Interview with General William Keys, CEO of Colt Defense, LLC
By Christopher R. Bartocci

Please join Small Arms Review as Contributing Editor Christopher R. Bartocci brings you a rare insideinterview with General William Keys, CEO of Colt Defense, LLC. Many rumors have circulated about how Colt is doing in the industry. SAR gets the opportunity to speak with General Keys about his background, how he came to work for and eventually run Colt, Colt’s corporate status, military production, new product development and much more.

SAR: General Keys, what is your professional background?

Gen. Keys: I had a great Marine Corps career. I commanded everything from a Platoon through a Force. It was a great experience and I loved every minute of it. Given a choice, I’d still be there. I was an Infantry Officer; I served my whole timeas an Infantry Officer. I had three combat tours, two in Vietnam and then I commanded a division in the first Gulf War. My first combat tour was as a rifle company commander with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines and I was a company commander almost my entire first tour in Vietnam 1966 and 1967. For my second tour, I went back in 1972 for about a year as an advisor with the Vietnamese Marine Corps. I was there at the end of the war. Then of course, my third combat tour was as the Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division during Desert Storm, the First Gulf War.

SAR: What was your first experience with the M16 rifle?

Gen. Keys: That was in Vietnam. The first time was not a great experience. The weapons were just being introduced to the field and we had almost no initial training with them. They may have been fielded too fast but, mostly, we got hardly any indoctrination with the weapon when it was issued. We were told to be at a certain place at a certain time near Dong Ha and the M16s were issued and the M14s were taken back.

The M14 was a solid combat weapon. As I indicated, the M16 had some problems initially, but I think a lot of those could have been solved if we had more training with the rifle early on. I think those initial problems were sorted out in a few months or so and the gun performed well during the rest of the war. It turned out to be a very effective combat weapon that took out a lot of the enemy ground forces. You have to realize that there were a tremendous number of the enemy killed with this weapon. So to say that it didn’t do the job, is not true at all. In short, it turned out to be a very effective combat weapon, and its follow on design, the M4, has battle tested superbly.

SAR: Do you feel that you having been an end-user of military small arms affects the way Colt is run?

Gen. Keys: Absolutely. I feel that it influences my every day here at Colt; not only everything that I learned in the military, but leadership principles, etc., and the fact that I’m making a weapon for Soldiers and Marines in the field and know that they are going to have to use it in combat. So clearly that’s at the top of my priority list all of the time to make this weapon almost flawless, and I will accept nothing less.

SAR: Have you always had an interest in small arms?

Gen. Keys: Yes, I’ve always been kind of a gun guy since I was a kid. I still have my Dad’s guns, rifles and shotguns. I didn’t have a lot to do with handguns early on but as I got into the Marine Corps, I picked up on that experience. Now, I wouldn’t say that I was a “gun nut” but I certainly like guns and feel they serve a necessary purpose.

SAR: How did you become the CEO of Colt?

Gen. Keys: When I retired 1994/1995, I was looking for something to do. I wrote the owner of Colt, Donald Zilkha, at the time and told him that I would like to work for him and run his company because I heard they needed a CEO up here.

He said he didn’t need a CEO but he would put me on the Board. So I went on the Board of Colt in 1996 and remained a member until early 1999 when the company was having problems. They had numerous issues with several CEOs before me and so the Board asked me if I would come up here and take the job of President and CEO. I accepted on the condition I was really allowed to run the show, which they did and I have been here since 1999.

SAR: What is Colt’s current status in the industry? Rumors have been floating around about Colt not doing well and in danger of going under.

Gen. Keys: Well, that’s completely false. In 1999, we had some financial issues. We were very close to facing a serious dilemma but today Colt has never been in a more viable position. Our performance since we separated into two companies, Colt Defense and Colt Commercial, has been superb. The last three years our profit on the defense side is vastly improved and we are coming around on the commercial side as well. Today we are - well last year Colt and I made over 100,000 rifles, primarily M4s for the US Military. So Colt’s never been in a better position all round in probably the last 25 years.

SAR: How would you describe the focus of Colt Defense? Would you consider it mainly military?

