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All normal guys think machine guns are cool. Additionally, every properly wired American male loves ventilating empty Coke cans with a .22 rifle. As is the case with milk and chocolate chip cookies, politicians and taxes, or fast cars and pretty girls, some things just synergistically combine to produce a sum more compelling than their individual parts. Such is the case with the .22-caliber American 180 machine gun.

Casull Model 290

Richard “Dick” Casull first got the ball rolling with his Casull Model 290. Dick was a gunsmith from Utah ultimately known for his work developing large-bore revolver cartridges. His .454 Casull was and is an absolute monster of a wheelgun round. He also pioneered Freedom Arms in 1978 with Wayne Baker to develop adorable little miniature revolvers. Casull’s mini-revolver designs were eventually acquired by North American Arms. They became the foundation for that company’s extensive line of compact stainless steel revolvers today.

The Model 290 was an expensive and fairly cumbersome gun that Casull designed in the 1960s. Patterned after the Lewis gun used by British forces in both World Wars, the Model 290 employed a top-mounted, spring-driven pan magazine to feed its voracious full-auto appetite. Scuttlebutt has it that only about 80 copies of the Model 290 drew breath prior to discontinuation. However, in the 1970s, several other manufacturers took up the design both within the U.S. and in Austria.

More On The 180 Predecessor

The gun was conceived to accept a primitive and bulky helium-neon gas laser designator. Thusly equipped, it was marketed aggressively as a military and law enforcement weapon. These early laser sights were enormous, bulky contraptions. They could run for about two hours on a single set of batteries. You could also plug the sight into a power outlet if the target felt really cooperative.

While a single .22 LR round doesn’t pack a great deal of horsepower, 20 of them delivered in the span of a single second can be quite literally breathtaking. The diminutive stature of the .22 LR produces minimal recoil, so the gun was easy to control. The original marketing literature touted the gun’s ability to chew through concrete walls, car doors and body armor. Though this would also presuppose a preternaturally cooperative target. To eat through body armor with a full-auto .22 demands that the hypothetical armor-clad miscreant hold still for a bit. The gun’s manufacturers claimed that you could place the contents of an entire 165-round magazine within a 3-inch circle at 20 yards in the span of eight seconds. Now that’s just cool.

Enter The American 180

The Casull’s successor, the American 180, weighs less than a stripped M16A1 unloaded; most variations are described as being well made and reliable. Original magazines carried 165 or 177 rounds, though larger- capacity drums of up to 275 rounds are still in production today. The 275-round drums do effectively occlude the weapon’s sights, however. E&L Manufacturing, the current producer of American 180 drums, includes an elevated front sight along with the
first 275-round drum you buy.

The open-bolt mechanism of the American 180 incorporates a series of grooves in the sides of the bolt that very effectively channel dirt and debris out of the mechanism. The British L2A3 Sterling submachine gun sports similar grooves. The non-reciprocating charging handle is oriented on the left side of the receiver, towards the rear, so that the bulky drum magazine does not interfere with its operation. The drum chassis spins on top of the receiver as it empties.

There is a captive screw underneath the forward aspect of the receiver that allows the gun to break down quickly into two handy components. The stock removes with the push of a button in the manner of the M1928 Thompson submachine gun. Particularly with a short 9-inch barrel in place, this makes the American 180 easily packable. The assembly and disassembly processes are relatively straightforward and easily mastered.

Additional 180 Details

The magazine release is fairly intuitive and simple to manage, though the bulky nature of the pan magazine does produce a cluttered sight picture. The ergonomics of the stock and pistol grip are better reasoned than those of the Thompson that obviously inspired them. Overall, the American 180 is a comfortable gun to run.

Semi-auto versions of the American 180 have been offered in the past, and these guns come up for sale occasionally on online used-gun forums. While the practicality of a 10-pound semi-auto .22 packing 177 rounds on board might be questionable, there is no better tactical tool should you ever find yourself attacked by a battalion of malevolent chipmunks. I’ve frankly bought guns for dumber reasons.

The magazines are a holy pain to load, and the American 180 runs through ammo like politicians burn through other people’s money. E&L Manufacturing also offers a magazine loader that renders this chore a bit less onerous. A single mechanical spring-loaded winder can be used
to power multiple magazines.

So What’s It Good For?

