High plains insurgent Ammon Bundy’s band of anti-government extremists would never have gathered the strength to run federal agents off government-owned land if his supporters hadn’t been armed to the teeth, he told interviewers from federal custody.

Bundy spoke with filmmakers for the new PBS-TV “Frontline” documentary “American Patriot,” which chronicles the movement of disgruntled ranchers, militia members, and right-wing ideologues that grew around his family’s feud with the U.S. government. The conflict came to a head, when, in January 2016, the Nevada rancher and more than a dozen armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. They held the site for 40 days, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and numerous other federal and state agencies and other federal and local police officers tried to avoid a deadly confrontation.

“That’s exactly why we had guns there,” Bundy told “Frontline.” “They would respect us and allow us to speak.” Without guns, Bundy said, law enforcement “would have done what they’ve done to protesters all across this nation. They would have tased us and sprayed with mace. They would have put zip ties on us and hauled us off in paddy wagons.”

Bundy’s anti-government movement was born in the crucible of the Nevada desert. His father, rancher Cliven Bundy, fought with the Bureau of Land Management for 20 years over unpaid fees for grazing cattle on federally owned land. When the agency confiscated 400 of his cattle as a penalty, the elder Bundy called for militias to come to Nevada to protest. Supporters descended on the town of Bunkersville from throughout the West.

What began as a demonstration became an armed insurrection on April 12, 2014. The militia groups took positions along a highway bridge above where authorities impounded the cattle. The militia’s snipers aimed at officers from six different law enforcement agencies. “If we get many more of them, we’re gonna be outgunned,” one officer said over the radio as the protesters massed and took position. The authorities were eventually ordered to retreat to avoid bloodshed.

“The SWAT teams knew these guys were out there, and we will whip your ass. We will die,” Brandon Rapolla, a militia leader from Oregon who joined forces with Bundy, told the filmmakers.

“For it to unfold the way it did was absolutely a miracle for us,” the younger Bundy told interviewers.

Over the next two years, Ammon Bundy traveled the West, speaking at churches and right-wing meetings about fighting the federal government. One such engagement took him to Burns, Oregon, home of the Hammond family, fellow ranchers who had been arrested for arson after they lost control of a brush fire they had set on federal land where they grazed cattle.

After holding a demonstration on behalf of the Hammonds in downtown Burns, Bundy led a collection of Oath Keepers, III Percenters, and other militia members to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which abutted the Hammonds’ land. They occupied the buildings at the Malheur compound for more than a month. The standoff came to an end after FBI agents and police intercepted Bundy and his associates when they left the compound to attend a meeting. One occupier, Levoy Finicum, was shot and killed in the encounter.

When authorities finally retook Malheur, they seized more than 50 guns and huge ammunition stockpiles. The occupiers had converted one part of the refuge, a boat launch, into a target practice area. Investigators canvassing the spot found 1,650 spent rounds.