Harry Falber: The Story Behind Smith & Wesson’s AR-15 Campaign

The timing was grim.

Last Monday — just hours before a school shooter in Nashville killed 3 children and 3 adults — the Washington Post published a long story about AR-15s.

Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22 sport semi-automatic rifle. The initials mean “Military & Police.”

The semi-automatic weapon, designed by the military, has become the best-selling rifle in the US. Sixteen million Americans — 1 out of every 20 adults — owns at least one.

The Nashville killer used an AR-15 — along with a 9 mm pistol and Smith & Wesson handgun — to shoot his way into the school, and mow down his victims.

Like many people, Harry Falber was horrified.

Unlike many, the longtime Weston resident knew exactly how the AR-15 has become mass murderers’ weapon of choice.

He was there, as Smith & Wesson head of licensing, when the company pivoted from promoting it as a “fine-tuned machine” to “the chosen one.”

Complete with high-testosterone imagery, deliberately meant to appeal to “right wingers, and young impressionable minds.”

Farber got out. He left Smith & Wesson 2 months before Sandy Hook.

But until the Washington Post story, he’d never spoken in detail about the AR-15’s rise from a gun unsuited for hunting, and overkill for home defense, to a revered icon of power.

And a symbol of all that is wrong with America today.

Falber — now 76 years old — had a long career in advertising (in the “Mad Men” era), and marketing consulting for products like baby food, flowers, Volvo, Polaroid and Hallmark. In 2011, connections with an Alcoa executive brought him to Smith & Wesson.

Harry Falber, in his Weston home. (Photo/George Etheridge for the Washington Post)

The company — founded in Norwich, Connecticut in 1852 as a rifle and pistol manufacturer — fell on hard times in 2000. A boycott organized by the NRA and Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation over “smart guns” (firearms that can detect only authorized users) brought it near bankruptcy.

Its recovery included a new focus on big box retailers — and a shift in marketing.

Surveys showed that US consumers ranked Smith & Wesson very high on “integrity,” Falber told “06880” a few days after the Post interview. But top officials were moving toward what he calls “the sporting rifle Kool-Aid. They went full-bore into a dark, dark milieu.”

Falber was stunned when the ad he thought would be used — the one highlighting craftsmanship and precision, and which scored very high in an independent survey — was scrapped in favor of one with images of a SWAT officer, aiming ferociously at an unseen target.

Left: The ad that scored highly in surveys, and which Harry Falber thought would be used. Right: The ad that was used. (Courtesy of Washington Post)

The tagline — “The Ultimate Shooting Machine” — bothered him for two reasons.

One was its possible trademark infringement on BMW’s long-running “Ultimate Driving Machine.”

The other was the appeal to “an element of this country we shouldn’t want to speak to.”

He quit. Two months later, a few miles from his Weston home, Adam Lanza killed his mother, 20 children, 6 adults and himself, with 2 handguns and a semi-automatic rifle.

The fact that it was made by Bushmaster — not Smith & Wesson — was little solace.

For over a decade, his former company had been at the forefront of marketing a product meant to address “feelings of inadequacy,” Falber says. “The whole idea was to make (a buyer) feel bigger, stronger, better.

“There are various ways to sell. You can appeal to base instincts, or do it at a higher level.”

The aftermath of the Nashville shooting was particularly galling. Falber was appalled to see politicians fundraising off of the murders, and wearing lapel pins in the shape of an AR-15.

Congressman Andy Ogles of Tennessee’s 2021 Christmas card. The Covenant School, where last week’s shooting occurred, is part of his district.

Smith & Wesson is not backing down. Recently, Falber says, they introduced a new handgun that holds 22 rounds of ammunition, and a carbine with 63 rounds that folds to fit in a backpack.

“I don’t see the unmet need for that,” Falber says.

But his former colleagues at Smith & Wesson do.

Falber has spent 26 years in Weston. His wife is the principal of the intermediate school.

Every day he thinks about her, and her students.

And he wonders about their safety, on what should be the idyllic woods of School Road.

(Click here to read the full Washington Post story. Hat tip: Peter Blau)

(“06880” is “where Westport meets the world.” Please click here to support our work. Thank you!)

