It doesn't take long to see the effects of massive investment at the Connecticut factories that make the AR-15 military-style rifle.
Deep in the heart of the sprawling Colt firearms plant in West Hartford, Bobby Craddock sets up rifle barrels in an enclosed, computerized lathe the size of a small car.
Wearing green rubber gloves, the Colt employee will start the lathe, then oversee a nearby machine. The second machine will inspect the rifle barrel itself, immediately after the cutting process is complete, and will readjust the first machine for the next barrel, if necessary.
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When the job is done, Craddock will screw an extension onto the part before sending it on its way toward assembly. Then as a finished firearm, it will move to Department 152 — the test firing range inside the factory the size of eight football fields.
Colt's new technology is moving toward a computerized factory that lets one part of the operation talk to others, in real time — not the way Craddock has worked for much of his 38-year career making firearms for Colt. His station is part of an upgrade over the last five years that the company calls "reindustrialization," a $25 million factory makeover, mostly for the AR-15.
Elsewhere in Connecticut and in western Massachusetts, other firearms companies have also recently remade their production lines, hiring hundreds of new workers and spending a combined total of well over $50 million — at a time when old-line manufacturers in other industries are struggling just to keep the business they've got.
The motivation behind the upgrades? The explosively growing civilian market for AR-15, military-style rifles. The gun, used by the assailant in Newtown as he killed 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, faces possible bans in a number of states, including Connecticut, where lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy hope to have a final bill this week.
Manfacturers, arguing that the bans would not improve public safety, are, naturtally, concerned about sales and about their significant investments of the last few years. They're listening to suitor states from the South and Midwest, and saying they hope to remain here.
The fact that the rifle is at the center of a national debate makes the business tale all the more compelling. But desperate demand for AR-15s hasn't had much effect inside the factories. At Colt's, for example, three shifts were already working at nearly full speed when the shooter used an AR-15 — made by competitor Bushmaster — in the massacre.
The millions invested in AR-15 production has common threads in the region but each company approached the business from a different angle.
For example, Stag Arms, in New Britain, was created in 2003 for the sole purpose of making AR-15s, with an innovation by founder Mark Malkowski (who was 24 at the time). Stag's rifles spit out the spent cartridges on the left side, safer and easier for shooters like him, who aim with their left eye.
Also in New Britain, Ammunition Storage Components makes bullet magazines, many of them 30-round capacity, at a plant with nearly 100 workers, where owner Jonathan Scalise has invested more than $1 million recently.
The iconic Smith & Wesson in Springfield, historically a pistol-maker, jumped into AR-15 production in 2009, seeing an opportunity. O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven, famous for its shotguns and bolt-action rifles, launched its AR-15 line only last year, with dozens of new workers and a retooling that cost more than $4 million.
Colt's Manufacturing Co. is the granddaddy of all AR-15 makers. It bought the original design in 1959 and developed it into the M-16 and later M-4 military assault weapons, rolling out the civilian "Sporter" model in 1964. But Colt's — along with its sister company, Colt Defense LLC — focused mainly on military and law enforcement sales over the last two decades and had to play catch-up in 2011, after largely leaving civilian sales to smaller makers.
Colt's could no longer sit on the sidelines of a market it had created and refined over the decades, creating more advanced guns that were copied by dozens of firms around the country.
"To smooth the ups and downs of the military contracts, we need some level of commercial sales," said Dennis Veilleux, who became CEO of Colt's Manufacturing Co. at the start of 2013 after working under the general who ran the place for more than a dozen years.
The strategy has worked, at Colt's and at the other companies. Colt and Colt's — the former makes the rifle under contract for the latter — shipped about 100,000 AR-15 civilian models in 2011 (including some to law enforcement agencies), up from less than 10,000 the year before. And sales since then have climbed further, Veilleux said.
Together, the rifle-makers of Connecticut and western Massachusetts, historically known as the "Arsenal of Democracy" and "Gun Valley," have tapped a vast network of local suppliers and metal-finishers, which have, in turn, invested large sums in new equipment and employees.
It is a direct continuation of the manufacturing tradition that started in 1798 when a New Haven man named Eli Whitney started making guns for the new nation, after his cotton gin business failed.
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