By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
Since late in World War Two, and for the next 28 years, the United States Air Force supplied survival rifles to many of its bomber and transport pilots flying over vast expanses of uninhabited terrain, in case of mishaps resulting in crash-landings, purely for aircrew survival, and not specifically intended as self-defense weapons. The first of these was the Savage-Stevens Model 22-410 over-under rifle in .22 Long Rifle, with a .410-gauge shotgun barrel, mounted in a plastic, Tenite stock, with 15,000 examples issued.
Next, the bolt-action, Harrington and Richardson (H&R) M4 Survival Rifle was produced in 1949 with a sliding, wire stock, four-round magazine, and 14-inch barrel in .22 Hornet, a caliber selected because it was marginally powerful enough to harvest deer, and certainly most smaller game, and still had light recoil, yet it was inaudible from more than a mile away, in case the game needed to be taken in hostile territory. A production run of 29,344 rifles was supplied to the U.S. Air Force.
Beginning in 1952, the M4 was supplanted by the Ithaca M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon, a new, break-action, over-under design in .22 Hornet and .410-gauge, with 14-inch barrels, but only a few thousand were produced. The M4 was phased out, and the M6 remained in USAF service until the early 1970s. An excellent civilian version, the Springfield Armory/ČZ M6 Scout, was produced with 18.25-inch barrels. This author owned one for many years, and eventually gave it to one of my sons. Since 2019, the venerable M6 has been produced by TPS (Tactical Parts Supply) Arms, with an improved, ammo-stowage compartment in the stock, holding six rounds of .410 shotshells, and 13 rounds of .22 LR or .22 WMR ammo. But it’s also available in .22 Hornet, .17 HMR, and .357 Magnum over .410-gauge, most for about $624.
Then, in 1956, an effort was made to provide a compact, lightweight, accurate rifle for the radical, new, XB-70 Valkyrie manned bomber’s aircrew survival kits, and since the M4 and M6 were no longer in production at that time, the ArmaLite Division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation offered their new, bolt-action, AR-5 Survival Weapon in .22 Hornet, with a unique takedown design, storing the 14-inch barrel and separate receiver inside the waterproof fiberglass stock to save space in cramped cockpits. The Air Force officially adopted the initial 12 test models of the AR-5 as the MA-1 Survival Weapon, but when the XB-70 bomber project was cancelled, so was additional funding for more MA-1 rifles.
ArmaLite used the research and tooling from the AR-5 weapon, with Eugene Stoner designing their AR-7 Explorer survival rifle (and later, the famous AR-15 rifle) in 1958, and beginning production the following year. The Explorer is a lightweight (only 2.5 pounds originally, or 3.5 pounds now), handy, semiautomatic weapon in .22 Long Rifle, with an eight-round magazine, and civilian-legal, steel-lined, aluminum, 16-inch barrel, which can be readily taken apart and stored inside its own stock, like the AR-5/MA-1 rifle, and easily reassembled within just 30 seconds.
While not as powerful as the .22 Hornet round, it nevertheless allows for rapid fire when necessary, and a higher magazine capacity. The AR-7 was initially touted as an “Air Force Survival Rifle,” and was certainly marketed toward military use, but by then, the age of genuine, Air Force survival rifles had passed, and it was never accepted into military service.
The ArmaLite AR-7’s reputation was secured, however, when actor Sean Connery, starring as secret agent 007 in the 1963 film, From Russia With Love, often rated as the very best James Bond movie ever, used a new, brown-stocked AR-7 with a scope and suppressor to help his Turkish ally, Ali Kerim Bey, the head of MI6 Station-T in Istanbul, Turkey (but filmed in London, England), kill Bulgarian/Soviet agent Krilencu at night. Bond also personally shot down an enemy (Spectre) Hiller UH-12C Raven helicopter in a thrilling, mountainous, chase scene in Turkey, but actually filmed near Lochgilphead, in western Scotland.
AR-7s were subsequently used or observed in the Bond films Goldfinger (1964) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), although 007 did not fire them himself. In other, later action movies, AR-7s were employed by noted actors Charles Bronson, George C. Scott (twice), Robert Duvall, and Peter Fonda, from 1970 through 1984. Later, a silver-gray AR-7 rifle was used by a young killer in the “Autumn Warrior” episode of the popular TV series Magnum, P.I., in 1986.
In 1973, ArmaLite sold the production rights to Charter Arms, and I purchased a camouflaged, AR-7C Explorer model in 1986, during a special operations assignment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was a fine survival weapon, and I kept it until 2014, when I gave it to my oldest son, an Air Force pilot. Charter Arms produced the AR-7 until 1990, when the design was sold to Survival Arms of Cocoa, Florida, for the next seven years. The only real change was to produce the barrels of all-steel. Then, AR-7 Industries of Meridien, Connecticut, built the rifle until 2004, when the company was absorbed into ArmaLite again. Sound confusing?
Meanwhile, in November 1988, with Thanksgiving approaching fast, a military associate and I were cruising along a very remote, dirt road in rural South Dakota one morning, when we passed a roving flock of wild turkeys at very close range. We were both unarmed at the time, and I calmly remarked, “You know, I have an AR-7 survival rifle at home.” He replied, “Wow! So do I!”
Needless to say, a few days later, we were both on the same road again, and we stopped near that same spot, assembled our AR-7 Explorers (his was all-black, while mine was camo-finished), and drove very slowly for the next 15 miles, with no farms or even houses in sight, and with the windows down and gun barrels sticking outside. Unfortunately, due to other circumstances, we didn’t get any turkeys, but it was fun to hunt for them on the open prairie for about a half-hour. That’s my only personal, AR-7 adventure story.
