Neo-Retro 21st Century AR-180: born of the BRN 180

The ArmaLite AR 180 was the civilian (semi-auto) version of the AR-18 available from ArmaLite in the late 60s and early 70s, then for a brief period from Howa, and ultimately from Sterling Armaments. When someone looks to build a new-retro, modernized version of that weapon, what’s it look like, and where do you start? You start with a BRN-180 URG you’re not supposed to have yet, a LAW Tactical folder, and…well, just read on. As for putting a tiger stripe paint scheme on there…that’s coming

21st Century AR 180

At SHOT Show 2019, I made my way over to the Brownells booth to get a look at their Retro offerings in person. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen them, as I had gone over at the request of a friend to see the BRN-10 prototypes along with their early M16 and CAR-15 prototypes at SHOT 2018. This year I wanted to go back and see what the current versions were like (having been interested in a BRN-10 myself, which I eventually did get and do my own thing with,) along with whatever other new entries to the line they’d come up with.

BRN 180 used to build a modern AR 180

Note: I originally wrote of this project on Facebook, and it was later shared by Eric Graves as an article on Soldier Systems Daily. I’ve since been asked to expand and elaborate on the project, so that’s what I’m going to do here.

BRN 180 (18.5 in.)

What caught me off guard and took me by complete surprise was the BRN-180 upper receiver group (“URG.”) Initially offered only with a 16″ barrel, it intrigued me because of the 21st-century adaptation to the AR-180 approach Brownells took to its design, adding a free-float M-LOK rail and modern surface treatments to the barrel and BCG, and most importantly, making it compatible with AR-15 lower receivers.

I remember the first thing I noticed was the rail, and right away thinking, “What is this, another AR upper?” When I saw the distinct shape of the charging handle, I had a brief moment of short circuit while I stopped to re-evaluate what I was looking at, and when I did the math, a big smile came to my face.

This was something I had been wondering about for maybe 5 or 6 years by that point, going back to the time Darren Mellors and AJ Lafferty parted ways with LWRCI and started Kinetic Development Group. I remember at one point suggesting to Darren, “Hey, if you guys want to do something original that sets you apart from where you came from, why not apply everything you learned about barrel and surface treatment technology and apply it to the AR-180 design, as well as the AR-16 if you feel like going the .308 route?” I got a “Hmm” for a reply and it didn’t really go anywhere beyond that. I’m not at all taking credit for the idea behind the BRN-180. I have been wondering why something like this hadn’t been done, where the only answer I got otherwise was “See also G36, ACR, etc.”

A sneak-peek at the end result:

BRN 180S

A few months later in April, Brownells launched the BRN-180S. That is the 10.5 in. barreled SBR version of their URG. Between the 16 in. and 10.5 in. barrel options, these made potential for an excitingly simple approach to a piston operated URG meant for use with a suppressor that was made with quality manufacturing oversight and compatible with both the AR-15 lower receiver, as well as a folding stock adapter such as that offered by LAW Tactical, culminating in a configuration that, theoretically, could rival the ACR, CZ805/806, B&T AP223, SCAR-16S or SIG MCX, albeit in a more cost-effective and logistically streamlined way.

“So which one did you get?”

Neither of them, actually. Seeing that I’ve already got my share of 14.5″-16″ barreled carbines, I didn’t see the pressing need for another URG that offered the same performance from a 1/8 .223 Wylde barrel. Since I already had an HK416 upper receiver meant to serve as a dedicated suppressor host for my Surefire SOCOM556-RC2, I couldn’t think of a pressing reason to drop coin on the 10.5″ BRN-180S. Still, for those pondering going down that road, it was exciting to have something to recommend to them once the beta-testing phase any newly designed product goes through upon its initial release was over, and any bugs were shaken out.  Said bugs were eventually discovered by the early adopters and rectified by Brownells and PWS on the production side, and as of this writing, I can confirm that they’ve effectively fixed whatever issues were there.

No, for this one I ended up having to be a more difficult pain in the ass about. Some of my friends know for years now that when I get a particular configuration in mind that I want to do and I know all the parts exist and fit together, I will see it to it that those parts are acquired and assembled. They also know I’m verbose once I get going, so, get comfy, this article is gonna take you a minute. I looked at the BRN-180 URGs, and I wanted one for a fun setup, but as I said, neither of the existing options provided enough incentive for me to push the button. So I looked at them and said: “Well, what would make me want one?”

The novelty to it would be in having the up to date version of the original Piston AR, but since I already had one to do the job I needed it for in the form of my HK416, this needed to have something more in the novelty department. I looked at the original AR-180, and several others people had owned and posted pictures of wherein they’d updated certain components like switching out the handguard for a rail, or the fixed stock with a collapsible stock adapter. All well and good, and nothing the BRN-180 wasn’t already capable of with the added bonus of logistics in its favor via the AR15 lower receiver compatibility. That’s when I noticed something the original AR-180 had that the BRN-180 did not: an 18.25″ barrel.

