Iver Johnson was born in Nordfjord, in Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway. He was educated as a gunsmith in Bergen in 1857 and had a gun store in Oslo. He married Ms. Mary Elizabeth Adams (born January 1847 on April 9, 1868, in Worcester, with whom he had 3 sons (Frederick Iver, John Lovell, and Walter Olof) and 2 daughters (Mary Louise and Nellie).
He moved to Worcester, Massachusetts from Norway in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War, a time when gunsmithing was a welcome skill in the country. Though Johnson was a gunsmith by trade at the time, he also worked as an inventor in his spare time. This would come in handy later as he sought new and creative uses for his partially idle manufacturing equipment. Eventually this led to diversification of the corporation’s businesses. His early work involved not only gunsmithing locally in Worcester, MA, but it also included providing designs and work to other firearms companies (notable Allen & Wheelock for whom he made so-called pepperbox pistols).
Johnson Bye & Company
In 1871, Johnson joined Martin Bye to form the Johnson Bye & Company, merging his own and Martin Bye’s gunsmithing operations. During this period, Johnson and Bye filed for and received several new firearms features and firearms feature improvement patents. Their primary revenues came from the sale of their self designed and manufactured inexpensive models of revolvers. Not much is known about Martin Bye, as there is very little documented information about his life.
Bye and Johnson filed jointly for and were awarded multiple patents together, mostly related to firearms designs, beginning in 1876. The company’s name changed to Iver Johnson & Company in 1883 upon Johnson’s purchase of Bye’s interest in the firm. Bye continued to work in the firearm industry for the remainder of his life.
The company’s name changed again to Iver Johnson’s Arms & Cycle Works in 1891, when the company relocated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts in order to have better and larger manufacturing facilities. The Iver Johnson Complex, as it is known today, resembles other abandoned Industrial Revolution-era properties in New England. As has been the trend, the complex is often a target for real estate developers who intend to exploit its buildings’ industrial brick aesthetics and open floor plans to create retail, residential, or other types of usable space.
Iver Johnson died in 1895, and his sons took over the business. Frederick Iver, (born 2nd October, 1871), John Lovell (born 26th June, 1876) and Walter Olof (August 1878). Each had vastly different levels of involvement in the company, ranging from executive leadership to barely any involvement at all. They shepherded the company through a phase of expansion, as bicycle operations grew, then converted to motorcycle manufacturing and sales. They also saw the growth of the firearms business and the eventual restructuring of the company to focus on firearms and related business as they divested non-firearms concerns, such as the motorcycle business, in the face of growing firearms demand, World War I’s armaments industry expansion, and other factors. As family ownership waned and outside investment via publicly-traded stock and mergers/acquisitions/partnerships took hold, the company changed ownership and moved several times during its operation.
The company eventually dropped ‘Cycle Works’ from its moniker when that part of the business was shut down. The business successfully weathered the Great Depression (in part thanks to higher rates of armed robbery crimes, which helped maintain demand for personal firearms) and was buoyed by the dramatic increase in the market for arms leading up to and during World War II. As a result of changes in ownership, the company had the first of two major relocations in 1971 when it moved to New Jersey. It moved again to Jacksonville, Arkansas, and was jointly owned by Lynn Lloyd and Lou Imperato, who also owned the Henry brand name, before it finally ceased trading under its own name in 1993, at which time it was owned by American Military Arms Corp (AMAC).