47 responses to “Harry Falber: The Story Behind Smith & Wesson’s AR-15 Campaign

  1. Robert Colapietro

    So, if the NHTSA were to publish a study indicating that the vehicle most involved in highway fatalities was a Buick, should we then expect a law requiring Buicks be banned from possession by American citizens? This article, I am disappointed to say is intended to continue to promote an agenda I did not expect you to promote. Please stay in your lane, please.

    • Apt comparison. Of course if Buicks were shown to be more dangerous than other vehicles, both the Federal and insurance safety agencies would investigate and force GM to address the problem.

      More to the point, unlike gun laws, motor vehicle laws in all 50 states require a driver to past proficiency tests and most have a graduated system: e.g. a new driver can’t drive a car full of other teens, and you need a CDL to drive a heavy truck.

    • I’m not sure which “lane” you expect me to stay in, Robert. The one about featuring Westport and Weston residents who have interesting stories to tell? Or the one about protecting the safety of children who just want to go to school without worrying about being murdered?

      I’m just sayin’…

    • Susan Iseman

      Stay in your lane? Our lane is riddled with bullets and death because of the greed of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. The US has more gun violence/gun deaths than any other civilized country. Get your facts straight, Robert. You may want to begin here: https://www.gvpedia.org

    • Robert, I once believed – as I suppose you do – that availability of legal guns had little to do with violent crime, since serious criminals trade in illegal guns.

      But that was before the explosion of mass shootings using legally bought guns, and the cult of ostentatious gunslinging as demonstrated by the congressman’s Christmas card. Not to speak of the gun industry’s promotion of high powered semiautomatic weapons to consumers who formerly had a six shot revolver, or perhaps a shotgun.

      I live in the South these days, and see local this kind of gunslinging display by politicians all the time. If you don’t think this normalizes hyper-aggressive gun behavior among damaged people, you’re just closing your eyes.

    • Richard Fogel

      My reaction to Robert’s comment is you need a drivers license to operate a car. There are drivers education courses if you have a DUI your ability to operate a vehicle is in jeopardy. The data on school serial events demonstrates the weapon of choice is not a vehicle but a weapon of mass Destruction the AR 15. Robert. Why do you need to defend such weapons.? What are the benefits you enjoy from the AR15 weapon of mass destruction. Help me understand why an 18 year old without training and a full background check should be allowed to open carry it.

    • Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

      Who died and made you Lord and Master? Professor Woog, who owns the blog of which you comment, covers any and all subjects with a neutral brush. He has no lines. He often colors between the lines. Now, as for you, with your moronic analogy, mind your manners.

    • Stay in your lane? This is Dan’s blog. Don’t like it, get lost.

  2. Richard Fogel

    The values and ethics of our community are disturbing. Books are out. Weapons of mass destruction are in. What is the driving force ?? Money.

    • Stephanie Frankel

      Thank you! I was about the say the same! I had to stand up at a board of ed meeting with people ranting about books they disagree with, social emotional learning they disagree with ( why? That IS mental healthcare to curb violence) and DEI, to remind them that their children are more likely to be killed by a GUN!
      I wish people had more passion about saving their kids from mass shootings than saving them from seeing a book they disagree with that has sex in it!
      Where are the priorities of the GOP? Seriously, a car comparison?

      • Ms. Frankel, with all due respect, you are conflating two completely separate issues. Just because you categorize parents with whom you disagree on social issues as conservative, does not mean they are the same conservatives who oppose gun safety measures.

        • John D McCarthy

          Not a gambling man, but I would bet there is a 90% or so overlap.

          • Certainly an overlap; doubt it’s 90%. But most prejudices/stereotypes/bigoted statements have some basis in fact.

          • Archi Rudra

            You might actually lose this one. There is a significant first generation Asian American (and East European American) parent opposition in the library book case, at least in Westport. I will be really surprised if that group are large firearm buyers. Enough to push it past the 10% margin you have set there

            • Richard Fogel

              Asian Americans are buying fire arms arca higher rate than ever. Much of it is because of discrimination. I cannot quote the study but no doubt research will be valuable. Books do not kill. Education does not kill.

            • Stephanie Frankel

              Why would anyone from a country that is now under authoritarian dictatorship be for authoritarian book bannings? Seems counterintuitive to me.

        • Stephanie Frankel

          Ask them yourself!


    • Susan ISeman

      Ray, please explain why other countries – who also have mental illness – do not have the gun deaths we have here in the USA? It’s because we have unfettered access to guns- whatever make, model or ability to murder.

