Posted on Thu, Mar. 06, 2003

Taking a shot at leading again
Introducing nine new models, including the .50-caliber Magnum, is one of the company's first steps in trying to retake market share.

Associated Press

Two years ago, Smith & Wesson's reputation for firepower was nearly blown away by an agreement with the federal government.

Now, the company whose handguns set a standard for more than a century thinks it can regain leadership of the firearms industry.

The company outraged many gun rights supporters in 2000, when, faced with sliding sales and a series of government lawsuits pushed by gun control advocates, it reached an agreement with the Clinton administration aimed at policing sales and promoting safety measures.

Many distributors and dealers refused to stock Smith & Wesson guns. "I think we saw our business probably decline 40 percent," company spokesman Ken Jorgensen said.

Its new chief executive says the introduction of nine new handgun models signals its determination to revive its business.

"The company has a rich history as an industry innovator, and we are heading down the same path," said Roy Cuny, who took over as president and chief executive last month following the elevation of Robert Scott to chairman.

The new handguns include a .50-caliber version of the famed Magnum line that began in 1930s with the .357, designed as a gun for hunters, and that continued in the 1950s with the .44 Magnum.

"This gun will get people talking about Smith & Wesson again," Steve Comus, publications director of Safari Club International, said of the .50-caliber Magnum. He said several of his club's big game hunting enthusiasts have ordered the revolver, and said it could also find a market as backup protection for outdoorsmen in areas frequented by grizzlies and other big predators.

"They are not going to sell 100,000 of them, but they will sell several thousand to that particular universe," Comus said.

Founded by firearm pioneers Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, the 150-year-old company is one of the nation's oldest and largest handgun makers, and it has a storied history. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley, outlaw Jesse James and the U.S. Cavalry all fired Smith & Wessons. And its .38-caliber Police Special and .357 Magnum were carried by generations of police officers.

Company officials said the deal with the Clinton administration actually made little substantive change in the distribution and other policies of the company, which specializes in the medium to high end of the market and had been one of the first major gunmakers to begin selling its handguns with safety locks.

But "there is still some residual grumping around their deal with the Clinton administration in some gun circles," Comus said. "This gives Smith & Wesson another chance to say we're not the same company now and gets them re-established."

Cuny said Smith & Wesson is still working on a way of allowing only an authorized user to fire a handgun.

Smith & Wesson's campaign to regain its reputation began in May 2001, when British conglomerate Tomkins PLC, which had paid $113 million for Smith & Wesson, sold it for $15 million plus $30 million in assumed debts to Saf-T-Hammer Corp., a tiny startup in Arizona that made trigger locks.

Scott, a former Smith & Wesson vice president who had moved to Saf-T-Hammer, took over the gun works. His first stop, two weeks after the sale, was the National Rifle Association's annual convention. With banners and buttons promoting the company's return to American ownership, he quickly moved to make peace with the NRA.

"The turnaround was unbelievably dramatic," Jorgensen said. "The problems were associated with our former owners."

With President Bush's election, the political climate also changed, and handgun sales soared following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Without a change in ownership, we would have been in deep trouble," Cuny said. "The right-hand turn took us on a growth plan when we could have gone out of business."

Saf-T-Hammer, which changed its name to the Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., has capitalized on the company's name by expanding its licensing to encompass a wide range of products from clothing to binoculars and golf clubs, a sideline that now accounts for 10 percent of its revenues. But the focus of its business remains guns.

While repairing its image, the company has also moved to modernize its production with new computerized equipment, said Cuny, whose background is manufacturing, not the gun industry.

However, the company, with about 650 workers at its Springfield plant and another 100 at a pistol and handcuff plant in Holton, Maine, faces some tough challenges, Cuny said.

Competitors, primarily Glock, have made inroads on the handgun market for law enforcement. And the market remains cyclical and uncertain.

"The market for handguns is very much affected by the political climate," said Gary Mehalik, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group.

"It spiked after 9/11 and then dropped to a more usual levels," he said.

Still, shooters, like other sports enthusiasts, tend to have more than one gun. "And like the tennis player with a closet full of rackets, they are always looking for the newest and latest thing," he said.

© 2003 The Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.