What a 150-Year-Old Gun Tells Us About the End of Colt’s AR-15

The history of weapons technology suggests that arms often escape the control of their makers.

Smithsonian Museum of American History item No. 222,349: a breech-loading Peabody-Martini rifle
Smithsonian Museum of American History item No. 222,349: a breech-loading Peabody-Martini rifle
Keith Brown

Guns outlive their designers, makers, and first users. When they retire from military service, they still have a lot of death in them.

I held the evidence of this in my hands in April, in the Gun Room of the military collection at the National Museum of American History. Thanks to helpful and knowledgeable curators, I was able to operate the loading and firing mechanism of item No. 222,349: a breech-loading Peabody-Martini rifle produced almost 150 years ago. It was in perfect working order.

I thought back to that rifle when I heard in September that U.S. arms manufacturer Colt has suspended production of its AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Some view Colt’s decision as a victory for gun-control activists, but it barely diminishes civilian consumer choice or access. There are already 16 million AR-15s in the United States and their modular design, and widely available and interchangeable parts, make them virtually immortal. Though the AR-15 owes its existence to Colt, it has done what military technology has done throughout history: It has escaped the control of its producers.

Today’s AR-15 has complicated origins. It is based on a design by Eugene Stoner and financed by ArmaLite, to address the U.S. military’s needs in the Vietnam War. After encountering resistance from the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Division, ArmaLite sold manufacturing and licensing rights to Colt in 1959, which used the design as the basis for their M-16. Colt then became the supplier for multiple military contracts, producing 5 million M-16s by the mid-1980s. The company began marketing their AR-15 to the U.S. public in 1964. This civilian variant became popular for its military look, ease of use, high rate of fire, and its durability.*

The very appeal and the longevity of the M-16 and the AR-15, though, have put Colt under persistent pressure in both the civilian and military market. Since the expiration of Colt’s initial exclusive rights in 1980, and the company’s 1988 Supreme Court defeat in its attempt to sue competitors, hundreds of U.S. firms have produced variants of the AR-15 for the civilian market. Colt even suspended AR-15 production once before, in March 1989. As with this year, the decision earned praise from gun control advocates who called it an “act of civic responsibility.

Gun rights supporters, on the other hand, were outraged, and within a year under new ownership, Colt resumed production for civilians. But the episode, combined with labor issues and losing the cornerstone U.S. military M-16 contract, forced Colt into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. The company recovered, largely through its 1994 patent for the new M4 variant of the M-16 design. When that patent expired, Colt again lost its military contract to competitor FN and filed for bankruptcy once more in 2015.

While today’s press attention has focused on Colt’s civilian production decisions, Colt has reentered the military market. The company has an $88 million contract to deliver approximately 150,000 new M4s and variants—the military equivalent of the AR-15—to the U.S. Army by September 2020. Additionally, the Department of Defense recently announced the award of a new $42 million contract to Colt to supply M4s to 13 foreign countries—all current U.S. allies.

Like the AR-15s, these military-grade weapons are built to last, even though they get replaced while still young and move on to new homes. A few of these military rifles are already in museums—one Colt M-16, produced in 1967, keeps the Peabody-Martini rifle company at the Smithsonian. Many more are not. We don’t know for sure how many will get into civilian hands or how they may be used. But the history behind the Smithsonian’s Peabody-Martini provides us with clues about the future in store for the millions of American-produced AR-15s, M16s, and M4s circulating in the world.

Smithsonian Collection Item No. 222,349 carries its own brief biography written on its body—the stamped names of its designer and producer, and Arabic script and symbols applied by its financier, the Imperial Government of the Ottoman Empire. It also points to a bigger story of commercial competition, battlefield dominance, and re-purposing of military hardware. Now a barely known museum object, the Peabody-Martini brought down both the company that created it and the empire that commissioned it. As an ancestor to the AR-15, it offers a cautionary tale for Colt and America.

That tale begins with Colt’s Civil War competitor, the Providence Tool Company. Responding to the needs of the Union Army, the company got into arms production, and by 1865 it had produced 70,000 standard-issue rifles. This was the muzzle-loading Springfield Model 1861, which could shoot two or three rounds a minute—slower than the smoothbore muskets of the Revolutionary War, but with longer range and greater accuracy.

The carnage of the Civil War demonstrated that industrial-scale arms production was critical for modern warfare. Then in 1866 in Europe, the Prussian victory over the Austrian army rammed home the lesson that battlefield success demanded faster rates of fire. Prussian “breechloaders” could be loaded and fired three times faster the Austrians’ muzzleloaders. As armies across Europe sought a tactical edge, they turned to American firms for production capacity and know-how.