      Please see the data: https://www.thetrace.org/2021/10/why-more-shootings-in-america-gun-violence-data-research/

    • Russell Gontar

      People kill people, not guns, yet 95% of all killings are done by firearms and handguns. Which is it? Maybe you can’t make up your mind. And you’re yelling.

      A certain number of the 400 million firearms currently in circulation wind up in the wrong hands. That’s not just an inconvenience truth, it’s what actually happens everyday. And everyday, mayhem ensues. You’re entitled to your firearms hobby, but you are not entitled to have your hobby morph into a public health emergency, threatening every single citizen the second they walk our of their homes. Your second amendment right is not unlimited, it is conditional, just like free speech.

      We do not have the ability to screen and predict when anyone is about to commit a crime, but we do have the ability to control inanimate objects. Let us do something rather than nothing, even if the result is flawed. Seat belts don’t save every life in a car crash, but I’ll bet you wear yours.

  4. Dan, I direct this question to you only because you were a teacher in Westport for so many years.
    Teachers spend more waking, active thinking and observing time with the nations children than the parents do.
    Why have teachers not moved the National Teachers Union to to push for a real across the nation program in our schools where teachers can really use their time and observation time with students to help identify those who are demonstrating that they need help with their mental state and are in danger of seriously hurting themselves or others??
    This has been to sensitive an area for action by the educational community for too long! The horrors of school shootings are far worse on teachers there own safety and well being than the inaction they have taken on using their time with students to establish in their own work settings a student mental health help system to address this huge problem??

  5. I thought the person responsible for those horrific murders was a woman?

  6. Priscilla A Long

    Thanks for this article, Dan. It is clear from all the comments, that this is a highly charged, emotional issue. Lots of truth on both sides. Guns kill – plain and simple. But, there has to be a person using them. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, many of those folks suffer from mental illness that goes unchecked. Solving our gun problem has to be a two-pronged approach. The fact that there are 42k “hits” on teachers and mental health is a pretty good indicator that help is needed. Mental health still carries a stigma. We need to destigmatize it. The reality of the world today is incredibly harsh. Children are not getting the support they need – because there are limited resources for children’s and teen’s mental health. Funding is short in this arena. Perhaps gun manufacturers should be required to give a generous percentage of their profits to fund mental health services. These companies must be rolling in dough with all their sales. We can’t stop the manufacturing of these weapons, but we can regulate and at times support the people who own them.

  7. I’m a “gun guy” but I’ve never understood the cult status of these weapons. These things were made to help keep soldiers (usually teenagers) alive in combat. They are light and easy to use. They were made to replace the M-14 which shoots a .30 round and kicks like hell. The .223 is really only good for killing humans and coyotes. It’s not powerful enough to hunt deer with legally. I’m not sure if banning them is the answer but maybe there should be a new category below an NFA Class III to put them in. That way anyone who wants one would need to go through a very thorough background check and a pretty long waiting period.

  8. joshua stein

    First, the mass shootings are absolutely horrible. I still cry when I come across Sandy Hook images and the anniversary. I had tears looking at the Nashville story and watching the body cam footage. Absolutely horrible. But lets get one thing straight, people are the ones pulling the trigger. Mental health is a HUGE issue. Politicians find it way easier to enact restrictions and legislation on law abiding citizens and turning them into criminals INSTEAD of rolling up their sleeves and putting some hard work in to focus in on real issues, for example, existing CRIMINALS (prohibited persons) having firearms and committing firearms related crimes, as well as mental health. The amount of money spent by the government, inefficiency, and waste in this country is appalling. Perhaps some more money should go to focus on prohibited persons and mental health.

    I do think that there should be universal background checks, that I will support, along with eliminating ghost guns. But enough with more and more regulations on law abiding citizens. Connecticut is supposed to be the Constitution State yet it churns out more and more laws and regulations on a regular basis. IMO, most new gun laws are not going to stop mass shootings. IMO, its just optics so politicians can appear they are doing something to appease their constituents or remain “popular.” As for other countries with strict(er) firearms rules, look up some of the mass stabbing news (yes its a thing). If one is intent on setting out to harm, they will find a tool to allow them to (attempt) said harm, whether it be a firearm, knife, vehicle, or other object.

    Finally, I cannot take an article seriously that tries to relate trademark infringement regarding a firearm manufacturer with an unrelated Class (vehicle manufacturer), hint, the two marks would likely not conflict in the eyes of the UPSTO, or anyone with common sense. I do not even understand the purpose of including it, it detracts from any point the author is trying to make, and is just “noise.”

