Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson is, without any doubt, one of the most preeminent, iconic firearm manufacturers globally, and is one of two great original handgun manufacturers in the U.S., the other being Colt. The two are contemporaries who patrolled the same lines in the American West, France, Germany, and Asia. They both broke in countless leather holsters of beat cops everywhere. Smith & Wesson is still the premier manufacturer of double-action revolvers globally, including the monster .500 S&W, which is the most powerful production revolver in the world. The infamous Model 10 was the most popular police sidearm for decades, and the modern M&P series of polymer-framed pistols hold their own in a crowded market of sidearms marketed towards police. But let's not get ahead of the story; here is Smith & Wesson firearms' lineage and history.
Smith & Wesson: The Beginning
Smith & Wesson firearms began their journey into greatness as another pre-Civil War weapons manufacturer, ironically at almost the same time as present-day rival SIG Sauer. In 1852, Horace Smith and Danial Wesson joined a venture to design a repeating rifle, the Volcanic rifle. Smith & Wesson Company became the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855, at which time Oliver Winchester (yes, that Winchester) became an investor. Just a short year later, Winchester forced Volcanic into insolvency, at which time they went their separate ways.
Through a series of possibly morally questionable actions, Horace Smith and Danial Wesson ended up paying royalties to a former Colt employee who held a patent that they ended up using. It was reasonably sketchy and hurt Mr. White terribly, but it made mountains of money for Smith & Wesson.
Winchester would move forward with becoming the preeminent manufacturer of repeating rifles, using the tubular magazine and lever action of the Volcanic. In contrast, Smith & Wesson would move on to become a world leader in revolver handguns.
Expansion of Service Beyond the Civil War
The first revolver created by S&W, the Model 1, was a pocket revolver made in .22 Short and was a self-defense weapon purchased extensively by soldiers. It was a great gambler's pistol but ended up being woefully underpowered for regular service on the western frontier after the Civil War.
S&W developed a big bore cartridge for frontier use, the precursor to two which remains in service to this day, the .44 S&W American. The firearms produced was the single-action Model 3, a big bore break-open revolver adopted as the standard sidearm for the U.S. Army in 1870. This was the first cartridge-firing revolver adopted into military service, marking an end of the era of black powder pistols and revolvers in wide use.
Fast forward another 29 years, and we see a total gamechanger, the Model 10. This revolver would be the mainstay of law enforcement agencies for nearly a century and sell over six million units. It's lineage spawned dozens of offshoots which use the same single-action/double-action design.
The Model 10 used the .38 S&W, but more significantly, transitioned to the .38 Special, which has stood the test of time.
In 1935, S&W introduced the Model 27 in the far more powerful .357 Magnum. In 1955 the monster Model 29 was released in .44 Magnum, which was the most powerful handgun caliber for a long time and remains a popular cartridge in bear country around the world.
The small-frame J series was introduced in 1950 when a demand existed for light, small-framed handguns, which packed more punch than the current I-frame revolvers could handle. The Model 36 was manufactured in .38 Special and became a standard-issue firearm for many decades for detectives, plainclothes officers, private detectives, aircrew members of the military, and personal protection.
S&W produced some very fine alloy-frame semi-automatic pistols, but they could not keep up with the craze created by the importation of Glock's, Beretta's, and SIG Sauer's in the 1980s. S&W struck back in the early 2000s with the re-release of the Military & Police (M&P) branding on a line of polymer-frame pistols tailored for the police community. They have done very well, hedging in a crowded market and gaining footing. They have a famous line of AR-pattern rifles, the M&P-15, which are marketed as affordable and reliable and have delivered on that promise.
Smith & Wesson remains a stalwart to this day, capitalizing on three key markets: double-action revolvers (the global leader), law enforcement sidearms, and Modern Sporting Rifles. They have stayed out of the hunting long-gun markets and focused on these areas, which has worked tremendously.