9:28 PM EST, March 9, 2013
When his son turned 14 a year ago, Jonathan Hardy bought the teen a gift that was both a coming-of-age badge and a hot item: an AR-15 rifle.
To Hardy, the matte-black weapon is not a dangerous assault rifle. His son's model shoots the same small, low-powered bullets used by youths for decades.
The allure of the AR-15 — the main gun used by the killer in Newtown — has nothing to do with the rifle's firepower, as far as Hardy is concerned. Rather, it's the gun's modular design, light weight, ease of use, low recoil and extraordinary flexibility that draws him in.
"It's the perfect rifle," said Hardy, a New Britain resident and certified firearms instructor who is active in the debate over gun control. "It can grow with him as he grows. ... As his needs change, it can change."
Hardy can convert it to the more powerful rounds that have made the AR-15 famous, with the same bullets as the military version, the M-16. Or it can shoot even larger rounds of the sort used by deer hunters.
"If you get a new barrel, essentially you've got a new rifle," Hardy said.
Anyone who thinks Hardy is an extremist, far from the mainstream, should wake up. The AR-15, which isn't a brand but rather a generic design, accounts for an estimated 60 percent of all civilian rifle sales in the United States and perhaps a quarter of all firearms sold, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group based in Newtown.
It's made by dozens of manufacturers.
The story of how the AR-15 reached the pinnacle of the firearms world winds through decades of twists and turns with events that support arguments on both sides of the debate about whether to ban it.
The AR-15 was invented as a replacement for the World War II-era M-1, and was developed and industrialized by Colt Firearms in Hartford in the 1960s, largely as the M-16 military rifle in the early years.
Today, the AR-15 is so popular, with estimates of as many as 5 million in private hands, that its advocates say a ban would do little to keep it from the grasp of determined evil-doers. Opponents can't refute that; they say a ban is a first step, worthwhile if it saves even one life. Although partial bans have been in place or years in some places, including Connecticut, the latest proposals here and some other states could ban it outright.
Everyone agrees that when it comes to rifles, the AR-15 is the "it" gun. But there's less agreement on how that happened, and what it says about our society. Opponents say the firearms industry foisted the gun on the public using ads laden with military words and images.
In fact, a close look at the rise of the AR-15 shows that marketing was just one of many factors, and probably not the biggest one.
The AR-15 has brought to the firearms world what the smartphone delivered to electronics and the single-lens-reflex camera offered for photography: maximum usability in an affordable package that's easy to upgrade and, most important, plays into the culture of its customers. Not only can Jonathan Hardy give one to his teenager, his disabled mother can shoot one as well, and does.
"It's America's rifle," said Christopher Bartocci, a former Colt's employee who wrote "Black Rifle II," the second volume of a two-book, illustrated history of the AR-15/M-16. "It's as American as anything there is — apple pie and football."
It's true that some firms have marketed it using the icons of war and tactical defense, but many have not, because they appeal to hunters, target-shooters and an evolving American way of thinking that has fueled demand for a gun that sells itself.
It was 50 years ago, in 1963, that Colt Firearms sought and later got federal permission to modify its automatic AR-15 for sale to civilians as a semi-automatic rifle. Since then, especially with an explosion in the last 10 years, the weapon has gained popularity in a sweep of events that reads like a cultural history of the last half-century — because that's what it is.
The rifle first became familiar during the Vietnam War, through grainy, televised images of the M-16 (the military version of the AR-15) in the jungles of Southeast Asia. That was followed by a string of high-profile incidents and movies such as "Rambo" in the 1980s; an end to imports of the Uzi and the AK-47 in 1989 and a partial federal ban on semi-automatic firearms in 1994; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with returning servicemen eager to have their own versions of the rifles they carried; the rise of realistic video games and a target-shooting sport called "three-gun competition"; and, finally, the election of President Barack Obama, coinciding with an anti-government movement of gun-rights advocates convinced they must be ready to defend themselves.
