In 1971 I was helping my great-uncle Ben run his Smith & Wesson law enforcement wholesale business in South Carolina. In addition to selling uniforms, guns, ammunition, and holsters to cops, we also did a pretty good business selling guns to any retail customer who walked into the store.
One morning, three different customers walked in and asked to buy a Smith & Wesson Model 29, the six-inch, 44-magnum revolver which S&W had started producing in 1955. The gun had always been something of an oddball because the magnum calibers hadn’t yet really caught on. Plus, if you shot the gun more than three or four times, your hand hurt like hell.
On that particular morning in 1971, I could have sold at least three Model 29 revolvers, maybe even four. But I didn’t have a single gun in stock. So, I picked up the phone and called the S&W factory in Springfield, MA, assuming that I could put in a special order for those guns and get them in a couple of days.
“You’ll have to wait at least two months, maybe more,’ Del Shorb told me over the phone. Del was the sporting goods manager at S&W and even though my uncle Ben was a law-enforcement guy, sometimes we could hit up the other side of the factory to get a couple of guns.
Understand in 1971, there was no Glock, no Sig, no Beretta, no nothing from overseas. The handgun business in the United States was Smith & Wesson, with a few models from Colt and Sturm, Ruger floating around. There wasn’t a single cop in the United States who wasn’t going on duty without his S&W Model 10, although some of the cops who pretended to be cowboys in places like Texas carried the 357-magnum revolver known as the Model 19.
Anyway, so I ask Del “what’s going on? How could there be any demand for the Model 29?”
I’ll never forget Del’s response: “Haven’t you seen Dirty Harry? It’s a movie about some cop in San Francisco who goes around hunting down all the bad guys with a Model 29.”
That movie launched two, indeed three cultural movements in the United States. First, it shifted the entire Hollywood image and narrative of the gun fighter from the dance halls, saloons, and corrals of the Old West to the grime of modern, urban streets. Second, it made the gun industry wake up to the fact that handguns, not…