    • Jamie Walsh

      Thanks Joshua for most intelligent comment on this post.

    • Stephanie Frankel

      Law abiding citizens and gun owners support strict gun control laws.
      So basically you are saying politicians who lonby for gun control to save lives are doing so for optics?! Jesus, we have NO spul left in America! NONE! ZILCH! ZERO!!!!
      Your arguement that if one is intent to harm they will do so anyway… why have ANY LAWS? If laws will be broken amyeay, let’s have anarchy! Yeeeee hawwwe!
      Oh and the mass stabbings bit.. sorry, but I would rather be faced with a kife over a gun anyday!
      Your comment actually made me chuckle. Pathetic excuses. Truly pathetic.

      • Stephanie Frankel

        Sorry for my typos! I am shaking over anyone coming up with anymore excuses as to not have more gun control laws! It is just horrifying to hear excuses at this juncture!
        Well,,, but… knives..

        • Laura Johnson

          Stephanie, I’m confused? You claim you’re in education, possibly a teacher? Why oh why are you so active on social media pushing YOUR views and opinions so frequently and vehemently?

          If I was a parent of one of your students I’d express my concerns to your employer.

          • Stephanie Frankel

            I am not allowed to have an opinion and express it on a blog? Indeed I am permitted to do so. I am not teaching as of right now.
            Do you think teachers are not allowed to express their opinions on blogs? Are teachere not entitled to first amendment rights or the samr rights as you?
            Yes, I am passionate and opinionated about gun control and mass shootings. You would fire a teacher over that?

        • joshua stein

          You are shaking? Really? It seems like you have trouble having adult interaction/conversation.

          Edit: Are you the same person as “Pephi Frankel” ? The one that there were alerts about online a few months ago?

          • Stephanie Frankel

            Josh Stein,
            Ask all the parents of kids killed in school shootings in America what they think about good gun control measures!
            Look to places that have low to no rates of mass shootings( hint: not Murica )
            CT is on the right track since Sandy Hook happened. Highland Park, IL has banned the AR-15 after their mass shooting.
            Red flag laws!!!!
            And yes, I would rather be faced by a knife than a gun. Can you throw and knife and kill twenty people within minutes or do you have to get real close to the knife? Let’s think logically here. Are you really going to compare an AR-15 or handgun to a knife, with a straight face? Go talk to an ER doctor about this topic!

      • joshua stein

        You throw around the word “gun control” but do you even know what it means? Give us a view into what you think current gun control is at a state and federal level and what is proposed, that you support (or don’t support). Its easy to throw around words but the details take some effort to truly understand, analyze, etc, as to whether they might actually solve a problem effectively. What “gun control” laws do you think will surely stop mass casualty incidents, and go one stop further, explain to us how they will work effectively. All ears.

        As for laws to be broken, why have any laws? Great question! You should ask your politicians and lawmakers on their soft stance on criminals and why they are keeping local police departments from even pursuing them in some cases. You should also ask why so many that commit serious crimes are constantly released, some times with no bail, only to go re-offend and commit a some times way more serious crime while awaiting trial on another crime. The system is messed up. And IMO no one is really rolling up their sleeves and solving problems, its a lot more concern of politicians on their image/optics, finger pointing, and dodging accountability.

        You’d rather be faced with a knife versus gun any day? Holy moly. Now, that is a pathetic statement.

    • Stephanie Frankel

      Why are Republicans fighting against mental healthcare in our schools ( social- emotional learning).
      Why are Republicans finding bullying people with mental health issues, like Fetterman, FUNNY?!? Why is that tolerated by the party that claims to care about mental healthcare?
      Why do Republicans not want Red flag laws?
      Why do Republicans want more guns in the hands of more people more easily?
      Why are Republicans wanting to create more mental health issues by literally trying to ban trans people?
      Why are Republicans saying we do mot care about gun violence in Chicago?
      Why are Republicans doing nothing but banning books, people, and classes?
      Why do Republicans pose with their big guns in Christmas photos?
      And you say Democrats are using gun control to get votes?! Not to protect us or anything like that?
      I have an idea: join my fight for SEL in schools in Florida where they will now have concealed carry without a permit!
      Want to join me?

  9. This conversation has run its course. This thread is closed to further comments.