Gen. Keys: Yes, it’s mainly military, clearly. The Army is our number one customer and by the Army I mean all services. So without question the U.S. Army as the contracting agency is our number one customer. We service them on a priority basis but we clearly want to make commercial guns, law enforcement and even some Match Target rifles as well. If we don’t make them, it’s because our priority goes to the US military. And we are obligated, especially in a time of war, to make nothing but U. S. Government guns if we have those orders.

However, as I said, we don’t want to get out of the commercial business. We would like to make more guns. One of the reasons that we bought Colt Canada was to allow us to expand production. They are making some law enforcement guns for us now, hopefully more in the future. So we clearly want to make all models of guns but without question, the U. S. Government definitely takes priority. We do service the law enforcement market as our second highest priority. And then finally we will make some civilian rifles.

SAR: Another rumor floating throughout the industry is that Colt is riding on the M4 and that no new products are coming out. Is that a true statement?

Gen. Keys: No, absolutely not. That is not a true statement. We have several guns that have already been developed and we have numerous guns that have been in R&D for a while. We have several piston guns. We competed very well for the SCAR program and were number two in the selection process. There have been a lot of very good enhancements to the basic M4/M16 over the years and they are without question much better weapons than went to war in early Vietnam. They may look similar but they are not the same guns.

We have two different versions of the piston gun, the LE1020 and the M5, which would be another version of the M4 down the road.

SAR: Accusations have come from military as well as industry professionals that Colt has done no improvements to the M4 since 1995. Is this true?

Gen. Keys: No, again, that is absolutely not true. Throughout the years we have worked closely with the Army and among the improvements include the buffer, heavy barrel, extractor spring assembly, compensator washer, bolt life, buttstock, barrel chamber, side swivel adapter, back up iron sights, burst cam, receiver extension and nut. We have also developed modifications for improved “over the beach” usage and more.

SAR: How difficult is it to make improvements and get them adopted into the Army?

Gen. Keys: The Army does not readily accept improvements to the weapon without a lot of detailed engineering work. For example, there is no reason why you couldn’t use a hammer forged barrel, as well as a drilled barrel. In fact, the Army has recently shown an interest in reviewing the hammer forged barrel and we are working on that now. They were going to allow it in a new XM8 program and it is used on the 240, etc. It’s proven over and over again that one is not really that much better than the other one. So to answer your basic question, it’s not easy to get a change into a government gun but on the other side that is not all that bad because the weapons are put through many series of tests prior to them being adopted as the service weapon.

We have a great group of engineers that look at every proposed modification. Wemake guns for a living here and we are not going to recommend anything that’s clearly not what I perceive as being in the best interests of the troops in the field.

SAR: Another rumor is that the company is being sold. Can you confirm or deny this rumor?

Gen. Keys: I think the company’s been up for sale since the day I got here, 10 years ago. You know, the people that own the company are investment bankers, they buy businesses and sell businesses, but we are very secure now and are not up for sale at this time.

Clearly the company is worth a lot of money now and much more than when they bought it. So maybe - if the right buyer came along, and it would have to be the right buyer. Someone who is going take care of the brand, take care of the quality, take care of the government contracts, then yes, of course, they probably would consider an offer.

For the most part I don’t see a change in ownership of the company changing the company. Basically they would probably run it the same; most of the people would be here. I’m not sure about me as the CEO; they may want to bring somebody else in. But clearly, I don’t see the company changing except to improve if it’s sold.

SAR: Okay. You sort of touched on this question already but we will get it out there. Due to the absence of many Colt rifles in the commercial market, the general consensus is that Colt does not care about civilian sales. Can you clarify Colt’s policy on commercial sales?

Gen. Keys: Again, Colt clearly wants to service the commercial market. I mean we feel that we make a very good product. We would like to make more of them. I know, I read the blogs all the time and they say that Colt doesn’t care about the civilians. That’s just not true at all.

But we are a company and we prioritize our capacity and clearly the priority has to go to the military. And that’s really the only reason we don’t make more commercial rifles. Our next priority is the law enforcement market. The LE6920 (Colt’s Law Enforcement Carbine) is the premiere law enforcement gun in the country. It’s very well thought of and is very competitive with the other companies that make a black rifle. We are always looking for ways to grow in this market and I just put on a very high quality and experienced person in that sales area.

