Mark Keefe on the Remington R51 and the Industry

Remington R-51The NRA’s blogger Mark Keefe is red-hot on the Remington R51 situation, which we’ll confess not to have followed, in part because the gun itself is extremely uninteresting. Ugly, bulky, brutally carved with coarse details and crude features, the 51 boasts a complicated, unnecessary lock, and any engineer will tell you that adding weight and complications to anything you can avoid doing that to, is more a mortal than a venial engineering sin. (The lock of the original Model 51 allowed a relatively powerful cartridge to be tamed in a slender, light firearm with delightful, delicate details. Unlike the complication in the new gun, the lock was there for a reason).

Now, unless you’ve been under a rock (or content with pre-2013 firearms), you’ve seen the R51 fiasco go from a marketing blitz, to a journalist-blinding barrage of schmoozing and “ringer” pistols, to an even bigger marketing blitz, to a stumbling introduction, to complete disaster when production pistols cascaded into the hands of all those consumers stirred into pent-up demand and then…failed. Loudly, and publicly. They not only weren’t better than the old John D Pedersen version, which would have been too much to ask, but they weren’t better than a rock. 

In the end, Remington ignominiously recalled the shipped R51s, got the Ministry of Truth to scour the beastly thing from their website, and set a schedule for delivering a new version that will be just as awesome as the old one, except it will have one groundbreaking feature: it will shoot. So they say, anyway. Their credibility is a bit dinged, as is that of all the media mavens and bloggers that let themselves be swept up in the gun-shaped tulip bubble of 2013-14.

Advertisers have a truism, credited, we believe, to Jerry Della Femina, that says, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” Remington’s PR blitz was wonderful, but the product it heralded stank worse than a bootleg whale-oil factory ship adrift on the Equator.

Keefe explains some of the dynamics of how this happened, has happened before (Heizer Double-Tap is one example he cites), and how it’s probably going to happen again. His post, The Changing Nature Of New Gun Introduction And Manufacture, is a must-read in depth and detail, but here’s a couple of snips:

It used to be a maker would show a pre-production sample, maybe even a prototype, at the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show or the NRA Annual Meetings in a back room or a hotel hospitality suite. If the leading gunwriters and distributors—the guys whose respective jobs were to describe it to the shooting public and to sell it—liked it, then the gun would have a chance at seeing at least pre-production. I watched former American Rifleman Technical Editor Pete Dickey give the thumbs down on a couple models. One made it to ignominious production and then rapid discontinuance, the other stayed on its designer’s workbench, likely where it belonged.

There was a phenomenon that we called “pulling a Ruger.” A gun would be introduced, and then—after much hoopla–nothing would happen for about two years. It was like the design was abducted with occasional ransom-note-like updates and grainy black-and-white photos leaking out.

Then the first pre-production guns would start to roll out, and finally, often a year or more later, production guns would emerge. And those production guns may not have had all the features or the same parts as the guns previously shown. What gun companies had years ago was time.

…. As I constantly tell representatives of the firearm industry, what is the point of telling 2.2 million readers of American Rifleman about a gun they can’t even order, let alone buy?

Anyone remember the Heizer Double-Tap? The company’s press person offered to fly the only functioning prototype, the company owner and several non-working photo samples to our offices. They were looking to have that gun—the most desirable and interesting pistol introduced that year–reviewed in American Rifleman. I turned them down politely but firmly. We are not going to put a full gun review of a not-in-production gun in the pages of American Rifleman. My friends at newsstand magazines are not so circumspect and have a different mission. They must sell newsstand magazines. So in September 2012, Guns & Ammo featured the Heizer Double-Tap on the cover. The owners were very excited and said that production would begin soon. Well, it didn’t happen. The owners ended up suing one another and production moved to another company. So you had a magazine cover featuring a gun for which there was only one functioning sample.

Do Read The Whole Thing™.

We’ve seen a similar dynamic in other fields. For example, Hachette Filippachi magazines always give glowing reviews and pride of placement to advertisers’ products — it seems to be corporate policy. And in the experimental aviation world, there is an exact parallel: Sport Aviation, the magazine of the Experimental Aviation Association, won’t review an aircraft that doesn’t have a track record. It needs to be shown to have flown. Kitplanes, a newsstand magazine aimed at the same demographic (with an extra dose of wannabes/walts/wackers), has occasionally launched a glowing story about anything that might have “cover appeal,” regardless of whether it can aviate at all, or do so without grievous bodily harm to the occupants.

Colt All American 2000. Like many flops (Edsel? Anthony dollar? R51?) it's ugly as a mud wallow. The polymer frame version is uglier yet.

