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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why the Iver Johnson Deserves Some Respect

When one mentions old firearms manufacturer Iver Johnson, it's often in a way that doesn't garner much respect.  One might elicit a chuckle and knowing glance as if to say, "You can't possibly be mentioning such a cheap, poor quality gun, can you?"  Today, Iver Johnson arms are often synonymous with low quality, poor aesthetics, and inexpensive prices; not exactly characteristics gun collectors clamor over.  But what if I told you that Iver Johnson didn't always have this disdain upon it?  What if someone said that at one time Iver Johnson arms utilized technology far ahead of its time, supported notions of self-defense that are popular to this very day, embodied the American Dream, and sold millions of firearms?  Does it now sound more like a company you'd buy from?  Let's take a look at the grand history of this now defunct and disrespected manufacturer

The genesis of this article comes from the collection of a Mr. Charles Best, who has through time and patience, assembled a virtual encyclopedia of Iver Johnson firearms (hereafter referred to as IJ).  This collection will be available in our February 2014 Regional Firearms Auction and Rock Island Auction Company is pleased to work with such a dedicated and passionate collector.

Lot #1685: A Scarce Presentation Cased 100 Years Commemorative Iver Johnson DA Revolver Set

Our tale begins in 1841 with the birth of Iver Johnson in possibly the most Norwegian sounding city in history, Norfjord, Norway.  Little is known of his childhood or education, but we do know that at the age of 16 he became an apprentice gunsmith in Bergen, Norway and only five years later opened a gun shop in Christiana at the age of 21.  By that time it was 1862 and the United States was embroiled in Civil War.  Ever the entrepreneur, young Iver emigrated to the U.S. began working for Allen & Wheellock Co. in Worcester, Massachusetts, then the hub of America's firearms industry.  He would also tinker as an inventor in his spare time.  Sources dispute when he married Mary Elizabeth Speirs, either 1863 or 1868, but marry her he did and she would eventually bear him three children: Fred John Lovell, Walter O. & Mary Louise.

While working for Allen & Wheellock, he would primarily work on pepperbox revolvers.  After the Civil War, IJ would partner with a man named Martin Bye to form the Johnson & Bye Gunsmiths right there in Worcester. Their primary purpose was to improve on the design of the pepperbox revolver with which they were both so familiar.  Unfortunately, the popularity of the pepperbox plummeted after the Civil War thanks to the rise of the fixed-barrel revolving cylinder hand guns (a.k.a. revolvers).  The two were not disheartened, but instead went on to make the most lemonade as possible from the lemons life had given them.  They began manufacturing small, personal defense weapons, a very popular item at the time, and also using their manufacturing machinery for any and all tasks they could find.  This included handcuffs and leg irons for the local police departments, toy tops, cap guns, strollers, and even their own line of bicycles and tricycles once they moved the company into its new five story building in 1873.  The partnership between IJ and Martin Bye ended in 1882 and for the first time the business would be called "Iver Johnson & Co. Revolvers" and marked solely in IJ's name.

With his rapidly growing business it took IJ until 1888 to become a U.S. citizen and another two years for the business to place its signature owl's head on its revolvers' grips.  1891 found them moving to their long term home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where they remained until 1975.  In 1894, the company would again be reborn as the Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works, thanks to their newly purchased bicycle shop, and would introduce their most successful revolver, the Safety Automatic.

The Safety Automatic got its name from two places: the highly touted "safety" of the gun that would prevent negligent discharges, and because it would "automatically" eject the spent cartridges upon opening the revolver.  Given that the first commercially successful semi-automatic pistols were several years away, there was no real danger of confusing the public upon its release.

Lot #227: Collector's Lot of Two Iver johnson Revolvers.  An Engraved Iver Johnson Safety Automatic with Relief Carved Grip and a Cutaway Iver Johnson Safety Automatic

For those that have heard of the Safety Automatic, but have yet to grasp its success, please soak in the following facts:
  • While the actual number manufactured is unknown, it is estimated that 4 - 6 million Safety Automatics were sold.
  • This number was accomplished without a military contract.
  • It was in continual production from its inception until 1941.
  • It only experienced one major internal change and several minor external ones in that time.
  • W.E. Goforth, whose book remains the authority on Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works handguns, states that, "the safety design was so far ahead of its time, that in the 1970s and the 1980s, when product liability became a problem, that just about every major handgun manufacturer in the United States switched to it in one form or another." (p. 21)
Lot 229: Engraved Iver Johnson Top Break Revolver with Swift Marking and Pearl Grips

