Monday, April 23, 2012

The Retro AR-15

Over the past few months I have been building up a few retro style AR15s and even a couple of more modern style rifles. In all cases though, the weapons have been military style and as close to milspec as i could make them. During my research to determine which parts to use (and more often than not, which not to use) I went through a lot of data. I wish I could read and enjoy the photographs in any of the great books out there on the AR, but we must use what we have to hand right? I thought I would share what I have learned about the AR, with special focus on the development and early models. I will point out right now that some of the Colt model numbers are contradictory and i did my best to reason them out. This seems especially true with the M16A2 and M4 carbines. Hey, this is a free read and just something I am doing for fun.

Update: If some of this looks familiar, its because I posted it a year or so ago. I was assembling an M16A1 for a goon and also updating 2 of my own builds, so I thought i'd also update this thread and repost it for those without archives. I have added new pictures, a timeline of early changes, and corrected some information.

The Beginning
Where to start with what would become the M16 and arguably one of the most recognizable military firearms in the world? WWII changed warfare in many ways. Automatic weapons were seen in more hands than ever before, fighting was highly mobile, at closer ranges, and towards the end of the war the world's first assault rifle appeared: the German STG.44 (MP44). After the war, the race was on to develop new kinds of military small arms and new doctrines to utilize them. In 1948, research at John Hopkins University indicated that as much as 95% of fighting on the modern battlefield occurred at ranges under 300 meters. Further research showed that soldiers who took time to aim really didn't increase the overall kill ratio. In fact, some evidence even seemed to suggest that 2 out of 3 soldiers in a battle might not have even fired their weapon. It was concluded that soldiers were more likely to fire their rifle if it had automatic capability and thus more bullets equalled a more effective fighting force. Of course i am paraphrasing big time here to get accross the point that by the late 1940s, it was becoming clear that individual soldiers would be more effective if equipped with assault rifles, instead of more accurate bolt actions. In 1953, Project SALVO began with the goal of evaluating new possible military small arms and calibers.

At the same time, the Armolite company was founded. Armolite was not to be a fullscale manufacturer of firearms, but rather an idea company. It was owned by Fairchild Engineering, an aircraft firm. So Armolite brought airplane materials and technologies to the firearms industry. Armolite was meant to create new designs, test them, develop them, and then sell them to other firearms companies. In 1953, inventer Melvin M. Johnson was hired by Armolite to be a consultant. Johnson was the designer of the M1941 Johnson rifle and light machinegun. He brought his rotating bolt with 7 lugs system with him to Armolite, which is how it wound up in the AR-10 and thus the AR-15. In 1954, Eugene Stoner joined the team which was developing the AR-10. It is incorrect to say that Stoner actually created the rifle; though he did introduce the direct gas impingement system to it. Again though, Stoner was not the first to use DI in an automatic rifle. That honour actually goes to the French in 1901 with their Ent B5 prototype. The system had previously been successful in the Swedish AG-42 Ljungman and French MAS-49. It was popular for its simple design with fewer parts, lighter weight when compared to pistin systems, and for the fact it allowed for better accuracy when compared to other methods. Stoner had more to do with the materials the AR-10 was built from and its rather unique layout. The original rifle used a steel barrel, titanium muzzle brake, and fiber glass furniture. Though variations definitely existed.

Starting in 1954, the US military began testing to select a new service rifle for its troops. The AR-10 was a late comer to the trials in 1956 but did make it in. It competed against the T-44 (Springfield M14) and H&R T48 (licensed copy of the FN FAL). The AR began with a disadvantage and was quickly dismissed from the trials when in 1957, a test rifle's barrel burst; nearly taking off the shooter's hand and definitely scaring the shit out of him. George Sullivan, the President of Armolite, was basically to blame for the failure of the rifle. While Stoner wanted to use a traditional steel barrel, Sullivan insisted on developing an aluminium barrel and another aluminium one with a steel liner. It was one of these barrels that malfunctioned at the trials. That was basically the end of the AR-10 as far as the US military was concerned. It was probably inevidible that the Springfield M-14 was going to win anyway. The AR-10 did find limited success overseas, but what makes it important today is how much influence its design had on the later AR-15.

the Armolite AR-15

Even as the new 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge, along with the M14 was being adopted in 1958, many in the military were wanting a small caliber bullet. This lead to the Small Calibre High Velocity Program. It was suggested to Stoner and Armolite that they should scale down the AR-10 and work on a .22 caliber projectile for it. Both Remington andWinchester began work on similar cartridges. The military requirements for the new rifles were that it had to weigh less than 6 lbs fully loaded, had to be capable of selective fire, had to chamber a .22 caliber rifle cartridge, and that it had to be capable of penatrating a steel helmet at 500 meters. By 1958, the new AR15 was ready for testing. During a test in March of that year, another barrel burst, but this time it was blamed on rain water and steps were quickly taken to prevent this from happening again. The rifle was also tested in Alaska in the Arctic climate. Complaints were quick to appear and Stoner was sent for. He was supposed to bring replacement parts and service the prototype rifles. When he arrived he found the rifles in horrible condition, mistreated, assembled improperly, and not properly cared for. It was clear the AR15 was setup to fail and indeed it had been rejected even before he had arrived. Not all reports about the AR were negative though. In a mach-up battle situation, it performed well against the M-14 and Soviet AK47. It also helped that in the new trials, it had no real serious competition.

