The AR-15: From Radical Experiment To Controversial Icon

March 8, 2013


The columns and multimedia presented here explain how the AR-15 military-style assault rifle — the main gun used by the killer in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — reached the pinnacle of the firearms world through decades of twists and turns, with events that support arguments on both sides of the debate about whether to ban it.

ArmaLite AR-15

The AR-15

From Radical Experiment to Controversial Icon

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Hartford Courant Multimedia

The AR-15: From Radical Experiment
to Controversial Icon

Sources: The Black Rifle (Collector Grade Publications, 1987); Black Rifle II (Collector Grade Publications, 2004);
NRA Institute for Legislative Action; National Sport Shooting Association; Wire serivces; Courant reporting

  • October 1, 1954

    Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corp. forms ArmaLite Division, a California business dedicated to using lightweight aluminum alloys, plastic and other aviation materials to make firearms.

  • March 1958

    First AR-15 models are delivered for testing to Fort Benning.

  • February 1959

    Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. of Hartford buys rights to the AR-15.

  • 1962

    U.S. Air Force buys 8,500 AR-15s from Colt.

    Colt AR-15

  • February-March, 1963

    U.S. Army agrees to buy 85,000 AR-15s.

    Then Army Secretary Cyrus Vance, pictured with President Lyndon B. Johnson, oversaw military specifications for the AR-15 which became the M-16.

  • January 2, 1964

    Colt Firearms introduces the Original First Issue Model R6000 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter rifle for civilians, modified so they cannot have automatic firing setting.

    March 30, 1964

    Colt Firearms delivers the first AR-15's, designated as the M-16, to the Army in a ceremony in Hartford.

  • 1967-1972

    Colt makes M-16 rifles in Hartford for the Army at a rate of as many as 50,000 a month.

    A detail of the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans' Memorial in Danbury showing a soldier in Vietnam carrying an M-16 rifle.

  • 1975

    Saigon falls, Vietnam war ends.

    A North Vietnamese communist tank drives through the main gate of the presidential palace of the US-backed South Vietnam regime as the city falls into the hands of communist troops.

  • 1977

    At least 300 Colt workers lose jobs as AR-15/M-16 sales decline. Layoffs will continue for 4 years.

    Colt M16 A3

  • 1978

    Dick Dyke buys Bushmaster Firearms in Maine, starts making Bushmaster AR-15 rifles.

  • 1982

    Rambo makes his first big-screen appearance in First Blood, raising the profile of assault weapons.

  • 1983

    Colt completes M-16 A2 version, a redesign of the rifle.

    Army Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Bruba accepts Colt Firearms' M-16 A2 rifle behalf of Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., Army chief of staff, in ceremonies on April 13, 1984 in Hartford.

  • July 18, 1984

    Assailant kills 21, wounds 19, with a 9mm semiautomatic Uzi in San Ysidro, Calif.

  • 1985

    Ad by Colt with a rugged rancher holding an AR-15 cited by Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence as an example of aggressive marketing.

  • 1986

    Congress outlaws manufacture and possession of most fully-automatic firearms.

  • 1988

    Army awards $112 million contract for M16 A2 to FN Mfg. Inc. of South Carolina, a Belgian-owned firm, in a blow to Colt still suffering through a lengthy strike.

    Striking workers march down Hartford's Westerly Terrace April 23, 1986 to deliver a letter to a Colt executive.

  • January 1989

    Assailant using an AK-47 kills five children and injures six others in Stockton, Cal., setting off a national debate about military-style weapons.

    February 1989

    President George H.W. Bush orders a partial ban on imports of military-style weapons. Ban is broadened in July, includes AK-47's and Uzi's.

    March 15, 1989

    Colt agrees to stop selling AR-15's to civilians, inciting anger among gun-rights advocates; Bushmaster and other manufacturers do not follow suit.

  • 1990

    Connecticut General Assembly adopts mandatory waiting period for all firearms.

    March, 1990

    Ending a 4-year strike, Colt's parent company sells firearms division to a partnership of workers, managers, outside investors and the state, which kicks in $25 million from the state pension fund. Colt quickly reintroduces the Sporter civilian model AR-15.

    August 2, 1990

    In Operation Desert Storm, U.S. troops liberate Kuwait from Iraq, highlighting the M-16 (the military version of the AR-15).

  • January 15, 1991

    U.S. Supreme Court refuses final appeal by National Rifle Association seeking reversal of 1986 machine gun ban.

    The 1990-1991 Supreme Court. (Top row L-R) Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter. (Bottom row L-R) Harry A. Blackmun, Byron R. White, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

  • 1994

    Colt's produces the M-4, a shorter version of the M-16 which will become wildly popular after use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    New Colt M4 carbines sit in racks awaiting inspection inside the Colt plant.

  • 1994

    Partial federal ban on assault weapons begins and lasts 10 years. A ban continues in Connecticut and a few other states.

    President Clinton holds a Colt AR-15 rifle during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House Monday April 25, 1994 where he launched an effort to pass the assault weapons ban.

  • 1999

    Production of AR-15-type rifles not for export or military use passes 100,000. Bushmaster is leader with 64,374; Colt makes 25,533.

    Bushmaster Carbon 15

  • September 11, 2001

    World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

    The twin towers of the World Trade Center billow smoke after hijacked airliners crashed into them early September 11, 2001.

  • March 2003

    U.S. invades Iraq.


    Stag Arms is formed in New Britain by Mark Malkowski, a local native whose family is in machine business.

    Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad 21 March 2003 during a massive US-led air raid on the Iraqi capital.

  • 2006

    Cerberus Capital buys Bushmaster as part of its roll-up of at twelve firearms and related companies, including Remington Arms and Marlin Firearms. Cerberus forms Freedom Group and closes several factories in New England.

    State police Det. Barbara Mattson displays a Bushmaster semi-automatic weapon at a hearing at the Legislative Office Building.

  • 2007

    Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released, highlighting the M4.

  • November 2008

    Obama election pushes military-style rifle sales up sharply on fears of greater gun control.


    Remington, Smith & Wesson, Sturm, Ruger all start manufacturing AR-15s.

    Barack Obama waves after being sworn in as the 44th US president on January 20, 2009.

  • February 2012

    Mossberg & Sons in North Haven, 90-year-old maker of hunting rifles, introduces AR-15 models.

    Mossberg International 715T

  • December 14, 2012

    Assailant kills 20 children, six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown with an AR-15. Earlier he had killed his mother and, later, himself with different guns.

    December 18, 2012

    Stephen Feinberg, who controls Cerberus and Freedom Group, announces Cerberus will quit the firearms business. Feinberg's father, Martin, is a Newtown resident.

  • January 15, 2013

    New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs strict gun-control legislation that was adopted after rapid, secret negotiations.

    January 16, 2013

    Obama and Vice President Biden announce sweeping gun control measures.

    March 2013

    Lawmakers and Governor Dannel P. Malloy negotiate a stricter gun control bill for Connecticut.

    Gun owners and Second Amendment rights advocates rally during a pro-gun rally at the State Capitol in Albany, New York, February 28, 2013.

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