While not the cheapest pistol on the market, they certainly had a price advantage over the Colt and Smith & Wesson models of the day.  As a fellow firearms enthusiast once pointed out, this is especially apparent in the back-to-back pages of the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalog.  Unfortunately, IJ would not live long enough to see the success of the Safety Automatic.  He passed away on August 3, 1895 of tuberculosis at the age of 54, leaving his eldest son Fred to take the reigns and his two brothers John and Walter, to help.  With their various levels of involvement things looked rosy.  The very next year after IJ's death, they issued their first catalog and opened two retail stores.  In 1900, the still blossoming company bought up J.P. Lovell Co, who was previously the exclusive retailer of all Johnson & Bye products, owned retail stores in New York City and Boston, and also sold to large mail order houses.  It was a big deal and the pupil had finally become the master.  The 1901 assassination of President William McKinley with a .32 caliber Iver Johnson Safety Automatic did little to slow their sales.

But they didn't stop there.  In 1903, they opened sales offices in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco in the U.S. as well as Hamburg, Paris, London, and Constantinople.  With this grand expansion came the need for a slogan and copious amounts of advertising, both of which IJ did with panache.  In 1904 it launched its "Hammer the hammer" campaign and began releasing many of the IJ ads that we still see today.

This "Hammer the Hammer" motorized display was one of 12 manufactured in 1910 to demonstrate that the hammer will only fall if the trigger is pulled.  Dealers or buyers could push the button for an electronic demonstration.  Only three are known to still exist and this example still functions.  It will be sold in Lot #224.

One of their more recognizable ads.

Note the international addresses listed after the prices.
A 1914 ad for Iver johnson

In 1909 IJ began manufacturing firearms to use smokeless powder cartridges.  This model was called the Third Model and is the first one to be able to take a smokeless powder cartridge.  With the release of this new model, IJ would never again see the production figures that it enjoyed with the First and Second Models.  Goforth says that, "The First and Second Models were strong and dependable revolvers, but - by today's standards - they can only be considered safe with black powder loads.  The reason so many of them are found loose and worn out today is that their owners used them with smokeless powder cartridges, regardless of the fact that they were designed for black powder pressures."  He later seems to reverse himself when he says, "Even though their First and Second Model Safety Automatic revolvers were designed for the pressures of black powder, they were in fact strong enough for smokeless powder pressures.  (After a steady diet of smokeless powder for 20 or 30 years, they would become worn and loose as can be seen from those around today.)"  That same year power passed from brother to brother and IJ's second son John became the president of the company. Starting in 1910, the company began to shift their priorities from their proven Safety Automatic to shotguns and large frame .22 rimfire revolvers, an evolution that had finished in the mid-1920s.

1911 is often associated with an exciting time in firearms, thanks to John Moses Browning's model of the same year, but at Iver Johnson's Arms and Cycle Works they were excited for a whole new reason.  No longer content to market just well-made bicycles and safe firearms, decided to release their first motorcycle.

Unfortunately, the venture would be short-lived.  The Great War (a.k.a. World War I) would erupt a short three years later with U.S. involvement coming six years later in 1917.  All said and done, the motorcycle division of IJ launched in 1907 and would close in 1916 courtesy of a burgeoning arms market resulting from WWI.  Even with no government contracts, IJ found it more profitable to manufacture firearms and tools.  With a year on each end of their motorcycle venture for startup and shutdown, the motorcycle business only truly ran for eight years.  Any existing example is rare and will be costly if found in good condition.  The 23 year old bicycle business was also shut down by the accelerated demand in the IJ arms division.

These decisions to focus on firearms and tools resulted in the company surviving the Great Depression, though some attribute this to the periods higher rates of armed robbery, which in turn helped keep the market for personal defense firearms viable.  Relatively little is mentioned of the company between the Great Depression and WWII.  The only mention, besides manufacturing data, is that Walter, the youngest of Iver's sons, became the president of the company in 1935.  One would think that with another World War shortly after assuming control that IJ's success as a company would be assured.  However, Iver Johnson would begin producing Melvin Johnson's (no relation) M1941 Johnson Rifle.  All said about 70,000 Johnson rifles were produced, but with the M1941 not replacing the M1 Garand, nor becoming a secondary option, for U.S. Military contracts the market for the M1941 Johnson was limited at best.  The fact that the Johnson wasn't even in a prototype stage until 8 months after the Garand was adopted (and was "declined" by the U.S. Ordinance after the Garand had already been in production for four years) may have also had something to do with it.  Regardless the reasons, or their validity, the Johnson Rifle was not adopted by any U.S. military branch and Iver Johnson would not taste the success enjoyed by so many other firearms manufacturers of the time.

