Fearing liability, Colt to end consumer sales

Famous gun company to focus on collectibles and military contracts

October 11, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Colt's Manufacturing Co., which invented the six-shooter, the companion of cowboys and Texas Rangers, is abandoning much of its 144-year-old retail gun business in an effort to limit its liability in lawsuits.

Colt's, once the purveyor of the Colt .45, the "Peacemaker" romanticized in countless Western movies, plans to make far fewer weapons and sell them mainly to law enforcement agencies and the military. But it will effectively stop selling handguns to civilians, except to gun collectors.

One senior executive said the company was canceling seven product lines partly because of trouble paying suppliers. But the executive blamed the litigation for that problem, saying the company could no longer get loans to finance manufacturing because the lawsuits "could be worth zero, or a trillion dollars."

The company, based in West Hartford, Conn., faces 28 lawsuits from cities, counties and others who hope to punish gun makers with a strategy similar to the one used against tobacco companies.

The change could mean laying off hundreds of the 700 workers at the Colt's factory in West Hartford, said the executive, who refused to be named because employees have not been told of the decision.

This winter's pared-down line is to include designer sidearms, with grips of rosewood and antelope horn.

"These certainly could be used for self-defense, but they aren't made for that," Joseph Cartabona, Colt's director of handguns, said yesterday. "You take these to the range on the weekend for target shooting, or maybe for cowboy-action shooting, which is getting to be very, very big. They dress up like Annie Oakley and Wild Bill and shoot" while on horseback.

The new strategy is reported in the issue of Newsweek on newsstands this week. The company sent a letter about the change to its 19 distributors last week, and they are now notifying 3,000 dealers around the country.

In recent years, the company has received warm and wide attention for its "smart gun" prototype developed in 1996, which uses a radio signal to prevent unauthorized people from firing it. To help further insulate the company from legal liability, current and former executives said, it plans to create a separate company, perhaps to be called iColt, that would license the smart gun technology.

Representatives of firearms manufacturers, hoping to avoid having to turn over embarrassing documents like ones that became public in tobacco litigation, met in Washington last month to discuss possible settlement terms with lawyers for the cities and counties suing them. Gun executives who attended the meeting have said that the measures being considered include mandatory safety devices and tighter restrictions on gun retailers.

Colt's officials say they have poured money into legal fees that otherwise would be going to research and development. Sales to civilian consumers, through dealers, were about 30 percent of Colt's business, with the rest coming from military and law enforcement sales, according to the company executive.

Roughly 30 million Colt's pistols and rifles have been sold since Samuel Colt got a patent in 1836 for a firearm equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets. Until then, the state of the art was a single-shot flintlock pistol.

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