Gun Collecting: The AR-7 Survival Gun

Original ArmaLite AR-7 rifles are now quite collectible and will often sell in the $250 to $400 range.

Original ArmaLite AR-7 rifles are now quite collectible and will often sell in the $250 to $400 range.

SURVIVAL RIFLE. When someone says those words what do you think of? I bet many of you think of the AR-7, a .22 LR semi-automatic rifle. The AR-7 is one of the few firearms that have been marketed with the “survival rifle” moniker. In fact, any gun can be utilized as a “survival” gun but relatively few have been marketed as such.

Eugene Stoner designed the prototype of the AR-7 at ArmaLite in the late 1950s.  Stoner is well known as the designer of the AR-15/M-16 series adopted by the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1963. The AR-7 was born in a program to design a survival arm for the USAF to arm pilots and other personal in survival situations.

The main survival guns of the time included the M-4, a .22 Hornet bolt-action made by H&R and the M-6, a .22/.410 over/under gun. Stoners’ contribution to the program was not actually the AR-7 but the AR-5. The AR-5 had the advantage of repeat fire over the then-standard M-6, using the same .22 Hornet cartridge. When the AR-5 was adopted as the MA-1, but not placed in issue because of the numbers of M-4 and M-6 survival weapons in USAF inventory, ArmaLite used the research and tooling for the AR-5 in developing the AR-7 for the civilian market.

ArmaLite introduced the AR-7 Explorer on the American market in 1959. The ArmaLite guns were made in Costa Mesa, California. They were offered with three colors of plastic stock: black, swirled green and brown. The early plastic stocks have a tendency to develop cracks around the front opening for the action.

This is caused by over tightening the assembly screw when putting the gun together.  As long as they are not stressed further at the cracked area, the stocks can be used for many years. All of the ArmaLite-made AR-7s are now collectible. They will currently sell in the $250  to $400 range. The brown stocks are the scarcest and they bring the higher amounts. ArmaLite ceased operations in 1973 and Charter Arms bought the AR-7 design .

ArmaLite made another variant and sold it to the Israeli military for pilot and aircrew use. The Israelis further modified these rifles, adding the telescoping stock that holds two spare magazines, a pistol grip from a FAL-type rifle, shortening the barrel to 13.5-inches, and adding a front sight based on the K98 Mauser. After Israeli service, some of these rifles were re-imported into the U.S. by Bricklee Trading Company.

The barrels are marked with the BTC identification as required by U.S. laws on imported guns. In order to comply with U.S. federal law, a 3-inch muzzle brake had to be permanently attached in order to meet the minimum 16-inch barrel requirement. These Israeli-contracted AR-7s are the rarest on the U.S. market and have been sold for upwards of $500 for nice specimens.

Charter Arms manufactured the AR-7 from 1973 until 1990.  They made the gun in a basic black color and added a silver tone version, which they called the AR-7S. In 1986 a camouflage version was offered, called the AR-7C.

And it floats! The AR-7 breaks down easily and its components store in the floating buttstock for convenience and safety.

And it floats! The AR-7 breaks down easily and its components store in the floating buttstock for convenience and safety.

The big contribution Charter Arms made to the AR-7 story was the addition of the Explorer II pistol version of the AR-7.  It resembled a broom-handle Mauser. The receiver had a built-in pistol grip with no provision for the rifle stock (the internal parts are interchangeable between rifle and pistol). The rear sight of the pistol was an open notch adjustable for windage and elevation. The Explorer II front sight was integral with the barrel shell and was not adjustable.

The magazine well in front of the trigger guard would accept any magazine designed for the rifle. A spare eight-round magazine could be carried inside the grip. The most common barrel was 8 inches. Optional barrel lengths included 6- and 10-inch versions. The Explorer II was not as popular as the AR-7 rifle. Without the store-in-the-stock feature the gun was a bit large and oddly shaped to carry around in an assembled state. There were no sling swivel add-ons or holsters made for the Explorer II pistol.

Because NFA 1934 regulations set minimum rifle barrel length at 16 inches, the barrels on the rifle and pistol are not interchangeable to prevent installing the pistol barrel on the rifle. The AR-7 barrel has an alignment lug that mates a notch in the receiver.

The receiver notch and barrel lug for the rifle are on top; for the pistol, they are on the bottom. If a pistol barrel were installed on a rifle (or vice versa), the extractor on the bolt would be opposite the extractor slot in the barrel, preventing the bolt from closing (plus the front sight would be upside down). Modifying the pistol barrel to fit the rifle, or cutting a notch in the rifle receiver to accept the pistol barrel, would in the eyes of the law, make it a short-barreled rifle and would require federal registration on an ATF Form 1 with payment of a $200 tax.

In 1990, the design and production rights passed on to Henry Repeating Arms and the compact rifle was slightly revised. The AR-7 is now known as the Henry U.S. Survival rifle. An ABS material replaced the original plastic, which was prone to cracking and failure. The receiver recess in the Henry stock allows storage of receiver with a magazine in place and the rifle is normally sold with two magazines.

The latest versions of the Henry allow for storage of three magazines total, with two in the stock recess, and one in the receiver. The modern Henry U.S. Survival rifle is also waterproof (all prior versions were known to leak water inside the stock). They now include a full Teflon coating on the outer surface. A 3/8-inch rail milled into the top of the receiver for mounting a wide variety of optics is now a standard.

During its 53-year production span, the AR-7 has inspired a number of companies to offer after-market parts. The fact that both the barrel and stock are detachable has led to after-market accessories, similar to those available for the Ruger 10/22. Barrels, stocks, and grips of varying finishes and utility, can be added to the rifle.

These include collapsible stocks, wire-framed stocks, pistol grips, flash suppressors, shrouded barrels, high-capacity magazines, telescopic sights, red dot sights and other fanciful-looking hardware, usually at a cost greater than the rifle. Such accessories usually make it impossible to use the original floating stock for storage of modified parts.

This article appeared in the November 5, 2012 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

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– Methods of carrying firearms
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– Layered defense strategies
– Right firearms and ammo for the need/situation

11 thoughts on “Gun Collecting: The AR-7 Survival Gun

  1. mattja

    I have the Charter Arms rendition, purchased new in 1980. I can’t hit anything with it. It’s my least accurate rifle by far. The main problem is the rear site. It’s cheesy as hell. I had feeding problems as well, but that was solved with a new mag. After that, it goes bang every time. Now, if I could just hit something.

  2. Eugene

    Mine probably doesn’t fall into the collectable category since its new but every one in the family loves it. I hesitated buying because of all the bad reviews around the internet but it seems that Henry has fixed all the issues of the previous makers. Mine is reliable and fun to shoot.

  3. jemsj4

    I have one from Charter Arms. I love it, but it feels different than anything I’ve ever shot. You can feel the springs in the action when fired. That’s the best I can describe it.

  4. ricod54

    As it so happends I own one of the brown stock AR-7s my grandfather gave it to me, as a kid I would always tell him that I wanted that gun, he remembered an before he pasted he gave it to my dad to give it to me,with the original recept 1964 when he got it.would like to know if there are parts that I may still get for it?