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PSA's Unique Replica XM177E2 Vietnam-Era Commando Rifle

Harrington & Richardson along with Palmetto State Armory have put together an amazing line of Vietnam War Era replica rifles. The crown jewel is arguably the iconic XM177E2.

PSA's Unique Replica XM177E2 Vietnam-Era Commando Rifle

The XM177E2 is an exceptionally lightweight, compact submachine gun-sized version of the standard M16 infantry rifle. (Photo by Oleg Volk)

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The XM177E2 was a radically advanced combat weapon for its day. Incorporating cutting-edge Space Age technology in a package that was both lightweight and exceptionally compact, the XM177E2 really ushered in the era of the stubby rifle-caliber carbine. Though the Army referred to the weapon as the XM177E2, troops in country in Vietnam universally called it the CAR-15. The H&R version as offered through Palmetto State Armory is a simply superb rendition of this legendary firearm.

Been There, Done That…

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The XM177E2 is an exceptionally lightweight, compact submachine gun-sized version of the standard M16 infantry rifle.

John Plaster is a foundational name in modern military small arms. Plaster got his start in Vietnam as a Green Beret with MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group). MACV-SOG is what first put the operator in special operations. Their missions were audacious to the point of insanity. These iron-willed maniacs ventured across international borders into Laos and Cambodia to monitor activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Recon, direct action, prisoner snatches, and Bomb Damage Assessment—MACV-SOG was the absolute tip of the spear. Working in small groups alongside indigenous troops, MACV-SOG operators like Plaster would conduct surveillance and call in air strikes as necessary to interdict supplies infiltrating into South 
Vietnam to support NVA and VC forces.

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Green Berets operating deep inside enemy territory wreaked havoc against NVA supply lines during the Vietnam War.

The nature of these missions meant that these small Special Forces teams were forever alone and outnumbered. They had copious air assets standing by in support, but that all took time. When a MACV-SOG team was compromised it was a come-as-you-were fight. Failure to gain fire superiority often meant capture or death. How they responded to an initial contact with the enemy was therefore critically important. Plaster’s primary weapon was an XM177E2 carbine.

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MACV-SOG patch (left). It took some serious stones to disappear downrange into Indian country for days and weeks on end with minimal organic support. John Plaster’s book is a fantastic read.

In combat he typically carried 22 twenty-round magazines along with a variety of grenades. Major Plaster is a prolific author. He penned a simply superlative book titled Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG. This gritty narrative explores Plaster’s extensive combat experience. It is also a wealth of information about the guns they used. The book is available on Amazon.

The Circle of Life

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The H&R XM177E2 is about the closest you can get to an original Vietnam-era CAR-15 without a whole lot of money and a transfer tax.

The serial number of the XM177E2 that John Plaster carried in Vietnam was 905442. As is always the case in the modern era, when finally the young Green Beret put Vietnam to his stern he had to leave his weapons behind. Plaster ran 22 missions behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia. Of his stubby little assault rifle he had this to say, “Some men’s best friends might be named Bill or Mike or Dave. But the best friend I ever had bore the unusual moniker, 905442. That was the serial number of my Colt Automatic Rifle-15, and ‘he’ saved my life many times.”

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The stubby little carbine that John Plaster carried in Vietnam was a superb fighting tool.

On Saturday, 26 April 2019, Major John Plaster was at the NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis presenting his book, Behind Enemy Lines: The Men and Guns of SOG. Unbeknownst to him, several patriotic Americans had been hard at work behind the scenes for weeks leading up to this moment. They had also enlisted the complicity of Plaster’s wife, Gayle, in their subterfuge. When the moment was right and before a substantial audience, they presented this legendary special operator with a semiauto rendition of the very XM177E2 he had carried in combat in Southeast Asia, right down to the serial number. When Major Plaster processed the details of the moment he exclaimed, “That’s my rifle!”

