WaPo's history of AR-15 ads falls flat

Editor’s note: Today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co was recorded before news broke of the school shooting in Nashville, so it is not mentioned or referenced in today’s program.


The Washington Post released a 10-part(!) series on the AR-15 on Monday, and we’ll be digging into the paper’s reporting (and anti-gun advocacy) here at Bearing Arms over the next couple of days, starting with its “analysis” of nearly 50 years of advertisements for the AR-15.

The Post’s shallow dive into the history of marketing AR-15s misses the mark in many ways, particularly if the paper’s goal was to portray the industry’s marketing of modern sporting rifles as something nefarious. As the paper inadvertently details, from the beginning the utility of the MSR was a key selling feature, even as consumer concerns shifted from hunting to self-defense over the decades.

There’s little real analysis in the Post’s reporting, which the paper says was 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.” Given that we’re talking about a nearly 60-year time frame, those 400 ads and other marketing material represent a blip in the overall number of ads produced by the firearms industry, and the WaPo story ultimately only highlights eight ads altogether. Even with that incredibly selective collection, the paper’s attempt to portray the firearms ads as somehow nefarious falls flat. Take this ad from that the Post says comes from a 1985 Colt catalogue; an ad that according to the WaPo writers was part of a shift “from a focus on hunting and outdoor imagery to emphasizing self-defense and law enforcement themes.”


Here’s the thing: this ad (or rather, catalogue page) wasn’t aimed at the civilian market. The copy for the advertisement makes that abundantly clear from the get-go when it talks about the 9mm carbine being “the most practical way to broaden your police department’s selection of calibers.”

Maybe there are ads from the 1980s that are much more open in stating “Wanna be like a cop but don’t want a badge? Buy our guns!” If they’re out there, however, they apparently weren’t a part of the 400 pieces of marketing material supposedly viewed by the Post, because there’s nothing remotely that explicit in the ads highlighted by the Washington Post.

What really stands out in the few ads that the Post chose to focus on, at least for me, is that despite decades of anti-gun activists claiming that AR-15s and other modern sporting rifles are only designed for mass murder or military use, from the outset AR-15s have been marketed as hunting rifles. Here’s the very first ad for a Colt AR-15 from 1964, with “helpful” annotations added by the Post.

And here’s an ad for DPMS Panther Arms (along with the Post’s notes) almost 50 years later, in 2011.

Terrifying stuff, isn’t it?  “Resist the norm”? Marketing to *gasp* women??? Oh, the horror.

If the WaPo was trying to bolster Joe Biden’s “request” that the Federal Trade Commission investigate the marketing practices of the firearms industry, I don’t think they did the anti-gunner-in-chief any favors. Far some demonstrating that the industry has been engaged in shady practices or preys on fear in order to sell their products, the paper has demonstrated that from the beginning modern sporting rifles have been marketed as the next generation of rifle, period. MSR’s have certainly grown in popularity since their introduction in the 1960s, but that makes sense. Just as semi-automatic handguns have surpassed revolvers as the most common handguns sold, modern sporting rifles have overtaken traditional rifles in popularity thanks to their durability, modularity, lighter weight, safety features, and accuracy.


Wake Forest sociologist and “Gun Culture 2.0” advocate David Yamane isn’t that impressed with the Post’s story either, or its assertion that the firearms industry’s use of military or police images is promoting mass murder.

If nothing else, the Post’s story is a reminder that AR-15s have been with us for a lot longer than the many gun banners realize. These “modern battlefield weapons of war” have actually been on the civilian market since the Beatles were playing the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a revolutionary design at the time, but almost 60-years after they were first brought on the market modern sporting rifles have become the industry standard for most consumers; not because the gun lobby has brainwashed them into buying ARs but because the advances in technology make them a better fit for many of us. There’ll always be a place for “old fashioned” rifles, but despite the Post’s protests we’re not going backwards when it comes to the arms we the people are keeping and bearing, and the modern sporting rifle is here to stay.


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