He has said that his arms business grew out of his poor golf game. Rather than fumbling around the track, Mr. Daniel began using an AR-15—the type of weapon he would later go on to make—for target practice. “Every shot he fired filled him with a satisfaction he’d never experienced before,” the company’s website says.
At the time, Mr. Daniel was struggling to find a way to mount a rifle scope to his rifle. He began by designing and selling his own accessory that allowed gun owners to add lights, a rangefinder, and lasers to the rifle.
He got his breakthrough in 2002 at a weapons show in Orlando, Florida, where he was approached by a U.S. Special Forces representative. He eventually won a $20 million contract to produce the combat rifle accessories. More deals followed. In 2008, he won a contract with the British Army, according to Daniel Defense’s website.
By 2009, the company had expanded into making weapons for consumers. His military ties formed the basis of his marketing, which often featured heavily armed fighters. “Use what they use,” says one ad. Another shows a military-style telescope aimed at passing cars on what appears to be a regular city street. Others contain references – using hashtags and catchphrases – to the video game “Call of Duty”.
Before the 2000s, most gun manufacturers did not market military-style assault weapons to civilians. At the largest industrial fairs, tactical military equipment and weapons were sold away from the general public. That started to change around 2004, industry experts say, with the passing of the federal assault weapons ban.
“Companies like Daniel Defense glorify violence and war in their marketing to consumers,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports gun control.
In 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting sparked an industry-wide surge in gun sales as firearms enthusiasts stockpiled for fear of government crackdowns. In an interview with Forbes, Mr. Daniel said the shooting “got a lot of sales.” (Forbes reported that Daniel Defense had $73 million in sales in 2016.)
After the shooting, Daniel Defense offered employees extra overtime to meet skyrocketing demand, according to Christopher Powell, who worked for the company at the time. “They kept people focused on the task at hand,” he said.
But in the late 2010s, some colleagues began to worry that Mr. Daniel had been distracted by the glamor of marketing the brand and shrugged off celebrities and politicians, a former Daniel Defense executive said. They expressed concern that some of the marketing materials were not appropriate for a company that makes lethal weapons, the manager and a former director said, who did not want their names used because they feared legal or professional repercussions.
Some ads showed children carrying and firing weapons. In another, posted to Instagram two days after Christmas last year, a man dressed as Santa Claus and wearing a military helmet smokes a cigar and holds a Daniel Defense rifle. “After a long weekend, Santa Claus is enjoying MK18 Monday,” the caption reads, referring to the model of the gun.
The industry’s aggressive marketing has landed some businesses in trouble. Earlier this year, arms manufacturer Remington reached a $73 million settlement with families of children who had died at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. The families had alleged that Remington had improperly marketed his assault rifles, including those featured in Call of Duty. ‘, which Sandy Hook’s killer had often played.
A year after Sandy Hook, as the Super Bowl approached, Daniel Defense launched another marketing stunt.
The National Football League had a policy that prohibits ads for guns on its broadcasts. But Daniel Defense tried to buy a 60-second spot that showed a soldier returning to his family, with ominous music playing in the background. “I am responsible for their protection,” said the ad’s narrator. “And no one has the right to tell me how to defend them.”
Given the NFL’s ban on gun ads, it was no surprise that the ad was rejected. (Daniel Defense claimed the ad was compliant because the company sells other products in addition to weapons.) But Mr. Daniel turned the rejection into a rallying cry and the conservative media licked it up. When he appeared on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, he urged viewers to “call the NFL and say, ‘Come on, man, show my ad.'”
“That’s Marty Daniel at work,” Mr. Powell said. “He’s not one of those typical CEOs you see.”
Daniel and his wife, Cindy, have worked hand-in-hand with the National Rifle Association to raise money for the group, sell guns to its members, and refute calls for gun control.
In recent years, Mr. Daniel and Ms. Daniel, the company’s chief operating officer, became outspoken supporters of Donald J. Trump, contributing $300,000 to a group aligned with Mr. Trump. mr. Daniel joined the Second Amendment Coalition, a group of gun industry heavyweights that Mr. Trump advised on gun policy.
Daniel told Breitbart News in 2017 that Mr Trump’s election “saved our second amendment rights.” He and his wife have also donated to other Republican candidates and groups, including in their home state of Georgia. So far in the 2022 election cycle, they have given Republicans more than $70,000.