As if that weren't enough of a missed opportunity, Iver Johnson decided to stop selling its small frame Safety Automatics in 1946.  Even Goforth is stumped by the company's action.  "The small frame centerfire was the most popular model and was still selling well right up to the beginning of World War II," he writes.  Goforth further hypothesizes that, "The need to modernize and keep up with the influx of cheaper imported handguns seems to have been the main reason for its demise.  True to Iver Johnson's belief of making 'honest goods at honest prices,' his sons and grandson discontinued the Safety Automatic revolver rather than cheapen it."  This also seems to be the final step of the brand's decision decades earlier to move focus away from the Safety Automatic and onto other types of firearms.  Oddly, they also discontinued their Skeet-er shotguns that same year, the same type of guns they were allegedly turning their focus toward.

Lot #233: Iver Johnson Skeet-er Model Side by Side 28 Gauge Shotgun

Lot #239: Collector's Lot of Six Iver Johnson DA Safety Automatic Revolvers

It seems that the missed opportunities of WWII and the discontinuation of proven sellers spelled the beginning of an inglorious end for IJ.  In 1953, Luther Otto III (Iver's grandson by his daughter Mary) became president and then the company's timeline becomes a bit fuzzy.  About the only mention of Iver Johnson in this time period is the fact that Sirhan Sirhan used an eight shot IJ .22 caliber Cadet 55-A revolver to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy.  While the years cited by various sources differ, they all agree that IJ was puchased by a man named Louis Imperato.  There is strong evidence to suggest this happened in 1973.  In 1977 Imperato also purchased assets of the Plainfield Machine company in Middlesex, NJ that was currently producing M1 carbines from leftover parts. He moved Iver Johnson from its longtime home in Fitchburg to New Jersey in the fall of 1977.  At that point Iver Johnson was in the business of producing M1 carbines in several variations such as the "GI Model," the "Paratrooper" with a telescoping stock, and the "Enforcer" which featured a pistol grip.  1978 was also the year that IJ offered their first semi-automatic pistol.

GI Model ad
Paratrooper Model ad

Enforcer Model ad

Lot #275: Three Semi-Automatic Iver Johnson Carbines

After that, things get a little messy and begin spiraling downward; essentially a lot of business deals to likely take advantage of tax breaks and bankruptcy laws.  Imperato sells the business in 1980 and it moves to Arkansas in 1983.  In 1982, they would produce a copy of the Walther PPK called the TP22 and in 1984 a copy of the post-WWII Colt Woodsman called the Trailsman.  As a further example of a business grasping at straws, they would also produce the Iver Johnson Model MP9, a 9mm submachine gun for law enforcement and military.  It had an 11" barrel, flash suppressor, weighed seven and a half pounds, and still insisted on using a modified M1 carbine receiver and miscellaneous M1 carbine parts.  Approximately 96 of these baffling pistols were sold and its production would soon be halted due to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1986.

Lot #273: Collector's Lot of Four Iver Johnson Semi-Automatic Pistols

Photo of the Iver Johnson PM9

The bankruptcy, three short three years after Imperato sold IJ, ceased production, and closed the plant.  A mere two years after the Chapter 11, Imperato again assumes ownership of IJ via a series of lawsuits against current ownership during the bankruptcy proceedings and resumes production of the M-1 carbine, as well as assembly of semi-automatic handguns.  This latest purchase of Imperato would market their guns as "Iver Johnson Arms by AMAC" (American Military Arms Corporation).  With a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo going on behind the scenes, IJ would eventually declare bankruptcy again in 1990 at first as a Chapter 11 (intending to resume business) and then refile to a Chapter 7 (unable to restructure).  Insert more legal mumbo-jumbo. Iver Johnson Arms, as we knew it, was dead despite a Florida based company that began using the name and owl in 2006.  Their website plainly states that, "We do not have any parts, guns, or info related to the old Iver Johnson name."

