An AR-15 on a stand during target practice for law enforcement at a Connecticut range, 2011. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Flickr
I was shaking as I shouldered the rifle and peered through the scope at the small steel target 100 yards downrange. It was officially the coldest day in Las Vegas history, and I was in the middle of the desert, buffeted by wind and surrounded by the professional gun press, about to fire an AR-15 for the first time.
I grew up with guns, and I even own a small .22-caliber target pistol that I take to the range occasionally. But I had fired a rifle maybe twice in the past five years. I was a novice, and I was frozen to the core. I flinched as I pulled the trigger the first time, sending my shot wide of the mark. But the recoil wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared; in fact, the shot was actually pleasant. I fired again with more confidence, and the bullet rang the distant steel plate like a bell; then the next shot hit, and the next.
“You’re doing great,” said Justin Harvel, founder of Black Rain Ordnance and maker of the gun I was shooting.
“It’s not me,” I replied. “I’ve never shot like this in my life. It’s gotta be this gun.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely not your daddy’s hunting rifle, is it?”
In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the AR-15 has gone from the most popular rifle in America to the most scrutinized and, in some quarters, vilified. Also known in its fully automatic, military incarnation as the M16, the rifle was racking up record sales in the years before Sandy Hook, but now, in the midst of a renewed effort to ban this weapon and others like it from civilian hands, the AR-15 market has gone nuclear, with some gun outlets rumored to have done three years’ worth of sales in the three weeks after Newtown.
Now that the post-Newtown nation has suddenly woken up to the breakout popularity of the AR-15, a host of questions are being asked, especially about who is buying these rifles, and why. Why would normal, law-abiding Americans want to own a deadly weapon that was clearly designed for military use? Why are existing AR-15 owners buying as many of these rifles as they can get their hands on? Are these people Doomsday preppers? Militia types, arming for a second American Civil War? Or are they young military fantasists whose minds have been warped by way too much Call of Duty?
Preppers, militia types, and SEAL Team 6 wannabes are certainly represented in the AR-15′s customer base. But fringe groups don’t adequately explain the roughly 5 million “black rifles” (as fans of the gun tend to call it) that are now in the hands of the public. No, the real secret to the AR-15′s incredible success is that this rifle is the “personal computer” of the gun world.
In the past two decades, the AR-15 has evolved into an open, modular gun platform that’s infinitely hackable and accessorizable. With only a few simple tools and no gunsmithing expertise, an AR-15 can be heavily modified, or even assembled from scratch, from widely available parts to suit the fancy and fantasy of each individual user. In this respect, the AR-15 is the world’s first “maker” gun, and this is why its appeal extends well beyond the military enthusiasts that many anti-gun types presume make up its core demographic.
Is the iPhone in this picture, taken at this year’s SHOT Show in Las Vegas, an AR-15 accessory, or is the AR-15 an iPhone accessory? Photo: Jon Stokes
The Gun as Gadget
“It’s something mechanical; it’s modular in fashion,” is how Jay Duncan, VP of Sales at Daniel Defense, begins when asked to describe the appeal of the AR-15. “Because it’s so modular you can build the firearm the way that you want it, and it can be like nobody else’s firearm. It’s about personalization.”
As an early employee of one of the fastest-growing high-end AR-15 makers, Duncan has the perfect perch from which to observe the black rifle’s transition in shooting circles from a scary military oddity to the hottest item in the gun store. He — and everyone else I talked to — credit the gun’s flexibility for the surge in interest.
Users can change calibers by swapping out barrels, bolts, and magazines; they can add and remove accessories like Trijicon optics, Surefire flashlights, or Crimson Trace laser sights; they can swap out the rail system on the gun’s fore-end to accommodate more or fewer accessories; they can change grip styles and stock sizes to tailor the gun to fit their own body; they can even theme the gun with special paints and decals (zombie apocalypse themes are popular, but I’ve also seen Hello Kitty). And they can do all of this by either ordering new parts and accessories from online or local shops, or by taking parts from different guns in their collection and mixing and matching them to produce something completely new.
“I always tease that it’s like Legos for grown men,” Duncan elaborates, “because there’s plenty of guys that get one, two, six ARs. And they’re constantly tinkering with them — changing barrel lengths, changing optics, putting different sights on them. It’s the same reason that a guy gets into remote-controlled cars or fly tying. Because it’s a fun hobby, and it’s a distraction from reality sometimes.”
A 2011 survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation backs up Duncan’s portrait of AR-15 buyers as accessory-obsessed tinkerers. The poll found that AR-15 owners possess an average of 2.6 black rifles, and spend an average of $436 on accessories and customizations.
