I had the chance to visit the heart of gun valley for the first time last week. I was in Springfield, Massachusetts with a clowder of other gun guys courtesy of Smith & Wesson. The real reason for the trip was to give us some trigger time with three new guns. The first two are really updates; Smith has now made their .380 pistol and .38 revolver Bodyguards part of the M&P line. They’ve also replaced the integrated Insight lasers in the original versions with new Crimson Trace pointers that they say are more reliable and easier to maintain. They also showed us a new gun that we can’t talk about until it’s released in a couple of weeks. But in between the shooting and the sharing, we took some time to tour Smith’s massive 480,000 square foot production facility. Their media relations director, Paul Pluff, showed us around and I’m pretty sure we walked a good 479,000 of those square feet . . .
Not that it wasn’t fascinating. Besides two other smaller facilities — one a former subcontractor they purchased to do all of their polymer injection molding for things like M&Ps and rifle stocks — just about everything in the Smith catalogue is produced there in the Bay State. It’s a cacophinous conglomeration of the latest computer controlled manufacturing cohabitating along side grinders and milling machines that have been there in operation for sixty years or more. Once we cleared security – no small feat – we were greeted by a small, museum-like collection of Smith memorabilia. We got there as they were putting the finishing touches on a new display of movie prop guns (a few were rubber replicas) including Officer Harry Calahan’s model 29 from ‘Sudden Impact.’ Another more historically oriented case included this Model 1: But our tour had barely begun. From there, it was out onto the production floor. Here’s a bin full of M&P slide blanks. They eventually become a little more recognizable with the help of some CNC milling magic. We found out that Smith doesn’t let all of that metal working machinery sit idle for very long. In addition to turning out guns, they produce most of their own tools necessary to fashion those firearms, too. And as you might expect, the good people who work at Smith (about 1400 in Springfield, 2000 total) aren’t exactly fans of the general direction of gun control regulation in New England. You might wonder, with dozens of pieces of the latest computer controlled manufacturing equipment efficiently turning out firearm parts, why are there still scenes like this on the Smith factory floor? In an environment where three-year-old CNC machines are routinely swapped out for the latest, fastest, most efficient models, this old equipment — some of which has been there for almost a half century — is still used because Smith & Wesson offers a lifetime warranty on their products. Which means that if a proud owner of a beauty like a 1935 Registered Magnum needs service, the craftsmen in Springfield still have the tools to do the work. Smith’s huge forging operation turns out parts and fittings for other businesses (like Harley-Davidson) too, but at the top of this sample table, you can see the steps a stainless steel blank goes through from cut bar stock to rough frame. Here’s Paul describing the first of three steps your J frame went through before more detailed finishing. Much of that finish work is still done by hand. There are only so many processes that can be computerized. To give you an idea how efficiency has improved over time, in pre-computerized days it took 72 separate operations — and 72 different people — to turn out a finished revolver cylinder. It’s now done using two machines with two skilled operators. Finishing a revolver forcing cone. Finshed M&P slides. Parts ready for heat treating. Hanging revolver frames on racks for anodizing. Which brings us to final assembly. Here are M&P rifles being put together. They’re then test fired. And bore-sighted before being boxed up for shipping. Revolver assembly. All in all, it’s a mind-bogglingly complex and impressive facility. And given its scope and the number of skilled individuals it takes to make the place hum, it makes those who blithely issue demands that companies like Smith pull up stakes and move because of Massachusetts’ awful anti-gun laws look horribly ill-informed. Smith obviously can’t give tours to the general public, but it’s a shame that more people can’t see what actually goes into making some of America’s favorite shootin’ irons. I wonder how many of the state’s legislators have taken the time to tour the facility and see the jobs affected by the laws they enact.