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.
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"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.