The Chilling History of the AR-15
Not long ago, I interviewed reporters Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson of The Wall Street Journal about their new book, American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15. I hoped a topical moment to share our interview, which traces how the gun came to be used in mass shootings, wouldn’t arrive for a long time. Alas, a gunman in Maine thought otherwise.
I’ll note that, while the search for the gunman continues, it’s unclear exactly what kind of semi-automatic rifle he used. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can also listen to the audio of our conversation, which includes more tales about the gun’s inventor, the Dr. Strangelove-esque twists to the military’s adoption of the rifle, loopholes in the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and why a new ban today might not be feasible, even if we had a government that would pass one:
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Ben: Cameron and Zusha, thank you so much for being here.
CM: Thanks very much.
ZE: Thanks, Ben.
Ben: Today, I’d like to explore the history of the AR-15 and some of the “unintended social consequences” that followed its invention, to use your words, and to put it mildly.
Let’s start with the AR-15’s inventor. Who was Eugene Stoner, and what led him to develop the gun?
ZE: Eugene Stoner is an unheralded character in American history. He was a very gentle guy living in post-war America, a real family man who didn’t even swear when he got upset.
CM: He'd been in the Marine Corps, stationed in the Pacific during the war. He worked on airplanes, and he wasn’t in combat, so he would futz around with guns in his downtime. In that era, the American armed forces used a rifle called the M1. It was a good gun, but it was heavy. Stoner was always thinking about how to fix it.
ZE: After the war, Stoner kept thinking about this problem, toiling away in his garage and later when working for a company in Los Angeles called ArmaLite. He had no background in gun design, nor a college education, but his lack of training really allowed him to think outside the box. For centuries, gunmakers made rifles out of heavy wood and steel, but Stoner thought, why not make the steel parts out of aluminum?
He had experience building aircraft parts with the material, which was much lighter than steel but still strong. Making the central part of the rifle out of aluminum was the first of a number of Stoner’s innovations that ended up in the AR-15.
Ben: I suppose we should clarify here that “AR” does not stand for assault rifle.
CM: No. Depending on who you listen to, the “AR” stands for ArmaLite or ArmaLite Research. Pioneered by Stoner, the AR-15 was the 15th innovation that ArmaLite created.
ZE: And just to explain the gun a little further, it used (and still uses) tiny, lightweight bullets. ArmaLite first tried testing the bullets on surplus animal products from the local spam factory, but the tests weren’t conclusive, so they got rid of the animal guts —
Ben: — which, if I’m not mistaken, they then sold to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs?
CM: Ha, we weren’t able to confirm that information.
ZE: In any event, ArmaLite started testing shooting at water cans. When shooting with older, larger caliber rifles, the bullet passed right through. When they shot it with the AR-15, the can exploded because when a tiny bullet is fired at a high speed and makes contact with something, it becomes unstable. So it does a lot more damage than you would think it could.
Ben: The gruesomely more efficient level of damage the rifle could unleash was appealing to the military as the Vietnam War ramped up, is that right?
CM: To some extent. There are lots of twists and turns in the story of the government’s adoption of the AR-15. For a time, in fact, it seemed like the AR-15 would fade into obscurity. But then John F. Kennedy was elected president, and he brought in Robert McNamara as secretary of defense. McNamara, who’d worked in the auto industry in Detroit, was intent on bringing industrial-style efficiency to the military, and he was entranced by the potential of the AR-15.
As people in the Pentagon began talking more and more about the gun, they eventually adopted it, calling it the M16. However, they made changes without properly testing them, which ultimately made the guns jam much more frequently. We talked to Marines who to this day hate the M16 because they were so traumatized by their guns jamming in the middle of combat.
Ben: So what was the gun’s reputation like in the States after the war?
CM: Pretty bad. The military made improvements to correct the problems with the gun and kept it because of its inherent design value. Stoner’s patent expired in 1977, and gun companies sold it to civilians as a semi-automatic rifle, meaning each time you pull the trigger one bullet comes out.
But hunters didn't like it. Gun makers would go to conventions and set up their tables and guys would walk by giving them the finger, saying we don't want that kind of gun around here, we’re sportsmen. The only people who were really attracted to it were extremists, to be honest.
Then Stockton started to change things.
ZE: Yes, in 1989, there was a tragic schoolyard shooting in Stockton, California. Using an AK-47 semi-automatic, a shooter opened fire from the edge of a playground where there were many Southeast Asian kids.
Back then, school shootings were not very common, so it really alarmed the nation, and it kicked off a debate over whether these military-style semi-automatics should be further regulated. The debate drew the AR-15 into the political discussion, even though the AR-15 hadn't been used in a lot of mass shootings (yet).
As soon as there was discussion of banning assault weapons — which the Democrat-led government did in 1994 — the AR-15 took on a whole new significance to gun rights activists.
Ben: Despite the fact that there were serious loopholes in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
ZE: Right. The government banned more the form of assault rifles than the function.
So for instance, look at other countries like Australia, which in the ‘90s had a huge mass shooting. They wanted to get rid of guns like the AR-15, so they banned an entire class of semi-automatic rifles, with few exceptions. The US didn't do that.