Nevertheless, by 1959, Fairchild had become impatient with Armolite's lack of financial success with the AR-10, AR-15, and the .223 Remington cartridge. In December of that year, Colt officially purchased and took over manufacturing of the line. Colt AR15 production commenced immediately and Colt wasted no time in marketing the new rifle. Malaysia was the first nation to purchase a major contract and the British SAS also expressed a strong interest. In otherwords, Colt realised the main problem with the rifle wasn't the design itself, but the way it had been marketed and promoted. Quite honestly, Colt simply knew how to make it happen. It wasn't just that though, Colt engineers also introduced a number of changes to the design and in 1960, Stoner left armolite and joined the rifle's new manufacturer.

the Early Colt M16 (601 & 602)

Probably the biggest change from the Armolite AR15 to the early colt 601 was the charging handle. The Armolite rifle had a trigger style handle located inside the carry handle. Though this design might seem interesting and unique, it prooved problematic. So Colt relocated the handle to the now familiar place, though the handle was of an early triangular shape, unlike the modern one we know today. Colt added and standardized a 3 prong flash hider to the design. The Armolite AR often did not have any flash hider. Next Colt standardized the furniture style and mounting. Very early rifles had plain brown furniture, which soon after began to be painted green. Several small parts were slightly upgraded and changed too. Colt's first production AR was labelled the 601 or Model 01. This was the first version to actually go into combat.

In July of 1960, General Curtis LeMay whitnessed a test of the rifle and was intrigued. A year later, as commander of the Airforce, LeMay ordered 80,000 601s to replace the Air Force's stocks of aging M1 Carbines. However, General Maxwell D. Taylor convinced President Kennedy and others to not allow the purchase order to go through. His reason was that the military should not have two different rifle calibers in service at the same time. Though Kennedy went along with Taylor's recommendation, it seems he rather liked the AR15. Colt gifted 2 of the rifles to the President and reports indicate he was quite taken with them.

Project Agile was the Colt AR-15/601's famous military debut. In October of 1961, William Godel of ARPA sent 10 of the rifles to Vietnam for evaluation and testing by the South Vietnamese Army and their US advisors. Initial reports were favorable and 1,000 more rifles were sent over the following year. I won't get into the whole wounding and tumbling stuff that the AGile reports claimed the AR-15 capable of with its .223 caliber and 1 in 14 twist rifled barrel; I will just say the soldiers who used the rifle in these early trials were impressed by its performance. The Agile reports undoubtedly contributed to the military's continuing interest in the platform, despite political resistance. By the end of 1962, the Air Force had already adopted the Colt 602 as the M16. The major change from the 601 to the 602 was in the rifling. The 602 featured a 1 in 12 twist rifling pattern, which was felt to perform better in colder climates.

In January of 1963, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered a hault to M-14 production. By that time, it was becoming clear the M14 was too costly and time consuming to produce to equip the military for the numbers of rifles it required. The AR-15 could be made faster and more cheaply than the M14 and it was to become the new service rifle for all the branches of the United States military. The Army adopted an experimental version of the AR as the XM16E1 and ordered 85,000 weapons. The XM16E1 was basically the same as the early M16, but with the addition of a forward assist. It must be noted and is frequently pointed out, that this addition went against the advise of both Colt and Stoner. Other changes from 602 to the 603 (XM16E1) included: cast front sight base changed to forged, drain holes added to the front sight base and buttstock screw, improvements to the firing pin, upgrade to the current style of charging handle, and a new style of pivit pin. It should be noted that some of these changes were not implimented until 1966 or there abouts. The Air Force already had some M16s in inventory, but was allowed to acquire 19,000 more at the same time. The USAF rifle would not feature the forward assist, but other upgrades made to the design throughout the decade would be incorperated into its M16 design. The M16 was the United State's first major fullscale adoption small arm to be sent directly into combat; without prior extensive testing and/or peacetime issue. This fact would quickly make itself felt.

The M16A1 (603 XM16E1 & M16A1)

The first M16s to reach Vietnam were issued to special forces, but by 1965, the XM16E1 was in theatre in ever increasing numbers. At the same time, the Secretary of Defense approved the rifle for issue in all five branches of the military. It wasn't long though before field reports started to come back that painted the new rifle as a jamming piece of junk. Many even said it caused soldiers (Marines mostly) to loose their lives. The number one problem seemed to be a failure to extract malfunction, in which the spent casing became stuck in the chamber. Almost everyone in the firearms community today knows the root cause of this problem. Stoner had originally used Improved Military Rifle (IMR) powder in the .223 cartridge, or more simply 'stick powder.' The military changed this powder to the common ball type to both save on costs/use existing stocks and to give the caliber a bit more range. Ball powder burned faster. This combined with the original lightweight Edgewater recoil buffer/spring guide caused the rifle to cycle faster, which in turn left more residue in the bore after firing. So the weapons were being subjected to more parts wear than was originally allowed for and were running dirtier than they were capable of handling, at least reliably. Compounding the problem, Colt marketed the M16 as a 'self cleaning' firearm and did not distribute it with a cleaning kit. A Congressional investigation ensued as soon as word of the malfunctions and attributed loss of life, reached North america. Colt set about fixing the problem. First, cleaning kits were immediately issued with the weapon, along with cleaning guides. Next, the XM16E1 received a chrome plated chamber to aid in extraction. Finally, the ultra-light Edgewater buffer was replaced with what we know today as the standard rifle buffer with internal weights. These improvements greatly increased the rifle's reliability. Despite its problems, the M16 was there to stay and in 1965, the Army ordered 100,000 more units. The same number was ordered the following year.

