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How a Maine businessman made the AR-15 into America’s best-selling rifle

Will Michael of Homer, La., examines a Bushmaster M4 A3 Carbine 300 AAC Blackout rifle at the Bushmaster exhibit during the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Tradeshow, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Las Vegas.
Julie Jacobson
/
AP file
Will Michael of Homer, La., examines a Bushmaster M4 A3 Carbine 300 AAC Blackout rifle at the Bushmaster exhibit during the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Tradeshow, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Neither a gun enthusiast nor a right-wing ideologue, Richard Dyke used political connections and lobster giveaways to build Bushmaster, the company that popularized assault-style rifles.

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Outside Healy Chapel on the campus of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, the American flag swayed at half-staff. Inside, candles flickered, and the dying autumn light filtered softly through stained glass. A nursing student sobbed as a small group of mourners read aloud the names of the 18 people slaughtered with an assault-style rifle in late October at a bowling alley and a restaurant up the road in Lewiston. The college had shut down for two days as police sought the killer, whose body was found in the woods after he turned a gun on himself.

Saint Joseph’s is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, a 192-year-old society of nuns that has accused the firearms industry of “profiting from these killings.” Toward the end of the vigil, a graduate assistant asked the mourners to pray for political leaders.

“Give them insight, wisdom and courage,” she implored, “to address the epidemic of gun violence.”

Several months earlier on the same campus, as fog enveloped Sebago Lake and rain poured down in sheets, a larger crowd celebrated the life of a man who did as much as anyone to make assault-style rifles — like those used in Lewiston and other massacres — ubiquitous in America. After cocktails and crudites, they bid farewell to one of Maine’s own, Richard E. Dyke.

Richard Dyke, the late owner of Windham Weaponry, accepts an award from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center in South Portland on Sept. 3, 2015.
Troy R. Bennett
/
BDN file
Richard Dyke, the late owner of Windham Weaponry, accepts an award from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center in South Portland on Sept. 3, 2015.

As a digital photo tribute flashed images from his life, family members, friends and former employees praised Dyke’s kindness and generosity. Beside a framed proclamation by Maine’s state Legislature declaring that Dyke would be “long remembered and sadly missed,” they recounted his rise from mill-town poverty to multimillionaire philanthropist and friend of powerful politicians.

“When he walked into a room, it became his room,” a former colleague told the packed hall. “It’s difficult to drive around Maine and not see something that Dick touched. … He touched thousands of people’s lives.”

What the heartfelt tributes to Dyke that day omitted were the human costs of the industry that allowed him to be so generous — costs that the fellow residents of his beloved home state would soon be the latest to bear.

When the public asks, “How did we get here?” after each mass shooting, the answer goes beyond National Rifle Association lobbyists and Second Amendment zealots. It lies in large measure with the strategies of firearms executives like Dyke. Long before his competitors, the mercurial showman saw the profits in a product that tapped into Americans’ primal fears, and he pulled the mundane levers of American business and politics to get what he wanted.

Dyke brought the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, which had been considered taboo to market to civilians, into general circulation, and helped keep it there. A folksy turnaround artist who spun all manner of companies into gold, he bought a failing gun maker for $241,000 and built it over more than a quarter-century into a $76 million business producing 9,000 guns a month. Bushmaster, which operated out of a facility just 30 miles from the Lewiston massacre, was the nation’s leading seller of AR-15s for nearly a decade. It also made Dyke rich. He owned at least four homes, a $315,000 Rolls Royce and a helicopter, in which he enjoyed landing on the lawn of his alma mater, Husson University.

Although his boasts of military exploits and clandestine derring-do caused associates to roll their eyes, he was actually no gun enthusiast. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Once, when his brother Bruce persuaded him to go deer hunting, Dyke sat in his Jeep reading The Wall Street Journal, rifle out of reach as a deer ambled safely past.

