Analysis | Flannel, muddy girl camo and man cards. See the ads used to sell the AR-15.

AR-15 magazine collage

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The Colt AR-15 looked more like a laser blaster than dad’s trusty rifle when it hit the market in 1964.

It was made from aluminum and plastic, not the heavier metals and wood used in traditional firearms. Its cartridges were tiny compared with typical hunting ammunition. And it was all black — a dour monochrome far from the rich walnut accentuating many guns at the time.

American Icon

A series examining the AR-15, a weapon with a singular hold on a divided nation

Colt acquired the AR-15 patent and trademark from Armalite in 1959. The patent expired, leaving many companies to produce their own weapons, commonly called AR-style rifles. While Colt still holds the trademark, “AR-15” has become a ubiquitous term for a popular style of gas-operated, magazine-fed semiautomatic rifles. For this reason, we refer to the rifle broadly as the AR-15 in this series.

In short, the AR-15 presented a litany of challenges for those tasked with trying to sell it.

Many gun enthusiasts and industry executives were initially skeptical that an offshoot of a weapon originally designed for combat could sell in a marketplace focused on extolling the virtues of rifles for hunting and handguns for self-defense.

But in the ensuing decades, the AR-15 would become a powerful symbol for whoever invoked it, from gun-control advocates decrying it as a preferred tool for mass killers to gun owners who championed it as the pinnacle of Second Amendment rights.

Through it all, the gun also became a point of emphasis for gun companies that turned to tactical weapons as an emerging and lucrative market.

An examination of the ads used to sell the AR-15, from the 1960s until today, reveals how the gun industry followed social and cultural changes as it sought to broaden the appeal of an unusually polarizing consumer product.

This analysis is based on a review of more than 400 advertisements, catalogue entries, brochures, social media posts and other messages produced by gun manufacturers and ad agencies. Many of the ads appeared in gun-oriented publications, including American Rifleman and Guns & Ammo — and some have been cited over the years in lawsuits and Federal Trade Commission complaints filed by victims of gun crimes or their families. The Washington Post sought additional analysis from experts on the intersection of marketing and culture.

The ads show how an industry attuned to public opinion across the decades, particularly among its heavily conservative customer base, has heralded the AR-15 as a weekend toy, an effective tool for hunting and home defense, and an expression of masculine energy — at times, all at once. Frequent images of police and soldiers wielding tactical rifles in the field urged civilian buyers to, as one ad put it, “use what they use.”

Unless otherwise noted, gunmakers whose ads appear in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

A modest debut

The industry’s initial advertising messages often sought to portray the AR-15 as an enhancement for hunters and others who used their guns for recreation.

The earliest ad reviewed by The Post was a 1964 clipping from Guns magazine in which Colt pitched its AR-15 Sporter.

The ad suggested “this is part of what you already do,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor and director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, who is at work on a book about gun politics and culture.

“… you’re ready for a new hunting adventure.”

“… weighs only six pounds.”

“If you’re a hunter, camper, or collector …”

“… you’re ready for a new hunting adventure.”

“… weighs only six pounds.”

​​“If you’re a hunter, camper, or collector …”

1964, Colt (Guns magazine)

  1. ​​“… you’re ready for a new hunting adventure.”
  2. ​​“… weighs only six pounds.”
  3. ​​“If you’re a hunter, camper or collector …”

The focus on hunting was premature, Reeher said. Early rifles were inaccurate for varmint hunting, and the newly developed .223 cartridge was too slight for bigger game. The rifle did not yet have an identity. One had to be crafted.

Colt was “fumbling around, looking for the angle to take,” Reeher said.

Yet soon after launch, Colt would get a boost of legitimacy from the Vietnam War. The company’s AR-15 was the civilian variant of the M16 rifle, which the U.S. military adopted as its service rifle, and the conflict helped popularize both weapons.

