It Came From ARFCOM: A Gaggle Of Retro AR Builds

Retro AR-15s seem to appeal on more than just a level of nostalgia. Of course, ’80s action movies, Clancy novels, and other media featuring the early Black Rifles activate a certain nostalgic fondness, but aesthetically these first generation guns have much to recommend them, too. Their smooth triangular handguards, slick receivers, slim uncluttered carry handles and distinctive flash hiders give them the look of an arrow, pointing downrange, as if the rifle itself were in motion.

Tastes differ, of course, and the above is just how I feel about these guns, of which I am more fond than the current offerings, however decidedly more effective and adaptable the latter guns may be. If, like me, you prefer retro chic, then the lineup of rifles that member and master retro AR builer John Thomas has posted is sure to invite envy into your heart:


Image source: John Thompson,


From bottom to top, they are faithful reproductions of:

  • AR-15 prototype w/ 25 round magazine. Note the trigger charging handle. Only a handful produced.
  • Colt 601 (early), very few produced.
  • Colt 601 (late), the Project AGILE and early SF rifle in Vietnam. 8,500 produced in September of 1963.
  • Colt 602, the early adoption USAF rifle, also used by US special operations units early in the war. 19,000 produced in April 1963.
  • Colt 603/XM16E1 or M16A1, original US Army contract rifles, produced for the “one-time buy” in November of 1963, and subsequently produced throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Early examples of this model and all previous rifles did not have chrome-lined chambers or bores, which caused serious problems in Vietnam if the barrels were not kept clean and free of moisture – this rifle features the later full-fence lower, and thus may or may not have a chrome-lined barrel.
  • Colt 604, US Air Force contract rifle, produced alongside the Army’s XM16E1 as part of the November 1963 order.
  • Colt 605, original attempt at an M16 carbine. This rifle, unlike later visually similar “dissipator” carbines tapped gas from the visible gas block. Due to the bullet’s prompt exit from the barrel after passing the gas block, the rifles were undergassed and unreliable.
  • Colt 606, the original heavy-barreled squad support variant of the M16. This was the first version of the M16 to feature a heavier barrel, though its profile is heavy under the handguards, unlike the later M16A2 (Colt 705).
  • Colt 607, the first AR-15 model to feature a collapsing buttstock. Very few of these were ever made. The line of development of carbine AR-15s begun with this rifle would eventually lead directly to today’s M4 Carbine.
  • Colt 608, the “Aircrew Survival Carbine”, designed to be stowed in an aircraft and used if the aircraft were downed. Like the 607, very few were ever made.
  • Colt 609, the famous XM177E1, along with the Colt 610/XM177 US Air Force “slick side carbine”, it was the first successful AR-15 carbine, and was used extensively by US special operations units in Vietnam. It was fitted with a moderator to reduce the noise and blast from the short 10″ barrel.
  • Colt 629/XM177E2, this rifle improved upon the XM177/E1 by utilizing the full fence lower of the A1 M16, as well as lengthening the barrel to 11.5″ to improve velocity. It used an improved moderator design that, along with the longer barrel, helped further reduce the noise and blast of firing.

More pictures can be seen by following the link to the thread over at The website is also extremely useful for creating a timeline of the rifles’ production and use, as is the book The Black Rifle by R. Blake Stevens. Further credit is due to Daniel Watters for helping me to make the information in this post as correct as possible.

More of John Thomas’s work can be seen at his website, Retro Arms Works, including John’s speculative “AR-14” AR-15 precursor (the actual AR-14 was a commercial sporting version of the AR-10).

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • John Thomas (Retro Arms Works) is the king of reproduction builds.

  • Damn. I love this kind of stuff.

  • Zebra Dun

    The older AR-15’s with triangular hand guards always surprise me as to how light weight they are and sleek.

    • RealitiCzech

      Pencil barrels save a lot of weight.

    • Kivaari

      I put 16″ pencil barrels. The two use mid-length gas blocks. Excellent handling and under 1 MOA groups at 100m,

      • Zebra Dun

        I have an old SP 70000 serial range that is as light as a daisy BB gun.
        More accurate than I can shoot it and the sweetest handling around.

    • Mark77

      They were designed that way so as to fit up the users ass when the VC over ran them with their superior AK’s.

      • Zebra Dun

        Your one funny ass wipe ya know that Bubba.
        I been spit on by folks better than you.
        You ain’t a vet for sure. Not Nam vet anyway.
        Your welcome to try and stick one up my ass.
        Be sure you coat your AK in chocolate.

  • Esh325

    I’m not the biggest AR fan but there always was something very appealing about the simplicity and clean lines of the early AR’s.

  • iksnilol

    I never really understood the logic behind the xm177E1 and E2.

    -You chop the barrel down
    -then you lenghten the barrel and add a moderator which brings the barrel back up to 40 cm.

    Why not just use a 36-40 cm barrrel and add flash suppressor?

    • Dave

      The idea was that it was still considerably shorter than the M16, while the moderater reduced the sound so that it sounded the same as the full length rifle. This was important because when enemies heard the loud bark of the carbines, they knew that they were facing a comparatively small SOF element, and could vector forces in to destroy them. The sound of rifles did not give this away as it could easily be a large conventional force.

      • iksnilol

        Still, why not just go with a 40 cm barre? Easier to make a midlength barrel than it is to make a short barrel then add a suppressor which isn’t really a suppressor.