My creative mind ran with the idea, but its eye needed to see it. I figured, this is merely the difference of one component, that being the barrel. So I grabbed pictures of the 16″ URG, along with pictures of the original AR-180, and got to chopping in MS Paint until I had come up with pictures of two 18.25″ barreled variants: One with the same length rail as the 16″ URG, and one with a slightly shorter rail that more closely resembled the handguard to exposed barrel ratio of the original AR-180. Once I had this prototype image complete, I posted it up in the BRN-180 URG discussion thread in Tactics & Applications, and said outright, “I would totally fuck with a full rifle (18.25″ barrel) version (of the BRN-180) set up like this for shits and gigs.” Keith Ford over at Brownells joined the conversation, where we were all just casually geeking out about the BRN-180, and ever so vaguely said, “You never know what we’re up to Frank ;).”

BRN 180 used to build a modern AR 180

Seven months later…

Urge to URG

It’s Thanksgiving, late at night. The 2019 Black Friday sales are starting to activate across the industry’s digital landscape, and although I initially determined I would abstain since I didn’t terribly need anything, a concept that I came to call “JAG-16S” entered my mind, and having been bit by the creative bug, I set out to surf the sales and get what I needed to put it together. I’ll tell you what the JAG-16S is some other time, but the relevance here is that the main component was the BRN-180S URG. So while I’m going through the Brownells website looking for it, I see… something else. Something my friends at Brownells had not previously made me aware of, and I would later come to learn that my finding it was an accident entirely, as it had been listed on the website prematurely, prior to its intended SHOT Show 2020 debut: a version of the BRN-180 URG with an 18.5″ barrel.

“What the fuck is this?I?” I asked myself, immediately pumping the brakes on my Black Friday purchase plans. This was an unforeseen development, but a pleasant surprise all the same. It usurped the current project plans in priority, and so JAG-16S got put back on the board for another time when funds allowed and providing nothing more important had my attention. When I thought about what I would need for this project, I realized it would cost me less in the long run since I already had the majority of the required smaller components laying around unused from previous build configurations. I added the 18.5″ URG to my cart along with some ancillary components and completed the purchase. Fortune was in my favor that night because after I completed the purchase the URG went from “In Stock” to “Out Of Stock” on the Brownells website.

I don’t know if I was the only one that got one, as it wasn’t even supposed to have been listed to begin, but as of this writing, I’m the only person I know that has one. Which is good for you in the audience, because if mine was the only one that got out, you’ll have a first-hand account of one to read in time for its official debut at SHOT 2020 next week, should you be so inclined to pick one up for yourself.

There was yet one other vital component I needed for this project that I didn’t have or know I needed yet. When the BRN-180 first debuted at SHOT 2019, Nodak Spud, a company known for its Retro style reproduction components (with whom Brownells collaborated for their own Retro AR series rifles,) and the folks over at put their heads together and brought to life a beautiful concept that took form as the “Fusion Lower,” or NDS-1815 as its offered by Nodak Spud, an AR-15 pattern lower receiver that is aesthetically styled after the AR-180’s lower receiver, its conspicuous front to back upward slanting magazine well in particular. Marketed by Nodak Spud particularly to be paired with the BRN-180 URGs, I had been aware of its existence during the design phase earlier in the year when I saw the CAD images from, but it was only right after I discovered the existence of the 18.5″ BRN-180 URG that I realized the NDS-1815 lowers were in full production and commercially available, via a friend showing me his. If the 18.5″ URG were the biscuits, then here now had come the gravy, and the solution was clear: The NDS-1815 lower receiver was the only appropriate choice to pair with the BRN-180 URG. So I ordered one.

Over the next week or so the components trickled in through the mail and the lower receiver to my FFL, and when I finally had them all together, I sat down when I got home from work at 0300 and got to putting them together, thus turning a box of parts into what I now call the Neo-Retro.

Neo-Retro Build List

Here’s the complete list of parts:

• Brownells BRN-180 18.5″ barrel URG

• Nodak Spud NDS-1815 lower receiver

•  LAW Tactical Gen 3-M folding stock adapter

•  Geissele Super LPK*

•  Geissele SSA Trigger

•  Magpul Type 1 rail panels

•  Magpul Fixed Carbine Stock

•  Magpul MOE Grip

•  Magpul MS1 QDM sling

•  Magpul M-LOK QD socket

•  Troy Micro height M4 style BUIS**

Side view of the Neo Retro, folded

* I omitted the Maritime Bolt Catch from the LPK and replaced it with a standard USGI Mil-spec type I had laying in the spare parts bin, as I’ve heard the Maritime is prone to breaking along the extended bolt release tab.