“Now you can buy a hot new combat rifle for sport,” Popular Science wrote in early 1965, welcoming the new AR-15.

Despite reliability problems of the M16 voiced by soldiers in the late 1960s that triggered congressional inquiries, Colt and other companies continued to highlight the AR-15’s military progeny as a growing part of the weapon’s cultural identity.

“The Sporter looks like, feels like, and performs like its military cousin,” Colt said in a 1977 brochure.

Promoted as protector

As public concerns about crime mounted in the 1980s and 1990s, manufacturers drifted from a focus on hunting and outdoor imagery to emphasizing self-defense and law enforcement themes. The shift coincided with moves by numerous states to expand the rights of residents to carry concealed weapons, helping transform gun culture into one centered on personal protection, studies have shown.

AR-15 marketers started to adjust their depiction of what was on the receiving end of the barrel.

“People, rather than animals, were the target,” Reeher said. “That allows it to be sold more as a self-defense weapon, particularly inside the home.”

“… family of weapons used by law enforcement and military forces …”

“… eliminates hours of training and familiarization …”

“… family of weapons used by law enforcement and military forces …”

“… eliminates hours of training and familiarization …”

1985, Colt (Colt Catalog)

  1. “… family of weapons used by law enforcement and military forces …”
  2. “… eliminates hours of training and familiarization …”

While police officers became a fixture in AR-15 ads, gunmakers also chose images that suggested professional-grade weapons were necessary for civilians seeking protection from violent crime.

One print ad for Stag Arms rifles spoke to police and prospective buyers. “When you go Stag, you’re not alone,” it read, showing what appears to be a nighttime crime scene.

According to experts, police imagery has the additional effect of conferring increased legitimacy.

“It signals the practical benefit to the consumer and the sort of symbolic benefit,” said Aimee Huff, an associate professor at Oregon State University specializing in marketing and gun culture.

A second chance

The 2004 expiration of the federal assault weapons ban, which for 10 years had prohibited the sale of many AR-15s, gave the gun industry a chance for a reinvention. Some manufacturers, seeking to reintroduce the AR-15, latched on to tactical imagery and phrasing, inventing jargon along the way.

“The introduction of distinctive colors and patterns, decorative handguards, and models like Panther Arms’ ‘Sportical,’ which incorporated multiple features that appeal to sport shooters buying their first AR, are all examples of efforts to differentiate from the competition,” said Michelle Barnhart, an associate professor who researches gun culture and marketing at Oregon State University.

Other companies boasted about their ability to shape their products, such as the now-defunct Sabre Defence, which said in a 2008 print ad that “we don’t simply assemble our rifles, we also craft key pieces that go into them.”

“It’s one of the ways Sabre Defence stood out from its competition,” said Sarah Mota, the director of operations at New Empire Industries, the company that acquired Sabre’s holdings.

Gun advertising in the last decade and a half has also increased its focus on capturing the female shooter market. Often that would include a twist on traditional gender associations, like Colt’s pink hue that it coined “muddy girl camo.”

The turn has been apparent in recent years at National Rifle Association conventions, Barnhart said. “The exhibition floor included an abundance of promotional imagery featuring women wielding AR-15-style rifles,” she said.

In the shadow of war

The sunset of the assault weapons ban in 2004 allowed another way to channel military valorization unleashed by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prompting gunmakers and accessory companies to add tactical appeal to their wares, Huff said. Austere combat environments became common backdrops in ads for AR-15s and accessories, and rifles once sold almost exclusively in black became available in desert tan and foliage green.

The bearded commando decked out in tactical gear emerged as a potent pop culture image, playing a central role in video games like the Call of Duty series and box office smashes like “Lone Survivor.”

“It’s no accident that when you get to the 2000s, you’re seeing people in uniform over and over again,” Reeher said. The Special Operations raid to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was a key moment in the development, and after that, “everybody wanted to be a Navy SEAL.”

