January 06, 2022
By David M. Fortier, Senior Field Editor
Savage Arms has a rich, albeit turbulent, history. The company bears the name of its founder, Arthur Savage, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica on May 13, 1857. Arthur came to the United States in 1893 and soon became involved in the design and manufacture of firearms. Although he lacked an engineering background, after a short firearms apprenticeship, he went on to develop the rotary magazine and a side ejecting internal hammer lever-action rifle. Hoping to gain a military contract, he developed his Model 1892/93 for military use but in the end it lost out to the Krag. This didn't set very well with Arthur who felt that a bolt action was chosen over his lever action design merely for political reasons.
Undaunted he made some minor changes and introduced his design to the sporting market as the Model 1895. As what was to become the Savage Arms plant was still under construction in Utica, New York Arthur contracted John Marlin to build his first 8,200 rifles. However, once his plant was completed in 1899 Arthur took over production. In doing so he reduced the asking price of his rifle by 10%. His desire was straightforward: to build a quality rifle that was affordable by all, not just the educated and wealthy. This year also saw the introduction of the famous Savage 99 and its .303 Savage cartridge.
Arthur also set his sights on the handgun market. This began when he developed a .45 caliber service pistol for the U.S. military trials of 1908. Once again his hope of winning a US military contract was dashed when he lost out to Colt. However Savage decided to continue to produce handguns. So he developed a line of .32 ACP and .380 ACP pocket pistols intended for personal protection.
From these humble beginnings Savage Arms grew to eventually become one of the largest sporting arms manufacturers in the world. During the Great War Savage produced Lewis aircraft machineguns as well as small arms for the United States, France, Canada, and Portugal. After the war Savage expanded when it acquired J. Stevens Arms in 1920 and ran it as a separate division. This company had been founded by Joshua Stevens, an apprentice of Samual Colt, in 1864. Joshua is notable for having invented the single-shot tip-up action rifle.
Then in 1930 Savage grew even larger when it acquired A.H. Fox. This company was founded by renowned trap shooter and inventor Ansley Fox and was known for building fine shotguns. Ansley had introduced a double-barrel single-trigger shotgun in 1905 that was widely considered one of the best in the country. With these three factories, and over 3,000 employees, Savage suddenly became one of the largest manufactures West of New York. During this time Savage also ventured into other non-related fields and produced an amazing array of products. These included lawn mowers, washing machines, health motors, ice cream cabinets and even the first chainless bicycle.
Although Arthur Savage died in 1941 at the age of 84, when the dark clouds of war loomed his company again answered the call. During World War II Savage Arms produced some 1,400,000 Thompson submachine guns, over 1,000,000 No. 4 Lee Enfield rifles for the Lend Lease Program, as well as .30 and .50 caliber Browning aircraft machine guns. They actually averaged 55,000 guns per month for the war effort. Following the war excess capacity forced Savage to pursue other markets. Unfortunately a spell of indecision and mis-steps followed and in 1960 Savage closed two of its three factories and moved to its present location in Westfield, Massachusetts.
Black&Decker purchased Savage in 1963 but put the company up for sale in 1972 after a protracted Union strike. It finally sold in 1981 to local businessmen, but they were unable to handle the business complexities or finance for the future. Finally in 1988 Savage filed for bankruptcy protection. Things looked pretty grim for this famous old company.
Things took a sudden turn for the better when the company was completely reorganized under the leadership of its new President, Ron Coburn, in 1989. Ron fully understood that for the company to survive and prosper some drastic changes were in order. So he decided to go back to the basics. This consisted of dropping all the shotguns, lever actions, single-shot rifles, combination guns and handguns from their line. Only the bolt-action 110 was retained. The work force was cut from 479 down to 103. Modern processes and material flow technology were introduced and employees were compensated at a fixed rather than a piece rate. This last change helped to improve quality and reduce the amount of reworks. In addition the cosmetics of the rifles were improved via nicer wood, cut checkering, a rubber recoil pad and a better finish.
The changes revitalized the company and Savage slowly clawed its way back to financial independence. In time the Model 24 combination rifle/shotgun was reintroduced and eventually other models followed. In 1995 Savage became a private company again, bought out by Ron Coburn. Through his efforts the company had been brought back from the edge of extinction. Believing in his company and its people Ron took a huge step by purchasing Savage Arms.
He turned the company around, demand took off and the company added a second shift and expanded. Savage Arms, who had stood at the edge of oblivion, was suddenly hard pressed to keep up with orders. Savage was named the Manufacturer of the Year by the Shooting Industry Academy of Excellence in 2003. These were good years for the company and Savage earned a reputation for building very accurate rifles.
On February 5, 2013, Coburn announced that he was stepping down after a 25-year tenure as chairman and CEO of Savage Sports Corporation. Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the predecessor of Vista Outdoor, announced the purchase of Savage for $315 million on May 13, 2013. Savage Arms did not seem to blossom under ATK and then Vista Outdoor which finally sold the company on July 9th 2019. A group of investors led by Savage Arms’ management purchased the company for $170 million. Today Savage continues to grow and expand and their rifles remain very popular with hunters, recreational shooters and competitive rifleman.
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About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.