Rambo Rifles for Weekend Hunters

As heavily armed U.S. troops deployed in the Middle East remain in the news, the military-style semiautomatic rifle has become a hot seller in the civilian market back home. Most major manufacturers have launched new models.

Sturm Ruger (RGR), one of the largest American gunmakers, introduced the SR-556 last May. It retails for about $2,000 and features a flash-suppressor, telescoping stock, pistol grip, and three 30-round magazines. It looks like the weapons that U.S. soldiers use to shoot Taliban insurgents.

"This is the one the younger generation wants," says Ruger spokesman Ken Jorgensen. "It's not their dad's gun or their granddad's gun." That's the sales pitch—and a source of controversy.

Even within the ranks of hunters and other gun enthusiasts, some protest the pursuit of deer with a modified form of the basic U.S. military weapon. The touchstone for this debate remains a February 2007 blog post by legendary hunter Jim Zumbo. "Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity," Zumbo wrote on the Outdoor Life Web site. Gun owners erupted. Outdoor Life excised his online comments and parted company with the columnist.

Though digitally expunged, Zumbo's objection persists. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group, devoted an entire press conference to it during the gun business' annual convention in Las Vegas in January. "These rifles are there; they are not going away," Stephen Sanetti, the NSSF's chief executive, told reporters. "We just want to make sure the hunting community hangs together."

The solution, Sanetti says, is to rebrand the weapons as "modern sporting rifles," or MSRs. In an online campaign, his organization points out that MSRs are durable, reliable, and use ammunition similar to that used with more traditional rifles. "It won't be long before people call one of these 'ol' Betsy,'" the narrator of an NSSF video says as he cradles a semiautomatic. Americans spend about $2.5 billion a year on guns; precise figures aren't available on semiauto rifles.

For generations, rifle models first used by soldiers have become profitable sellers in the domestic market. The 1903 bolt-action Springfield adopted by the U.S. Army in World War I begat the wooden-stock rifle carried by generations of deer hunters. The higher-capacity Garand issued to troops in World War II also spawned versions used to hunt big game.

The modern sporting rifle, assuming the label sticks, traces its roots to the M-16 that first saw combat in Vietnam. The main difference between the military weapon and its civilian counterpart is that the Pentagon's version has the capacity to fire bursts of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. The cosmetically similar MSR fires only one round with each trigger pull.

Some of the confusion over these rifles stems from the tendency of gun-control advocates to refer to all of them —fully automatic and semiautomatic—as "assault weapons." The confusion has been compounded by some manufacturers that use SWAT-team imagery in their advertising and stress how closely their civilian products match military specifications. Since the election of 2008, gun retailers have helped drive semiauto sales by stirring the fear—so far unrealized—that President Barack Obama would try to ban them.

Will the MSR designation mollify old-school backwoodsmen? Zumbo predicts it will. Reached at his home in Cody, Wyo., he says he's now used to other hunters carrying what he still calls "black guns."

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