02 November 2023

In the fight for survival

The political, economic, and social transformations that began in Poland with the so-called Round Table Agreements and parliamentary elections held in June 1989 completely changed the life of our country. Along with clearly positive phenomena, they brought a number of negatives, among which the following stood out: a rise in unemployment, widespread impoverishment, and the radicalization of social moods. Tragic fate befell many state-owned industrial plants, including the Radom-based "Walter," which were unable to cope with the realities of the market economy. Despite the first indications in 1987 that the economic situation of the plant was not the best, they were treated as temporary difficulties. The problems concerned low-quality raw materials, unreliability of cooperators, and, especially, a constant shortage of foreign currencies to purchase necessary parts. The real collapse occurred two years later, due to rampant inflation, growing unemployment, and mass impoverishment of society. The need to spend increasing amounts of money on food led to a drastic decline in interest from buyers in luxury items, including sewing and writing machines. The average Polish family simply became too poor to afford such an expense. As a result, the products of the Radom-based plant piled up in stores, unable to find buyers. Simultaneously, the ongoing disintegration of the Soviet Union and the changes taking place in its satellite states meant that "Walter" permanently lost many markets where it had been present for many years.

Many people living in Radom, especially those employed in the discussed plant, believed that it would continue to function as a producer of both military and civilian equipment. After the removal of Eng. Andrzej Korbecki from the position of the CEO in 1990, it became increasingly common to believe that civilian production had to be taken over by civilian companies. The specter of unemployment led to a mass exodus of the workforce. In 1990 alone, over 2,100 people said goodbye to their jobs here, of which as many as 1,800 decided to take early retirement. Among them were many excellent professionals with extensive experience. The symbol of the end of an era was the deprivation of the plant's long-time patron, Gen. Karol Świerczewski "Walter." Since November 1990, it started operating under the official name "Łucznik" Metal Works in Radom.

The pessimistic moods deepened even further when the plant management, looking for savings, began to divest itself of investments that had recently been a pride of the city but were now seen as unnecessary ballast. The Plant Cultural Center was liquidated, and its building was sold. Funding for the "Broń" Club was denied, and social activities for the workforce were minimized. Although the money thus saved allowed the plant to survive, it could not affect the policies of the state authorities, who drastically reduced orders for the "Tantal," "Glauberyt," and "Wanad" firearms. Although they constituted standard equipment of the Polish Army, many politicians of the time were fascinated by the idea of Poland joining NATO. The expected necessity of adapting Polish weapons to NATO ammunition, coupled with the belief that there was no point in supporting domestic industry since the army's entire demand could be met through imports, resulted in a complete denial of the idea of the country's defense, which had been shaped by the authorities of the Second Polish Republic in the interwar period. This was accompanied by an embargo on arms trade with Iraq, Libya, and Yugoslavia due to the wars and support for terrorism, countries that had recently been important recipients of Radom products.

The series of events that brought Radom into the headlines of newspapers across Europe during this period was the so-called rifle affair. It began at the end of 1991 when the finalization of the sale of 40,000 AKMS rifles, intended for a customer in the Philippines, commenced. However, the deputy director of "Łucznik," Eng. Rajmund Szwonder, who piloted this venture with full knowledge and acceptance of the state authorities, was arrested on German territory. It turned out that the offer to purchase weapons was a provocation by American intelligence agencies, and the Poles were accused of intending to sell the rifles produced in Radom to a customer in Iraq. The detainees were placed in a deportation center and were to be transported to the United States to stand trial there. In Radom, these events were unequivocally considered a German-American operation aimed at destroying a competitor in the arms trade. Although there were expectations of a sharp reaction from Polish diplomatic services to the unlawful actions of the allies, nothing of the sort happened. In this situation, a special committee was established in Radom, which began to raise funds, inform the international public about the whole affair, and organize protests in front of the US and German embassies in Warsaw. These actions contributed to the release of the director, who was welcomed with applause at the Okęcie airport in March 1993. For many people, the events confirmed rumors that Radom would never produce weapons again and that the survival of the plant could only be ensured through civilian production.