This is the gun-as-gadget, a relatively new consumer phenomenon born from the unholy union of the post-9/11 national security state and America’s decades-old obsession with hackable, high-performance hardware. From muscle cars to motorbikes to ultra-high-wattage stereo systems, Americans love to take their toys way over the top, and for all its deadliness and terrifying power, the AR-15 is a terrifically fun toy.
A modified AR-15. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The AR-15 even boasts a performance-oriented enthusiast community that flocks to blogs and online bulletin boards to share tips, tweaks, hacks, new builds, product reviews, individual component reviews, photos of fancy new paint-jobs and blinged-out barrels, and benchmarks measured in FPS(feet per second, for bullet velocity). Anyone who was part of the PC enthusiast community of the late ’90s and early 2000s will instantly recognize the brand of over-the-top hardware geekery on display like AR-15.com and MajorPandemic.
In one thread on AR-15.com, a user shows off a newly built rifle, meticulously assembled from scratch and coated in a burnt bronze cerakote. Each part was carefully chosen to work with all of the other parts, and the rest of the forum’s denizens check in to drool over the finished product. The user’s decision to go with burnt bronze might have been influenced by this earlier thread, which is dedicated to pictures of AR-15′s of different makes and styles with burnt bronze coatings. Or, maybe he took a look at the picture thread dedicated to ARs with flat dark earth-colored accessories and decided he needed something with a little more bling to it.
Then there are the add-ons, like slings, lights, lasers, and so on. There’s a whole thread on AR-15.com devoted to pictures of users’ AR slings. Another thread is only for pictures of rail systems made by a single manufacturer. Here’s a thread with nothing but pictures of lights mounted on AR-15′s, and it’s been active since 2004.
Completing the gun-as-PC analogy, the AR-15 community even has its own operating system flame war — users literally refer to a critical part of the gun as the “operating system” — with proponents of the traditional direct gas impingement operating system facing off against newfangled piston operating system fanboys in gun forums across the internet. The debate has become so played out on AR forums that most threads on the topic now end fairly quickly, with a plea that the original poster just use Google. “We have had a gazillion threads on this comparison,” writes user ArtEatman in a recent Firing Line thread on the topic. “So far, there is no ‘preponderance of evidence’ after bunches and bunches of posts on both sides of the squabble that either one is better than the other.”
A U.S. paratrooper holding an AR-15 signals to his squad to form a defensive perimeter during a patrol near Duc Pho, 330 miles northeast of Saigon, Vietnam, June 5, 1967. Photo: AP
The First High-Tech Battle Rifle
The AR-15 was born from data. In the early 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s famously statistics-driven Pentagon was itching to replace the M14, an Army-designed gun that, despite its successful use in earlier conflicts, had turned out to be a poor fit for the jungles of Vietnam. McNamara’s Department of Defense was finally paying heed to previously ignored Army studies indicating that the M14′s heavy, long-range, .308-caliber cartridge was overkill on the battlefield.
The military came to realize the need for a smaller-caliber rifle that would be primarily effective at close range and could be easily fired in controlled bursts of three to five shots. Soldiers equipped with a lighter rifle and a smaller .223-caliber cartridge would be able to carry more bullets per pound of weight, and would be able to control their fire more easily because of the gun’s considerably lower recoil.
The solution came from Eugene Stoner, the lead gun designer at the ArmaLite Division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation — a cutting-edge gun-design shop that had been working for years on a next-generation rifle that would use modern materials like machined aluminum and injection-molded plastic. For all its ambition, ArmaLite had produced only a string of dead-end prototypes, until its last one. The AR-15 – for ArmaLite Rifle — was designed specifically for the smaller-caliber cartridges.
ArmaLite licensed the AR-15 to Colt — the “IBM” of the AR-15 story — which began turning out guns by the thousands. The Air Force was the first branch of the military to adopt the new rifle, which it dubbed the M16, and after some initial resistance (mostly attributable to NIH syndrome) the Army, too, broke down and ordered a few thousand rifles for testing in Vietnam. The field trials were a smashing success.
Troops loved the new gun because of its ergonomic design and easy handling, vastly preferring it to the Army brass’ beloved M14. The newfangled plastic, aluminum, and stamped-steel gun, which looked like something out of Buck Rogers, was so much easier to use than the M14 that in marksmanship tests troops were able to qualify as expert marksmen at a dramatically higher rate given the same amount of training time. The AR-15′s step-function improvement in individual usability gave a significant boost to squad-level battlefield performance. Army studies showed that a five-man squad armed with AR-15′s had as much kill potential as an 11-man squad armed with the M14.
Vietnam made the M16 a commercial success for Colt, but by the time the U.S. pulled out of Asia the black rifle’s reputation was in tatters — and not just with the general public, but with the very same groups who now defend it as “America’s gun.” The main mark against McNamara’s modern marvel was the terrible reputation for unreliability that it had gained as the conflict wore on. Then there was the stigma associated with Vietnam itself — returning soldiers were spit on and tarred as “baby killers,” and the M16, being the iconic rifle of that conflict, shared in the ignominy.
