Friday, August 1, 2014

The Story of The Dan Wesson Revolver

The story of Dan Wesson goes back to 1938 when the 22 year old great grandson of Daniel B Wesson (co-founder of Smith & Wesson) went to work in the family business.
Dan Wesson II got his degree in Material Science and Metallurgy, skills that would no doubt serve him well in the gun making business.

By 1963 the owners of Smith & Wesson (of which Dan was one) sold the business to the multinational conglomerate Bangor Punta. After 25 years in the family business Dan found himself unemployed (although probably very wealthy).
I guess the urge to design and build guns was in his blood, because in 1968 Dan opened his own business to make revolvers. Rather than start from scratch he worked out a deal to use a design from gun maker Karl Lewis. Karl had worked for Browning and Colt (where he designed the Colt Trooper revolver) and was employed at High Standard at the time he and Dan Wesson started talking in 1968. 

Dan purchased an old school building in Monson, Massachusetts and immediately began promoting a gun that had not yet been built. At the 1968 NRA Meetings, Dan secured orders for more than 11,000 revolvers.

ab ad showing the old Monson School House

You will see the word unique used in describing these guns, there really is no other way to describe the departure from the standard that defined these guns. The first models were called the model 11 & 12. The 11s had fixed sights and a matte finish, the 12s had adjustable sights and a gloss blued finish. There was also a nickle plated option, but those are said to be quite rare.

Refinements to the design were almost constant in the early years, making it difficult for all but the most dedicated collector to determine what model/options their gun originally came with. For this post, I will not even try to get all the changes documented.

The models 11/12 were chambered in .357 Magnum and  some of the model 11s had a fixed barrel design that was later changed to the famous interchangeable barrel system. 

Later the model designations changed to D11 & W12.

The 1st interchangeable system used an external nut at the end of the barrel.

That system was further refined with the models 14 & 15, the nut became recessed into the barrel and a special spanner wrench became necessary for removal. 

The early models had what have been nicknamed "pork chop" shrouds, as part of the frame was connected to the removable barrel portion.

With the models 14-2 & 15-2 options for additional barrel lengths were offered: 2.5, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 15 inches, venting, ribbed shrouds, shrouds with full under lugs, and plain solid shrouds.
The 15-2 could be ordered as a "Pistol Pac" with 3 (initially) and later 4 (or more) barrels shipped inside a fiberglass briefcase with barrel changing tool and clearance gauges. Along with some free swag: a jacket patch or a belt buckle. 

Most of the guns were sold with only one barrel- though owners could choose to purchase other barrels later.

Below, the provided tool set the gap between the cylinder and barrel at .006". This helped maintain accuracy as the barrel-cylinder gap could be kept constant.

Beside the interchangeable barrel, the gun was different in other ways.
The internals were a departure from what Smith & Wesson revolver owners were used to. It goes to show there is more than one way to build a mouse trap.

The revolver had a strong cylinder lock-up, using a latch on the crane. 
They utilized a hammer spur that sat lower on the back of the frame. The grip frame was a post that housed a coiled hammer spring.

Ruger's second generation of double actions  employed a similar grip frame/spring arrangement. I believe that High Standard was the 1st to use this design, but I am not positive (Lewis probably brought this design element with him to Dan Wesson). 

In many pictures you will note a purple/plum color on the frames of the Dan Wesson revolvers. This is due to the amount of nickel in the steel, the more nickel the stronger the alloy, but it also makes it difficult to get the bluing to match


The guns were well supported by the aftermarket. Despite having a unique 1 piece grip design, both Pachmayr & Hogue made grips for the guns as well as some custom grip makers.

Dan Wesson's metallurgy expertise was evident in the hardness of the steel used to manufacture the guns. I performed a restoration on one and I can tell you these guns eat sandpaper for lunch.... See the write up here

 During the 1970s, Dan Wesson focused on adding new chamberings for his gun. A .44 Mag version was developed along with a .32 H&R Mag, .41 Magnum and a .45 Long Colt. Here is a picture of the Dan Wesson 44 Mag along side a S&W M29 44 Mag, you can see the Dan Wesson sported a very large frame.

In 1973, Dan Wesson began brand labeling their revolvers for High Standard. This continued until February of 1975. These High Standard branded guns are becoming quite collectable. Many arm-chair "experts" will tell you that High Standard made the guns for Dan Wesson, but the opposite is true. My guess is that this arrangement was facilitated by the connection that Karl Lewis had to his former employer.

Daniel Baird Wesson II died on Veterans day (November 11th) 1978 . The company was taken over by Daniel's son Seth & Seth's wife Carol.

in 1982, a stainless version of the model 15 was added, it was given the model number 715. Just as Smith & Wesson added a '6' to their model numbers to designate a stainless finish, Dan Wesson added a '7'.

During the 1980s the company worked with Elgin Gates to develop some "Supermag" cartridges including the .357 Supermag, the .375 Supermag and the .445 Supermag. They also added other long shooting calibers like the .357 Maximum and .460 Rowland.

In 1983, following another bankruptcy, the manufacturing was moved to Palmer, MA. Many think the quality began to suffer as the company struggled to make money.

The pictures below demonstrate some of the differences between the Monson & Palmer made guns. Interestingly, around the same time, Smith & Wesson changed their manufacturing processes in which the recessed cylinder was also phased out.

In 1996 Bob Serva purchased the company and relocated it to Norwich, NY. Serva focused on high quality 1911 pistols and the revolver was eventually phased out. In 2005 the company and the Dan Wesson name were purchased by CZ-USA.
While CZ has continued to produce parts and perform repairs of older revolvers, it appears that we have seen the last production of these great revolvers. 

Update: CZ USA is again producing the Dan Wesson model 715, see their website here

I'll end this post with some pictures I found on the web....some DW Porn

I'm sure the Dan Wesson experts will find errors in the content above, feel free to post a comment with any necessary corrections along with your sources.

UPDATE, Dan Wesson announced that they will again be offering the model 715 Stainless 357 Magnum

Rocket Song