After 30 years, the Marines are returning to the Colt .45 pistol
HARTFORD, Conn. — The newest Colt .45-caliber pistol is touted for its durability and design.
It is tested to make sure it can be dropped in water, covered in mud, immersed in sand or ice, or left in a dust storm — and still be able to blast off a round when you pull the trigger.
"Virtually, it's indestructible," said Casimir Pawlowski, who works in international sales and technical sevices for Colt Defense LLC. "You can drive over these things with a Humvee and they're still gonna work. It's like a brick that shoots bullets."
An order last month of new M45 Close Quarter Battle Pistols for the Marines is the first purchase of any Colt handgun in almost three decades by any branch of the U.S. military, though .45-caliber Colts were a trusty sidearm of the Army and Marines for most of the 20th century.
Pawlowski started working at Colt Defense several years ago after a 30-year career as a Navy Corpsman. In 1977, he joined the medical corps serving the Navy and U.S. Marines who carried an earlier version of the Colt as their official sidearm — the Model 1911 .45-caliber automatic.
"We saw the .45s out there, and that's what the guys wanted," Pawlowski said.
Connecticut's historic gun manufacturer first sold its semi-automatic Model 1911, designed by John Moses Browning, to the U.S. military in 1911. At the turn of the 19th century, the military was looking for a stronger handgun than the .38-caliber revolvers used in close combat during the Phillipine-American War. The .45-caliber promised knock-down power — more likely to kill than injure — compared with the .38-caliber.
Browning's design was an impressive development from 19th century single-action Army revolvers that held six, individually loaded bullets. The Model 1911 was designed to have a spring-loaded magazine of bullets fit vertically inside the pistol grip. The Model 1911 features a sliding top which ejects a bullet casing, or shell, immediately after a bullet is fired while slipping another round into position for the next shot.
"It's been a brilliant design," Pawlowski said. "Browning was kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of the gun world at the time."
The Model 1911 Colt has been called the "most respected handgun" and was carried, mostly by U.S. military officers, during both World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam.
But in 1985, the federal government, switched to Italian-owned Beretta to provide 9-millimeter pistols as the new official sidearm for the military. The switch was controversial in the 1980s.
The argument in favor of changing to 9-millimeter cartridges was mostly to standardize the U.S. military with other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. The U.S. General Accounting Office, however, said in 1982, leading up to the change, that substituting an existing inventory with 9-mm pistols would be costly. It wasn't clear if there was any advantage to a 9-mm round versus existing sidearms, the GAO report said.
In recent years, the Marine Corps has been building its own .45-caliber pistols at a facility in Quantico, Va., using parts from existing inventory of Model 1911 pistols and other commercial parts, said Barbara Hamby, spokeswoman for Marine Corps System Command, which orders guns for the Marines. The government, however, hadn't bought new handguns from Colt for decades. That changed this month with the first order of up to 12,000 Colt pistols, starting with 4,036 right away.
"The Colt pistol met or exceeded all requirements put forth in the solicitation and offered the best value to the government," Hamby said. "Colt Defense LLC successfully competed under a best value competitive source selection utilizing a performance specification. Any historical significance inferred from the selection of Colt's offered weapon is coincidental."
The West Hartford Colt manufacturing plant where the pistols are made, along with many other guns, is a spectacle of curiosities.
A computerized lathe about the size of an MRI machine sculpts gun barrels to the 1/10,000th of an inch.
In one room, a team of highly skilled engravers chisel designs on custom-made revolvers, making art on the firearm. They tap tiny, 24-karat-gold-wire strands into inlaid designs, including one pistol with a scrimshaw-scratched portrait of Samuel Colt on one side of the ivory handle.
Engraver Jan Gwinnell says he has been carving designs for Colt for 33 years. Master engraver George Spring said he's been with the company since 1975, though he started engraving earlier than that.
Colt even has a special sauce.
Deep inside the big-box factory is a square vat of chemicals that looks like a doughnut grease fryer, labeled "Activated Black Magic." Beside it are similar vats full of water. This is where polished, carbon steel pistols can be stained as azure as the deep ocean in Belize.
"That'll give you your royal blue finish on carbine steel," said Phil Hinkley, vice president of quality at Colt Defense LLC, said of the oxidizing chemical. "After they pull it out of here, they'll dip it into a cold water tank."
The color can be contrasted with inlaid gold, for example, for an exotic look to the expensive, custom-designed guns that are sold to collectors by the other Colt — the company under the same roof that makes consumer guns sold at WalMart, Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops and gun stores.
Colt gives a pair of customized guns to each standing president, though Bill Clinton was the only one not to accept the offer, Hinkley said.
In the back of the factory, the accuracy of guns is tested in an indoor shooting range. In addition to paper targets, a series of microphones use acoustics to track the bullets.
"They pick up the acoustics of the round going by, and they'll chart what the group size is," Hinkley said. The microphones also measure the number of rounds fired per minute and the gun's muzzle velocity.
Two companies share the 310,000-square-foot facility on New Park Avenue in a commercial and industrial strip next to BJ's Wholesale Club.
Colt Defense LLC was spun off from its parent company Colt's Manufacturing Company LLC in 2002 to protect the military-contract business from lawsuits against gun makers. Colt Defense sells to U.S. and allied militaries in 90 nations around the world as well as to law enforcement agencies. Colt's Manufacturing makes guns for regular customers, such as collectors, hunters and target shooters.
While the military hasn't bought Colt handguns in 27 years, the federal government has purchased other Colt firearms all along. Since the M4 carbine was introduced in 1993, the U.S. Army has been a major customer, buying 19,000 the next year for the Army and Special Forces. Colt sells machine guns to the military, too.
Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military bought a steady supply of the M4 — a short, lightweight rifle, which is a successor to the M-16 that the government bought from the Vietnam era until 1988.
The drawdown of troops a few years ago contributed to a financial slump at Colt Defense as net sales dropped from $270 million to $175 million between 2009 and 2010. Last year, sales were up to $208 million. The company also recovered from an $11.3 million net loss in 2010 to report net income of $5.2 million last year.
The Marines' contract to buy up to 12,000 pistols for $22.5 million over five years means it accounts for about 2 percent of Colt Defense's annual sales. That's not enough to drive the success of the company. But the historic return to Colt sidearms is significant and it's a morale boost within the company.
"I call it in the category of 'cool,'" said Gerry Dinkel, CEO and president of Colt Defense.
"It just has a lot of ring to it when you have something that's this long lived," Dinkel said of the Model 1911.
The return to West Hartford-made Colts from Italian-owned Beretta also carries some patriotic pride.
Dinkel said, "A lot of people have said it's great to go back to an American supplier."