Retro Resurrection: Breathing New Life into Dead Bones

By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos by Sarah Dabbs

The state of the American gun parts market fluctuates based upon how successful somebody is in locating and purchasing stocks of surplus weapons overseas. A decade ago it was MP40s, MP44s, and MG34s. Five years ago it was AK47s, AK74s, and RPKs. Now the government has changed the rules such that barrels are no longer importable but that aforementioned enterprising somebody obviously stumbled across a cache of high-mileage M16A1 rifles, removed the barrels and receivers, and imported them as parts kits. They seem to be for sale everywhere.

I carried an M16A1 back in the day when I wore the uniform. Lightweight and maneuverable, if kept clean this rifle was a reliable and effective combat tool. Additionally, call me old-fashioned, but in an era simply awash in rails and lasers, the old retro triangular handguards are still viscerally appealing to me. Considering I have literally shared a sleeping bag with one of these weapons, I feel a certain attachment to the system.

Scraping together the parts for a project such as this takes a little scrounging. The parts kits are available from several sources. A little serious comparison shopping produced a high-mileage version from Centerfire Systems for little more than a song.

The lower receiver came from McKay Enterprises. In a sea of manufacturers producing AR lowers, McKay makes a top-quality product at a very reasonable price and they don’t clutter up the magwell with a bunch of fluff. There are times that Jack Rackham’s Jolly Roger or The Punisher might be desirable on a rifle but this was not one of them. The McKay lower yields a finished product that is subdued and conservative in a refined sort of way.

Due to the barrel import ban all barrels for these projects must be domestically produced. Original thin profile A1 barrels are being scalped online for up to $700. As the point of the exercise was to build up the rifle and not feel violated at the end of the day, something cheaper was needed.

McKay Enterprises did yield one of the last remaining original A1 barrels for this build project but there is another option. Thick profile commercial HBAR barrels are still available at reasonable prices and any local machine shop with a proper lathe can turn it to the A1 profile without any real fuss. The enterprising builder might also consider just turning down the portion of the barrel ahead of the front sight base. In this manner the end result is a spitting image of the original A1 but gives the additional accuracy potential and rigidity afforded by the heavier tube. With all the parts in place it was time to get to work.

Beauty is Indeed Skin Deep

There are several commercial purveyors of do-it-yourself gun finishes and they typically yield great results. However, the point of this project is to build a respectable rifle on a modest budget so it was time to think outside the box.

Any local auto parts store stocks spray-on engine block paint. This stuff runs less than $10 a can and comes in a wide variety of colors. This product is ceramic-based and is designed to be cured with heat for maximum surface toughness. In the case of an engine block the paint cures while the engine runs. For gun parts it requires a bit more creativity.

You can cook these parts in any conventional oven though the chemical smell will likely taint any of your subsequent chocolate chip cookies until the end of time. An inexpensive toaster oven renders fine service but restricts you to small parts. Regardless, follow the instructions on the can as regards heat/cool cycles and the resulting finish is just crazy tough. After dozens of gun parts and scads of magazines it is extraordinary to appreciate just how easy to use and effective this automotive paint is. There are refinished examples in my personal collection that have been subjected to more than a decade of hard use and still look sharp. Just be sure to degrease and prepare your parts thoroughly before painting or the residual oil will cook out during curing and make your parts look lame. My modest little shop includes a discarded old kitchen oven wired into the wall that yields yeoman’s service for all my martial baking needs.

Pitiful Plastic

The stocks on my kit were rode hard and put up wet. The fiberglass material that comprises these parts is actually quite robust but this was a high-mileage rifle. The buttplate was cracked in several places as were the front handguards.

First, strip the buttstock down to components and don’t be discouraged if the top of the buttplate tries to fall to pieces. This is a common failure point on these rifles. Clean everything well and open the cracks enough to gain access.

JB Weld is duct tape’s educated cousin. You can fix most anything with the stuff. It can be purchased at any hardware or auto parts stores as well as your ubiquitous Wal-Mart. It comes in the standard variety that sets overnight and my favorite, JB Quik, which sets in fifteen minutes. In the Information Age who wants to wait overnight for his gun parts to set?

Mix equal parts of the hardener and steel components on a clean piece of cardboard with a toothpick and then mash it down into the cracks of the buttplate before squeezing them together with a vise or tape. Once it sets the excess material may be sanded or ground smooth. The resulting product is stronger than the original part.

