In order to understand the differences between the various types of upper receivers, it’s important to know what was going on with the REST of the rifle at the same time.
With rapidly growing presence of US troops in Vietnam, in 1966 US Government makes the first large purchase of the Ar-15 / M16 rifles, ordering 840 000 rifles for US Armed forces, worth almost $92 millions, and in 1967 US Army officially adopts the XM16E1 rifle as a standard “US Rifle, 5.56mm, M16A1”.
During immediately following years, a number of negative reports apears from Vietnam. M16A1 rifles, issued to US troops in the Vietnam, severely jammed in combat, resulting in numerous casualties. There were some causes for malfunction. First of all, during the introduction of the new rifle and its ammunition into the service, US Army replaced originally specified Dupont IMR powder with standard ball powder, used in 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition. The ball powder produced much more fouling, that quickly jammed the actions of the M16 unless the gun was cleared well and often. It also had different pressure curve, resulting in increased stress on operating parts of the gun. This pitifully combined with the fact that the initial M16 rifles were promoted by the Colt as “low maintenance”, so, for the sake of economy, no cleaning supplies were procured for new M16 rifles, and no weapon care training was conducted fro the troops. As a result, soldiers did not knew how to clean their rifles, and had no provisions for cleaning, and things soon turned bad. Another cost-saving measure on the part of the Army was to give up with cromium plation of the barrel bore and bolt group, which made these parts much more sensitive to corrosion and rust that originally designed.
After several dramatic reports in US press and Congressional investigation of the troubles, several actions were taken to remedy the problems. The 5.56mm ammunition was now loaded using different powders that produce much less residue in the gun action. The barrel, chamber and bolt of the rifles were chrome-lined to improve corrosion resistance. Cleaning kits were procured and issued to troops, and a special training programs were developed and conducted ever since. Earliest cleaning kits could be carried separate from rifle only, but since circa 1970 all M16A1 rifles were manufactured with the containment cavity in the buttstock, that held the cleaning kit. At the same time (circa 1970) the new 30 rounds magazines were introduced into service instead of the original 20 rounds ones, to equal Soviet and Chinese AK-47 assault rifles, which had 30-rounds magazines from the very beginning.
So, now that you know the history of the entire m16A1 rifle, the A1 upper receiver differences should be obvious.
The A1 original upper receivers would not have the forward assist or shell deflector but will have a fixed carry handle. Mainly, the rear sight will only adjust for windage and not for elevation.