Ruger at 75

2024 marks the 75th anniversary of an American arms maker founded by a man who defied conventional wisdom again and again to produce instant classics.

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posted on June 13, 2024
Ruger At 75 Lead

Bill Ruger built a dynasty by defying conventional wisdom and ignoring the experts over and over again, and in doing so drove the nattering nabobs of negativism to drooling fits.

When he established Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc. in 1949, it was the first new U.S. firearm maker to start up after World War II. Much of the success that followed was due to Bill Ruger’s drive, determination and unbridled faith in his own instincts.

Bill Ruger sitting at desk pondering drawing of handgun.

He had left a job at Auto Ordnance when they switched from machine guns to making record players after the war ended. Ruger started a new machining company in 1946 and contracted to make parts for his old employer. He bought some machines and hired people to run them. The trouble was his milling machine didn’t run right and nobody working for him could fix it. He finally brought in a crusty, 75-year-old machinist from Bridgeport, Conn., to take a look. That man looked for quite a while and then tightened a single nut.

“Try it now,” he said.

The machine ran great at low speed. Ruger ordered that it go faster. All his in-house experts cautioned him against the move.

“We have to learn some time,” Ruger said. “Go faster.”

The experts cautioned again against more speed. “I’ll never forget the battle those guys put up,” Ruger is quoted as saying. “And I made them do it.”

Males gunsmithing.

They repeated this dance with Ruger defying all his “experts” again and again until the machine was running at a terrifying full speed—with no issues. That’s when Ruger knew he was in business.

It was that willingness of Bill Ruger to go with what he felt in his gut and to defy all the experts that made Sturm, Ruger what it is today.

Beginnings
The Ruger Corporation was to produce parts for Auto Ordnance, carpentry tools and a .22 semi-auto pistol Bill had designed. But it didn’t last. A bad government contract and high prices on the tools ended the company. The gun was never made and by 1949 Ruger Corporation was in receivership.

Ruger .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun.The semi-automatic Ruger .22 Pistol was the first product offered by Sturm, Ruger & Co., in 1949.

That venture was over, but Ruger still had the design for a .22 pistol and a friend, Alexander McCormick Sturm, was enough of an eccentric to see and understand Ruger’s vision. While others scorned Ruger and predicted failure with his .22 pistol, Sturm recognized the possibilities.

Sturm was a Yale graduate and married to Theodore Roosevelt’s granddaughter. He was an accomplished writer, painter, artist and a collector of many things, including firearms. He came from a wealthy family and lived in a style that was lavish to the point of garishness. When other students ate in the college dining room he would dine in the finest restaurants. A bit of a dandy, his clothes were custom made and often outlandishly styled. He was said to have a highly refined sense of humor and perhaps he simply saw it all as a joke on society. Obviously though, he held no fears or concerns of what others thought of him and because of that trait of confidence he invested $50,000 in establishing a new firearm company, Sturm, Ruger & Company Inc.

That was a big sum in those days, almost $640,000 in today’s dollars. The money actually came from his mother, which proved to be significant later in the fight for control and direction of the company. Sturm and Ruger guided the business though the lean times every new venture knows, and along the way Sturm designed the red eagle logo that helped to give Sturm, Ruger & Company instant name recognition. (It also provides recognition to Hank Williams Jr., who uses the logo with permission.)

With the company well on its way to success, Bill Ruger took a hunting trip to Quebec and Maine in the fall of 1951 with Warren Page. Upon his return he found that Sturm was in the hospital, desperately ill with hepatitis. Ten days later, at the age of 29, Sturm died.

Bill Ruger sitting at desk with multiple revolvers.

In Sturm’s memory, Ruger ordered that all the logos on firearms be changed from red to black, a color that remains to this day with a few notable exceptions. The company name also remains Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc.

The first firearm produced by the new company, of course, was the semi-automatic .22 Ruger Pistol that Bill Ruger brought with him from that first company. It is the gun that launched a dynasty.