Those cultural tides raised the AR-15's popularity, as did gun control debates. The greater the threat to its existence, the more the gun sold. Gun manufacturers were not surprised that demand has spiked since the Newtown tragedy. Some models are selling for many times their pre-Dec. 14 prices — if buyers can find them at all.
Opponents say marketers have played into an aggressive, menacing image of rifle owners, far from the former hunting-driven gun sales.
"That reality is that the gun industry is not today — if it ever was — a 'sporting' industry. It is a highly militarized and increasingly cynical industry that has cast all restraint aside to generate profit from military-style firearms," the Violence Policy Center said in a 2011 report titled "The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market."
But to hear enthusiasts like Hardy, the star in the AR-15 story is the gun itself. And no one can deny that it is a triumph of engineering. Improvements, many of them designed at Connecticut's Colt factories, have led to an ever-refined weapon, copied and advanced by upstart companies from Maine to California.
Those firms, including Bushmaster, one of the two largest AR-15 makers and the brand used by the shooter in Newtown, have offered a dizzying array of interchangeable accessories including scopes and collapsible stocks. Colt's Manufacturing Co., as the firm is now known, has a model in pink camouflage, called the "Muddy Girl."
And prices have fallen or stayed flat thanks to a revolution in manufacturing technology that happened to coincide with the early rise in popularity of the AR-15 and, more recently, growing competition.
In Connecticut, Stag Arms set up shop 10 years ago in New Britain, pioneering left-handed AR-15s, and now employs nearly 200 people. Historic gun-makers Sturm, Ruger & Co., based in Fairfield, O.F. Mossberg & Sons of North Haven, Remington Arms, formerly of Bridgeport and Smith & Wesson of Springfield have all started making versions of the AR-15 since 2008.
"We simply responded to customer demand," said Joe Bartozzi, vice president and general counsel at Mossberg, which added a line of AR-15's to its more traditional hunting rifle offerings a year ago.
The industry certainly wants to advance the idea that the AR-15 is heir to a tradition of popular guns first designed for military use, icons like the Winchester 1872 and the Colt Peacemaker.
And, more deeply, it's part of a history of firepower in the hands of American citizens, said Richard Slotkin, a cultural historian and retired Wesleyan University professor of American studies.
The tradition stems from the nation's foundation on individual freedom and from the expectation that violence will happen — sometimes justified, sometimes not.
"In a sense it goes back to the handgun," Slotkin said. "We lived in a violent society for a long time."
Between the Civil War and the New Deal, Slotkin said, we saw the development of automatic weapons and vast production of firearms at a time when there was no gun control, amid the rise of goon squads against labor, urban gangs and other dangers. Upheaval in the '60s and the drug wars of the '80s only added to that, and the current movement of anti-government fervor feeds on it, blending extremist views with a rational desire for personal defense.
"The irrational appeal works because at some points it connects to something which isn't irrational," Slotkin said.
It also draws appeal simply as a device.
"We want to have the latest, the greatest, the biggest, the baddest," said Gary Lenk, a retired West Hartford detective who repairs firearms and has followed the rise of the AR-15 for decades. "The AR-15 is like Legos for grownups because you can adapt them for different calibers, different barrel stocks, with just a few simple tools."
From Airplanes To Rifles
There are two myths surrounding the AR-15, both of which feed controversy about it, both wrong — or at least partly wrong. The first is that it's among the most powerful weapons on the market. The second is that it was an overnight success in the gun world, embraced by the Pentagon and pushed early and often by its makers onto a compliant public.
Yes, the AR-15 is one of the most efficient killing machines ever devised because it's easy to use. Weighing between 6.5 and 8.5 pounds, it delivers semi-automatic firing —meaning a bullet loads after each pull of the trigger, driven by a gas pressure system. The military versions, the M-16 and the shorter M-4, both developed by Colt's, are "selective fire," meaning they can switch to automatic, machine-gun mode, which is banned for almost all civilian use.
