We’ve seen a lot of builders warm to the idea of “retro” builds. I’ve recently pieced one together myself and it’s a very fun range toy. For those not wanting to source parts, an ideal, affordable approach to acquiring one of these builds is via the Brownells Retro Line of rifles. To learn more about these rifles, we recently sat down with Roy Hill from Brownells. We chat about some of the history behind these offerings, and why they might we worth considering if you’ve been bitten by the retro bug.
Q: Roy, for those who might be new to ARs, can you give our readers a quick overview of Brownells and how these Brownells Retro Rifles came about?
Roy Hill, Brownells – Brownells has been around since 1939…We are a third generation, family owned Iowa company. We’ve been involved in the gun industry from the outset. Our founder, Bob Brownell was a hobbyist gunsmith who found out he could make more money working on his buddies’ pistols and selling gunsmithing tools and chemicals to gunsmiths than he could running the gas station/sandwich shop that he had in Montezuma, Iowa. In 1939 he started, in addition to his own gunsmithing, he began selling tools, chemicals, some of which in some cases he had to come up with himself like our famous Brownells Acraglas.
So, for the last 80 years now, we’ve been tightly tied to the firearms industry. Now, in the past we have sold things like stripped AR-15 lowers, and at various times we have sold guns…not in huge amounts. But in 2016, we came out with firearms as a major product category and we started selling firearms ourselves. For years and years, we had sold stripped pistol frames and stripped AR lowers, but we really didn’t get into full guns.
We got so many requests for pieces and parts that would be used to build retro style rifles, or cosmetically correct versions of historical AR-15 designs especially, our product guys said, “why don’t we just go ahead and start doing our own guns?”
At SHOT Show 2018, two years ago now, we came out with what we call our “Retro Rifle Series,” which is a series of as cosmetically correct as we could make them copies of interesting historical Eugene Stoner or Eugene Stoner-inspired designs.
You can view them on a timeline we have on our website…it’s a timeline that is arranged chronologically. The first one of the Brownells Retro Rifles on the timeline is the BRN-10, which is the Brownells version of the early Eugene Stoner-designed AR-10. It is chambered in .308 and has the distinctive trigger-style charging handle on the top of the receiver. We use polymer for our furniture, while of course the originals were made of a different material.
We have the BRN-10A, which looks like what an early Dutch contract might have looked like. We then have its sister Brownells Retro Rifle, the BRN-10B, which has black furniture and it has a different profiled barrel and a closed end flash hider that you might see on a Portuguese or maybe even a Cuban contract AR-10 style rifle.
They’re both in .308 and they look very, very much like the originals, but they are set up internally to take modern DPMS pattern parts. So, if anybody who gets these rifles wants to modify them or put their own parts in them, they can.
Q: Can you describe the process of how your team learned about the old in order to build the new rifles?
Roy Hill, Brownells – Our lead product manager is Paul Levy. The Retro Rifle line is really his brainchild. I give him all the credit as it really was a monumental undertaking. Paul is absolutely a gun guy and loves gun history.
He has experience with the United States Armed Forces and has been with Brownells for many years. He’s very much into historical military firearms, and it was a process of finding out as much as possible as we could, including some trips to Europe to see some collections of original AR-10s.
It was a very lengthy and involved process. As an example of the detail we tried to achieve, our BR601 has a front pivot pin that comes all the way out so that you can take your rifle apart and lose your pivot pin in the grass for that authentic “retro” experience (laughs).
On some of our models on the 5.56 guns, the original 5.56 guns that were adapted from Eugene Stoner’s AR-10 have a little roll pin that helps hold the buffer tube in. We have roll pins as well. They don’t actually hold in the buffer tube, but we wanted to add them as just a nice little historical touch for the right cosmetic appearance. Paul was really dedicated to getting everything as correct as he possibly could…and it’s lead to other things.
For example when the BRN-10A and 10B came out, we had one front sight tower on there that was not quite cosmetically correct, and we got quite a bit of customer feedback on that, so we went back and redid the front sight tower on the BRN-10s to make them look even more authentic.
Q: Can you walk us through some of your other retro offerings?
Roy Hill, Brownells – For folks who are looking for 5.56 pattern rifles, our first one that we came out with originally was the BRN-601, which was the Brownells version of the Colt 601, which was adopted by Air Force base security personnel by General Curtis LeMay.
Brownells Retro Rifle – BRN-601
These rifles have the distinctive green furniture and the duck bill flash hider. They have slick side upper, slab slide lower and the front pivot pin will come out all the way. There’s no magazine release fence at all. These also come with the Brownells waffle-pattern mags.
These 20-round mags look just like those that came with the original rifle. This rifle also has a distinctive, triangle shaped charging handle. it’s not the standard “T” that everybody knows so well…it’s pretty funky.Brownells Retro Rifle In fact, I really like this one. I personally pieced together my own version of the 601.
There were changes made that resulted in the XM16E1. Our version is the XBRN16E1. It has a three-pronged flash hider. It has the iconic “T” shaped charging handle, and it has a little bit of a magazine fence, as that was one of the design changes as too many troops were accidentally hitting their magazine release button and dropping the mag, so they put a one-bar magazine button fence on it.
