Some dream of beating weapons into plowshares. But handgun maker Smith & Wesson Corp. has something else in mind: golf clubs.
The Springfield, Mass.-based firearm maker said it would take aim next year at the $1.3-billion golf club market by licensing its name and logo on irons, woods, drivers and putters.
The move is one of 30 such agreements the firm has struck over the last several years to leverage "brand equity" and broaden the Smith & Wesson name beyond firearms. The company's most famous guns are its patented .357 and .44 magnums.
Under the deal, Smith & Wesson will put its brand on clubs designed and marketed by Vadersen Design Group, an established Ponte Vedra, Fla., club maker. The clubs will be produced at undisclosed factory operations under the supervision of Smith & Wesson employees.
The highly competitive club business is dominated by Southern California companies, including market leader Callaway Golf Co. and Taylor Made Golf Co., both based in Carlsbad. Firms as savvy as Nike Inc. have found it difficult to get a foothold among finicky golfers, who generally demand not just a strong brand name but something new in the way of performance.
To some, the gun maker's move onto the fairways and greens of country club America initially has appeared, well, a little off target.
"It's odd. It's like Budweiser going into the doughnut business," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Assn. "What's the connection?"
Actually, a pretty good one, according to Smith & Wesson executives and Ernie Vadersen president of his namesake Florida company.
For years, Smith & Wesson forged the club heads for Vadersen's Snake Eyes brand of sand and lob wedges, which won an avid following among golfers. Vadersen said he was so impressed with the 150-year-old firm's expertise in metallurgy, as well as its commitment to making timely deliveries, that he eventually agreed to a five-year licensing deal for the new clubs.
"We think that Smith & Wesson is one of the great names in American business, not just in guns and golf," Vadersen said. "They're a solid group of people" with "a can-do attitude."
Vadersen said he initially was concerned about the controversy that has surrounded the company. Under siege from dozens of municipal lawsuits, Smith & Wesson agreed two years ago to change the way it marketed and tracked firearm sales, triggering a backlash from gun rights advocates who accused the company of selling out.
But Vadersen came to believe that, even in the midst of the brouhaha, most people had a positive impression of Smith & Wesson: "The quality overrode the controversy."
The golf clubs will begin to hit pro shops and off-course retailers early next year. Among the first to be released will be three drivers and a series of fairway woods. Prices will range from $150 for putters and wedges to $250 for drivers.
Name and notoriety aside, experts say the test will be whether Smith & Wesson's clubs will be sufficiently different or better to sway golfers, who are among the most fussy of sports equipment shoppers.
Nike, for instance, has been struggling to make a mark. Even after it signed superstar Tiger Woods to an unprecedented endorsement deal -- $100 million over five years -- Nike barely has made a dent in the club market, according to golf industry figures. Callaway accounts for an estimated 16% of the retail sales of irons, nearly 22% of woods and almost 46% of all putters.
At world-renowned Pebble Beach, golf pro John Mitchell said Smith & Wesson's reputation certainly "will intrigue some," but it will be the products' performance that matters most.
"They made guns for 150 years," said Mitchell. "If they can use the metals to make a club that will outperform other clubs, that's your ticket."
John Steele, vice president of licensing and branding for Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., said Monday that the company believes there is significant overlap between the people who golf and the people who buy guns. They tend to be men, ages 25 to 55, who earn $60,000 a year or more.
"Golf clubs and handguns are both sporting goods," Steele said. "They are within an outdoor lifestyle. We don't see that huge gap that some people see."