Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Henry AR-7 Survival Rifle -- Reliable at Last?

Back in my teen years, I was lucky enough to own an original Armalite AR-7 .22 survival rifle. In fact, I even took it with me when I moved from Florida to Colorado for a brief period when I was 18.

Back in those days, my main mode of transportation was a motorcycle, so carrying around a rifle was a bit of a challenge. The AR-7 proved handy because not only would it fit inside a motorcycle saddlebag, it would also fit inside a backpack for treks into the National Forest.

One of my motorcycle camping adventures in the Rocky Mountains, circa 1989

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.

Fully assembled:

For many years, I've wanted to revisit the AR-7, but was wary because of the bad reputation it developed after Charter Arms took over production in 1973, and into its early production by Henry Repeating Arms beginning in 1997. AR-7's produced during this period developed a well-deserved reputation as "Jammo-matics" because of severe magazine feeding issues.

Over the last few years, I had been hearing through various internet forums that Henry had finally addressed the feeding issue. This made me curious enough that I decided to contact them to request a test sample to see if it really had been made reliable after all these years. Henry was nice enough to oblige our request and lend us a brand new AR-7 to conduct our testing.


My main objective for testing the AR-7 was to see if it would be reliable shooting a wide assortment of ammunition. I also wanted to find out how accurate it was, and see if it would float in a creek.

I put over a thousand rounds of mixed 22LR ammunition through the AR-7, including the following:

CCI Mini-Mags
CCI Velocitors
CCI Stingers
Remington Golden Bullets
Remington Thunderbolt
Remington Yellow Jackets
Federal American Eagle
Winchester Whitebox Bulk 22LR HP
Winchester Wildcats
Dynamit Nobel Subsonic 22LR

I found that the AR-7 was most accurate with three types of ammunition-- CCI Velocitor HP, Remington Golden Bullet HP, and Winchester Wildcat Solid Points. Here are the results of the testing at 25 yards, using a semi-rested position:

Remington Golden Bullets:

Winchester Wildcats:

CCI Velocitors (a strong crosswind at the time of testing pushed the group to the right):

Using high quality ammunition, such as CCI Mini-Mags (both solid and hollow points), as well as CCI Stingers and Velocitors, the AR-7 experienced no jams or malfunctions. I got the same results from shooting slightly lower quality Winchester Wildcat ammo. With cheap, dirtier bulk ammo, such as Remington Golden Bullets and Winchester 333 Whitebox, the AR-7 was 99% reliable. I think this is excellent overall performance.

On a side note, I'd highly recommend sticking with CCI ammo for survival ammo in this gun. The bulk ammo had occasional bad primer misfires, whereas the CCI ammo experienced no failures of any kind.

As you can see from the photos above, accuracy was decent enough to hit a rabbit at 25 yards, but not up to par with most .22 Rifles, which would normally group smaller at this range. Remember, the groups shown were done at a gun range in a semi-rested position, not standing or kneeling while shooting free-handed as you would in a wilderness environment

The reason for this less-than-optimal accuracy is quite simple. The AR-7 has a heavy, gritty trigger which is nearly 8lbs in pull. When you combine this with an ultralight barrel (polymer with a rifled steel insert), you have a recipe for less than perfect accuracy. This is due to the difficulty of keeping the barrel on target while squeezing the heavy trigger.

I also did quite a bit of off-camera testing at paper squirrel targets shooting freehand at ranges varying from 10 yards to 50. I found that at best, the AR-7 is 17 yards max for squirrels, and maybe 28 yards for rabbits. This is assuming a well practiced shooter with good marksmanship skills. In all fairness to Henry, I don't remember my old Armalite AR-7 being a tack driver either.

One thing that helped the AR-7's accuracy slightly was to have the trigger assembly polished by a qualified gunsmith. I took the AR-7 down to the folks at Tall Guns in Loveland, Colorado, and they were able to make the trigger on the AR-7 a little smoother, and dropped the trigger pull down to just under 7lbs. This didn't turn the AR-7 into a tack driver, but it did help to make the groups more consistent and a little bit tighter, making the $30 I spent well worth the price. Tall Guns informed me that they'll do a trigger job on your AR-7 if you want to mail it into them (call or email them for more info).

Flotation Test

One of the big selling points of the AR-7 is its ability to float while packed inside its stock. This is an excellent feature to have if you're in a canoe or you're the pilot of an aircraft that might have to make an emergency water landing.

To test the AR-7, I loaded both of its magazines to capacity (8 rounds per magazine), disassembled the gun and packed it into its stock. Then I went to a spot in the Roosevelt National Forest, where there's a creek with areas at least three feet deep, and tossed in the AR-7. I knew there would be trouble almost immediately.....

The stock nose-dived when it hit the water and began releasing air bubbles. Within 5-10 seconds it started to sink towards the bottom. It was apparent from this test that it was not watertight nor did it have enough (if any) Styrofoam inside the stock to make it buoyant. 

Going, going.......


As it was sinking I could hear the funky sound of the "losing horns" from the "Price is Right" ringing in my head.

After fishing the AR-7 from the bottom, I found that the stock had completely filled, waterlogging the gun and drenching the ammo. 

I decided to use this opportunity to see if the AR-7 would still fire after being drenched, so I took it to a safe location in the wilderness and discharged it. I'm happy to report that it fired all 16 rounds without a hitch.


So has Henry Repeating Arms finally made the AR-7 reliable after all these years? After going through a thousand rounds of mixed ammo, and even shooting it after it was submerged in a creek, I'm happy to report that yes, it does appear to be reliable. The accuracy still leaves a lot to be desired, an issue I hope Henry addresses in future models. If the trigger pull was lowered by a few pounds, I'm sure it would make the gun more accurate. In a rifle that's meant to help you forage for game in a survival situation, this aspect can't be underestimated. 

The biggest surprise/disappointment is the AR-7's failure in the flotation test. Though it didn't sink right to the bottom, it sank fast enough that you'd be SOL if you needed to grab it in an emergency situation. If you need a .22 survival rifle that will float, you might want to check out Marlin's Papoose Rifle, which comes in a padded, floatable case.

Even with these shortcomings, the AR-7's reliability, packability, ultralight weight (3lbs 6oz) 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." Aside from the nostalgia trip I had testing this gun, it was a big attention getter at the range when I assembled it and disassembled it for testing. I had several people walk up and say "wow, what kind of rifle is that!" 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.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)

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