Along the way, Dyke and his team capitalized on the very incidents that horrified the nation. Sales typically went up when a mass killer used a Bushmaster. After a pair of snipers in the Washington, D.C., area murdered 10 people with a Bushmaster rifle in 2002, Dyke’s bankers noted that the shootings, while “obviously an unfortunate incident … dramatically increased awareness of the Bushmaster product and its accuracy.” A decade later, a 20-year-old wielding a Bushmaster murdered 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Last year, a Bushmaster was used to kill 10 Black people at a market in Buffalo, New York. The murderer painted racist taunts on the rifle, including “Here’s Your Reparations!”

The arc of Dyke’s journey illustrates the often misunderstood story of “assault rifles” — a now-politicized description that Dyke, for a time, embraced. Mainstream American businesses, financiers and politicians abetted the rise of AR-15s. Banks loaned money to make them, Wall Street invested in them, video games and Hollywood movies glamorized them, and Congress shielded their manufacturers from liability for shootings.

As Dyke’s company seeded its guns into American society, paving the way for imitators, he relied on those same institutions to largely insulate him from scrutiny or retribution. He carefully cultivated political connections, including with the Bush family; William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine and U.S. secretary of defense; and Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine since 1997. “Dick Dyke’s influence at the senior most levels of the U.S. military and political establishment has created numerous revenue opportunities,” Bushmaster’s bankers wrote.

“Dick was a longtime friend of mine,” Collins told ProPublica in a statement. “He was a vocal advocate for small businesses in Maine and America.” Collins called Dyke to wish him well when he was diagnosed with cancer and sent her condolences to the family after he died, said her spokesperson, Annie Clark.

Today, more than 24 million AR-15s are in circulation. Because of their accuracy, light weight and low recoil, they are the most popular rifle in the U.S. But while they accounted for less than 3% of homicides in 2020, they’ve become a favored weapon of mass shooters. Both fetishized and demonized, they’ve also emerged as a potent symbol of defiance. Gun rights activists have flaunted semi-automatic rifles at counter-protests against Black Lives Matter, on social media and at rallies at state capitol buildings. In 2022, President Joe Biden called for banning AR-style weapons, saying too many schools and workplaces “have become killing fields, battlefields here in America.”


Richard Earl Dyke was born in Wilton, Maine, in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression and one of Maine’s coldest winters on record. His father, Earl, worked in a shoe factory and later became a police officer. His mother, Gladys, had a series of jobs, including as a burler in a woolen mill. Foreshadowing her son’s career of fixing damaged companies, she repaired imperfections in fabric.

One day, Dyke came home from school to find his mother weeping at the dinner table. Her per-piece pay had been cut while her employer raised the price of health insurance. The memory, he later told friends, shaped his generosity toward employees at Bushmaster, whom he would reward with lavish bonuses, 100% health care coverage and holiday dinners served on china.

The same year Dyke was born, the Roosevelt administration enacted the first federal gun control legislation, registering and taxing machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers. The furious response, led by the NRA, to a tougher early version of the bill anticipated modern legislative battles over Second Amendment rights.

During Dyke’s boyhood, New England was the heart of the firearms industry. Its spine stretched from Winchester in New Haven, Connecticut, to Colt in Hartford to Smith & Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts, and north to machine-gun maker Saco Lowell in Maine. Much of the industry has since moved south, but some firearms companies remain in New England, including Sturm, Ruger, which made the rifle used in the Lewiston shootings.

In Wilton, almost every young boy hunted and fished. Dyke killed his first deer when he was 11. A photo in his biography shows him proudly cradling his rifle as he stands beside a slain buck strapped to the hood of the car with its legs stretching to the sky.

But dancing and acting were Dyke’s teenage passions. In 1951, he starred in a church-sponsored production of a musical-comedy, “Crazy Daze,” according to a newspaper account at the time. “Who is it that makes everyone laugh with his jokes and crazy antics and who is always willing to do his share of the work? Why Dicky, of course!” read his yearbook blurb.


