Muckraking, Chapter 2: what’s with Dan Wesson?

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Poor Dan Wesson. The marque, famed for their switch-barrel revolvers, has suffered through more inept management regimes than your average banana republic (no, not the clothing chain!) Today you can ask ten random shooters about the company, and almost none will know that Dan Wesson is still in business. Their innovative revolvers – the work of the incomparable Karl Lewis – are no longer found on dealer’s shelves.

How did we get to this sad state of affairs? To understand, we need to go back to the beginning of the Third Dynasty….

At the time, Dan Wesson was located in Palmer, MA. Production had reached new lows in both quality and quantity, and their strongest market – handgun silhouette shooters – were  tiring of their on-again, off again production history. Despite some interesting introductions (a line of fixed-barrel guns and a true small frame concealed carry piece, dubbed the “Lil’ Dan”,) the company was forced into bankruptcy.

Into our story steps a fellow by the name of Bob Serva, who bought the company and moved it to Norwich, NY.

The problems surfaced almost immediately. The machinery included in the purchase was found to be “worn out”, and supposedly incapable of making quality guns. (The irony of that statement will be revealed later.) You’d think that someone would have scrutinized a little thing like that out before writing a check, but no matter – the company invested in some new equipment, and then spent quite a long time resetting the new shop to produce guns.

Let’s stop for a moment and review the revolver market at that point in history. Colt, stung by their association with certain anti-gun political elements and fresh out of bankruptcy, had all but abandoned the revolver market – and really didn’t seem to care. Ruger was selling lots of guns, but their line was limited and had precious little to offer either competitors or the growing concealed carry market. Taurus was moving up in the market, but suffering from a reputation for having quality control problems (a perception which persists to this day.) The market leader, Smith&Wesson, had problems of their own: an apparently effective grassroots boycott, a persistent rumor that they were a hair’s breadth away from bankrupcty, and being put up for sale by their British owners.

The market was in turmoil; it was ripe for a quality product, particularly one with unique features not available anywhere else. With all the competitors preoccupied with their own problems, market share was there for the taking – and Dan Wesson was in a good position to grab some. They had a line of revolvers that was strong, accurate as all get-out, and far more versatile than anything the competition had to offer. In addition, they had the Lil’ Dan, which with some attention could easily address the burgeoning demand for concealed carry guns, and a fanatical (though shrinking daily) customer base. (I oughtta know – I’m one of those crazies who loves his Dan Wessons!)

So, with a brand new acquisition, new machinery, and a market ripe for the picking what did the owner of Dan Wesson do?

Right – he introduced a line of 1911 pistols!

The introduction of the 1911 guns seemed to take the wind out of revolver production. During this time, Dan Wesson made only one run of frames for the world’s most popular revolver caliber, the .357 Magnum. Quality was so poor that I personally had to return a gun – ordered in for a special client – because the sideplate gap approached .006″ in places! The action was awful, and the hammer and trigger had been slapped into the gun with no finish work whatsoever. The production manager apologized profusely, and hand-selected a replacement – which was only marginally better. This is when I learned that all of the frames had been made in a single run in the first year of the company’s revived production, and most (if not all) apparently suffered from this egregious fault.

Remember the irony I alluded to? Even the much-maligned Palmer guns – the worst of the lot, made on that “worn out” machinery – had sideplates that fit correctly!

To their credit, they did try – sort of. Dan Wesson placed small black-and-white advertisements in relatively inconspicuous places in the gun magazines. The ads were pitiful: poor design, bad graphics, and too much room taken up with religious symbolism. (Before the hate mail comes in, understand that I have no problem with religious symbols in the right place and at the right time. An advertisement for a firearm in a gun magazine is neither the time nor the place.) The average small-town “nickel shopper” advertisement looks more professional than anything Dan Wesson was able to insert into glossy national magazines.

Magazines weren’t the only marketing avenue, however. Recognizing the power of the internet, they put up a website – but it would be a couple of years before they bothered to procure their own domain name, instead using the site under the domain name of their ISP. The site was horridly designed, didn’t work on anything other than a 17″ monitor, and didn’t even have much information. (Hey, I know their product line, and if it was difficult for me to figure out what was what, imagine what a new customer would go through!) They didn’t understand what a website was really for: I saw a listing of various new grips that were available, but no pictures. An email to the company netted the information that the pictures were only available in their printed catalog, for which they charged $5! That’s what we call “behind the times.”

