Sunday, January 13, 2013

Remington Arms: An Upstate New York Success Story

Remington Arms in Ilion, NY

When I was growing up in Little Falls, New York in the 1960s, the men who worked in Snyder’s  on East Main Street or at the Remington factory  in nearby Ilion had good jobs. The work was highly skilled and the pay gave their families a solid middle class life. And those men produced solid goods that stood the test of time. 

1927 Snyder bicycle

We owned the products of those factories. I had an ancient Snyder bicycle that took me anywhere I wanted to go. And one of my father’s proudest possessions was a Remington Springfield 30-06 bolt action rifle.  A standard US infantry weapon for World War I and the first part of World War II, the 30-06 was a reliable deer rifle even after a half century of use.
Remington's 1903 Springfield 30-06, made in Ilion NY

Although Snyder’s was closed decades ago, Remington Arms in nearby Ilion is humming with activity - the only major manufacturing firm left in a valley strewn with abandoned factories. The work at Remington is still highly skilled, much sought after, and still pays well. But the workers in Ilion built the Bushmaster .223 assault rifle used to kill the children of Newtown.

Understanding the different fates of these two firms is a window into what has gone wrong with America. 

The story of the Snyder Manufacturing Company is the simpler one.  Homer P. Snyder, a friend of my grandfather and later a congressman, came to Little Falls from nearby Amsterdam early in the 20th century and set out to meet the growing demand for bicycles. In both world wars, Snyder’s switched to defense production but when peace came, they returned to making the fine bicycles for which they were known.  In the face of much cheaper imports, made mostly in Taiwan, Homer’s grandson Bill sold out in the early 1970s to Mossberg, an arms manufacturer who eventually dropped bicycle production and closed the factory.

The Remington story begins way back in 1816 when Eliphalet Remington, a blacksmith, forged his own flintlock musket and, according to legend, won a local shooting contest. Neighbors admired its accuracy and ordered their own guns. By 1828 Eliphalet and his son Philo had built a factory in Ilion and were producing muzzle loaders using the new all-weather percussion caps. In 1847 the father and son invented a breech-loading carbine and sold it the U.S. Navy, their first military contract.  During the Civil War, the Remingtons supplied a large proportion of the small arms used by the Union forces. The Ilion plant and new factories elsewhere in New York and Ohio produced rifles during World Wars I and II.. Remington continued to make a variety of sporting rifles and shotguns – as well as typewriters and safety razors - but thanks to steady  military contracts, never experienced the kind of foreign competition that destroyed Snyders and countless other factories in the Mohawk Valley.

In 1886 Remington sold its typewriter business, and name rights for the typewriters,  to a company that eventually became Remington-Rand, an entity that lasted until 1958 and built early business machines and the first widely used computers, the giant UNIVACs. Its president, James Rand, also pioneered union-busting and boasted of his success in a pamphlet entitled “The MohawkValley Formula.," his playbook for union-busting, with heavy emphasis on misinformation and provoking violence. During World War II, Rem Rand produced .45 automatic psitols for the military, its only venture into making firearms.  In the 1950s the firm became Sperry Rand, a company that later morphed into Unisys, once a major computer manufacturer but now specializing in software services.

As a dedicated arms manufacturing company,  Remington Arms itself has never faltered, as the company history posted on its website can attest. The latest corporate transformation has made it the centerpience of  the Freedom Group Family of Companies,  which bills itself as “one of the largest manufacturers in the world of firearms and ammunition, including Remington®, Bushmaster® Firearms, DPMS/Panther Arms™, Marlin®, H;R®, The Parker Gun™, Mountain Khakis®, Advanced Armament Corp. ®, ( whose specialty is silencers) Dakota Arms®, Para™ USA and Barnes® Bullets.”

And behind this giant is the even more gigantic Cerberus Capital Management, known for such major deals as buying and selling both Chrysler and GM's financial division in recent years – as well as for hosting Dan Quayle as its chairman of global investments and former treasury secretary John Snow as chairman of capital management.

But owning the company that made the .223 Bushmaster used at Newtown – no matter how profitable– proved to be an embarrassment for Quayle, Snow and  Cerberus founder Stephen Feinberg.  After a phone call from California, they knew they had to sell: 
“An official at the California teachers’ pension fund, which has $750 million invested with the private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, was on the line, raising questions about the firm’s ownership of the Freedom Group, the gun maker that made the rifle used in the Connecticut school shootings.”

The sale is simply cosmetic in nature and will have no effect on gun production. These are very lucrative companies and a buyer will not be a problem. In all likelihood, many of the same investors will continue to profit.