After a stint in the Army, Dyke earned a degree in accounting from Husson College (now Husson University) in Bangor. He worked for the IRS, started his own firm and began investing on the side. A self-described “bottom fisherman,” he demonstrated a knack for seeing future profit in present disasters. Tom Kent, a longtime friend and former Maine state trooper, recalled driving by a dilapidated marina with Dyke. Kent saw a bunch of rotting cabins, but Dyke smelled opportunity. He bought the marina and turned the cabins into condos, Kent said.

Over the decades, records show, Dyke bought or started scores of other businesses, sometimes owning as many as 10 at a time. There was an inn on the Caribbean island of Antigua, a candle company, a restaurant called Mr. D’s, a nursing home and an apartment building in Portland, Maine, that he named after his father, “The Earl.” He invested in a Windham, Maine, firm that made poker chips and sold them to Trump casinos.

“He was somewhat a Donald Trump. In that it was always ‘I, I, I’ with him and not ‘we, we we,’” Kent said. “If we were in a meeting and someone disagreed with him, you better not pick up that rope because you were gone.”

In the late 1970s, Dyke called Kent with a proposition. “I was just at the bankruptcy court,” Dyke told his friend. “There’s an interesting gun company there. I don’t know the first thing about guns, but you do.”

Dyke wanted to buy the company and offered Kent a stake for a $25,000 investment. That was almost every penny Kent and his wife, Joan, possessed. “Dick has always been good to us,” Joan told him. “So let’s take a chance.”

Dyke also confided his plans to his younger brother, Bruce.

“You don’t even hunt,” Bruce recalled telling him.

“Well, this guy in Bangor has this little outfit,” Dyke replied. “I think it could really do something. He doesn’t have any idea how to get (the guns) out and sell them.”

The “little outfit” made a futuristic weapon, the Bushmaster Arm Pistol, named after a Central American viper. It was designed for Air Force pilots whose planes had been downed. The automatic version could rattle off 550 rounds a minute, its founder Mack Gwinn boasted to a local reporter. An early reviewer for Guns & Ammo noted, “for civilian use, it will provide knock-down power far exceeding many heavy pistol calibers,” and it was “light enough for a woman to handle.” On the flip side, the writer warned, “Its production, I believe, will create considerable controversy and certain uneasiness by (federal) Agents! Its deadly appearance is against it in the eyes of the man on the street.”

Dyke bought the company out of bankruptcy. At his first gun show, an angry customer confronted him. “I got one of your goddamned guns and it’s no damned good,” the man barked, according to Kent. “It sure isn’t,” Dyke admitted. “But we will soon have a gun that is.”

Vincent Pestilli, a garrulous bull of a man who trained U.S. special forces members in the use of Russian-made automatic rifles, was Bushmaster’s head of sales. To improve the crudely made Bushmaster pistol, Pestilli got help from legendary firearms designer Uziel Gal, inventor of the Uzi submachine gun. He still keeps a sheet of Gal’s stationary on which Pestilli scrawled suggested improvements.

The early going was hard. Pestilli recalled getting a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent, seeking Bushmaster guns. Pestilli said he thought it was a crank call and hung up, but soon two Mexican Federales were touring the new Bushmaster factory. The problem: Bushmaster had not started production and had few workers. Pestilli frantically hired the workers’ relatives and friends to pretend to be making guns. Bushmaster didn’t get the contract.


In the 1980s, Connecticut-based Colt was the only major seller of AR-15s to civilians. Decades earlier, it had purchased patents to the design from Armalite, for which the AR was named. (The AR-15 was the 15th iteration of the rifle Armalite developed for the military.) In 1964, Colt introduced the semi-automatic civilian version, which fired a single shot with each trigger pull, marketing it as a sporting rifle.

But imported assault-style guns, like the Uzi and the AK-47 known as the Kalashnikov, were increasingly popular. With scant commercial interest in the arm pistol, Dyke focused on selling rifles and parts. Instead of investing in expensive stamping, machining and forging equipment to manufacture guns in house, he reduced costs by buying rifle uppers, lowers, barrels and stocks from other, mostly local, suppliers and having employees assemble them.

