The 26-year-old removed Daniel Bell-Drummond and Zac Crawley in his four-over new-ball burst and bowled two further spells of four and five overs to finish with two for 29 from 13 overs with four maidens.
Ollie Robinson who could join Archer in the England team for next month’s Test series against New Zealand, and George Garton each took three wickets as Kent were bowled out for 145 with only Jack Leaning (63) offering sustained resistance to an accurate attack. Sussex were 51 for two when bad light brought a premature end to the first day.
Archer was bowling with a red ball for the first time since the Third Test against India nearly three months ago after recovering from finger surgery and having rested a troublesome elbow which forced him to miss the Indian Premier League. He broke through with his 13th delivery, which Bell-Drummond edged to second slip, and his ability to get disconcerting lift off a good length also accounted for England team-mate Crawley, who gloved to wicketkeeper Ben Brown.
Leaning and Jordan Cox (24) rebuilt either side of lunch, adding 59 in 22 overs but Kent lost eight wickets for 75 during an afternoon interrupted by two rain delays.
Robinson, who now has 28 first-class wickets this season, ended two hours of solid resistance from Cox when he knocked back his off stump and in his next over debutant Tawanda Muyeye (1) was beaten by late inswing. Robinson returned after tea to dismiss Leaning with a ball which held its line, one of three catches at slip for Aaron Thomason. Leaning had been dropped by wicketkeeper Ben Brown but went on to score his second half-century of the season in more than three hours, hitting eight fours.
The slippery left-armer Garton also picked up three wickets. Ollie Robinson (4) mis-timed a drive to short cover and Stevens (0) and Marcus O’Riordan were held by Thomason, before off-spinner Jack Carson picked up two wickets at the end of the innings.
Sussex lost both openers in 16.3 overs before the light closed in. Stevens ran one down the slope to have Tom Haines (14) caught behind and Thomason (21) fell three balls before the close, slashing to point in Nathan Gilchrist’s first over.