The American 180 was formally adopted by the Utah Department of Corrections, and it was undoubtedly intimidating when wielded from a guard tower at their state penitentiary. There are rumors that the Rhodesian Special Air Service used a few of these novel guns operationally in Africa. However, humping the African savanna with one of these hyperactive little buzz guns must have been a treat.

The nature of the design demands that it be fed high-velocity ammo, so suppressed versions remain fairly noisy. Regardless, the company’s marketing efforts were compelling, and quite a few examples were indeed sold to local law enforcement agencies. Many of the guns available today were traded out of police arms rooms over the years.

Real-Life Shootout

I could find but a single detailed anecdote involving the operational use of a laser-equipped American 180 by cops in a real-life shootout. In November of 1974, Officers Mike Gilo and Gary Jones of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department attempted to subdue a pair of evildoers driving a Chevrolet Camaro. As the driver of the Camaro accelerated in an effort to escape, his foolhardy passenger produced a handgun and fired at the officers. Gilo responded by unleashing a roughly 40-round burst through the back window of the suspects’ car while Jones engaged with his 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot.

The 12 gauge failed to connect; the American 180 stitched across the back window of the car, removing the lot of it. The driver then crashed the car; the passenger was found already heading towards room temperature as a result of multiple .22 LR wounds to his back. The driver was apprehended later, grievously wounded by multiple .22-caliber gunshot wounds but still breathing. In today’s litigious environment, a fully automatic weapon that spews rounds so enthusiastically would be a plaintiff’s attorney’s dream. In the 1970s, however, there apparently weren’t as many lawyers are there are today.

How Does It Run?

Wow. Just wow. Loading the drums is just as big a hassle as I had anticipated; the American 180 does indeed burn through .22 LR ammo at a breathtaking rate. I sucked it up and bought 5,000 rounds for this project just so I wouldn’t feel the effects of ammo famine before I got done.

Keeping bursts in the five-round range is not tough for a disciplined trigger finger, and New Math tells us that even the smaller drums would pack 35 such bursts in a single charge. Visualize the fully stoked American 180 like a 10-pound recoilless shotgun that carries 35 rounds onboard. When so employed, the American 180 is accurate and controllable, allowing you to keep every round within a standard silhouette at typical handgun ranges.

Reaching out to 100 meters, the gun is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, particularly when fired into a wet target with a safe backstop. Each burst seems like the fistful of gravel we used to throw into the water when we were young boys, producing that lovely little coordinated splash around the point of aim. Against steel targets, the effect is positively musical. Much beyond 100 meters, the American 180 becomes an area weapon system.

Bad-Breath Distances

At bad-breath distances, the American 180 is just as nasty as the marketing literature claims it to be. The recoil is so trivial that you really could just about write your name with the thing. When firing a full magazine in a continuous burst from a proper rest, the tidy little gun will indeed group within about a teacup. Such antics will indeed put hair on your chest regardless of your gender, but you could die of old age trying to load enough drums to keep the process vibrant for a while.

When appropriately maintained, the American 180 is a reliable and effective close-quarters weapon. With 275 rounds on board, the gun gets heavy, but it offers more controllable firepower than most anything else in the arms room. Given the dynamically rotating nature of the drum magazine and the unimpressive mechanical spunk of the .22 LR cartridge, the practicality of employing an American 180 in an austere field environment is questionable, however.

Pure Fun

The American 180 is one of the most novel and unusual combat weapons ever devised. For law enforcement or corrections applications, it indeed offers some unique capabilities. However, the real niche the American 180 enjoys is as a recreational range toy.

Fairly easy to tote and all but recoilless, the American 180 lets you chew up the range like a beaver on crack. Loading drums will test your patience, and the gun’s appetite will earn you Christmas cards from your favorite ammo supplier. However, as a delightful way to kill a lazy Saturday afternoon at the range, the American 180 is indeed unparalleled. Lightweight, accurate for its genre and just crazy cool, the American 180 is 10 pounds of raw, unfiltered fun.

American 180 Specs

Caliber: .22 LR, .22 Short Magnum
Barrel: 9 or 18.5 inches
OA Length: 35.5 inches
Weight: 5.7 pounds (empty)
Stock: Polymer
Sights: Front post, adjustable rear
Action: Blowback-operated, full-auto
Finish: Matte black
Capacity: 165, 177, 220, 275
Rare Of Fire: 1,200 rpm

This article was originally published in “Tactical Life” August/September 2018. To order a copy and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.

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