Region's Firearm Factories Invested Heavily To Build AR-15

Although there are no widely backed proposals to ban the manufacture of military-style rifles in Connecticut, the move to ban sales of the popular AR-15, led by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and powerful lawmakers, is raising questions about all that investment — inside and outside the companies.

"We just put in four brand-new machining centers to the tune of $4 million," said Joe Bartozzi, vice president and general counsel at the 94-year-old Mossberg, which employs 265 people in Connecticut, up by nearly 100 in the last two years. "I hope Connecticut appreciates that we are a good citizen and a good employer."

And the companies are prosperous. Although most are privately owned and do not report profits, the two that are publicly traded — Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co., another AR-15 maker that has its headquarters in Fairfield but manufactures guns elsewhere — reported sharply higher profits in their recent quarters, driven by demand that was in place well before the Newtown tragedy.

The wild popularity of AR-15-style rifles, combined with rising sales of small pistols, helps to explain seemingly conflicting trends in the industry. In an analysis of more than 30 years of survey data, The New York Times reported Sunday that the number of U.S. households that own guns is at 34 percent in recent years, down from 50 percent in the '70s. Yet federal data show that overall U.S. production of firearms that are not exported or used by the military was up by 22 percent in the five years leading up to 2010, compared with the five years leading up to 1990.

Echoing other local owners and executives, Bartozzi said Mossberg would never threaten to pick up and leave if Connecticut were to adopt a strict ban. "That is not our style," he said, and besides, he added, it's not only a history the company has in Connecticut but more to the point, a skilled and loyal workforce.

"It is damn hard to move a factory," he said.

On the other hand, Bartozzi said, "To say that Mossberg is not looking at other options would be wrong. ... I'm not feeling a lot of love from many of our legislators. It's getting tiring. It really is getting tiring. ... It takes a lot out of you."

Mossberg, with a factory of similar size in Texas, has had active talks with officials from Southern states trying to drive a wedge between the firm and its home state. All of the firms have similar stories.

And for all of them, the issue of whether to continue investing here or to look elsewhere is a matter of balancing many concerns.

"You're telling me that you want the manufacturers to remain in the state, to provide jobs to the citizens," said Jake McGuigan, director of government relations/state affairs for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers and retailers, in a hypothetical conversation lawmakers who favor gun control. "But the president of Colt's can't own the rifle he manufactures."

Still An Art

Setting aside the politics around the product, the ramp-up of these firearms-makers is a triumph of manufacturing economics. These firms pay solid wages and have brought renewed factory vigor to a high-cost state that has seen more than its share of declines in production in recent years.

Amid the familiar, droning hum of metalworking and assembly, the links to the past are less important than the hope for the future.

"There's still a lot of craftsmanship in here," Veilleux said on a recent tour of the plant. "There are some things that are better done with conventional equipment."

That craftsmanship includes deburring, the art of removing metal edges. Helena Pavao, whose bright red blouse stands out in the Colt factory, is working on cam pin holes. The veteran of nearly six years at the firm needs to make sure to get the entire edge or the part will be worthless. "She could also ruin the part if she does it too much," explains a colleague.

Over near the area where 20-foot rods of 4140 steel will soon be cut and bored into barrels, Veilleux marvels at the clean operation. "If you would have come here five years ago," he said, "you'd have seen a big mess and a lot of oil."

Veilleux credits his mentor, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. William M. Keys, who came to Colt's in 1999 and oversaw the spinoff into two companies. Keys started the modernization process years ago — when Colt Defense was fat with M-4 contracts. It's still not finished, as some departments have older equipment that will soon be replaced.

"[It's like] we're rebuilding the engine of the airplane while we're flying," Veilleux said.

This "airplane" is a jumbo jet, with 670 unionized employees and growing. Colt and Colt's, two companies with separate ownership and some common owners, left the historic Hartford complex between 1992 and 1994. Combined, under one roof, they are West Hartford's largest taxpayer.

And even though the work is no longer happening under the famous blue onion dome built by Samuel Colt, there's a clear sense that this factory is still the place where giants such as Gatling and Browning made their names, where the 1873 "Peacemaker" was born and where the 1911-model semiautomatic pistol started an amazing run of 78 years as the official U.S. military sidearm.

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