The AR-15 was born after the Army put out a call for an all-purpose weapon that infantrymen could carry for weeks at a time with minimal maintenance, firing at targets from long distances, short distances and in between. But it is less powerful and uses a smaller round than most hunting rifles; more to the point, it's less powerful than the rifles it competed against to succeed the venerable M-1 after World War II.
And the gun had a rocky early history — rejected for years by the Army, not viewed as an especially marketable civilian firearm for decades.
During and after the Vietnam War, when the M-16 was the standard-issue rifle, "The perception in the gun-buying public at that time was that the caliber and the rifle were relatively useless," said an engineer who worked at Colt. It was derisively called "the mouse gun" or a "poodle-shooter."
The AR-15 was born in the 1950s, at a startup company called ArmaLite, which gave the gun its AR name. The business was formed in California by Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp., and deployed three new ideas: lighter materials that are used in aerospace; a smaller, high-velocity bullet developed by Remington Arms in Connecticut; and parts that could be swapped to modify the gun.
Designer Eugene Stoner and his team were outsiders competing against the Connecticut Valley establishment, as told in the book, "Black Rifle," the first volume of the history, by R. Blake Stevens and Edward C. Ezell.
Stoner's team built a version just over 6 pounds, dubbed the AR-15. The bullet would become the famous .223, still made by Remington. The AR-15 performed well in Army tests but lost out to the more traditional design that was designated the M-14.
Soon after, the AR-15 design was sold to Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co., the historic Hartford gun maker that was, according to "Black Rifle," near bankruptcy and looking for a new product.
Less than a year later, in September 1959, Colt's sold its first order, 25 rifles to Malaya. Eventually, the gun drew keen interest from an Air Force general who used it to shoot at watermelons during a July 4th party in 1960, Stevens and Ezell wrote. But that bit of momentum died when there was a change in company leadership and project managers were fired.
It was not the last time that executive turmoil at Colt's would bend the history of the AR-15.
Colt Firearms, as the company had became known, regained its footing and aggressively marketed the AR-15 to the military as a low-maintenance, modular system. It paid off. The Air Force become the first U.S. military buyer in 1962. The Army followed suit, and after positive reviews in Vietnam, ramped up orders despite some jamming of ammunition that was later fixed.
By the height of the war, Colt was making a staggering 50,000 of the guns a month under the famous blue Onion Dome in Hartford.
Taxpayers Rescue The Gun
Civilian versions of the AR-15, with the pleasant-sounding name "The Sporter," were available almost from the start. In fact, Colt rolled out the Sporter in January 1964, even before its first M-16 delivery to the Army.
But it would be decades before sales of Sporters and copycat brands would take off. A cultural revolution had to happen first, and it would take nearly 30 years.
The best time and place from which to examine the fate of the AR-15 is the morning of March 28, 1990, at the historic Colt armory in Hartford. On that day, Colt ended a bitter, four-year strike by United Auto Workers employees with a triumphant parade back into the factory.
The company was reeling not only from the strike, but also from the loss of the Army M-16 contract two years earlier. Some hoped the AR-15 Sporter might put Colt back in the game. At the very least it was part of the company's rebuilding strategy, a plan that didn't come cheaply.
To end the strike and save 1,200 jobs, the state had brokered a deal. Colt Firearms, part of a sprawling parent company called Colt Industries that would be reborn as Colt's Manufacturing Co., would be owned by the union, managers, private investors and the state itself — which kicked in $25 million from the public employees' pension fund.
The new Colt was in position to benefit from large-scale, commercial sales of the Sporter. Not only was the strike over, but a year earlier, a school shooting in Stockton, Calif., had led to a ban on imports of AK-47s and other military-style weapons.
Colt voluntarily suspended sales of the Sporter to the public after the Stockton shooting, and that created an angry backlash from some in the gun world. Other companies, including Smith & Wesson, would feel the same pressure over the next decade: Appear to compromise, and pay the price.
The new Colt quickly introduced the Sporter with several variations — ensuring that taxpayer money was being used to help sell military-style weapons to the public. Francisco Borges, then the state treasurer, didn't like the idea, but went along to protect the company's 1,200 jobs.
