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.
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.
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 and pistols 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 1927 Remington 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 Mohawk Valley Formula," his playbook for union-busting, with heavy emphasis on misinformation and provoking violence. Even so, wages and conditions at Rem Rand rose to union levels during and after World War II. In the 1950s the firm became Sperry Rand in the 1950s, a company that later morphed into Unisys, once a major computer manufacturer but now specializing in software services.
Through various owners over the decades, Remington Arms has continued to produce firearms without interruption. Its 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. ®, 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 finance 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, Quayle and friends 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 Cerberus board has avoided a public relations embarrassment but the sale is meaningless. Arms manufacturing companies are booming in America, no matter in whose balance sheet they appear, and much of this industry has been consolidated by Freedom Group. And weapons 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 useful for generations.
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.
Marketing ever newer assault rifle models allows Remington to offer a brand new product to gun owners who already own older versions. Gun owners need to be convinced that they have 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.
The civilian market is an extra bonus for a company that has had a steady stream of military contracts for two centuries. On April 20, 2012 Remington won its most recent contract, a $16 million deal 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.
The Bushmaster and other assault rifles on the civilian market differ from these military models 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.
And the relatively smaller caliber of the civilian model also makes it ideal for mass killers. According to Guns & 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 more concise version of this essay was published as "Lethal Business, Haunting Questions" in The Albany Times Union.
Cross published with illustrations and complete sources at Upstate Earth