Although Quayle, Snow and Cerberus CEO Steven Feinberg take no responsibility for the weapon that killed 20 children, assault rifles like the Bushmaster .223 are central to Freedom Group’s profitability. Long ago, a bolt-action rifle could be sold to the army for 40 years and the same gun, or a version of it, did make sense as a hunting rifle that could be used for generations - as with my father's old 30-06.

But as technology accelerated, a company like Remington could no longer sell the same gun to the army for decades. Staying competitive required expensive research and continual re-tooling and if Remington lost out on military contracts, the company’s future would be at risk. That’s why it made good business sense to pitch virtually the same weapons to the civilian market – as a backup in case the military contract never came through and all that research money be wasted. 

Ready for the gun show

Successfully selling assault rifles  to the public requires Remington to offer a brand new product to gun owners who already have earlier models. The fact that much of the advertising burden is borne by ardent supporters of the Second Amendment is an extra bonus for Remington and other gun companies and adds a patriotic allure to the product. Volunteers provide what amounts to free advertising for Remington's new product lines. Naturally, Remington is happy to associate its brand with the NRA: "Remington Becomes 2011 Friends of NRA Sponsor"

The marketing goal is to convince potential buyers that they need to get the latest and most modern assault rifle – much like Iphone owners need to be motivated to buy the latest version - which can be very expensive. The new Bushmaster ACR, for example, offers an unprecedented ability to change calibers, barrel lengths and stocks with a typical price of $2000 to $2500. Panic over new gun control laws, fanned by the NRA and talk radio, is a particularly effective form of advertising.

At the same time, as the US enters the 11th year of the "war on terror,"  Remington is not losing out on very profitable Pentagon deals.  On April 20, 2012 the company won a $16 million contract for 70,000 to 100,000 M4A1 carbines, which are offer a fully automatic version of the standard infantry M4 – and a huge $180 million contract for yet- to-be developed future guns. 

Gun experts will quibble over the difference between military and civilian versions of these weapons. But the Remington/Bushmaster and other assault rifles on the civilian market differ from the guns used vs the Taliban only in that the trigger must be pulled for each shot. The difference is really very slight and for a madman intent on killing a large number of unarmed people, the way the Bushmasters operates is, frankly, ideal. The military versions which fire great bursts of bullets are more appropriate when someone is shooting back at you and there’s no time for taking careful aim.

The caliber is smaller but that also fits the needs of mass killers. According to Guns and Ammo magazine,  "The .223 caliber load is popular because it has better fragmentation upon impact, meaning it will deal a lot of damage with less chance of accidentally continuing through the target and endangering whoever's in the background."

Better fragmentation upon impact? That means horrendous damage to the human body and unimaginable damage to the bodies of small children. That means that the Bushmaster .223, made in Ilion by skilled American workers, is just about the best weapon a mass murderer could want.

The H.P. Snyder Manufacturing Company doesn’t make bicycles in Little Falls any more.Hand tools are no longer made in Utica. Slippers are no longer made in Dolgeville, Carpets are no longer made in Amsterdam. Televisions are no longer made in Schenectady.

But guns are still made in Ilion. Guns like the Bushmaster .223.

(A slightly different versions of this post has been published at firedoglake)


A reader has called my attention to an August 23 New York Times article on Remington Arms right after the Aurora, Colorado murders: Call to stiffen gun laws worries town:

     "Ilion, which now has about 8,000 residents, developed around the plant, and the Remington name is ubiquitous here. Students at Remington Elementary School can see the factory from their playground; even the doormat on the front steps at the Ilion police station notes, “Home of Remington.” (Free gun locks are available inside.)
    The company is a rare economic bright spot in this part of the Mohawk Valley. The area has lost over 11,000 of its manufacturing jobs since 1990, or more than half, according to the State Labor Department. But Remington has added positions in recent years as its parent company consolidated production of other gun brands, like Bushmaster and Marlin, in Ilion.
   “Not only have they stayed, but they’ve grown,” said John Scarano, the executive director of the Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce. He added that the jobs at the plant were “not minimum-wage jobs — they’re good jobs,” and, indeed, many of the job postings on Remington’s Web site recently were for skilled engineering positions."

1 comment:

  1. A small correction...Harry W. Snyder "Bill" the last President of HP Snyder Mfg. was the nephew of H.P., not his grandson. Bill was the son of H.P.'s brother Harry who lived all his life in Amsterdam, New York.
    Jessie Snyder Thompson Huberty