What the hell happened to Colt?

This is the second part of a blog post I started yesterday called “Writing, Research, and Guns,” which actually had little to do with writing or research except in the abstract sense that I’ve done a lot of reading regarding firearms for some weird westerns and detective urban fantasies I’ve been writing. You don’t need to read yesterday’s post to understand today’s, but won’t you feel silly if there’s a pop quiz at the end?

Please Note: I am not a gun historian and for the sake of brevity (hell, this topic could form an extensive series of columns) I’ve skimmed some facts about Colt. If you’re really interested, there are huge coffee table books available on just the topic of Colt’s Manufacturing Company alone.

Yesterday, I rambled on about the top U.S. firearms manufacturers and how the once mighty Colt has fallen on hard times. Today, I’ll try to elucidate on my reasons why Colt has failed in recent years.

To reiterate, I’m talking about the company started by Samuel Colt, super genius. He was an inventor, an industrialist, and a damned fine gunsmith. His manufacturing methods of mass production were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution (to borrow a line from Wikipedia). Many acknowledge that with his use of interchangeable parts, he was was of the very first to successfully use the assembly line, decades before Henry Ford.

His introduction of the Colt Walker in 1847 and the Dragoon in 1848 cemented a lucrative relationship for Colt’s Manufacturing with the U.S. Military that lasted almost a century and a half.

It certainly didn’t hurt that years later in the 1890s, Colt’s Manufacturing hired another super genius: one John Moses Browning. I don’t have time to go into his accomplishments here, but suffice to say he designed cartridges (.25 ACP, .32 ACP, .38 ACP, .380 ACP, .45 ACP, to name a few), firearms (Colt Model 1900, 1902, 1903, 1908, U.S. M1911, Browning Hi-Power, several Winchester rifle models, and a half dozen or more machine guns), not to mention a list of patent’s to choke a horse. (Ha, see what I did there?)

Colt’s history is the history of American firearms. So how did this company that was once on top of the world, their name spoken almost reverently among gun enthusiasts, go from King of the Hill to become an also-ran, which I think it is safe to call them when they’ve dropped all the way down to number 20 in 2010 on the U.S. firearms manufacturers hit parade?

Arrogance, lack of vision, and an inability to adapt, which are the same things that have caused many a great corporation to flounder and sink.

Let’s start with arrogance. I guess its unavoidable, but when you’ve been on the top for so long you begin to stop taking your competition seriously and refuse to change what you’ve been doing. The old saw, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes into play. In Colt’s case, they considered themselves the Ordained Purveyors to the Military and felt all they had to do was some slight modifications to their 1911 and it would be a shoe-in to win the handgun trials in the 1980s. They were betting on the government’s frugality to help them win. It was cheaper to revamp the existing 1911 inventory to meet the new 9mm NATO ammo standard then to purchase hundreds of thousands new handguns.

But surprise! They chose poorly. Instead of R&Ding a new gun, Colt went with the old tried and true and came in last place. For the first time in American history, a foreign company won the contract to supply arms to our military.

The Beretta 92FS, one of the Wonder Nines

The Beretta 92FS, one of the Wonder Nines

The 1980s held more shocks for Colt. A protracted UAW workers strike proved costly, affecting quality, which in turn affected their good name. Colt had been synonymous with high quality and that reputation became tarnished.

I don’t know what the union was asking for or what Colt was counter-offering, but many manufacturers throughout history have been crippled or forced out of business by a protracted labor dispute. Strikes are one of the tools unions use to negotiate, but to me, it’s like the nuclear option. No one wants to go there because, well… The End. Protracted strikes are like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Did you know that Schlitz was once the number one beer producer for many decades until a strike in the 1950s crippled them and paved the way for Anheiser-Busch to become numero uno? In Colt’s case, the strike ended in an arrangement that resulted in Colt being sold to a group of private investors, the state of Connecticut, and the UAW itself.

The 1980s also so a shift in consumer tastes. Suddenly demand was for the “Wonder Nines!” Companies like Beretta, Glock, Heckler & Koch, and SIG Sauer were producing high capacity, 9mm, double action pistols and Colt was caught flat-footed. Even Smith and Wesson, Colt’s biggest American competitor, offered their Model 59, which they had created way back in 1971.

