Jim Corbet was a building contractor with way more free time than business in 2011, as the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis took hold in his hometown of McCall, Idaho.
Corbet was also an amateur machinist and firearms enthusiast and he noticed fellow shooters gravitating toward one semi-automatic rifle in particular – the AR-15. So he set up shop in his garage and started tinkering with designs.
Eight years later, his business, Unique ARs, employs 10 people at a warehouse factory that churns out thousands of AR-15 rifles and accessories each year destined for customers all over the country and the world. It’s one of the scores of companies, large and small, that have helped make the AR the most popular rifle in America. As the name suggests, Corbet’s company specializes in custom rifles built to individual specifications.
“It’s the most universal rifle platform that’s ever been manufactured,” Corbet said. “Because there is such a standardized way it’s been built, it can be reconfigured very easily.”
‘The Harley Of Rifles’
A series of Space Force-themed hand guards at Unique ARs, an Idaho company that specializes in custom AR rifles. An estimated 16 million AR rifles are in civilian hands in America.
Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
There’s no more beloved gun in the country than the AR. Dubbed “America’s Rifle” by the NRA, it’s inexpensive, easy to use, deadly accurate and, perhaps most importantly, customizable.
Corbet likens the AR to a Harley Davidson – the first thing people do when they get one is start adding and swapping accessories to make it their own. Each piece of an AR-15 — the magazine, the upper, the lower, the receiver, the stock — can be swapped out or given a new paint job. He said he gets requests for homages to dead friends, dead pets, even one design that incorporated knitting needles.
“Every time I think, ‘This is the most ridiculous thing,’ somebody ups the ante,” he said.
AR owners seem eager to keep pushing the boundaries of wild designs.
A trip down the rabbit hole of Instagram’s #ar15build hashtag reveals some wild designs, from a rainbow hued He-Man skin to a magazine painted with a Gatorade logo that reads “Haterade” and clips into a skull.
Jerry Frederick shows off one of two personalized AR rifles he had built by Unique ARs, an Idaho company that specializes in custom AR rifles. The AR has become the most popular rifle in America and one of the most controversial.
Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
Idahoan Jerry Frederick owns two custom rifles from Unique ARs that are unlike any others in the world. The former drill sergeant and retired police officer points to a pair of black rifles, an AR-15 and an AR-10, with similar designs featuring Frederick’s last name engraved on the handguard in a classic, stylized font.
“This is one I designed,” Frederick explained. Pointing to an image of a torch and a breastplate on the barrel, he continued “There’s only a few people in the United States Army that get issued that patch. That’s a drill sergeant patch.”
Each one of Frederick’s rifles has a serial number ending in “01” — meaning it’s one of very few made — a fact he’s quick to point out. They’re engraved with a waving American flag design and a gold oval seal with the drill sergeant’s symbol etched into the metal.
Even the grip is special – it forms to Frederick’s hand and can instantly be reshaped to form to another hand. One gun dealer told Frederick the set could be worth $100,000 because of all of the customizations, but he says he’s not in the market to sell.
“It’s the only one like this. I’m really proud of that and obviously I’m not going to sell them,” Frederick said. “It will go to someone in my family.”
David Yamane is a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture. Speaking from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, the gun industry’s largest annual showcase, he said the AR’s impact was clear.
“I don’t think there’s any single product category that is more represented at the SHOT Show,” he said. “So when people say it’s ‘America’s gun’ at least [from] what’s represented at the gun industry’s trade show, that seems to be clearly the case.”
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry, Americans own up to 16 million ARs and similar “modern sporting rifles,” as the foundation calls that class of gun. Production has exploded in the past few years, hitting an estimated 2.1 million in 2016, excluding exports.
And while gun sales often spike during election years, 2016 sales represented nearly a two-fold increase over the year before.
Contrary to popular belief, AR stands for Armalite Rifle, not “assault rifle.” The Armalite company first developed the rifle in the 1950s to sell to the military but eventually sold the design to Colt. The 15 stands for model 15. There are also AR-10s, which are essentially the same gun with a different caliber.
The AR-15 as we know it, developed as the semi-automatic version of the military’s automatic M16.
It’s the most popular civilian rifle in America. That is partly due to its accuracy and lack of recoil; the rifle barely moves when you pull the trigger, unlike many other rifles that kick back hard against a shooter’s shoulder.
But what really sets it apart from other guns is that owners can add just about anything to it: a flashlight, a suppressor, custom grips. Even AR pistols are popular, though there are specific modifications needed to keep them legal. Add custom engraving, a specialty of Corbet’s company, and the guns start to resemble a fashion statement as much as a weapon.
“We wanted it to be so custom that you can have your name on it, your logo on it, your tattoo that you have on your arm, we can do that,” he said. “That’s what we set out to do, to make it as personal as you want it.”
ARs In The Crosshairs Again
The elements that make the rifle so popular also make it a flashpoint in the gun control debate.
ARs are so ubiquitous these days, it’s easy to forget they were largely outlawed just 15 years ago.
The rifles were included in the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (officially the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act). That act prohibited the production of several different types of semi-automatic rifles for civilian use, though existing weapons were grandfathered in.
But that legislation expired in 2004.
Even during the 10-year ban, there was one group still purchasing ARs: law enforcement agencies.
“This is a weapon that our military used,” said retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agent David Chipman. “The Colt AR-15 is the weapon I was issued on ATF’s SWAT team.”
Chipman spent 25 years as a special agent with the ATF and is now a senior policy adviser at the gun control advocacy group Giffords.
Chipman and others advocating for stricter gun regulations point to the AR’s effectiveness as a law enforcement weapon as one reason they want see its civilian use restricted.
He would like to see ARs treated like machine guns, which are federally regulated and require a special tax and background check.
“These weapons are as lethal as the fully automatic machine guns that we require registration with ATF and so it makes sense to me that we would want to regulate them just like machine guns,” Chipman said.
One of the early bills Democrats introduced after regaining control of the U.S. House is a new ban on so-called assault weapons, which followed a similar Senate bill from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Corbet, owner of Unique ARs, isn’t in favor of tightening gun restrictions and he sees going after ARs as purely symbolic.
“If you truly want to go after the gun, go after the one that causes the most violence,” he said.
With Republicans in control of the Senate and White House, manufacturers like Corbet have little to worry about for now. But they know that could shift with the political winds.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.