April 24, 2023
For those of you who were too young, too old, or weren’t around, I will give you a taste of what it was like to grow up as a young boy in the 1970s. The United States was just launched into futurism from the 1960s space race, and everything NASA was in our face on television and at the movies. The sci-fi TV show The Invaders would not only keep our minds on futuristic technology, but would also feature U.S. military personnel having shoot outs with aliens, and some episodes featured them firing green-stocked 601 rifles. Other television shows like Space 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Ark II, Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run, as well as re-runs of Star Trek and Lost In Space, were available every Friday or Saturday for our viewing pleasure. And of course, who could forget Star Wars, which would change cinematic sci-fi forever in 1977? TV also had forward-thinking police shows, like S.W.A.T., which featured the futuristic M16 design front and center. When you thought of the future, you thought of NASA, and when you thought of the future in firearms, you thought M16 (at least through the late 1970s). If you grew up as a boy in the early 1970s, you wanted a toy M16 – they were everywhere. The “new” G.I. Joes with Kung-Fu Grip always came with the ArmaLite-designed rifle. The “woodless” M16 with its synthetic stock, triangular handguard, high-rise rear and front sight, carry handle, and black finish was the future technology rifle example on the small and big screens, but it wasn’t all entertainment when we saw the M16 on television.
During the very early 1970s, the Vietnam War was shown on the news every evening, which was a first in wartime news coverage for America. Seemingly, you couldn’t watch 10 seconds of combat footage without seeing soldiers or Marines with their M16s. For me and my family, it was CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite feeding the information. We didn’t watch the “national news” or the “evening news” — we watched “Cronkite.” And this was very important when my uncle was “over there.” My uncle Donald (my mother’s brother) joined the Army in the 1960s, and I still have a vivid memory of my grandparents and mother putting together a care package for him and being scolded for sneaking a Bit-O-Honey candy bar out of the cardboard shipping box! My uncle, a chemist, ended up being one of the founders of the U.S. Army’s first drug-testing lab facility in Vietnam. Although he was not involved in combat, he does remember his base coming under sniper attack on at least one occasion. Contrary to Vietnam War movies such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Forth of July, drug use among U.S. military personnel was not as widespread as Hollywood would like one to believe, at least according to my uncle when he was “in country.” However, Hollywood of the 1970s and ‘80s wasn’t totally to blame for inaccuracies about the Vietnam War. Cronkite delivered the news from a left-leaning position, and although he always ended his news broadcast with, “And that’s the way it is,” many times he presented the American public with outright lies about our troops in Vietnam. It’s amazing what editing on film and on paper can do.
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As stated earlier, the M16 was the firearm example of the future. It was so advanced that in the late 1970s and 1980s, when military small-arms experts to survivalists (and everyone in between) thought that the HK33/93 series (with its roller-lock bolt design and modular abilities to swap out fixed stocks for retractable ones, change different handguards out in seconds, instantly clamp on optics, etc.) was the future, the AR-15/M16 design would come back very strong around the year 2001, with the improvements from the SOPMOD program, and even leave HK’s newest G36 — along with every other futuristic assault weapon design — in the dust during U.S. military infantry rifle trials. No one could have predicted during the Vietnam War that the U.S. would still be using an M16 design in 2020, and that major European powers, with strong small arms manufacturing, would also be producing and issuing an M16-type rifle. This is especially true if one considers the ball powder issues and M16s malfunctioning in the late 1960s (but that is another story). And if someone in the 1970s (or 1980s, or 1990s for that matter) would have stated that Russia would be manufacturing an M16 design, they would have been asked what kind of drugs they are on. All of the current contracts for M16-type rifles in the U.S., France, Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere can be traced back to one model, and this model, which was the first adopted in a large quantities, was the ArmaLite-designed Colt AR-15 Model 601.
The first adoption of the M16 in the “Big Army” was through Project Agile in the early 1960s, but this would most likely not have been possible if it weren’t for General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force who first chose the design for his airmen. LeMay ordered 8,500 model 601 rifles, and the U.S. Army purchased around 1,000 under Project Agile for special operations. The Navy SEALs also got a handful. Fewer than 15,000 were produced, with the balance going to various counties in Asia, Australia, and some police departments in the U.S. Since Senior Field Editor David Fortier is covering the history of the 601’s acquisition for this 2020 edition Back In the ‘Nam special issue, I will not go into all the details, but ask you to read his article. Back to the Brownells 601.
