The history of U.S. Air Force air crew survival weapons is a fascinating one. Before the Army Air Corps became the Air Force in 1947, air crew survival weapons consisted mainly of handguns worn in either belt flap holsters or G.I. “Tanker” shoulder holsters, which often housed Parkerized Smith & Wesson “Victory Model” .38 Special revolvers. These handguns served as potential last-ditch close-range defensive arms to be used against small groups of enemy soldiers investigating Air Corps crash scenes.
The nuclear age brought about changes to the concept of air crew survival arms, particularly with the deployment of the magnificent Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber, the world’s first intercontinental aircraft designed to deliver nuclear bombs on targets in the Soviet Union in the event of war. The route of the B-36 to the Soviet Union was over the “top of the world” — miles and miles of arctic terrain. If a B-36 crash-landed, the crew could be on their own for many days, even in friendly territory, before a rescue crew could reach them. Foraging for small game in rugged, isolated areas became a priority over self-defense needs, although aircrews still carried handguns for personal protection.
Starting in 1949, the Air Force began issuing the M4 Survival Rifle — a five-shot bolt-action rifle chambered for the .22 Hornet cartridge. It had a telescoping wire stock to keep it compact. The M4 had an effective range of maybe 150 yards.
With an eye on further enhancing the ability of air crews to take a wider variety of game, the Air Force issued the M6 survival gun over/under .22 LR/.410-gauge folding single-shot combo gun in the late 1950s. The M6 was never intended for use against enemy personnel. It was in service until 1970.
Armalite, which was originally a division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, became involved in Air Force survival arms and developed the AR-7’s predecessor: the AR-5.
The AR-5 was a bolt-action .22 Hornet rifle like the M4, but could be broken down into barrel and receiver and stored in the buttstock like the later AR-7. Although the AR-5 was adopted by the Air Force as the MA-1 for use on the supersonic B-70 bomber, only 12 were made due to the B-70 project being cancelled.
Armalite didn’t give up on the air crew survival rifle concept. Eugene Stoner, who was to become famous for the AR-15/M16, developed the bolt-action AR-5 into the semi-automatic AR-7.
The AR-7 went into service with the Air Force in 1959. The AR-7, like the AR-5, was also fitted within a storage compartment in the buttstock. Its magazines held 8 rounds of .22 LR ammunition. At 2.5 pounds, the entire package was light enough to float when cased. However, I would not make too much of this feature, because if something can float, it can also float away. Its float time is also not unlimited. If you are using it around water, make sure it is in a carry pack that can be easily retrieved should it fall into water.
Henry Repeating Arms, rightfully renowned for its expansive lineup of lever-action rifles, has been manufacturing an updated and more reliable version of the original AR-7 since 1997. Known now as the U.S. Survival AR-7 rifle, Henry has made some improvements to Armalite’s original gun (as well as later civilian versions, such as those formerly made by Charter Arms).
One should understand that the U.S. Survival AR-7 rifle is a specialty arm, designed to fulfill the emergency-use mission; in order to do that, it had to fit into that buttstock compartment and weigh as little as possible. Compromises always need to be made when designing highly specialized arms. The AR-15/M16, which was Eugene Stoner’s most famous design, was originally created to be an ultra-lightweight arm — with more punch than the .30 M1 Carbine — used by Airmen guarding their bases in Vietnam. In order to make the Air Force weight requirements of 6.5 (or less) pounds, Stoner used a direct-impingement gas system in the rifle, which saved a pound of weight over piston operation. Direct-gas operation requires much more attention to cleaning, since hot powder gases are blown directly into the action with each shot. It works great, but the system is a compromise.
The AR-7 also has some design compromises. Instead of using a conventional feed ramp as part of the chamber, Stoner dispensed with it, instead building a small feed ramp into the magazines. The magazine feed ramps and the takedown system require more attention to both cleaning detail and ammunition selection. Henry advises to lubricate the AR-7 after you take it out of the box and before firing it for the first time. They also say the AR-7 should be cleaned after every 100 rounds, which takes it out of the realm of extensive plinking, and to experiment with various loads to find the one that runs the best.
Henry has improved the AR-7 design by making it more rust-resistant than previous versions. The barrel is surrounded by ABS plastic and, like the receiver, is coated with TEFLON. The magazines are flush-fitting and have a blue finish; two are included. If you do purchase a third one, know that the stock compartment can hold two; the third can be stored in the magazine well. Henry also added a rail along the top of the receiver for mounting optics, but there is no storage capacity in the stock for an optic. I found the peep sight — which is adjustable for elevation — combined with the orange front sight blade more than adequate for the mission of the rifle. All rounds fired struck dead-on to the point of aim at 50 feet.
The Henry AR-7 assembles easily. The first step is to remove the barrel, receiver and magazine from the stock. Attach the receiver to the stock with the captive thumbscrew in the base of the “pistol grip” portion of the stock. Then align the barrel slot with the receiver pin and apply pressure against the receiver, maintaining the pressure as you screw the captive locking nut in place. There should be no play in the barrel or the receiver.
The magazine release is in the front portion of the trigger guard. Pushing forward on it releases the magazine. The safety is on the top-right rear of the receiver. The recessed charging handle is on the right side and pulls out enough to allow good leverage for chambering a round.
I fired three types of ammo through the AR-7 on two different days. On the first test day, I used American Eagle Hi-Speed bulk ammo. I had not properly pre-lubed the AR-7 and had a few jams in the 50 rounds fired. I purchased new ammo and cleaned and lubricated the AR-7 prior to the next test. This time, I used Winchester Super Speed 37-grain HP ammo rated at 1330 feet per second and CCI Mini-Mag 36-grain HP ammo rated at 1260 feet per second and was rewarded with reliable functioning. While the AR-7 requires attention to detail, it performs a task that no other current .22 rifle can. The shot groups obtained were on par with standard sporter .22s fired off-hand like the AR-7 was.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Henry U.S. Survival AR-7 rifle, but after firing I found I really like it. The AR-7 is simply a great rifle for recreational and survival use. It is perfectly balanced despite its somewhat unconventional appearance (it was featured as a sniper weapon in spy shows and movies in the 1960s) and is easily carried and fired with one hand.
The AR-7 can be used for survival in a widespread crisis or for short-term emergencies. It can also provide protection from two- or four-legged critters or be used for plinking. The AR-7 stores easily in a cabin, RV, boat, ATV, Jeep or private aircraft. If you don’t have a .22 rifle for survival at home, it would serve there just as well. It is also a great gun to take on car trips. Henry also sells a complete U.S. Survival Pack that includes an AR-7 as well as other survival gear like food, water purification, a Buck Knife and other items. The pack can easily hold an Otis cleaning kit and additional ammo. MSRP of the Survival Pack is $550. The AR-7 has an MSRP of $305 for the plain-black model, and $368 for the two camo variants available.
More info at: www.henryusa.com