In marketing materials, the company boasted that its new solid wood stock, semi-automatic “Assault Rifles,” a hybrid of the AK-47 and Colt’s AR-15s, weighed just 6.25 pounds. Dyke even had the words “Bushmaster Assault Rifle” stamped on the guns. You could buy one in 1981 for $484.95. Eventually, Bushmaster made AR-15 clones. Years later, Dyke told a New York Times journalist he had been impressed by the AR-15’s accuracy. “At 25 meters, if you are a decent shot, you can put it into a bull’s-eye that is the size of a quarter.”

Dyke periodically contributed to gun designs, coming up with “The Lady” Bushmaster in a tan color to match a purse style he’d seen, Pestilli said. For years, during the summer lull in firearms sales, Dyke offered dealers a free Maine lobster for every rifle they sold. “It pushed up his numbers considerably,” recalled Richard Thurston, then Bushmaster’s chief financial officer.

Two mass shootings in the 1980s put semi-automatic rifles in the spotlight. In a 77-minute spree, a California man with a 9 mm Uzi murdered 21 people and wounded more than a dozen at a McDonalds near the Mexican border. Another gunman used a Chinese-manufactured AK-style rifle to kill five schoolchildren and maim more than two dozen in Stockton, California.

In 1989, California banned 44 models of rifles and pistols it branded as assault weapons, including the Bushmaster Assault Rifle and the Bushmaster Pistol. Soon after, President George H. W. Bush stopped the importation of Uzi and AK-style weapons. Although its domestically made guns weren’t affected by the federal ban, Colt stopped selling AR-15s to civilians. It would jump in and out of the civilian market over the ensuing decades.

Dyke had no such qualms. Bushmaster sales climbed.


Five years later, President William J. Clinton was pushing for a national ban on manufacturing assault-style rifles for civilian use. Worried about Bushmaster’s future, Dyke and Kent turned to a political ally: U.S. Sen. William Cohen of Maine.

Kent and Cohen had known each other since high school, when they competed in baseball and basketball. Dyke had appeared in 1980 before a Senate subcommittee scrutinizing the IRS’ treatment of small businesses. Testifying before the committee, Dyke was hailed by the senator as one of “Maine’s leading citizens.”

With a flourish that recalled his student days as a touring thespian, Dyke made a perfect small-town foil against an impersonal and spirit-crushing tax collection agency. He played up his “meager” origins as “the son of shoemakers in a very small town in Maine.” He addressed Cohen as “Bill” and “Billy.” Dyke described a conflict he’d had with the IRS that could have spelled disaster for a company he had just extracted from bankruptcy. It was Bushmaster.

Now, Kent met with Cohen. “Billy, we’ve got over a million dollars’ worth of parts, and this assault weapons ban is going to put us out of business,” Kent recalled saying. From Kent’s office, Cohen started making phone calls, Kent said. The final bill, which six Republican senators including Cohen supported, grandfathered in manufacturers’ existing inventory. So Bushmaster ramped up production in advance of the ban, helping make 1994 the hottest-selling year yet of civilian AR-15s.

Cohen, who now chairs a consulting firm, did not respond to requests for comment.

Clinton signed the 10-year ban into law in September 1994. But Dyke and his team found workarounds. With just a few tweaks, a very effective AR-style weapon could still be legally sold. All the company had to do was remove a bayonet lug and stop selling folding rifle stocks and threaded muzzles. “The rest of the rifle is unchanged,” Bushmaster’s website assured customers. It noted that the removal of threaded muzzles made the rifles even more effective: “Target shooters will notice some accuracy gains.” And lest customers be deterred by a new federal ban on making magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, Bushmaster noted that the restrictions did not apply retroactively: 20-round and even 40-round magazines were still “out there for sale.”

Bushmaster sent its rejiggered gun to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“They called Dick and said, ‘You have a winner,’” Kent recalled. “‘It gets around the ban.’”

