"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.
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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."