Retro AR Project
The inspiration I guess one could say for this article draws from the series Mark Foster did back at the end of March. He had a series on practical enhancements for the AR-15 rifle. There is no question the AR platform is quickly becoming one of the preferred sporting arms of hunters and shooters alike. I suppose it is the natural progression of things. Riflemen abandoned their single shots for lever guns eons ago and then after the end of WWI the levers were traded in large number for bolt actions, after WWII semi autos became more prevalent to present day where the AR is quickly dominating the sporting rifle arena. The AR is now available in a dizzying array of configurations and calibers ranging from standard to exotic to niche cartridges specifically designed for a single platform and purpose. All of this springs from a rifle that was ahead of its time when designed a little over 60 years ago in 1956. Like many things, given enough time, nostalgia seems to get the better of us, and people seem to want things the way they used to be. This and the rising popularity of Vietnam era militaria I believe has given birth to what is sometimes called the retro AR. These are AR’s built with period correct parts to resemble the early iterations of our beloved black rifles.
Sometime ago I had the hankering to assemble some sort of military firearm from a parts kit. Eventually I decided I would narrow my field of numerous choices by building something my father or grandfather carried while they were in the service. As I figured out what I was willing to spend and what I felt was within my means as far as tools available to me the list shortened even more. I narrowed my choices down to building either a semi auto M60 or M1919. When I saw how scarce and expensive all of the M60 parts and pieces have become I ruled it out. The 1919 would also have been an expensive choice because I would have to buy a lot of the tooling required to assemble the weapon. Shucks! I thought I was going to get to have something cool. Then as I closed my web browsers depressed about my research my desktop background breathed new life in my little project. My background is a photo of my dad on the range with his M16A1, and thus my little odyssey began.
I thought this should be easy enough. I can remember years back M16 parts kits were easy to find and reasonably priced. I figured just buy a kit and a lower and slam her together. I was disappointed to find at the time I was looking parts kits were no longer as readily available and not nearly as inexpensive or pristine as I recall. I did more research and found I had a few options for either assembling or purchasing a faithful representation of the rifle my dad qualified with and carried, such as the Fulton Armory Legacy Rifle. It is meant to be a replica of the early M16. I compared it to photos I have of my dad, and some of the differences just did not add up. I recalled my dad talking about the early rifles that were used in the early days of Vietnam and the differences between them and the A1 he carried. I decided I would have to dig more in the minutia of the M16’s history to determine how best to arrive at an accurate representation of my dad’s rifle. I discovered a site called retroblackrifle.com. These guys live eat and breathe early M16 rifle and carbine variants down to the details of the various different small parts used throughout the different models of rifles and carbines. I also found two companies that are an excellent source for quality reproduction parts Nodak Spud and Top Notch Top Ends (TNTE Sales).
Researching my photos and comparing them to the information on retro black rifle I determined my father carried the Colt model 603 M16A1 variant. I still had yet to find an M16A1 parts kit available anywhere at the time. I debated buying an upper and lower receiver from Nodak spud and sourcing all of my other parts elsewhere. I quickly realized that would get quite expensive. Undaunted I continued scouring parts and surplus sites comparing prices and options on how exactly to replicate my dad’s service rifle. Somehow or another I found TNTE sales. They specialize in AR uppers and Patrick at TNTE is obsessed with quality and is a black rifle aficionado.
TNTE offers a completed M603 M16A1 upper. The upper uses the period correct .625 inch 1:12 twist 41V50 chrome lined barrel. The receiver is Nodak Spud, barrel is new production, (as well as bolt and charging handle if ordered with the upper) the remaining parts are period correct USGI parts. Patrick insisted they only use the best parts they can get. Judging by the upper they sent me I would have to agree. Not only are the uppers painstakingly correct but the parts look factory fresh. Everything is exactly as I remember my dad talking about them. The tear drop forward assist, flat delta ring, sight adjustment wheel, and the A1 style birdcage. I have to say it was worth every penny I spent and I could not have assembled the upper out of period correct parts (purchased all separately) for less than I purchased it from TNTE. This of course given that I could not source an M16 parts kit anywhere at the time I started the project.
Correct rifle and upper all sorted I turned to sourcing my lower receiver, pistol grip, buttstock, and lower parts. I do not recall exactly where I sourced my furniture. The only furniture I was missing was the buttstock and pistol grip. The upper I got from TNTE included the correct triangular handguards. The buttstock and pistol grip of the early rifles differ from our A2 and later style GI furniture in both construction and appearance. The older style components are fiberglass (if I’m not mistaken) and the pistol grip has a lanyard loop and is missing the finger groove. The buttstock differs in length, that is they are 5/8 inch shorter, and the sling swivel is retained by a roll pin instead of by the buttstock screw. Some early stocks did not have compartments for the cleaning kits. The particular stock I was sent does not have a compartment. There was no option for ordering one with or without. I think TECHNICALLY the M16A1 had the compartment, but sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.
