If kids growing up today learn the word Apple for their first consumer product, then when I grew up in the 1950s, the first consumer product name we knew was Colt. So there’s a bit of personal regret, I must admit, at the not-unexpected news that Colt, the storied old gun manufacturer, has slipped into Chapter 11 and appears to be on the way out. This won’t be the first time that Colt has hit the skids, in fact the company almost didn’t survive shortly after Samuel Colt started it up in 1836, and it went through bad times – work stoppages, strikes, business downturns – on a regular basis every ten or twenty years. In fact, my father’s first job was at Colt’s in 1941 but he decided not to remain with the company because my mother didn’t particularly like living in Hartford and he was convinced that the company would fall on hard times once World War II came to an end. He was right. It did.
Colt’s has not only been the oldest, continually-operating manufacturing company in America (although sometimes it operated in name only) but the rampant Colt logo, which adorns the frame of every gun, was the first commercial logo ever copyrighted in the United States. The problem with the company, however, was that it always tied its product development to what it perceived would be the next generation of military small arms, and while it guessed correctly sometimes, such as with the Colt 1911 pistol, other times it guessed wrong. And because it guessed wrong on the military side, it missed changes in the civilian market as well.
The biggest mistake the company made was to tie its fortunes over the last several decades to the M-16 battle rifle, whose design Colt purchased from Gene Stoner in 1961 and then began receiving large military contracts in the build-up in Viet Nam. By the 1980s the original patents had expired, Colt could no longer protect its brand, and other companies like Bushmaster and FN began outselling the Hartford-made product both to the U.S. military and abroad.
You would think that Colt would have revived over the last few years given the upsurge in demand for black guns (a.k.a. assault rifles, a.k.a. modern sporting rifles) on the civilian side, but this didn’t happen at all. First, other companies like Bushmaster and DPMS had focused their marketing on commercial sales, and this made Colt just one of many companies now selling to the public at large what had become a generic gun design. Second, Colt abandoned revolver production in the mid-1990s, never got into small, polymer-frame pistols which were the coming thing, and kids turning into gun-buying adults just don’t watch cowboy movies any more. It’s hard for me, a pre-Boomer, to imagine not knowing the name Colt, but I’ll bet you my teen-age grandson has no idea what the name means at all.
But leaving aside issues of consumer tastes and how those tastes change, I think there’s another major reason why Colt’s is on the veritable block, namely, the fact that the demand for black guns has run its course, and none of the gun companies whose balance-sheets are dependent on sporting-goods sales of ARs are having an easy time. Even Smith & Wesson, whose AR products only accounts for a small percentage of their overall sales, admitted that the 10% decline in overall revenues for Q3 on a year-to-year basis was from a shrinking AR market which “drove most of the sales decline.”
A gun company selling only one, basic product which nobody wants to buy is a gun company in trouble. And no matter what the NRA and all the pro-gun advocates say, guns still represent a particular consumer product which a majority of American consumers can do without. And if Americans can do without guns, they can even do without an iconic name like Colt.