Smith & Wesson had a very successful sales period from 1857 to 1867, selling over 195,343 revolvers and 50 million cartridges. But by the end of the American Civil War, the United States entered into a recession and sales dropped off dramatically. The company’s sales for 1867 fell more than 10,000 units from the previous year. The partners decided that it was time to diversify into the long gun business, and Daniel B. Wesson discussed this with his brother Franklin Wesson, who already had a successful long gun manufacturing operation in Worcester, MA.
On May 27, 1867 a new company was formed. It was called the Wesson Fire Arms Company in an effort to keep it separate from the revolver company and thus protect the original Smith & Wesson firm from infringements. In the July 10, 1867 issue of the Springfield Daily Republican there appears under city items the following brief statement: “A new organization and one which promises to contribute not a little to the thrift and prosperity of Springfield, is the Wesson Fire-Arms Company. It is a joint-stock concern and is composed of Messrs. Horace Smith and D. B. Wesson, of the firm Smith & Wesson, along with J. W. Storrs, late of New York and now of this city, and Frank Wesson of Worcester. The company has ordered its machinery and in a few months will occupy a portion of Smith and Wesson’s factory for the manufacture of a new breech-loading, double barreled gun and shot-gun of various sizes and capacities. The double-barreled breech-loader comprises several peculiarities of construction invented by D. B. Wesson, and all who have seen it are loud in its praise. The machinery for making the improved Smith and Wesson revolver, according to entirely new models, is progressing and work will also be commenced on that before many months.”
The Wesson Fire Arms Company was issued a ‘certificate of intent to manufacture’ on May 27, 1867. The officials of the company were listed as D. B. Wesson, President; H. Smith, J. W. Storrs and C. E. Buckland, Directors. The Springfield Directory and Advertizer listed the address for the company as Stockbridge Street, the then current location of the Smith & Wesson factory. The cost of building the model shotgun in 1867 was $1,033.84 and the company purchased $25,044.36 worth of machinery for its production. The stocks for the new shotgun were ordered from W. C. Scott & Son, Birmingham, England at a cost of $647.33 and were of the finest quality wood available. In December of 1867 the company brought Amos Elvin of Birmingham, England into the company to supervise the construction of the new shotgun and handle the stocking of each gun.
The first gun was completed on December 24, 1868 and was purchased by D. B. Wesson for $200.75. The company developed several different types of locks for the new shotgun. There were the typical back action plus two types of side locks usually employed on muzzle loading shotguns. The lock they finally chose to use was a box lock of D. B. Wesson’s design and it incorporated a rebounding hammer. In 1868, the Wesson Fire Arms Company received a license from the Wesley Richards Company to manufacture under the Richards’ patent the position of the barrel break, which is forward of the breech face and is activated by a lever that locks the barrels closed. Four different patents plus the license they received from the Wesley Richards Company covered the new shotgun. All the necessary requirements were now in place to begin building America’s first high grade shotgun.
The shotguns were patterned after the finest of English built guns and they could be ordered with a straight English style stock or a more American style pistol grip stock. The barrel lengths were generally 30 inches, but other lengths could be ordered. The barrels were made of laminated steel and browned with the Greener Browning formula, the box lock was color-case-hardened and the trigger guard and butt plate were finished in a bright blue. The stocks were of the finest walnut available having a skeleton metal butt plate. The shotgun was offered in two grades: the standard grade with a small amount of engraving for $225.00 and the deluxe grade with more profuse engraving for $275.00. The deluxe grade was called the monogram grade and it featured D. B. Wesson’s monogram behind the lifter lever. Each shotgun was proof tested and the purchaser was provided a record of the shot performance from each barrel. The proof tests were generally done twice - once with 3 drams of powder and 1 ounce of number 1 shot and again with number 6 shot. In general it appears from the proof book that the average number of pellets in a 30 inch circle at 25 yards was 45 to 50 for the number 1 shot for each the right and the left barrels and 115 to 130 for the number 6 shot. However, the proof book also lists other loads and shot sizes that were probably specified by the person for whom the gun was to be built.
It was a truly fine shotgun and of the highest quality available in the United States, but its market was limited. The average American double-barreled shotgun was selling for $12.00 in 1869 and only deluxe imported English Shotguns were selling at prices equal to those of the Wesson Fire Arms Company. It was a simple fact of the times that if you could afford a high-grade shotgun you did not want one manufactured by a company that was in existence for only two years, albeit an American company. The prestige was in owning that well know name imported from England.
The sale of these shotguns was extremely slow and the company placed them on consignment to many of their best customers. The company did receive many accolades about their shotgun, and one example is in a letter from W. B. Sheldon describing a competition in which he was participating: “I wish you would enclose this score to Mess. Smith & Wesson that they may see that we tried to keep our record good with the Wesson Gun - and say to them it killed the birds dead. The heavy 9 or 10 lb. guns these men used with 4 to 4.5 Duck Powder (I used 3 drams Electric, 1 oz. Shot #8) killed my 8 birds dead within twenty feet of the trap and the 9th was just outside- it should have been scored, but it was challenged & they decided it was out 12 inches so I scored but 8. The Wesson is the best gun I have ever seen and suits me to a fraction…I doubt if there was a gun used by any of the 114 persons that was praised so highly or that scored so much and killed every bird as clean”.
The Wesson Fire Arms Company shotgun received many resounding praises, but the problem of not being English made it far too costly as an American gun. This can be illustrated by a letter from J. W. Bissell & Co. General Dealers in Plantation Supplies, Skipwith Landing, Mississippi, who received two Wesson Fire Arms Shotguns on consignment. “We regret that we cannot sell either of your guns here. The price is too high when a Whitney sells for $65.00. We return them by Steamer”.
The total production of the shotguns reached only 219 units, and all of the shotguns that have surfaced as of today are 12 gauge. On December 19, 1870, D. B. Wesson wrote to all of the stockholders that he would purchase the total assets of the Wesson Fire Arms Company, and Smith & Wesson finished a few of the shotguns and sold them during the 1870’s. The balance of the parts on hand and a license to manufacture under patents granted to Wesson Fire Arms Company were sold to Charles Parker Co., Meriden, CT, closing the chapter of the Wesson Fire Arms Company.
D. B. Wesson’s never completed his dream of having a company that could capture the complete firearm market for both handguns and long guns, but Smith & Wesson will now make their founders’ dream come true with a full line of long guns for both the sportsman and law enforcement agencies.
But best of all, after 140 years we have a great double barrel shotgun.