Even cowboy and conservative icon Ronald Reagan had no love for the black rifle, and didn’t think it belonged in civilian hands. And when the AR-15 was targeted in the first assault weapons ban in 1994, the NRA actually lent its grudging support to the measure. (Though only after the insertion of a “sunset clause” allowing the ban to expire years later.)
The NRA’s support for the original assault-weapon legislation highlights the often-hostile divide between the hunting/casual shooting crowd and black-rifle enthusiasts. For the outdoorsmen that I grew up with in Louisiana, guns were not “cool” the way that motorbikes and fast cars are. They’re dangerous yet necessary tools, to be respected and feared. Nicer guns are also viewed as cherished heirlooms and objects of American folk art. But above all, for the hunter, guns are about tradition — the tradition of fathers and sons sharing the outdoors together; the tradition of sportsmanship and respect for prey that keeps the single-shot long gun alive in an age of semi-automatics; and the tradition of checkered wood and polished steel that makes my gun much the same as my father’s, and his father’s, and so on back through the generations.
Nothing about the black rifle is traditional. For years it owed its rising popularity to the very same videogames and movies that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre recently lambasted in his post-Newtown rant. Ultimately, the trend-following, innovation-hungry, entertainment-driven black-rifle culture is the exact opposite of traditional hunting culture, and the hunting-oriented leadership of the NRA and National Shooting Sports Federation (NSSF) once went to great lengths to distance themselves from the black-rifle crowd.
To these old-timers, the AR-15 just didn’t seem like a “hunting rifle” in any meaningful sense of the word. In addition to its non-traditional look and the aforementioned stigmas attached to it, the AR’s small-caliber cartridge ruled it out for many hunters. Accustomed to taking down trophy bucks with a hefty .30-caliber round, they ridiculed the AR-15 as a “mouse gun” and feared that its smaller .223-caliber bullet would only wound an animal, instead of taking it down with a single, clean shot. Other hunters whose opinions of the AR were formed mostly by Hollywood movies hated the gun for the opposite reason, fearing that machine-gun-toting yahoos would be out shredding game, trees, and possibly other hunters with a spray of uber-high-powered bullets. Either way, traditionalist hunters felt that these modern “tactical” rifles were designed solely for armed combat, and therefore had no place in a sport where the prey can’t actually shoot back.
As recently as 2004, when the NSSF still had the policy of disallowing AR-15 makers to display any “tactical” imagery on the floor of SHOT, the gun industry’s main annual trade show, the AR-15 could be shown off only as a hunting rifle.
“When we first started coming to the SHOT show, you weren’t allowed to have anything tactical,” says Trey Knight of Knight’s Armament Company. At the time, KAC was strictly a boutique supplier of advanced weapons and accessories for U.S. Special Operations Forces, with no civilian customer base to speak of. “I had to make fake flyers that showed our guns in a hunting context,” Knight said. “They wouldn’t allow you to show anything that had camouflage or any military aspect to it.”
“If you had a picture, you couldn’t have [the model] in a helmet,” recalls Jesse Starnes of DoubleStar, one of the mid-range AR-15 makers. “It had to be a hunter hat or something.”
Fast-forward to SHOT 2012, where the black rifle was clearly the star of the show, and tactical gear of all types was on display everywhere. The NSSF is now fully on board the black-rifle train, as is the NRA. In a fairly short amount of time, the AR-15 has gone from an up-and-coming underdog in gun circles to the hottest-selling firearm anyone has ever seen, anywhere.
A home-customized AR-15. Photo: Josef Hanning/Flickr
From Black Sheep to Top Dog
The single biggest force affecting the AR-15′s destiny has been the U.S. military’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After 9/11, the Rumsfeld Defense Department’s counterterrorism doctrine made U.S. Special Operations Forces “the point of the spear” in the global war on terror. That war wouldn’t primarily be fought by general-purpose forces on a well-defined battlefield, never mind the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it would be fought in the shadows by small, fast-moving, elite groups of specialists with names like Delta Force and DEVGRU.
These Special-Ops groups have a legendary appetite for high-performance, custom hardware. As the ranks of the special operations forces exploded in the wake of 9/11, so did the market for high-end AR-15′s and accessories.
Then in 2004, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban expired. That meant the AR-15 accessories market — the civilian side of which had been held back by the ban’s fairly arbitrary restrictions on what could and could not be attached to a black rifle — was unleashed. By then, the entertainment and videogame industries had begun to glorify the exploits of special ops groups, and gamers and moviegoers were delighted to learn that they could get their hands on substantially the same gear that their on-screen idols use to take down terrorists. In the years following the expiration of the ban, the once-tiny AR-15 corner of the firearms market grew at a healthy clip as the manufacturers who got their start selling guns and accessories to U.S. Special Operations Forces began serving the elite troops’ growing civilian fan base.
