America's Rifle: Rise Of The AR-15

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."

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