AR-18 and AR-180: Can Lightning Strike Twice for Armalite?

The AR-18 has its genesis in the AR-10. I n an effort to develop a less expensive version of that rifle, Armalite created the AR-12, an experimental rifle which used a stamped or bent sheet metal lower receiver in place of the forged AR10 lower. When Armalite sold the AR-15 patents to Colt, they had to stop using Stoner’s gas system, and so the AR-12 was refitted with a short stroke gas system copied form the SVT-40. This design would continue to evolve into the AR-16, a rifle still chambered for 7.62mm NATO, but using stamped construction for both the upper and lower receivers.

To meet the market for a cheaper 5.56mm rifle as a counterpart to the AR-16, Armalite engineer Arthur Miller scaled down the design in 1963/4, creating the AR-18. Armalite was hoping to find both military and commercial contracts for this new rifle, although no military sales would every develop. Armalite themselves built rifles in Costa Mesa (4018 AR-180 semiautomatic rifles and 1,171 AR-18 selective-fire rifles) between 1969 and 1972. In 1966 or 67 they arranged to license the design to the Howa company in Japan, who would make a further 3,927 of them. Shortly after the deal was made, however, the Japanese government restricted arms sales to nations at war, leaving Armalite looking for a new partner. In 1974 the license transferred to Sterling in the UK, who would make 12,362 AR-180s.

The rifle was tested sporadically by the US military between 1964 and 1970, but found to be not as good as the AR-15/M16. Sterling managed to make a few military sales in Africa, but nothing of major quantity. However the AR-18 mechanism would be the basis for many of the rifles in major military service for decades afterwards, including the British L85 and the German G36.

These were in the December 2019 RIA Premier auction. Hammer prices: AR18 (transferrable) – $23,000. How – $2,300. Sterling – $2,300. Costa Mesa – $2,588.


  1. As I recall, the major non-state user of the AR-18/AR-180 was the IRA. It was one of their favorite sniping weapons in Derry, because it was easily broken down and carried into and out of their hides by young women “gunbearers”, who were generally not searched by British troops for community relations reasons. (The same could not be said for the RUC.)

    The Armalite’s main claim to “fame” today is that its mechanism was largely copied by RSAF Enfield in developing the SA80. Which is sort of like saying the Yugo was a copy of the Fiat 127; true as far as it goes, but not really conveying the true horror.



    • Speaking of Yugo, there is an anecdotal story of a televised state sponsored official event; a train load of them travelling from factory to a seaport, where they were due to be shipped to US.
      Only for train to return the next day back to the factory, as the cars weren’t even finished !

      Ideology is a great thing, until it finally crumbles under its own lies.

  2. I’m surprised there was no reference (unless I missed it?) to Brownell’s Retro uppers, especially since there’s somewhat of a relationship (Project Lightening). Maybe because it was filmed at another business (though not really a direct competitor)?

    I wish Brownell’s would redesign their trunnions to take AR15 barrels – pleeease?!

    • Indeed well liked by the PIRA.Known as the “Widow maker” for its a cruacy in despatching British troops,it is ingrained into Irish history in songs like “My little Armalite” and phrases like “The Armalite in one hand,the ballot box in the other”.Even the opposite side,The Loyalist paramilitaries liked it, and aquired it out of PIRA arms du mps whenever possible.
      Wonder would Brownells make a retro copy of this gun taking AR15 mags?

      • I’m not affiliated with Brownell’s in any way, but I’d guess no.

        The AR-15 lower is solid, yet so ubiquitous, inexpensive, available in 80%, etc. I think the stamped 18 lower was a false economy, and would be even more so today.

        • I think the argument was, at that time, that a nation could set up manufacturing for the 18 or 180 for less startup cost. I do not know if it costs less (then or now) to set up new tooling to make forged or stamped receivers, but i think that was the argument. Also, of course Armalite no longer had the rights to the AR-15 design so they wouldn’t be making arguments in favor of it.

          • Matisse,
            That makes sense in the original context – although, like you, I’m unsure; forging and stamping are both capital-intensive manufacturing processes.

            I still think it would be a losing proposition in 2019, though.

          • I think it’s the other way around – stamping has big start-up cost, but once you have the tooling sorted out, the per-unit cost is low, so it’s very suitable for a government arsenal looking to equip a lot of soldiers, and a terrible choice for commercial firearms where demand fluctuates and the run of any individual model will be lower.

            See the switch from milled to stamped receivers for the AK-47 to the AKM, or the countries that replaced their FALs with license-produced G3s.

            Armalite did make an AR-18 derivative relatively recently. When I first started following firearms (mid-late 2000s), the AR-180B was a popular choice in Canada for offering many of the AR15’s features without being restricted by name. IIRC, those took AR15 magazines as well.

            The final irony of the AR15/AR18 saga has to be the HK416 and similar piston uppers that essentially use the AR18’s operating system in an AR15

      • I’ve heard about Loyalists using the term Widowmaker for some of their contraptions, but I’m not sure about the IRA…

  3. It’s just not clear why “gas system copied form the SVT-40”?
    On SVT-40, a closed-type system with a regulator. Therefore, she was moody and required constant attention.
    On AP18 open type system, without regulator.
    Their common ancestor is the Benét–Mercié system.
    But they are arranged and work in two different ways.

  4. One technical/ manufacturing observation: the Costa Mesa made rifles have rails attached what looks like really neat plug (TIG) weld. The Howa made rifles are with rails attached by (electro-resistant) spot weld. Does anyone have knowledge what was durability of either receiver?

    We know that Beretta on 70/90 series rifles used TIG plug weld result of which was extraordinarily ugly. These on contrary look quite neat. It is not as simple issue as it may sound – the heat alters temper to rails which should be harder than surrounding sheet and primarily remain straight.

    • They were brought in by the UVF in the Larne gunning episode in 1913/14(?).This was when the Protestant side was going to fight against British introduced Home Rule for all of Ireland, as it would have made the Protestant majority of Ulster a minority in Catholic Ireland.The first world war put that problem on the back burner until the rising in Dublin in 1916.

  5. Complete tangent to a different gun

    The six counties / thirty two counties “controversy” has been mentioned.

    I’ve encountered Vetterlis on the six counties side

    Were they also used on the 32 counties side?

    If they were, how were they supplied?

    • International arms trade is very international. 😉 Seriously, the black market trades any gun that goes bang around the globe. And so rarerities like a Vetterli show up in Ireland.

    • To make the long story short, they were basicly scammed with importing absolutely obsolete Vetterlis, the deal being not a stellar example of arms trade. They ended up as a nuisance for people that were chosen for storing and hiding them.

  6. I had a friend who owned an AR-180 and comparing it to my AR-15 it just lacked the aesthetics of the AR-15. Fair or not, the design seemed kinda crude. Like something that Nazis would’ve cobbled together in the last weeks of the war, a volksstrumgewehr.

  7. I suspect that the two ranges for the rear sight are for further than 100 and 200 meters. For a 5.56mm combat rifle, 300/500m would seem more likely, or possibly 200/400m at a minimum.

  8. IIrc, the patented feature of the 18 was the spherical joint at the back of the gas piston, that,

    allowed a less rigid (hence lighter) piston rod.


    Big but,

    45 to 50 years on, the debate appears to be, should the gas system be half way along the barrel?


    Inside the bolt carrier?

    Perhaps that argument is less important than the one between the advocates of a forged precision receiver

    And the advocates of a cheap bent receiver, combined with a bolt carrier that runs on rods, grease gun style, and doesn’t even touch that cheap, shitty, conscript proof receiver.

  9. Cheap? Not exactly, as stamping requires investment of cash and resources into stamping presses and good sheet steel stock. While the fabrication of parts out of stampings is rather fast once you get your infrastructure in place, you’d best find a way to make the rest of your production-processing consistent (or a customer will risk having his “properly assembled” AR-18 self-destruct while he’s using it). The AR-18 gets some stuff right, but not right enough to mass-produce. Essentially, the gun is an attempt to circumvent a patent-product set that got sold to Colt and cheap out at the same time, but reinventing the wheel didn’t work out too well since one could not use preexisting AR-15/M16 parts with it (“great, I must buy the whole caboodle when I was just looking for spare parts or magazines for my M16 stocks”). I could be wrong.

    • When the AR-18 was designed the M16/AR-15 was not as ubiquitous and omnipresent as it is today. That really is a past 2000 thing after the AWB sunset.

    • “(…)could not use preexisting AR-15/M16 parts with it (“great, I must buy the whole caboodle when I was just looking for spare parts or magazines for my M16 stocks”)(…)”
      I suspect it was intended for nations which still used 7,62×51 NATO cartridge as default infantry cartridge (and weapons like FN FAL, G3 or similar). Thus, after they decided to adopt 5,56×45 NATO, they would need new magazines anyway.

  10. Good design, as replicated in SA80 (despite issues), Singapore SAR, G36, VHS-2, etc.

    I had a Sterling AR180. Mag catch was misplaced, leading to multiple FTFs. Barrel was misaligned off to the side. Shot OKish groups, but ran out of windage adjustment at around 100 yards/metres. Dust cover cut my hand open once even charging correctly with the left hand for a right handed user.

    So, crap. Actually. Would never had got military acceptance.

    Good points. Handled really well. Liked the folding stock. Ambi selector. Good design blighted by bad manufacturing/QC, at least at Sterling.

  11. Seems like it would have been just the thing for tank crews and the like, potentially less expensive than an M16 and compact given the folding stock. But they stuck with another stamped gun, the M3, in that era.

    It did see a little police use. Orange County (California) SWAT used them at least briefly in the early 1980’s. Not sure why they went with it, but there are pictures them in use.

  12. Great video as usual but I wanted to add a small pronunciation correction. Japanese vowels are the same as Spanish vowels that you are probably more familiar with Ian. Howa is pronounced closer to Hoe Wah, than How Uh.

  13. one really nice touch of the AR18 180 series…he folding stock….take the stock off, lace a sling properly and carry the ” pistol ” across your back, muzzle down
    made a comfortable riding companion on my motorcycle…had magazines altered to feed either the AR 15/16 , the AR 18/180 , or the Mini 14….excellent work by former Military smallarms expert

  14. Main “crime” of AR18 was, that it was made not before, but after AR 15. Also Colt mass producing during Vietnam War did not help AR18 market and price position.

    Its hard to get back to a donkey when you finally mounted a horse !

  15. “Its hard to get back to a donkey when you finally mounted a horse!”

    It seems that way.
    The design of the AR18 is a step back after the AR15. Return to World War II technology.
    A technology that requires too much manual labor, the quality of which depends on the qualifications and integrity of the workers.
    It was this approach that destroyed the Kalashnikov system. Which turns into shit as soon as it ceases to be produced in millions of copies.

  16. I think one of the reasons the SA80 failed when it was introduced was the way it was designed.

    Sterling had the licence to manufacture the AR18, but Royal Ordnance hated Sterling and would have nothing to do with them. This followed on from Sterling suing RO because they had been making Sterling SMGs without paying royalties. So it seems that RO basically stole the design of the AR18 (I suppose Sterling were used to that happening by then) and tried to turn it into a bullpup, but without really knowing what they were doing.

    It would have made sense for Britain just to have bought AR18s from Sterling, or at least licence production to RO. However, the government wanted to sell RO off, and as such they wanted RO to have its own product to sell, so that was never going to happen. So it came to pass that in the 1980s RO ended up being sold to British Aerospace, and it had its very own crap rifle to sell to the world. sadly, the world said no.

    The moral of the story is that governments will lie cheat and steal to further their own interests, but even they cannot make third parties buy their inferior product. They can however foist it on the captive market of their own military.

    I think getting screwed yet again by the British government was the last straw for Sterling, which went out of business. RO’s scheme worked so well that it is out of the firearm business too. Britain now cannot make its own military rifles.

    The Royal Marines have just adopted the Canadian C8 I believe, so perhaps that is where Britain will turn to for small arms when the last L85 is finally junked.

    • The Royal Marines have a long tradition of going their own way. Back in the 1830s, when the British Army adopted the two-groove Brunswick with its belted round ball as their first percussion rifle, the Marines took one look, shuddered, politely said “no thank you very much” and more sensibly had their flintlock Baker rifles converted to percussion. Which they kept until the Pattern 1853 .577 Enfield came along.

      They’ve used the M16A1 rifle for over forty years, first as “substitute standard” for the SLR, then as the standard 5.56mm rifle after the L85 became Royal Army standard. The Marines that went ashore in the Falklands in 1982 were armed with M16A1s, not SLRs.

      It says a great deal (none of it good) that the Royal Marines considered even the rather cranky original M16 with standard ammunition loaded with ball powder rather than DuPont powder to be a better and more reliable “fighting” rifle than the L85 in any of its iterations.



  17. What does the “government” have to do with it?
    The British lost to themselves in a game that they themselves came up with. The game is called “we are the coolest and no one can do anything better than us”.
    Complacency is the shortest path to degradation. This is the same thing that has already happened with the small-arms industry of the former USSR and is happening right now in the United States and other former leaders.

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