Though that wasn't the end of the firearms business for the Imperatos.  Louis Imperato and his son Anthony started Henry Repeating Arms in Brooklyn, NY in 1998.  With Louis passing away in 2007, Anthony became president and moved Henry to its current home in Bayonne, New Jersey in 2008.  The company appears to be thriving and even increased production in 2013.

Perhaps the last three paragraphs explain why so many collectors have such a bad taste in their mouths about IJ firearms.  They tried to survive reproducing M1 carbines from spare parts, had two copied semi-automatic handguns, one ugly and flopped original sub-machine gun, and were surrounded by ownership changes and court battles the last two decades of their existence.  Replica designs, ugly originals, and excessive drama are not exactly ways to garner respect in the gun collecting community.  Combine that with the fact that most of the IJ examples that collectors saw were likely beat up thanks to decades of smokeless powder cartridge use for which they were never intended and you've got yourself one terrible reputation.

Lot #254: Engraved Iver Johnson Favorite No. 2 Revolver with Ivory Grips

However, to focus on the last desperate decades of a once proud manufacturer is to forget what allowed them to grow, thrive, and survive in the first place.  IJ was making the safest handguns around by a long shot.  One of their huge priorities (and subsequent marketing strategies) was safety and they took it very seriously.  They also believed in providing exactly what their company slogan stated, "Honest Goods At Honest Prices," and so they did.  Their revolvers were not only safe, but also satisfied a middle price point.  These were not originally the "Saturday Night Specials" that so many have made them out to be in recent decades, nor were they some "bottom of the barrel" manufacturer as is claimed by others.  On the contrary, these were the revolvers that so many consumers could affordably turn to without having to resort to a cheaply made, unsafe, and potentially unreliable gun.

Goforth states it plainly by writing, "Iver Johnson's personality was such that he could not stop at just producing a good revolver, he had to make the safest, most dependable revolver, while keeping cost at a minimum."  These little revolvers provided millions of people with a reasonably priced, relatively safe way to protect themselves and potentially their families.  Furthermore, could the beginning days of IJ sound any more like the American Dream?  Self-starting, hard working young adult starts his own business, emigrates to America, takes job, works his way up, and eventually starts this own successful business.  Iver Johnson was everything gun collectors value about America and he wasn't even American: pro-self defense, hard worker, and fair businessman!  Hopefully, the next time you see someone roll their eyes at the mention of IJ or see them smirk when someone even suggest an IJ purchase, you can kindly suggest that the name Iver Johnson does not necessarily equate to what they think it does.

-Written by Joel Kolander


Goforth, W. E. (2006). Iver Johnson's arms & cycle works firearms 1871-1993. Hudson, WI: Gun Show Books Pub.


  1. excellent article. I shot my brother's revolver in the late 40's on his farm is Saskatchewan. wish I had it now!

  2. Iver Johnson handguns are neither cheap or cheaply made. They are fine examples of American craftsmanship, made over a time period when craftsmanship was not at it's best. Why do you see so many in fine functioning conditions still to day, they were built to last. As a collector I enjoy all the different models and variations available, and you don't have to be rich to get started collecting them. Yes there are some specimens that reach auction estimates in the thousands of dollars, but there are still plenty good specimens available through auctions, local gun shops and gun shows at reasonable prices. However let me caution you on the various prices guides avaiable such as "Blue BooK" & "Standard Catalog Of Firearms", the pricing on most Iver Johnsonh handguns is sadly behind the times and miss there mark greatly from my buying experience. But of all the firearms I collect, Iver Johnson handguns has most enjoyable to do so. As my collection grows, I thank God he lead me in their direction.

    David Reiss

    1. You know, I was thinking the same thing while starting my "collection"

    2. Hey David, I recently was passed down my great great granfathers Iver Johnson & co revolver. I had a quest from all the info i've gathered. Iver Johnson got Byes part of the company, he renamed it Iver Johnson & Co. Then he moved to Fitchburg and bought out Cycle co, and became Iver Johnson Arms & cycle works. My gun is imprinted as Just Iver Johnson & Co Fitchburg Mass.USA. patid may 10.87. dec.25.93 pats pending. I'm just wondering, if my gun was one of a few that was stamped right before the change over in Fitchburg? Its model number is X516. so i dunno.

  3. I own an IJ M1 carbine. Nothing wrong with it, it shoots well and is reasonably accurate.