** I modified the Rear BUIS in this pair, as it was only available with the diamond-shaped aperture and I couldn’t find it with the standard aperture. After giving them a look, I decided I didn’t like the sight picture of the diamond-shaped aperture, and preferred that of the standard good ole AR sight picture. So, I dug a standard height Troy Rear BUIS that I hadn’t used in years out of the parts bin, took both it and the Micro height Rear BUIS apart, switched their aperture assemblies, and put them back together. Presto perfecto.

Art Gun Project Combo

I chose this combination of parts because, since this was an art gun project, I tried to get it as close to the AR-180 I could in looks while also taking the newer architecture into account. I already had the stock and it looked close enough to the original AR-180 stock while also being aesthetically in line with the M-LOK rail (which dominates the rifle’s overall appearance.) The BUIS were chosen because they closely resembled the AR-180 iron sights in both height and appearance (yes, I know they’re backward.) This is also why I chose the Type 1 rail panel covers, as they were the closest thing I could find that came anywhere close to resembling the original AR-180 handguard, by hiding all the M-LOK cut-outs in the rail under them. I’m convinced, in my unconfirmed albeit sneaking suspicions (call it a hunch,) that Brownells has an AR-180 style AR15 grip (along the same lines as their AR10 and Retro A1 grips) in the works that they’re staying tight-lipped about until SHOT. That’ll be the finishing touch on this otherwise quick turnaround of a Black Friday project. In the meantime, I had the MOE Grip in the parts bin, and it gets the job done while fitting in with the rest of the overall aesthetic.

My first impression of the completed rifle, all together, was that it was simple and straightforward for what it was. Lightweight in the hand, and intuitively manipulated. The Micro height BUIS line up perfectly with my eye once I get a solid cheek weld on the stock. No chin weld needed. It feels like the M16s of old, and what I imagine the original AR-180 felt like, in the form of a standard-issue infantry fighting rifle of the 20th century, with some 21st-century upgrades that allow it to compete in the modern era. I left the retro style flash suppressor in place since I have no plans to mount a suppressor to this URG, although I have no doubt it would handle that just fine, especially since every BRN-180 upper receiver (as per the Brownells website and confirmed in the package it came in,) ships with a standard Piston Cup pre-installed. This Piston Cup is optimized for unsuppressed use. Also included is a Suppressor Piston Cup. The latter is obviously meant for shooting with a suppressor, and mine is stored away.

I neglected to modify the lower receiver to accommodate a Teal Blue Bravo PDQ bolt catch as I would a standard USGI pattern forged lower (four of them, at this point), because the ergonomics involved in pinning the bolt catch tab and pulling back the charging handle until the bolt locks back is a lot easier to do than it is with a regular AR, thanks to the position of the 180 style charging handle vs that of a standard AR, which I always manipulate with my support hand as a matter of habit. The bolt catch, bolt release, magazine release, and safety manipulation all function exactly the same as you’d expect an AR-15 to function.

AR 180 build art gun

So, I got the thing all put together, it passed all the dry function checks, and its fun to play around with. The last thing to do before I could write this article in clean conscience was to do some live-fire testing. Unfortunately, the day I had available to shoot was a day my go-to outdoor range with 50, 100, and 200-yard target points was closed. Therefore, my only option was my local indoor range, so I can’t yet speak to the rifle’s accuracy at range as the farthest I could shoot was 12 yards, and the farthest I did shoot was 5 yards because I wanted to at the very least be able to talk about how this thing feels and behaves in live fire. For what it’s worth, I was shooting M193 55gr FMJs, and coming from an 18″ 1/8 twist .223 Wylde barrel, I imagine it will be no slouch when I finally do get around to zeroing it proper. In the meantime, I’ll defer to the range reports of those with the 16″ barreled BRN-180 uppers for an approximate idea of its accuracy capabilities.

Neo-Retro (Modified BRN-180 URG) Goes Loud

When I got to the range, I set up my target, took out my ammo, loaded up my Magpul D-60 drum mag, and got to work. I didn’t bring my shot timer because this wasn’t to gauge my performance but to focus on the rifle’s function. The first strings of fire were slow in pace, and being that I was so close to the target, after accounting for mechanical offset the rounds went where I intended to put them. Having oiled the rifle beforehand, there were no choking or hangups, and the rifle successfully cycled every round I put through it that day, for an eventual total of ~200 rounds. The recoil impulse to this particular BRN-180 felt noticeably light and soft to me. In fact, the first few times I went dry, I didn’t realize the bolt had locked to the rear of the empty mag. It doesn’t deliver that unique jolt we’re all accustomed to from an AR locking back after the last round and feeling that extra kinetic energy passes into our shoulders. I don’t know if this has something to do with the longer barrel or the gas system and the length thereof, but having never fired any other version of the BRN-180, I had nothing to compare it to but my other ARs. To test this further, I sped up my firing cadence of 2 to 5 round strings and paid attention to how it all felt. Very controllable, was what I came away from it thinking. I’m pleased, and I think you would be also.

