An Odd ArmaLite: The AR-17 12 gauge Shotgun
By David Tong
This article is about a little known shotgun of unusual design and materials. Included are functioning impressions that may be heretofore unavailable online.
Nearly everyone knows the gestation of the AR-15 and M16 rifles. A designer for Fairchild Aircraft, Eugene Stoner, took advantage of his experience in machining advanced aluminum alloys and radically reduced the weight of the US service rifle by making the receiver merely a place for the bolt to reciprocate within and a place to which to mount the barrel.
Key to this was the use of a rotating, cammed, multi-lugged bolt that locked into a barrel extension. This eliminated the heavy receiver structure of older designs, where the locking abutments for the bolt were machined into the receiver (usually steel forgings at the time).
George Sullivan, patent counsel for Lockheed Aircraft, had met Stoner while testing a prototype Air Force aircrew survival rifle and immediately hired him as chief design engineer for the fledgling ArmaLite firm. They co-designed a number of interesting “AR” series products, including the AR-7 .22 survival rifle, which is still being built by Henry Repeating Arms in New York.
I am always interested in firearms that have some historical or technological provenance. When making my rounds to a local dealer and asking if there was anything “strange or different” available, the owner handed me the subject of this article. As soon as I saw the barrel’s roll marking “ArmaLite AR-17 12ga, Costa Mesa, CA,” racked the bolt open and noticed that multiple lug design, I recognized Eugene Stoner’s work.
Built only between 1964 and 1965, a total of 1,200 of the AR-17 two-shot auto shotguns were made. Supposedly, there were also 800 additional complete parts kits produced. MSRP at the time was approximately $130.
This shotgun was reputedly originally marketed to trap and skeet shooters. It lacks a magazine tube and the second round is merely held in place by loading arms after the chamber is loaded. There is a very small red anodized front bead mounted on the seating band for the choke tubes and no middle bead. It is bizarre that a 5.5-pound shotgun with a 24" barrel lacking a middle bead, which is too light for smooth swinging and with a sharp kick, was marketed to target shooters.
The gun’s empty balance point is roughly an inch ahead of the trigger guard. At 10”, the receiver is very long; even a Browning Auto-5 receiver is shorter. Operation during firing: When the trigger is pressed, the shell is fired via an internal hammer striking the firing pin in the bolt carrier. The barrel and the bolt remained locked for approximately ¼” and then the bolt’s cam pin presses against a rectangular cut in the left receiver wall. This process rotates the bolt out of lock and it rotates to allow the bolt and carrier to travel rearward. Two steel arms pivoting off the rear of the bolt carrier push on a buffer spring contained within a buffer tube contained in the hollow butt stock. Again, this is quite familiar to those with an M16.
The loading procedure is somewhat similar to most semi-automatic shotguns. The safety, located behind the trigger, is first placed on safe by pressing it from left to right. This is accomplished (for a right-hander) by the index finger as it finds the trigger. Place a round under the receiver, pushing forward a nylon loading block that is attached to bilateral cartridge guide arms. Rack the action by pulling on the charging handle and releasing it, thus loading the chamber. Load the second round the same way and you are ready to shoot.
It became clear after firing it that the gun will not function with 2 ¾ dram equivalent 1 ounce target rounds! It requires at least high base field loads of at least 3¼ dram and 1 oz shot loads for reliability. This is not surprising, as nearly all recoil-operated shotguns require more energy to function than gas operated guns.
Recoil is there, but surprisingly comfortable considering both the recoil operation and the feathery weight. It does have a low bore center relative to drop at comb, about a half-inch, thus recoil is more a straight-line affair. The shotgun has no center bead. The nylon stock containing the buffer spring is a slight Monte Carlo design and while it fits my skinny cheek pretty well, it probably wouldn’t do for anyone much “fatter of face” than I. The butt has a molded and ventilated recoil pad of non-rubber construction and it was still fairly supple after 46 years.
This might be an interesting companion for hunting upland birds. It won’t weigh you down, as it hefts like a .410. However, the lack of spare parts means one is on one’s own if anything breaks. It’s thus probably best to use lighter, non-magnum field loads in the beast and enjoy it as a functioning oddity.
The AR-17 is conceptually similar to the Browning Double-Auto, which also suffered from poor sales, presumably because of the limited two shot capacity. I reckon that would-be owners of repeating shotguns want to have magazine capacity exceeding the firepower of double barreled guns. If limited to two shots, most bird hunters would probably prefer a good double or over/under rig. However, in reality, one usually has an opportunity for no more than two shots at a bird, if that. The lightweight AR-17 is pleasant to carry and fast into action.
There appears to be a dearth of information online regarding this shotgun and most of what is available appears to parrot the same stuff. I have found no guidance on how to detail strip the piece. This example appears to have been shot very little and is in approximately 99% condition.
Copyright 2012 by David Tong. All rights reserved.