[ Steve Says: This guest article was written by Phil Hirsh, the author of The Guns We Left Behind “a book of humorous and poignant short stories about the golden age of guns in America.”. We will be reviewing Phil’s book in the near future. ]
It was 1982, President Reagan was in the White House, and the Soviets weren’t having it. The whole world was nervous. We were at the height of the Cold War, and a nuclear exchange seemed like a real possibility. There was a survivalist craze upon the land, and I was not immune. I wanted a trusty .223 caliber weapon for farm defense, or hunting ground hogs, whichever came first.
I had an M-1 carbine, and I thought that a Ruger Mini-14 would be a natural successor. This quickly proved a disappointment in the varminter department and gave way to my purchasing one or more of every semiautomatic .223 on the market. It took me a decade, but I tried them all; many more than once. Eventually I found that while still a little problematical, an AR-15 with a good scope was the ideal blend of tactical and practical.
Three decades later, I am still looking for the next best thing, but I have to say that as I handle the latest ACR, SCAR and Tavor rifles at the gun shop, I think my pre-ban guns offer more features and over all are a better value than the 21st Century assault rifles.
My local dealer hates customers who bargain hunt for guns on the net, but the average retail price of a SCAR or ACR will take your breath away. I was following several auctions for these rifles on GunBroker.com, but I just couldn’t get past the idea that anyone would pay more than two grand for a newly manufactured rifle. It occurred to me that the high prices for pre-ban guns looked pretty good in comparison to anything on my shopping list, and I found myself perusing the pre-ban rifles pages.
That was when I found my current AR-180. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator. Of all the rifles of my youth, it was my first AR-180 that that really taught me how to zero and use military open sights. I had a close friend at The University of Richmond who also had a Sterling made AR-180. He belonged to a gun club just outside the city. We often skipped class to shoot water jugs and tin cans on the club’s plinking range. My buddy stayed true to his Armalite rifle for years while I tried every rifle I could find. As a result I can honestly say that we tested the AR-180 against the AR-15, CAR-15, Valmet-76, HK-93, Mini-14GB, Mini-14 Ranch, Daewoo K-2, Steyr AUG and two other AR-180s. In every case, both in accuracy and functional reliability, the AR-180 either kept pace or surpassed the competition.
I lost a lot of money on those trades, and I was frequently left to choose between the two most economical rifles on the market—the Mini-14 or the AR-180. I tried to improve the Ruger’s performance, but I never found a way around it’s barrel whip issues. The Sterling made AR-180 was sexier, but it had a few foibles of its own that made me wish I had another two hundred bucks to buy it’s natural competitor, the Colt AR-15.
The history of the military issue AR-18 runs parallel with the M-16. It came from the famous Armalite design team, but this rifle’s development was headed up by Arthur Miller who discusses the project in an interview with Small Arms Review Magazine. Essentially, the AR-18 was Armalite’s effort to recapture a market they created but lost when they made the mistake of selling the AR-15 to Colt. The M-16 was fairly expensive and required complex tooling and skilled labor to produce. Miller thought that he could exploit this weakness and says simply, “I wanted to present an easier manufacturing method in that caliber. The full patents were issued in 1967.” (Small Arms Review, Vol 12, no. 8 p.71)
By then, the early models of the M-16 were malfunctioning in the field, and it seemed that there might be an opening for another assault rifle in the same caliber. Alas for poor Miller and his team, the engineers at Colt largely ironed out the M-16’s teething problems before the AR-18 could make an impression.
The AR-180 was evaluated by both American and British forces in the mid 1960s, but both trials indicated that the rifle needed further development. The results of torture tests in mud and sand were not satisfactory. Early examples tested at Aberdeen had a fully automatic cyclic rate that outran the magazine’s ability to keep up. Armalite fixed the problems, but they lost traction and ultimately the race to become America’s standard issue rifle.
Armalite of Costa Mesa California was too small to mass produce the AR-18. Howa Industries in Japan was contracted to manufacture the weapons, but just as production was underway, the Japanese government banned the sale of small arms to belligerent countries involved in the Vietnam conflict. This prompted the move to Sterling in England, but by the time the rifles were again available, the M-16A1 was performing well and customers lined up to buy them from Colt. Other 5.56 rifles were coming on line from HK, SIG and FN, and Armalite could not afford to compete with companies that were willing to foot the cost of setting up entire manufacturing plants in the buyer’s back yard. A deal with the Brazilians fell through for this very reason, even though the AR-18 outperformed the FN, HK and Colt competition.