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When US troops had to silently pop up and engage the enemy, the short and lightweight XM177E2 made things much easier. (Photo by Oleg Volk)

The tale is foundational dogma to most of us by now. The M16 rifle actually had its origins in 1928 with the US Army “Caliber Board.” Even back then, visionary Army officers conducting firing tests at Aberdeen Proving Grounds saw the need for a lighter weight, small-caliber, high-velocity rifle round to replace the .30-06/7.62x63mm cartridge that was standard issue at the time. The .30-06 is a big as my index finger and effective out to a kilometer or more. However, it was also sinfully heavy and drastically overpowered for typical infantry combat, most of which takes place inside of 300 meters.

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The big .30-06 cartridge fired by American M1 Garand rifles was grossly overpowered. This eight-round clip of .30-06 ammo is shown alongside a 5.56x45mm round for scale.

The Caliber Board specifically suggested something around .27-caliber. However, the interwar years were marked by tight budgets and limited resources. We did end up with the semiautomatic M1 Garand, hands-down the finest combat rifle of World War 2. However, once war broke out we were locked in to the full-sized .30-06 cartridge. With American industry churning out armaments as fast as was humanly possible, there was no discretionary manufacturing or logistics capacity that could be devoted to a radical new cartridge.

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The M1 Garand battle rifle used by American forces in WW2 was a superb piece of kit. However, it was both huge and heavy. The M14 rifle was really just a product improved M1 Garand. It was cumbersome within the suffocating jungles of Southeast Asia.

The Allies obviously won the war, but military momentum can be a tough thing to overcome. While the communist bloc was converting wholesale to the M43 7.62x39mm intermediate cartridge, the US Army tweaked the Garand into the magazine fed M14, standardized the full-size 7.62x51mm round, and just called it good. And then, life happened. It soon became obvious that the full-sized M14 rifles of the day were too long, too heavy, and too powerful for optimal employment in the fetid jungles of Southeast Asia. As Special Forces soldiers are typically afforded the very state of the art in small arms, they got the M16 sooner than everyone else. That early M16 rifle was the result of a curious speculative venture by a tiny little subsidiary of the Fairchild Aircraft Corporation called ArmaLite.

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The M16 rifle evolved through several variations. The Colt Model 602 is shown on top alongside an M16A1.

The man behind ArmaLite was actually George Sullivan, not Gene Stoner. Sullivan was patent counsel for Lockheed Corporation and a gun nerd. Under the auspices of Fairchild, Sullivan rented out a small machine shop in Hollywood, California, hired a little talent, and went to work trying to incorporate the advanced engineering and materials science pioneered in the aviation industry during World War 2 into the exploding world of advanced small arms design. While testing a prototype survival rifle designed for the US Air Force called the ArmaLite AR-5 at a local firing range, Sullivan bumped into Gene Stoner and struck up a conversation.

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The ArmaLite AR10 (top) sparked a revolution in modern small arms. The XM177E2 (middle) was shorter and more maneuverable than the Colt Model 602 rifle that American Special Forces troops used at the very beginning of the war.

Stoner was a Marine who had served in the Pacific during World War 2 who was also a firearms enthusiast. The two men hit it off, and Sullivan offered Stoner a job on the spot. Gene Stoner was the ninth employee of ArmaLite. With Stoner helming the design team, ArmaLite debuted the 7.62x51mm AR-10 in early 1956. This extraordinary battle rifle was built around an aluminum receiver and employed widespread use of polymer furniture. Both of these design features were radically advanced for the day. Some early examples even sported aluminum barrels with steel sleeves, but these tended to explode periodically.

Recommended


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A seemingly happy US soldier with what appears to be an early XM177. (Paul Scarlata collection)

Meanwhile, in his free time, Gene Stoner also designed what eventually became the .223 Remington cartridge alongside Frank Snow, a ballistician with Sierra Bullets. Contrived in response to a request supporting the CONARC (Continental Army Command) requirement for a small-caliber, lightweight combat rifle, this spunky little cartridge pushed a 55-grain bullet to more than 3,000 feet per second. Stoner and company then went to work shrinking down the AR-10 to accept the smaller cartridge. The end result was the legendary and infamous AR-15. Air Force General Curtis LeMay became enamored with the spunky little AR-15 after informally meeting it at an Independence Day picnic.

