EXCLUSIVE: Ruger: The Unlikely Journey

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Autoloader to revolver, Bill Ruger matched his genius to markets.
Autos are back center-stage. Will retro return?

By Wayne van Zwoll

I swooned. Like the Mustang, trotted out by Ford two years earlier, Ruger’s No. 1 rifle cut a taut, seductive profile. There was an obvious nod to history; but the No. 1 was more racy than musty, elegant in the way an elegant woman teases the eye. A curve here, a line there — ordinary components, compelling result. Bill Ruger had sifted the plain and the awkward from an old mechanism. He’d kept its character.

The rifle inspiring the Ruger No. 1 was designed and patented by John Farquharson in 1872, nearly a century earlier. Farquharson, who hailed from Daldhu, Scotland, sold part interest in the rifle to George Gibbs. The Bristol gunmaker manufactured it until the patent expired in 1889. In all likelihood, fewer than 1,000 of these single-shot rifles left Gibbs’s shop before the last shipped in 1910. But the stout mechanism showed up elsewhere. Auguste Francotte of Herstal, Belgium copied the Farquharson. So did British maker W.J. Jeffery & Co, as early as 1895. Nine years later Jeffery announced an oversize version for the .600 Nitro Express. After the Gibbs era, Farquharson bore a “PD” stamp to indicate the design had become public domain. These days, selling your Berkshire-Hathaway stock might net you enough scratch for a Gibbs Farquharson. Ruger’s No. 1 rifle, however, remains within reach of….
Oh. Forgive me. You’re a handgunner.

Verily, the genius that brought riflemen the No. 1 first surfaced — and is still most celebrated — in pistols and revolvers. But Bill Ruger’s active mind ranged broadly. He applied it with uncanny success to rifles, shotguns, even automobiles. A mechanic arguably of the Browning and Mauser class, he was also a marketing wizard. Ruger not only knew how to build good guns, he knew which good guns would sell.
In 1946, however, William Batterman Ruger’s first products did not sell. Those carpenters’ tools cost too much to make. His new company floundered. Then along came Alex Sturm. A graduate of Yale Art School seemed an unlikely ally; but besides painting and writing, Alex also collected firearms — Bill Ruger’s first love. Even in 1948, though, the $50,000 Sturm had to invest wasn’t much of a grubstake for the gun company Ruger envisioned. Building firearms was heavy manufacturing! “But we can start with a pistol that’s cheap to make,” he declared. So the entrepreneur wooed the investor.

The autoloading .22 on Ruger’s drawing board offered nothing novel in performance. But it was revolutionary in design. Rather than an assemblage of closely machined parts, it comprised mainly pieces of sheet steel. There was no solid receiver; the mechanism resided in a shell of stampings. Introduced at a retail price of $37.50, Ruger’s pistol underbid the competition. In addition, it had an appealing Luger-like profile and natural pointing qualities. It was well finished and functioned reliably. Tests by Major Julian Hatcher, who had mentored Bill Ruger, gave the pistol high marks. After they appeared in The American Rifleman in 1949, orders flooded in. Tragically, Alex Sturm would not live to savor the firm’s subsequent growth. He died in 1951, in his 20s. To commemorate his late friend, Bill Ruger ordered his “red eagle” emblem (actually a griffin) changed to black on the .22.

Demand for autoloaders rose as police and armed services turned from DA revolvers.

Hardly a basic .45, Ruger’s stainless 1911 has many desirable features. It’s handsome too!

Colt SAA in form, Ruger’s Blackhawk trumps it in function: adjustable sight, coil springs.

Bored to potent chamberings, the Blackhawk (here in Galco leather) is hugely popular

Single Actions

Interest in autoloading pistols had grown apace with the acceptance of double-action revolvers. Smith & Wesson’s DAs had a firm foothold in police departments, even as the Browning-designed Colt 1911 endured its second world war. But behind the obvious shift away from single-action revolvers, Bill Ruger saw another market about to blossom. Colt had discontinued its Single Action Army in 1940. The Peacemaker was a thing of the past — and unlikely to be resurrected any time soon. Used SAAs sold for nearly $100, and Colt would have had to charge considerably more to field a post-war generation.