Everybody knew it wouldn’t work, that the firearm industry had no room for some young upstart with a private company. Just who did this guy think he was? Obviously, this uppity young fella didn’t know his place and didn’t know the firearm business. But then a few well placed ads and a write-up in The American Rifleman “Dope Bag” brought the orders that launched an industry giant.

It is of note that Ruger eventually was offered, and passed on, the opportunity to buy most of the old companies that scorned him.

Colt was one of those companies. It stopped production of the Single Action Army revolver at the onset of World War II to allow production for the war effort. Colt announced in The American Rifleman in 1947 that it saw insufficient demand to justify replacing the tooling to make single-action handguns again, ending the reign of what may be the most famous handgun ever.

Bill Ruger was at an industry event sometime after that announcement where the marketing manager for Colt pronounced that single-action revolvers were nothing but playthings and that only double-action revolvers and semi-autos were real handguns. He turned condescendingly to Ruger and said, “You’ll find that out.”

Ruger decided to prove them wrong. In 1953 he introduced the Single-Six single-action revolver in .22 Long Rifle. Over the years that humble start has evolved into a huge catalog of single-action revolvers that have been offered in cartridges from .17 HMR to beast-mode boomers like the .454 Casull and the .480 Ruger and, of course, the best-selling .45 Colt, the very cartridge that Colt abandoned.

Bill Ruger standing next to award.Bill Ruger re-created the single-action revolver in 1953 with the Single Six in .22 LR. The move spawned an entire catalog of iconic single-action revolvers.

Not only did Ruger recreate the single-action revolver, he also improved it with coil springs to replace the old flat springs that were so prone to breaking, and later added a transfer bar to allow all chambers to be loaded safely.

Making Instant History
I bought the first of many Ruger single-action revolvers in 1973, the year the rimfire changed to the Super Single Six. It came with two cylinders, in .22 LR and .22 WMR. That revolver was my companion in the woods for years, taking a lot of small game and varmints. It even added the coup de grâce on a deer or two. I used it on the trapline to dispatch countless critters, including one skunk who won the battle but lost the war.

I shot a pair of Blackhawk revolvers in .357, using .38 Special ammo, for years in cowboy action shooting. My son, Nathan, used a pair of birdshead-grip Single Six guns in .32 H&R. Over more than a decade these handguns took a pounding as they shot thousands of rounds in fast-paced competition. We never had a single problem, and other than a bit of holster wear they are still like new. In contrast, we shot Colt clones our first season and I replaced several broken springs.

When Ruger wanted to get into the rifle market in 1960, it was just as the shooting world was sliding into “magnum mania.” As everybody knew, it was a bolt action-only market.

For his first venture into rifles, instead of a bolt action, Ruger chose a short, ugly, semi-auto rifle chambered in a handgun cartridge. Anybody would have thought him insane, but the .44 Carbine was a huge success.

I remember reading the tiny ads in the gun and hunting magazines back in the ’60s and wanting a .44 Carbine so bad it hurt. It’s not politically correct today, but one ad they ran of a gorilla shot in Africa with a .44 Carbine made it a must-have for most young hunters. For a time, fueled by my youth and those ads, it was the most important thing on Earth for me to have a Ruger .44 Carbine.

I finally got one after I was well into adulthood and with it came an interesting story to tell. (I’ll need to check the statute of limitations, though, before I put it in print.) I guess I was not alone as Sturm, Ruger sold a quarter of a million of those rifles before they were discontinued in 1985. Today, the .44 Magnum Carbines demand incredible prices on the gun auction sites.

In 1966, just as the magnum craze was reaching a frenzy and “firepower” was the catchphrase for the hip and happening shooter, Ruger brought out his second centerfire rifle design, a single-shot patterned on the antiquated Scottish, falling-block, Farquharson design. Everybody knew that single-shots had died and were buried with the buffalo hunters back in the last century—everybody but Bill Ruger and the hundreds of thousands of gun owners who bought the No. 1. I own a few of them, but my favorite is a Light Sporter in .45-70. That gun has become one of my favorite hunting rifles for deer and black bear.

Ruger No. 1 action.In 1966, as magnum mania began to sweep the rifle world, Ruger introduced the No. 1, an instant classic based on an antiquated Scottish single-shot design.