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A US troop showing off an XM177. (Paul Scarlata collection)

After a carefully choreographed afternoon of exploding watermelons with the lithe little rifle, General LeMay was captivated. LeMay investigated the AR-15 as a replacement for the M-2 carbines that were then in use for base defense in the Air Force. That resulted in an order for some 80,000 rifles. In September of 1963, the .223 Remington was standardized as the Cartridge 5.56mm, M193. A year later, the Army adopted a slightly modified version of the AR-15 as the M16. At 39 inches long and 6.37 pounds, the M16 was markedly smaller and lighter than the M14 it was replacing. However, soldiers are never satisfied. Special Forces troops, dog handlers, aviators, and the like were looking for something that was yet shorter and lighter than the M16. What Uncle Sam eventually came up with was the XM177E2 or CAR-15.

A Rifle Refined

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The H&R XM177E2 sports a replica flash suppressor in lieu of the original sound moderator. Aside from being slightly longer than the GI originals, the barrel on the H&R XM177E2 is perfectly executed to include the missing bayonet lug and rubber-coated front sling swivel.

The “AR” in AR-15 stands for ArmaLite Rifle. However, ArmaLite never intended to mass produce weapons. ArmaLite was essentially a think tank. They designed revolutionary guns with the intent of farming them out to established manufacturers for mass production. The Dutch firm Artillerie Inrichtingen built the .30-caliber AR-10. Production of the M16 went to Colt. Despite the fact that these guys were producing combat weapons for the government, there was still a component of the enterprise that involved marketing. Colt wanted to take emotional ownership of these spiffy little rifles, so they christened the stubby versions the CAR-15 or “Colt Automatic Rifle.”

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The 12.7-inch barrel of the H&R XM177E2 is shown on top alongside an original 11.5-inch CAR-15 tube. The H&R version is extended slightly to appease American gun laws.

The CAR-15 was actually a family of short-barreled carbines based upon the basic M16 action. ArmaLite had already developed an abbreviated “tanker” version of the M16 back in 1959, but this radical little gun was a bit flimsy for serious combat use. Six years later in 1965, Colt developed the Model 607. The Model 607 looked like you had taken a standard M16 rifle and squished it front to back. The 607 sported abbreviated triangular handguards and a curious solid polymer sliding buttstock. With this as a foundation, Colt engineers set out to make the little carbine soldier-proof. The result was the Colt Model 609.

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Read The Famous CAR-15's Path to Modern Combat Rifles Here

The 609 featured a 10-inch barrel and a rubber-coated aluminum buttstock designed by Colt engineer Rob Roy. The government called this gun the XM177E1. This new rifle also incorporated redesigned round handguards that were interchangeable top to bottom. In practical usage, the muzzle blast and noise produced by the short barrel were overwhelming, so Colt also designed a stubby little sound moderator to make all that more bearable. While these moderators are not silencers in any sense of the term, the BATF does regulate them as NFA items. The short 10-inch barrel was found to beat the little guns badly and resulted in stoppages, so it was subsequently extended to 11.5 inches. This slightly longer tube offered better reliability and slightly diminished muzzle effects. The end result was designated the XM177E2. While on a certain level, excessive noise might seem a bad thing, under certain circumstances it became a combat multiplier.

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The Swedish K submachine gun was popular in Vietnam in part simply because it was cool and different. It is also extremely robust and reliable.

The first lot of 510 XM177E2 rifles was purchased for use by MACV-SOG troops in April of 1967. There were never enough to go around. When John Plaster first signed into MACV-SOG there were no XM177E2’s available. For his first combat mission, he therefore settled on a sound-suppressed Swedish K submachine gun. He later admitted that he was smitten with the gun simply because it was exotic and sexy. One could be forgiven for thinking that a suppressed 9mm submachine gun might be the ideal tool for use by covert operators on deep penetration missions into enemy territory. After his first firefight, however, Plaster realized that was not the case.

