Armalite AR-180B Review

Armalite AR180B

Armalite, formerly Eagle Arms and formerly before that Essential Arms has been a company in transition from an AR15 clone parts maker, to gun maker to finally purchasing the right to the Armalite name and reviving what had been one of the more interesting product offerings from the defunct division of an aerospace company.

The original AR180 was designed as a lower cost and improved alternative to the M16 rifle in service in the late 1960s.  By the 1970s, Colt AR-15s were seen in use with well funded police departments and well heeled individuals, but the civilian models of that rifle often suffered from the same shortcomings as the early M16s of the Vietnam conflict.   The Colt rifles were costly to produce and at the time, cost considerably more than other semiauto rifles which were popular in the US market during the turbulent early 1970s.   Along came the Armalite, with largely sheet metal construction and a gas piston system that lowered costs and made the gun mechanically simpler.   Armalites never quite caught on in the US but enjoyed some popularity in the UK and Ireland which had more relaxed gun laws for civilian ownership during the Cold War when a Soviet invasion was a credible threat.

By the mid-1980s, the original Armalites lost out on market for a budget assault rifle with the introduction of several AR15 clone rifles, the importation of semiauto AKs, and a favorable currency exchange rate with Germany that caused a drop in prices of the HK rifles.   Even the Koreans were in on the act with their high quality low priced Daweoo Max-1 and Max-2 rifles that were so good and so sheap, sales were dismal in light of a cynical public hesitating to buy something where the deal seemed “too good to be true”.    Thus, the Armalite AR180 was relegated to the footnotes of assault rifle history.

Enter the revived name of Armalite in the late 1990s and their dream of reviving the AR180 as a fresh option to what was becoming a very stale market during the Clinton gun bans.   Some shortcomings in the original design were easily corrected with modern technology and the improved gun dubbed the AR-180B.   It came with a fixed stock and integral muzzle brake to comply with the 1994 to 2004 assault weapon ban.

The introductory price was to be $499 which would make it highly competitive with even the cheapest AR clone rifles and a welcome alternative to the Ruger Mini-14.   The low prices were short lived, however, since the guns usually traded for around $650 out the door of any gun shop that could actually obtain one to sell.   The business minded folks at Armalite quickly concluded that if the market would bear prices up to $800 for the rifle, they could enhance profits by raising prices without a major increase in production.   The rifles still price in just below most basic AR15 type clone rifles and represent a good value for the shooter who wants a decent solid semiauto utility rifle that will accept standard 5.56 ammo and M16 magazines.

Handling characteristics of the AR180B remind me a lot of the M16A1.   The new “B” model lacks the side folding stock of the early AR180s and thus feels more rigid because it is.  I use the word “rigid” not “solid”.   There are aftermarket companies developing folding stocks for this gun, but adding a folding stock would likely start raising the cost of the gun into the level of making it impractical compared to the cost of a decent quality AR type carbine.   The gun with the factory stock is lightweight and feels hollow in the thicker parts because it is, so even though the gun is large, it does not feel cumbersome.   A folding stock would most likely make it heavier.   The barrel is a lightweight contour under the handguards and the stock is hollow plastic without the metal supporting tube you normally see in an AR15 rifle.   The handling is not bad, but a style that a lot of newer AR shooters are not used to with the current popularity of compact yet heavy AR type rifles.    The AR180 is long, but fairly slim and light.   I can easily hold the rifle with one hand although accurate shooting will require two hands.   An easy rifle to carry in the woods all day, but not quite what one would want if their profession is kicking in doors.

Sights on the gun are a slightly simplified A2 style.  Basically like the A1 but with an A2 windage knob.   Accuracy is nothing to brag about, but better than an average AK or Mini-14.    I am not sure if it would improve much with the use of a scope, but I can’t help but think that the accuracy of the AR180 would be helped with one of the moderately priced NcStar compact riflescopes.    Practical accuracy on the rifle seems like it is going to max out at 300 yards but to be on the safe side, I would zero it no farther than 250 yards.    Given that your IFF and engagement distances for medium game animals or bad guys raiding your retreat is not going to be much over 200 yards, this seems fine.   The gun will still outrange most AKs.  The power punch of the .223 out of the longer barrel compensates for the slightly better accuracy of the average 16″ barreled ARs that are common these days.

The controls on the AR180B are simple, logical and easy to learn.   The bolt handle on the AR180 serves the purpose of three different controls on guns like the AR15.   First, it is the charging handle, but because it is fixed to the bolt, it also serves as the forward assist.   The hold open device that is activated when the magazine runs dry has no outside lever to allow the bolt to ride forward once a fresh magazine has been inserted.   The shooter is supposed to retract the bolt slightly to the rear and the hold open device will spring out of the way if there is no magazine in the magwell, or if a loaded magazine is in the magwell since the hold open device is activated by the magazine follower alone.   A dexterous person can insert their finger into the magwell from underneath in order to manually activate the hold open device on the gun when it is empty, but you would not be able to do this with a magazine inserted in the gun.   This is a slight range safety disadvantage compared to the AR15 type systems that allow you to activate the bolt hold open device when a loaded magazine is in the weapon, as would be done sometimes to determine the cause of a stoppage or to assure the weapon has no round in the chamber before removing a magazine.   Thus the unloading, clearing and opening sequence of this gun is unique and must be made clear to people transitioning to this gun from other rifles like AR15s, HKs or FALs.  This function of the AR180 is more like the AK than anything else, although the safety lever is directly derived from the AR15 and works the same as nearly all NATO standard assault rifles albeit in semiauto only.