The retro gun collecting market has become one of the most popular niche firearms collector markets in recent times. Some of us have been collecting retro-styled military semi-autos since back when the guns weren’t retro, they were just modern. Before Brownells started offering new versions of original-styled AR-10s, M16 prototypes, Model 601s, 602s, XM-16E1s, 603s, and M16A1s semi-autos, the only way to obtain one for yourself was to either find a transferable full-auto original, which could cost you anywhere between $25,000 to $100,000+ for some models, or to search guns shows, the internet, gun shops, or even garage sales to source parts and build your gun from scratch. For complex models, such as the 1950s AR-15 prototype or even a 601, you would have to seek out NoDak Spud, which manufactures receivers and other parts, or professional gunsmiths like John Thomas RetroArmsWorks.com to make your parts from scratch or modify new parts into the retro style. Either way, you would be spending a lot of time and money to get the gun of your dreams. Actually, it is fun to go on the hunt for parts, even if it takes you years to get what you are looking for. In the photos that accompany this article, you will see my semi-auto XM16-E1 variant for comparison purposes (this model was first produced in 1964). I got the original early-M16 stock in 1989 from Sarco and the original barrel around the year 2000 from them as well. Around July 2020, word got around that Brownells was discontinuing the Model 601 rifle, and the retro collectors were not that happy to hear about it, especially the ones on the Retro Board at AR15.com. But, I am happy to say that Brownells will continue to sell the parts so that you can have a 601 of your own — no AR-15 collection is really complete without one. So, what is so different about a 601 rifle?
Right off the bat, one will notice a difference in furniture color. The green handguards, stock, and grip! The original 601 handguards were a brown color, with fiberglass-like pattern, when they first came off the line in December of 1959. In the very early 1960s, when Colt took over production from ArmaLite, the furniture was painted green. If you ever find some old beat up M-16 handguards in a gun-show bargain bin that are green with some brown showing through in spots, buy them! If the seller knows what they are, one handguard side can set you back $700. An original 601 grip can go for over $250, and stocks can sell for $1,000. The BRN-601 buttstock also has the full-swivel sling loop (like the original), which was not done away with until the M-16A1. It also features a butt plate that replicates the originals used on the model 601, 602, and XM-16E1 rifles in shape and appearance, except that it is made of hard plastic instead of hard rubber. The BRN-601 has a silvery-gray finish on the upper and lower receivers. The green furniture and metal finishes are not exact to the original colors, but Brownells still did a nice job replicating them.
The receivers match up nicely in fit and appearance. The rear sight dial on the BRN-601 is the same as any A1 rifle you would encounter, but this is different on the original 601. The original 601 has an arrow on the dial indicating which way to rotate the dial to turn to the right. The later versions, like the M-16A1, have the arrow on the carry handle. Not to worry, as it still looks great, but if you are looking to replicate an exact museum piece facsimile, call John Thomas at Retro Arms Works, and he will make the adjustments.
The ejection port door is an M-16A1-style door with rectangular-shaped stop in the middle, unlike the more squared-shaped one on the original. Again, no big deal as it is close, but if you want original, look for an early port cover door (I have no idea what they go for) or call John. The original 601 takedown pins have a small circular divot, and the selector has a hole drilled through the center of the switch side as well as divot where it protrudes through the receiver on the other side. The BRN-601 does not have these divots or hole, but that is where you either hunt down original parts (with the exception of the selector, as that would be illegal), call John or NoDak, or fire up your Dremel tool or drill press. I am a big collector of these types of firearms, and none of these minor details bothers me in the least. Brownells did the hard work, and if I want to change it, well, that’s the fun of having a gun hobby. (I’m still adding original and more authentic parts to my semi-auto XM-16E1 many years after I built it.)
On the right side of the receiver, you will see the small cross near the front takedown pin — true to the original — nice work! I never was able to find out what it’s for, but I like it there. You will also notice that there is no gate around the magazine release, just like the original 601 (and commercial Colt SP1 models), but if you take a look at the photos of my XM-16E1, you will notice a single “gate” horizontal with the top of the receiver. That top “gate” houses the spring and detent for the captive front takedown pin. Since the 601 did not have this, the front takedown pin is not captive (but contains a spring-loaded ball detent), so care must be taken not to lose it when the upper assembly is removed from the lower assembly. You will also notice a small roll pin toward the rear of the receiver. On the original model 601s through the XM-16E1, there was a hole drilled completely through the receiver in which a roll pin would intersect the buffer tube threads. Well, Brownells included this detail, although there is no need to have an original buffer, the holes are there for cosmetic purposes, so a standard full-size buffer is used. That’s just awesome!
When you charge the BRN-601 rifle, and the ejection port door opens, a chrome bolt carrier is revealed, but not just any chrome bolt carrier group. Chromed AR bolts started making a comeback about 15 years ago, but that’s not just what this is, this is a “slick side” bolt. This bolt does not have any cuts in it like the kind you would see on any standard AR-15-type rifle with a forward assist. No forward assist, no reason to have the serrations — just like the original. And what kind of charging handle reveals a slick side bolt carrier group on a 601? Well, a small, triangular charging handle, of course! This is just an awesome feature, as it would be easier to locate the American flag on the moon than to find an original 601 charging handle. This charging handle was changed with the 602 model, so there aren’t any out there — I have no idea what an original would cost, but Brownells has a true replica available for $52.99.
