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The Old & The Bold: Retro Guns And Their Accessories

We discuss how to adapt the classic guns of yesterday for today’s retro firearms fashion.

They say that fashion is a boomerang: If you throw it out, the style comes back around in a few decades. The guys I grew up shooting and hunting with could never really be considered “fashionable” in terms of dress or style. Indeed, it was probably the opposite; the same uniform of jeans and button-up work shirts, metal-rimmed shop glasses and the ever-present layer of indeterminable grime that somehow never washed out.

Things come around again in the shooting industry, just like high-waisted jeans and bell-bottoms do for the ladies. Right now, we are in something of a retro era, and fashions are favoring the old and bold—as well as simple and nostalgic.

The Ever-Present Past

The interesting part about this current retro trend is that it’s happening almost as a reaction to the events of the world. Many people interested in guns are turning away from the sickening reality of modern warfare and tech-heavy hunting gear, instead looking at trappings of a bygone yesteryear. The ’60s to ’80s are back in style in the shooting world, likely as a collective attempt to forget the state of modern politics.

You see this trend take place again and again: The post-World War II era saw a dramatic shift in narrative to an idealized version of the American West with cowboy culture dominating Hollywood and TV in the face of nuclear Armageddon. Likewise, in the Vietnam era, WWII movies and guns became widely popular as a distraction from the questionable fighting taking place in real life. Today, after our own era of disappointment, we are again finding ourselves comforted by stories from the “golden era” of the 1970s and ’80s, delving heavily into the pre-cellphone age. In the shooting industry, we too are not immune from wanting that idealized comfort of yesteryear.

As a result of this craving for nostalgia, many people are homesick for a place they’ve never been and find it fulfilling to surround themselves with totems of that bygone time where, for some reason, things must have been easier and more rewarding.

We see today a plethora of retro options pouring out of factory doors: From two-tone 1911s with wood grips such as Springfield Armory’s Ronin line, to box-stock A1 and A2 rifles with “outdated” 20-inch barrels from SA, Windham, FN and more—we can’t seem to get enough. Wood stocks are making a big comeback as well, with shotgun vendors like Mossberg producing their own dedicated old-style guns made to look like what you’d see in an old Crown Vic’s cage, right alongside a Smith & Wesson .38 and a sharp mustache.

Gearmageddon

I see the return to retro as a natural phenomenon that has to do with the full-blown saturation of gear we now have. I have tons of gear, a mountain of suppressors, optics stacked high, bins of uppers and lowers, lasers, night vision … and all of it. My phone has many apps dedicated to helping me shoot better and further in day and in night. However, I can’t say that any of this has made me a lick better than the next guy.

What it has done is made me carry as many CR123 batteries as I carry rifle cartridges on a given hunt. Most of my rifles are boat anchors that need a tripod to steady. My equipment is anything but simple and it takes me a great deal of time to maintain it all and keep it running. Simply getting out to shoot takes me a good bit of effort these days, and I’ve slowly grown to resent that feeling of tech over-saturation.

Technology and its associated dependence has led us to an interesting spot—its rejection. While it’s now common to find dot sights on carry guns as well as lights, lasers and all manner of devices to control recoil and blast, the fundamental problem is that these devices add cost and failure points. Remarkably, so many people have decided that iron sights are an appendix and unnecessary, but I don’t fully trust electronic sights even though I use them heavily. I want a backup option.

Seeing that more than a dozen companies are now releasing carry-handle rifles and carbines, the fashion has decidedly moved in a different direction that says, perhaps, that we are too reliant on these optics. While it could be said that these optics do improve many aspects of shooting, they are not the answer when the cash-generating power of simple nostalgia is concerned. The old carry handle guns almost disappeared for a stretch of five or six years with companies across-the-board dropping them by the mid 2010s. Today, we are seeing a huge comeback in their popularity. Function is not driving this—the idea of the good ol’ days is driving this.

What’s a ‘Retro’ Gun?

An interesting topic to consider when entering the “retro” market is that it’s largely just cosmetic. Retro is a style, an aesthetic, and not necessarily a 1:1 complete clone of a gun made in the past. A large reason for this distinction is that we don’t use the same tooling and machines as we used to even a couple of decades ago. What we have right now is completely modern guns being made on completely modern machines to simply appear as older models.

Think about it: It’s something of a true regression that we’re using this advanced technology to turn out products with often less capability than what could be made.

Indeed, this is truly a fashion trend, but one that’s not likely to die anytime soon. The past 5 years have been glorious for resurrecting these old styles, with companies like Brownells going as far as to recreate in-spirit copies of the entire family of early AR derivatives, including the original AR-10 and most pre-A1 M16 variants. Re-releases of known vintage classics, such as the Colt Python and the return of storied names like H&R to the rifle scene, have helped fuel the hype.

But it should be noted that not even the Colts are true copies of the old guns, and they are made on modern equipment … and much stronger as a result.

