“Ahead Of Its Time” Is No Mere Cliché
When Discussing The Ultralight 12-Gauge
By Holt Bodinson
You’re probably familiar with Armalite’s AR-7, AR-10, AR-15 and AR-16 models, but what about the AR-17, Armalite’s modernistic, “space-age” venture into the smoothbore world? The “Golden Gun” failed in the market, but it did, indeed, emit an overall golden glow with its aluminum receiver and barrel hard-anodized in a “Tule Gold” hue. Considering the fact approximately only 1,200 were ever assembled between 1964 and 1965, Armalite’s AR-17 is both a classic rarity and an interesting story.
At the conclusion of WWII, the US retained a Belgium arms dealer, J.S. Michault, to rearm the German Border Police. Michault became intrigued by Germany’s development of advanced small arms using stampings and lightweight alloys, the StG44 “Sturmgewehr” being the classic example.
One of Michault’s acquaintances was American engineer and patent attorney George Sullivan of Lockheed Aircraft, who was well versed in the application of high-strength plastics, fiberglass and non-ferrous alloys to aircraft fabrication. Together Michault and Sullivan barnstormed the idea of designing and manufacturing technologically advanced arms, using modern materials and production processes. By 1952 they had set up a machine shop in Hollywood, California, and begun the development of prototypes. Armalite was born.
In 1953, Sullivan met another gun enthusiast, George Boutelle, President of the Fairfield Engine and Airplane Corporaton. Boutelle was looking for ways to diversify Fairchild and convinced his board to underwrite Armalite as a division of Fairchild in 1954.
Shortly thereafter, ordnance expert/designer Eugene Stoner was hired as Armalite’s chief engineer as well as Melvin Johnson—designer of the M1941 Johnson rifle and light machinegun—as a consultant and publicist.
Holt found the vintage AR-17 to be a natural on dove, thanks to
its nimble handling characteristics and external choke tubes.
The AR-17 was the product of Armalite’s use of space-age materials and finishes.
Hard-anodized in a “Tule Gold” hue, the AR-17 became known as the “Golden Gun.”
It wasn’t long before the essential elements of Armalite’s design philosophy came together in the AR-1—a bolt-action rifle in 7.62 NATO featuring an aluminum receiver, an aluminum barrel shroud surrounding a steel barrel, a barrel extension into which the bolt lugs locked and a foam-filled fiberglass stock. Once scoped, the overall package weighed a mere 6 pounds. The AR-1 set the stage for the evolutionary development of all the AR models to follow, including the AR-17.
“Fastest on target with the world’s lightest 12-gauge automatic” read the lead on Armalite’s advertising copy in 1964. It continued, “If you enjoy hunting the ridges for upland game, or thrill to the whistling wings of waterfowl at daybreak, you will want to see the Golden Gun advantages for yourself. The light weight—5.6 lbs—and extremely fast handling qualities can put you on target faster than ever before and assure you of a full bag of clean kills… $159.50.”
Weighing 5.6 pounds, it is fast. Maybe just a little too fast! Armalite thought the trap and skeet shooting fraternity would beat a path to their door. They didn’t, and I think it was because the flea-weight Golden Gun didn’t pack enough weight to provide the shooter with a smooth, well-coordinated swing or to soak up recoil during an extended target session.
But in looking at the weight factor alone, it becomes obvious the AR-17 is an amazing design. The Golden Gun functions on the short-recoil principle in which the barrel moves back approximately 3/16-inch, imparting enough energy to the bolt carrier to unlock the bolt, extract and eject the fired shell and feed a fresh round with the energy stored in a long mainspring housed in the buttstock. The Golden Gun is also a 2-shooter, holding one round in the chamber and one round in a bottom-loaded shell carrier. Overall, the concept reminds me of the more common and familiar Browning Double-Automatic.
A 12-gauge, 10-lugged rotary bolt riding in a bolt carrier and locking into a steel barrel/chamber extension is patterned after the firm’s successful AR-10/AR-15 bolting system. It’s an extremely strong breeching arrangement. And because the bolt locks into the barrel/chamber extension, it eliminates the need for a steel receiver.
Armalite selected a type 7001 aluminum alloy with a claimed tensile strength of 70,000 psi for both the receiver and the barrel. While the receiver is forged and machined, the 24-inch barrel is formed by a cold impact extruding process and does not incorporate a steel liner. The bore is aluminum.
To quote from Armalite sales literature: “Barrel and receiver housing… new high-test aluminum alloys used in these parts is hard anodized both inside and outside. The exterior hardness, almost that of a diamond, resists marring, scratching and corrosion. The hardness is 65-70 on Rockwell ‘C’ scale and 7-9 on the Mohs scale. The hardness in the barrel interior prevents any leading unlike the non-hard surface of the conventional steel barrel.” In fact, it’s the easiest shotgun barrel I’ve ever had to clean. Shotgun makers take note!
Choke? The barrel is externally threaded for its choke tubes. Packaged with the Golden Gun were three hard-anodized tubes in Improved Cylinder, Modified and Full. One positive quality about external tubes is they are so easy to change out in the field. In fact, during the late dove season, I switched from IC to M in the middle of the hunt because the doves decided to ascend to bomber-level altitudes.
The AR-17 was a 2-shooter with the second shell fed from a vertically
rising carrier (above). Armalite fitted the AR-17 with their quintessential
multi-lugged rotary bolt (below).
The stocking isn’t bad. The AR-17 mounts well and puts you on target. The Monte Carlo buttstock may look a little “early ’60’s,” but it’s comfortable, provides a good cheekweld and lessens felt recoil. To further minimize weight, both the buttstock and the forearm are hollow.
To quote again from Armalite: “Stock and forearm… another missile-age advantage… virtually unbreakable polycarbonate in a rich, subdued brown tone. Will not splinter, warp or be subject to oil or water damage.” Molded, diamond, checkering patterns along the pistol grip and at the bottom of the forearm are both tactile and respectable looking. The length of pull from the center of the gun’s snap-on factory recoil pad to its gold-plated trigger measures 14-1/4 inches.
To load the AR-17, you retract the bolt, drop a shell into the chamber and then push forward on the spring-loaded plastic front of the shell carrier underneath the action which closes the bolt. Then a second shell is loaded and held in the shell carrier.
When shooting the Golden Gun, I found the action very fast. You can get two shots off in a split second, although loading the shell carrier from underneath the action is not nearly as fast as with Browning’s side- loading Double-Automatic.
Recoil? This question always comes up when discussing a 5.6-pound, 12-gauge. My impression is that shooting a standard 1-1/8-ounce load in the Armalite feels like shooting a 1-1/4-ounce shell. Recoil really isn’t an issue and the AR-17 functions equally well with light and heavy loads as long as the action parts are kept lubricated (I use Break Free CLP).
Overall, the AR-17 is a classic example of the engineering philosophy at Armalite and the early application of space-age materials and production processes to firearms manufacturing.
AR-17 GOLDEN GUN
MAKER: Armalite, Inc., Costa Mesa, California, 1964-65
ACTION: Short recoil-operated, rotary bolt, autoloader
GAUGE: 12 (2-3/4-inch chamber)
CHOKE: IC, M, F external tubes
LENGTH-OF-PULL: 14.25 inches
OVERALL LENGTH: 45 inches
WEIGHT: 5.6 pounds, FINISH: “Tule Gold” hard-anodized
STOCK: Brown polycarbonate
SIGHTS: Single red bead,
Price: (in 1964) $159.50
(The 34th Edition Blue Book of Gun Values assigns a $975 value to a 100-percent unfired specimen).