A Proud Company in Decline: The Long and Troubled History of Colt (Part One)

The logo of Colt’s Manufacturing Co.

In the world of firearms, there are few names as famous as Colt. Originally founded in 1855 by Connecticut industrialist Samuel Colt, the company’s was first known as Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company before being renamed Colt’s Manufacturing Company (CMC).

Colt was known for being one the most innovative small arms companies in the world for much of its history. Samuel Colt, for example, developed the Colt Walker as one of the first truly successful revolvers. Like the Single Action Army and Colt Python revolvers that followed, the Colt Walker transformed the handgun previously dominated by one-shot pistols. The Colt Company was also responsible for producing the M1911 pistol, which is still in service over a century after its first introduction. The M1911 cemented Colt’s close relationship to the United States Armed Forces, it was the standard-issue sidearm between 1911 and 1986.

Though Colt did not create the AR-15 and M16 rifles, the company did produce them for an extended period of time. Among its various M16 derivatives, Colt was responsible both for the Commando family of weapons and the M4. Starting in 1963, the M16 was given to American forces fighting in Vietnam. It later became the U.S. Armed Forces standard service rifle in 1969, though it has largely been replaced by the M4 carbine. Since 1988, the Ma6 has been produced for the U.S. Armed Forces by FN Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal Manufacturing. In 2013, the FN Herstal also won a $77 million dollar contract from the U.S. military for the production of M4 carbines.

Colt was originally a mainstay tool for law enforcement agencies across the United States. However, in recent decades many police agencies have moved away from Colt and increasingly purchased Glock and Sig Sauer handguns instead. By the early 2000s, even tradition-bound police departments gradually moved away from the Colt M1911 as their standard-issue sidearm. In recent decades, Colt also lost market share among American gun enthusiasts and civilian gun owners. At the beginning of the Obama Administration, many activists (including the President of the National Rifle Association) expressed fears that the Democrats would use their majority in Congress to pass stronger gun control legislation. Though this fear never materialized the sales of guns and ammunition rose considerably. However, unlike many of its competitors, Colt lacked the ability to ramp up production to meet the increased consumer demand.

This is the first part in a two article series. Part two can be read here.

Stefan Konrad

About Stefan Konrad

Stefan Konrad is a Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. Previously, he was the Defence Procurement Program Editor and a Junior Research Fellow focusing on defence procurement issues. He has an M.A. in Intelligence and Security Studies from the University of Brunel and a Honours B.A. in Political Science from Trinity Western University.