Many potential buyers are turned off by the AR-180’s crude appearance, but it was designed for ease of production, not beauty. Each manufacturer left distinctive traces of their assembly techniques. Costa Mesa made guns have welds that were drilled and filled with weld rod which leaves a white spot. Specimens from their tiny production run of nearly five thousand rifles are hard to find. Howa rifles are slightly more common and have resistance welds which results in a more uniform look. Sterling rifles are crudely finished in comparison to the other two. Look out for sharp edges. Back in the late eighties I owned at various times an original Costa Mesa Armalite AR-180, a Howa with scope and two British made Sterlings. I can report that appearances have nothing to do with performance. To this day, I have only had one jam with any of the AR-180s I have shot, and this was a double feed due to a much worn original twenty round magazine.
I lost all desire for an ACR or SCAR when I compared the options I was looking for with a pre-ban AR-180. I was amused that more than forty years ago the AR-180 rifle had all of the features that today are considered cutting edge. Plus, this is a pre-ban gun, and that makes it all the more desirable. It will continue to gain value, and I can sell it for what I bought it for. You cannot do that with the post-ban weapons.
First, the AR-180 is a gas piston operated weapon…the very thing that everyone salivates for today. It uses a three piece design that is very similar in to the FAL system, but it lacks the gas adjustment feature. The gas piston also adds a little weight forward which, in comparison to the M-16, improves its balance.
The bolt carrier rides on dual rails, each with its own return spring. The rotating M-16 bolt is all too familiar. The mechanism avoids all previous patents associated with the AR-15 and might have proven to be a superior design if only it had appeared a few years earlier.
Arthur Miller modified the M-16 magazine and says that his design is quicker to manufacture and much more cost effective than the magazine in use today. Finding true AR-180 magazines can be difficult and expensive. Thermold offers a synthetic mag that works well but should be listed as having a 29 round capacity. They have the horizontal slot for the AR-180 magazine latch, but otherwise they are AR-15 magazines that use unaltered AR-15 followers. These cause the bolt hold open latch to activate before the last round is loaded, leaving one round in the magazine and the bolt locked back. I load a blaze orange plastic training round in my unaltered magazines and consider the problem solved. It is possible to use a Dremel motor tool to make a few careful trimmings of the magazine to resolve this annoyance.
The AR-180 rifle does not have an AR-15 bolt release lever, but it does have something much more meaningful– a bolt handle. Many operators prefer that they can actually grab the bolt to clear a jam or push it home on a dirty chamber, and Miller doesn’t disappoint. He had to deal with the problem of ejected cases bouncing off the bolt handle and ricocheting right back into the ejection port. His solution was the distinctive, oddly cranked charging handle. The AR-180 is the basis for the British SA-80 bullpup rifle whose charging handle in original form caused the same malfunction.
The basic AR-180 action has been used in many subsequent designs, but it is the bullpup conversion known in the British Army as the L-85A2 that is infamous. The British have such antipathy for guns that they lost the ability to effectively manufacture them. Massive numbers of their rifles failed in the field during the First Gulf War. The AR-180’s original designers were brought in to trouble shoot the errant weapon, but the list of problems they uncovered was so extensive and embarrassing to the manufacturers that their consultation went unheeded. Eventually Heckler and Koch was contracted to rebuild the British arsenal, and now the latest incarnation of the AR-180 seems to be working as well as anything else.
While the original British guns were disastrously unreliable, they were found to be extremely accurate. The AR-180 rifle is a good shooter. Novices do well with it, especially when I attach the scope. The AR-180 features a unique “lug” in front of the rear sight for a “pop on” optic. The small scope was held in place by a spring loaded plunger that acts on the face of the rear sight block. Early versions of the rifle were sold with the AR-15’s 2.75X scope in this nifty mount. Miller says that, “I carefully calculated the dovetail to release not too easily, but the angle was such that the release was possible without too much force. In other words, all you had to do was tap it and it would release.” (SAR V12 n8 p75)
There is no need to limit oneself to meager magnification. I have mounted a Burris compact 2-7X on a StormWerkz spring loaded rail mount which actually returns to zero when removed, though removing and installing it repeatedly has taken some of the finish off the top of the receiver. The StormWerkz mount is the perfect height and long enough to say that when in use the AR-180 has a flat top like the SCAR or ACR. The rifle also sports M-16 sights. They don’t need to fold with the scope installed as they are not in the way.
As I think back on my earlier AR-180 experiences, I do recall heavy triggers being an annoyance on several of the Sterling made guns, but at that point I didn’t have any experience with gun smiths who could fix this problem. My current AR-180 was sent off to a specialist for a trigger job, and seventy-five bucks later it has a dreamy, crisp five pound pull. There are spare parts out there, but they can be hard to find. I have never experienced a parts related failure in the original AR-180 series.
