July 02, 2019–
There has long been an underground AR builders movement; the retro build. The idea was simple: not all “progress” was progress, and some things needed to be experienced in the original. To that end, we who were doing this sought out original parts, modified others, and tried to build clones of the originals. Some were easier than others, and some were deucedly difficult. Like the earliest Armalites, the prototypes.
It was the early 1950s, and America was problem-free. Oh, so the 21st century pundits would have you believe. Compared to today, maybe, but the 1950s had their own problems. We had just finished fighting to a draw in Korea. The Soviets had not just nukes, but hydrogen bombs. Suburban sprawl was moving five miles outside of the cities. And Armalite was in a bind. Eugene Stoner had designed a fabulous rifle to meet the stated requirements of the US Army for their next-generation service rifle. Despite the lessons of the previous war and “police action”, the Army had insisted on keeping with a full-power .30 rifle, and even forced the development of a new, shorter, .30 cartridge, which would go on to become the .308 Winchester/7.62 NATO. (They would go on to strong-arm allies into adopting a rifle chambered in this new caliber.)
Armalite had, through the efforts of Eugene Stoner, designed a contender for the role. The new AR-10 was lighter than the other designs, it used aluminum and plastic, so it was resistant to the weather (and could more-readily be decontaminated in the event of a nuclear exchange) and due to its design, handled recoil better.
But the fix was in. The Army was not going to accept anything but what the Army wanted. And what they wanted was the Garand, but better. They even went so far as to cook the books in testing the M14 predecessor against the FAL. They almost didn’t cook the books enough to “prove” the M14 was superior to the FAL, but they go what they wanted. If the Army was going to do that to the arms producer of an ally, they certainly didn’t care about a small design bureau.
Small design bureau? Yes, Armalite was a branch of the Fairchild Aircraft company, which in the 1950s was making the C-119 cargo aircraft, was a major sub-contractor on the B-52, and continued making major aircraft parts right up into the space shuttle program. Firearms were a small part of a big company, and Armalite was designing them, not manufacturing them. What they made were prototypes and short-run demonstration/test rifles.
Eugene Stoner tasked one of his designers with a way around the problem the Army had created. He asked Jim Sullivan to scale the AR-10 down to a new cartridge, a cartridge with a bullet of .224” diameter. The idea was simple: make a rifle so light, so handy, so compact and easy to shoot, so effective out to 300 meters that the militaries of the world would not want four foot long, ten-pound-plus rifles that could shoot lethally to a full kilometer.
So that is what Jim Sullivan did.
I found that out from having talked to him on a visit to Jim’s drafting room a couple of years ago.
Jim Sullivan, in his drafting room on my visit.Off to the range, to shoot the latest Sullivan designs.
The common wisdom is that Eugene Stoner designed the AR-15. Yes and no. Stoner designed the AR-10, and Jim Sullivan came up with the big change that made it possible: moving the gas system. The original design had the gas tube on the side, at 9 o’clock instead of the 12 o’clock we now have. This was causing all kinds of manufacturing and assembly problems, (still in the prototype stage) and the various adjustments were ugly. Jim asked “why not put it on top?” so they did, and it was great.
The original AR-10 had the gas system on the left-hand side. This caused all kinds of problems, so Jim Sullivan moved it to the top. After that, things went smoothly.
But when it came time to scale down the AR-10 to some smaller cartridge, it was up to Jim Sullivan to do that, and he had finished before the 1950s were over. Today, the work would be a lot easier because of CAD-CAM. With the blueprints as 3-D computer graphics files, you can go and adjust things, change the dimensions, and then see how they fit and work.
Back then, it was all on paper. This meant Jim had to start with one part, change the dimensions, then grab the sheet for the next part, adjust dimensions, see how they fit each other, and make sure there was no disagreement. That was a lot of paper.
Some of the blueprints you need to make a rifle. These are some (not all) of the original blueprints from Armalite, and the AR-15.
The end result is the basics of what we now know to be the AR-15, but some details were not.
Brownells pored over all the information available on the prototype, and the earliest AR-15s, and has produced for us a Retro model Proto. Having eyeballed some rarities in the AR-verse, I find the Brownells Proto to be a spot-on clone of the very beginning AR. No great surprise there, as they took as their model and inspiration Serial Number One.