In February of 1967, the XM16E1 was standardized as the M16A1. In addition to the chrome lined chamber, the A1 differed from the E1 in several ways: the 3 prong flash hider was replaced withA1 style 6 slot 'birdcage' type in late production e1s and standardized with A1, solid body buttstock replaced with hollow one with a compartment for the cleaning kit, rear sling swivel became fixed instead of rotating, a 'mag fince' was added around the magazine release to prevent it accidently being hit, a drain hole was added to the buttstock screw, and the original Edgewater buffer was replaced with the current style. The M16A1 did not receive a fully chromelined bore until 1970 or so. The Army adopted the M16A1, while the Air Force continued to use the M16. both designs served at the same time and both continued to receive product improvements as Colt designed them. The only difference between the two was the presence of a forward assist, or not.
By 1968, the M16's major faults seemed to have been worked out and it was quite popular with the troops for the most part. They liked its lightweight, compact size, and the ability to carry large amounts of ammunition. Though many still wished it had greater range and stopping power. Nevertheless, most soldiers asked at the time preferred the M16 over the older M14, especially those in Vietnam. In 1969, Colt finally created a reliable 30 round magazine for the M16, but these were slow to make their ways over to Vietnam and in fact the 20 round magazine was not phased out until 1976 or so. By 1968, the M16A1 had become the established and tested firearm that would remain the standard issue in the US military for two decades. Even today, many question if the M16A2 is really an improvement over the A1.

Parts Transition Timeline (incomplete and I might have some dates off by a year or so)

1960: Model 01 in production, cast FSB, Winchester made barrel with WW mark, metal front sling swivel with rollpin, Green painted furniture,
1963: Model 02 in production, change from original duckbill FH to improved 3 prong, barrel twist rate increased from 1in14 to 1n12, barrel marked VP, furniture is black, change from original fathead to improved flathead firing pin,
1964: Models 603 and 604 in production, cast FSB to smooth forged, early to A1 dustcover, M added to barrel mark for magnetic particle tested, front sling swivel was rubber coated and riveted, rear sling swivel is rubber coated, forward assist first appears, change to modern type of charging handle,
1965: CAR15 family in production, first GX series carbines,
1966: XM177 series in production, M VP to MP marked barrel, Edgewater buffer to current standard buffer,
1967: M16A1 rollmark appears, 3 prong FH to A1 FH, carbon steel gas tube to stainless steel, chromed chamber, drain hole added to FSB,
1968: H&R & Hydramatic manufactured M16s appear, 'drain' hole handguards,
1969: barrel marking to C MP C, current style of gas tube appears,
1970: FSBs are not smoothed-have 'flash' from forging,
1971: barrel has both chromelined chamber and bore with C MP B mark, A1 buttstock appears with trapdoor for cleaning kit & fixed metal sling swivel,
1974: C MP B to C MP ChromeBore on barrel,

the Early Carbines (605 & 607)

The rifle length M16 was not the only AR-15 in the jungles of Vietnam. Shortly after Colt acquired the rights to the AR platform, it began developing a line of shorter and lighter carbines, to equip special forces and for special missions. The first of these was the 605, which appeared in 1964. This model was nothing more than a standard XM16E1 with the 20" barrel cut down to 15". It had the bayonet lug milled off usually and used the then standard 3 prong flash hider. Lower receiver was E1type and buttstock was the same as on a standard rifle. Early upper receivers did not have forward assists, though some late models had a milled off FA housing. The 605 was shorter than a standard M16 true, but was plagued with reliability issues because of virtually no dwell time between the gas port and muzzle. It never occurred to Colt to increase the port's diameter it seems. This was not a very successful model, but is notable for being the first AR-15 carbine. Very few 605s made their way into the hands of soldiers, though a few ended up with the Navy.

