By Scott Stoppelman
For fans of James Bond movies, it would be hard to forget “From Russia with Love” wherein we find what is likely the first big-screen appearance of an unusual little weapon. That weapon is the ArmaLite AR-7 Explorer survival rifle in .22 Long Rifle, which by the way is misstated, perhaps intentionally by “Q” the gadget master, as “point two-five caliber”.
Later in the movie Bond uses the AR-7 to assist a companion in killing a bad guy crawling out of a “window” in a billboard and near the end of the movie manages to shoot down an annoying helicopter as well. Well, it is after all a movie.
An AR-7 is also used in the next Bond flick “Goldfinger,” this time by the sister of one of Goldfinger’s victims. Hollywood aside, the AR-7 is for real.
In the mid 1950s, ArmaLite embarked on a project to supply the U.S. Air Force with a rifle to issue pilots to use for their survival in the event they were shot down. As this is during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, such an event was neither unexpected nor unprecedented. The rifle that met with Air Force criteria was designated the AR-5 and was a bolt-action take-down rifle chambered for the .22 Hornet center fire cartridge. (AR stands for ArmaLite Rifle, not assault rifle as it is sometimes believed.) While the little gun should have been perfectly acceptable for its intended purpose it was not officially adopted, nor were many made and ArmaLite found itself without a contract. With the basic idea still deemed a sound one, ArmaLite, in hopes of recovering some of its investment, decided to offer a version of its survival weapon to the public and the AR-7 was born. Being basically similar in that both could be disassembled and the main pieces stowed in a plastic, floatable stock, the AR-7 differed primarily in its function method and its cartridge. It was decided to chamber this version in the more readily available and less costly .22 Long Rifle rimfire ammunition. This would also allow for a larger magazine capacity of eight as opposed to the AR-5’s four rounds. Additionally, the AR-7 is semiautomatic operated instead of the AR-5 bolt action function.
The receiver is made of aluminum alloy as is the 16 inch barrel. The barrel is steel lined and rifled with six grooves. The bolt of the rifle is steel, functions in the basic blowback method and fires from a closed bolt. On the top of the round bolt rides the flat bar type firing pin which resides in a groove and is held in place by a single roll pin through a slightly oval slot in the pin. Its movement fore and aft must be free or function is impeded somewhat. On the right side of the bolt is a spring-loaded, flat steel hook extractor also held in place with a single roll pin. Ejection of spent cases is via a fixed ejector that juts up into the receiver from below and makes contact with the case as the bolt moves to the rear. With the barrel unscrewed and the bolt removed, two coil springs for which there are holes in the rear of the bolt, are found. These recoil springs are kept more or less in line by a plastic two-prong spring guide at the rear of the receiver. It’s all very simple in design and assuming good ammo and a clean gun, will function fine. Care must be taken to examine the flat firing pin and the groove in which it rides for hard carbon deposits that inhibit free movement of the pin. Ammunition type is equally important for proper function. High velocity seems to work best while some of the standard velocity worked OK, others barely ran the gun. CCI Mini-Mag did the best job of functioning in this test rifle with Remington and Winchester high velocity ammo doing nearly as well along with PMC and Federal American Eagle. This particular rifle didn’t seem to care whether bullets were of solid type of hollow-point, which some accounts point to as a possible cause of problems.
Sights of the AR-7 could only be described as very basic and considering the purpose of the gun are adequate. Up front is a thick blade dovetailed and pinned to an integral barrel ramp. The rear sight consist of a thin blade of spring steel with a hole in it to form a peep sight that is elevation only adjustable by means of loosening a slotted screw enough to move the peep up and down. Very basic. The sights seem to be intended for close range work as even with the peep all the way up the rifle placed it shots low even at 25 yards. Windage on this rifle was however right on out to 50 yards with the front sight as set. It is drift adjustable and actually can be moved by hand.
One screw holds the receiver side plate in place and when removed allows access to the inner trigger works, which amount to some eight parts. The whole gun only consists of 35 parts. The trigger in operation has a little bit of slack similar to a two-stage military trigger then breaks at around 6-8 pounds and is quite manageable. Inside the trigger guard’s forward edge is the magazine release lever that works as intended and mags fall free as they should. Also of note is the absence of a bolt hold open device. Therefore upon firing the last shot the bolt closes on an empty chamber in the way that the M1 Carbine does. Unlike the Carbine however, there is no manual device to hold the bolt back.