At the same time, the shine of the sixgun had not dimmed. In fact, it was getting new life in a new place. TV sets proliferated in US households after 1945, and programming included a raft of westerns. Lawmen and brigands brandished Colt revolvers. Street showdowns at high noon gave the edge to hombres who could slap leather quickest. Such drama gave the single-action iconic status — not only among shooters, but with countless young baby-boomers who’d buy lots of guns during the prosperous 1950s and ‘60s. Bill Ruger decided to give them a better sixgun than Colt had produced — and sell it for less.

In 1953 Ruger announced a downsized version of the Peacemaker. Faithful in profile and balance, his Single-Six featured coil springs, sturdier than the flat springs of the Colt. It was chambered in .22 LR so everyone could afford to feed it. The new Ruger retailed for $63.25. And sold to the walls.

The Single-Six was the first of many Rugers with investment-cast parts. Investment casting (lost-wax casting) reduces the time and tooling needed to shape components. It’s since been widely adopted by gunmakers. Ruger’s Pine Tree Casting plant, in New Hampshire, supplies assembly lines with beautifully finished parts functioning as well as any machined from steel forgings.

Available with 4.6″, 5.5″ and 9.5″ barrels, the original Single-Six had fixed sights, rubber grips. From 1956 to 1959 the company fielded a Lightweight version, with alloy frame. From 1959 to 1962 you could buy Single-Six in .22 WMR, with a 6.5″ barrel. That version was supplanted by Ruger’s .22 Convertible, with Long Rifle and Magnum cylinders (5.5″ or 6.5″ barrel). By then, the success of the Single-Six had put a full-size revolver in Rugers’ stable. The Blackhawk, initially bored to .357 Magnum, appeared in 1955. The next year brought a .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk, with square-backed guard and un-fluted cylinder.

Additional chamberings would follow: .30 Carbine, .327 Federal, .41 Magnum, .44 Special and .45 Colt. In 1959 Ruger introduced the Bearcat, a trim single-action .22 revolver with 4″ barrel, engraved un-fluted cylinder and brass guard. It had fixed sights. The Bearcat didn’t last long. Neither did the Hawkeye, a single-shot pistol (with 8.5″ barrel and adjustable sights) that looked like a Peacemaker. Bored for the bottleneck .256 Winchester round, it came and went in 1963.

Bill Ruger built his first two pistols (“Red Eagle” and Single-Six) for the affordable .22 LR.

The SR1911 debuted on the 100th anniversary of the Colt model year, in .45 ACP of course!

The Single-Six .22 (introduced in 1953) now also chambers the .17 HMR and .22 WMR.

Bad hombres! Grab that six-gun! Ruger’s Vaquero is a hit with Cowboy Action shooters.

Improvements And Changes

Single-Six and Blackhawk revolvers got a transfer bar and a “New Model” designation in 1973. That year Ruger announced the double-action Speed Six, in .38 Special, 9mm and .357 Magnum. It and its kin, the Security Six and Police Service Six, endured into the mid-1980s. They gave way to the DA GP-100 (1986). The SP-101, rimfire and centerfire, took over around 1990. By then Ruger had been six years into production of a powerful DA called the Redhawk. Fashioned of stainless steel, it came in .357, .41 and .44 Magnum, plus .45 Colt. The Super Redhawk line, with extended frame, followed in 1987. It would evolve into Ruger’s flagship for hunters, in .454 Casull and .480 Ruger as well as .44 Magnum.

As Ruger’s handgun (and rifle) selection grew, it also remained fluid. The company kept its most popular models but was quick to jettison those that didn’t pay their way.

“Oddly enough, this revolver has since been our most requested firearm,” mused Ruger engineer Mark Gurney. In 2011, years after the original SP101 rimfire had vanished, he was showing me a new DA .22 — an improved stainless SP101. Eight chambers clustered neatly around a spindle that swung dutifully with a flick of the latch. The cylinder spun silkily. I found the trigger manageable. Mark explained that trigger pull on rimfire DA revolvers is commonly heavier than on centerfires, “To ensure ignition given acceptable tolerances in headspace and firing pin protrusion.” The sights were unusual but appealing: a fat colored beat and a V-notch rear sight that was truly adjustable.

