Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Brownells Reintroduced the Legendary BRN-180 - Long-Term Test

Brownells Reintroduced the Legendary BRN-180 - Long-Term Test

When Dean, the President at PWS, was explaining to me the concept of his short stroke piston AR-180 redesign, in cooperation with Brownells back in 2018 dubbed the BRN-180, I frankly really didn’t get it, but shared his enthusiasm. I was vaguely remembering the AR-180/AR-18 as a rather rough looking piston driven stamped steel version of the AR and was not sure it was going to be the splash that Dean was expecting. Then I tested the BRN-180 and wondered why this did not become the standard instead of the AR15 direct impingement format.

Check out there BRN180 Here on Brownells

It is hard to believe the AR-18/AR-180 has become a somewhat forgotten firearm considering its design, amazing reliability, flexibility and accuracy. Brownells has brought the AR-180 back to market in a completely redesigned BRN-180 upper format compatible with any AR-15 spec lower. The BRN-180 was a collaborative design effort between Brownells, PWS, and FM - Foxtrot Mike to bring back a modernized version of the often forgotten short-stroke piston driven AR-180.  As a writer for Primary Weapons Systems and Brownells, I was privileged to have very early knowledge in 2018 of the new BRN-180 development and then proceeded to bounce off the walls muzzled by an NDA for another 6-8 months. I was excited but skeptical then, however in both my initial and long-term reviews, I have been thrilled with the flawlessly operating BRN-180 pistol and rifle uppers. Now that I have put both a rifle and pistol uppers through the paces long-term with a fairly high round count over the last four’ish years they deserve another look.

BRN180 Models

Currently Brownells offers .223 Wylde and 300 Blackout models in pistol uppers and .223 Wylde in 16 and 18-inch rifle upper variants. What makes these unique guns so cool and why is the AR-180 platform getting hot again? The short answer is the insane short-stroke piston driven reliability of the platform plus the negated need for any buffer tube, spring and buffer assembly. With the trend in the market for more compact and stowable firearms, the idea of not having to contend with an operable buffer tube delivers a potentially lighter and shorter folded firearm. 


From a reliability perspective, if you consider the AR-15 platform prefers to be cleaned every 1500 rounds or so before starting to have reliability issues, consider the pistol based BRN-180 can shoot for about 6000+ rounds before a cleaning is required… at least according to my total neglect and testing of the BRN-180 pistol upper. This puts the BRN-180 into interesting company with uber-reliable AKs and all the advantages of a non-operable buffer tubed receiver that can host a lighter and more compact non-operable fixed or folding buttstock or brace similar to Sig MPX and MCX designs.

The original AR-180 is sort of like an AK and an AR hooked up and had some type of weird love child that fused all the ultra-reliable awesomeness of AK DNA with the trim ergonomics of the AR. On the outside, from a distance the original AR-180 looked a lot like an AR with similar ergonomics down to a very similar handguard front sight...etc. Up close, it was apparent that nearly every part of the original design was based on stamped steel construction similar to the AK but to a level far more detailed and complex than the simplicity of an AK.

Though the AR-180 starts with AR the original design was not cross compatible with the AR15 platform. Some parts were carried over into a cost effective likeness based on steel stamping dies however the use of stamped construction was extensive including nearly every firing and operational control of the AR-180 gun. The AR-180 also had proprietary magazines and receiver designs. According to many historical experts, the non-adoption of the AR-180 was in part due to it being yet another new form factor to support vs carrying over direct AR-15 magazine and lower compatibility. You start to see where the Brownells, PWS, and FM collaborative team saw some potential even just making the AR-180 design cross compatible and upscale the production to modern CNC machining based design.


The AR-180 platform also had the ability to get really short with a folding stock like an AK thanks to the dual captured internal springs and rod set nestled inside the upper receiver and the obvious omission of a buffer spring. Internally, there was also a very short and light bolt carrier with a recricating right handed charging handle, again, like an AK. One of the extolling features was an exceptional buttery smooth operation of the mini-carrier sliding on the dual spring and rod configuration. The AR-180 bolt is an AR15 style bolt and barrel lockup design, but the overall AR-180 or BRN-180 design does not permit barrel swaps. The AR-180 was also incredibly simple to operate with a large easy to find right handed reciprocating bolt handle similar to an AK.


One of the less discussed advantages of the AK format is it’s intuitive function where nearly anyone could pick up an AK and figure out quickly how it works all thanks to the single reciprocating charging handle. Unlike the AR, there is no charging handle thingy and bolt release thingy to contend with, just one handle to focus on. This is the same with the AR180 and BRN180 design which makes it really super simple and easy to use. What I really love about the BRN-180 is that I can hand it to anyone and within a few seconds, it is obvious how to charge and operate the gun. I also like that the BRN-180 is absolutely an AK-gunners paradise in an AR platform with over or under bolt operation that mimics the AK function.