When the bore is clean, using an optical sight, my slightly upgraded AR-180 will shoot into two inches or so at 100 yards off the bench with Winchester M193 ball. It does even better with my hand loads that feature a Hornady 55 grain SX bullet. The rifle sports a twenty inch barrel with a 1:12 twist, ideal for bullets that weigh from 40 to 55 grains. Accuracy with Wolf and Tula ammo is good enough for plinking and instruction, but won’t win any matches. I have fired several hundred rounds of this steel cased stuff in my AR-180 without a problem.
Russian made ammunition that is so common these days leaves a lot of carbon behind. The AR-180’s gas system may get filthy, but the bolt stays cool and relatively clean. The rifle field strips in seconds and is easy to maintain. It has been my experience that keeping the bore itself swabbed is unusually important to maintain best accuracy. I have fired many hundreds of hand loads through several different AR-180s, and over time I noticed something unique to this design. On most rifles, as the bore gets dirty, groups open up. After several hundred rounds, as an AR-180 bore fouls, groups will quite suddenly change from little triangles to vertical strings. I was not surprised to see my current rifle start stringing just like previous ones. When this happens, all I have to do to get the accuracy back is punch the bore with a brush and a wet patch. I also keep after copper fouling to make sure accuracy remains up to near-varminter standards.
If the AR-180 has a problem area, it is the stock. The use of dual return springs inside the receiver allowed for a true folding stock that was light-years ahead of AK-47 or MP-40 under folding designs. When open, the AR-180 stock has just a bit of lateral wobble to it that can be distracting when shooting from the bench. When closed, the stock latches to a sharp peg on the left side of the receiver that is otherwise there it jab the operator. The fire selector is ambidextrous, and the weapon can be fired with the stock folded. Some shooters say that the stock’s narrow comb hits the cheek sharply under recoil. Facial shape seems to have a lot to do with it. The stock is too light to take much abuse. In fact, I wouldn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it.
I do want a rifle with a folding stock that is easy to store on a boat or plane. I find that the plastic SCAR and ACR stocks, while more comfortable to use and more adjustable, are no more rugged than the Armalite design. Nothing that costs two grand should feel cheesy, and in the final analysis, the AR-180’s stock will serve just fine.
The AR-180 is just plain fun to shoot. Compared to most infantry rifles, it weighs nothing. At just under seven pounds empty, it is easy to shoot one handed like a giant pistol. Recoil is light and without a return spring clanging away under your ear, as is the case with the M-16, the action feels snappy.
The AR-180 has a spotty historical record. Many rifles were bought on the American civilian market and smuggled to Northern Ireland. The IRA called it “The widow Maker.” During the 1970s it was sold in small numbers for paramilitary use all over the world, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the LAPD S.W.A.T. team. Arnold Schwarzenegger used an AR-18 one handed with the stock removed for the famous police station shootout in the first “Terminator” movie. The punk rock group The Gang of Four had a song about the weapon entitled “Armalite Rifle” where it is said that a “a child could carry it” and “shoots for miles.” They sing that they, “disapprove of it.”
Despite its limited exposure, the AR-180 has cachet at the range. Sterling made just under 11,000 copies, most of which were sold in the United States. The AR-180 is none too common anymore, so if you are a show off, you’ll be happy with this choice.
There are only a few accessories for this rifle. Aside from the optic, it takes the standard M-16 bayonet, sling, muzzle cap and clip-on bi-pod.
The newest incarnation of the Armalite company briefly marketed an “AR 180B” version that used AR-15 mags, a synthetic lower receiver, and a non-folding stock. The lower can be installed on an original AR-180. I had one of these rifles for a while, and I liked it really well, but there were rumors that the synthetic lower was prone to cracking, and I had to replace the bolt latch with a new part from Armalite. I sold it to a friend who has nothing but good to say about it (thank goodness). The 180B was discontinued some time ago and should not be spoken of in the same breath as the originals. It was priced to compete with the lower end weapons of this type, but sales were sluggish.
All together, with scope mount and six mags, I have a little over a grand invested in my AR-180, and I couldn’t be more pleased. That’s half the cost of a SCAR and well shy of the ACR price too. Who would have thought that a forty year old rifle made in England could out perform the 21st Century’s best offerings from FN and Bushmaster?
I suppose that this entire story falls under the heading of, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The world is still nervous. The urge to arm up remains as strong as it was when I was young. In fact, it may be even more prevalent. So before you go out and blow two grand to get a gas piston rifle with a weak stock, check Gun Broker for an original AR-180. These days, pre-ban may be the best way to go.