Smith & Wesson Governor. What’s Up With That?

When the shotshell-firing Taurus Judge first made the scene, the big ass handgun was an immediate sensation. Initial sales were stratospheric. By the time Winchester made new, more effective ammo for the gun—the PDX1 flying disks and BBs round—it was clear that the Judge was here to stay. As you’d expect, Taurus’ marketing mavens have been milking the Judge for all it was worth. They’ve added no less than 17 variants to their shotshell-firing line. Yes, well, when gun enthusiasts surveyed the Judge, they wondered what the hell is that thing for?

Loaded with .410 shotshell, the Judge is [potentially] lethal at short distances and completely ineffective beyond. Loaded with a .45 Long Colt cartridge—which is not the gun’s main selling point—penetration’s good but expansion’s an issue. In both cases, the recoil is stout, making the Judge and its bench-mates a questionable choice for smaller or inexperienced self-defense shooters.

The general consensus amongst the firearms fraternity: the Taurus Judge is an excellent snake gun or range toy—but a less than ideal choice for self-defense (i.e. there’s one born every minute). The Judge lacks the stopping-power versatility of a “normal” gun and the bang-you’re-dead lethality of a “real” shotgun. Not a single soul said “this is the gun Smith & Wesson should have made.”

And yet they did. Click here to scan the brochure for the new Smith & Wesson Governor. If you’re looking for a clue as to why Smith decided it needed to make a clone of the Taurus Judge, a handgun of questionable effectiveness, check the advertising strap line. “Six Rounds. Three Calibers. 159 Years of Protection.” In other words, “This is a good idea because we’re Smith & Wesson.”

In other other words, Smith is relying on brand cachet to sell the Governor to customers amenable to the illusory advantages of a self-defense shotshell pistol. No surprise there. It’s been the gunmaker’s key strategy over the last few decades. How else can you explain the success of Smith & Wesson weapons whose quality was notable by its absence? A Smith engineer recently told me stories about the company’s early ARs that would make your hair stand on end. And yet they sold on the strength of the Smith brand.

Stripped to its essentials, Smith & Wesson created the Governor because they can. And make no mistake about it: the Governor will make money for the company. So why should Smith’s suits be concerned about gun enthusiasts sniggering on the Internet? What’s an arcane debate about self-defense strategies got to do with putting food on the shareholders’ table? The bottom line is measured in terms of profit and loss.

Only it is and it isn’t. As Smith itself understands, their brand is their most valuable asset. The line about “159 years of protection” indicates that the Springfield gun slingers understand that the Smith name is a promise that their weapons will save your life (and the life of your loved ones) by working the first time, every time. In other words, reliability.

Uh-oh. Do you consider Smith & Wesson products the world’s most reliable firearms? M&P vs. Glock? If reliability was the sole determining factor, would you buy a Smith AR ahead of a SIG, ArmaLite or Rock River Arms rifle? And what of the recent internal lock failure on my Smith & Wesson 686? Or stories of guns falling apart from material fatigue? If a Smith revolver isn’t reliable, what does that say about the brand?

Nothing good. Perhaps the most important question about the new Governor is this: is it well made? The Governor prototypes at the Las Vegas range certainly seemed sound; I could barely open the cylinder (thousands of rounds without cleaning will do that) but she fired straight and true. The Governor is a derivative piece of dubious inherent value. But if it can defend and extend the traditional Smith & Wesson values of quality and reliability, then it’s a welcome addition to the family.

Then again, maybe not.

Like most modern gunmakers, Smith & Wesson has bet the farm on chasing firearms niches, doing so with all the misguided zeal of a pre-bankruptcy GM. Readers who know me from my General Motors Death Watch days may see an immediate and deeply disturbing parallel, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Oh what the Hell . . .

Just as GM had too many overlapping models and brands, Smith makes too many guns. Too many models. Too many variants of models. Too many types of guns. With so many guns flying out the door, Smith & Wesson can’t possibly uphold their brand’s reputation for quality and reliability. They haven’t been doing it for years and they’re not doing it now.

Even if the Governor was a Performance Center quality handgun for a non-Performance Center price, it’s hard to see it as anything more than a distraction. The truth is that an endless parade of line extensions like the Governor create short term gain and long term pain. Smith should spin-off M&P into a separate brand, cut the number of revolvers in their catalogue to a relative handful, concentrate on quality, raise their margins and sell high-dollar revolvers to non-gun owners.

Just last year, Ruger passed Smith as America’s most prolific gunmaker. Smith & Wesson should let that go and do what they did best: producing the world’s best revolvers. The Governor might be part of that effort or it might not. But right now, I don’t think it is.