“Barrett is hoping to widen his lead with a helping hand from the State Department, which recently gave him the okay to sell rifles to civilians in Europe, a market that was off-limits under the Clinton Administration. He is also working on interchangeable components that can turn the .50-caliber semiautomatic into a grenade launcher. That one’s for the military alone. For now.”
—”Size Matters,” Forbes, 1 October 2001237
The American gun industry has been in trouble for decades. Despite the chronic record of death and injury that firearms inflict on America—far exceeding those of any nation in history not at war—the industry’s markets are, in fact, stagnant at best, fading at worst. Hunting is slowly evaporating as a sport. More and more of the general public are repelled by guns, seeing them as either weapons of crime or dangerous toys owned only by a shrinking minority of Americans. As a result, the civilian firearms market is becoming smaller and more concentrated.cc It is also becoming older, facing the permanent loss of past customers, as described in a recent industry magazine:
I woke up one morning at this year’s SHOT Show, looked in the mirror, and saw the future of the shooting and hunting business staring back at me. It was not a pretty sight. Just like the majority of your customers—the hunters and shooters of America—I’m getting older.238
People in the gun industry are keenly aware of these mordant facts. Like any other mature industry hemmed in by static markets, it prizes innovation. Those who innovate survive a bit longer. Those who do not fall by the wayside. Thus, gun manufacturers are constantly searching for new designs and new niche markets (such as women and racial and ethnic minorities). And what is good for the gun industry usually is bad for the public.
Fifty caliber sniper rifles are no exception. The civilian marketing of these guns combines three characteristic features of gun industry innovation: increasingly deadly firepower, movement into the civilian market of military innovations, and rapid proliferation with accompanying drop in price whenever a new niche is discovered.dd Section One documented in detail the increased lethality that 50 caliber sniper rifles bring to the civilian market. This section documents the proliferation of makers and models, as well as the plummet in prices.
In its 1999 report, One Shot, One Kill, the VPC warned that “another deadly innovation is becoming more prominent in the civilian marketplace, this one perhaps more lethal than any of its predecessors: the military sniper rifle.”239Most Americans were shocked to learn of the unrestrained sale of 50 caliber sniper rifles. The danger of 50 caliber sniper rifles to the nation detailed above in this report, and in the VPC’s earlier report, have been clear for years. Yet the gun industry has done what it always does: churned out more and more models of greater and greater killing power at lower and lower price. This infusion of lethality is the nicotine of the gun industry, designed to hook new customers and keep old customers, all in reckless disregard of clearly foreseeable consequences.
In One Shot, One Kill the VPC was able to identify seven companies in this country that were apparently marketing 50 caliber sniper rifles to civilians, not counting one company that the VPC was not sure was actually selling guns in the United States.240 In preparing this report, the VPC identified 15 apparently active candidates. The word “apparent” is used because no one—including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is responsible for enforcing federal gun laws—knows for sure how many makers of 50 caliber rifles there are. Forbes magazine says that more than two dozen companies make 50 caliber rifles.241 Some of these may be small specialty shops that make only a handful of guns every year on special order.
In any event, it is clear that this new heavy sniper rifle niche is booming. “Fifty-caliber shooting is picking up speed, fast,” a partner in a West Virginia customs-firearm manufacturing firm said early this year. “They’re becoming very popular, very quickly.”242 Internet web sites trading in firearms make similar reports. Impact Guns says that 50 caliber rifles are “one of our most popular items,” and warns that “demand for 50 BMG rifles currently exceeds production.”243 ARM USA, an Internet gun site started in 1999, says its “just begun building custom rifles and stocking 50 BMG rifles.” In a revealing comment that speaks not only to the relative power of the 50 caliber sniper rifle, but the cynicism of those who sell them, the site declares:
We’re enjoying the heck out of ourselves selling 50 caliber guns (and they banned AR-15s for being “evil” assault weapons).244
The “Rolls Royce of Sniper Rifles”
The Accuracy International AW50 retails for more than $10,000.
This boom in civilian sales of 50 caliber sniper rifles is part of the broader success in military sniper rifle marketing by the gun industry that the VPC identified in its first report. The editor of the fan magazine Gun World also wrote in August 2001 about the trend in sales of police sniper rifles, which are generally in the 30 caliber range:
Another trend in rifles that caught me by surprise has been the great popularity of police sniper or “tactical” rifles. I had thought that a police sniper rifle would be of but passing interest to anyone who was not himself a police sniper…but this is obviously not the case.245
Aside from the confirmation of the sniper rifle trend identified by the VPC in 1999, an interesting aspect of this quote is its unabashed use of the term “sniper rifle” and its equating them to “tactical rifles.” The VPC’s earlier report pointed out that industry sources are sensitive to the unsavory connotations of the word “sniper.” Therefore, they usually deny there is such a thing as a “sniper rifle”—just as they deny there is such a thing as a semi-automatic assault rifle—or, at best, use euphemisms like “tactical rifle” or “countersniper” to describe their guns.