Criminal sprees continued. In 1997, in what became known as the North Hollywood shootout, two bank robbers wielding semi-automatic rifles including a Bushmaster were outgunning police, wounding 11 of them plus six civilians, until officers barged into a gun store. They pleaded for better guns that could penetrate bulletproof vests.The store lent them several rifles, including Bushmasters, and the robbers were killed.

The incident was free advertising for Bushmaster. Law enforcement and commercial sales spiked.

Two years later, Bushmaster executives noticed another uptick in AR-15 orders. They soon identified the cause: fears of the Y2K millennium bug. Media reports had warned that a software programming error could lead to bank shutdowns, power plant closures and even planes falling from the air when computer clocks shifted at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. As Americans stocked up on survival gear, Bushmaster capitalized on the mania, selling its own Y2K rifle.


In 1999, Bushmaster sold 64,506 guns — more AR-15s than its 10 largest competitors combined. It also brought in a chief executive who, along with Dyke as chair, would assure its continued success. John DeSantis’ previous boss at Savage Arms, in Westfield, Massachusetts, tried to discourage him from going to work for a “black rifle” company. “He didn’t think that semi-automatic rifles had any place in the commercial business because they’re too lethal,” DeSantis recalled.

DeSantis said he had no such reservations. “I thought anything that sells is good,” he said. “You know, you go to a range, and you want (your rifle) to go ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.’ That’s what I like.”

It was the year of the Columbine High School mass shooting, and Dyke decided to skip the NRA convention even though none of the guns used by the killers were Bushmasters. “We didn’t want to be picketed,” DeSantis recalled.

While recognizing Dyke’s decency to employees, DeSantis found his boss to be an incorrigible micromanager, firing off emails at all hours of the night. He was annoyed by Dyke’s penchant for exaggeration. “I don’t like people that are bullshit artists,” DeSantis said in an interview.

DeSantis said he was also irritated that Dyke used the company as a jobs program for family and friends. His son Jeff was a Bushmaster employee and board member, and he put four of his girlfriend’s children on the payroll. Jeff Dyke declined to comment.

During DeSantis’s first five years as CEO, Bushmaster’s distributor base doubled, leading to a 130% increase in sales. Gross margin — the percentage of company’s revenue left over after direct costs are subtracted — rose by 6 percentage points.

Dyke and DeSantis knew that wars, panics and presidential elections drove Bushmaster’s success. DeSantis kept a chart showing gun unit sales and gross profits, logging major events associated with spikes in sales. (The chart was first reported in the 2023 book “American Gun.”)

When 1999’s Y2K fears fizzled out, gun sales slacked. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans panicked, once again buying up food and survival gear, including Bushmaster guns. To Dyke and DeSantis, the spree was illogical. The United States wasn’t about to be invaded. But as Dyke told a Maine Times reporter, guns made people feel safer, and so Bushmaster ramped up production again. Then the war in Afghanistan boosted interest in AR-15s. The company scored big contracts with foreign governments and with the private mercenary group Blackwater.

In October 2002, police captured a pair of men, known as the Beltway snipers, who gunned down 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area over several weeks using a Bushmaster XM-15 .223-caliber rifle that they fired through a hole in the trunk of their Chevy Caprice.

Dyke told a Maine journalist he was horrified that his gun could be used in such a “heinous crime.” But he noted that the gun was also used by law enforcement. “Do you think that you do more good than harm? Absolutely,” he said. He told Bushmaster employees they had nothing to be ashamed of, the Los Angeles Times reported. Sales of XM-15 rifles soared, and DeSantis noted the shooting and the uptick on his chart.

For Dyke, it was a difficult time. He was in a committed relationship with a much younger man in Las Vegas, whom he would hire to manage operations in a Bushmaster factory in Arizona. When word got out, he lost friends in the gun industry and even his own company, recalled Thurston, Bushmaster’s former CFO. Years later, Dyke confided to Thurston, “You’re one of the only originals that stuck with me.”