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The sound-suppressed Swedish K was actually so quiet that it was a poor tool for establishing fire superiority in a full-on gunfight.

The suppressed K-rifles were just too quiet. Here’s why that mattered. In May of 1969, Plaster and his small recon team inserted into a part of Cambodia that had just been hit with literally 10,000 bombs delivered by B-52 Stratofortresses. This was Plaster’s first live mission downrange. The resulting terrain was a maelstrom of shredded trees and splintered forests. All of that violently rearranged jungle combined with contiguous bomb craters made for terribly slow going. As they were making their way along a battered trail system they met a strong NVA force at a slant range of about thirty meters. The NVA troops opened up with AK’s, hitting Plaster’s point man, a Vietnamese soldier named Hai.

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John Plaster was thrilled to land an XM-177E2 of his own after his first serious firefight in Vietnam.

Hai was bleeding badly, and the NVA had the team zeroed. The patrol leader directed the team toward the planned helicopter landing zone for emergency extraction and declared, “Prairie Fire” over the radio. This code word meant an SF team in contact was in danger of being overrun. Every air asset in the area was obliged to try to help. Plaster and one other American Green Beret stayed back to delay the pursuing force of around twenty NVA. They threw tear gas grenades and reloaded as the NVA assaulted toward them, firing their Kalashnikovs as they came.

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The XM177E2 was universally coveted in Vietnam.

Plaster and his comrade fired back on rock and roll, but his suppressed Swedish K didn’t make any noise. The NVA troops didn’t know they were being fired upon unless they were hit. As they fell back toward the landing zone (LZ), the two Americans deployed fragmentation and white phosphorus grenades to cover their magazine changes. Throughout it all, the well-disciplined enemy force pursued, bounding by squads. The main body of his patrol made it to the LZ and set up a base of fire just as Plaster and his buddy caught up to them. By then they were out of grenades and low on ammunition. Just when things seemed hopeless, helicopter gunships arrived on station and slathered the hillside with 2.75-inch rockets and minigun fire. Despite these positive developments, the NVA still kept coming.

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The flip-adjustable rear sight of the XM177E2 represented the state of the art in iron sights when it was introduced. The teardrop forward assist is characteristic of early M16 variant rifles. H&R nailed the receiver details.

An NVA soldier popped up and Plaster shot him center of mass with a five-round burst of 9mm ball at twenty-five meters. With the wounded loaded on an aircraft and gone, Plaster and the remainder of his team jumped onto a second bird. As he did so, Plaster fired off his last remaining 36-round magazine. Tragically, as they pulled out of the LZ, one of his Vietnamese scouts named Quang was shot through the belly with an AK round. Quang and Hai were immediately medevac’d and survived, though only just. The gunship pilots reported a strong force of 100 NVA advancing on the LZ as the Americans departed. It had been a very iffy thing indeed.

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When zeroing at 25 meters, the H&R XM177E2 prints beautiful little groups.

The following day, Plaster met his new SF commander, a Lieutenant Colonel named Fred Abt. LTC Abt congratulated him for getting his team out alive and asked if there was anything he needed. Plaster begged his new boss for a CAR-15. The following day, the supply guys presented him with one of the coveted carbines. The serial number was 905442. When subjected to a meeting engagement at intimate ranges, the primary goal was to overwhelm the enemy and give him pause long enough for friendly forces to disengage for extraction. Under those circumstances, the louder the better. For that particular application, the stubby little XM177E2 on rock and roll was the ideal tool.

Practical Tactical

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Modern heavy 77-grain bullets like these Mk 262 rounds from Black Hills Ammunition were never in- tended to be fired from 1-in-12 rifling-twist-rate barrels as they will “key hole.”