Colt All American 2000. Like many flops (Edsel? Anthony dollar? R51?), it’s been beaten through the Ugly Forest by a gang of . The polymer frame version is uglier yet.

Returning to Keefe, that post is a culmination of a series. In the previous installment, he discusses another hyped flop, the Colt All American 2000. (Ever hear of it? We had, but this is what we do. If you haven’t, don’t feel bad: it was a flop of Susan B. Anthony dollar aka “Carter quarter,” or Ford Edsel proportions). Take it away, Mark:

The All American 2000 introduced in 1990, although we did not receive a sample until 1992, and it was supposed to be the next generation of Colt’s semi-automatic pistols. The striker-fired gun had generous magazine capacity (15) and had a double-action-only trigger system. On paper it had a lot going for it, it was to be Colt’s late-entry into what some have called the “Wondernine Wars.” Few had fully comprehended what the Glock pistol’s success would be as it was really just getting going at this point.
Although the All American 2000 sat high in the hand, it was an ergonomically good design. After all, Eugene Stoner was the main engineer on the project. But the problems came in production. Knight tested the prototypes with more than 30,000 rounds in both polymer and aluminum frames. When the gun went into production at Hartford, the magic of the designer could not be implemented on the factory floor.
When we reviewed the All American 2000 back in March 1992 we had a number of issues with the gun. To put it simply, no single gun would work reliably. If one did work, accuracy was abysmal. We ended up having to cannibalize a couple of different samples in order to get one to work well enough to complete our testing. As we wrote, “[T]he Model 2000 has March 92 cover certain nagging problems that will require additional development work.” The final epitaph on the All American comes in its description in the pages of The Blue Book of Gun Values: “Manufacturing difficulty forced discontinuance and design and tooling were returned to Reed Knight. Mfg. 1991-93.”

Keefe goes on to tie the two fiascos together: Colt survived the AA2000 debacle, but never reentered the DA auto pistol market. Once again, you’ll benefit if you Read The Whole Thing™. What happens to Remington and the R51 depends entirely on what the company does. Mark thinks that the relaunch will show the degree to which Remington is committed to defensive handguns; our opinion is that the near-service-pistol bulk of the R51 indicates that Remington doesn’t get defensive handguns. They would be better off deep-sixing this design, because even if they fix the manufacturing problems, they can’t contain the design flaws. Sure, they’ve spent a trainload of money on design and promotion so far, but d’you know what? That money’s gone. Wasted. Sunk cost. Not coming back. Investing more money in a conceptually flawed product is compounding the waste.

And the first post in the series was: Breaking: Remington R51 9 mm Pistol Update. To us, this was the money line:

But as a matter of policy we do not put guns into the magazine until they are fully in production.

That’s a good policy. It guards against both vaporware (the Heizer case) and the slip-twixt-the-cup-and-lip that occurs when production guns fall short of their toolroom prototypes (the R51 and All American 2000 cases). And consider this: American Rifleman and the other NRA publications sometimes lack the pizzazz and fake motion (and emotion) of Jack-the-Lad’s-gun-magazines and some of your flashier gun blogs.

They make it up in integrity. Not a bad coin to pay your readers with.

7 thoughts on “Mark Keefe on the Remington R51 and the Industry

  1. DJ

    Great article here, and linked article, too!

    Around 1992, I bought a Colt All American 2000 (the aluminum-frame First Edition, just like your photo), as I was a die-hard DA revolver shooter who wanted to transition to an autoloader with a similar trigger action. I liked the straight-back pull of the roller trigger on the AA2000, and I was still young enough that new = cool, so I told the dealer “I’ll take it!” He was so nice, he offered me the new one still in the case from his back room, vs taking the display model that had been fingered and clicked by every enthusiast in a 100-mile radius. I gave it a quick visual check, and dove into the paperwork, eager to get it home. Bad move.

    Upon arrival at the domicile, decided to do a little dry-fire to get used to the trigger, and start the smoothing-out process for the new pistol. Trigger seemed much rougher than the shop’s display model, so I figured it needed some lube. I read through the manual, gave it a quick field-strip and lube, then reassembled it and tried the trigger again. Still pretty bad; like a sharp edge was dragging somewhere inside. Took it out and shot it; accuracy was abysmal, with 5″ 5-shot groups at 15 yards the BEST (!) it could do with 10 different loads. It wouldn’t stay on a paper plate at 25 yards; I could keep 5 shots from a used Glock and several different revolvers in the middle of the same plate at 50 YARDS, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t my technique.

