By David Tong
I must admit that the title of this article is based on a notion of mine that this august American firm has had a marketing strategy that is fundamentally flawed and that their continued commercial viability is problematic. I am not an economist. Thus, I am not qualified to analyze a balance sheet and say specifically where Colt may not be properly focusing on recapturing market share. As a shooter and gun writer, I do have some thoughts and observations to share.
Samuel Colt was among the first of American manufacturing’s founding fathers. He invented the modern revolver and bought the concept of mass production to the firearms field, creating an assembly line concept where firearm parts could be machined to a specification and assembled into a complete arm in a greatly reduced time. By the middle 1800's, Colt was dominating the US revolver market. It didn’t hurt that, early in the 20th Century, the redoubtable John Browning designed a series of very successful semi-automatic pistols for the Colt Company.
In those earlier times it was impossible produce parts so consistent that they did not require some hand fitting and Colt's revolvers and pistols became famous for their had fitted slickness. Unfortunately, as the technology of interchangeable parts production improved, Colt failed to change with the times and invest, for instance, in CNC machinery to make its arms more easily producible. This was likely due to a lack of capital. Colt, though once a part of “Colt Industries,” became an independent gun maker in the 1990s after the “Industries” divested themselves of their namesake founder. Without the capital of their other partners, as well as an inability or unwillingness to embrace change, today Colt is faced with declining commercial and military/law enforcement market share.
Colt, as everyone knows, was once a primary law enforcement and military provider. Sadly, their current market share in the civilian world is so small that many distributors and retailers refuse to “carry” their product because of supply problems. It is sometimes difficult for retailers to get Colt product.
If you were to peruse a Colt commercial product catalog from the 1970s or early 1980s, you would find a number of revolvers, both single and double action, which required extensive hand fitting to function properly. With the price of hand labor increasing sharply, this inevitably made Colt revolvers less competitive in the market place. The attrition of qualified and experienced craftsmen through age and retirement exacerbated Colt's production problems. Today, only the famous 1873 Single Action Army (Model P) revolver is still offered, as a “Custom Shop” item only.
Famous revolvers such as the Python, Police Positive, Agent, Cobra, Detective Special, Diamondback, New Frontier, Lawman and Trooper have simply ceased to exist, even though the latter pair's “Mark III” and “Mark V” variants had cast or sintered metal hammers and triggers and didn’t require the same extensive hand fitting. Meanwhile, Ruger, S&W and Taurus have carved out a huge portion of the civilian market for revolvers.
Moreover, rising UAW labor costs and the entry of dozens of manufacturers, small and large, into what is now called the "1911 pistol" (once the "Colt .45 auto") market have necessitated attempts to reduce production costs on the semi-automatic pistol line, which is now confined solely to 1911 type pistols. We began to see investment castings on small 1911 parts like slide stops, grip and thumb safeties, as well as plastic triggers and mainspring housings. Gone entirely are other famous Colt autoloaders, such as the Woodsman .22, .25 pocket pistols and .380's.
Colt wasted precious resources on recent short-lived semi-automatic pistols such as the Double Eagle, a DA version of the 1911, and the “Colt 2000.” The latter was a large 9x19 caliber, striker-fired DAO with a roller bearing trigger mechanism that became infamous for its unreliability.
Increasingly, Colt has been forced to rely on its military and law enforcement sales to keep the ship afloat. Anyone who has dealt with this side of the marketplace knows that these are generally lowest-price bidder contracts. Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Belgium set up a manufacturing facility in the U.S. to build the M16A2 service rifle and later the Marines’ M16A4 optics-ready flattop rifle. Colt’s share of the military market has largely been reduced to the occasional no-bid contract for the M4 Carbine. In fairness, I have heard from a well-placed source that Colt Defense is a primary contractor for the US military and once again considered “vital.”
Now I will grant you that I am neither clairvoyant nor possessed of a crystal ball. I do not know what their CEO, a retired Lieutenant General of Marines, has planned for Colt’s future. I know that since his watch began some seven years ago, examples of the Colt 1911 pistol that I’ve personally examined were probably the nicest quality in regards to slide to frame fit, trigger pull and finish that I have seen in 20 years. He has spurred on the acquisition of modern manufacturing tooling to make the company more efficient and less labor intensive.
I also know that the Colt product line is still very limited and that there have been no new offerings for nearly a decade. Colt's bread and butter 1911 pistol line, while improved in quality, has yet to match the competition in terms of the built-in shooting enhancements to the basic design that have come from Kimber, Springfield and others. Attempts to market the bolt-action, “Colt Light Rifle” in standard centerfire hunting calibers showed that management recognizes the need to diversify their product offerings. Unfortunately, without reliable distributor/dealer support, it passed into oblivion almost unnoticed.
A recent experience in law enforcement sales illustrated some need to improve quality control, as well. I sold some semi-automatic “M4s” to a police department for patrol work and three of four had to be returned with excessive headspace. The contact at the department was a former US military armorer with the appropriate “no go” gauge that he used to inspect the arms upon delivery. Colt, of course, made good on the error, but the fact remains that these should have been caught at the factory. I admit that this is only one anecdotal example.
Another thing that is troubling to me is the strategy of offering “collector’s items,” through companies such as the American Historical Society. These are generally wood display-cased pistols that will never be handled much, let alone fired. I would much prefer to see Colt concentrating on producing working firearms for shooters who want to carry an American legend.
Some of the above is probably risk management on the part of management. However, given the rising liability insurance rates coupled with typical East Coast hostility toward arms manufacturers via legislation and legal action, it seems to this observer that a healthy arms company should have a strategy based somewhat upon their history, marketing to their strengths and including a level of forward thinking that I have, sadly, found absent in Colt’s management for a long time. (It is also long past time for the East Coast arms makers to move their production South or West, as Ruger, and more recently Winchester, have done. -Ed.)
To add insult to injury, a number of years ago it became financially necessary for Colt to sell off their old Armory building and the famous “Blue Dome,” along with many of their original blueprints and patent drawings, to U.S. Firearms Corporation. U.S. Firearms is a precision manufacturer of Single Action Army type revolvers and is now the premier builder of the traditional hand fitted SAA revolver, using real charcoal bluing and bone color case hardening.
I look with hope and interest to the future of Colt. I look forward to a time when Colt can navigate 21st Century waters with a clear vision of what the Company stands for, offering quality products at affordable prices so that it can once again become a major competitor in the market place.
Copyright 2008 by David Tong. All rights reserved.