A massive Smith & Wesson revolver.

How popular culture gets popular.
May 5 2006 1:27 PM

Big Guns

The wild success of a massive Smith & Wesson revolver.

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Magnum 500. Click image to expand.
Magnum 500

Name recognition certainly counts for something in a competitive marketplace, but it can't make up for incompetent leadership. That's a business-school truism that Smith & Wesson learned the hard way in 1998, when the 154-year-old gun-maker was supplanted by the less-celebrated Sturm, Ruger and Co. Inc. as America's No. 1 handgun manufacturer. While Smith & Wesson's British owner, Tomkins plc., was making numerous strategic missteps—sticking with steel, for example, rather than switching to lightweight polymers—Ruger sold boatloads of its .22-caliber revolvers to protective homeowners and security guards.     

After several years as the industry's runner-up, however, a re-energized Smith & Wesson—now under savvier ownership—has finally recaptured the handgun crown. In 2004, the most recent year for which complete production figures are available, Smith & Wesson churned out 235,516 handguns; Sturm, Ruger manufactured only 189,312. How did the originator of the famous .44 Magnum revolver earn back this coveted firearms title?

By tapping into the company's reputation as the king of supersized handguns. Smith & Wesson's production increase is largely attributable to growth in a single, previously marginal category: big-bore revolvers. (The term typically refers to those with calibers in excess of .44.) The company's production in this segment nearly tripled from 2003 to 2004, while Sturm, Ruger's actually fell by a few hundred units.

Leading the way for Smith & Wesson was the Model 500, a .50-caliber revolver that was advertised as the world's most powerful handgun when it debuted in early 2003. The marketing pitch echoed that for the .44 Magnum revolver, which was touted for its unrivaled stopping power when it debuted in 1955. With three times the muzzle energy of Dirty Harry's classic .44 Magnum, the Model 500 was a success with both consumers and critics, earning Handgun of the Year honors from the likes of American Rifleman.

The Model 500 was ostensibly designed to cater to the needs of hunters. Smith & Wesson pitched the product as "the ultimate dangerous game defensive handgun," able to halt most any hard-charging buck or rhino. The company's revamped marketing team, consisting of former executives from Coca-Cola and Black & Decker, made sure the Model 500 was featured on TV: The company produced a hunting-and-firearms-collecting show, Smith & Wesson USA, that aired on the the Men's Channel. They also got the revolver's name plastered on the car driven by Kerry Earnhardt in NASCAR's Busch Series and presented the racing scion with his very own Model 500 in one prerace ceremony.

But as Smith & Wesson quickly discovered, the $989 Model 500 proved as popular among affluent urban collectors as among more outdoorsy types. Many of these consumers wanted the revolver for the same reason a Manhattanite might want a Hummer—not to use it as intended, but rather to burnish their macho credentials. With a barrel that maxes out at 10.5 inches long on the special "Performance Center Magnum Hunter Model," the Model 500 sure is something to look at; it also features a jarring recoil that even expert shooters aren't always prepared to handle.

The Model 500 is in fact so colossal that it got some free publicity in Los Angeles when police Chief William J. Bratton lambasted the gun, saying that its firepower "reinforces the total insanity of gun manufacturers in America." Gun enthusiasts struck back by pointing out that few criminals are likely to lug around an 82-ounce weapon, especially one so huge that it can't be easily concealed beneath a jacket.

Once the Model 500 became a hit, Smith & Wesson decided to expand its offerings for big-bore fans. It rolled out a snub-nosed version, featuring a shortened 4-inch barrel for customers who didn't want to pack a laptop-sized sidearm. It also ramped up development on another big-bore revolver, the Model 460 XVR, which has extended the company's dominance over a sector that the trade press commonly refers to as "hand cannons." Competitors have answered with their own big bores; Sturm, Ruger developed the Super Redhawk Alaskan, which is pitched as a more portable alternative to the Model 500. But for the moment, Smith & Wesson is making—and selling—the bulk of these bulky guns.

The question now is how quickly the supersize trend will fade, and where Smith & Wesson's renaissance goes from here. It will be tough to make inroads in the pistols market, where Smith & Wesson is behind on market share. (A revolver's bullets are stored in a rotating cylinder; all other handguns are referred to as pistols.) Austria's Glock has become the sidearm of choice for law-enforcement agencies, and price-conscious consumers have increasingly taken a shine to low-cost imports from Brazil's Taurus. And Sturm, Ruger's .22s still reign supreme among the smallest-bore revolvers, a category favored by female consumers looking for purse-sized weapons.

Still, Smith & Wesson's new brain trust deserves plaudits for recognizing that, even in an industry as fraught with emotional and political baggage as handguns, one of the most basic rules of American consumerism still applies: Bigger, please.

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