The AR-180 was also one of the first short stroke piston driven AR-style platforms and it was famous for literally running forever without maintenance. With zero debris blowing back into the action, the gun stayed clean and could run perfectly between very long extended cleaning intervals. Allegedly, there are still some original AR-180s that have never been cleaned and run perfectly. In essence, the AR-180 was the Americans stamped steel receiver set equivalent to the AK but with a short stroke piston system vs the AK’s long-stroke piston system. Today the AR-180 are prized collector items with only around 22K actually manufactured and many future guns based their design on the short stroke piston system including HK G36, ACR, and HK416 rifles and continues to influence many modern rifle designs including some aspects of very futuristic guns like the Tavor.

Have your BRN and take it with you
A Hazard 4 PlanB Makes a
Great pack for the very compact
BRN180P 5.56
With MI Folding Brace


The original AR-180 gun was budget focused, not super sexy and had the stamped, folded and welded quality of an intricate, but very average AK. At that time, the vast majority of manufacturing was based on old stamping and folding machines that offered cheap production. At the same point in time, the milling required for the AR-15 format was quite expensive. Today that cost equation has flipped due to the old stamping tooling technology becoming discontinued and the greatly reduced cost efficiencies of current production CNC milling. The reality of the original budget friendly AR-180 was it was a bit crude with proprietary firearm parts and magazines, but it worked flawlessly. 

Brownells, PWS and FM delivered an updated AR15 compatible upper which carries through the functionality and DNA of the AR-180 in a complete and premium quality BRN-180 upper. The BRN-180 features modern billet machining, design, finish, quality, and accuracy all in a AR15 lower compatible format which represents a giant leap in quality and compatibility over the old AR-180 design. The AR-180 was circa 1960s industrial looking where the BRN-180 is definitively one of the most modern looking AR-15 uppers on the market. This is a premium-tier upper that is extremely reliable, long-running and cross compatible with any AR15 lower you have in your safe. Even your standard AR-15 firing pins can be used if something does break. The BRN-180 design is something that the market has been asking for… a 5.56 AK upper for your AR.

If you were going to redesign a piston powered rifle such as the AR-180, the market leading Primary Weapons System would be the clear choice. Dean Sylvester is widely regarded as the industry expert in AR format piston systems including developing their own PWS long stroke piston rifles famed for incredible reliability and elite tier quality. From my perspective, Brownells make the best choice of who to partner with wide distribution and retail sales footprint. Foxtrot Mike is well regarded as designing the most reliable 9mm AR15 PCC format on the market - mine will deliver 1” 100-yard groups so he obviously understands a thing or two about design.

The biggest departures from the original design is that the BRN-180 is only a complete upper and not a complete gun and a design based on modernized AR15 compatibility.  That modernization includes a free-float handguard, 5.56/.223 compatible match grade .223 Wylde chambered barrel, adjustable gas block, and of course the precision fit of modern machining.

Having the BRN-180 mate to a standard AR15 also allows customers to do all the customization they want on a standard AR15 without having to worry about compatibility of yet another firearm platform. According to Brownells, the AR15 compatibility greatly reduced the cost and instead of a full $2700 gun, they are able to retail a complete upper with match grade .223 Wylde chamber for around $800. This is not bad considering many piston ARs are easily retailing over $1800. Brownells has now introduced a BRN-180S, for “short”. The 180S will feature a 10.5-inch barrel and a slightly modified gas block to accomodate for increased dwell time and more adjustment for suppressor use. Of note Brownells now offers a AR-180 style AR15 compatible billet lower receiver that features a shortened magwell, integrated rear stock/brace picatinny mount rail and other characteristic AR-180 style points.


The take-down is similar to the original, but has a buffer block that is friction fit to the rear of the upper receiver. Remove the upper and the buffer block is easily popped out during the bolt removal process. Remove the rods and springs, pull back the bolt, remove the reciprocating bolt handle, and remove the bolt carrier group. According to Brownells, that is really all the typical maintenance requires. Advanced maintenance is also simple - remove the handguard u-latch, slide off the handguard, remove the linkage rod, the piston cup, and then the piston rod assembly for deep cleaning. Notably after 6000+ rounds on my pistol upper, I still see no need for any bolt cleaning and certainly nothing that needs cleaning on the piston side… this is one extremely clean running gun. The barrel is permanently mounted using a trunnion system to 180 ft/lb.