My first three and 5-shot groups with that SP101 averaged a tad over 2″ at 25 yards – as tight as I can hold and aim with irons. “The barrel is new,” Mark said. “It and the other main parts come from the Newport, New Hampshire factory. This is what engineers call a vertically integrated handgun.” To my question about bore diameter, he replied: “It’s no secret that bores for jacketed .22 WMR bullets must be more generous than those for the .22 Long Rifle. So convertible rimfire revolvers often deliver mediocre accuracy with Long Rifle ammo. Our SP101 specs call for a bore of .2160″ to .2180″, with groove diameter of .2210″ to .2225″. Those are smaller dimensions than you’ll find in barrels for the .22 WMR. Tolerances are also tight. Snug-fitting bullets in uniform bores mean better accuracy!

Unlike grips fitted to centerfires in the line, the SP101 had walnut inserts. “They cost us more,” conceded Mark. “But they add a touch of class, don’t you think?”

Class. Bill Ruger had discriminating taste in firearms and automobiles, and an eye for line. Like his first “Red Eagle” autoloader, and the single-actions its wake, this DA surely had pick-me-up appeal.

Vintage Colts still turn up at Cowboy Action events. But more shooters use Ruger SAs.

Flat hammers and transfer bars (here on a Single-Nine) have been standard on Rugers since 1973.

Diminutive, but accurate! Wayne fired this group with Ruger’s new polymer-frame LC9.

Ruger’s 17-ounce LC9 holds seven in the stack. It’s a DA-only pistol with 3″ barrel.

It loads like a Colt but has better sights! The stainless Single-Nine chambers the .22 WMR.

Even More

Centerfire SP101s and new GP100 revolvers were joined in 2009 by Ruger’s LCR, a lightweight, compact revolver with a one-piece frame of high-tensile aluminum. The fire-control components nestle in a polymer housing below a stainless steel cylinder. This DA-only .38 Special scales a mere 13.5 ounces with a barrel just shy of 2″ (the .357 with stainless frame weighs 17.1) Hogue grips mitigate recoil. The revolver’s innovative design has won it several awards — and brisk sales.

But Ruger, even after Bill’s passing, had distinguished itself as a firm with an eye forward. The market for compact revolvers was strong, driven by political winds, the popularity of personal protection classes (especially for women) and surging demand for concealed carry permits. Subtly, though, the ground was shifting. Police forces and armed services the world over had moved steadily toward autoloaders; citizens had largely dismissed the notion that self-loading mechanisms were trouble-prone. The 1911 Colt, among the most celebrated of all firearms, had enjoyed a hike in sales that left even die-hard .45 buffs scratching their heads. Everybody with the tooling to make a slide was building a 1911, it seemed. Where were all these pistols going? How many could an aficionado stack in a safe?

Rather than contemplate this market, Ruger carved itself a slice. The stainless SR1911 has custom features like skeletonized trigger and hammer, extended grip and side safeties, three-dot Novak sight, big port and checkered hardwood grips. Priced to sell, it appeared on the 100th anniversary of the Browning-designed Colt.

But even before muscling into the 1911 game, Ruger had pursued other autos, beginning in 1987 with the P85, and following with a series of double-action P and KP models. The 22/45 married the construction of Bill Ruger’s original .22 pistol with the feel of a 1911. The SR9 and SR40 (and compact versions) gave shooters high capacity (up to 15 in the .40’s magazine, 17 in the 9mm’s) in a no-nonsense DA with a lightweight frame of glass-filled nylon, a three-dot adjustable sight and a reversible back-strap. In 2012 Ruger trotted out a 10-shot SR22 rimfire, with external hammer and alloy slide, interchangeable grips and a Picatinny rail.