Let’s jump right to the main one first; the charging handle.
The Brownells Proto has the top-mounted charging handle, just like the original. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but not really.
Like the AR-10, the charging handle has a finger hook, looking like a trigger, in the gap between the receiver upper deck and the carry handle. At first glance, this appears to be a very cool idea. However, the drawbacks in military use (which the prototypes never saw) were obvious to anyone who has ever had to use a rifle in the real world. First of all, your finger isn’t the strongest tool available to work the action. If the bolt gets wedged, you don’t have any options for additional leverage.
If on the original, you needed more leverage than your finger could provide, you were outta luck. That was all the choice you had.
There’s also the matter of the open slot, which is an invitation for debris, dirt, gunk and all manner of objects that do not belong inside the upper receiver. Were we selecting a rifle for military or defensive use, this would immediately put it at the back of the pack. But we aren’t, we’re looking at history, and this is historically correct.
Oh, and, yes, it is a carry handle, but take another look: it is there to protect the otherwise fragile charging handle. That you can carry a rifle with it is a “bonus.”
Next up, the receivers are “slickside”. That is, there is no forward assist, no ejector lump, no “fences” for the takedown pin retaining spring, and no protection for the magazine button.
The proto is a slickside upper and lower, with no forward assist, and no fence around the magazine button.
These are all correct. In fact, all these details continued on into the first rifles made for military use. The Colt-Armalite AR15 rifles had all these details, which were gradually changed in the years to come.
These bring with them their own interesting effects. I hesitate to call them problems, because most are livable. The lack of the fence means the front takedown pin is not captured. If you pull it out to take the rifle apart, you can lose it. So, don’t lose it. Some viewed this as a drawback, an unforgivable sin. Really? Hey, there is no one out there with more love of the M-1 Garand than me, and the Garand has more than one part you can easily lose in the tall grass if you aren’t careful when taking it apart. What makes the AR better is that the situation could be, and was, corrected.
The front takedown pin is not captured, and you must be sure you don’t lose it, because the rifle doesn’t work so well without it.When it came time to make the AR with captured pins, the first demo was done by welding on extra aluminum. No kidding, they welded it on. It didn’t’ stay ugly.
And again, historical correctness must be maintained, and that means a full slickside. You left-handed shooters will find that with some loads, shooting the BRN-Proto is going to be tough. Brutal, even. The empties on slicksides typically fly back at 4-5 o’clock, and you lefties might find yourself in the path. This simply calls for careful load selection, to avoid hot brass on you.
One detail that Brownells could not manage was the roll-markings. Yes, it would be fabulous to have the flying horse Armalite logo on a retro, or Prototype, rifle. But that trademark is not Brownells to use, so they didn’t. And here’s a tip: if you ask an engraver to pout that marking on, he’s probably infringing on the trademark as well, so just leave it. Me, I’m happy to have the simple markings that Brownells puts on. And yes, I know that the “601” on the prototype is not pedantically correct. The 601 series didn’t happen until Colt bought the rights to the Armalite AR-15, and began producing rifles in 1959.
The simple markings that Brownells puts on their Proto AR-15.
The front sight assembly? Taken directly from the design of the AR-10, not the one we all know, and thus looking just a bit unfamiliar. It certainly does the job, it just looks odd, but it also looks period-correct. Another check in the plus column for Brownells. The rear sight on the prototype is interesting, in a “they got it perfect the first time” kind of way. Gone was the elevation-adjustable rear sight of the AR-10, and in its place was a simple, sturdy, two-setting rear sight.
The Proto front sight assembly, not looking like the one we are accustomed to. And no bayonet lug, either.The rear sight is as it was in the beginning: simple, sturdy, not easy to adjust, but also not easy for someone else to screw around with.
Oh, and one thing I hadn’t noticed, in all the years of reading about the AR, the originals, and the changes? The prototype did not have a bayonet lug. That’s right, a rifle without a means of attaching a pig-sticker. You wonder how that got overlooked.
The first carrier and bolt assemblies were chrome-plated, and this continued even into the initial military production. That was changed around 1964, with the M16E1 models, and the carrier assembly spec then was changed to have a matte parkerized finish. The M16E1 model also saw the introduction of the partial “fence”, the boss to hold the front takedown pin. Since the prototype predates the M16E1s by at least five years, Brownells is correct to have both the chrome-plated parts and the slickside receiver set.
