Assault Weapon Ban May Shoot Down Colt

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Colt's firearms may have tamed the West, but the gunmaker couldn't stop Congress from outlawing its best seller.

And that could mean death for one of the oldest and best-known gun brands.

Federal legislation now before a Senate-House conference committee aims to ban 19 specific assault weapons, including the Sporter, marketed under the Colt name.

With Colt's Manufacturing Co. struggling to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the ban just might do it in.

"It may be the death knell for Colt," said Scott Farrell, editor of , who estimates that the Sporter, a version of the military M-16 rifle, contributes as much as half of Colt's profits.

Although only 19 specific weapons were identified, the legislation's broad definition of "assault weapon" leads some gun aficionados to estimate that more than 185 guns currently on the market will become illegal.

But Colt is a brand that extends well beyond the gun club crowd. Under new management and with a new agency, Colt is attempting a turnaround similar to that of Harley-Davidson, the last surviving U.S. motorcycle company.

As Harley did, Colt is striving to leverage the strength of its brand through licensed products sold in catalogs and an ad campaign that focuses as much on people who build the guns as the firearms themselves.

A new tagline, "Quality makes it a Colt," replaced "The Legend lives." Freebairn & Co., Atlanta, created the campaign, as well as the catalog featuring licensed products such as apparel bearing the Colt logo.

"We're trying to extend the brand name into soft goods," said David Golladay, account exec on the Colt business. "A person may like the mystique of Colt, even if they don't like handguns, and they might like to wear a Colt cap."

Other gun marketers are also bracing for the ban.

For example, Intratec, a Miami-based marketer of semiautomatic firearms, will see fully half its popular TEC line banned if the legislation as enacted is signed into law, said James Hodges, company administrator.

Intratec's offerings, popular as props in action movies, are designed to look particularly lethal; anti-gun lobbyists often use the weapons to illustrate their point.

Mr. Hodges acknowledged that people buy his company's assault pistols "because of the effect of their appearance."

Intratec advertises its guns with print ads created in-house and 20,000 copies of a calendar featuring bikini-clad women bearing Intratec arms.

Glock, a gun marketer that made a mark with Austrian handguns capable of holding up to 17 rounds, could lose its most distinctive feature if magazines holding more than 10 rounds are banned. However, Glock already manufactures 10-round magazines for sale in Canada.

In anticipation of the ban, Glock has recorded a backlog of orders of more than 100,000 units, said Sherry Collins, director of media relations. She said the company has since cut back on its advertising, created by Sullivan Haas Coyle, Atlanta, and placed in-house in outdoor enthusiast magazines.

There's a certain amount of irony in passage of the bill to curtail the sale of assault weapons. News of the bill's passage sent waves of consumers to gun stores across the country looking for the soon-to-be outlawed firearms.

The Sportsman, a gun shop in Mesa, Ariz., was packed over a recent weekend. A sales clerk said the store usually sold "one or two, maybe three or four" Colt Sporters in a week, but it had sold 15 of the rifles in the previous week. The "sale" price of $1,450 was almost double the normal price of the gun.

"People just want what you can't get anymore," said Mark Norton, manager of AA Lock & Gun in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Most visitors to his store were collectors and avid target shooters concerned that some weaponry would soon be illegal to purchase, he said.

"It's just like after the Brady Bill passed," said Guns Editor Mr. Farrell. "The last few months of 1993 were the best the industry ever had."

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