‘American Gun’ traces history of AR-15 from invention to mass shootings

Book grew out of journalists’ reporting for the Wall Street Journal.
Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Red Summer,” speaks to the crowd during the Jubilee Day celebration Wednesday, January 1, 2020, at Rainbow Park Baptist Church in Decatur. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Red Summer,” speaks to the crowd during the Jubilee Day celebration Wednesday, January 1, 2020, at Rainbow Park Baptist Church in Decatur. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The road to Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, scene of the worst school massacre in American history, began in the suburban sprawl of Southern California suburbs in the late 1950s. It was there that Eugene Stoner, a quintessential American type — weekend tinkerer, scribbler of napkins — became obsessed with inventing a new kind of rifle that would be known as the AR-15.

“There’s a big American story here that starts in the Cold War,” says Cameron McWhirter, the Atlanta-based co-author of the new book “American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15″ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $32).

“How did we get from this kooky unknown inventor working in his garage to this gun that millions of Americans think is a symbol of the Second Amendment and millions of other Americans think is a despicable symbol of a gun-crazed culture?”

McWhirter, a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and his co-author Zusha Elinson are reporters for the Wall Street Journal; their book grew out of research they did for a 2018 Journal article on the little-known history of the AR-15.

Along the way, the story runs through early Army tests at what was then Fort Benning (now renamed Fort Moore), controversies in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, years of debate over gun control, macho marketing slogans and even a cameo by the Duke himself, John Wayne, who was the first “civilian” to fire the gun, after he invited himself into the lab that was building them.

“This is the story of America,” says McWhirter. “That’s why we call the book ‘American Gun’.”

In booming Southern California in the late 50s, Disneyland, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Scientology were all new, and television was dominated by Westerns like “The Rifleman” and “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Every little boy in America owned a toy gun or rifle.

Bow-tied, bespectacled machinist Eugene Stoner, a World War II vet, was convinced he could improve on the Army’s heavy M1 rifle by creating a rifle that was lighter weight, easy to use and could fire and reload rapidly.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“The core of the book is the story of this brilliant invention and the horrific unintended consequences of that invention,” McWhirter says. “Every invention that catches on immediately leaves the inventor’s hands. And there is no better study of that than Eugene Stoner.”

A company called Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation thought his designs showed promise and set up a new subsidiary, ArmaLite, and hired Stoner. The AR-15 was named for the company; 15 was the model number.

When the U.S. Army eventually began using it, they designated it the M16, because it was the 16th model of the infantry rifle. But getting the Army to accept a clearly superior weapon was astonishingly difficult, according to “American Gun.”

“The bureaucratic machinations that went on to quash this gun were extraordinary,” McWhirter says. “And yet it kept coming back because elements of the military knew they needed a gun like this in Vietnam.”

The old Army brass favored marksmen who shot big guns over long distances. But Army studies showed that in combat, “it’s really just a bunch of terrified guys blasting away at each other. And whoever shoots the most lead wins,” says McWhirter. A rapid-fire gun that was easy to shoot and reload was far preferable.

In addition, the smaller bullets proved to have a surprising benefit. When the Army tested the AR-15 on goats and pigs, the bullets became unstable on contact and would tumble end over end in the bodies and cause much greater tissue damage than the large bullets the Army had been using. Years later, instead of goats and pigs, that massive tissue damage would be inflicted on schoolchildren, church-goers, mall shoppers.

McWhirter and Elinson went to gun ranges and fired different kinds of weapons to help them write “American Gun.”

“The bottom line is, I can take your grandma out to a range with an AR-15 and she’ll feel like she’s an expert,” McWhirter says. “You feel like a hot shot.”

After Vietnam, the AR-15 became the weapon of choice in lots of non-combat situations. In the early ‘70s, some Americans bought the guns here and shipped them to the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. A few years later, a growing white nationalist subculture embraced the rifle after “The Turner Diaries,” a dystopian novel that radicalized many in the right-wing militia movement, sported a cover of a woman holding an AR-15. When federal agents raided David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas, it was because he was amassing parts for an arsenal of AR-15s.

Then came the mass shootings: Columbine; the Aurora movie theater in Denver; the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida; an outdoor concert in Las Vegas; L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh; and, of course, Newtown, Connecticut, home to Sandy Hook, where the killer fired 154 rounds from an AR-15 in less than five minutes, killing 20 people, the majority of whom were 6- and 7-year-olds.

Not all the gunmen used AR-15s, but so many did that the gun became a symbol to both sides in the gun debate, recognizable just by its silhouette on a bumper sticker, like a celebrity who’s known by just one name.

National passions on both sides run so hot about guns, and the AR-15 in particular, McWhirter expects the book will be pulled into the culture wars. But he hopes readers will experience it as the definitive history the authors intended and learn from it.

“We really tried hard not to provide simplistic answers or take a side,” he says. “I don’t want people to read this book and say, ‘This is an anti-gun book’ or ‘This is pro-gun book.’ I want them to say, ‘This is an anti-mass shooting book.’

“I want them to say this is an important history that needed to be told. And that from that, we’re gonna have to find compromises. There’s no simple answer. People are going to have to look beyond what they would consider politically comfortable and find real solutions based on a historical understanding of how we got here.

“These guns are here, and we need to figure out a way to deal with them. Providing the history will help us formulate real answers to a very serious problem.”


“American Gun” talk with Cameron McWhirter

7-8:10 p.m. Oct. 12. Free. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta. americangunbook.com.