In 1991, an AR-7 rifle was used in the film, A Cry in the Wild, starring Jared Rushton, about a teenaged boy who must survive alone in the Yukon wilderness after the pilot (Ned Beatty) of a light plane in which he is the only passenger, dies of a heart attack in mid-air, and the plane crashes into a lake and sinks. The boy later retrieves the AR-7 rifle underwater from behind the pilot’s sunken body, and uses it to shoot down a passing goose for his dinner one evening.
Since 1997, the AR-7 Explorer has been produced by Henry Repeating Arms of Brooklyn, New York, and then Bayonne, New Jersey, initially calling it the “U.S. Survival Rifle,” and since 2018, the “U.S. Survival AR-7.” Henry reverse-engineered the rifle, making some notable changes. Instead of being encased in aluminum, the steel Henry barrel is shrouded in ABS plastic, and the receiver has a Teflon finish. An optics rail was added to the upper receiver for mounting a scope, if desired.
While the foam-filled, Cycolac stocks of early AR-7s allowed the rifle to float if dropped into water, the Henry stock is simpler, hollow plastic, best described as “water-resistant,” but not totally waterproof. The new rifle will sink within just a few minutes, but will hopefully float for just long enough to retrieve it.
On the very positive side, however, the interior of the stock now holds up to three magazines instead of just one, with 24 ready-to-fire rounds of ammunition available in storage. Five-round (#HS-15-5, for hunting) or eight-round (#HS-15, standard-issue) magazines are offered, and aftermarket magazines of 10 (Triple-K, $40), 15 (Triple-K, $44, or Target Sports, $26), or even 25 rounds (Ram-Line, discontinued) are sometimes available.
Henry Repeating Arms has manufactured and sold more than a half-million AR-7s, as the rifle’s most-prolific manufacturer. Their website states: “Don’t Leave Civilization Without One….it’s a favorite of bush pilots, backpackers, and backcountry adventurers who…need a rifle that’s easy to carry, yet has the accuracy to reliably take down small game.” The current AR-7 is available in black for $344 MSRP, or two different camouflage patterns for $420 each, which are all a far cry from its original, modest, $50 asking price in 1959.
Henry also offers an accompanying Henry Survival Kit (HSK001) for $126, which includes everything from first-aid and fire-starting material, to a compact flashlight and SOG multi-tool, all stored in a pocket-sized, waterproof, aluminum container.
In February 2014, the AR-7 was rigorously tested by Jason Schwartz of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, who observed that, “I put over a thousand rounds of mixed, .22 LR ammunition through the AR-7…accuracy was decent enough to hit a rabbit at 25 yards…CCI ammo experienced no failures of any kind…the AR-7 experienced no jams or malfunctions…(and) was 99-percent reliable…this is excellent, overall performance… Whether for a fun day of plinking, or bagging an occasional squirrel for the camp stew pot, the AR-7 was always a great companion.
“The AR-7’s reliability, packability, ultralight weight (3 lbs., 6 oz.) and decent-enough accuracy still make it a viable and handy camp/backpack/survival/stash-in-the-vehicle rifle. The AR-7 also has something you don’t find everyday—unique ‘cool factor.’ It’s also the same gun used in the James Bond film, From Russia With Love (Bond used the ArmaLite version of the AR-7, but close enough). This kind of cool factor is enough by itself to consider throwing one into your survival gun collection.”
Russ Chastain of AllOutdoor reviewed the AR-7 on July 21, 2020, writing that, “This is an accurate, little rifle…my rifle was hitting targets every time, right out of the box. There’s absolutely nothing better than a peep sight for fast and accurate aiming of a long gun, and it’s far superior to open sights…This rifle comes with two blued-steel, removable, eight-round, box magazines, and both of mine functioned perfectly from the get-go…Don’t hesitate to grab one of these if you get the chance.”
Finally, Jeremiah Knupp wrote in December 2016 that, “The AR-7’s purpose is taking small game at relatively close ranges, and for that task its accuracy is acceptable. Out to 50 yards, it’s easy to make shots on small-game-size targets from field positions…I found the rifle completely reliable through 500 rounds of testing. In addition to 40-grain fodder, I tried Remington hyper-velocity, hollowpoint Yellow Jackets…The rifle functioned perfectly with those as well…Group sizes averaged just over two and a half inches.
“Is there another rifle that fits in its own stock, assembles in half-a-minute, and hits what you’re aiming at when the chips are down? No. The truth is, the AR-7 is a very specialized piece of equipment, and in the last 50 years, no one else has come up with a design that fits its niche better. More than just a survival tool, it’s a survivor that continues to find its way into boats, backpacks and bug-out bags, and probably will for another half-century.”
I kept my trusty Charter Arms AR-7 Explorer for 28 long years, but in my current, semi-rural home setting, I’ve needed a little more range, power, and accuracy for small-game management, and not as much compactness and portability. So, I gave the AR-7C to my Air Force pilot son in 2014, and replaced it with a bolt-action, Ruger American Rimfire #8322 in .22 Magnum, with 18-inch barrel. I still think about that highly-portable, take-down, lightweight, fast-handling, fast-shooting AR-7 from time to time, though. It’s hard to find a more compact and versatile survival rifle than that!
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, graduated from the USAF Combat Survival School, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and hunter. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.