|Home - Volume 2 (2007) - Issue 1 (Winter '07) - Visit at Colt's factory. How things are done in Hartford|
A visit at Colt's factory (or how things are done in Hartford)
By John Caradimas () and Harwood Loomis ()
The SHOT Show is a unique opportunity to catch up with all M1911 manufacturers (among others). So when I heard about this year's show being held in Orlando, Florida, I got the idea that I should attend the show and introduce The M1911 Pistols Organization to every manufacturer, so that I could explain first-hand who we are and what we do here. I wanted to talk to them about our E-zine, and how they can use that resource to reach a significant number of M1911 shooters or potential buyers. So the decision was made to visit the show and all arrangements were made. M1911.ORG was accepted by the organizers (the National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF) as "Press," and with the Press badge in my hands I started planning my trip.
Of course, since the expenses were considerable I decided to make the best use of my time in the United States, in order to bring you as much information as possible. Towards that, I tried to convince some manufacturers to allow us to visit their facilities and to interview some of their key personnel. To their credit Mark Roberts at Colt was the first (and, as it proved later, the only one) who agreed, so a visit to Colt was scheduled right after the SHOT Show.
Due to some less than crystal clear marking of the route to where I had arranged to meet my associate Harwood Loomis, we arrived at the Colt factory a little late. Mark welcomed us at the front entrance of the building and after escorting us through the security, we were taken to what I considered one of their ... trophy rooms. In reality, it was a meeting room, with all four walls covered with Colt firearms--some of them were milestones in the company's history, like some very early SAA revolvers and 1911 pistols, up to and including the latest M4 military carbine models. Some experimental models were also displayed in that room. We spent some time with Mark, admiring and discussing the exhibits and then we were escorted to the factory.
The Colt building is, in reality, two buildings. We passed through a security check, including a metal detector, when we first entered the front (office) building. When the time came to tour the actual factory, we departed the office building through a rear door, walked about 25 meters across an open space, and entered the factory building, where the entire security screening process was repeated. It looks as if Colt has learned its lesson about "lunch-box" pistols, because in the entrance of the factory building there was a setup similar to the ones found in the airports, through which everyone going in and out of the factory had to pass. Handbags were examined as well via an X-ray machine. The entrance was manned by armed guards, and yes, some of them were carrying 1911 pistols. One had a Double Eagle, too. Of course, my camera was left at the meeting room, since we were not allowed to take any pictures inside the factory.
The first thing we were shown upon entering the factory were some of the raw materials used. Imagine something roughly the shape of a frame, but solid and rough. That's how the forged frame of an M1911 starts its life in the factory. Likewise the frame of a SAA. The barrels start their life as a round, rough metallic cylinders or, in the case of a 1911 barrel, the cylinder has a protruding part at one of its edges (that's the area which is then machined to produce the barrel's legs). Mark showed us another bar which was sculptured in a strange way. While we were breaking our heads trying to figure out what that was, he explained to us that this was the raw material for the round Commander hammers. Imagine the rough shape of the hammer repeated n-times side-by-side and you can figure out what that bar looked like. The rough shape is formed by cold drawing (extruding) the bar to the profile of the hammers.
Then we moved on further inside the factory. There was a separate "room" in which we were then taken. As Mark explained to us, this is a special room, where the workers who polish the guns make their polishing wheels! Amazing as it sounds, each worker who polishes a part of a gun goes in there and, using a wooden wheel as a base, he (or she-many of the polishers were women) fabricates his own polishing wheels. And since each worker is only polishing a certain part of a certain firearm, he makes those wheels to suit the polishing job he is working on. I couldn't believe my eyes!
Then we moved along a row of working stands where workers do the polishing. Rest assured, every Colt firearm is polished by hand on an electric wheel, using those wheels that the polishers fabricate themselves. Each polisher may have as many as half a dozen different shaped wheels at his station, with a different wheel for polishing each part of the pistol (whether it be a 1911 frame or slide, or a SAA frame, barrel, or cylinder). The average age of the workers we saw there (more on that later) was over 40 years old.
The next part of the factory was what surprised me the most. We saw how the machining of the various parts is done. Let's start from what we didn't see. We didn't see any CNC machines, even though Mark later told us that there are some older vintage ones. We didn't see any lasers. We didn't see any high-tech equipment. All we saw was traditional mills, lathes and broachers. Every single part used in a Colt handgun is machined with that equipment. Remember that strange bar which is used for the hammers? Well, this bar is cut in slices, each slice shaped roughly like a hammer.
Those parts are put inside a plastic container and are taken by a worker to a machine, which has a special fixture and with which the worker drills the hammer pin hole on each and every piece in the box. As soon as that operation is finished, the box of the parts is either taken to a different machine, or the fixture is changed on the same machine, and every part in the box undergoes a second operation, for example drilling the hammer strut hole. When all parts are put through this operation, again either the fixture is changed or the box is taken to another machine where the round hole on the exposed part of the hammer is drilled. After all pieces went through this process, the whole box is taken to another machine where the hammer hooks are cut, then the longitudinal slot is cut, etc. This is how every part that goes in Colt firearms is built.
