AR-15 Builds: Tales From the Carry Handle Mafia

When I started shooting AR’s in the 80’s all we had were carry handle uppers. When I went into the Army in 1988, I trained on the M16A1 and that’s what I used in the Army Reserve. Later, when I was in the Air Force Reserve, we used early slick side M16’s, then eventually M16A2’s. All with carry handles.

Over time I became convinced that flattop uppers were the way to go and I got rid of all of my old AR’s and “upgraded” to a variety of flattop models. Somewhere along the way though, I got nostalgic and started building an M16A1 clone like I used in basic training. This was my first step back into the light, and eventually into the loving arms of the Carry Handle Mafia.

I’ve done a number of retro builds over the past year, and have a few more clone builds in the works. There’s just something about the M16 carry handle upper. It’s historic, and iconic. The outline of an M16 with a fixed front sight post and carry handle is instantly recognizable, even for folks who don’t know that much about guns.

Beyond that, it’s still a system that works. Iron sights don’t need batteries and the carry handle protected rear and winged front sight post do a good job of protecting the irons from getting bumped or knocked out of zero.

AR-15 front sight post

You can still easily mount optics with a carry handle mount rail, or a gooseneck mount, too. They’ve got enough going for them that there’s been a resurgence of interest in carry handle builds recently, and they’ve developed a pretty rabid following amongst the Carry Handle Mafia in the various retro AR groups.

My latest builds aren’t clones of anything in particular, with the exception of the last one, but that one has an issue I’ll address when I get to it. They do, however, have a retro feel to them. Let’s get started and go from longest to shortest.

Canadian C7A2 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Abby Burtner, MARFORRES COMCAM courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The 20 inch Hybrid

I have an M16A1, M16A2 and M16A4 builds already, and a couple more 20-inch retro clones in the works, so I wanted to do something with a full 20-inch barrel, but something different than what I already had. I’m enamored with the Canadian C7A2 which is more or less a A4 upper, 20-inch A2 barrel, and collapsible CAR stock on a carbine buffer tube.

The C7 series uses A2 grips and A2-style round handguards. Early models had black stocks and later ones were green. They use an Elcan sight, and a Diemaco backup iron rear sight. There are other specific differences between it and the US M16 variants, but that’s the general layout.

I picked up a C7A2 clone lower receiver from Bad Attitude Department and my initial plan was to get as close to a C7A2 as I could. I soon found out that getting actual Canadian Diemaco parts in the US was difficult, and expensive when you do locate them. I’ve seen some nice clones of various flavors, but it was going to be harder than I suspected, so the project got back-burnered for a while.

M16A4 with M4 stock (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Alex Devereux courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, I started seeing pics pop up online of M16A4’s being modded with M4 buttstocks. This was apparently a field-authorized mod during the Global War on Terror. I didn’t hate that idea either and it would be a lot easier to source parts for this than the C7.

M16A2 with M4 stock (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in the discussions of these builds a couple of photos popped up of a soldier in chocolate chip desert camo from Desert Storm rocking what appeared to be an M16A2 with a collapsible CAR buttstock. That was pretty cool, too. Less common than the later GWOT A4 mods, but still something that was done. Now I had three possible 20-inch builds with collapsible stock options that I could work with.

To add to the confusion, I also had the vague idea of building a clone of a transitional M16 like we had in my old Army Reserve unit in the early 90’s. We had a few M16A1’s come back from a depot overhaul at one point that were a hybrid of A1 and A2 features. They maintained the A1 lowers, but had C7 uppers fitted, and still had a 20-inch pencil barrel.

They had A2 handguards and pistol grips. I honestly can’t recall if they still had A1 or  also had A2 buttstocks, or if the barrels were still 1:12 twist or if they had A1 or A2 flash hiders.

This was pre-cell phone days so I didn’t have a camera handy for pics and I didn’t get to mess with them much. It was a neat hybrid, though, and I’ve since talked with other guys who were in the Reserve or Guard around that time that saw similar builds. I was kicking around cloning something like that as well.

Potentially, I had four different 20-inch builds I could do. While I’m not against that, it seemed a little excessive, even to me. What I ended up doing was building a hybrid of all of them.

The C7A2-ish

Looking over my existing parts, I had that C7A2 lower, a C7 upper, a 6-position carbine buffer tube, and all of the guts for the upper and lower. I decided to use what I had and build out a 20-inch gun that had many of the features of all of those other builds I was enamored with, but in a configuration that suited me.

Using my C7/C7A2 base I added a 20-inch 1:7 twist barrel with FSB from Brownells, with an A2 flash hider. I could have used an A2 barrel, but I like the handling and balance of an A1 pencil profile better.

I used an A2 front sight post and A2 rear peep in the C7 upper. I got an OD green CAR stock from B5 Systems, and an OD green A2 grip and A2 handguards from MA Parts. That’s who I got my sight parts from as well.

The end result is a fairly light 20-inch rifle, with a collapsible stock that knocks some length off for ease of storage, and gives me adjustment for use with a heavy jacket or body armor if that ever became an issue. The fixed sights with the big A2 peep sight are rugged, fast, and you still have the flip-up long range sight for more precise shooting. I can always add an optic if I want to, but I’m liking the setup as is.

