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itself in an effort to stabilize production of civilian and military small arms, then tried an IPO in 2005 which was withdrawn when the investment market greeted the plan with no money and a big yawn.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.
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?