The retro Harrington and Richardson XM177E2 is a meticulous rendition of the Vietnam-era original. The rubber-coated aluminum sliding buttstock is period authentic. The front sight base is missing its bayonet lug as was the case on the original guns. The furniture and basic upper receiver are spot-on as is the delta-shaped slip ring. The flash suppressor is pinned in place to ensure that the barrel meets the requisite 16-inch minimum. As this is a flash suppressor, without any sound moderation capability, there are no NFA registration requirements. H&R got the details right. The forward assist is the teardrop sort, as it should be. The rear sight is a two-position flip-adjustable aperture, while the front sight is round and adjustable for elevation zero. Zeroing the sights requires a bullet or similar pointy tool.

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The XM177E2 with its stubby barrel makes an ungodly racket. It was the perfect tool for breaking contact after a close-range engagement with the enemy.

The polymer handguards are of the older slim profile sort, just like the originals. The lower receiver sports traditional Harrington and Richardson lion iconography and is prominently marked, “US Government Property.” They are even serial numbered in the 2 million range just like the vintage military rifles. That’s just cool. Though H&R did not produce XM177E2 carbines during the war, they were a major producer of M16 rifles. Building this XM177E2 up on these period-authentic receivers adds a touch of class.

It is amazing how svelte and trim these rifles were before we started hanging so much stuff all over them. Compared to a modern tricked-out M4 with an optic and a little rail-mounted bling, the H&R XM177E2 seems positively anorexic. The rifle is dreamy to tote and exquisitely maneuverable on the range. The H&R XM177E2 is a joy to shoot. Recoil is, as expected, essentially non-existent. Follow-up shots are quick and easy, and the XM177E2 shoots plenty straight at reasonable jungle distances. The basic M-16A1 iron sights are both simple and effective. Like the originals, the H&R XM177E2 sports a 1-in-12 twist-rate barrel optimized for the M193 55-grain 5.56x45mm round. This configuration offers fine accuracy yet leaves these zippy little bullets unstable in a gooey medium.

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30-round magazines were quite rare during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. The few that were available to some troops, were often private purchase items sourced from the pages of gun publications.

However, this twist rate is inadequate to stabilize heavier modern bullets. The MK 262 77-grain Open-Tipped Match rounds from Black Hills Ammunition are arguably the most accurate and effective 5.56mm rounds in the world. This is, after all, what DEVGRU used to kill Osama bin Laden. However, out of the 1-in-12 barrel of the XM177E2 the bullets actually tumble. The resulting targets are fascinating. The H&R XM177E2 sports a rubber-coated sling swivel up front on the bottom. There are also two sling slots on the sliding buttstock. However, in action the sling was most commonly affixed to the front sight base and the buttstock. Thusly configured, the rifle could be carried at hip level ready for action.

The M16 and, by extension, the CAR-15, were the first general-issue American combat rifles to offer selective fire operation. The M14 was designed with a full auto option, but standard grunt versions most typically had a selector lock that kept the weapons from being switched to rock and roll. By contrast, GI-issue M16 variants used in Vietnam all sported a giggle switch. Major Plaster’s narrative describes a great deal of full auto fire. The Vietnam veteran grunts that I have known relayed similar tales. Plaster’s small unit engagements were typically up close and intimate. The best way to break contact under those circumstances was to open up with a mag dump, and with the CAR-15’s high-cyclic rate, it was very effective. I have run the XM177E2 on full auto before and found it to be a surprisingly controllable platform. With minimal attention to technique, it is a fairly straightforward chore to keep your bursts on a man-sized target at typical close engagement ranges.

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The H&R XM177E2 is a period retro rifle done very, very well. Everything about this agile little gun is topflight.

We take 30-round M16 magazines for granted today, but they were both exotic and rare back in the 1960’s. The original aluminum 20-round magazines were originally intended to be disposable. However, supply could never keep up, so they were routinely reused. When facing an enemy armed with an AK sporting a 30-round magazine, US troops often felt overmatched. The original arrangement with Colt was that each XM177E2 was to be delivered with seven 30-round magazines. However, Colt failed to have the larger magazines perfected in time for issue, so the weapons came with the standard twenty rounders. That’s not to say that the larger magazines did not exist.