The bolt and carrier were chrome-plated on the originals, and so they are on the Brownells.A chromed bolt and carrier are a lot easier to see the need to clean, and easier to clean.
Next up is the furniture. The AR-10 pioneered the use of synthetics for rifle furniture. Oh, the Germans in WWII had issued some few Mauser rifles stocked with synthetic stocks, and the grips of pistols were often some sort of plastic or Bakelite, but that was a wartime economy measure. The M14 and the FAL both started life with wood stocks and furniture. The AR-10 was intended from the start to lack wood entirely in its makeup.
The prototype used the AR-10 handguards, and so Brownells has done the same. These are stronger than the originals, and not matched pairs. Either goes top or bottom.
So the Brownells Prototype has the original-shape plastic furniture. If the handguard looks familiar, that is because on the original, Armalite simply used the AR-10 handguards. Brownells uses a modern, better, synthetic, but makes it the same size, shape and color as the original. Actually, one of the original styles, as the AR-10 had several types of handguards across the various models. And you know what? The originals Brownells copies were, like the later M16A2 stocks, identical. As upper and lower halves, but identical, you could have swapped out a broken handguard with any other, because they weren’t paired rights-and-lefts like the later-than-the-prototype triangular M16 handguards. Even in the 1980s, everything old was new again. The handguards are comfortable, but being round, they do present something of a problem on shooting bags. You’ll have to use a split bag, not a level one, or else the Retro will try to tip over on you.
The AR-15 prototype used AR-10 handguards, well, at least one design of the AR-10 handguards. There was more than one, originally.Note the flat slip ring. using a delta ring on a retro build, let alone a Prototype, would just be wrong.
The stock lacks a trapdoor in the buttplate, and the sling swivel is like the original and early rifles; a pinned stud in the stock, that the sling loop pivots on. Simple, sturdy.
The sling swivel pivots, because it is attached to a stud in the stock.The stock, handguards and pistol grip are all brown, the color of the original.
The furniture is also the same color as the originals, brown. We now go to great lengths to paint our rifles in various color patterns, because nature does not usually have large swatches of dead-black color. In the 1950s, light or medium gray metal, and brown furniture took care of a lot of that.
The Proto stock lacks a trap door, as the original prototype also lacked.
Takedown of the Brownells Proto is both what we know, and what we don’t. First, the takedown pins push from left to right, as normal. But the front one is not captured, so you’d better make sure you keep track of it. With the upper off, you can retract the bolt group, and then pull the carrier assembly out of the rear of the receiver. Then you have to fish the charging handle out. You have to do two things: One, you have to pull it back far enough to reach the clearance slots. You know, the tabs on the charging handle, and the gaps in the receiver that let the charging handle come out of its track. Then, you have to tip the charging handle down in front, and push it forward, down and out of the receiver. Then you can pull it free of the receiver.
The charging handle does not come out the rear of the upper receiver on disassembly. You have to pull it back, then tip it down, and pull it out the front.Despite the odd disassembly, the charging handle still uses the tabs-in-a-slot design to keep it in the upper, and on track, while in use.
The Retro lower receiver has a cross pin at the rear, like the originals. In 1959 that roll pin was meant to keep the buffer and spring in place. It proved to be one of those clever ideas that ended up being an incredible hassle. First, (and we’re talking the originals, not he Brownells) you needed a correctly-sized punch and hammer to remove it. Then, when you opened the action, the buffer and spring would shoot out like a surprise snake in a “gift” box. Removing the pin and replacing it also risked marring the receiver.
Like the originals, the roll pin is drilled and installed. Unlike the originals, you do not need to remove this pin (in fact: DON’T) to remove the buffer weight and spring.
So Brownells drilled the hole for the pin too low to cross the buffer. Then made the lower with a standard, modern, buffer retainer. You get the looks of the old, with the usefulness of the new.
Oh, and there’s one more change from the original Prototype, to the Brownells one, that you should applaud. The originals had a buffer that looked like a small aluminum copy of the German “potato masher” grenade. The Edgewater buffer, despite working just fine in the early, demonstration rifle, proved to be too light when used in the field. It was replaced by the standard buffer we all know, the two-ringed buffer that weighs just over five ounces, and has five dead-blow steel weights inside of it.
