Historical Military Survival Rifles: The Ultimate Backpack Guns

The basis for many of today’s best survival and trail guns, the U.S. military developed a series of compact, takedown, and foldable designs to give aircrew something just in case they had to hit the silk.

The Harrington & Richardson M4

M4 survival rifle eger

Although nearly 30,000 M4s were made, they are rare today, as most were scrapped in the 1960s and 70s (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Designed by the Army’s Springfield Armory as the T38, the M4 was a 4-pound magazine-fed 5+1 rifle with no furniture. Chambered in .22 Hornet centerfire, the rifle was 32-inches long with a 14-inch barrel. A sliding metal buttstock collapsed to make the little bolt-action survival gun capable of being stowed under a pilot’s seat along with items such as matches, a compass, a knife, and emergency rations. H&R made 29,344 of the weapons in 1949 for the Pentagon’s contract.


M6 Aircrew survival weapon 2

The M6 weighed just 3.75-pounds and had storage for nine .22 Hornet cartridges and four .410 shells in the butt. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Dubbed the Aircrew Survival rifle, like the M4 this handy little gun was designed at Springfield Armory, apparently borrowing a lot from the Marble Game Getter of the 1920s and 30s. These combination guns used a .22 Hornet top barrel over a .410 bore shotgun in single-shot top break configuration. Prototyped as the T39, 50 early M5s were made by H&R in 1950 while Ithaca produced the standard M6. The over-and-under had a plastic storage magazine in the skeletonized butt along with an oiler. Using 14-inch barrels, they were extremely compact when stored.

With NFA-compliant 16-inch barrels, the gun was sold on the commercial market for years by Illinois-based Springfield as the M6 Scout while TPS makes an updated version today.


Henry US Survival AR7

While the Air Force didn’t buy many AR-5s, the gun went on to live a long, albeit more civilian, life as the AR-7. Today Henry makes them in black, True Timber Kanati camo, and True Timber Viper Western camo patterns (Photo: Henry)

In a break from Army-designed survival guns, Eugene Stoner, working for the ArmaLite division of the Fairchild Airplane Corporation, created the semi-auto AR-5 rifle for an Air Force contract in the 1950s. Intended to ride shotgun on a nuclear strike bomber that never made it into production, Stoner’s interesting little carbine could be stored inside its own buttstock, which could float. Adopted as the MA-1 rifle by the USAF, only 12 were produced as its use on the canceled bomber was not needed. This left ArmaLite to make them in .22LR with longer, non-NFA barrels, as the AR-7. Today, the gun is still produced by Henry Arms as the US Survival Rifle and is a solid classic.

Colt SMG

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One of the experimental Colt .221 Fireball SMGs, this one is in the Air Force Armament Museum is located at Eglin Air Force Base. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

In the late 1960s, the Air Force was again looking for a new Aircrew Survival Weapon. Colt entered the search with an experimental bullpup sub gun chambered in .221 Fireball. Dubbed the Individual Multi-purpose Weapon and classified as the GUU-4/P, the 1.5-pound gun with a 13-inch total length was capable of firing out to 100 meters effectively. The IMP-221 had an offset forward grip to allow the rear of the gun to rest on the forearm of the user. Just five were made although the military concedes, “These weapons exceeded the expectations expected of them.”

Bushmaster Armpistol

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The Bushmaster Armpistol never really made it big, but the company lives on today with more contemporary AR designs. Note the offset grip, canted to the outside of the weapon’s axis. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Based on the above IMP-221 aircrew weapon originally designed at Eglin Air Force Base, Gwinn Firearms in Bangor, Maine produced the 5.56mm Bushmaster Armpistol “in limited quantities” for the USAF in the early 1970s. Just 20.63-inches long, the Armpistol had a lot of M16-style features but in a very abbreviated bullpup format. Bushmaster, of course, would go on to make a commercial version before moving on to more standard AR designs, which endure today.

Currently, the Air Force is transitioning to a modified GAU-5 termed the USAF Aircrew Self Defense Weapon. The ASDW must stow inside a 16 x 14 x 3.5-inch ejection seat compartment. The guns get that small due to the use of an M4 style collapsible stock, flip-up backup iron sights, an Israeli FAB Defense AGF-43S folding pistol grip, and a Cry Havoc Tactical Quick Release Barrel (QRB) kit.

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