There is a two-position push pull safety at the right rear of the receiver that works in the usual fashion: forward is fire, and rearward is safe.
The stock of this particular AR-7 is of the brown color without the marbling seen on some examples. Some stocks seen are greenish in color with a sort of retro 50s “bowling ball” appearance. It is suspected that the brown may be the original color but this has not been verified. On the underside of the buttstock is a sticker that carries the ArmaLite name and “Pegasus” logo of early ArmaLite guns. At the rear of the buttstock is a slip-on end cap of plastic. Pull this off and we find the three recesses which accept the main pieces of the gun; barrel, receiver and magazine. The receiver and barrel are a very snug fit; good for non-rattle, not so good for quick removal. The flexible end cap is marked ArmaLite, Costa Mesa, Calif., and Explorer. One of the claims to fame of these rifles was their ability to float assembled or not when tossed into water.
Assembly is simple; with the main components out of the stock, slide the receiver into the slot at the front of the stock and engage the threaded hole in the receiver with the captive bolt through the pistol grip using the wing-type nut. Screw in until snug. On the top of the barrel’s breech end is a small bolster of metal that is lined up with a slot in the receiver’s threaded end. With the two engaged use the barrel nut to screw them together and hand tighten. Place a magazine in the well, pull back on the bolt’s charging handle and allow to spring forward to chamber a round.
Disassembly for cleaning is equally simple. After removing the barrel, place a finger into the receiver hole and push back on the bolt face slightly, which will disengage the charging handle for removal. Allow the bolt to move forward and out of receiver. Remove the two coil springs if needed. To remove extractor and firing pin for cleaning, remove one roll pin for each part.
Shooting the AR-7
Shooting the AR-7 is much like shooting any semiautomatic .22 – fun! Because of the design which allows the 16 inch barrel to be stowed inside, the stock is by necessity fairly long with a corresponding length of pull of about 15.25 inches. Average length of pull of most modern sporting rifles is less than 14 inches so those shooters of shorter stature or with not so long arms may find this length a little excessive but should be able to adapt.
For a semiautomatic weapon to be deemed totally serviceable it must prove functionally reliable, which has been discussed.As far as accuracy concerns go, this rifle seems adequate for its intended purpose. A rifle such as this should be able to put its shots into around 4 inches or so at 50 yards when using ammo it likes. When trying various ammo for accuracy and reliability this gun put 10 rounds of the CCI Mini-Mag into just over one inch at 25 yards from a cross-legged sitting position. This same ammo grouped into about 3.5 inches at 50 yards from the same position. All shooting was done with the issue sights. For survival purposes, the AR-7’s accuracy is quite acceptable.
ArmaLite made the AR-7 from 1959 until 1973 when the rights were sold toCharter Arms Co. of Connecticut where the rifle was made until it was again sold, this time to Survival Arms around 1990. Sometime around then AR-7 Industries name comes into play and they apparently made these rifles and a large number of accessories and add-ons such as barrel sleeves, wire type stocks and extra capacity magazines. Some of these parts are often seen on the internet along with a scope mount that has been made by more than one maker. This mount uses a longer side plate screw to fasten it to the receiver. Of course having a scope on the rifle will preclude its being placed inside the stock.
The AR-7 is currently made by Henry Rifle Co. since about 1997. The Henry version is offered in black, silver and all camo finish. Henry claims to have made some improvements to make the rifle more reliable.
All in all, there is little to fault with the AR-7 rifle. It functions well with ammunition it likes and shoots it accurately. It can still fulfill the original intended purpose as an emergency survival weapon for pilots, boaters, campers or whomever. It’s light, small, floats and can be stored about anywhere and is fun to shoot.
Length assembled: 35.25 inches
Length disassembled: 16.5 inches
Weight (actual): 3 pounds 3 ounces
Caliber: .22 Long Rifle rimfire
Function: Blow-back from closed bolt
Barrel length: 16 inches
Barrel material: Steel lined aluminum
Receiver: Aluminum alloy
Stock: Brown plastic shell, foam filled
Sights: front: Elevation only adjustable rear peep
rear: Windage adjustable pinned front blade
Magazine capacity: 8 rounds
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N10 (July 2007)