The 607 was Colt's next attempt at an AR carbine in 1965. Interestingly, in Colt's catalogue, the 607 was listed as a submachinegun; not a carbine. Though the weapon was as compact as some SMGs of the day, it still fired a rifle cartridge. By modern standards it remains a carbine. It seems clear this was just a marketing ploy by Colt. It was moderately more successful than its predecessor. In many respects, this model layed the ground work for the modern carbine: 7" long 'carbine' length gas system, 10" barrel, 'carbine' length buffer tube, and collapsing stock were all found first in this model. Still, the 607 was a transitional carbine. Its collapsing stock was made from a cutdown E1 stock and its handguards were also cutdowns from standard rifle triangle types. The custom built furniture meant the carbine was time consuming and expensive to make. The 10" barrel drastically decreased the weapon's length, but had excessive muzzle flash, noise, and decreased reliability. Early examples were fitted with the standard 3 prong flash hider, but later ones had a 3.5" moderator installed. This moderator controlled flash somewhat, helped with sound a bit, and increased back-pressure. It did not have flash hider slots at the end like later moderators would. Early 607s used slick-side upper receivers with no forward assist, but later production ones were equipped with the assist feature. It seems colt built these carbines from whatever was on hand, including some cutdown pistol grips originally meant for the cancelled 608 air Force survival rifle. The carbine saw some service with Navy SEALs under the designation of GX5857. I have no idea why it received that designation or even what it really was supposed to mean. Its a very unusual name for a US military firearm, even an experimental one. it is not known for sure how many 607s colt produced but it was a small number, probably 200 or less. This carbine was the first step on the road which would one day lead to today's M4A1 Carbine.

the CAR-15s (XM177E1, XM177, & XM177E2)

The XM177 series saw the most widespread use throughout the Vietnam War and afterwards in the US military. Behind the M4, these carbines are probably the most recognizable Colts ever produced. In reality though, rather few were actually fielded. The Colt 609 and 610 were introduced in 1966. The only difference was that the 609 had a forward assist and the 610 did not. In June of 1966, the Army ordered 2,815 609s and designated them XM177E1. The 610 was given the label XM177 or GAU-5/A in Air Force service. The XM177 had a 10" barrel like the previous carbine, the classic 2 position CAR collapsing stock made of aluminium, the same gas system and buffer as the 607, and used an E1 style lower receiver. The XM's handguards wereof a new round type, which were both easier to produce than the triangular style and stronger. Originally it was issued with the same 3.5" moderator, but later received a new 4.3" moderator which also doubled as a flash hider. The XM177E1 was an improvement over the GX5857, but still suffered from excessive muzzle flash and less than ideal reliability.

In 1967, Colt began offering the 629/630 model (forward assist or no forward assist). The 629 featured a longer 11.5" barrel which made the carbine more accurate, more reliable, and decreased muzzle flash a bit. The extended barrel also made room for the XM48 grenade launcher attachment so a grenade ring was installed on some models to accommodate the unit. The 4.3" moderator was standard on the new model and it used the new A1 lower receiver and chrome lined chamber. In most other ways the 629 was the same as the 609. In April of the same year, the Army purchased 510 629s and designated them as XM177E2. A short time later the Air Force also acquired the new carbine and gave it the label of GAU-5A/A. The 629 would be Colt's last 10/11" carbine and the final version. Though it was more reliable and userfriendly than previous AR-15 carbines, not all of its problems were ever resolved. It was still not 100% reliable and known for being picky about which ammunition it would cycle. It still had a loud report and flash, even with the moderator. On the other hand, it was very compact, light, and easy to use. Some of the very first 30 round magazines went to the XM177s being used in Vietnam. They were very popular with special forces and soldiers out on point. Production only lasted a short time, with the final XM177E2s being manufactured in 1970. In many ways, it was the last of the true classics commonly called a CAR-15. Many would remain in service for decades,especially with the Air Force.

the M16A2 (701 & 705)

The replacement for the M16A1, the M16A2, was a long time in coming. Its roots stretch back to 1970, when it was decided that 5.56mm would become a standardized NATO caliber. This would greatly help with supply legistics in Europe in the event of war. Trials to select a standard loading of the 5.56mm NATO cartridge began in 1977 and concluded in 1980, with FN's 62g M855 being agreed upon. The M16 magazine also became an unofficial NATO standard magazine type. The new projectile performed best out of a 1 in 7 twist barrel, so a new service rifle was called for in the US military. The Colt 701 and 705 were the results.

In 1982, the military officially adopted the Colt 705 as the M16A2. The push for this configuration was mostly from the Marines who wanted a more accurate and long ranged weapon, though all services accepted it. Issuing of the A2 was delayed until 1986, due to budgetary constraints and with some units even as late as the 1991 Gulf War. The M16A2 differed from the M16A1 in many ways. First of all the barrel was made heavier out past the front sight base to give more strength and accuracy during sustained fire. It featured the new 1 in 7 twist for the M855 bullet. The 20" length was kept however and it was still skinny under the handguards. A new 5 slot flash hider combination muzzle brake was introduced; as well as new round handguards taken from the XM177 series and lengthened to fit a rifle. A tapered delta ring was added to retain the handguards, which was easier to use during disassembly. The rifle had a new rear sight which was now adjustable for both elevation and windage, and the front sight was also updated. the Forward assist button was redesigned from the traditional 'tear drop' shape, to a round style; and a brass deflector addded to make the rifle more left-hand friendly. Both the front and rear sections of the lower receiver were reinforced. Pistol grip was redesigned with a new finger groove and the useless sling swivel point at the base was removed. The ejection port / dustcover door was changed to make it easier to grab and close. Buttstock was lengthened by 5/8", given a new texture, and more aggressive checkering on the buttplate. The M16A2 (705) had a 3 round burst mode instead of full auto. The M16A3 (701) on the other hand retained the M16a1's full-auto fire control group. Mostly the military purchased the A2 model. The new rifle was more accurate, more durable, and more comfortable for many shooters. The new features did come at the price of added weight however. Also, the A2's rear sight is more succeptable to damage than the A1's more basic sight. The 30 round magazine became standard issue with the M16A2 as well.