        • Dave

          Because a 40 cm barrel is still going to be notably louder than a 50.8 cm/20 in barrel, which is what all the M16s of the era used. I agree that it’s a bit of an odd design decision, but it got that way in response to real field experience.

          • iksnilol


            Found this interesting document in regard to barrel length, pressure and sound.

            If I understood it correctly there is about half a decibel difference between a 40 cm and a 50 cm barrel. I doubt that is notable in the chaos of a gunfight. Then again I might not hear a difference due to hearing damage (turns out you need ear pro for weddings).


          • Dave

            That is probably true, but the problem that the XM177E1 had was that it started as a ~27cm barreled carbine. On the provided graph, that gives close to a 2 dB difference, which on the decibel scale is a very pronounced difference.
            It may be true that a redesign with a longer barrel would be more efficient, along the lines of the “M16A1 Carbine.” It may also be that the shorter barrels were already in inventory, or that the .5 dB difference is still enough to be noticeable.

        • Now you are just being difficult.

          • iksnilol

            Sarcasm or not sarcasm?

    • The moderators help reduce the sound and flash signatures down to more rifle-like levels. A 14-16″ barrel with just a flash hider would still have a greater report while being longer.

  • Core

    Always loved this picture, theres a unique appeal to the classic models. I like the Colt Commando replicas, they look really clean.

  • LilWolfy

    The 605 is a great-handling carbine. From the bench, mine has no visible muzzle climb.

    John Thomas’s work is truly unique in this industry, and he is a gifted craftsman for certain.

    Studying the original guns and the progression of changes is an education that will take you into territory that opens up the Stoner designs in ways you would never have guessed.

  • mosinman

    the retro AR-15s, like the cars of the day look better than their modern brethren imo.

  • Panzercat

    …The title of a B-rated scifi horror flick, no doubt. Much like the site itself, at times 🙂

    • n0truscotsman

      Posts like that are one of the few gold nuggets at arfcom. …One of the few…

  • n0truscotsman

    Man, this is cool.

  • Southpaw89

    Very interesting, I had no idea that they went through so many variations of the AR platform, I particularly like the models with Bakelite furniture and the air crew survival rifle.

    • Armalitology is a subject unto itself, truly.

  • bayonet

    Hey, I have a bayonet that matches the 3rd one in.

  • Lance

    Need M-203 on one!!

    • claymore

      Xm-179 would be more period correct.

      • Don’t you mean the XM148?

        • claymore

          OOOPPS senior moment you are correct.

        • claymore

          I should have known better. I actually had a complete Colt cut away demo model XM-178.

          It was real cool with the cut out windows painted in different colors depending on the mechanisms in that area.

          Alas it was one of the “things” I sold off when I went overseas. BUT I did get some huge money for it.

  • Marcus D.

    Interesting how the AF went slick sided while the Army went with the forward assist. Anyone know why?

    • The AR-15 was not designed with a forward assist. It was a long standing Army requirement that any rifles adopted needed forward assists, so a forward assist was hastily developed, and Army rifles got them. The Air Force had no such requirement, and so for a long time they didn’t get them.

      • Marcus D.

        Really. having no experience with the Garand or M1 Carbine, I never thought of the charging handle as also functioning as a forward assist, which is what I gather from your reply.

        • Yup, it’s been a requirement since the US started looking at selfloading rifles in 1902.

          • Andrew

            Gotta love wazoo legacy requirements. Great article, though.

      • James

        Heck, one of the complaints about the SCAR rifles, their reciprocating charging handles, is there precisely because the Army asked for them, so they could have some measure of a forward assist.

  • This is porn to me.

  • Patrick Mingle

    God I really need an Colt 608 now!

  • Verner

    While I could theoretically get a permit for each one and own these here in Hungary, they would probably put me under 24/7 surveillance, in fear that I will start a militia or something like that 🙂

    • Cattoo

      Almost like your own state funded security team and fully manned home alarm response squad.

      • Verner

        Well, now that you put it that way, I think I’ll go for it 🙂

  • HKmaster

    In this day and age full of tacticool AR’s, its great to see that there’s still some appreciation for the classics 🙂

  • tony patric

    interesting stuff. the 608 Aircrew Survival Carbine was new to me!

  • Jim

    Great stuff. I built an A1 retro a few months back. I wanted one that looked like the one I carried back in the day so it sports a three prong flash hider. Those were handy for opening cases of Cs.

  • Brian M

    “John Thomas”
    Nath, in British English, his name literally means penis! ;D

  • Tucson_Jim

    I’m not a huge M16/AR-15 fan, but, I LOVE my two Colt AR-15 SP1’s… they are the closest thing to an infantry laser you can get. Under 6 lbs dry weight, nicely balanced, and ridiculously accurate for a combat rifle. I have a great deal of respect for the 5.56 X 45 cartridge in 55 grains, when used in a 1:12 barrel at the range it was intended…

    They are a PITA to clean, they make scraping-boing-boing sounds when you fire them as the buffer slides past your ear, and, you have to keep any lateral tension off the forearm because they are not free-floated, the cheek weld sucks if you use a carry-handle scope mount, and the sight base for the irons is too short… but, they are fun to shoot.

  • Anon. E Maus

    Seems like a cesspool to me, but I’ll say that you can find pretty good images around there, like these Retro builds.

  • Kivaari

    The M16A1, with chrome bores and full fenced lowers, are the best.

  • BuzzKillington

    What did you do to get banned?