There is no known full auto variant of the AR180B.   Simple modification and installation of M16 fire control components would not accommodate for the differences in design of the AR180 bolt carrier, thus the gun would either not function at all in full auto mode, or would produce an unsafe slam fire condition regardless of the legality of the circumstances of the conversion or the people involved.   Early 1970s era AR180 rifles used an entirely different fire control group that proved cost prohibitive to reproduce in the newer model when readily available AR15 type semiauto components could safely and legally be used in a the newer semiauto rifle.   It should also be noted that a big part of the failure of the original AR180 design and several of it’s derivatives like the British SA-80 was in the high cycle rate of the bolt carrier.   This would cause the bolt to cycle faster than most magazines could feed rounds, inducing stoppages of the same type that are induced when M16 mags are used in the M249 SAW.   The British SA-80 rifles have since been enhanced to reduce these instances of stoppages which would also happen in rapid semi-auto fire.   While our test sample semiauto AR180B did jam a few times with some old magazines, we noted that it ran perfectly with some British surplus steel SA-80 magazines.

Shown here is a recently developed ACE side folding stock for the AR180B.   It is necessarily heavier than the original plastic stock and allows the user to fire the rifle with the stock folded or open.

The mechanical systems of the gun make most maintenance tasks simple and straightforward.   Takedown is dirt simple and you are less likely to lose small parts than with some other guns like the AR-15.    The small screws which are removed from the gas block and bolt carrier in detailed disassembly can be replaced from any well stocked hardware store.    These features contribute to making the AR180 a valid choice for a survival or security group that is going to be operating in more or less open country and not a primary fighting group that would require higher levels of performance and likely be using specialized AR variants.   It would also be a valid choice for law enforcement agencies looking for a general issue patrol rifle to be used effectively at moderate ranges by nominally trained officers without prior military experience.   If you are not specializing and want just one rifle for most seasons outdoors, then you are not going wrong with the AR180B.    A group can equip with these rifles and deal with most realistic threats in a survival scenario without breaking the bank account or needing to exhaust major resources into training.     There are not a lot of buttons and levers to learn, the handing is decent and the performance respectable, however, these guns will not impress a professional shooter.

Cost – Moderate and set to fill the void between the cost of most AR15 type rifles and the .223 AKs and Mini-14.  Armalite has raised the price significantly since the guns introduction as a $499 bargain rifle in the late 1990s.The gun represents one of the better deals on the current market for a US made semi-auto utility rifle with most of the features a survivor would be looking for. Accessories – Much more limited than the AR15 or the AK, you can get the basics for this rifle like a scope mount direct from Armalite.    The rifle uses a standard M16 sling, but the rear swivel mounts to the bottom of the pistol grip.   This is nice for over the shoulder “parade” carry, but not compatible with most of the assault slings on the market.   We found it fairly easy to improvise a single point sling mount for the gun.
Mags – The AR180B will NOT use old AR180 mags and was specifically engineered to work with M16 type mags, however the test samples seem to function fine with all but the worst quality aftermarket AR type mags.    We recommend the British steel SA-80 mags for this rifle. Longevity and durability – Difficult to determine at this point, but the rifles should hold up fairly well with normal use.  Still, the extensive use of plastic components in the lower receiver causes us to think a 30 year service life would be optimistic.
Ammunition – Easy to obtain almost anywhere rifle ammunition is sold.   The gas piston system of the AR180 is a little more forgiving of ammo variances than the direct gas system of the M16. Power – Normal for .223/5.56 and on the upper end of that scale due to the longer barrel of the AR180B compared to the average .223 carbine barrel.
Parts –  Most of the wear parts are compatible with the AR15 and thus easy to obtain, but certain critical function parts come from only one source – Armalite.  The small machine screws most likely to be damaged or lost during maintenance can be obtained from a local hardware store. Ergonomics and handling – Quite good, but that’s a matter of opinion.   I like the light weight yet full length of the rifle, others find the grip too skinny.    Recoil is evident but tame.
Popularity – Never quite hit it off in part because of the short lived introductory price.   The market supported higher prices when the guns were first released to the market in the first year and Armalite raised their prices to match what they thought was going to be a lasting demand.    Faces stiff competition from the Kel-Tec SU16 series rifles which are mechanically similar but have a more radical modern appearance. Maintenance and repair – Seems fairly easy to take the gun down for normal cleaning.   Detailed takedown and  replacing small parts requires some allen wrenches which irritates me, but the screws can be modified to work with a regular screwdriver by using a Dremel cutting disk to cut slots in the screw heads.   The design of the gas system makes infrequent cleaning to to be less of an issue than the AR15.   Note lack of a chrome lines bore makes bore cleaning to be very important in humid environments.
Accuracy – Nothing to brag about, but pretty decent for a light barreled rifle.    This is not a long range varmint gun, but should be just fine in reasonably competent hands as a moderate range utility rifle. Reliability – Nothing to fault as long as you keep things clean and use good magazines.  The jams we experienced were attributed to a few low quality magazines.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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