SAR: The company’s motto is “Quality makes it a Colt.” Can you explain what sets Colt apart from the other manufactures of the M16-type rifles?

Gen. Keys: Well, that’s our motto, “Quality makes it a Colt.” To make quality products is everything to me. We really adhere to strict Colt quality measures here both on the military side and the commercial side with the handguns.

Our rifles are made to government specifications and by that I mean there are certain manufacturing processes that go into Colt weapons that I don’t think the other people use. I mean they are more costly and they require tighter tolerances and they just - you come out of it with a much betterrifle. We have to have interchangeability of rifle parts on every lot we build. I don’t think any other manufacturers do that type of production. So the guns are truly quality guns and I’m not trying to knock another’s product here but I think our quality is above the other products in the field of similar nature.

SAR: Are you referring to things such as proof testing bolts and barrels?

Gen. Keys: All that. All that plus the specific manufacturing processes and everything is gauged. The rifles - all of our guns are put through tremendous endurance testing and if one gun in the endurance lot fails then the whole lot fails and the whole lot has to be retested or brought back.

SAR: Does Colt plan on gearing up commercial sales for the rifles in the future or near the future?

Gen. Keys: We want to go into the commercial rifle business a little more. We would like to get our new piston guns out to law enforcement people if they want them, both the LE1020 and the civilian version of what I would call our new M5. We are working hard to make that happen.

SAR: Colt not too long ago acquired Diemaco, or now Colt Canada. Can you tell our readers how this will affect Colt?

Gen. Keys: Colt Canada was our licensee for about 15 years and they were kind of spun off from the parent company and we, number one, wanted to enlarge our footprint in the world. As I said, Colt is now doing well financially. We are growing and we felt this was a good acquisition for the company.

It gave us the ability to go into the Northern European areas, some of the Balkan countries and then with the change in the Soviet bloc, over there. We felt like we could move more of our products into Europe. The company itself is a good company, well run. It’s even more modern of a facility than here and their capacity is about 1,500 rifles or so a month.

SAR: Do you use Colt Canada more as an R&D firm or for manufacturing?

Gen. Keys: We use them for both. One of the reasons we bought them is that they had good R&D capability. And so, we were high on that when we bought them and we use the factory for parts and as I also indicated they make law enforcement guns for us.

SAR: Recently it was on the news that Colt is entering into a license agreement with Turkey to produce M4 carbines. Will this just be to produce for their army or do they intend to sell to other countries?

Gen. Keys: Colt sells weapons to numerous foreign countries: all of course with U.S. State Department approval. We tried to and have had past arrangements with other countries where they make the products, a version of the military weapon. It’s only for that country itself. We could later on expand the license so that they could sell to other places in proximity but at this time only in Turkey - that’s only for Turkey itself. They would have to buy a number of weapons before we actually go over there and set up the factory. Maybe they would buy the parts and put them together over there, etc.

SAR: Where do you see Colt in ten years?

Gen. Keys: I see Colt in ten years as a very viable larger defense company. I mean we are growing every day here. Sales are good. Our production capability, our financial portfolio looks very good for the future. The Army has indicated that clearly they are more than satisfied with the M4 and they are going to look towards putting more of these M4s into the combat unit. The term “pure fleet” has been thrown around: we look very good to the future.

I would see Colt, like I said, as a defense company. They could be a platform company to acquire other smaller defense products, companies, or whatever in the industry type environment that fall under this umbrella. And Colt as kind of the bottom platform company that shores all this up and pulls this together. So I would see Colt in the next ten years could easily be a several hundred million-dollar company.

SAR: Do you have concerns with 2009 coming up with a sole source ending?

Gen. Keys: No, I don’t see it as a major, major concern. Because really and truly that is not something the Army has to do by law. They don’t have to compete the weapon. All they did was give it to Colt for that period of time and so, if they’re satisfied with production, and they appear to be. And we are working with them on price. I don’t really see it is a major issue. We have orders far in the future. I just see it as something that will come and go if we work together.

