America's Rifle: Rise Of The AR-15

"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."

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