Today the M16A2 is being replaced by the M16A4. Essentially, the A4 is no more than an A2 with a removable carry handle. Under the handle is a standard 1913 rail for the mounting of optical devices. Some of the latest rifles also have a thicker barrel profile under the handguards. Colt's 905 is the A4 with 3 round burst FCG, while the 901 features a full-auto mode instead. Regardless, the new series has long developed past the platform's teething problems. The A4 serves along side the M4 carbine, as the standard front line issue small arm in our military today.

the Development of the M4 Carbine (653 through 933)

The M4 Carbine is one of the most recognizable and famous variants of an already highly recognized and famous firearms family. It can trace its roots right back to the earliest Colt carbines like the 607 and 629. It is rather hard to say exactly when the M4 came into existance as it grew out of several developments.

In the 1970s, the military purchased a few commercial colt 653 carbines to replace wornout or damaged XM177s. The 653 was not much more than a 629 with a 14.5" barrel and an A1 flash hider. The added 3" of barrel increased the carbine's reliability and also allowed it to mount a bayonet. Almost by accident, Colt stumbled upon the best barrel length for a military carbine. With a 14.5" barrel, the 653 wasn't much longer than a 629 with its 4.3" moderator, it was more accurate, and not much heavier. This carbine is now days commonly referred to as the M16A1 Carbine.

The next Colt carbine of note was the 723, which came about in the early 1980s. The 723 featured a thin profile 14.5" barrel, but with the then new 1 in 7 twist rate. It had a brass deflector and round forward assist, but retained the a1's sights. Most 723s had 3 round burst mode instead of full-auto. It is commonly referred to as the M16A2 Carbine and indeed was designed to be a companion to that rifle. One might also call this carbine a pre-M4 or even XM4. Please note several variants of this carbine were produced. In addition, Colt seemed to use whatever parts were on hand. So some 723s were built on A1 lowers and some on a2. Some had tear drop forward assists, though the round type was 'standard' if that can be said of something like this. It still had the 2 position collapsing CAR stock found on the first Xm177s. Some of these carbines were purchased by the military and could be considered a 'Black Hawk Down' carbine, but again, its hard to pin point anything for sure with a series 700 carbine. Features could wildly vary. The Air Force updated some of their older carbines with the new 1 in 7 twist barrel and re-labeled them GUU-5/P. The GUU could be made by rebarreling an existing firearm, or installing a complete new upper. The 727 version had a barrel with the cut or step to allow the M203 grenade launcher to be mounted. This feature would soon be standard on the M4.

In 1994, the Colt 920 was officially adopted into military service as the M4 Carbine, though of course it has taken years for it to be fully deployed. The first versions of the M4 had fixed A2 carry handles, but most today have removable handles with rails underneath like the M16A4. The carbine shares an 80% parts commonality with the M16A2 as well. Originally, it was meant to replace both the M3A1 Grease gun and Beretta M9 pistol in some units, but since then it has been decided to make the carbine general issue to most soldiers. Before the M4 came along in fact, officially Marine officers were issued only pistols (the 1911 and M9). The M4 has a 3 round burst mode and the M4A1 is capable of full-auto fire. Both can accept the M203 grenade launcher. Barrel is 14.5" long, 1 in 7 twist, with the M16A2 profile: thin under the handguards and heavy past the front sight base. Recently, Colt has released the 921HB, which has a heavier barrel under the handguards. The carbine can mount a bayonet. New handguards were also designed for the carbine with maximum heat dissipation in mind. The handguards are of a new ovular shape with double steel heatshield inserts. Both the A2 flash hider and pistol grip are standard. Finally with the M4, Colt stopped using the old 2 position CAR collapsing stock. The new M4 stock has 4 positions and has been reshaped with 2 sling attachment points. the front sling swivel is now on the side and can be reversed for either right or left side. The M4 uses the same 7" gas system and carbine length buffer first featured on the GX5857 though.

In its original intended roll, the 920 is rather capable, but it is not wellsuited for sustained fire fights. The short gas system tends to overheat due to its high rate of fire. Also, because of the 14.5" barrel, the carbine has a limited effective range. I would assert that the problem does not lay with the weapon system itself, but rather how it has been deployed. There are some situations inwhich the M16A4 is called for and some where the M4 is best. There will never be a one-size-fits-all military small arm.

Even though after the XM177 series, the 14.5" barrel length became popular, Colt did not entirely abandon the 11.5" and even 10" length carbines. The 733 or M16A2 Commando is similar to the M16A2 Carbine, but with a 11.5" barrel. The 733's barrel could be A1 thin or A2 heavy, but always has a 1 in 7 twist rate. Normally it would have a1 sights, but the rest of its features would be A2. The CAR style stock could be 2 position or 4 position, but seems to have always been made of polymer, not metal. Most of the time the Commando can be found with a full-auto FCG. This configuration found favor with special operations teams and law enforcement. It was short, light, and easy to maneuver in a room. Colt finally figured out that in order to insure reliable cycling with an 11" barrel, the gas port needed to be enlarged. Still, it had limited range and limited application.