Also new, the LC9 is a 17-ounce pistol with one-piece nylon frame and a 3″ barrel. It holds seven 9mms in its checkered grip. Small enough to dismiss as inaccurate, this pocket model can surprise you. My first 15-yard group with a pal’s LC9 measured just over an inch! My big hands must work hard to control the compact grip in timed fire, and the long trigger pull — though smooth — makes double-taps a challenge. But this diminutive Ruger functions without a hitch and hides just about anywhere you could lose a billfold. Ditto the 6-shot, 10-ounce LCP, in .380. Like other Ruger autoloaders, they’re both built in Prescott, Arizona.

Ruger has embraced fiber optic sights, here on the SP101, .22 LR. “It shot very well!”

Not all Ruger’s are cheap to build. The Farquharson-inspired No. 1 rifle requires hand fitting.

In rifles as well as revolvers, Bill Ruger melded history with new technology in gun design.

The Blackhawk’s Peacemaker profile complements Ruger’s careful machining, finishing

Back To The Beginnings

But self-loaders didn’t hijack the Ruger catalog. In 1993 the company announced its Vaquero, a single-action with Blackhawk innards but a slim, fixed-sight profile true to that of the gunfighter’s Colt. The Vaquero, in .357, .44-40, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt, became an instant hit at Cowboy Action events. Bisley models followed. Rimfire enthusiasts, having seen the Bearcat revived and the .17 HMR added to the Single-Six series, got a stainless Single-Ten on that frame, in .22 LR. The Single-Nine, a stainless .22 WMR, arrived on its heels.

Nearly 65 years ago, Bill Ruger designed a handgun he thought shooters would like but could be built at modest cost. Since then, Ruger has deftly fed an evolving market with new pistols and revolvers, modestly priced but solidly built. Tapping nostalgia or pushing technology with seamless frames, the firm has rightly divined the tastes of its customers. You might say Ruger knows what shooters want before they do. That insight has always started with knowing what they liked decades earlier!

The walnut inlays on this SP101add cost — but they’re classy. Ruger understands classy.

Revolver frames await machining in Ruger’s New Hampshire plant. Autos are made in AZ.

Ruger’s investment casting (“lost wax”) operation produces frames, other components.


Bill Ruger, in person

I met him once, in his office, late in his productive life. There was iron in his grip and his eye, but a sincerity and warmth that put me at ease. Bill Ruger knew what he was and what he’d accomplished. He was comfortable with himself, I decided, but a long way from arrogant. I felt the energy, the intelligence.

He was born in Brooklyn on June 21, 1916, son of Adolph Ruger, a successful lawyer and an avid shooter. Adolph owned a lodge on eastern Long Island, where he introduced Bill to waterfowling. By age 12 Bill had his first rifle, a Remington .22 pump. Shortly thereafter he and a pal, Bill Lett, antied up $9.75 for a war-surplus .30-40 Krag. As a high school student, Ruger fed his interest with other guns. He’d soon start collecting Colt and Luger pistols, Sharps and Springfield rifles. A keen-eyed shooter on the school’s rifle team, he read voraciously about firearms design. His first pistols would lean heavily on the profiles of iconic handguns. Before graduating, he had engineered a light machine gun and built a prototype.

The prep school he attended in Salisbury, Connecticut forbade guns on campus, so Bill stored his nearby. At the University of North Carolina, he fashioned an autoloading rifle from a Savage M99 lever-action. That achievement would later appear in The American Rifleman.

After his 1939 marriage to Mary Thompson, Bill Ruger looked for a job designing guns. The US Army rejected his proposed machine gun. He took a job at Springfield Armory. It paid $130 a month.

A year later he and Mary and their young son moved to North Carolina. He showed his machine gun prototype to several manufacturers, but only Auto Ordnance (which built the Thompson sub-machinegun) offered to buy patent rights. When WW II ended, so did government interest in that project; but by then Ruger was earning $100 a week from Auto Ordnance and had met Douglas Hammond, who broached the idea of building guns from sheet metal.

The Single-Nine is a .22 WMR version of the .22 LR Single-Ten. Both are stainless SAs.

Wayne fired this 20-yard group with an SP101 in .22 LR. Fiber optic sights help aging eyes!

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