Bill Ruger was the first guy in the industry to recognize the value of gun writers. While other companies would loan a gun to a writer for a story, Ruger made friends with them. The post-war era saw a rise in magazines for men and they usually had a dedicated gun writer. True magazine had Peter Barrett as a gun columnist while Lucian Cary wrote for them as well. Argosy had Pete Kuhlhoff writing about guns. Outdoor Life was promoting Jack O’Connor as a public figure. I suppose today Jack would be an “influencer” and I suspect he would hate the term. Field & Stream had Warren Page, who became good friends with Ruger. Pete Brown replaced Lt. Col. Jim Grossman as Sports Afield arms editor in 1950.

Then there was The American Rifleman, at the time the only official journal of the NRA and by far the top dog for technical gun writing. Ruger called it, “The preeminent publication on firearms … .” A “Dope Bag” article in the magazine on the .22 pistol by Julian S. Hatcher helped launch that first gun and the Sturm, Ruger company.

For a while Ruger assigned a serial number to each of a select few writers and every time a new gun was introduced he would send one with that number to each writer. Sadly, it happened before I got into this business, but a few of my friends were on the list.

One example of the power of the press was the time Pete Kuhlhoff ran a small mention of the new single-action .22 revolver in Argosy and it broke the Southport post office. Boxes and baskets of letters arrived, overwhelming the place, most with an order and a check.

Ruger pioneered the use of investment casting in firearm manufacturing. It was an ancient practice used for small things like jewels and tooth replacements. Called lost wax casting, it worked fine at first for small, simple parts like a hammer but it was problematic for bigger parts like a handgun frame. Somehow Ruger and his people figured it all out and investment casting is why the Single Six carried an affordable price tag. It is also the secret to the success of many Ruger firearms to follow.

All the “experts” said castings would never work in firearms. Once again Ruger proved them wrong. I drive by Ruger-owned Pine Tree Castings in Newport, N.H., every time I leave Vermont for locations south, east or often north. The investment casting pioneered by that company is a huge factor in Ruger’s success.

The story of how Ruger was right on the heels of Smith & Wesson with the introduction of the .44 Magnum revolver is another illustration of the Ruger drive and mindset. One day in the mid-’50s a man walked into Bill Ruger’s office and handed him five empty cartridges, said to have been pilfered from Remington’s trash bin. They were head stamped .44 Magnum. Ruger called his friends at Remington who all refused to comment as they had an agreement with S&W to keep the project a secret.

Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk.A Ruger classic first introduced in 1955, the single-action Blackhawk .44 Magnum, with a 4⅝-inch-long barrel, remains an outdoorsman’s best friend.

“I think I designed the .44 Magnum pistol without ever seeing a loaded cartridge,” Ruger is quoted as saying in the book Ruger & His Guns.

Another friend from Remington later handed him a paper bag without comment; the bag contained several loaded .44 Magnum cartridges. While S&W was first to announce .44 Magnum handguns, I am unable to find any info that quells the rumor that Ruger was the first to actually ship handguns. It was this hard-headed, visionary “I’ll ignore you and do it anyway” approach seen in the .44 Magnum Blackhawk story that epitomized Bill Ruger’s determination.

The Ruger 10/22 semi-auto rifle, in .22 LR, was introduced in 1960 and rewrote the rimfire market. It used a unique 10-round (the 10 in the name) rotary magazine that Ruger based on the Savage Model 99 design. I bought the first of many 10/22 rifles in the early ’70s. I still have it and have lost count of the amount of ammo that’s been run through it hunting and shooting, but it’s got to be high in the five figures.

The Mini-14, a .223 semi-auto, is a huge seller even in today’s AR-15 saturated world. The “experts” said the Model 77 bolt-action rifle introduced in 1966 was doomed and would never compete with the Remington Model 700 or the Winchester Model 70. They were, of course, wrong. There is one non-politically correct, but funny story about the development of the rifle. Ruger directed that the pistol grip on the M77 be “like a Polish girl’s ankle,” meaning thick and husky. My wife, who is one-quarter Polish, fails to see the humor.