    Upon arrival home, I tore it down again, only to notice that it was missing one of the little rollers on the trigger (needed 4, one on each arm; had three, and one empty arm, with the C-clip still in place). Called Colt Customer Service the next day and described the problem, and the nice woman told me that they had changed the material of the rollers at the last minute, moving from plastic to metal rollers, IIRC. She said there had been several complaints of missing rollers, and they’d be happy to send them right out to my gunsmith. I thanked her, and gave her my address. The replacement rollers showed up the following week, and the changeover was uneventful but slightly frustrating (I hate tiny C-clips, and I was sweating losing one of them, but I got through it okay). Trigger pull improved greatly! Accuracy still sucked — virtually no difference. For me the pistol was always reliable, but the poor grouping finally pushed me to trade it at a significant loss.

    After this Colt’s problem, and getting caught up in two different S&W recalls in the 80s (L-frame firing pin bushing and model 469 safety/decocker problem), I decided to let others be the guinea pigs on new gun models from that point forward.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Well, they say that pain is nature’s way of accelerating learning, brother.

      I feel your pain on c-clips and other small parts, especially since my eyes now need help on close-up work. (There are advantages to being nearsighted, as I was as a youth). I find a magnetic wand is my special friend at the gunsmithing bench. (It also helps when you drop the distributor screw down inside a Ford 289. Don’t ask me how I know that).

  2. Wise Cave Owl

    remarkable. since you veered into aircraft, the phrase “McDonnell Demon” comes to mind. It was a long time ago….like the F-35 only worse. USAF bought some but it…literally…would…not…fly. I dimly recall some footage on the Huntley-Brinkley Report showing a whole line of them being towed off someplace

    1. Bill K

      Speaking of the F-35, here’s a partial transcript of Bill Whittle’s latest Afterburner (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJV00yDwMH8):
      “This is Pierre Sprague. He’s one of the most important patriots you’ve never heard of. He was a member of John Boyd’s fighter mafia at the Pentagon in the 1970s. He was part of the team that made the incredible F-15 and F-16 fighters possible. He was also a guiding light for the remarkable A-10 Warthog, perhaps the most perfect marriage of machine and mission in aviation history. All you need to know about what’s wrong with the government you can get from listening to Pierre Sprague talk about the F-35 program. The F-35 was sold as a gold-plated one-size-fits-all solution for the next 40 years, but that meant a standard model for the Air Force, a vertical take-off model for the Marines, a beefed-up carrier version for the Navy, and so on. But since it’s all one airframe, the fan needed for the Marine’s vertical take-off meant a very wide fuselage. For that wide body to fit on a carrier deck meant it had to have a small wing. A small wing means it’s useless as a dogfighter. Stealth requires weapons to be carried internally, which means essentially no ordnance load, which means it’s useless as a fighter-bomber. Its small wing means it has to fly fast, which means it can’t pick out targets easily on the ground and its thirsty engines mean that it can’t loiter over the battlefield like the A-10 could, which means it’s useless in ground support as well. So, forget teething problems; this has nothing to do with teething problems. Inherent in its design is the fact that it’s useless in air-to-air dogfights, it’s useless as a fighter-bomber, and it’s useless in close air support. So, what is the point of this plane? [Sprague:] ‘The point is to spend money. That is the mission of the airplane – is for the US Congress to send money to Lockheed. That’s the real mission of the airplane.’ [Whittle;] ‘The purpose of the F-35 program, he says, is to spend money. Period. That’s all you need to know. The purpose of the Federal Government is no longer to secure the border, fight diseases, deter aggression, and keep the roads and electricity in order. The purpose of the Federal Government is to spend money. The purpose of the Federal Government is to take the fruit of your work, through taxes, and hand that wealth over to politicians, bureaucrats, unions, and voting blocks that insure that the Federal Government can continue to grow and do more of the same…”

      1. Hognose Post author

        Sprague has opposed literally everything (including, ultimately, the F-16, a plane he was part of the philosophical creation of). So I take him with, not a grain of salt, but a salt lick. Thanks to gullible, shallow reporters like James Fallows, Sprague (and his coterie, who were once Boyd’s) have become rock stars. But he’s never, ever, made a positive proposal. He just says everything is crap. Then he will say the opposite thing is crap. Consistency is a strong point with this guy and the whole so-called “military reform” movement, most of whom were never in the military and don’t understand it.

  3. RobRoySimmons

    One of your peers at G&A Mr. Lamb seems at times a little miffed at the press release nature of his new vocation. One month he let loose in a polite way that his fellow writers/corp PR types didn’t know squat about scopes with ballistic type reticles. Still has a job over there, which is good for us.

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