When he died in April 1997 at his home in Palm City, Fla., Eugene Stoner was a millionaire with about 100 patents to his name and, in the words of an obituary that ran in The New York Times, a reputation as “one of the world’s foremost designers of and experts on small arms.” In the late 1950s, working as an engineer for an upstart California company called ArmaLite, a division of the Fairchild Aircraft & Engine Corporation, Stoner had developed the AR-15 rifle.
After some bureaucratic resistance and early mechanical issues, the AR-15, rebranded by the military as the M16 and manufactured by Colt’s Firearms Division in Hartford, Conn., made its way onto the battlefields of Vietnam and into the American popular imagination. Its profile became synonymous with the term “assault rifle,” and it stood in contrast to its Soviet counterpart, the AK-47, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947. Lightweight, air-cooled, gas-operated, and magazine-fed, four variants of the M16 — the M16A1/A2/A3/A4 — have been used by the military since the 1960s. A more compact version of the M16A2, the M4 carbine, was introduced in the 1990s.
When Adam Lanza stepped into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Friday, he was holding one of the millions of civilian descendants of Stoner’s design.
Two handguns and a rifle were recovered at the scene of the massacre, but reports have indicated that Lanza used the .223 semi-automatic rifle to shoot most, if not all, of his victims, including his mother, Nancy Lanza, to whom the gun was apparently registered. On Saturday, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, H. Wayne Carver II, said that each of the victims had received multiple gunshot wounds.
“My sensibilities may not be the average man, but this probably is the worst I have seen or the worst that I know of any of my colleagues having seen,” Carver told reporters.
As Times journalist C.J. Chivers described in his 2011 book “The Gun,” when Stoner was working on the AR-15, he also redesigned a commercially available .222 Remington round in order to meet a standard set by the Army: that a bullet fired from the rifle be able to strike and penetrate a steel helmet at 500 yards. For this purpose, Stoner created the .223 round, slightly longer than the .222, able to be filled with more powder. Lightweight, but high-powered.
“To its champions, the AR-15 was an embodiment of fresh thinking,” Chivers wrote. “Critics saw an ugly little toy. Wherever one stood, no one could deny the ballistics were intriguing. The .223’s larger load of propellant and the AR-15’s twenty-inch barrel worked together to move the tiny bullet along at ultrafast speeds — in excess of thirty-two hundred feet per second, almost three times the speed of sound.”
Authorities have not yet said publicly what model of rifle Lanza used in the massacre. Media outlets, however, have identified it as a Bushmaster .223 caliber M4 carbine., a more recent variant of the AR-15. Bushmaster has been one of the most prominent manufactures of military-style rifles being sold to civilians in recent years.
Bushmaster didn’t respond to TPM’s request to discuss the history of its guns. The company bills itself as the “leading supplier” of AR-15 type rifles in the United States. It makes both aluminum and advanced carbon-fiber-based AR-15s, and its weapons are used, according to the company, by “hundreds of police departments and law enforcement organizations nationwide, by the military of more than 50 countries worldwide.” Several Bushmaster rifles currently advertised on the company’s website appear to meet the reported description of Lanza’s weapon, among them the XM-15 M4-A2 Type Patrolman’s Carbine.
Newtown was not the first time that a .223 Bushmaster rifle has been involved in violence that attracted national attention. In 2004, two survivors and the families of six people killed in 2002 during the Beltway sniper attacks reached a $2.5 million settlement with Bushmaster and Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., the store from which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo stole the Bushmaster XM-15 E2S used in the killings. The Washington Post reported Bushmaster contributed $550,000 of the settlement, and did not admit to any wrongdoing in the case.
Unlike their military cousins — which have three-round burst settings — commercially available AR-15 type rifles like Bushmaster’s are semiautomatic, meaning one bullet per trigger pull. But a little searching on YouTube turns up numerous videos showing how quickly AR-15 type rifles can unload dozens of rounds and even one example of how to turn a “semi-auto into a full-auto machine using a household rubberband!”
One estimate put the number of AR-15 type rifles made in the U.S. and not exported between 1986 and 2012 between 3.3 million and 3.5 million. (From 1994 to 2004, when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was in place, certain semiautomatic rifles were outlawed, but not all of them — including, reportedly, the one used at Newtown.) According to the NRA, meanwhile, nearly half a million AR-15 types were manufactured in the U.S. in 2009. The AR-15 is simply the latest example of a military weapon that has become popular after soldiers returned home, gun advocates say. But there are other reasons for the gun’s current appeal.
Some enthusiasts say AR-15s are popular because of how customizable they are. According to Joseph Olson, a professor at Hamline University School of Law in Minnesota and a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association, the guns are conversation starters at firing ranges. He told TPM he bought a Bushmaster in the early 1990s.
“It’s all cosmetics and it’s all marketing,” Olson said, adding, a bit later: “It’s the American consumer getting what they want.”
Advocates say semi-automatic rifles are also becoming more popular for home defense. A recent article in Guns & Ammo, titled “Long Guns, Short Yardage: Is .223 the Best Home Defense Caliber?,” said sales of AR-15 type rifles “skyrocketed” after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The same article pointed to a 2010 National Shooting Sports Foundation survey which found that the second most popular reason for owning a “modern sporting rifle” — the polite term for semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 types — was home defense. The first was recreational shooting.
Investment money has followed this consumer interest.
In 2006, Bushmaster, which was founded in 1973 in Maine, was bought by Cerberus Capital Management, a New York City-based private equity firm that quickly and quietly became a major force in gun manufacturing in the mid- to late-2000s. Cerberus acquired several other big name gunmakers, including Remington and DPMS Firearms, and brought them together under a new banner of Freedom Group, which emerged so quickly on the gun scene that it inspired conspiracy theories about its intentions.
For the first nine months of this year, Freedom Group reported $677.3 million in sales. In its most recent quarterly report, the company said that “we believe the adoption of the modern sporting rifle has led to increased long-term growth in the long gun market while attracting a younger generation of shooters.” As The New Republic pointed out, the company sells more than a million rifles and shotguns a year, and Wal-Mart accounted for about 13 percent of the company’s total sales.
“In many areas, the market is expanding quicker than the industry can increase production,” the company said in its quarterly report. “Accordingly, our company is experiencing strong demand for modern sporting firearms and handguns, as well as above capacity demand levels for more traditional hunting and target shooting platforms.”
On Tuesday, citing the tragedy in Newtown, Cerberus Capital Management announced it planned to sell its stake in Freedom Group.
Image created by TPM Staff uses Shutterstock photo of an AR-15 by Michael Coddington.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com