These next two items I would classify as the “cherries on top.” The “duckbill” 601 flash hider is also another part which is unique to the 601 model. Although very retro cool, the duckbill was replaced in the 602 model, as it was prone to bending during the war. Doesn’t matter — it looks great and tops off the 20-inch barrel nicely. Second cherry: 20-round waffle magazine. To me, waffle magazines are just the coolest-looking magazines (especially the ones for the AR-10). Before NoDak Spud and Brownells, there was no source for AR-15-type waffle magazines. Want an original, it will set you back $750–$1,000. No need to worry, Brownells has them for a mere $54.99 each.
Now for the fun part. When I got the rifle last year, I loaded some Winchester Target 55-grain full metal jacket rounds and started plinking on steel at 50 yards. When the gun arrived, the front sight was high, so that took a little adjustment to get it hitting. After that, the gun ran great and had no jams for the 150 rounds or so that I fired. Since, at that time, we just got finished with our 2019 Back In the ‘Nam
issue, I decided to set the BRN-601 aside and save it for the 2020 edition. The problem was that I ran out of 55-grain by the time I started to write this article (I mostly shoot 62 grain 5.56). And that brings up a little issue with this now-discontinued production model. I am all for getting the outward details as correct as possible when it comes to replica firearms. (“Continuity is king!” was my slogan when I worked in the film industry.) But something like barrel twist rate? Who is going to see that? This rifle has a 1 in 12-inch twist rate, which means that 62-grain bullets are going to keyhole at close ranges and not hit anything smaller than a VW at 100 yards. Don’t get me wrong, I have AR-180s and retro AR-15s with this twist rate, and I started shooting 55-grain ammo in the late 1970s (still like it), but it would have been great to have this barrel in a 1 in 7-inch twist rate so one can shoot the heavier bullet weights that are available — especially in the biggest ammo crisis in firearms industry history. I guess that now that the BRN-601 can be had in “kit” form, you can buy a newly-produced retro pencil barrel in 1 in 7-inch twist to shoot whatever you want — problem solved. Anyway, the point is, I only had a handful of Barnaul and Winchester 55-grain FMJ ammunition to do a brief accuracy test.
I prefer to use an optic for accuracy tests, as this is a test of the firearm, not a test of my eyesight. I chose a Burris Fullfield 30 4.5X-14X 42mm scope set at 14 power for this test at 100 yards. This set-up will look unorthodox to the younger guys who have only shot P-Rail upper AR-15s, but back in 1978, when I got my first AR-15 (and throughout the 1980s), it was very common for us black-rifle guys to mount 3X-9X scopes to the carry handles of AR-15s.
First up, Russian-produced Barnaul 5.56 steel-cased ammunition, 55-grain FMJ. This stuff always works and is a great brand to stockpile BEFORE the SHTF. The trigger was more than a bit creepy and breaking around the six- or seven-pound mark. No problem, I can adjust that later (I started building AR-15s in 1982, so this is no big deal). After torquing down my high-rise scope set-up and getting used to more precision shooting with this trigger, I started on my groups. Not bad at 2.41 inches, 1.05 inches without the flyer. Next and last up, Winchester Target 55-grain FMJ, brass-cased ammunition. The first group measured in at 1.77 inches, 1.25 without the flyer. With a simple trigger job, this gun will be shooting even better.
As far as maintenance, it’s just like any full-sized AR-15-type rifle you have owned. Field stripping is the same except that you want to watch that you don’t lose the front take-down pin. The buffer is different than the original 601, which is the Edgewater buffer. (Shhhh, don’t tell anyone and they’ll never know.) If you want to be absolutely authentic on the inside, then search for an Edgewater; the last one I saw sold for around $250 about a year ago.
As I stated, I got my first AR-15 back in 1978; it was a brand-new Colt SP1 Sporter AR-15. That was not long after the Vietnam War ended, and I still remember some Vietnam veterans looking at my rifle and reminiscing about their time in the ‘Nam. Some of those vets were in their late 20s then. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, military surplus dealers couldn’t give model 601 or 602 parts away — they were just old junk in a bargain bin, and at gun shows, these retro parts were often given away since no one wanted them. The only time I have held a model 601 in my hands was when I was working with Cleveland, Ohio, SWAT back in 1997. They had one in their armory that had been confiscated from a Vietnam veteran who had a mental breakdown, apparently, he stole it from the military. It was never amnesty registered as transferable, only ATF Form 10 registered (known in NFA/”Class 3” circles as the “kiss of death”) to the Cleveland PD and was not able to be transferred to anyone, including an NFA dealer or even another government agency. I offered a post-sample HK MP-5 for just the parts, and they wanted to do the trade, but the liberal Cleveland city government would not approve it. That was the first and last time I handled an original 601. I’m glad that Brownells came out with theirs.
Today, an original 601 parts kit could set you back over $5,000. Retail price was $1,299.99 before Brownells pulled the plug on complete BRN-601 rifles, but Brownells has all the parts to build one for yourself (see side bar listing parts and URLs). If retro firearms collecting is something you are interested in, the Brownells 601 parts will give you a great start in this fun hobby.
The Brownells BRN-601 rifle line has been discontinued after the initial publication of this article in the November 2020 Issue of Firearms News.
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