May 01, 2018
By Jim Angell
Grabbing one of the first Brownells Retro Rifles was being transported back in time and thinking I could have been in the same room as firearms' Hall of Famers and pioneers Eugene Stoner and Jim Sullivan as they inspected their first production rifles. You notice the dimensions, the balance, and even the feel and sound the plastic makes, relishing the end result of all the design work.
While I have not had the pleasure to handle a first-generation M16, handling one of the Brownells' first retro rifles was a wow moment in this writer's experience. You could almost hear the echoes in history of the men who not only designed it but who got to use these first rifles as I opened the box.
Yes, many of the early echoes would be pooh-poohing it as a "toy" as some called it (among other things). But from a historical point of view, the Stoner/Sullivan rifle was truly state-of-the-art in the late 1950s and early '60s. Being made of steel, aluminum alloy and composite plastics, these first rifles were the forerunners of the guns we have today (long guns and handguns) that boast of the same materials and the advantages these materials give them.
Brownells' time machine has recharged the paradigm for retro firearms with its introduction of its Retro Line Series of all American-made AR rifles. Four are chambered in 5.56mm: the BRN-601, a mirror image of the initial M16 that was first issued to U.S. airmen and Navy SEALS; the BRN-16E1, a copy of the M16 transitional-model XM-601; the BRN-16A1, that mimics the M16A1; and the carbine variant XBRN-177E2 of the military's XM-177E2 with a 12-inch barrel. The other two variants are of Stoner's .308/7.62 (the BRN-10A and 10B) with the unique charging handle on top of the upper receiver.
Time for Inspection
Knowing we had to test one of these rifles, we arranged for a replica of the first-generation BRN-601, or as some call "the green" model. Upon arrival, my first take of the rifle was that if I were a soldier or airman in 1962 receiving one of these, it would have been culture shock. Up until then, military rifles were heavy, made of metal and wood, and now Uncle Sam wants me to use something from "Buck Rogers".
Picking up the light 6-pound rifle, I noticed that the fit and finish is definitely 21'st century. Its anodized finish is a classic military mat-gray and the attention to historical detail is first rate. I can see a lot of re-enactors checking these rifles out. Included with the rifle is one, period-correct, 20-round waffle magazine and a reprinted Army maintenance booklet that was distributed to the troops to show them how to properly maintain the rifle. Booklets like this were still printed when I was in the Army, so seeing a reprint about the M16 was truly ultra-cool.
Speaking of period-correct, let's go on an inspection tour of this rifle. The first thing most folks will notice is the olive-green furniture. It wasn't until the model XM-601 (transitional model) was produced that the rifle became totally black. Note, too, that the buttstock is the Type-D model, not the "E" versions with the trapdoor compartment that a lot of veterans are familiar with.
Kudos to Brownells on doing their homework for including a duckbill flash hider with split washer at the end of the barrel. It wasn't a long-lived asset on the early rifles and was soon replaced with a beefier version (earlier versions had a tendency to bend) that was ultimately replaced by the bird-cage flash hider on the M16A1 that we're more familiar with.
As we transverse back along the rifle, notice the classic elevation-adjustable front post at the top of the all-to-familiar sight base, then the two-piece plastic/composite handguards. For service personnel who had an M16 issued to them, taking off the handguards for maintenance was a love/hate relationship. It was especially onerous if the snap ring was brand new or if you got some sand and grit in them. I don't know if a tight snap ring is part of the "retro" feel, but Brownells' got that right, too.
Moving to the gun's midsection, you'll notice that the lower receiver is "slab-sided" with no magazine fence around the mag release button. Historically, there were reports of mags dropping from the early M16 because the mag release button was too easy to hit. I didn't find that with the replica. The button is firm, and I believe it would take quite a blow at just the right angle to kick the mag lose.
Upon breaking open the replica, you'll want to make sure not to lose the front takedown pin, it is not captive, so stick it in a pocket or stick the pin back into the lower receiver.
The upper receiver is host to a period-correct, triangle-shape charging handle and a chrome-plated bolt carrier group (BCG) without forward assist serrations. It wasn't until the XM-601 was introduced that the forward assist and the first serrated BCGs appeared. I stripped down the BCG and found a rubber O-ring or "bumper" used in place of the extractor spring. A fairly new advance used today, it isn't retro but who cares if it works better than the old-style springs.
I was glad to see that the 1:12-inch twist, 20-inch barrel is chrome plated (not quite first-gen retro, but no one will see that anyway).
On top of the upper receiver is the iconic carrying handle and windage-adjustable rear sight drum. The sights are adjustable by turning the detent located on the right side of the handle.
Back to the Future
While Brownells' replica of the very first M16 isn't the same version of the rifle I was issued back in Army Basic Training, I would have definitely welcomed using it. Back then, the issued M16A1 I was toting about had seen its better days. The sights were beat up and the fit between the upper and lower receivers was so loose that you could see from one side of the rifle and out the other. It would shoot, but until I had fashioned an impromptu cardboard spacer, I would have had more success knocking down the pop-up targets had I thrown rocks instead.
I decided that for range testing, I would treat the BRN-601 like I was just issued it back in the day, which means no optical enhancements like the soldiers today have. Frankly, it was enjoyable tweaking the windage and elevation until I zeroed-in on center mass at 50 yards. Plus, it enabled me to get used to the 6-pound trigger pull.
Although heavy, the trigger was firm with little takeup and follow through. It has a bit of roughness just before it breaks, but it wasn't noticeable once the testing started. Plus, it should smooth out as the rifle is used more.
At our standard 100-yard accuracy test distance, the retro rifle liked the .223 Hornady Black 62-grain ammunition best, with an overall group average of 2.99 inches, that included the best group of the day at 2.01 inches. Quite good considering the use of iron sights, my aging eyes and gusty winds up to 25 mph. Got to hand it to my military training, still gets the job done.
After the testing was done, it was time to save the free world from some rampaging clay targets and their leader, a metal plate set 200 yards down range. Got to say, this gun is a hoot to shoot. You'll need to take some extra rounds to the range when you plan on shooting this rifle. Once you start shooting the rifle, one 20-round mag isn't going to be enough.
To say the least, Brownells has done Stoner and Sullivan proud. Who says history isn't fun?
Brownells Retro Rifle BRN-601
Type: Direct impingement, semiautomatic
Cartridge: 5.56mm NATO
Magazine: 20 rds.
Overall Length: 40 in.
Barrel: 20 in.; 1:12 twist
Weight: 6 lbs., 11 oz.
Trigger: 6.5 lbs. (tested)
Finish: Olive green (furniture), anodized mat-black (metal)
Sights: Adjustable front post (elevation), adjustable rear (windage)
Muzzle Device: Duck-bill flash hider
Manufacturer: Brownells, Inc.
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