One lazy afternoon in the gun shop I was killing time browsing the local gun classifieds when I finally found the gun I had been seeking since middle school: an Armalite AR-180. I promptly made arrangements to meet the seller and called my wife to haggle over money. I prevailed (thanks babe!) and soon thereafter I was the proud new owner of an old, odd gun.
The AR-180 is not a common gun but it is a very influential design. After Armalite sold the M-16/AR-15 to Colt, they needed a new gun to market. The AR-18 was a light, select-fire assault rifle with an 18” barrel and a side folding stock. The semiautomatic only model is known as the AR-180.
While the AR-15 is primarily made of aluminum forgings which are machined into the upper and lower receiver, the AR-18 differed by using steel stampings for the receivers. The AR-18 has frequently been called crude or ugly due to the stamped and welded construction. For me, that is part of the charm.
Production of the AR-18/180 bounced around the world. Initial guns were made in Costa Mesa, California. Production moved to Japan, with Howa manufacturing the rifles for a time. Political pressure led the Japanese government to ban exports of the rifle, which led production to shift to the Sterling Armaments Company in the UK, where the majority were produced. My rifle was made by Sterling and has a serial number in the low 15,000 range. The gun is finished with black paint on the receiver, differing from the Costa Mesa and Howa guns.
The design does have a few shortcomings. Though there is a bolt catch, there is no bolt release, meaning the bolt must be pulled back and released to chamber a round once a fresh magazine is inserted. The bolt catch itself is a weak design and is frequently broken by dropping the hammer with the gun disassembled. Another frequently cited issue is the folding stock, which is not the most robust design.
As with any outdated, out-of-production gun, spare parts and magazines are scarce. The AR-180 uses a proprietary magazine derived from the standard AR-15 magazine and these can be converted with a little handiwork. Older magazines marketed for the AR-15 sometimes include a slot on the right side which can be a sign of AR-180 compatibility. True factory Armalite AR-180 magazines are the most reliable option though they are rare and expensive.
The AR-180 is most commonly associated with the Irish Republican Army and the Troubles, where it was referenced in the song “My Little Armalite” and was name dropped by the IRA in their “Armalite and Ballot Box” strategy. The AR-180 was also present at the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in 1974. LAPD SWAT officers at the time purchased their own weapons and at least one officer used his AR-180. That gun is on display at the LAPD Museum (which also features a major exhibit on the North Hollywood shootout, and is worth a visit if you are ever in Los Angeles). The gun also made appearances in The Terminator (1984) and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
The AR-180 is a pleasant gun to shoot. Recoil is what you would expect from a semiautomatic .223 rifle, very mild. The sights are an aperture rear and a post front. The rear sight is an L-shaped flip, with 200- and 400-yard settings. The front sight is elevation adjustable and the rear sight is windage adjustable.
Vintage AR-180s demand a price premium, but there are other ways to experience the design. The short-lived AR-180B used AR magazines but gave up the folding stock and flash hider. It was introduced during the 1994-2004 Assault Weapons Ban when those features were illegal. B-models are typically less expensive than a true Armalite AR-180, in part due to their fragile plastic lower receiver. If you want to experience a modernized AR-180, Brownells sells the BRN-180 upper. It fits a standard AR lower, so you have a bolt release and standard AR-15 magazine compatibility unlike the original. The BRN-180 is also available in a short barrel .300 Blackout version.
There are also many internal similarities between the AR-180 and the SIG Sauer MCX. Both designs feature a pair of recoil springs running through the bolt body and a rotating bold head. The AR-180 and the MCX both utilize a short-stroke piston as well. The similarities are such that one of my coworkers, an MCX owner, said “Hey, I’ve seen this before!” when I field stripped my AR-180 one afternoon.
While I own other guns that are more capable, the AR-180 will always be my favorite. It brings a smile to my face in a way that nothing else does. Yes, even more than machine guns.
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