My initial build was based on BRN-M16A1 prototype build a few years back, but more recently I have built a more purpose focused lower.  My new lower uses a standard Mil-Spec PWS lower, Hiperfire EDT Marksman, KNS Picatinny Rail Adapter Kit, and either Midwest Industries Side Folding Billet Brace or Side Folding Extruded Rifle Stock depending on the upper configuration.

Since I have both pistol and rifle uppers and the ATF says its legal to convert a pistol to a rifle and back again without paperwork, I built a PWS AR15 pistol lower first that I can swap to the rifle upper and then swap to the MI Extruded rifle stock. Anytime I want to go back to a pistol the process is reversed and I just swap the stock for the brace and then swap the uppers to the pistol lower. I stay all legal complying with idiotic ATF laws. Note - going from a receiver built first as a rifle and using that to convert to a pistol requires ATF form and tax stamps to be issued.

Notably the Midwest Industries Extruded Rifle Stock and Side Fold Brace Compatible extension are of supremely high quality. MI has assured that the folding stock mechanism is solid and also can be reversed for use with various types of weapons including the AR platform. The Rifle Stock is really light and well designed and like the Brace Extension is begging to have a custom paracord wrap. What I did like about the Pistol Brace Extension is that is has a bit of weight which helps to balance out a bit more of the pistol front heavy weight vs something like a lightweight SB Tactical brace.

With the Brownells AR180 style lower receivers, they include an integrated rear picatinny stock/brace mount. Since I was using a milspec PWS lower intended for a buffer tube mount, I leveraged the very handy KNS Picatinny Rail Adapter Kit. The KNS Pic Rail Adapter kit secures via the buffer tube threading and delivers a Sig MPX/MCX style rear picatinny mount for stocks or braces. In my case, I used the MWI’s folding pistol brace and extruded folding stock.

The BRN-180 are more like very well built AR uppers with most of my groups solidly in the 1-1.5-inch 100-yard group range and several groups nudged into the .75” range with the rifle upper. Functionally, my pistol upper is a tank that has yet to see even a patch pulled through the bore after my initial cleaning - wonderfully reliable. The rifle upper I have on a cleaning interval just to see if there is any accuracy impact which there is not.


The question I would ask buyers is why they think they need an AK, Galil, Tavor, SKAR or any other pistol operated firearm. Generally, buyers usually say reliability is their rational for purchasing onr of the proven piston driven firearms. I have owned all of the above and the reality is that the BRN-180 is compatible with that super awesome AR lower you already own, vs supporting yet another platform. With the BRN-180, you likely already own all the potentially consumable AR parts like magazines, triggers, and firing pins. The reason you should own a BRN-180 upper is that it is the most reliable AR-15 upper you can put on your gun outside of an obvious PWS MK107 upper, but at about ½ the price. If “it” does ever hit the fan, the BRN-180 uppers would be the AR uppers I would be rocking.

Check out there BRN180 Here on Brownells

and the MI Folding Stocks Here


BRN-180™ has 16" barrel with matte black Nitride finish

BRN-180S™ has 10.5" barrel with matte black Nitride finish

Ultra-reliable AR-180 piston operating system

Compatible with current mil-spec AR-15 lowers

Machined 7075 T6 aluminum receiver & handguard - hardcoat anodized finish

.223 Wylde chamber

Button rifled bore; 1-8" twist

1/2"-28 threaded muzzle

Replica 3-prong AR-180 flash suppressor

Molded polymer ejection port cover

The BRN-180™ and 180S™ upper receivers are fully compatible with any standard, mil-spec AR-15 lower receiver

Common Features:

Action Type:Gas Piston


Twist Rate:1:8

Finish:Anodized Black

Muzzle:3 Prong Flash Hider

BRN-180S™ 300 BLK Specifics:

Chambered:.300 Blackout

Barrel Length:10 inch

Length:18.57 inches

Weight:4 lbs 10 oz

BRN-180S™  Specifics:

Chambered:.223 Wylde

Barrel Length:10.5 inch

Length:18.7 inches

Weight:3 lbs 15 oz

BRN-180™ 16" Specifics:

Chambered:.223 Wylde

Barrel Length:16 inch

Length:24.57 inches

Weight:4 lbs 10 oz

BRN-180™ 18.5" Specifics:

Chambered:.223 Wylde

Barrel Length:18.5 inches

Length:24.57 inches

Weight:4 lbs 13 oz

1 comment:

lowly said...

recricating ?

ng. Internally, there was also a very short and light bolt carrier with a recricating right handed charging handle, again, like an AK.