Daniel Defense, for instance, has seen 100 percent year-over-year growth in the number of guns shipped since it began making complete rifles in 2003. The company, which was founded in 2000, went from being a part-time hobby for its hacker founder to a full-time business when it was asked by Special Forces to put in a bid for a new AR rail system. Today, over 70 percent of Daniel Defense’s rapidly growing business is civilian.
Black rifle? Not so much when you give the AR-15 a Hello Kitty motif. Photo: Courtesy of David Christian
No other company that I talked to could boast 1,000 percent growth over the past decade, but they all told similar (if less dramatic) stories of strong growth from 2004 to 2008, and they tended to fit the same pattern. They were started prior to or during the 1994 ban; they were founded by a hacker who had innovated in some small aspect of the rifle; as the ban lifted and the platform’s popularity began to build, they got into making other accessories and parts, and, in some cases, whole guns.
The military, in turn, has benefited directly from the fresh civilian money flowing into the AR-15 market. As companies and innovation multiplied in the AR-15 space, the AR-15 platform as a whole became even more modular, ergonomic, and effective. Much like the military, civilian AR shooters are on a never-ending quest for improvements in accuracy, reliability, and comfort, and there are a few orders of magnitude more of the latter group than the former.
Thus the locus of innovation in the AR-15 ecosystem is now moving to the civilian side of the industry, as shooters in new niches take up the rifle and leave their own mark on it through tweaking and innovation.
Indeed, much like a certain other product of Cold War-era research that was first used for business, then for pleasure, and now sees its business users looking to the consumer market for the latest innovations, the AR-15 industry will one day reach the point at which it will be fair to say that the military is taking civilian technology and “militarizing” it, instead of vice versa.
No, these are not toys — at least, not toys for children. They’re real guns that have been “themed” with custom paint jobs at the Las Vegas SHOT Show, January 2013. Photo: Jon Stokes
Gun Salesman of the Decade
Despite its ease of use and adaptability to different shooting niches, the AR-15 was only slowly catching on outside of its initial core demographic of gamers and others who had fallen into the post-9/11, SpecOps-inspired “tactical lifestyle” when the 2008 election of Barack Obama changed everything. Whipped into a frenzy by the NRA’s dire warnings of an Democratic gun grab should Obama win the presidency, gun enthusiasts from every demographic slice of American gun culture flocked to the stores after election day to fill out their arsenals ahead of the ban that they believed to be coming. As the item most likely to be banned, the AR-15 had particular appeal to panicked gun buyers.
All of the AR-15 and accessory makers I talked to told me that their business had grown steadily from about 2000 until 2008, at which point it went supernova. But not even the 2008 panic can compare to the post-Newtown frenzy, in which some gunmakers claimed that their orders went up by 1,000 percent.
Both of these panics have brought a massive influx of new shooters to the AR, people who would never have considered a black rifle before. I visited a number of gun shops in the Bay Area and in Houston, Texas in the days and weeks after Newtown. As the walls grew more barren and the lines longer, I heard the same story again and again from first-time AR buyers: “I never really wanted one of these before. I’ve only owned and shot hunting rifles and shotguns. But now that they’re about to be banned, I’d better go ahead and get one while I can.” The SHOT attendees I spoke with all had similar stories of empty gun store walls and panic-buying doctors and lawyers paying $5,000 for what would have been a $2,000 gun just a week earlier.
In bringing new, non-”tactical” shooters to the AR, the twin panics of 2008 and 2012 have also done much to heal the aforementioned schism between the black rifle and hunting crowds. For every hunter like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who shares the NRA old guard’s hostility for all things tactical, there’s another who hates the idea of the government banning the black rifle even more than they dislike the gun itself. Some of these hunters have gone out and bought an AR-15, and when they shoot their new toy, they’re most likely hooked for life.
From the morning that ArmaLite opened its doors in 1954 to the present, most of the innovation that has gone into the AR-15 has been aimed at making the gun as accurate and pleasurable to shoot as possible. The result is a gun that really is an order of magnitude easier to use effectively than many of the traditional wood-stocked rifles that black-rifle-hating hunters grew up with. For someone who enjoys shooting a $2,500 AR-15 from a company like Lewis Machine and Tool, Black Rain Ordnance, Daniel Defense, or KAC, is like a driving enthusiast sitting behind the wheel of an Italian or German supercar. It’s a revelation, and the experience doesn’t wear off quickly.
This article was originally posted by Jon Stokes for WIRED Magazine. CLICK HERE to view the original article.