I own several M77 rifles and I mourn letting a tang safety .35 Whelen get away in the late ’80s.

Ruger also made golf clubs, knives and cars, although the latter two never saw production.

Forever Forward
Bill Ruger was too sick for a planned interview for the 50th anniversary article I wrote in 1999. He passed in 2002, living to see the new millennium. I regret that I was never able to meet him. His legacy is today one of the biggest and most respected gun companies in the world.

I did meet his son, Bill Ruger Jr., and get to know him a bit. He took over the company in 2000 and retired in 2006. He passed away in 2018.

The traditions of Bill Ruger’s vision were continued with later management and they have created new firearm categories with their introductions as well as entering established markets and making an impact. Still headquartered in Southport, Conn., they have production facilities in Newport, N.H., Mayodan, N.C., and Prescott, Ariz. In 2015 Ruger was the largest firearm manufacturer in the United States. It was the first company to make a million firearms in a single year in 2012 and in 2016 the first to make 2 million in a year.

Ruger firearms factory machinery.

In 2020 it bought Marlin Firearms and has revised that line of lever-action rifles. The guns the company produces are said to be some of the finest Marlin lever-action rifles ever made.

In corporation with Hornady, Ruger has also helped to create some of our best new cartridges starting with the .204 Ruger, which is one of my favorite coyote cartridges. The .375 Ruger brought .375 H&H Mag. performance to standard action-length rifles. It used a unique cartridge case developed to attain the best performance from a modern bolt-action rifle. I have one that was custom built by Mark Bansner on a Model 70 and is a remarkable hunting rifle.

The .375 Ruger spawned the .416 Ruger, .300 Ruger Compact Magnum, .338 RCM, .300 Precision Rifle Cartridge, 7mm PRC and the 6.5 PRC. That’s a huge influence on today’s hunting cartridges. It’s thought that the PRC design cartridges represent the very cutting edge in modern cartridge design.

The number of game-changing firearms introduced in the new millennium has been staggering. In 2008, the .380 LCP pistol changed the world of concealed carry and created an entirely new handgun category.

The Ruger American rifle introduced in 2012 changed the way we think about making hunting guns. Its innovative manufacturing techniques keep the price low, yet the accuracy is outstanding. The incredible accuracy stands in stark contrast to the price point. In years past, affordable meant cheap and you got what you paid for, but now, not so much.

Ruger American Rifle facing right.Today, the Ruger American Rifle Generation II continues to set benchmarks for accuracy, durability and performance among bolt-action hunting rifles.

The Ruger Precision Rifle introduced in 2015 caught magic with the emerging long-range shooting explosion and created a category in the market with an affordable, chassis-built, precision rifle.

The Wrangler (2019) and Super Wrangler (2023) .22 revolvers use new engineering and manufacturing techniques to deliver the Single Six concept at a very affordable price point. I recently tested the Super Wrangler for this magazine (“Hardware,” April) and was quite impressed with the performance.

The company’s double-action handguns, starting with the now discontinued Security Six in 1972, have a huge following in law enforcement, self-defense and hunting. From pocket-size carry guns to big and beefy hunting revolvers, Ruger has every category and most handgun cartridges covered.

Ruger RPR.The Ruger RPR delivers factory-built uber precision performance for working-class buyers.

Ruger has made a mark in the categories traditionally owned by other gun companies such as the 1911 or AR-15 markets. The AR556 (2009) quickly earned a big chunk of the market with an affordable price point and dependability. It’s chambered for several cartridges including one of the best for hunting, the .450 Bushmaster. The SFAR (Small Frame AR, 2023) is innovative as it chambers the .308 Win. or 6.5 Creedmoor in a gun that is not much bigger or heavier than a conventional AR-15. It’s a serious gun for big-game hunting, defense or just shooting.

Ruger is driving the market with new introductions. The innovations in the gun world are just too vast to mention here without risking becoming a catalog instead of an article. Let’s just stop here and agree that Bill would be proud of his company today.

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