Things weren’t much better with industry relations. Gunwriters, love ’em or hate ’em, are how the general public learns of, and forms opinions about, new products. I’ve heard first-hand stories of Dan Wesson management personally making multiple promises of test-and-evaluation samples to individual writers, but never delivering. With behavior like that, it’s no wonder that Dan Wesson remained in a publicity rut.

Once the 1911s started rolling off the assembly line, revolvers took a definite back seat – way back. Parts became hard to get; Brownells even dumped the line, rumored to be tired of non-delivery. What little “innovation” centered around odd and useless chamberings. (Yep, I’m sure that the .460 Rowland – aka .451 Detonics Magnum rebadged to assuage someone’s ego – was a big seller. I’m being facetious, in case you missed it.)

I suppose the argument for the switch to 1911 production was because revolvers “weren’t selling very well.” Of course, given the poor management of the whole mess, one would expect sales problems!

In my mind, the only saving grace during this period were some of Dan Wesson’s employees. The aforementioned production manager was pleasant, honest, and seemed genuinely saddened that revolvers had been relegated to the back burner; the gal who essentially ran (and still runs) their parts and customer service operation has always been efficient and helpful (and has something of a following on the internet forums!)

That brings us more or less to the present. Roughly a year and a half ago, CZ-USA somehow acquired Dan Wesson and Mr. Serva took a job with the parent company. (He has since left CZ-USA.) So far, CZ doesn’t seem to be all that interested in Dan Wesson revolvers – their website didn’t even mention revolvers until just recently, and it’s taken them over a year just to make their first .357 gun. Supposedly they are busy doing “market research”, which to me means they still don’t have a clue what to do with the wheelguns.

CZ, if you’re reading this, here’s some free advice:

1) Concentrate on building up to a standard, not down to a price. Saying you make high quality products, but not actually delivering high quality, doesn’t count. If you need proof that this works, look at the company who took you main market from you: Freedom Arms. (If you need still more examples, Google “Tom Peters”. Heck, Google him anyway – you need all the help you can get.)

2) What sells best? Historically, it’s been mid-size guns in .357 Magnum. Start there; make ’em better than anything else on the market. Hunting guns in common calibers should be next (the .445 SuperMag, as neat as it is, isn’t a common caliber.) You need a concealed carry piece; the market is crying for a good, small 6-shot .357 to fill the shoes of the late and much missed Colt Magnum Carry.

3) “Quality” means some attention needs to be given to the double action lockwork. They aren’t smooth or consistent enough, they stack horribly, and their trigger return is sluggish. Spend some engineering money and fix those traits, and don’t for a minute think that you can slide by with what you’ve got now.

4) Forget locks and MIM parts; make them the way the market wants them to be made, not the way some politician deems they should. (There’s a big backlash against the built-in locks of your competitors; ignore this at your peril.)

5) You need a presence in competition; be visible in IHMSA, ICORE, USPSA, Steel Challenge, and IDPA. Revolver divisions are attracting more and more shooters; fInd people to sponsor, at all levels of ability. (Quantity counts in this game.)

6) You need actual marketing: proper advertising, editorial content, and a strong web presence. (Your current website doesn’t cut it; if you plan to keep the Dan Wesson name, you need to establish a separate domain for it. You’ll notice that the Mercedes website is separate from the Chrysler website for a reason.)

7) You’d better come up with an innovative dealer program. No matter how much you advertise, if it isn’t on the dealer’s shelves – and the dealers don’t actively support you – you’ve lost a sale. (Hint: kiss up to the retail salespeople, not the boss. The guy sitting at the desk in the back room isn’t who’s selling the things.)

8) Don’t ignore the growing women’s market, but understand that pink grips and shiny finishes aren’t what they want. They are sharp, savvy consumers who have different buying patterns and criteria than men. You need to learn what those are and supply products and services to match. (You have one huge advantage that no one else has, and it has never been exploited by any of the previous ownership. If you can’t figure it out on your own, give me a call.)

9) Finally: if you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all – sell the revolver division to someone who will. Dan Wesson and Karl Lewis deserve it, and the legions of Dan Wesson enthusiasts deserve it. Don’t let us down.

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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