"I used to fight with Frank," recalled Tony Autorino, the Wethersfield investor and former United Technologies Corp. executive who led the complex deal creating the new Colt. "He would say 'Well geez, what are we doing? We're making [guns],' and I would say 'Frank, it's a gun company.'"
Civilian sales were not huge, but they were growing. In 1990, Colt Firearms didn't even see the need to patent it, a decision some in the company would later regret.
"Colt corporate management decided for a period of 10 years that patents weren't worth taking out," said the retired company engineer, who asked for anonymity. "And it was a big mistake."
That year, 1990, Colt's Manufacturing Co. made 36,000 AR-15s that were not for export or military use. All other companies combined made about the same number, according to federal records and surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Colt's needed to ramp up to save itself. Sales of the AR-15 were there for the taking. Military-style weapons had burst into the public consciousness in movies, including the Rambo series, TV's "Miami Vice," increasingly violent computer games and images from U.S. invasion of Iraq in Desert Storm.
And the gun itself was now more accurate and more reliable. The U.S. Marines, using Colt's new version (the M-16 A2), started to compete in civilian target-shooting events.
"Within nine months of the first production of the M-16 A2 in '83, there were at least three companies making components that copied the design," the former engineer said. "The older generation of people, who didn't believe anything was really a gun unless it was made of steel and walnut, started to disappear, and they were replaced by younger people. ... Someone would buy one of these, bring it to the range and say 'This thing really works well.'"
Colt's dominated the market for the next several years, with AR-15 production rising to 48,000 in 1995. But many, perhaps most. of those guns were sold to law enforcement agencies, not civilians. Any hope of capturing a future market was thwarted by the company's 1992 bankruptcy and reorganization two years later.
Ultimately, the Sporter simply wasn't a priority. "We were so used to dealing with the military and police with that type of weapon, that a lot of the Colt people didn't think of it" as a potential blockbuster, said a former longtime Colt's executive.
"The problem was we needed to retool and regroup the company," Autorino said, "and the Sporter was, quite frankly, almost a pain."
It was a "pain" not only because of the military-style weapons controversy in Congress and state legislatures. With so many parts interchangeable, gun enthusiasts would devise and sell kits for converting the Sporter into a machine gun, illegally. That angered the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and led to an expensive "cat-and-mouse game," according to the former engineer.
"We would find out about it and we would design something to prevent it from happening," then people would find a way around the design, he said.
The federal ban on semi-automatic, military-style "assault weapons" from 1994 to 2004 stoked demand like nothing else, and other companies stepped up with redesigned versions that met the strict, new definition of allowable rifles. Several states, including Connecticut, have kept the ban in place, forcing manufacturers to assemble separate "Connecticut versions" of the AR-15.
Connecticut adopted a ban in 1993 and Colt's fought hard to stop it, then as now saying it would be ineffective, then as now saying hundreds of jobs could be at stake. and at the state Capitol, the leaders included then-state Reps. Martin Looney and Mike Lawlor — who are still leading the charge today, Looney as senate majority leader, Lawlor as the governor's chief of criminal justice.
Colt's, however, had a new plan for the AR-15, far bigger than chasing sales to civilians: The M-4 carbine, a shorter variant of the AR-15, designed for urban warfare, became the version all the other companies copied. Colt's never stopped selling Sporters to the public, but it would be up to other companies to lead the revolution.
And with the M-4 becoming the Pentagon's weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, the historic Hartford company, now moved to West Hartford, had done its part to make the AR-15 the firearm that would capture a generation of shooters.
'This Product Sells Itself'
Just as the rifle is a product of the American inventive spirit, the explosive growth in popularity of AR-15s over the past several years has resulted from American free enterprise as dozens of companies, from startups to old-line firms like Smith & Wesson, have jumped in to sell it.
Some, including Mossberg in North Haven, which just launched an AR-15 line last year, emphasize hunting.