It’s not exactly like any of the inspiration guns I looked at when I started, but it’s a blend of features that works for me. It gives you a lot of the weight and size benefits of a carbine with the velocity advantage that a full 20-inch barrel. It’s a setup I’d honestly have been very happy with as an issue rifle when I was still in the service.

The Mid-length CAR

The next build is, in a lot of ways, the little brother of the C7-ish build. This one uses a random lower I’ve had for years, a Dirty Bird A1 upper that I got from AR15Disounts, a 16-inch pencil barrel with FSB with a 1-9 twist from Del-Ton with an A2 flash hider. I used A2-style mid-length handguards, again in OD green and again from MA Parts. Like the C7, I used an A2 front post and A2 rear peep.

The other upper parts, like the port door assembly and teardrop forward assist, were from Luth AR. I’ve had the lower built for so long that I have no idea whose parts are in it. Nothing fancy…maybe PSA?

For the back end, I picked up a 5-position buffer tube, buffer, and spring and an OD green M4 waffle stock and A2 grip from Tony’s Customs at a local gun show. Astute observers will note that I don’t have my front sling swivel installed yet in these pics. I added it later.

This is another setup I’m really partial to. One of the things I like with the 16-inch barrel and mid-length gas system, aside from the fact that it makes for a smooth-shooting gun, is that it will still take a bayonet.

A 16-inch barrel with a carbine gas system has too much barrel protruding past the FSB and bayonet lug and the bayonet slides down well past the flash hider. A 14.5-inch barrel and a mid-length gas system doesn’t have enough barrel protruding past the front sight block to mount a bayonet.

Now, do I need a bayonet on my rifle? Probably not, but I still like having the option. I have a lot of bayonets. I need to put them somewhere.

This is another nice setup. It’s nearly as light and handy as my IDF Menusar build with its 12.5-inch barrel, and I have the added benefit of a bit more velocity and the ability to take a bayonet. Plus that smooth shooting mid-length gas system. I don’t need a tax stamp for this one either.

If I were doing anything different on it I might have used an A1 pistol grip, but I didn’t have an OD one handy. I painted the last one I had for another project. The A2 works, though and that’s an easy swap if I decide to get one later.

The M4

The last build I did is a pretty straightforward M4. This one’s a clone build, and it might get me kicked out of the Carry Handle Mafia.

For the record, detachable carry handles don’t count for hard core retro and carry handle enthusiasts, as guys who show up in the various forums proudly posting their M16A4 and M4A1 builds with detachable carry handles quickly find out.

The reason I build an M4 rather than an XM4 with a fixed carry handle was simple: I had an M4A1 stamped lower from PSA that was already SBR’d. It would aggravate my OCD to build a fixed carry handle XM4 on an M4A1 stamped lower. Originally I thought the detachable carry handle only came into play with the M4A1, but I got schooled on that and found out that the switch to a flat top upper happened a lot earlier than I thought. So now my OCD still twitches a little since my lower should technically just be M4 stamped, not M4A1. I’m going to have to live with that. Or add some rails and and an Aimpoint and actually make it an A1 later on. We’ll see.

The lower is pretty straightforward M4 with a basic PSA lower parts kit, a fat F3-marked A2 grip, a Mil Spec carbine buffer tube from Luth AR, and a surplus M4 waffle stock with rack number. There’s no cage code on the stock so I suspect it’s actually police surplus, not military surplus. Maybe off of a Bushmaster? I’m calling it close enough, though.

The upper came from my parts box, and has another Luth AR ejection port door assembly, and a round forward assist from my parts box. The carry handle is a GI surplus one that I picked up in a trade a while back. The bolt carrier group is a chrome lined, phosphate Microbest Mil-Spec carrier that I got from AR15Discounts.

The 14.5 inch, 1:7 twist M4 profile barrel and A2 flash hider are from Luth AR and again the A2 front sight is from MA Parts. The carry handle had the complete rear sight assembly already. The handguards are double heat shield M4 ones from my parts box that came from some trade or another.

Once again, I don’t have the front sling swivel installed yet in these pics.

Now, is it worth paying the tax stamp to SBR a 14.5-inch barrel gun, versus doing a pin and weld with an extended A2 flash hider, or using a 14.7 inch barrel and a pin and welded regular flash hider?

Honestly, only if you’re super OCD on your clones. I probably wouldn’t have done this as an SBR if I didn’t already have this lower SBR’d from another project. Since I did though, I could build it accurately, so I did.

The end result on this one is a pretty decent approximation of an issue M4. I plan on leaving the carry handle on this one and, despite its non-fixed nature, and hope the carry handle Mafia give me a pass on this one since I built it alongside two true carry handle builds.

More to Come

These were fun builds. The M4 fills a nice niche in my collection of other military clones. The other two aren’t clones of anything in particular, but definitely were inspired by some real world builds. They’re quite functional though, and I like how they came out.

At the end of the day, that’s one of the greatest things about the AR platform…there are so many options available that you can build them to be whatever you want, whether it’s a clone of something you like, or just something that suits your personal needs and preferences.

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