Brownells Resurrects Another Classic With the BRN-180 (Full Review)


                                                   If the latest fashion trends are any indication, the maxim “everything old is new again” has never been truer, and the                                                               wonderful world of firearms is no exception.

                                                   Brownells recently released an entire stable of Retro Rifles spanning the last six decades, and the line’s success has                                                                 uncovered a serious nostalgia for Vietnam-era firearms. Where our parents pined for the wood and steel of the M1                                                                 Garand, this generation looks back on the first polymer space guns and says, “Now those were the days…”

                                                   The BRN-180 was perhaps the most anticipated of Brownell’s old-school firearms. Based on the AR-18/AR-180 of the 1960s, the BRN-180 upper uses a self-contained recoil system that allows the action to cycle without a buffer spring (hello, folding stock!). The piston-operated design is ultra-reliable, and best of all, the unit will function on any mil-spec AR-15 lower receiver.

I’ve had a great time taking the BRN-180 for a spin. While its accuracy leaves something to be desired, it functioned flawlessly with a wide variety of .223/5.56 cartridges, and the action design allows for a super-compact defensive option.


  • BRN-180™ has 16″ barrel with matte black Nitride finish

  • BRN-180S™ has 10.5″ barrel with matte black Nitride finish

  • AR-180 piston operating system

  • Compatible with current mil-spec AR-15 lowers

  • Machined 7075 T6 aluminum receiver & handguard – hardcoat anodized finish

  • .223 Wylde chamber

  • Nickel-Teflon coated bolt

  • Button rifled bore; 1-8″ twist

  • 1/2″-28 threaded muzzle

  • Replica 3-prong AR-180 flash suppressor

  • Molded polymer ejection port cover

  • MSRP: $799 – $827.99


The AR-18/AR-180: A Brief History

ArmaLite developed the AR-18/AR-180 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to correct one of the costliest mistakes in firearms manufacturing/R&D history.


According to an official document outlining the company’s tortured journey, ArmaLite began developing the AR-15 after a nearly successful attempt to convince the Army to adopt the AR-10. Military brass was curious about the AR-10’s space-age design, and they wanted to see a smaller caliber version. ArmaLite was happy to oblige, but the company was discouraged when international militaries passed on the AR-10, and executives had already decided to focus on the military rather than the commercial market. So, they licensed designs and trademarks of both the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt in 1959.




Needless to say, ArmaLite regretted selling to its competitor what would become one of the most iconic rifles in world history. The AR-18 was the company’s attempt to break into the military market without violating the AR-15’s design.

“It was obvious from Army purchases of the AR-15 that Fairchild [ArmaLite’s parent company] had erred in selling the AR-15,” ArmaLite’s document explains. “To recover from that error, ArmaLite set about to develop a new rifle that wouldn’t violate the Stoner gas system patents, which now belonged to Colt. The result was the AR-18, which began development in 1963.”


The new .223 caliber rifle featured a stamped sheet metal receiver to reduce production costs and differed from the AR-15 in two primary ways. First, it used dual operating springs on rods in the receiver, which eliminated the need for a buffer spring and allowed it to use a folding stock. Second, it used a Tokarev-style sliding gas cylinder under the handguard to avoid violating the Stoner gas system that had been sold to Colt.

The company was hopeful its new rifle could replace the AR-15, but by that time Colt’s rifle was already too entrenched.

“The AR-18 was highly regarded, but didn’t find the favor that it could have,” the company says. “Even as ArmaLite marketed the new small-caliber rifle, FN and HK were selling more traditional 7.62mm rifles around the world. Colt was selling AR-15s. The AR-18 remained somewhat prone to breakage, and never enjoyed the success ArmaLite expected.”


Much more can be said about the history of this unique rifle, but here’s the bottom line: even though it had features to recommend it over the AR-15, the AR-18/180 was an unfortunate case of too little, too late for the AR’s namesake company.


Brownells’ Take on the Classic

Now Brownells has resurrected and popularized the quirky rifle, but they’ve made some changes. Brownells’ Director of Product Management Paul Levy told me via email that the upper was designed by Primary Weapons Systems and FM Products after he and his team told them they wanted to adapt the AR-18/180 upper to a standard AR-15 lower.

The engineers started with modernizing the handguard. On the original rifle, only the top portion of the handguard could be easily removed to access the gas system. On the BRN-180, the entire free float handguard can be removed from the front of the rifle, which allows the Standard Piston Cup to be swapped for the Suppressed Piston Cup (on the BRN-180S, the gas system is fully adjustable). Users simply field strip the rifle, pull down on the U-clip located near the front of the receiver, and slide off the handguard assembly.


Engineers also had to shorten the bolt carrier because the AR-15 lower has a shorter length of travel than the AR-180. Shortening and lightening the bolt carrier necessitated slight modifications to the gas and recoil system to guarantee reliability