How many of the Armalite AR-15 prototypes were made this way? Apparently only the first seventeen had the top-mounted charging handle. If you think about it, having the receiver open on top, with a slot running the length of the receiver, is an invitation for dirt entry and all manner of problems. There’s also the matter of it not being as strong as one with a closed top. That’s why starting with number 18, Armalite went with the charging handle we all know, the one with the grasping parts on the back end. However, those very early ones had a charging handle that wasn’t a “T” shape handle, but was a triangular one.
Test-firing the Brownells was a joy. We’ve spent so much time lately (well, I have, I don’t know about you) shooting carbines, shorties, SBRs and pistols, that spending time with a lightweight full-sized AR is a breath of fresh air. The full-length gas system produces a soft recoil. Oh, I know, the 5.56 hardly recoils enough to be a bother, but the rifle system does not produce the back-end “thump” of the cycling parts bottoming out, as so many carbines, and most SBRs do. Having the muzzle that much further from your face makes the muzzle blast lesser, and that improves the fun.
Brownells makes period-correct, 25-round magazines for the Proto as well. They ship one with each BRN-Proto rifle, and the one with mine worked flawlessly.
Along with the Prototype, Brownells ships a 25-round magazine. Yes, 25 rounds, that what’s the originals had. It fed everything just fine, and I had no malfunctions in testing. In fact, I had so much fun, despite the rain and mud, that I exceeded my testing mandate, and shot through a lot more ammo than the boss requires. Hey, I was having fun, so sue me. I spent an inordinate amount of time practicing offhand shooting on the club’s 100 yard gongs, and loved it.
OK, I exceeded my mandate on shooting the Brownells Prototype. A really nice firearm can do that to your schedule, ammo budget and time. Don’t resist some forms of temptation.
Since the barrel has a 1/12 twist, I did not bother to test it with any loads using bullets heavier than 55 grains. What would be the point? We already know what happens when you feed a 1/12 barrel “green tip” ammo. (It ain’t pretty.) So I didn’t. Also, that is one additional detail that Brownells updated. The originals had a twist of 1/14, and that proved to be too slow under extreme conditions. Rather than have you struggle with the problems of a too slow twist barrel, Brownells made it with a 1/12, and life is good. Brownells also made sure they got the flash hider right. They did not use an A1, that would have been wrong, no, they used a correct three-prong “duckbill” flash hider, which does a very good job of killing flash.
This is what you want to see on the end of a barrel on a retro, prototype, AR-15.
I also had to use my riser and carry handle scope combo to do the accuracy testing. That part isn’t so pretty, either. But, once you find what ammo shoots best in a rifle, using the iron sights it was built with is a learning process. After all, since it is a retro rifle, using retro sights should be considered part of the fun. There’s also the aspect of being a well-rounded shooter. If all you ever do is shoot with red dots or magnifying optics, but not iron sights, are you really a good shooter? (Certainly not a well-rounded shooter, but then I might be biased.) Once I had done the testing, and accuracy work, I figured “I’m doing good today, what can I do with irons?” I used the last of my Hornady Zombie ammo, 55 grain .223 Z-Max bullets, with irons on a soggy, sagging in the rain, target at 100 yards. A one-inch by two-inch group, with a bit of vertical stringing. Could I do that again? I’m not going to bet on it.
A good group, on a rainy, soggy, muddy day.
So take a time trip, back to when the theme of the prom was “Enchantment under the sea”, when the Chevy Bel-Air was the epitome of cool, and it cost you twenty-four cents a gallon to fill up that rad ride. The Brownells Prototype, spend an afternoon being cool, and not tacti-cool.
Accuracy results are averages of 3, 5-shot groups at 100 yards off a Champion shooting rest. Velocities are averages of 10 shots measured on a Labradar chronograph set to read 15 feet from the muzzle.
Type: Gas operated semi-automatic
Capacity: 10, 20 30 rounds and more
Overall length: 40”
Weight: 7 lb 8 oz
Finish: parkerized steel, anodized aluminum
Forend: synthetic, tapered
Stock: fixed, pre-A1
Trigger: 6.5 lb, single stage
Price: $ 1,499
Manufacturer: Brownells, brownells.com
Source: Firearms News