How a Gun Made for Combat Found Its Way Into Millions of Homes

AMERICAN GUN: The True Story of the AR-15, by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson

As Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson tell it in “American Gun,” the story of the infamous AR-15 rifle is a Frankenstein tale, with a brilliant inventor named Eugene Stoner as Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator. An “amateur tinkerer” without a college degree, Stoner had a restless imagination and an intuitive gift for engineering, prompting him to sketch designs everywhere, including on restaurant tablecloths. As a child in California’s Coachella Valley in the 1920s, he went hunting with his father and became obsessed with “projectiles of all kinds.”

But while Stoner would eventually conceive a world-changing weapon, he could not fathom its potential consequences. He wanted American soldiers to have the most efficient firearm possible, one that could enable them to quickly kill a band of Communists. An account of his monumental achievement and its devastating aftermath makes up the heart of McWhirter and Elinson’s book, a magisterial work of narrative history and original reportage.

By the time of the Korean War, American soldiers were still using the brutally heavy M1, a precision weapon that required eight-round clips and fired large bullets. After an early battle in 1950, when Americans were overwhelmed by a larger North Korean force, it was clear this rifle would no longer do.

Stoner, who had served as a Marine during World War II, had joined a corporation that made aircraft valves, where a design engineer took him under his wing, providing a kind of apprenticeship. His lack of formal education helped make him more creative and less hidebound than his trained colleagues. On his own time, he embarked on a mission in his garage to improve the clunky M1. In 1954, a chance encounter with a wily entrepreneur led to the creation of Armalite, the gun maker that under Stoner’s direction would build the AR-15 and try to get the military to adopt it.

The rapid-fire weapon was composed of aluminum, fiberglass and plastic, and weighed about five pounds unloaded. It had a novel reloading system that functioned on the gun’s own hot gas, and a unique stock that kept the gun on target. It could toggle between semiautomatic and fully automatic settings. Its bullets were small and fired at high velocity. When one hit a human body, the authors write, “it slowed down and released its energy.” Unlike the M1’s large-caliber bullet, which tended to pass straight through a person, the AR-15’s became unstable upon entry, and “tore through the body like a tornado, spiraling and tipping as it obliterated organs, blood vessels and bones.”

Despite the weapon’s evident ferocity, Armalite failed to land a big military contract. In 1959, the gun company Colt acquired manufacturing and sublicensing rights to Stoner’s AR-15 and his gas system. Colt had better luck with its version of the rifle, which the armed forces called the M16. It came equipped with a 20-round magazine, and in 1966, the military ordered more than 400,000 of the guns for its troops.

In calm, precise language that allows the authors’ exhaustive research to shine through, “American Gun” makes clear that the AR-15’s primary function was to massacre the enemy as expeditiously as possible. The gun did not have a civilian application. That didn’t stop Colt from marketing to hunters a semiautomatic version — the “Sporter” — that carried a five-round magazine. The gun did not catch on, and the company produced only a few thousand a year. But the ground shifted in 1977, when Stoner’s patent expired.

McWhirter and Elinson, reporters at The Wall Street Journal, unspool the second half of their story with admirable restraint; you can feel the tension building one cold, catastrophic fact at a time. A door is cracked, and the first opportunists squeeze through. They envision dollar signs, not casualties — bodies maimed beyond recognition. Social responsibility does not figure in their calculus, only the mechanics of making a weapon that is cheap and simple to mass-produce.

In the late 1980s, the AR-15 showed up in California gang wars and shootouts with the police. A national push to ban it and similar weapons ensued, bringing the firearm to widespread public attention and turning it into a potent political symbol. In 1994, an assault weapons ban was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The statute, which also prohibited magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds, did not apply to weapons and accessories already in circulation. Moreover, it contained a 10-year sunset clause, which, the authors reveal, the bill’s Democratic sponsors foolishly added before legislative bargaining even began. The law was not only doomed to failure, but, this book demonstrates, made matters worse.

Among the authors’ feats of reportage was getting gun company executives and entrepreneurs to speak candidly on the record, a virtually unprecedented achievement. As one put it, referring to the ban: “Every clause they had, I would come up with a workaround or a counter.” Gun makers made tiny modifications to the AR-15 that met the letter of the law without affecting the gun’s performance. Production and demand jumped, as did profits.

With the approach of Y2K, and widespread fear of societal breakdown and mayhem, sales soared. Such paranoia, gun executives realized, was readily exploitable: “During the panics there’s a lot of money to be made,” one told McWhirter and Elinson. Another reoriented his company’s business strategy around what the authors call “erratic demand.” Instead of manufacturing weapons year round, the company outsourced the production of parts, adjusting orders as needed. “All we did was assemble,” the executive said. “It was a nice model.”

The paranoia market expanded after 9/11. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then further embedded the AR-15 in the American imagination. This was the rifle of heroes, an association made explicit by gun companies. During the three decades before the ban, the authors write, the industry produced 400,000 AR-15-style rifles. During the 10-year prohibition, the number climbed to nearly 900,000. While other firearm sales lagged, the rifle had the “wannabe factor,” as the head of commercial sales at the manufacturer Sig Sauer put it, adding: “People want to be a Special Forces guy.”

After the ban ended, in 2004, the door burst open. A gun enthusiast who was the chief executive of a private equity firm entered the market, and, with a company called Freedom Group, flooded the country with AR-15-style guns. McWhirter and Elinson obtained internal documents from Freedom Group, including a “confidential” memo by the marketing team arguing for allowing the company’s guns to be featured in violent video games as a way to help “create brand preference among the next generation who experiences these games.” In an email, a company executive marveled at how well this strategy seemed to work.

As “American Gun” careers toward its inevitable conclusion, it is tempting to look away. The authors recount mass shootings as they increase in frequency and deadliness, from the 2012 shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School to Parkland, Uvalde and on and on. At Sandy Hook, a police officer entered a small bathroom, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. “After a moment, he realized it was the face of a little boy, lying on top of a pile,” the authors write. “A pile of what? He looked down. He was looking at a pile of children.”

The day the Sandy Hook funerals began, Freedom Group’s board of directors held an emergency meeting, voting to acquire a gun barrel manufacturer that would make the company’s AR-15 rifles even more profitable. Sandy Hook “was an awful horrific huge tragedy,” Freedom Group’s chief executive later remarked in a deposition, “but its impact on the long-term capital decisions of the business were not — were not a factor.”

By the end of 2021, Americans owned more than 20 million AR-15-style weapons, a fiftyfold increase in just 25 years. With commanding authority, “American Gun” lays out the unvarnished truth about an industry where the conversion of fear into profit, along with an ever-mounting civilian body count, causes few pangs of conscience. Policymakers and the public alike have much to learn from it.

AMERICAN GUN: The True Story of the AR-15 | By Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson | 473 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $32

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