Five hundred patents on breechloading mechanisms were filed between 1860–71 in the United States alone. One—Henry Peabody’s spring-loaded dropping-block—was purchased by W.B. Anthony, Providence Tool Company’s entrepreneurial president. Anthony successfully marketed the Peabody rifle internationally to several smaller countries, including Romania, Spain, and Switzerland. A modification by a Swiss designer, Friedrich von Martini, made his Martini-Henry rifle faster and easier to reload, pushing the rate of fire up to eight to 10 shots per minute.

When Britain adopted the Martini-Henry in 1871, Anthony seized the opportunity to market his similar product to the other great European powers. After waging some patent lawsuits, he succeeded spectacularly. Anticipating war with Russia (which was armed by Colt), the Ottoman sultan commissioned the Providence Tool Company to produce 600,000 Peabody-Martini rifles for the Turkish army for $10 million (equivalent to $233 million in 2019).

During the Russo-Turkish War, the Peabody-Martini rifle won international fame as the deadliest infantry weapon in the world. It offered a long range and lethal large-caliber bullet, and even when poorly maintained, it could maintain a high rate of fire without jamming. At the Siege of Plevna, Turkish soldiers decimated the attacking Russian infantry.

Turkey, though, lost the war. That defeat, together with the Peabody-Martini’s fame, spelled disaster for the Providence Tool Company. Western European nations invested enormous resources in their own arms industries to design and produce the next generation of infantry weapons. Within a decade, British, French, and German firms had produced magazine-fed repeating rifles that allowed trained soldiers to fire 15-25 rounds per minute. They then aggressively sold these products globally, leveraging political influence to drive America’s private companies out of the market.

After Plevna, the Providence Tool Company never sold another rifle—and never received full payment on its Ottoman contracts. Despite efforts to diversify, including getting into the sewing machine business, the company was forced into bankruptcy in 1882.

And Turkey’s 600,000 Peabody-Martinis? When the Ottoman military ordered 550,000 new Mausers from Germany in 1887, the surviving Peabody-Martinis passed first to the reserves. Some were used by Ottoman conscripts in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 or in World War 1. When Turkish soldiers surrendered in Mesopotamia, their rifles made their way, as spoils of war, to the Imperial War Museum in London, where at least one still survives.

Others were distributed to paramilitary units at the margins of the empire, which were locations of unrest among religious and national minorities. As Ottoman legitimacy and capacity continued to erode, new arms markets sprang up. Unpaid or disaffected Ottoman militia and conscripts proved willing to trade weapons and ammunition to their subjects and potential enemies, if the price was right.

In North Africa, Peabody-Martinis found their way into Bedouin hands, who would revolt during World War I. In Albania, proud freedom fighters highly valued the American-made rifles for their ease of maintenance and stopping power. And in the 1903 Ilinden Uprising against Ottoman rule, Macedonian insurgents deployed Peabody-Martinis against the regime that they had been commissioned, a quarter-century earlier, to preserve.

Ilinden took place on Aug. 2, 1903—two days after the Smithsonian’s Peabody-Martini entered the collection. Handling that rifle in 2019—working the mechanism that ejects the spent cartridge, opens the breech for loading, and then cocks the trigger in one smooth movement—reminded me of human mortality, and a gun’s longevity and lethality. Those skilled Providence workers and Turkish inspectors are long dead; the precision machinery that they relied on sold for scrap; the multinational empire that paid for it all dismantled. The Peabody-Martini rifle did not just outlive the world that created it: It played its own part in bringing that world to an end.

Colt has emphasized the economic calculations behind its 2019 decision: Supply, it says, has outpaced demand. Perhaps mindful of how gun rights advocates reacted back in 1989, the company has also emphasized its continuing commitment to upholding the second amendment. This has not prevented advocates for stronger gun control legislation from suggesting Colt is responding to the brand damage created by the AR-15’s deployment in school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in 2017.

Whatever its motivation, Colt’s decision has material as well as moral and political dimensions. It offers impetus to think about history, scale, and the long-term consequences of individual decisions about business and security. American ingenuity and industrial capacity in the 19th century kick-started an arms race among the countries of Europe. Eventually, those arms fell into the hands of individuals in North Africa, the Balkans, and elsewhere, as they decided their governments lacked the will or capacity to defend their citizens. They opted to take on that role by arming themselves with military-grade technology.

At the start of the 21st century, it is American civilians who are up-arming, preparing to fight one another and any government, including their own, that intrudes on their cherished ideas of autonomy. They look to secure themselves against all comers, and in so doing, put themselves and their fellow citizens at greater risk of gun-related injury or death than in any other industrialized nation.

Correction, Oct. 24, 2019: An earlier version of this article misidentified the last name of the ArmaLite AR-15’s designer and overabbreviated the history of the U.S. military’s adoption of the Colt M-16..

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