Next came the 933 or M4 Commando. Essentially, the 933 is an M4 carbine but with a 11.5" barrel. It can come from the factory with either a fixed carry handle and A2 sights, or a flat-top receiver and removable handle. It has a heavy profile barrel and 4 position collapsable M4 style stock. The 933 has found favour with the Navy SEALs, like its distant ansester, the 607. Its the M4 Commando that has been the basis for the newest carbine used by the Navy, the Mk 18 Mod 0. The Mk 18 has a 10.3" barrel if made by Colt or 10.5 if by LMT. It is designed to be highly customizable for any mission and many tweeks have been made to insure reliable operation. Nevertheless, with such a short barrel, it will never be as reliable as an M16A2 rifle or even an M4 Carbine. It is very compact though.

Colt SP1 in 602 configuration

The SP1 has a mfg date of 1974. I have modified it in several ways:
1) Replaced original cut SP1 bolt & carrier with original chrome slick side carrier with original chromed bolt.

(bolt group with milled retainer but modern firing pin)
2) Installed early bolt group parts including improved flat-head firing pin and early milled type retaining pin.
3) Replaced the 'Red Wine' standard rifle buffer with an original Edgewater buffer.

(strictly speaking, the Edgewater is a 'spring guide' not a true buffer)
4) Replaced A1 style buttstock with an early Type D XM buttstock with no trap door and rotating sling swivel.
5) Used a buttstock screw without drainhole.
6) Replaced handguards with early ones that do not have what are commonly called 'drain' holes.
7) Installed original 3 prong flash hider
8) Used an early style wide lock washer behind the flash hider.
9) Installed Nodak repro early triangle charging handle
10) Installed 602 'skinny' pistol grip.
11) Replaced the Colt SP1 front screw with a 601 style takedown pin with ball detent. This is a compromise and closer to an original but not perfect.
12) I bought a Nodak reproduction 20 round 'Waffle' magazine, but its not in the pictures.

The M1 style cotton sling is appropriate for an early 602 and is original. I'd like to find an earlier barrel without chromelining and smooth FSB with no drain hole. Other than that, i feel quite good about this build being a relatively accurate reproduction of a 1965-1966 XM16 rifle.

An older picture with it on the bipod.

Early cleaning kits were kept in the pouch with the detachable bipod.

605 style upper on Nodak A1 lower

Early style carbine upper with a 16" barrel instead of 15" for legal reasons, 3 prong flash hider, slick-side upper receiver, and all chromed bolt carrier. In the pictures its on my Nodak A1 lower, but it will have a perminant home on an XME1 lower with 607 1st generation collapsing stock. I am doing a 605 meets 607 early retro carbine build, but the stock isn't made yet and Nodak needs 2 more weeks on the lower anyway.

Update: i did finish this build but ended up parting it back out and making my money back and then some. It was fun to do, but I was getting too many ARs hanging around.

Colt M16A1 Upper on Nodak A1 lower

Colt M16A1 complete upper on a Nodak A1 lower receiver with a standard Type E A1 buttstock. Sling is the mid-generation 'seatbelt' style used in between the cotton sling and later silent sling.

XM177E2 Upper on Nodak A1 lower

It took me roughly a year to complete this project and during that time some parts were swapped around, including the lower which started as an NDS E1 and ended up an NDS A1. Its as close to an original XM177E2 as i could make it without going crazy and spending an insane amount of money. Its actually closer to a Colt 639 than a 629 because of the flat slip ring and later style of FSB and receiver. No matter. Here are the parts i used:

1) Nodak M16A1 XM grey lower receiver
2) Colt M16A1 upper receiver and slip ring from an Apex parts set. I also used some of the lower parts.
3) Colt surplus M16A1 bolt group
4) JT lightweight 11.5" non-chromelined barrel with the bayonet lug removed from the FSB and the sling swivel installed with a rollpin.
5) Essential Armss XM177 style aluminium buttstock with standard tube and earlier style of retaining nut with standard carbine buffer.
6) original Colt 1970s 'shiny' 6 hole handguards with single heatshield.
7) standard A1 pistol grip.
8) standard A1 front sight post and standard carbine gastube.
9) 5.5" extended XM177 6 slot flash hider. This part i agganized over. I tried very hard to use a Brick repro XM moderator and grenade ring, but no matter how i did it, i couldn't get the overall length right. It was too short with just these pieces and a lockwasher, and too long with an extension piece and looked awful. Eventually i just gave up and used a normal 5.5" flash hider and discovered at least one benefit; its a lot lighter! Its now perminantly installed.
10) standard 2 point GI web sling to complete the look.

Colt M16A2 Upper on ATM lower

Colt M16A2 upper on a generic A2 lower with proper A2 buttstock and pistol grip.

Colt LE6520 Carbine

The 6520 is basically a semi-auto only version of the M16A2 carbine. It has a lightweight 'pencil' 16" barrel but with the 1 in 7 twist rate. It has CAR style handguards, but an M4 buttstock. It uses a standard A2 upper receiver.

