At my core, I’m a diehard AK fan who only recently began to reluctantly embrace the AR-15. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve owned and shot ARs for more than a decade. Still, there’s something about the ultra-reliable piston-action of an AK and its overbuilt nature that warms my heart.
This is probably why I’ve been so enamored with the thought of the rifle Eugene Stoner built after the AR-15 — the AR-180. The AR-180 did away with the aluminum components of the AR-15 in favor of stamped steel. Not because they made the gun more durable or reliable, but because at the time of its introduction it was easier for smaller countries to manufacture.
Despite being geared and marketed towards budding new democratic countries, the AR-180 never really caught on commercially or through military sales despite being a solid design. This sad fact makes finding a good-quality used one (for a reasonable price) problematic. I had all but given up on finding one, when I came across the neutered younger brother of the 180 — the AR-180b. My local pawn shop had one for sale for about $400, so I decided to give it a whirl without reading up on it. Big mistake.
While it retains the short-stroke piston action of its all-steel older predecessor, the 180b replaces the steel lower receiver with an injected polymer one. Also, the folding stock is replaced with a fixed one, the barrel isn’t threaded and it lacks a bayonet lug. Basically a classic post-ban neutered gun.
However, I would be remiss to not mention the two areas the AR-180b outshines its predecessor: weight and aftermarket support. The first is because of the all-polymer lower receiver combined with the lightweight polymer buttstock. The gun feels more like a Red Ryder than military rifle.
The latter has to do with magazine compatibility. Yes, the furniture, sights and most of the components are proprietary (though some are shared between it and the AR-15). The magazines used by the AR-180b are thankfully as common as coffee shops in Seattle — STANAG, or standard AR-15 magazines. So while I was happy about not having to stock up on rare, or expensive, magazines, I was pretty bummed that the rifle didn’t come with either a threaded muzzle or folding stock.
Frustrated but not deterred, I recalled a post on an AK-enthusiasts’ forum that mentioned the existence of a replacement receiver for the AR-180 and 180b that fixed nearly ever gripe I had with the gun. A quick Google search brought up a name that I consider one of the most trusted in the industry — NoDak Spud LLC, and one of its newest products, the NDS-18S.
For those of you not in the know, NoDak has been building custom AR-15 and AK receivers for years. The company is best known for its high-quality AK flats and Vietnam-era reproduction M16-like receivers for the AR-15.
The NDS-18S is a dedicated billet lower receiver that fits both the AR-180 and 180b uppers. Constructed of 7075-T6 511 billet aluminum, the NDS-18S is built like a freaking tank. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this new lower is actually more durable than the original steel ones.
This may seem inconsequential to AR-15 owners. Since the vast majority of you have never seen a destroyed lower. The AR-180b, on the other hand suffers from one flaw concerning just that. The lower is all-polymer and disassembly of the gun required use of a screw driver and a bit of force.
After a few hundred disassembles, many shooters reported cracked lower receivers. The polymer just wasn’t designed for hundreds or thousands of takedowns. The new NDS-18S’s all-billet receiver will never break from disassembly. At least, not within the lifetime of the shooter — or his or her grandchildren.
The NDS-18S still requires several components from the original AR-180/180b, but it can utilize many AR-15 parts to make it much easier to find replacements. In fact, the NoDak receiver can use AR-15 hammers, triggers, magazine catch assemblies and, best of all, the pistol grip and screw.
One small note on that last component, because the NDS-18S receiver is different from the AR-15, not all pistol grips will properly fit. The design doesn’t work with any pistol grip that has a high tang on it. Basically any pistol grip that has the same interface as the original A1/A2 like those from Tango Down or Troy will fit fine.
But what about handguards and buttstocks?
Unfortunately, the handguard market for the AR-180 is fairly limited. There are railed handguards and rail segments for the bottom that allow use of various under-mounted accessories. However, these are offered from only a handful of companies.
Buttstocks, however, are a different story. One of the best parts about the NDS-18S, is that it gets rid of the original stock interface of the AR-180 and replaces it with a two-screw mount for Stormwerkz (and other 5/16×18 inches) adaptors.
Since the AR-180 doesn’t use a receiver extension/buffer tube like the AR-15, shooters are free to install any folding stock they like on the gun. Given the popularity of the Stormwerkz adaptors on Saiga-type shotguns and other niche firearms, there’s an enormous selection of aftermarket options.
Shooters can mount a buffer tube to install an M4 stock, or even a Galil-style folding mechanism with a matching stock. To tell you the truth, shooters could mount one of Manticore Arms’ triangular AK-74 stocks on the gun if desired.
Like I mentioned before, this firearm is all about modularity, but it comes at a cost.
One thing to note on this gun is the lower receiver is the portion that the ATF considered a firearm. So when you place an order for a NoDak lower receiver replacement, it must be sent to an FFL. Seems like a lot of work for a tacked on upgrade that drastically alters the appearance of the gun.
That might be true if the NoDak AR-180 receiver did change the appearance of the gun — though truthfully the engineers at NoDak had the opposite in mind. The NoDak replacement lower closely resembles the aesthetics of the original, all-steel 180 receivers. It even goes so far as to replicate the location of rivets on the original with milled faux-rivets. Also, shooters who own original AR-180s with steel receivers can’t readily use STANAG magazines, but the new NoDak Spud AR-180 receiver remedies this. What really typifies what the new receiver adds to the Armalite design is modularity.
The AR-180 didn’t share the AR-15’s evolution into a fully modular firearm, because it was never adopted by the U.S. or any other major military. Consequently, far fewer dollars went in to modernizing and updating the platform. Despite this, the AR-180 and 180b have some very forward-thinking features.
For instance, the upper receiver features a quick-detach scope interface that doesn’t require any tools. To attach the scope, the shooter simply places the mount on top of the dovetailed steel mount on top of the receiver. Once there, the mount is pushed rearward. This depresses a spring-loaded plunger that provides forward tension against the rear-sight assembly. With the plunger depressed, the mount drops less than 1/16 inch, where the scope engages the small rails on the mount and is secured by the plunger’s spring pressure. This sounds complicated, but can be done in about 3 seconds with one hand.
Also, unlike the M-16/AR-15 of the time, which still retained the carry handle rear-sight assembly, a mounted optic on the AR-180 doesn’t sit uncomfortably high. This means a better, more stable cheek weld for shooters than was provided by the AR-15 it sought to replace.
But how does the AR-180 and the NDS-18S stack up against modernized AR-15 platforms? As far as performance, the little Armalite is very accurate despite being a piston-driven platform. It’s also perfectly reliable.
This solid reliability combined with the ability to use one of the most prolific magazines in existence, makes for a very appealing little gun. The only serious problem with the firearm is that I’m now Jonesing for a second one.