The front handguards get the same treatment. Sand out the flaws and squeeze a little JB Quik into any cracks. I even used JB Quik to build up one of the “teeth” that had broken off from the top cooling holes in the handguard. Once the repairs are complete, sand the handguards smooth and clean them thoroughly. Paint them with high-quality flat black automotive spray paint formulated for plastic and the resulting parts could pass for new. Now use the money you saved on the build to take your wife out to dinner and apologize for making her kitchen oven smell like a chemical factory. (Good luck with that.)

Legal Stuff

The internal parts that come with these kits are salvaged from an original military-issue full auto rifle. The hammer, selector, and disconnector can be readily converted to semiauto only with nothing more than a Dremel grinder and a little patience. Take the notch off of the top of the hammer, cut the tail off of the disconnector, and grind the full auto tab off of the selector. It won’t take you ten minutes and you can find diagrams with the details online.

However, my kit was missing a few little pieces so this build demanded a new set of semiauto internal parts. They are cheap from a variety of sources and using new guts ensures that none of the critical stuff is worn unduly. It also puts you unambiguously within the realm of legality. This may cost you a few extra bucks if needed but it does put the semiauto-only issue to rest.

Cottage Industry

One of the many appealing aspects of the AR-15 rifle system is that the parts just slip together. There is no welding or grinding required and the hobbyist really requires few dedicated tools. A barrel wrench is a must but a conventional shop vise is fine so long as you wrap the upper receiver generously with a towel. Care must be taken when installing the bolt catch not to mar the lower receiver while tapping in the roll pin that secures the device but most of the rest of the project is fairly stupid-proof. Mounting the barrel is not hard and the details are available online.

A thirty-caliber cleaning rod makes installation of the front pivot pin much easier. Slide the cleaning rod in from the left and use it to hold the detent and spring in place. Then insert the pin from the right and ride the pin and cleaning rod through until the detent pops in place. This is important – wear safety glasses and you might consider doing this in the bathtub. If you slip and let that little detent launch into the stratosphere you will never find it again in deep carpet. If it hits you in an unprotected eyeball I hope you look cool in your new eye patch.

There is a wealth of information available for free online should you run into any problems. Big picture: the assembly is just that – putting pieces together rather than truly fabricating and the entire project can be undertaken in an afternoon.

It is Alive!

When complete these tired old surplus parts look and perform like new. The resulting rifle looks showroom fresh and adds flavor to any black rifle collection at a fraction of the cost of a factory gun.

On the range the rifle reminds you of why the M16 was so appealing back in the days before we started hanging so much junk on them. The rifle’s light weight and fast handling characteristics are legendary. Our tired old resurrected parts gun ran without a hiccup through several hundred rounds in initial testing and shoots straight to boot. Zeroing the rifle’s iron sights requires the tip of a live round and is a bit archaic but slap an inexpensive imported clone of that nifty 3-power Colt scope that was so popular back in the Eighties and you have a whole jar of awesomesauce.

The sound of that M16 buffer cycling back and forth next to your face as the weapon is fired is unique among military firearms. The sensation brought back memories of being wet, miserable, and tired after having forced marched to the rifle range back in the day. Some memories are just visceral and that is one of them.


If you are patient, willing to scrounge, and possess even trivial manual dexterity it is possible to build one of these neat rifles of yesteryear for a fraction of the cost of the store-bought version. In the process you can imprint on the project such that the finished product reflects your personality and gives you the satisfaction of having done a little creating yourself. Finishing materials can be as close as your local auto parts store and, so long as basic steps are taken to maintain domestic tranquility and preserve your eyesight, the project can be undertaken on the dinner table.

In these days of copious plastic packaging and disposable everything, it can be oddly satisfying to build up a spanking new rifle from a pile of surplus garbage. With a little creativity, patience, and elbow grease the project is well within the capabilities of the typical hobbyist.

M16A1 Technical Specifications

Caliber: 5.56 x 45 mm
Operation: Gas Impingement
Overall Length: 39 inches
Barrel Length: 20 inches
Weight: 6.3 lbs empty
Feed: 20 and 30-round Box Magazines
Muzzle Velocity: 3,250 fps
Sights: Front Protected Post, Rear Aperture
Dismountable Fixed 3x Optical with BDC

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V18N3 (June 2014)
and was posted online on March 21, 2014


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