Since 1989, the management of "Łucznik" has made dramatic attempts to expand the sales of products from the Radom plant in Poland, where trade, including industrial goods, shifted to bazaars and open-air markets. Although special companies were established to boost sales, they did not achieve significant success. It was rightly predicted that the era of typewriters was coming to an end as they would soon be completely replaced by computers. In this situation, the future of civilian production was seen only in sewing machines. However, the implementation and introduction of new models proved to be very difficult. Cooperation with the German company "Dürkopp-Adler," the Belarusian concern "Planar," and the Ukrainian association "Pismasz" ended in failure. While machines from Radom continued to be exported to the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Canada, as well as exotic countries like Laos, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Thailand, the scale of this sales was too small to sustain the plant.

Another interesting attempt to acquire new customers in the civilian market was the production of the "Radom-Hunter" hunting rifle, which was a civilian version of the AKM rifle. Despite its attractive appearance and modern features, it did not gain the approval of hunters due to its loud trigger (which frightened game) and its rapid rate of fire, making it impractical for hunting (many considered the use of such weapons during hunts unethical).

The consequence of these events was an uncertain future and rapidly increasing indebtedness of the plant. A completely new chapter in its history was supposed to be opened at the turn of 1993 and 1994 with its transformation into a single-shareholder company owned by the State Treasury. The operation aimed to eliminate debt, find investors, modernize production technologies and machinery, and municipalize the "Broń" stadium, two kindergartens, and several residential buildings. However, independent factors related to the political crisis in the country prevented the restructuring from taking place. In October 1994, "Łucznik" officially became a joint-stock company and was removed from the register of state enterprises.

In the midst of deepening stagnation, the next attempt to shape the future of "Łucznik" was made only in 1995. A new plan for the company was developed, but this time it was not a restructuring plan but a rescue plan. It involved dividing the company into 16 small, independent commercial law companies, each focusing on a relatively narrow sphere of activity or production. However, this plan was also not implemented. In the following years, the plant languished, reducing employment and increasing its debt. It is worth noting that work on new weapon designs continued. They proved to be an asset that yielded results in the following decades.

It was only in 1999 that the Polish Parliament (Sejm) passed the long-awaited Act on the Restructuring of the Country's Defense Industrial Potential. Based on this act, the Radom plant implemented long-prepared procedures. The foundation of these procedures was the official separation of the plant into two companies, each dealing with separate spheres of production. The first one was the "Łucznik" Metal Works in Radom, exclusively producing firearms. It entered the 21st century with a wide and attractive range of products, with the main position being occupied by the "Beryl" wz. 96 assault rifle. It was designed to be compatible with additional equipment such as scopes, night vision devices, and laser pointers. The design also allowed for launching various types of detachable grenades, including anti-tank, incendiary, smoke, and illumination grenades, at distances up to 300 meters. Its modification for special reconnaissance units and heavy equipment crews was the "Mini Beryl" automatic carbine.

The second important product of "Łucznik" was the "Glauberyt" wz. 98 "Para" submachine gun, which was a modified version of the wz. 84 firearm. The modifications were based on user feedback. The Radom plant also offered three pistols. The most important of them was the "Mag" wz. 95, 98, and 98c. It was easy to operate and disassemble for cleaning and maintenance. Unfortunately, it did not win the competition to become the standard firearm for Polish soldiers. The P-83 "Wanad" pistol also received high ratings from users and was considered a self-defense weapon for close combat. Its modification (P-83G) was designed for gas cartridges and had a special attachment for firing signal rockets. Additionally, the P-99 pistol, developed in cooperation with the company "Walther," met all German requirements for a police pistol.

The second company established as part of the mentioned restructuring was the officially established "Łucznik" Sewing Machine Works in June 1999. Its product range included several models of sewing machines and a pressing station, intended for tailoring and laundry companies. The company operated its own store in Warsaw and had a network of authorized resellers. Within a year, it was able to sell approximately 25,000 machines in Poland and export 40,000 more, primarily to Germany. Although these numbers may seem large, they placed production on the brink of profitability.

To ensure the efficient functioning and production continuity of both mentioned companies, several additional service companies using the name "Łucznik" were established. These included the mechanical works in Zwolen, the foundry, as well as the tooling and repair service.

The final step of the restructuring process, enabling the reduction of the huge debt amounting to 168 million PLN, was the bankruptcy of the plant. It was declared on November 13, 2000. This day marked the end of the "Łucznik" history in the form that had made it one of the most important employers in Radom for decades and a significant contributor to the broader history of the city.

Dr. Sebastian Piątkowski

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