Other evidence of this trend is found in Forbes magazine’s report that although military contracts helped push Barrett Firearms Manufacturing revenue from $1 million in 1988 to $8 million last year—growth while the industry overall has been shrinking—civilian sales are what “keep the production lines humming between government contracts, which can take up to a decade to hash out.”246 (It is not known whether sales to Al Qaeda are counted under the military or civilian column.) Forbes quotes Ronnie G. Barrett as saying with respect to his civilian sales, “If the military had to support me, I wouldn’t be here. None of this stuff would be here.”247
National Defense magazine made a similar observation about Knight’s Armament Company of Vero Beach, Florida, which supplies the SR25 30 caliber (7.62mm) sniper rifle to the U.S. Army Rangers and Navy Seals, but also markets a 50 caliber sniper rifle, the SR-50. Referring to the SR25, the magazine noted, “Civilian consumers will see the changes in commercially available versions of the same weapon. Ironically, the SR25 began as a military project, but was sustained in the development process by commercial sales.”248
The Civilian-Military Nexus
This brings us to the emergence in 50 caliber sniper rifle sales of another aspect of the gun industry—the import into civilian markets of designs and technology originally developed for the military. The gun trade magazine American Firearms Industry described this phenomenon as follows:
Anything in small arms manufacturing that is developed and adopted by the military, always ends up in one form or another at the civilian consumer level. You, as a dealer, have to know what the government contract R&D departments are producing, because it’s just a matter of time before sporting arms manufacturers incorporate new methods, ideas and materials into the products they produce and an even shorter period of time before your customers start asking about them.249
Of course, writ broadly, the very fact that 50 caliber sniper rifles have emerged as a hot item in the civilian gun market reflects this phenomenon. But it is also demonstrated precisely in the nexus between the Army’s call for a new 50 caliber sniper rifle design, designated the XM-107.
At least two manufacturers of 50 caliber sniper rifles competed for the contract, Barrett and EDM Arms. Barrett won the contract, and designates its winning “bullpup” design the 95M/M107.250 It also now offers a virtually identical civilian model, designated the Model 95, which it advertises in such places as Soldier of Fortune magazine.251 The specifications of the Model 95 that are listed on Barrett’s Internet web site are the same as its XM-107 military sniper rifle model.252 Even though EDM Arms did not win the competition, it now markets a “Windrunner XM-107,” referring on its Internet web site to the Army competition standards, and says that is continuing to try to sell the gun to the military.253
The nexus goes beyond official competition. When the NRA wanted to test fire Barrett’s new lower priced Model 99 (see below), it needed first to find a place to shoot the gun. It turned to a cooperative U.S. Marine Corps. “A .50BMG rifle can’t be fired everywhere, so for testing we made arrangements with S/Sgt. Heishman and Gy/Sgt.-9 Riddle to fire the gun at the Test and Evaluation Facility at the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps Base.” The Marine Corps accommodated the NRA by making available its Universal Return to Battery fixture, which was “developed by the Marines for their own use and is not available for purchase.”254
Apologists for the civilian sale of 50 caliber sniper rifles have often cited the list price of Barrett’s Model 82A1, which is currently advertised at $7,300,255 but is listed at lower prices in, for example, an Internet web site listing a price of $6,999.256 In fact, Barrett is not even the high end of the 50 caliber sniper market—if Barrett is the Cadillac of guns, Accuracy International is the Rolls Royce. An English company that has long supplied the British military with sniper rifles, Accuracy International recently opened a plant in Tennessee. It lists on its Internet web site a suggested retail price of $10,950 for its 50 caliber sniper rifle, the AW50, but the rifle was listed on an Internet site more recently at $12,265.257 But, as shown in Section Two of this report, even the high-end prices have not been a bar to terrorists, militias and other fringe groups, as well as common criminals who want the power and range of the 50 caliber.
In any case, prices for 50 caliber sniper rifles have fallen precipitously as a result of burgeoning competition. A particularly good example of the pressure toward lower prices is the ArmaLite AR-50, introduced in 1999 (the imminence of which was noted in the VPC’s earlier report). This 50 caliber rifle has gotten excellent reviews from such publications as The Small Arms Review and the NRA’s official journal, American Rifleman, which praised the gun’s “low price and mild recoil.”258 Manufactured by a company that specialized in semi-automatic assault rifles, the suggested retail price in February was listed on the company’s web site at $2,615.259 However, the gun has been offered for less on Internet web sites. For example, two AR-50s were offered by one site in late September at a price of $2,299 each,260 another was offered for $2,450 at a different web site the same day.261
Reduced price was exactly what ArmaLite was after as a marketing strategy, according to a glowing review in The Small Arms Review:
Mark and Judy Westrom (President of ArmaLite, Inc. and Real Commander in Chief, respectively) wanted to build the .50 Caliber rifle “for the masses.” There were plenty of .50 caliber rifles on the market, but they all suffered from the glaring defect of prohibitive cost….The initial goal was to produce an “economical” .50 Caliber rifle that would fall within the price range of the rest of the ArmaLite product line. The key to potential success in this project was to apply modern manufacturing techniques to a new, robust and simple design and produce the rifles in quantities sufficient to achieve the cost break.262
The ArmaLite AR50: A Fifty Caliber Rifle “for the masses”
American Rifleman, the NRA’s official journal, praised this new 50 caliber rifle’s “low price and mild recoil.” It has a recommended list price of about $2,600, but has been offered on Internet gun sale sites for as little as $2,229.