Update: I never did keep one of these, though I think they are very handy little carbines. The one in the pictures ended up being split into upper and lower, with the lower legally exported up to Canada.

Colt LE6920 Carbine

Standard Colt 6920, the semi-auto only version of the M4 carbine. Has a 16" barrel instead of 14.5" but has standard M4 furniture, upper receiver, bolt & carrier, and standard pin sizes.

Well, that is all I have for now. Just thought we'd take a trip down M16 memory lane. Retro builds to me are really enjoyable and rewarding. In the future, i might do more, but who knows? So lets share some Vietnam era Ars or just any classic / retro AR builds you might have kicking around. Surely even you are a little tired of seeing rails and high dollar optics aren't you?

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Sig Sauer 551A1 Review

 by Mishaco
Originally written July 19th, 2011

Barrel & Muzzle Device:
The SIG 551A1 is not a Swiss Arms SG551. Lets get that out of the way first. It is however inspired by the original and most of the parts except barrel are interchangeable. The Swiss government/army has some hang-ups about allowing their proprietary barrel/trunnion system to be copied in the USA. At least that's what I have been told by Colorado Gun Sales (COGS). The 551A1 is a different take on the SIG-556 series. It uses the same gas piston system, bolt/carrier group, sights, and upper receiver. The barrel is about 17" long, cold hammer forged, and with a 1 in 7 twist rate. It has a standard AR15 thread pattern. The original Swiss STGW.90 (military SG550) uses a 1 in 10 twist rate in its barrel to stabilize the 5.6mm GP90 ammunition. Also, the flash hider is physically part of the barrel, not a separate piece. So honestly, for the American shooting public, the 556/551A1's barrel is better for everyone, except the biggest Swiss purists.

The 551A1 comes with a unique muzzle brake/flash hider. It is definitely inspired by the 550 flash hider with large slots and a raised lip behind them. It is a bit long and I am not sure why exactly. It does look a lot nicer than the A2 flash hider that ships on the 556 for sure. I haven't made up my mind if it is worth keeping on the rifle or if it should be replaced with a reproduction 550 flash hider from either COGS or MFI. Both of those companies have quality products and knowledgeable owners. The 551A1 did not come with a bayonet lug, which disappointed me. That said, most of the semi-auto SG550s and SG551s also did not ship from SIG with lugs and installing one is easy. The mount for the lug is under the gas-block so all you need to do is pop the lug in and stake it with a roll pin. Again, both COGS and MFI make reproduction lugs for the 556 series. You can get either an original Swiss style lug or a NATO style. This is one upgrade I think the rifle needs just for the look if nothing else.

Upper & Lower Receivers:
The upper receiver, lower receiver, and gas-block are Swiss grey. The barrel, front sight hood, and receiver rail are black. The bolt and carrier are a matte silver color. Upper receiver is made from steel and lower receiver is made from aluminum. Most of the lower receiver parts are familiar from the 556 Classic including: take-down pins, trigger, bolt release and safety. The one new part is the Swiss style magazine release. Yes, this one uses original 550/551 magazines, and CDNN has brand new 20 round and 30 round magazines to support this product. They aren't cheap, but if you are an H&K owner, their prices will pleasantly surprise you, I think. If you are only used to AR and AK mags, well... they will seem expensive, but hey, they do lock together which is neat.

The rock-in mag well is not nearly as fast to operate as a standard M16/AR15 like on the 556, but hey the point of the 551A1 is to be more like the SG551, so there you go. The rifle uses AR type captured take-down pins, instead of the spring-loaded free pins of the SG55x series. This, to me, is an improvement, but no it's not original, and I know some would have wished them to have the original style. Also, the trigger guard is AR style. It folds down to get out of the way for gloves, instead of to the side like on an original Swiss rifle. I was told they did this to save about $30-$40 cost and to use a more modern manufacturing method. Again, to a shooter this won't matter but to someone wanting a true SG551, it is a little disappointment I'm sure. Safety is ambidextrous and the trigger on the 556 has always impressed me right out of the box. The lower does have the added rear sling swivel, which, no matter who you are, is a good thing.

The upper receiver is standard 556, but grey. It uses the 3 hole rail. Not really much to say about it.

Furniture & Factory Sights:
The buttstock is Swiss 550/551 style. It's either an original or a good copy. It locks up solid in both positions and feels solid. That said, I'm not going to use it as a pogo stick to test just how strong it really is. The handguards and pistol grip are straight from the 556 Classic and honestly could stand to be swapped out for a more authentic Swiss look. The handguards aren't bad but have the usual loose fit because the gas-block doesn't have that internal coating like the originals. The pistol grip is perfectly serviceable with a storage compartment, but again the whole point of the 551A1 was to reproduce the SG551. Seems like Sig Sauer could have easily put original grips on these without effecting costs.

The sights are standard 556 Classic. This means the front is a hooded post and the rear is an adjustable diopter clamped onto a rail that is itself bolted onto the upper receiver. The front sight I don't have a problem with, though I do wish it had the flip-up night sight for the look of it. The rear sight has been called an airsoft part and maybe it is. It's just there. Would I pay money for it? No, but at least they provided something in the rear. The rail also has the standard flip-up popsickle sight under the diopter sights.

