America’s Oldest Gun Manufacturer May Be Ready To Quit

Last week the Colt Firearms Company came within an inch of defaulting on its major credit line, which might have meant the demise of America’s oldest, continually-operating industrial enterprise. This isn’t the first time that the most iconic name in small arms has faced financial Armageddon.  As recently as 2003, the company reorganized itself in an effort to stabilize production of civilian and military small arms, then tried an IPO in 2005 which was withdrawn when the investment market greeted the plan with no money and a big yawn.

Financial problems started plaguing the Hartford-based gun maker within a few decades following its founding in 1835.  The company, like most gun manufacturers, experienced substantial expansion during the Civil War, but a fire that destroyed much of the factory in 1864, coincided with a drop in government contracts that did not reverse itself until the Army adopted the “Peacemaker” revolver in 1873, placed an order for 8,000 units which probably kept the company from oblivion.  Once the Single Action Army revolver, as it was known, became an official military sidearm, it quickly caught on with law enforcement units and civilians, a pattern that Colt would repeat with John Browning’s greatest gun design, the 1911 pistol chambered in the venerable 45ACP.

colt peacemaker                Between 1911 and 1945, Colt delivered more than 3 million pistols to the Army, shipped several million more to customers overseas and used the gun to promote all its pistol and revolver products to civilians at home. The Colt logo, known as the “rampant Colt,” became a fixture throughout the gun industry and beyond; the company name and logo may have been the most identifiable consumer brand not only in the United States but overseas.  The good news about the 1911 pistol was that it functioned equally well whether it was chambered for 45 or 9mm, the latter much more popular in Europe than over here, as well as a hybrid caliber known as the 38 Super which was favored by military and law enforcement units in countries south of the Rio Grande.

While Smith & Wesson took much of the domestic law enforcement market away after World War II with its K-frame revolvers (the chief difference being that the S&W had less moving internal parts, hence, easier to repair and maintain), Colt made up for much of this deficit in the 1960s when it took over Gene Stoner’s rifle design and began producing the M-16.  The rifle remained a Colt product until the late 1980’s, when production stoppages and quality issues at the factory forced the government to give the contract to the Belgian arms maker FN.  And while Colt continues to manufacture variants of this rifle for armed forces here and abroad, there are at least ten other companies that have produced some portion of the 8 million M-16s that are still floating around the globe.  Meanwhile, on the civilian side, the semi-auto version of the gun, known as the AR-15, has long ago become the staple of various manufacturing companies like Bushmaster and Panther Arms, both of whom have outsold Colt in volume of sporting sales.

What really sunk the company to a secondary rank among American gun makers was the five-year UAW strike at the Hartford facility which resulted in handgun sales slowing to a trickle and, frankly, a majority of those guns being considered poorly made.  But worse, the disappearance of Colt from the handgun market came precisely at the time when hi-cap, European pistols like Beretta, Sig and Glock started to take over the American law enforcement market and thence into civilian hands.

When I was a kid, every boy owned a Tom Mix or Roy Rogers revolver ; my grandson has his own I-Phone but couldn’t care less about a name like Colt.  In the consumer market it’s what’s new that counts.  Guns are an old technology. Could the Colt situation presage the future of the gun industry as a whole?

 

 

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America Goes To War And Takes Its Guns

Most of the design and engineering advances that created modern small arms came through the development of military weapons, both rifles like the Springfield 03 or handguns like John Browning’s Colt 1911. And whether it was the M-1 Garand that General Patton called the “greatest battle implement ever devised,” or the Winchester repeating carbine that the U.S. Cavalry carried against the Indians, it’s safe to say that guns played an important role in just about every war that America fought.

It should therefore come as no surprise that guns are once again playing an essential, if not a pivotal role in what is perhaps America’s longest-lasting war.  I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, although both of those conflicts have dragged on far too long.  I’m talking instead about America’s “culture” war for which guns and gun ownership have come to define both the ebb and flow of the conflict as well as the basic attitudes of both sides.

Guns were first tied to the culture war when Charlton Heston became NRA President in  1998.  Heston and other members of his Hollywood generation began turning conservative when Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency in 1980. But while Reagan boosted conservative fortunes he was always ambivalent about the culture war; kept evangelicals at arm’s length, was never seen inside a church, and rarely, if ever, invoked the virtues and values of gun ownership or membership in the NRA.  In fact, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Reagan sent a letter to the House of Representatives in 1994 advocating an assault-rifle ban that was enacted later in the year.

Until the 2008 election of Obama, the culture war embraced issues like abortion and gay rights, both of which took precedence over guns.  And even though Bill Clinton blamed the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and the 2000 defeat of Al Gore on the power of the NRA, the outcome of both elections couldn’t be tied specifically to anything having to do with guns.

The ascendency of guns in the cultural war didn’t reflect so much the growing power of the gun-owning lobby as it was the result of conservative shifts away from other issues for which they simply could not muster enough votes to win.  On abortion, for example, the nation appears evenly split but Rowe v. Wade is now forty years old and as women continue to move forward in the workplace and the professions, a woman’s right to choose seems fairly secure.  As for the gay issue, 19 states have now legalized same-sex marriage and last year the SCOTUS invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which opens the door for many more states to lift their own gay marriage bans.

sarah                So as the older, hot-button cultural issues gradually wither away (remember something called English as the official language?), gun ownership and gun “rights” move to center stage.  And guns are a perfect means to build support for conservative cultural warriors because their ownership, after all, is enshrined in the most holy of all cultural holies, the Bill of Rights.  Even the leader of the liberals, whether he means it or not, is forced to sing hosannas to the 2nd Amendment as his shock-troops prepare to do battle against the other side.

The problem with cultural conflicts is they cannot be resolved with reference to facts.  Because as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky pointed out long before the culture war rose to the level of conflict that we see today, people make decisions about things like gun ownership not because they understand or even care about whether a gun can or cannot protect them from harm, but whether ownership of a gun either supports or conflicts with their world view.  If both sides in the gun debate don’t find a way to resolve their arguments by reconciling larger cultural issues, it will drag on the way the Chaco War dragged on between Paraguay and Bolivia over a border that neither country could even find.