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The receiver markings on the H&R XM177E2, though not quite period perfect, are definitely retro cool.

According to Major Plaster’s book, SOG operators would frequently order one or two 30-round magazines using personal funds through the back of gun periodicals and have them shipped in by family. They would then patrol with the larger magazine in place and replace it with the smaller sort, usually downloaded to eighteen rounds for reliability, as the need arose. I have read that there never were more than about one thousand 30-round M16 magazines in country before the end of the war. Nowadays, full auto fire from an individual combat weapon is reserved for the narrowest of circumstances. Our troops are trained to fire semiautomatically from the shoulder unless breaking contact at very close range. However, back in the late 1960’s these guys were figuring it out as they went along.

So, What’s the Point?

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The rubber-coated aluminum buttstock used on the H&R XM177E2 is period authentic. The interchangeable round handguards of the XM177E2 represented a significant improvement over the more fragile triangular sort of the original M16.

As our gun control opponents seem to shriek constantly, America is indeed awash in AR-15 rifles. They are quite literally everywhere. In a world wherein tricked-out M-4 variants are both plentiful and cheap, why would anyone spend more than a grand on an XM177E2 clone? The nostalgia aspect is quite real. Slipping into a set of vintage fatigues to shoot the pictures for this project really got the historical juices flowing. The H&R XM177E2 rifle is just neat. In addition, however, there is also a utility aspect to this weapon. The H&R XM177E2 would also make a superb home defense or truck gun. The same attributes that made John Plaster covet these rifles back during the Vietnam War make them desirable for their tactical utility today. Whether you are a collector, a shooter, or a security-minded citizen, the H&R XM177E2 from Palmetto State Armory is one seriously cool heater.

Editor's Note: The following statement is published at the request of Palmetto State Armory. 

The H&R Retro Rifle Series pays tribute to firearms of past eras and is intended to give firearm enthusiasts the opportunity to add a replica piece of history to their firearm collection at an affordable price. These firearms are intended only for shooting sports, hunting, and helping individuals legally protect themselves and their loved ones. These firearms are not actual military firearms and are not intended for unnecessary or excessive force, vigilantism, illegal acts of aggression, or self-harm. For more information about responsible firearm ownership, please visit our “Shoot Responsibly” page at PalmettoStateArmory.com.

Palmetto State Awesomness

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If you have the gun nerd gene, then Palmetto State Armory will scratch that itch. Here are a few recent PSA acquisitions.

Palmetto State Armory. Wow, I do so love those guys. In the modern world of DIY black rifles there is PSA and then there is everybody else. I honestly have lost count of the number of AR and AK rifles I have built up from their reasonably-priced kits. Nobody else even comes close. Their specials are my kryptonite. In the past month I landed a pair of stripped AR lowers for $39 apiece and another built out with internals, buttstock, and incidentals for a c-note. Last week I bought a spanking new Steyr M9-A2 handgun for $399. Right before I hit “Send” on this article I landed a beautiful milspec M1911A1 from Tisas for a cool $350. If that is beginning to sound a bit like an addiction, that’s what my wife said as well.

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These three project guns were built using parts sourced from Palmetto State Armory. I love those guys.

In addition to parts, parts kits, ammunition, and accessories, PSA also offers a wide selection of complete firearms. Among those is a delightful line of retro AR variants from Harrington and Richardson. H&R and Palmetto State Armory are both owned by the same parent company, so PSA is the place you go to find them. PSA offers twenty-nine different H&R retro rifles, but their stock fluctuates. These are popular guns. Among the full-sized M-16A1 and M-16A2 rifles, there are also semiauto examples of the Model 653 carbine as well as the Vietnam-era XM177E2. PalmettoState Armory.com is where your fun begins.


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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