He has said that his gun company was born out of his poor golf game. Instead of puttingtering around the course, Mr. Daniel started using an AR-15 — the type of gun he would later go on to make — for target practice. “Every shot he fired filled him with a satisfaction he’d never before experienced,” the company’s website says.
At the time, Mr. Daniel had trouble finding a way to mount a scope onto his rifle. He began designing and selling his own accessory that allowed gun owners to add lights, a range finder and lasers onto the rifle.
He got his break in 2002 at a gun show in Orlando, Fla., where he was approached by a representative of the US Special Forces. He ultimately won a $20 million contract to produce the accessories for combat rifles. More deals followed. In 2008, he won a contract with the British military, according to Daniel Defense’s website.
By 2009, the company had expanded to making guns for consumers. Its military ties were the basis of its marketing, which often featured heavily armed fighters. “Use what they use,” one ad says. Another shows a military-style scope aimed at passing cars on what looks like a regular city street. Others include references — using hashtags and catchphrases — to the “Call of Duty” video game.
Before the 2000s, most gun makers did not market military-style assault weapons to civilians. At the largest industry trade shows, tactical military gear and guns were cordoned off, away from the general public. That started to change around 2004, industry experts say, with the expiration of the federal assault weapon ban.
“Companies like Daniel Defense glorify violence and war in their marketing to consumers,” said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports gun control.
In 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting led to an industrywide surge in gun sales, as firearm enthusiasts stocked up, fearing a government crackdown. In an interview with Forbes, Mr. Daniel said the shooting “drove a lot of sales.” (Forbes reported that Daniel Defense had sales of $73 million 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 started to worry that Mr. Daniel had become distracted by the glamor of marketing the brand and rubbing shoulders with celebrities and politicians, according to a former Daniel Defense manager. They voiced concerns that some of the marketing materials were inappropriate for a company that manufactures deadly weapons, said the manager and a former executive, who didn’t want their names used because they feared legal or professional repercussions.
Some ads featured children carrying and firing guns. In another, posted on Instagram two days after Christmas last year, a man dressed as Santa Claus and wearing a military helmet is smoking a cigar and holding a Daniel Defense rifle. “After a long weekend, Santa is enjoying MK Monday,” the caption states18, referring to the gun’s model.
The industry’s aggressive marketing has landed some companies in trouble. Earlier this year, the gun maker Remington reached a $73 million settlement with families of children killed at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn. The families had claimed that Remington improperly marketed its assault rifles, including with its weapons appearing in “Call of Duty,” which the killer at Sandy Hook had frequently played.
A year after Sandy Hook, with the Super Bowl approaching, Daniel Defense launched a new marketing stunt.
The National Football League had a policy prohibiting ads for weapons on its telecasts. But Daniel Defense tried to buy a 60-second spot that depicted a soldier returning home to his family, with ominous music in the background. “I am responsible for their protection,” the ad’s narrator intones. “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 that the ad complied with the policy because the company sells products besides guns.) Daniel turned the rejection into a rallying cry, and the conservative media lapped it up. Appearing on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” he urged viewers to “call the NFL and say, ‘C’mon, man, run my ad.’”
“That is Marty Daniel at work,” Mr. Powell said. “He’s not one of those typical CEOs that you see.”
Mr. Daniel and his wife, Cindy, have worked hand-in-hand with the National Rifle Association to raise money for the group, sell weapons to its members and beat back 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 who advised Mr. Trump on gun policy.
Mr. 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’ve given more than $70,000 to Republicans.