Others, including DPMS Panther Arms in Minnesota, use military imagery and culture to sell "tactical rifles." DPMS proudly declares that its workforce is 50 percent veterans. That's no small point, as the vanguard of the sales explosion of the 2000s has been returning servicemen who shot the weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chris Fields, a former Special Ops and private security engineer in both wars, bought a carbine version of the AR-15 when he returned to North Carolina after serving two tours of duty. He later served three more tours and moved to Connecticut, where his wife is from.
"I bought it because I was comfortable with it," said Fields, who founded and runs the King 33 firearms training center in Southington. That natural transition is especially true of veterans with longer years of service, he said, and they are the core of a new breed of target shooters at the ranges.
Why didn't it happen after Vietnam?
"Think about the Vietnam War and the mentality of the general public, being anti-war and anti gun," said the former Colt executive, who was with the company in that era. "Now, it's not so politically incorrect to be a shooter…I can remember the late '60s and the '70s, even people who hunted were given a big rap. You were supposed to have a peace symbol and smoke pot. You didn't carry a gun."
"It all goes in cycles and waves," said the former executive, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
In this cycle, the AR-15 is called the "modern sporting rifle" by the industry, obviously trying to soften the image, and it's called an "assault rifle" by opponents, though that word is more correctly used to refer to fully automatic military weapons.
Sales figures for AR-15-type rifles are not available publicly because the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is not allowed to give them out. But figures from NSSF, the industry group, show that a record 748,000 were made in the United States and not exported in 2012, following a trend of high volumes since 2008, when the figure jumped from 285,000 to nearly a half-million.
Three Connecticut companies made nearly 200,000 AR-15s last year at local factories, between them: Colt's (and its affiliated company in West Hartford, Colt Defense LLC), Stag Arms and Mossberg. Another maker, Sturm, Ruger & Co., is based in Fairfield but makes the gun elsewhere, and Smith & Wesson makes an undisclosed number in Springfield.
Critics say military-style, semi-automatic weapons are driving sales in an industry that otherwise faces decline.
"It was the last shiny thing that they could sell to an aging group of gun buyers," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
The trend, Sugarmann said, is toward fewer people owning more guns, with demographic and cultural changes such as the urbanization and suburbanization of the population, the rise of households headed by single women and the shrinking of the armed services all leading to a decline in hunting. That, he said, has forced gun-makers to change the way they sell.
"They're expert at promoting and feeding the paranoia that's fueling the gun sales," Sugarmann said. "The long-term issues they face, they're basically insurmountable."
The industry does not agree. Hunting licenses were up 9 percent last year, said Bartozzi, the Mossberg vice president. And Sugarmann's view does not account for the rise of target shooting as a sport. For whatever reason, last year saw a 26 percent increase in U.S. AR-15 production, and that was before the post-Newtown frenzy spurred by new ban proposals.
At Colt's, which contracts with Colt Defense to make the AR-15 in a jointly operated plant, civilian-version AR-15 sales were less than 10,000 in 2011, then catapulted to 100,000 in 2012 after the company retooled its factory and its product line with the slowdown of M-4 sales to the military.
"This product sells itself," said Dennis Veilleux, who recently became CEO of Colt's. "Since we've been involved in the commercial market, we haven't had to sell it. It's been a pull."
How and whether Newtown's aftermath affects long-term sales of the AR-15 remains to be seen. Stag Arms owner Mark Malkowski, Veilleux and others in the industry will not speculate on the effect of possible legislation on sales.
"I did listen really closely to everything that was being said and I did reflect really deeply on my role in firearms manufacture...in the community," said Veilleux, who has two school-age children. "At the end of that reflection I feel confident that what I'm doing is not contributing to making this place less safe."
And at the center of it all is the AR-15 itself, which is as much a product of technology and innovation as culture and marketing.
"Semi-automatics have been around since the turn of the 19th century," said Gary Lenk, the retired West Hartford detective. The AR-15, he said, "is an extremely competent package, and when people find something that works well, they tend to gravitate toward it.
"Nothing evil — it's just a firearm that works."
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant