Brownells BRN 180 upper, lead
Photo by Mitch Hardin
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These days it seems like everyone and their brother is putting their own spin on the AR-15 modern sporting rifle. Some you want to own, and others leave you with that “Why?” look on your face. Then there are those that leave you so curious that you just can’t stop looking at them. That’s the kind that can end up following you home—especially if it’s a side-charging, gas piston-operated, upper receiver-located twin buffer-spring AR-15. Did we mention that it could cycle and fire perfectly while folded? Yes, you read that correctly. Brownells’ newest AR-15 offerings are called the BRN-180 (16-inch and 18.5-inch barrels) and the BRN-180S (10.5-inch barrel).

Examining the Brownells BRN 180 & BRN 180S

Actually, the BRN-180 and BRN-180S are technically upper receivers that can mate to any mil-spec AR-15 lower receiver. They look similar to most other ARs out there, until you notice the charging handle sticking out of the right side of the BRN-180. (Yeah, go ahead and make fun of us Southpaws now!) Then look at the left side of the BRN-180 receiver and you’ll see a small round “bumper pad” of sorts. That is there because it was designed with folding the stock or brace in mind. The whole design is truly beautiful. 

Going Back

Brownells wanted to bring back an older design of sorts, going all the way back to the early 1960s. The original design was by Armalite and was called the AR-18. A “civilian” version of the AR-18 was offered for commercial sales and was called the Armalite AR-180. The AR meaning “Armalite Rifle,” not “assault rifle” as the drive-by media would have everyone believe. 

As with any 50ish-year-old design, things needed to be updated. Brownells went to the very top shelf and partnered with Primary Weapons Systems to breathe life back into a truly great design. If anyone isn’t familiar with PWS, the company is well known for adapting the AK-47 piston reliability to work on an AR-15. This has resulted in one of the most reliable AR designs in the industry. Brownells spared no expense in bringing the BRN-180 and 180S to the marketplace. 

In order to bring you the best, most accurate information, I took a scenic drive to visit PWS in Boise, Idaho, last summer to see the 180S being made. We were sworn to secrecy until just recently. Getting to see how the BRN 180S upper receivers are made was truly an experience.

brownells upper, apart
Photo by Mitch Hardin

If it weren’t for our awesome guide, Brittany, we would have been completely lost in the enormous building. PWS does it all there, and seeing the BRN-180S being made left us waiting in anticipation to get our hands on one. All in all, it was an impressive operation, and very clean as well. Also, all of the employees looked happy and content in their duties. That’s the kind of company that I want building my firearms. 

Looking Inside 

The design of the BRN is really quite noteworthy. To service, you pop the rear takedown pin and bring the charging handle to the rear, pop out the twin recoil spring assembly, pull the charging handle out from the side, the tip back and catch the bolt. It’s actually very similar to the disassembly of the FN SCAR upper receiver in this aspect.

However, the BRN-180 allows the user to remove the whole free-floated handguard by removing a large metal clip that recesses into the handguard itself. It’s a cool feature, and especially nice for those of us who still clean our rifles as if we’re going to hand them over for a “white glove” inspection. Plus, it makes accessing the gas piston stupidly simple. 

Relocating the recoil springs and buffers into the top of the upper receiver and shaving off the unneeded mass of a traditional AR bolt allowed the BRN-180 to become self-contained. This, in turn, allows for the user to install a Law Tactical folding stock adapter onto the lower and have a side-folding AR-15. The best part about that is the user can fire it while folded. Then, take into consideration that the complete upper weighs only 4.65 pounds for the 16-inch BRN-180 and 4 pounds even for the 10.5-inch BRN-180S, and you’ll see why these uppers are game changers!

Barrels similar to those that help make PWS known for exceptional reliability and accuracy are also used in the BRN series. Both models have a button-rifled bore with a 1:8 twist. They are chambered in .223 Wylde, and a black nitride finish is used to offer increased protection and easier cleaning. 

Charging Up

Some might ask, “Why a reciprocating charging handle?” Brownells representatives informed me that they wanted to keep true to the original design, and that it will also assist in clearing stoppages or clearing the upper.

Brownells BRN 180 upper, rifle
Photo by Mitch Hardin

Look at a SCAR, or the manner in which an AKM cycles, and the BRN-180 and BRN-180S appear very similar. According to Brownells, the charging handle is shaped the way it is to ensure that it doesn’t block the ejection port cover door, as well as helping to deflect brass and paying homage to the original design. 

We found that the charging handle rubbed on the American Defense Manufacturing RMR mount. As long as your optics mount’s lever is on the left side of the receiver, you will be just fine. It works great as is, but I believe a paddle style similar to those on other side-charging rifles would be a better option. Given that the charging handle is removable when performing maintenance, we foresee the aftermarket offering alternatives in short order. 

Creating a BRN-180 

We built our BRN-180 rifle with a RISE Armament lower receiver. We used a RISE RA-140 trigger, a Mission First Tactical Battlelink Extreme Duty Minimalist Stock and a Law Tactical folding stock adapter. Then we topped it off with a Primary Arms Platinum 1-8 FFP scope in a vice-like Bobro Engineering QD mount. If you haven’t yet tried the Advanced Combined Sighting System (ACSS) reticles in the Primary Arms scopes, I highly suggest it. 

We also built a BRN-180S AR pistol using a PWS MK1 Mod 2-M ambidextrous lower receiver. A Rise trigger was chosen for this task as well, this time an RA-535. We chose an SB Tactical SBA3 pistol brace and attached it to a Law Tactical folding stock adapter.

To keep things light and snag free, we chose a Holosun HE508T in an American Defense RMR QD mount. Since it is solar backup powered, the Holosun HE508T is a great option for a truck gun. It’s a stout little optic, as we still have its predecessor (HS507C) mounted on an AK pistol. It’s missing two solar panels from a previous torture test and still works great! 

The RISE Armament triggers were chosen because of their seemingly flawless operation and clean, crisp breaks. They feature a simple drop-in design and work impressively well. Unless someone convinces me otherwise, RISE has proven to make some of the nicest single-stage, drop-in triggers out there. Both the RA-140 and RA-535 are great choices. But you will most likely fall in love with the RA-535 for its short, crisp pull, glass-like break and reset that is so short it’s almost non-existent. Rise Armament actually offers a large selection of premium drop-in, single-stage triggers. 

Range Time 

Range time was a hoot!  We had a case of ammo to split between the BRN-180 and BRN-180S in order to get a feel for them. While it’s not 100 Jillion rounds down the pipe, if there aren’t any serviceability issues developing within the first hard 500 or so rounds, that’s usually a good indicator that you should be fine.

Brownells upper, drum magazine
Photo by Mitch Hardin

Those results will vary, though, given shooting habits and styles. It’s one of those “rule of thumb” things. Seriously, years ago we tested an AK-47 that’s stock literally broke and fell off during a test fire. That company didn’t end up lasting very long. 

No serviceability issues were noted during testing. Temperature was 44 degrees during accuracy testing on day 1, and 39 degrees for the four hours at the range on day 2. The recoil impulse on the BRN-180 is very soft, and there’s no annoying “TWAAAANG” in your ear when you’ve got a good cheek rest. The recoil impulse of the BRN-180S is also soft, considering the 10.5-inch barrel and the ammo it digested.

Bottom Line

That personal preference on the charging handle is literally the only “negative” I could find in regards to the BRN-180/BRN-180S. Since both are made in the United States, spare parts should be easily available through Brownells. In fact, the company has confirmed that it, as well as other companies, will be offering plenty of support in the aftermarket area.

Utilizing a folding stock is priceless as it allows more storage and transport options. Having a folding stock on a 10.5-inch-barreled AR pistol that can fire while it’s still folded makes me want to dance a jig. It’s for sure a great truck gun option! 

Check out the Brownells BRN 180 and 180S if you get a chance. They might be some of those “must-have” survival items to add to your list. Consider that I’m a Southpaw, the BRN 180 series is a side charger, and it’s going to “mysteriously” follow me home. I see no reason to not recommend the BRN 180 and BRN 180S. They performed flawlessly during testing. Oh, and did I mention it’s a side-folding, side-charging upper? For even more info, please visit brownells.com.

Brownells BRN-180 Upper Receiver Specs

  • Caliber: .223 Wylde
  • Barrel: 16 and 18.5 inches
  • Weight: 4.65 pounds (16-inch)
  • Sights: None
  • Action: Short-stroke, piston-operated semi-auto
  • Finish: Hardcoat anodized
  • MSRP: $710 (16-inch); $837 (18.5-inch)

Brownells BRN-180 Upper Receiver Performance

LoadVelocityAccuracy
Sig Sauer .223 Rem. 77 OTM Match2,3831.1
Frontier (Hornady) .223 Rem. 55 HP Match2,2841.5
Hornady Black 5.56mm 62 FMJ2,4291.2
Federal American Eagle .223 Rem. 62 FMJ BT2,3781.5
PRVI PPU 5.56mm M855 62 Green Tip2,4291.2
Bullet weight measured in grains, velocity in FPS by chronograph, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups at 100 yards.

Brownells BRN-180S Upper Receiver Specs

  • Caliber: .223 Wylde
  • Barrel: 10.5 inches
  • Weight: 4 pounds
  • Sights: None
  • Action: Short-stroke, piston-operated semi-auto
  • Finish: Hardcoat anodized
  • MSRP: $730

Brownells BRN-180S Upper Receiver Performance

LoadVelocityAccuracy
Sig Sauer .223 Rem. 77 OTM Match2,5972.0
Frontier (Hornady) .223 Rem. 55 HP Match2,1921.9
Hornady Black 5.56mm 62 FMJ2,2921.4
Federal American Eagle .223 Rem. 62 FMJ BT2,130 FPS2.6
PRVI PPU 5.56mm M855 62 Green Tip2,1351

Bullet weight measured in grains, velocity in FPS by chronograph, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups at 100 yards.

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