Perhaps responding to this lesson in Economics of Marketing 101, Barrett has introduced its new lower end model 99, for which it suggests a retail price of $3,100 in its advertisement in Soldier of Fortune.263 Other 50 caliber rifles are offered for much less. Serbu Firearms offers its BFG-50 single shot 50 caliber at $1,975 and its five-round, magazine-fed rifle at $2,595.265 The LAR Manufacturing Grizzly Big Boar—the “big toy” of choice of cop-killer “Fifty Cal Al” Petrosky—is offered on its web site for $2,095, but was recently offered on an Internet web site by a dealer at a price of $1,825.266 At the very low end is Watson’s Weapons, which offers for $1,249 on its Internet web site a 50 caliber upper receiver that can be fitted by the do-it-yourself enthusiast to any standard AR-15 lower receiver, producing a 50 caliber rifle.267 Watson’s also offers the already assembled hybrid 50 caliber for $1,600.268
And for those skilled in the tool shop, there is the “ultimate do it yourself project”—a video and companion volume, The Home Workshop .50-Caliber Sniper Rifle, available from Paladin Press and touted in such places as the Militia of Montana 2001 Preparedness Catalog.269
Owners of 50 caliber sniper rifles who intend to use them for long-range competition have a chronic problem, which is not only finding a safe place to shoot them, but finding a place that will let them shoot. A gun that fires bullets that can travel 8,000 yards and fires ammunition that pierces steel and sets things on fire is not welcome on many firing ranges. The potential liability is massive.
The Fifty Caliber Shooter’s Association’s president described this problem as “very serious to [sic] the future of FCSA,” in introducing the following lament:
As many of you have experienced, we as fifty caliber shooters are routinely discriminated against by not being allowed to shoot at many shooting ranges. At this time we are restricted from more shooting ranges across America than we are allowed to shoot on. Mostly, this is because of the loud noise we generate…or the total misunderstanding of the average range master or shooter when it comes to the .50BMG.270
The same article also hinted obscurely at some sort of odd conspiracy on the part of “a very few members of the high power shooting community to have fifty caliber shooters restricted from 1,000 yard ranges all over the country. At this time there are at least six (6) 1,000 yd. ranges where FCSA is not welcomed to host competitions.”271 Internet chat posted by 50 caliber shooting enthusiasts on the bulletin board at www.biggerhammer.net also complained about shooters who fired armor-piercing incendiary rounds and set the back stop on fire, and another “yahoo who was unable to keep his rounds on range, and perforated a home several miles downrange….50’s have been banned.”272
Cheap, but powerful, low-end hybrid 50 caliber rifle
Watson’s Weapons offers this hybrid 50 caliber rifle for $1,600. The gun, a blend of 50 BMG upper parts and AR-15 lower parts, fires 50 caliber ammunition and is at the lower end of the current market. It is perfectly capable of the materiel destruction described in this report.
The Growing Sniper Culture
The VPC’s earlier study, One Shot, One Kill, reported in detail on the emergence and growth of a sniper subculture in the American gun culture. It is apparent from the booming sales of 50 caliber sniper rifles, the steady issuance of new books and videos on sniping, and the sheer volume of postings on such sites as www.biggerhammer.net that this culture continues to grow.
Another recent phenomenon is the growth of civilian sniper training schools. The CBS Evening News reported in March 1999 there were eight such schools, and “two more soon to follow.”273 Although some of these schools may be restricted to law enforcement or active duty military personnel, others are open to civilians. Press reports of on-site visits to schools indicate that at least three such schools are open to civilians: Thunder Ranch in Texas,274 Gunsite Training Center in Arizona,275 and Storm Mountain Training Center in West Virginia.276 The training given to civilians at such schools is particularly troubling in light of the flight training taken by the terrorists who mounted the September 11 attacks, and the opinion of the sniping expert quoted in Section Two that current 50 caliber sniper rifles are “simple to operate and require little training time for trained snipers.”277
cc) Firearms ownership has declined and those who own guns typically own more than one. In the 1950s, about half of American households reported owning a firearm. This dropped to just 35 percent by 1994. Only one in six adults owns a handgun. In 1994, just 10 percent of firearms owners held 77 percent of the privately owned guns in America. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report (Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 1996).
dd) For a detailed discussion of these factors, see Tom Diaz, Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America (New York, The New Press, 1999).