An inability to adapt either to changes in market trends or consumer tastes has been the death knell for many companies. Those that can’t or won’t innovate, who continue producing the same old thing thinking the current shift is only temporary and the consumers will “come back to their senses” goes hand-in-hand with arrogance. Companies that are unable to diversity their product portfolios are doomed like the proverbial buggy whip manufacturer. How many turntable manufacturers were put out of business because they didn’t see the compact disc on the horizon?

The failed Colt All American 2000

The failed Colt All American 2000

Colt fared even worse in the 1990s. Not only didn’t they bounce back from the strike, but they ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1992, the year after they introduced their first ever high-capacity, polymer 9mm pistol! It was a miserable failure for many reasons including unreliability and a product recall. They ended production two years later. The Colt All American 2000 wasn’t a bad pistol, it had a nice look, similar to a CZ 75, and could have become a rather decent gun, but Colt never gave it a chance. They had to jettison it, as well as their other small gun introduced in the 1980s, the Mustang .380 ACP, to simplify their lineup for the bankruptcy.

The 1990s also brought an end to the Cold War and subsequent downsizing in the entire defense industry. Colt was purchased again in 1994. Despite the new financial group’s backing, Colt managed only one military contract for the M4.

Then in 1998, the shit hit the fan when Colt CEO Ron Stewart, in a Washington Post interview, said he favored a federal permit system with training and testing for gun ownership. Can you say “boycott?”

Stewart was soon replaced by Steven Sliwa, who decided to focus all research on “smart guns.” Hang another albatross around Colt’s neck: nobody, but nobody was interested in a smart gun.

Enter William Keys, retired U.S. Marine Lt. General in 2002. He helped restore some of Colt’s reputation, the boycott faded away, and he made Colt an international leader in Defense production by splitting Colt Defense from Colt’s Manufacturing Company, which continued to serve the civilian market.

In 2010, when Colt was ranked #20 among American firearms manufacturers, Keys was replaced by Gerald Dinkel as CEO, but Keys remained on the Board of Directors for Colt Defense.

What effect Dinkel has had on the company’s success I don’t know. The list I found is from 2010. So what I do know is, they ended all production of double-action revolvers. They must believe that is a dying market despite the fact that for every three autoloaders Smith and Wesson sells they sell two revolvers while Ruger has a two to one ratio of autoloaders to revolvers. That would indicate the revolver market is still very viable, one that would probably welcome the return of the Colt Python with open arms.

Also, Colt still doesn’t have their own version of the “Wonder Nine.” Possibly the AA 2000 left a bad memory, but the problems that plagued that gun could be fixed with some solid reengineering. It was the right gun at the wrong time, releasing it at a time when they couldn’t put the time or money into promoting it.

So what does Colt have? The tried and true and a few loyal Colt fanboys to buy them. Sure, the Colt name on a 1911, or an 1873 SAA, or an AR-15 rifle still has cachet among collectors and specialty gun enthusiasts, but that’s not going to turn the company around.

Especially when Colt isn’t even the top 1911 manufacturer. That honor goes to Kimber (#14 on the list), whose 1911 offerings are truly gorgeous, while outselling Colt three to one. And regarding Colt’s AR-15, Bushmaster (#21) outsells Colt by four to one. Plus, there’s a slew of 1911 manufacturers out there who make quality 1911s more affordable than Colt’s offerings. Springfield Armory, for instance, which is #24 on the list makes some fine 1911s. Additionally, Springfield offers polymer, striker-fired pistols as well.

And Para USA, another 1911 specialty company was just purchased by Remington. Auto-Ordnance (of Tommy gun fame), also makes 1911s and was purchased by Kahr Arms, a division of Saeilo Inc, who are #15 on the list.

See a pattern? The competition for 1911 sales is fierce.

Ruger, S&W, and Remington are number 1, 2, and 3 because they’ve adapted. They’re diversified, producing a wide variety of handguns, rifles, and shotguns that the public is clamoring for. And ironically, they each make a 1911 that is just as good as any Colt and in the case of Ruger and S&W, much better looking.

Unless Colt changes its ways and begins to manufacture guns the public demands, which are newer, smaller carry pistols using modern materials and designs, and begins to aggressively market its product lines, they will simply find themselves redundant making firearms the public can find elsewhere and Colt will fade from the public’s memory and into the history books, because nobody is interested in a one-trick, or even a three-trick, pony.


Pop Quiz

See? I told ya!

What year was the Colt 1873 Peacemaker first introduced?



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