The legendary maker of the revolver that won the West is winning back loyal customers and re-establishing its brand. David Soyka reports on how Colt’s Manufacturing Company aims to be today’s sidearm of choice for sport and personal protection.
Few brands have been around for 177 years. Still fewer can claim a place in history in the expansion and defense of the country. And while many brands run into hard times, not as many regain glory by continuing to manufacture in the US and by, well, sticking to their guns.
Handguns are the core product of Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC as they have been since Sam Colt introduced the famous revolver design that bears his name in 1836. While synonymous with sidearms, Colt’s good name had been battered by a bitter strike in the mid-1980s, loss of major government contracts, and ownership changes. Emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1994, Colt was bought by a private equity firm. Colt initially focused primarily on its military business, although it continued to release commercial products aimed at collectors, sport shooters, and individuals concerned with personal protection. In 2002 the company split into two ownership made a significant investment in the plant as well as research and development to restore the luster of the Colt brand.
“These are exciting times for us,” says Joyce Rubino, Colt’s vice president of marketing. “In continuing the Colt tradition of quality, craftsmanship, and excellence, we’re implementing the latest technology and manufacturing processes to introduce new products and designs without straying from our traditional principles. The result is that we are growing market share, even during the recent recession. I think we’re just at the beginning stages of a tremendous expansion of our brand and growing consumer enthusiasm for our products.”
Though both companies inhabit the same office and manufacturing space totaling 310,000 square feet in West Hartford, Conn., “You can almost draw a line down the floor between where Colt Manufacturing works and where Colt Defense works,” notes R.J. Contorno, marketing and spare parts supervisor. “There is no overlap in manufacturing processes or employees. The one exception is that Colt rifles sold to sportsmen, hunters, and other private shooters are made by Colt Defense. It’s actually a marketing edge for us that a private owner can buy a rifle based on the same military standards and specifications as the United States issue Colt M16 rifle and M4 carbine.”
Building on Tradition
Colt customers encompass a range of interests and passions, and are likely to own more than one handgun. “Collectors are one of our largest markets,” Contorno points out. “It’s not unusual for a collector to own 5, 15, 30 or even more different models. This is the reason why new product introduction and innovation is essential to maintaining brand awareness and enthusiasm.”
Which is why a company noted for making guns made out of steel developed a new polymer-based line. “This allows us to make a lighter handgun weighing in at less than 12 ounces, without sacrificing durability,” Contorno explains. “It also is more ergonomic to hold, which is ideal for the self-defense and concealed carry markets.”
Rubino emphasizes that the feature of lighter weight is not related to the industry trend of attracting more women. “It really had nothing to do with considerations of gender,” she says. “The technology is available and there is a broad customer interest in a lighter platform that lets the gun sit more easily in hands of all sizes and allows for easy mounting of accessories.”
She adds, “As committed as we are to innovation, we aren’t ignoring tradition. There’s no better testament to the quality of our sidearms and the enthusiasm they generate than the fact that our core product is based on a platform introduced over a hundred years ago. Today’s modern semiautomatic pistol can trace its roots to the model first introduced in 1911. And customers can even order a reproduction of the original models, each faithfully manufactured to the original specifications from factory drawings.”
Indeed, while today’s Colts are made with the latest equipment and production techniques, there is a remarkable similarity to the mass manufacturing practices first established by Colt in the 1850s. Using the newest metalworking machinery that made 80 percent of its precision parts, the factory was able to produce 5,000 finished handguns in its first year of operation.
Today, Colt handguns are made-to-order in a very similar process in which the basic product is machined and then refined by hand. “The combination of skilled technician and automated technology has always been integral to our manufacturing process,” Rubino notes. “While milled and machined to exact dimensions, it’s the human element in the production process that makes the Colt difference. Each gun is finished, polished, and engraved by skilled hands and trained eyes. You always get a consistent product with a personalized touch.”
That touch results in a machined product that, unlike many mass manufactured goods, is noted for its durability. “We sponsor various shooting competitions, as well as the shooters who participate in them,” Contorno says. “One of the shooters we sponsor uses a stock Colt pistol. Other than performing normal maintenance, he hasn’t had to replace or repair any major part on the gun. In fact, he’s fired over 100,000 rounds without a failure.”
Rubino points to the dedication of Colt workers to their craft. “We have people with 30 to 45 years of service,” she says. “You don’t get that kind of longevity from people who view their job as just putting in the hours. You get it from people dedicated to making the finest product possible.”
One of the challenges Colt’s Manufacturing faces is replacing these skilled technicians when they retire. “We have training programs in place to bring new people up to speed,” Rubino says. “We’re confident our next-generation of workers will further add to our legacy of excellence.”
Another challenge is to expand production to meet growing demand. “Right now we have a backlog of orders,” Contorno says. “We’re only running one shift for main production, although some second and third shifts for machining work. Thanks to the investment of our owners, we have the capacity already in place to add manufacturing capability as demand increases.”
The Legend Continues
To further expand its brand reputation, Colt’s is partnering with key manufacturers to provide features that lie outside its core competencies. Examples include optics manufacturer Leupold & Stevens to assemble a cobranded riflescope specifically optimized for Colt firearms and LaserMax to mount its CenterFire laser on its Mustang model line without the need to change parts.
“This is really just the beginning of the reinvigoration of our brand and the expansion of our capabilities to satisfy the needs and interests of gun enthusiasts,” Rubino says. “The state of economy notwithstanding, business is growing, which is a further testament to the quality of our products. We really look forward to adding to the Colt legend in ways that would make Sam proud.”