Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, seems to have a simple job: find the hint of a fact, and abuse it to craft bizarre anti-gun fiction. Such was the case in “The Collapse of the AR-15 Assault Weapon Market,” Sugarmann’s recent Huffington Post article.
The article brought guffaws of laughter or outright mockery from gun bloggers, who found the closure of KBI/Charles Daly not to be evidence of a market in decline, but an example of a company with a questionable reputation for quality failing to survive even during a seller’s market.
It is absurd for anyone to ever cite the failing of a new and minor player in an industry segment as evidence of the collapse of the entire market, and it isn’t very intelligent to take the claims of outbound corporate officers at face value when they place the blame elsewhere for their company’s collapse. KBI/Charles Daly tried to jump into a market segment with which it had no experience, mistimed their entry into the market, and misjudged their niche. It collapsed as a result.
But is there any truth to the claim that the AR-15 market is in decline? Yes … and no. It depends very much on who you speak with in the crowded world of the “black rifle.”
The AR has been around in various guises since the late 1950s, with its most famous variants being the selective-fire M16 rifle and M4 carbine used by militaries around the world. The semi-automatic civilian version is extremely popular with both civilians and law enforcement. Its modular design allows for near endless customization, and it can be found in SWAT lockers and hunting cabins alike.
By far the most common basic variant sold over the past 18 months is the carbine version of the rifle that features a 16″ barrel and a 6-position-adjustable stock. No doubt favored by returning military veterans and admirers of military equipment, the carbine closely resembles the compact M4 favored by the U.S. Army and some Marine units. These so-called “M4-geries” are sold by dozens of gun companies at varying price levels and they form the backbone of the market.
Tom Spithaler is sales director for Olympic Arms, one of the larger and more commonly stocked AR manufacturers. When I spoke with him, the message seemed mixed.
The market for the AR15 is not collapsing. It has collapsed …. when you compare them to the artificially inflated numbers we saw over the last year and a half due to the election of Obama. That aside sales are VERY good. .. They are not what they were just after the election, but they are still very good. We (Olympic Arms) are always able to weather these peaks and valleys better than other brand names as we truly manufacture what we sell. For us, it is just a matter of changing focus from one type of AR to another.
What Spithaler confirmed as a market collapse was entirely relative; sales of Olympic Arm rifles are down from the dizzying pace at the height of the rush, but sales are still higher than they were in the months leading up to the 2008 elections.Stag Arms, a manufacturer that builds ARs for both right- and left-handed shooters, states that “collapse” is too harsh a word. Like Olympic, Stag has seen sales return to pre-election levels. Arthur Steadman at ArmaLite says that their operation is also faring well.
Like the bigger names, niche-market AR builders have seen sales affected by the surge and decline of market forces, and each responds differently.
Richard Falen of Quality Arms of Idaho reports his sales increasing 30%-40% per month even now for his smaller shop which specializes in a handful of specific AR models. This is due in no small measure to having lower overhead and being able to charge lower prices than some of the larger and much better known brands. In Tennessee, Jim Ruiz of Predator Custom Shop was thankful for the rush on ARs in the past year while it lasted, but was even more thankful that he specializes in long range accurized bolt-action rifles that have been the bulk of his business since the lower and mid-range of the market become flooded with inexpensive rifles.
Patriot Ordnance Factory is a high-end manufacturer of an AR variant that uses a gas-piston system that enables their rifles to run cooler and longer than the traditional AR gas system. It has also developed a more robust .308 caliber weapons-system based on a forerunner of the AR-15, the AR-10. While still selling the AR-based P415 rifles, their P308 is in very high demand.
Indeed, it seems that while “bargain bin” M4 clones are presently in decline, there is a building market for AR variants, such as rifles in different calibers than the standard 5.56NATO/.223 Remington.
Ben Triplett of Bison Armory runs a specialized “semi-custom shop” dedicated to selling high-end AR barrels and upper receivers (the more expensive top half of the gun) in just one caliber, 6.8 SPC. That a builder can be successful building and selling half of a gun, in a non-standard caliber, suggests that something else may be at play in the market.
A conversation with Michael Curlett of Sabre Defence seemed to confirm what most manufacturers, builders, and custom shops were seeing from their own unique perspectives. In general, it seems to be the smaller builders who assemble “vanilla” M4 variants from parts they buy from others who are suffering from the deflation of the AR market bubble, but the “bubble” is far from burst.
In fact, gun buyers that purchased ARs for the first time in the past year seem to have fallen in love with the design. Instead of buying a second basic model, however, they are returning to the market in search of more refined and specialized variants, or variants in other calibers. The market, instead of collapsing, seems to be transforming.
Josh Sugarmann may be right in that we’re seeing a leveling off of sales of the more utilitarian AR designs, but considering the attention being lavished on high-end competition-focused carbines, tactical rifles, and hunting models, claiming that this evolving and growing market is in collapse is an exercise in self-deception.