Now, the big question (for me at least, since I really didn’t read too many reviews of the existing BRN-180s until after the fact,) was how this thing behaved when being fired while the LAW folding stock adapter was folded. For what it’s worth, I would never do this in any practical setting in real life for the obvious reasons inherent to the lack of stability and control, and therefore the lack of precision that comes with firing a rifle without using the stock, but this was for science, so, screw it. I folded the stock to the left, and I paused for a moment when I looked at the rear of the rifle. I could see straight through the LAW folder, into the receiver, to the rear of the BCG in the closed position, and the firing pin within.

a modernized AR 180


Cautious brain kicked in and asked the Scientist brain “How do you know the firing pin isn’t going to come loose and go flying into your arm or torso at whatever the fuck thousand feet per second since there’s nothing to stop it?” Scientist brain took a drag of its cigarette and thought about it for a moment and said, “Fuck it, it’s almost been a year, if that was possible we would have heard about it by now and Brownells would have had warnings to not fire the weapon with a folded stock all over the product page. Let’s do this, Leroy.”

So with just a bit of trepidation, I picked up the rifle, pointed it safely downrange, and angled myself behind it such that if something did come flying out the open rear of the weapon, I would take the hit in my bicep rather than somewhere I would have otherwise used a ballistic plate to protect. Squeeze/bang/recoil… no pain. Quick self-inspection… we’re good! Let’s continue. Another 10 or 15 rounds later I said okay this is annoying but the hypothesis has been successfully tested, it can be done (though I can’t imagine why you’d want to unless you had an itch to pretend you were Arnold in the first Terminator movie.)

After emptying the D-60, I refilled it, shot some more, topped the mag off, and applied some more oil to the action. I set the rifle down on the bench pointed downrange and leaned forward with a machinegunner’s posture, my support hand gripping the stock, and dumped the mag as fast I could until my trigger finger tired out. No issues, but lots of joy. Though a limited firing session, I think the thing can hang, which is a bonus for what was conceived of as a fun gun, and something I carry in mind towards any weapon I purchase: “Tools before toys.”

Have your working guns situated before you buy silly shit.

When you do start buying silly shit, it needs to be able to fill the role of a working gun should that need ever arise. Nobody wants to be the buddy fucker that hands out a loaner that’s a cheap jamomatic piece of shit because you half-assed the build and cut corners to save a few bucks.

AR 180 build art gun

Going Forward

I might switch out the Type 1 rail covers for Type 2 panels that I would sand down smooth and either buff or hit with a glossy clear coat to get that AR-180 handguard look (hat tip to Karl Kasarda over at InRange TV for the idea). Those Type 1 covers don’t do shit to keep your hands shielded once the rail starts to heat up, and I got this thing hot in short order. I was only in the range for about a half-hour.

The Neo-Retro, named so for its form factor of a new version of an old working gun that saw plenty of conflict in its heyday, is a slick little rifle that isn’t cumbersome in its size, shape, weight, or handling. Rather, it’s easy and fun to use, it works, and it works well, which are important qualities any gun you spend your money on should have. Moreover, it looks cool, chiefly because of Brownells being super cool and making the 18.5″ barreled version a thing, even if my coming across it was erroneous, accidental, and/or unanticipated.

In that case, I say, it was so wrong, it had to be right. Look for the 18.5″ BRN-180 URG to debut officially at SHOT 2020, pricing information is available now on the Brownells website, and if you were thinking of using the BRN-180 URG to do a sort of retro reproduction of the AR-180, you now have a successful blueprint to follow and/or modify, if you’re so inclined.

In the meantime, stay safe and shoot straight.

AR 180 build art gun

More on the AR-18

ArmaLite AR-18  Assembly & Disassembly


Frank Woods is a ten year veteran of Gotham City PD1 and a devoted scholar of Hoplology.  In addition to the experience gained during his tenure, he has amassed a considerable amount of training time beyond what his agency provides to its rank and file. This is as much a reflection of his enthusiasm for learning and honing techniques and mindset as it is a desire to enhance his ability to serve and protect. If you're on Facebook much, check out his discussion group, Tactics & Applications. 1 His agency's policy and procedures (and a desire for PERSEC) prevent the use of the real agency and name. GMW has vetted him, however.

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