Dyke was also in a legal fight with two smaller investors, who alleged in a lawsuit that he was paying himself, his son Jeff and other family members lavish salaries. They also said he used company money to buy a fleet of Cadillacs, a Rolls Royce and a Bell helicopter that shuttled relatives to casinos and his lakeside house in Canada. Dyke denied the allegations and disposed of the case by buying the investors out.


Bushmaster’s notoriety and profits made it an inviting target for tort lawyers. In 2003, families of the sniper victims sued. Dyke paid them $550,000 to settle the case. The company viewed bankruptcy as a “potential legal strategy” to be “employed to avoid the payment of substantial damages,” its bankers wrote.

The lawsuit was a warning, and Dyke and his fellow gunmakers needed help. They wanted Congress to give them protection from liability for shootings. Fortunately, Dyke had contacts in high places, including an up-and-coming Republican senator and the president of the United States.

Dyke was friendly with the Bush family, which summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. He raised money for Maine Medical Center, which ran the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. In 1999, a year after the hospital's naming, George W. Bush, Barbara’s son, announced he was running for president. Dyke became his Maine campaign chair. But his presence was perceived as toxic after an Associated Press reporter asked the campaign about its association with an assault weapons manufacturer. Dyke resigned, saying he didn’t want to be “any baggage” for “young Bush.”

Dyke also had a longtime friend in the U.S. Senate, Maine Republican Susan Collins. She once called him “the most entrepreneurial person I’ve ever met. … This man has had one common theme throughout his life: commitment to the people who work for him, and his passion for creating jobs in Maine.”

Dyke had met Collins in the 1980s when she served on Cohen’s staff. In 1994, she ran for governor, with Dyke’s support. Collins won the Republican nomination but lost the general election. She wouldn’t be unemployed long. She secured a job at Husson College as executive director of the Richard Dyke Center for Family Business, which he had helped start by donating $250,000. Collins was “very qualified” for the job, and Husson’s president, not Dyke, approached her about it, said the senator’s spokesperson, Clark.

When Cohen didn’t seek reelection, Collins decided to run. While not a key adviser, Dyke instructed her over dinner at a Bangor restaurant “as to what it would be like working with other senators and how to leverage her strengths,” Clark said. “He also talked about the challenges facing small businesses across the country.”

With Dyke and other Bushmaster executives among her donors, Collins won. In July 2005, she voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which Dyke had pushed hard for. It prohibited lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, distributors and dealers for misuse of their products by others. That October, Bush signed it.

Collins “has always charted her own centrist position on gun issues,” her spokesperson said, pointing out that the senator supported a failed 2004 proposal to extend the assault weapons ban. Collins backed PLCAA because “she doesn’t think manufacturers of knives, guns, vehicles, etc. should be held liable for the crimes committed by people who misuse their products,” Clark said. After the Lewiston massacre, Collins has resisted calls for a new ban on assault weapons.


Bushmaster caught the attention of Cerberus Capital Management, a New York investment firm named after the three-headed dog that guarded Hades in Greek mythology. In 2006, Cerberus offered $76 million, twice Bushmaster’s own estimate of its value. “Holy shit,” Tom Tyler, then a Bushmaster executive, recalled Dyke telling him. “I never believed a good old boy from Wilton, Maine, would see that kind of money in his checkbook.”

The private-equity business model was a super-sized version of Dyke’s “bottom fishing.” Cerberus’ holding company, Freedom Group, gobbled up one gun manufacturer after another, notably Remington Arms. It also touted the bellicose aspects of its guns, using Bushmaster to cater to a new group of prospective buyers: not hunters and gun collectors, but “couch commandos” with fantasies of war and killing.

Freedom Group produced a series of print ads for its Remington-branded AR-style rifles, which were made at Bushmaster’s facility in Maine, with slogans like “Forces of Opposition, Bow Down. You are Single-Handedly Outnumbered,” and “Take Back the City.” It plugged Bushmaster guns with a novel “Man Card Campaign.” The gimmick was that owners had to be macho or their cards could be revoked. Cerberus declined to comment.