Gunmakers seized on the fantasy. In 2012, Daniel Defense produced an ad featuring a short-barreled rifle using a rail system for attaching accessories that the company says is designed for Special Operations Command.

“… military adopted …”

“Whether you are patrolling a foreign land, the city streets, or your own home …”

“Always made in the USA”

“… military adopted …”

“Whether you are patrolling a foreign land, the city streets, or your own home …”

“Always made in the USA”

2012, Daniel Defense (Daniel Defense’s Facebook)

  1. ​​“… military-adopted …”
  2. “Whether you are patrolling a foreign land, the city streets, or your own home …”
  3. “Always made in the USA”

The advertisement then links the AR-15 with the country’s overseas wars, showing how a weapon first described as a hunter’s tool was now being presented as the everything rifle.

“Whether you are patrolling a foreign land, the city streets, or your own home,” the ad said, “your rifle can’t let you down.”

A message of masculinity

Bushmaster presented a problem and a solution for men concerned about evolving notions of gender when it launched its ad campaign: “Consider your man card reissued.”

The advertisement, which ran in magazines including the men’s publication Maxim, is notable for the placement of the rifle itself. Firearms in ads are typically shown flat with the barrel pointing in an innocuous direction, Huff said. But in this ad, the rifle is canted toward the audience and pointed left, positioning that, according to Huff, suggests conflict.

“The text and the imagery clearly signal power and vaguely implicate some enemy that the gun user needs to employ their masculinity against,” Huff said.

“If it’s good enough for the professional, it’s good enough for you …”

“If it’s good enough for the professional, it’s good enough for you …”

2009, Bushmaster (Maxim magazine)

  1. “If it’s good enough for the professional, it’s good enough for you.”

The ad drew widespread scrutiny in 2012 after a gunman slaughtered 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., using a Bushmaster like the one in the image. It became a centerpiece exhibit in a lawsuit against Bushmaster owner Remington Arms filed by the families of survivors that challenged how it marketed guns. The company settled for $73 million in 2022.

Other advertisements tapped into masculinity in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Smith & Wesson declared its M&P 15-22 could help you “kick brass” and save money firing the more economical .22 cartridge.

Self-defense and defending loved ones are keystone desires for many gun owners, said Barnhart, with Oregon State. That often translates to a traditional social norm of men as strong protectors shepherding family values, she said.

In a social media post published by Daniel Defense in May, a child holds an AR-15-style pistol in his lap as an arm wearing what appears to be a man’s watch — presumably that of a father — gestures to him. An ammunition magazine is nearby. The caption, taken from a Bible verse, reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The ad could be interpreted as “you need to teach this kid how to use this firearm so he can defend himself in the future,” Barnhart said.

Daniel Defense was widely criticized for the image, which was tweeted a week before a gunman used one of the company’s rifles to carry out a massacre at a school in Uvalde, Tex., killing 21. The company took the ad down soon after. Marty Daniel, who last month stepped down as the chief executive of Daniel Defense, told lawmakers in July that the post meant to convey gun safety. “We took it down because children had just been killed and we didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said.

Even some gun advocates may have felt the inclusion of a child went too far, Reheer said.

“There is a lot going on with this one, for people to despise and like,” he said.

About this story

Reporting by Alex Horton. Additional reporting and photo editing by Monique Woo. Top illustration credits: Bushmaster ad via Maxim magazine (2009); Sig Sauer ad via American Rifleman magazine (2012); Mossberg ad via American Rifleman magazine (2017); Smith & Wesson ad via American Rifleman magazine (2010).

Design and development by Tucker Harris. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar.

Editing by Karly Domb Sadof, Peter Wallsten and Wendy Galietta. Additional editing by Kim Chapman and Jordan Melendrez.

Additional support from Courtney Beesch, Kyley Schultz, Angel Mendoza, Brandon Carter, Ashleigh Wilson, Anna Lefkowitz, Madison Walls and Matt Callahan.

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