel with PWS 556 brake. The 15-inch handguard has a full Pic rail, plus a 2-inch rail under its nose. The barrel wears Black Armornite, inside and out. The firing pin is chromed. There’s a forward assist, a dust cover, a 25-shot magazine. Williams supplies the sights. The S&W Volunteer XV Pro in 6mm ARC fetches $1,589.

At the 2024 SHOT Show S&W announced a rifle that brings to mind the company’s lever-action roots. Named for the birth year of S&W’s Volcanic pistol, the new Model 1854 fills a void in the product line, according to Vince Perreault, director of brand marketing. “It brings us to a place in the market that has a lot of industry attention. Again!” 

Long after dust from the Old West had settled, lever-action guns remained popular. They defined “deer rifle” for generations. Cravings for longer reach fueled the post-WW II trend to scoped bolt rifles and fast-stepping cartridges. Also, CNC machining made bolt-actions less expensive to produce, while the hand labor needed to fit and finish lever actions increased their cost.

But Winchester’s 1964 overhaul of its Model 94, the later demise of Savage’s Model 99, then the sale of Marlin to Remington drained the market of traditional lever actions. Off-shore manufacturers filled that vacuum with popular clones. Meanwhile, Cowboy Action events brought Stetsons and blackpowder smoke from television screens onto local shooting ranges. Hornady announced potent new hunting bullets and loads for lever rifles. Its LeverEvolution ammo with soft polymer bullet tips markedly enhanced the performance of traditional deer cartridges like the .30-30, and would later include revolver cartridges like the .44 Magnum. Other ammunition companies expanded their offerings for lever-actions. After-market sights served Cowboy Silhouette competitors. Synthetic stocks, red-dot sights, Picatinny rails and ammo sleeves put lever actions in the “tactical” arena and gave them more utility at home and afield.  

“Our 1854 is a hunting gun,” emphasized Perreault. “Sure, most game is still shot with bolt rifles; but the lever-action’s appeal in hunting camps is strong, even growing.” He said S&W’s new rifle isn’t a copy. “We studied existing mechanisms but weren’t tied to them. We also consulted customers and lever-rifle enthusiasts. They shared our focus on accuracy, reliability and smooth operation. Natural pointing was a priority. We wanted a lever rifle that came on target as quickly and naturally as our DA revolvers.” 

Good Introduction

My first chance to cheek a prototype 1854 came in Tennessee woods. Distant shots sounded through the early morning’s mist. But the trail threading hardwoods to my front stayed empty. A stand hunter I’m not; at last I rose to take a walk. Then: movement! The wild hog, a big black boar, quartered toward me at a trot. I caught aim through the ghost ring sight. A 240-grain Hornady broke the near shoulder, but the tough beast merely caught another gear. I flicked the lever, swung fast and sent another hollowpoint. It struck squarely. The boar slid on his nose, kicked and died. 

“That’s as good an introduction to our 1854 as we could wish!” smiled Grant Dubuc, director of product innovation at S&W. That evening, he led me through its features.

Its short, strong action was designed for the .44 Magnum. “Other options are on the board,” said Dubuc. “The .45 Colt heads our ‘possibles’ list, the .357 Magnum next. We discussed the .454 Casull, but its 56,600 psi maximum average pressure is a big jump from the .44’s 36,000. We’d schedule more tests.”

The rifle’s 19 ¼-inch barrel has eight-groove rifling and the 1:20 twist standard for .44 Magnum bores. It is threaded 11/16x24, a concession that precludes a traditional muzzle profile. Like the forged, solid-top receiver, the barrel is manufactured in Springfield. There are no investment-cast parts. The nine-shot tube magazine has an internal sleeve that can be pulled with a twist of its knurled end for unloading. A cap with integral swivel stud joins the barrel, magazine and forend. The butt-stock has a QD stud. An XS ghost ring sight in a 4.8-inch Pic rail (held by 8-40 screws) pairs with a flat-face gold bead. 

The 1854’s lever is just enough oversize to accept oversize mitts like mine, and normal hands in gloves. It hugs the grip and doesn’t rattle. The trigger has a straight, smooth face. Clearly untraditional, it’s also not confining. I like its feel, if not so much its long, loose take-up. The pull is a stiff 6 pounds on my sample rifle. Dubuc said the spec is 3 to 6. There’s a cross-bolt safety but I’ll be using the hammer’s half-cock notch. Unlike a safety that arrests the firing pin in bolt actions, cross-bolts on most lever rifles allow hammer fall. Pulling the trigger with the safety “on” drops the hammer against it. Whack! – as if on a faulty primer or an empty chamber. Nuts! The buck heard that! He’s gonna go! To spill a dud or charge the chamber, you must run the lever. On the other hand, you might only have to push the safety, thumb the hammer and trigger the rifle again. Quickly now, was the safety off?

A highlight of the 1854 is its stock. The long grip is gently curved for fast, easy hand positioning. Stippling on grip and forend mimics that on S&W pistols. Straight and thoughtfully rounded on top, the comb is of proper height for metallic sights and set well back so the trigger hand doesn’t fight it. Fluting is generous and cleanly executed. Like the toe-line and pitch, it makes this stock look “just right” before you examine all the elements producing that effect. A soft black 3/4-inch pad mitigates recoil and keeps the rifle from slipping on your shoulder or when set on a slippery surface.

The forend is trim but has a slight bulge along its length, enhancing comfort and control. Like the butt-stock, it is nicely inletted, brings you on target quickly and steadies the rifle for fast repeat shots.

At this writing, only a stainless/synthetic 1854 is available. Its naked steel is well polished but not glossy. Chrome-moly steel on the walnut-stocked rifle will have black PVD finish. Dave O’Connor added that two special editions are planned. “One hundred high-grade rifles will be paired with S&W Model 29 revolvers in cased sets. Another 1,854 rifles with fancy wood and glossy finish will sell through normal channels.”

Moving to Tennessee and fielding its first lever action in 170 years caused a few delays at S&W. A revolver I bought three months ago just arrived. But the oiled brown paper cradling the .357 in its blue box brought memories worth the wait. Now operations in Maryville and Massachusetts are ramping up to write an exciting new chapter at Smith & Wesson.            



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