For the lower receiver, there are actually a few differences between the early receivers and the current A2 style lower receivers. According to my research there were actually three different styles of lower receiver on the early M16s. Most of the differences in the lower receivers of the early rifles and carbines pertain to the magazine fence. They had either no magazine fence, a partial fence, or the full fence we know today. The dead giveaway however is the difference in reinforcement profile near the take down pins. The early style lack the extra reinforcement and thus have a slightly different less beefy if you will profile. Nodak Spud offers all three of the early style lowers. I went with the A1 style lower with full magazine fence. I settled on this after studying my dad’s old photos and the information available to me through retro black rifle’s website. They cover the differences in the receivers as well as techniques to modify A2 style lowers into whichever early configuration you desire.
With all my major components sorted I ordered a standard A2 lower parts kit with buffer assembly and put my rifle together. I know I know all the hard stuff was done and it really was more of an assembly project than an actual build. I had no issue getting everything together except I always seem to struggle getting those darn take down pin detents in without sending them all over the room. I had to do a little fitting on the buttstock. The A1 stocks are foam filled and this foam was causing a fit issue on the buffer tube. I simply inletted things until the stock slid over the tube properly. I left the buffer extension cap off and got a half inch long ¼-28 screw to substitute for the longer A2 buttstock screw because the A1 stock is 5/8 inch shorter. At this point I did a standard function test and then modified the trigger to my liking. I would say to anyone unfamiliar to this who would like to try building up their own retro AR snag you the AGI AR15 DVD 103. I got it just because I was interested in Bob’s lecture on design and function. He will walk you through everything you need to know about total disassembly and reassembly. And if you want to know how to safely modify your trigger there’s a DVD for that too. It is DVD 335. I acquired both recently out of sheer curiosity as always Bob never ceases to come through with all the tips and lessons it takes to do the job correctly and safely.
I wish I had a stellar range report complete with group sizes of different loads and such, but I have not had a chance to dial in my sights and see what my M16A1 replica will do. I did however have a chance to test fire it. I had to make a trip to my camp to do a few chores and finished my chores with enough time to sling a few rounds. I popped in one of those dreaded thirty round magazines and let fly. The rifle ran flawlessly and the bolt locked open on the last round. I look forward to getting this rifle dialed in and seeing what it likes to shoot. I am quite curious as to where its 1:12 barrel will find its bullet weight limit. I am thinking 55 grains will probably be as heavy as she will go. Barrels can sometimes defy the rules however. My 69grain match load for my 1:9 twist competition AR will probably be all over the place in this rifle, but the mad scientist in me cannot help but try it!
This was a fun and rewarding project and I am beyond pleased with the upper provided me by TNTE sales. They have an influx of retro parts right now. The parts seem to come in waves, so you have to kind of strike while the iron is hot. They still offer the upper I bought along with simply the barrel this upper wears. They also offer a barrel kit that contains the correct barrel for the old Colt XM177 carbine. This is a new offering it was not available at the time I was piecing my M16A1 replica together. Not only do they have the barrel kit and handguards but they have correct replica collapsible stocks for the XM177. The XM177 is sort of the M4 carbine’s grandad. It was used by Special Forces and air assault troops in Vietnam. I have a few photos of my dad with one. I am agonizing over whether to try and piece one together or just take Gene Kelly’s advice and enjoy the guns I have. Too many guns so little time and money.
This was more than just a fun project to me. It was a fun project and I now have a representation of an iconic piece of military history. For me however it is bigger than even that. I hope that it is a fitting tribute to the men who carried one and served in defense of this great nation. Whether you carried one in the killing fields of Vietnam, surviving and coming home to people who may have been less than appreciative or carried one in the countless smaller skirmishes that occurred between the end of Vietnam and the adoption of the M16A2. Maybe it was simply the rifle you trained on for the fight that never came. Whatever your story this rifle is a tribute to your sacrifice. May she be a quiet reminder of the true heroes that carried her; the men who never returned home. I deeply appreciate the service of all of our veterans. I do not mean to simply mention those of a specific era, but I feel most of our Vietnam veterans have been less than appreciated especially when they returned home. I think this is quite sad and shameful. My dad went through basic training sometime in 1977. He served with men who had served in Vietnam and though he himself did not serve in Vietnam he held those that did in high esteem and they were some of his closest friends. In the absence of my father allow me to say thank you. You men of this era served valiantly whether in conflict or in training for a conflict you carried the mantle of this great nation and fulfilled your oath. If no one else has ever thanked you I do.