The rifle comes with a standard 20-round GI-style magazine. For those folks that are aficionados, if you’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers,” all the U.S. troops in that movie are carrying 16E1s.
So, that was the first version M16 that was sent to the Vietnam War in large number…and it was also the model that had a lot of controversial issues. I don’t want to rehash the entire history of that because that would be an article in itself. Long story short, there were design changes mandated from the 16E1 to what became the 16A1. Our rifle is known as the BRN16A1.
Some of the most obvious changes with the BRN16A1 are that you have a full magazine release fence. You have a closed-ended flash hider instead of the three-pronged flash hider. If I had to describe it to someone who was not a gun person, I’d say that this rifle is the one that if you grew up with the little green plastic army men, this is it. Nothing else looks exactly like that.
The other rifle we released in our original launch batch was a Special Forces carbine…the XM177E2. That gun originally featured a rather long muzzle device that worked to tame flash and tone down the sharp, short-barreled carbine report to make it sound more like a rifle.
Because any device that modifies the decibels is legally a suppressor, we had to design ours so that internally it is not a suppressor so that we could sell it without extra paperwork and a $200 dollar tax stamp and all that. It does certainly look the part.
We call it XBRN177E2…and as for its specifics, it’s chambered in 5.56, has a four-position adjustable buttstock, it has a 12.7” barrel , but the flash hider is pinned & welded so you get the full 16” as required under the NFA.
Q: Can you walk us through some of the rifles that came after this that you released in 2019?
Roy Hill, Brownells – In 2019, at SHOT Show, we came out with two more 5.56 rifles. The first one is really, really cool and we call it the BRN Proto, and it is designed to look like one of the very first AR-15 rifles…say like serial number 1 to serial number 3.
It has the brown AR-10, BRN-10 furniture, the tall, funky-looking front sight and its most distinctive feature…the trigger-style charging handle under the carrying handle. They come with original pattern steel 25-round straight magazines, which we replicated.
I really like the gun, and I’ve gotten to shoot it quite a bit at range days that I attend to show them off. They’re really smooth shooters.
Finally, we launched the BRN-605 in 2019 as well. When the XM16E1 came out, folks started to try to figure out how to turn it into a carbine and the very first experimental attempt to do that, that was never issued, was called the Colt 605. It’s basically an XM16E1 with a short barrel.
Some people call these rifles “Dissapators.” Ours has full length rifle furniture with a 16” barrel, three lug flash hider, and it does have the original rifle length gas system.
The original rifles has some reliability issues, but we found that making the gas port really enormous, if you run Winchester white box or equivalent and above ammo, they run great.
This is a rifle that when i first saw a picture of it, I said “Who would want one of these? What a weird, ugly looking gun.” But then I took one out to the range and fired it about 200-300 times. It’s super lightweight, it’s handy, and it has hardly any recoil at all. It’s one of the softest shooting 5.56 rifles I’ve ever fired.
Q: Can you talk about who is making the parts for these guns?
Roy Hill, Brownells – We have relationships with various companies…Brownells carries parts from over 2,500 companies. We have great relationships with just about everybody in the firearms industry. Our product guys are able to go to these companies that we have these relationships with. Our product people work very hard to get the best components, and also Brownells has that forever guarantee. So, if something is not working out, we will do everything we can to make it right.
Q: Can you talk about who the audience is for these Brownells Retro rifles?
Roy Hill, Brownells – We find it’s broken down into a few different groups. They all want essentially the same thing, but they want them for different reasons. There are people who want cosmetically looking correct, historical military rifles. In the case of the BRN10, good luck finding an original Armalite AR-10. When you do, it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive. Whereas on our website, we have it for like $1,000 right now.
So, for like a grand, someone who is into military history can have a rifle that absolutely looks the part. Now, it’s not going to be 100 percent accurate, but from a distance, it’s going to look the part pretty convincingly.
We also find that younger folks who want a rifle that looks like what their father or their grandfather or their uncle carried in the service. We find more mature shooters who went through basic training and they were issued an XM16E1 or an M16A1…well now they can get a cosmetically very close version of the same rifle they were familiarized with whenever they served in Vietnam or whenever they were in the service.
The benefit of ours is we have no surplus parts whatsoever. It’s all fully modern manufactured high quality parts.
Another group who buys these rifles are people who are just looking for something different. They have plenty of 16” AR-15 carbines with the free float hand guard, and they want something different and new…and ironically, the old stuff that is not really available anymore is sometimes seen as the hot new stuff.
When these guns first came out, one of the things that I do for Brownells is the SHOT Show range day. We were at our booth with all of our 5.56 retro rifles and I saw the same thing happen over and over again. It would be a gun writer, a YouTuber, or someone like yourself involved in firearms related media. They were usually in their 30s or younger, and they would shoot something like the 601, and they would just marvel at how light it was. There was so much feedback about how awesome these guns were to shoot.
I think this was because what they were used to were 16” carbines with free float hand guards with 27 pounds of stuff on it hanging off of it. (laughs). They were shooting sleek, slender, lightweight original style AR-15s and having a complete revelation. It was so awesome to watch happen in front of me throughout the day.
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