American Rifle: A Biography of the AR-15

American Rifle: A Biography of the AR-15

July 12, 2016

Unlike any other nation’s, ours is a history uniquely and inextricably intertwined with guns. Pick any era from our past and you’re likely to find a firearm that speaks to the state of our Republic at the time. But the bargain that America has made with guns has always been a Faustian one. For every gauzy tale of Minutemen bravely firing the first shots of Revolutionary freedom with their Brown Bess muskets at the Battles of Concord and Lexington, there is the less well-told story of slave traders and plantation owners relying on those same weapons to enforce a vast infrastructure of human subjugation. The Winchester repeating rifle, “the gun that won the West,” did so in large part by inflicting massive casualties on Native Americans and helping to forcibly inter them into desolate reservations. The Thompson submachine gun that American G.I.s bravely stormed the beaches of Normandy with to defeat Hitler already had a sordid legacy as the preferred weapon of Prohibition-era gangland violence.

This historical through-line of arms continues to this day. And for the past 50 years, no other single firearm has assumed the mantle of iconic American gun — with all the dire consequences that entails — quite like the AR-15. In its military incarnation — as the M-16 and M-4 automatic rifles — its distinctive silhouette has become an internationally recognized emblem for American power and influence. Here at home, civilian sales of the semi-automatic Colt AR-15 and its many competing knockoffs have skyrocketed in recent years and now total in the millions.

AR-15 by Katesheets

The AR-15’s reach into our nation’s culture is no less remarkable. It’s appeared in hundreds of movies, and even co-starred with Hollywood’s archetype of the American gunfighter, film legend John Wayne. You’ll find its image on T-shirts, flags, and body parts. It’s spawned countless Internet memes. It’s been sold, in toy form, to untold numbers of children. You can buy a working version of the weapon with a pink, Hello Kitty design or in star-spangled, red, white, and blue livery. There are a near infinite number of ways to accessorize and customize it. A Congressman once offered one up as a campaign fundraising prize. (It’s also been banned by Congress—but not really.) It’s increasingly carried as a symbolic totem at protests and counter-protests and its presence among dozens of members of the crowd at last week’s Dallas shooting added to the chaos. And, as perhaps the ultimate signifier of modern-day American status, it now has its own TV show.

The story of the AR-15 is a quintessentially American one. Which is to say it combines the classic elements of war, cheap salesmanship, second chances, bureaucratic incompetence, and a time-honored tradition of trying to squeeze every last dollar out of a deal. From such compromised origins grows a long, checkered history, one where this weapon has often exacted a lethal toll far beyond its makers’ expectations. It’s a deadly dichotomy that began in the jungles of Vietnam and continues to plague Americans here at home to this day.