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.
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"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?