To settle a recurring inquiry, Mark informed us when we asked him that Colt uses three MIM parts (sear, disconnector and magazine catch) and two cast parts (the thumb and the grip safety). All other small parts are machined from tool steel or forgings while of course every frame and slide, even on the "entry-level" 1991 series pistols, is forged.
Unfortunately, due to our late arrival at the factory, we missed seeing the workers working on these machines. There were a handful only, who either did overtime or completed their time or their work, when we went through the factory. So even though we got a pretty good idea of how the manufacturing of Colt firearms is done, we missed seeing these skilled workers doing their tasks, which was a real pity.
The final area we visited was the assembly line, or where the gunsmiths fit the parts together to come up with the final guns. This area is separated from the rest of the factory floor, most probably because people there work on serial numbered frames, so everything has to be accounted for. Racks of frames arrive there on a wheeled cart, neatly arranged one next to the other. The assemblers have in front of them bins with all the various small parts that go into the firearm and assemble them into the frame and slide. According to Mark, the tolerances are (after all these years) so precise that the assemblers do not need to match one piece to the other, they fit together within specs in 99.5% of the cases.
After we had seen as much of the factory as Mark could show us, we returned to the office building (again passing through two security stations to get there) and to Mark's office, for more chatting about the present and the future of Colt. First, let me make clear that "Colt" truly is two different companies. The military rifles are manufactured by the Colt Defense company, which is separate from the company that makes our 1911s. Mark explained to us that even the "civilian" AR-15s he sells are manufactured by Colt Defense. Mark buys them from Colt Defense and resells them. The Colt Defense operation is in the same factory building as the pistol operation, but the two parts of the factory are rigidly segregated, and we were not allowed to enter or even look very closely into the defense manufacturing side.
Much of what Mark told us was for our background, and was offered subject to the proviso that we not put it in print, so as not to give any competitors information they might be able to use against Colt in the marketplace. We discovered that Mark Roberts is, perhaps, a rather unique marketing manager, because he actually understands the manufacturing process. Therefore, he seems unlikely to take "marketing" in a direction that production can't support. Further, Mark isn't just a "suit," who would be equally at home selling widgets as he is selling 1911s and single actions Army revolvers. Mark Roberts is a shooter, and he loves Colt pistols. Thus, he brings to his job not only unique qualifications, but also dedication to the company, to the brand, and to the product. It was easy to see as we toured the factory that Mark not only sells Colt's firearms, he truly believes in them.
One of the things we discussed in Mark's office was magazines. When the topic of counterfeit magazines came up, Mark confirmed that they are everywhere. He reached behind him and picked up a pair of shiny, stainless steel magazines from the counter running alongside his window. He said they don't work, and that they are fakes. They were sent to Colt by the owner, who didn't know they were counterfeits and who wondered why they wouldn't work in his pistol. Mark said he had kept them in his office for several months, because the owner who sent them in didn't provide any contact information and had not called back. We all agreed that the owner (if he ever does call) will not be a happy camper to learn that Colt will not stand behind magazines they neither manufactured nor sold. (Why any rational person might think they should stand behind counterfeits is a mystery.)
Mark then took us around to the Customer Service Department, where we were introduced to the women behind the voices you hear on the telephone when you call Colt's Manufacturing: Cindy (the department manager), Kathy, and Carol. Harwood teased the ladies about finally recognizing who M1911.ORG is and not getting us confused with "the other" 1911 forum, and they assured us that they now know who we are, and were all happy to see faces they could match up to the forum.
Finally, back in Mark's office, we got to the most mandatory part of the afternoon: Mark presented us each with a souvenir package that included a Colt polo shirt, a Colt tee-shirt, and a Colt visor. So now we can truly say with regard to Colt's Manufacturing that we've "been there, done that, AND we got the tee-shirt."
After we departed the Colt factory (which, I discovered, is actually now located in West Hartford, Connecticut, rather than Hartford), Harwood drove us past the original Colt factory in Hartford. Originally built along the edge of the Connecticut River, the factory is now separated from the river by the Interstate 91 highway. The trademark blue "onion" dome is still there, and appeared well preserved. Although I was not allowed to take pictures inside the factory, I did snap a couple of pictures of the dome over the original factory.
On behalf of The M1911 Pistols Organization, I would like to thank Mark Roberts and Colt's Manufacturing for allowing us to visit and tour the factory, and for generously spending an afternoon with us. I think it is safe to say that we left the factory feeling much more secure in the sense that all those rumours about Colt being on the brink of going out of business are nothing more than rumours. Mark shared with us some of his visions for the future of the company which we are not at liberty (unfortunately) to pass along. Suffice it to say that we expect to see Colt building and selling the original 1911 and the original single action Army revolver for some time to come.
You may discuss about this article in this thread in our Forums Site:
COLT'S MANUFACTURING COMPANY
Web site: http://www.coltsmfg.com/
|Home - Volume 2 (2007) - Issue 1 (Winter '07) - Visit at Colt's factory. How things are done in Hartford|