Magazines & Gear:
The rifle comes with one 20 round and one 30 round magazine. They are original Swiss mil-spec with couplers. It also comes with a rail tool, rather thick manual and in the usual Sig blue hard case. CDNN has both sizes of magazines available for under $60 each new. I have been unable to find original mag pouches or slings for the 550/551 yet however....I have put an IMI Mini-Uzi/Galil sling on the rifle and it works well for an inexpensive military sling. I have also found the FN FAL mag pouches hold the 20 round magazines perfectly. My Belgian/German pouches hold the mags side-by-side separately well, and my Israeli pouches will even hold the magazines coupled together. I haven't tried yet to find pouches to fit the 30 round magazines, but I bet at least some M16 military pouches will do the job fine.

Final Thoughts:
The SIG SAUER 551A1 is not a Swiss Arms SG551, but is not too far off in terms of operation and parts interchangeability. No, the 551A1 doesn't have all the refinements and some of the little things of the originals. Yes, SIG SAUER has had QC issues in recent years. Yes, the Swiss-made guns are objectively nicer. They also cost three times as much, or would if we could import them. It is illegal to import SG550s and SG551s into the USA and has been since 1989. Just accept that. Even back in the 1980s, originals cost several thousand dollars. In Switzerland today factory new rifles cost between $3,000 and $4,500 depending on model and exchange rate of the week. Pre-ban models in the U.S. now start out at $8,000 and go up from there. COGS has 556, 550 or 551 conversion kits for $2,500 or so. There is a WCA SG551 on Gunbroker at the time of this writing with a starting bid of $3,500 and a buy-now of $4,300. So my point is, you can get a really close copy of an original if you have the money and desire. There is not a cheap way to own a SG550/551 and never ever has been. All those Swiss refinements and hand-fitted parts cost big bucks.

Some have said that SIG USA should import a bastardized sporter version of the SG551 and convert it state side like Arsenal does with the SGL series. They could if Swiss Arms wanted to make such a gun, but it wouldn't be cheap. A basic SGL-21 costs $700 and one with an original style folding stock costs $1,100. If you were to buy the same guns in Russia, if they would be legal to own by civilians which they are not; they would cost around $400 for a basic model and $600 for a military folder. So if a SG551 semi-auto costs around $3,000 in Switzerland by the time you pay the 10% import tariff, cost of shipping overseas, cost of conversion parts, conversion process itself, and finally dealer mark-up... well... what do you think that rifle would cost? Keep in mind no one would do such a thing unless they could make some good money. Gun companies are not charities you realize. I guess we could have government funded socialist gun programs?

The 551A1 is an economy model. In order to keep costs down and appeal to a larger market, SIG has done all kinds of cost saving measures. Some, like the furniture, can easily be fixed. Lousy quality control is more of a concern, but I can tell you that a sales rep from SIG was down at CDNN inspecting every single 551A1 after delivery, so maybe they are trying harder these days, at least with this limited edition Swiss-like model? Some of you out there say SIG should have made an American produced SG550/551 and sold it for $3k or whatever. It's true some of you would have bought it, but after the initial rush, then what? SIG would have had a gun priced to compete with the FN SCAR and H&K MR556, but without that air of newness and video game fandom. I know a good number of people willing to drop $1,500-$1,800 on a brand name 5.56 rifle and far, far fewer willing to do the same for a $2,500-$3,500 one.

A comparison was brought up on a forum: the Steyr/Sabre AUG A3 versus the MSAR STG-556. I think that's a good comparison, too. Quality is great but at some point you start receiving diminishing returns. Also, as a dealer I can tell you I have heard a lot of complaining about the prices associated with the SCAR and MR556. For all of SIG's QC issues, there are a lot of happy 556 owners out there. Generally speaking it seems to have become a reliable, reasonably accurate, user-friendly platform. It uses a good barrel, good receiver, and good bolt. These are important. Furniture can be replaced but receivers can't. The 551A1 is just another development of the 556 Classic meant to appeal to people like myself who want a clone of a SG551, but are not willing to shell out over $3,000 for it. Call me a cheap bastard but there you have it. It's a range toy for me and not a rifle I would ever use for defense unless by chance. Still, the core system of the rifle is proven, and critical parts breakages seem pretty low with this series. One of the weakest points of the 556 Classic, the stock, is gone on the 551A1 also. The sights are basic and for a serious shooter probably should be replaced, but for a plinker on a budget they will do for a while, at least. I really do hate manufacturers that ship guns with all kinds of rails and not even BUIS, but that is just me. Somehow it feels like an incomplete rifle. For those of you wanting a SG551 clone you just have to ask yourself, how much am I willing to spend and how close is close enough? For me, I guess the 551A1 is around the compromise point. It has a good barrel, takes Swiss mags, has a Swiss stock, and I can always replace parts later with original Swiss ones if I decide to.

UPDATE:  Some parts on this 551A1 were swapped with Swiss style parts.  To see what changes were made, plus test firing of this rifle, watch this video:

SIG 551A1 Hands-On and Test Fire


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