SAR: The M16/M4-type rifles have been the longest serving family of weapons in U.S. military history. Many attempts have been made to replace it throughout the years and failed. What do you think keeps this weapon system in the hands of our troops?

Gen. Keys: Number one, it’s been highly effective. It’s been a good weapon. It and the AK-47 are the only really combat tested rifles in the past 50 years. I am talking about day-to-day combat. Like I said, after the kinks got worked out of it after Vietnam, the M16A2 and A4 were the basis for our military into the Cold War up until the Gulf War and it served the country well. Then along came the M4, which is even a better weapon because under today’s combat environment, everyone is mounted in a helicopter or some type of a vehicle. You get the same quality and the same range out of the M4 as you do out of the M16 and it’s a lot easier to handle.

And the weapon caliber overall has done exceptionally well and clearly this round will kill the enemy. You can carry more rounds and that’s primarily why it’s been around a long time. There is always going to be the heavy or light argument but when you put them all together, this rifle does the job and it enables you to complete the mission. And it enhances other capabilities as well. You know, you can put all the equipment on this - the rail system, the flashlights, the laser sights, etc. It’s just a perfect combat weapon for today’s environment.

SAR: Does Colt intend to keep revolutionizing this weapon system?

Gen. Keys: Yes, we do. As I indicated, we have several piston models available for both these weapons (LE1020 and M5) but there is really no solid proof piston firing systems are better, just different. We have a lot of changes on the drawing board. I have a great engineering staff here now. Along with Colt Canada, I think I have some of the key engineers in the industry and we are working everyday to enhance the weapon. They keep coming up with new ideas so we could be ready for any competition down the road; but until that comes, we will just improve the weapon. If the Army will take the changes: fine. If they don’t, we will continue to make quality weapons, as they want them. And then we will put these weapons in the civilian market.

SAR: Do you see the M16A2/A4 and the M4 serving this country for the next 20 years?

Gen. Keys: I would say it would be. It’s hard to put a time on it - I don’t know. But it would definitely be ten or so years. I don’t see a need to change. Improve, yes. We always need to improve to make it lighter - make the rounds more capable but the gun itself - the basic gun is a good weapon. Enhance optics, work on weight, etc.

To bring a weapon into the military system, it’s not an overnight process. It would take you 4 to 5 years to do it and do it correctly. All the proper testing, get it accepted by all the services and finally, get it accepted by the troops who use it in the field everyday. I feel it’s going to take 6 to 8 years probably to complete this process.

SAR: Does Colt have a stance on the reliability of the direct gas versus piston systems?

Gen. Keys: Again, both work well, you know, the argument sometimes is that thepiston system doesn’t foul as easily. But there is not really a lot of solid data that proves that. Both these weapons can work well but why change if there is nothing gained. If the individual Solider or Marine takes care of his weapon it’s going to work for him on a consistent basis and we know that the M16 works with the gas system. The piston system is certainly not new. It’s been around for a long time and a lot of weapons had it but there’s just no clear vote on which one is better and I know which one works well, the M4.

SAR: What is the difference between the M4 and the M5?

Gen. Keys: The M4 is just the basic gas system. The M5 would be a piston gun and we are just looking in all aspects at what we just talked about. Whether or not we want to - you know, we would change it to a piston gun; we would offer it down the road, if they want it. But clearly right now they don’t have an idea of whether they want this weapon. They are very satisfied with the M4 as it’s built with the gas operating system.

SAR: My final question is, do you have any message to convey to our readers that we haven’t discussed?

Gen. Keys: I would just say that Colt - Colt’s is America. Colt’s is quality. Colt is going to be around for a long time. I trusted Colt my whole life and I would recommend that you look at Colt weapons as something that you can count on in the future, both for quality and for getting the right weapon out to the people who need it, both on the military and commercial sides.

We’ve got a lot of new developments on the handgun side but we haven’t put them out yet. We will compete for the military pistol when it gets posted. So I think to sum it up, I think Colt has a great future. It’s a great company with great people who work here and I think our record speaks for itself.

SAR: Thank you very much.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V11N3 (December 2007)
and was posted online on October 19, 2012


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