Keeping things simple but taking advantage of modern technology has shown many shooters just how advanced the old timers were. Eighties-style 1911s are the rage now, and many shooters who are jumping in find that the 1911 is just fine without light rails or night sights, and it works like a dream with a simple adjustable rear sight and funneled magwell. These lightly customized guns are making their way back into public consciousness even when lacking all the modern bells and whistles. What makes this time great for the retro scene is that we get to have it all: Many of these guns during their time were problematic in regard to reliable performance and good mags.

Take for example the AR. That rifle system was trouble from the start, and it took some years to get it right. However, you wouldn’t want to be seen shooting some of the old, slow-twist barrels today when we have such an abundance of 62- and 77-grain ammo. The smart companies aren’t making 1:1 copies; instead, they’re working with modern twist rates and even applying thought to the near-copies of historical designs.

For instance, the custom 16-inch Dissipator build featured in this article comes from my own workbench and has a Brownells receiver set and a 1:8-inch twist barrel. Using iron sights and an in-spirit suppressor setup, it produces groups of just 2 inches at 100 yards off the bench using many varieties of ammo. The barrel flat-out shoots and has a chrome-lined Wylde chamber, making it suitable for whatever you want to feed it.

I snuck in a Trijicon night sight for the front post, and the internals are all Geissele with a National Match trigger to boot. The carbine is also decked out in some OD green accessories that, while not totally correct, do at least give off that “jungle” vibe. I never get asked about my other carbines. This one, well … it turns heads.

Retro theme guns are just hard to ignore.

The Ordnance Ordeal

You’ll notice that there are few—if any—retro guns that are showing up on shelves today in unique chamberings. For the most part, these guns are tearing up the market because they’re additions to an existing system. If it’s chambered in 7.62/.308, 5.56, 9mm, 10mm, .45 ACP or 12 gauge, it will have no problem selling. A big reason why most of these guns died off was changing consumer and military demands about features, but today we see that as long as the style meets the expectation of caliber, it will sell just fine.

Standardized components and replacement parts are also important, and it’s much easier to keep a retro-style gun shooting if it can be made from off-the-shelf parts or have a degree of interchangeability with existing platforms. The carbine in this article is a completely modern gun that can fire any modern 5.56/.223 ammo, as well as accept any Q-style suppressor.

Fully reproduced vintage guns are harder sells. There’s the possibility we may see newly made M1 Garand rifles at some point, but for that to be feasible for the modern shooter it would need to be able to fire standard .30-06 loads, not special ones for the Garand as we must use today in these old warhorses. Fulton Armory does a great job rebuilding the M1 rifle with mostly modern parts and barrels, and adjustable gas system parts do exist to allow standard-pressure loads.

However, I can’t see a 1:1 modern M1 rifle being a success … even with the retro market the way it is now. If there was a mind to the future, it would be made for .308 and 6.5 Creedmoor with no attempt to completely duplicate the historical firearm. We see this with the current attempts to reproduce the Nazi STG-44: At least two companies attempting to make versions of this legendary rifle are offering it in 5.56, .300 BLK, 7.62×39 and the original 8x33mm … but unless we see sudden interest in a cartridge that was essentially killed off in 1945, most buyers will be getting this gun in a modern chambering.

Would I want an STG-44 in a modern chambering, or an M1 in 6.5 CM? Sure, why not?

Looking Cool is 90 Percent of Being Cool

A big segment missing from the market today is truly retro accessories. Retro optics are not easy to come by, and many competitive shooting organizations allow a range of optics for their Vintage Sniper and other types of matches. While the guns can be made immediately available and based on proven modern designs, optics, slings and other accessories are much harder to find and often struggle as a result.

The guns have stuck with us, but nobody pines for the good old days of fogged tubes and broken crosshairs. The retro flavor of any rifle is ruined with modern accessories, and a tactical optic would look out of place on a retro M40 USMC build. However it’s a custom proposition to have a scope made that resembles the original in size and color, making it an expensive option for less performance than a modern scope has to offer.

Reproduction retro slings and mag pouches are sometimes able to come by easily, but unless you’re looking for WWI or WWII era items, you’re going to be relatively limited in terms of support gear. Most of the surplus gear has dried up today, and it’s been a good 20 years since the classic Vietnam-era nylon gear disappeared. Early War on Terror gear can still be found, but it’s usually in sorry condition.

The thing about this type of gear is that it is fabric, and it falls apart with time, where the guns from the era tend to last longer.

Modern gear systems are far more customizable and allow for end-use upgrades, making for a longer life cycle. Sadly, there isn’t much available for replica support gear from the 1960s-’80s era to go with your retro rifles. Back in this time, a sling and perhaps a mag pouch were all that was commonly attached to rifles. Taped-up grips and painted insignias/slogans are technically period correct, but that always has a way of looking iffy in terms of appearance.

For pistols, you’re in luck: The only real retro accessory—aside from a Hawaiian shirt—are shoulder holsters, which are still in common production from many companies. It’s easier than ever to get your Magnum, PI on … unless you can’t grow that mustache, in which case just say you’re a Miami Vice fan and get a 10mm.

Retro accessories will probably always be hard to come by, but remember it’s more of a look than anything else. If it looks cool, well … that’s about all you need to worry about.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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