Dyke stayed on as a board member and consultant for the holding company for about a year. But he told New York Magazine he thought Cerberus was moving too fast, and he quit. But he wouldn’t be out of the AR-15 business for long.

In 2011, Freedom Group closed the Bushmaster facility in Windham, Maine, putting 73 people out of work. Dyke, who still owned the plant, was furious but saw a way to benefit, Kent said.

He summoned Kent to his home in Henderson, Nevada. Over cocktails, Dyke showed his old friend a business plan. “It makes sense to me,” Dyke told him. “We have the facilities. We have the workforce, and all the noncompetes are done.”

Dyke messaged his former Bushmaster employees. “Would you be crazy enough to go back into business with the old man?” he asked.

That August, the 77-year-old Dyke hosted a party to celebrate the launch of the family’s new company, Windham Weaponry. Among the attendees were several state legislators and Collins.

“We’ve got to get back in the game,” Dyke told them. “A lot can happen to it, but it cannot leave Maine because the Dyke family won’t let that happen.”

In its first month, Windham shipped 1,500 rifles. Soon the company had rehired most of its former employees and was producing nearly as many rifles as Bushmaster had at its peak.

In December 2012, Adam Lanza, a devoted player of a video game that featured an assault-style Bushmaster rifle, killed his mother and then went on a rampage with her Bushmaster XM-15 at a Connecticut elementary school. Like other mass shootings, Sandy Hook was good for sales. “Windham Weaponry is busier than a beehive this Spring! While we’re building rifles as fast as we can, be assured that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed!” Dyke’s company said in its newsletter.

Referring to “challenges resulting from recent events,” Windham encouraged its customers to contact their legislators and to attend the NRA annual meeting to oppose a new proposal to ban assault-style rifles after Sandy Hook. “Take action today, and make your voice heard!”

It didn’t mention that its own factory, under the previous owner, had made Lanza’s gun.


On Jan. 16, Windham Weaponry employees flew into Las Vegas for the 2023 SHOT Show, the industry’s firearms palooza. Driving past the Trump International Hotel to the expo center, they posted photographs on the company Facebook page, saying, “We made it!”

They set up their booth, putting the rifles on racks with a sign proclaiming that they were “battle tested and warrior approved.”

Dyke wintered in Las Vegas. But he was too ill to visit the company’s booth. If he could have walked the floor, he would have heard the telltale sounds of his legacy: the unmistakable ratcheting of charging handles being pulled back and the metallic “thunk” of their release.

When Dyke first brought his rifles to the show, they were banished to backroom booths. Now hundreds of companies are emulating Dyke by selling either AR-style rifles or accessories and other tactical gear. Cerberus’ holding company lost investors and faced lawsuits after the Sandy Hook shooting. The unit eventually went bankrupt twice, and its gun businesses were auctioned off. A Nevada company now sells AR-style rifles under the Bushmaster name, along with a device that enables them to fire at double speed, not only with the pull but also the release of the trigger, according to its website. “Bushmaster is back,” the company crowed when it opened in 2021.

In late February, Dyke was stung by a scorpion and had to be hospitalized. On Feb. 28, he chatted with Pestilli, Bushmaster’s former head of sales, by phone, thanking him for his help over the years. The next day, Dyke watched a Los Angeles Lakers game on television. He was about to go to bed when he had a heart attack and died, at the age of 89.

After his death, Windham Weaponry shut down. Then some of Dyke’s former executives stepped in. They leased the facility and plan to resume assembling and selling AR-15s, even as Mainers mourn the Lewiston victims.

At Dyke’s memorial service, Thurston credited him with rescuing more than a firearms company. “Bushmaster after 9-11 did a lot of things for this country,” he said, his voice rising. “Richard made sure that every employee at the end of the month understood that if it looked like a gun, it was going in a box and then going in a truck” to customers.

He pointed at the mourners nodding in agreement. “Because you might need it.”