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.
- E-mail | Recent columns
- NRA And Local Gun Organizations Meet With Lawmakers
- America's Rifle: Rise Of The AR-15
- PICTURES: Colt Firearms & Connecticut
- PICTURES: An Artistic Look At The Colt Armory Complex
- PICTURES: The Buildings Of Colt Gateway
- PICTURES: Colt Armory Complex Through The Years
- VIDEO: 15 Year Old Learns To Shoot Assault Rifle
- Personal Weapon Control
- Companies and Corporations
See more topics »
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.
Not Feeling The Love
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.
"It costs more money to run a government-ready facility than it does to run a commercial facility," said Veilleux, who emphasizes that even the commercial versions are made to military specifications. "I hate to say it, but we think it's going well. We're a healthy business."
'Kind of Cramped'
At Stag Arms, 9 miles from Colt along the route of the busway construction project, the rifles come together in a quiet assembly room where, on a recent day, 10 people — most of them men from Poland — work as a team, picking parts from bright yellow bins.
Slawek Ogomowski takes aim with each finished rifle, unloaded, of course, checking the scope. Nearby, another worker tightens screws into the main body of a rifle, known as the receiver, using a custom-outfitted tool that delivers the precise torque. It's one of many critical functions as the AR-15 comes together.
Stag, which makes 6,000 AR-15 rifles a month in several models, has an order backlog of more than a year — most of the orders placed well before the Newtown tragedy. The company has grown so fast that it's not organized with a clear work flow, as most factories are. One area is so crowded with a half-dozen large machines that it's hard to walk around easily.
"The aggressive growth has caused everything to be kind of cramped," Malkowski said. "We've been growing as a business year after year after year."
There's no big storage area for finished rifles because, he said, "Every rifle that's made is out the door the same day."
The company has four buildings, including the one occupied by the general machining firm owned by Malkowski's Polish immigrant father, Theodore. That firm now counts Stag as its biggest customer.
Malkowski, a New Britain native, went out on his own after designing a rifle to suit his needs. "I was shooting with my father since I was a kid and I found the right-eye-dominant to be very uncomfortable," he said. He financed the growth with few if any loans, investing profits back into the company. Today, left-eyed models account for about a quarter of sales.
Malkowski is proud of the fact that he's never had a layoff, and says he'd like to find one large location in New Britain, where many of his employees live. Soft-spoken and slight, the Sacred Heart University graduate is sensitive to criticism from gun-ban advocates who say companies like his have profited by aggressively marketing the AR-15 with military language and pictures. In fact, he said, the gun sells itself and he listens to his customers' ideas.
"We don't use war images," he said, pointing to framed ads on the walls that show hunting and target shooting — adding that the one picture with the word "tactical" in large letters was a gift from a photographer, not used for marketing.
His advantage, he said, comes not from marketing but from Connecticut's manufacturing culture.
"By making all these parts here locally, that's given us a huge advantage."