William B. Ruger
(1916 - 2002)

For the second half of the 20th century, the biggest name in civilian firearms design in the US was William "Bill" Ruger, co-founder of Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc., although the company is generally just known as "Ruger." Along with John Moses Browning and Samuel Colt, Ruger was one of the titans of American gun design. While his gun designs were as a whole perhaps not as innovative as those of his predecessors, Bill Ruger mastered the rare art of always having his finger on the pulse of consumer trends; two of his designs, the Ruger Standard and the Ruger 10/22, are the best-selling guns of their types (.22LR pistol and .22LR semi-automatic rifle, respectively) in the United States and have been for a number of years.

William Ruger was born in New York in 1916 and developed a lifelong love of firearms when his father bought him his first .22LR rifle at the age of 12. Like many young men, he enjoyed tinkering around with machinery and tools, and by his early 20s, he designed his first firearm: a light machine gun for the United States Army. While his idea was accepted, it seems not to have entered general production, although he was retained as a gunsmith during World War II. After the war, he got his hands on a Japanese semi-automatic handgun called the Type 94, also known as the Nambu. The Nambu is one of the ugliest and least ergonomic guns you can possibly imagine. The only really interesting feature of the Nambu was the fact that unlike most other pistols, it lacked a slide, meaning that the bolt had to be manually pulled back and cocked through the rear of the gun's frame. Almost every other semi-automatic pistol has its sights on top of the slide, which moves to the rear after firing a round, forcing the shooter to realign their sights. Since the Nambu didn't have a slide, the sights remained on-target at all times during operation. Ruger designed a .22LR pistol around this principle and made a couple of samples.

Since Ruger was not exactly drowning in money, he had no way of mass-producing his new pistol. Fortunately for Bill, his friend Alexander Sturm fronted him $50,000 to upgrade his equipment, market his design, and get the wheels rolling on entering full production. The two friends formed their own business, Sturm, Ruger & Co., which would go on to encompass a broad range of products aside from guns, including cars, golf equipment, and industrial machinery. The secret to keeping their products low cost but high quality would be investment casting; instead of machining parts from blocks of steel, they would make molds and pour the liquid metal into them, creating a greater consistency among individual samples.

In 1949, the first commercial models of the Ruger Standard hit the shelves and instantly became a hit. It was extremely affordable when compared to contemporaries such as the Colt Woodsman and immediately cemented Sturm, Ruger & Co.'s reputation as a maker of quality goods at fair prices. The next year, the Standard was revamped with adjustable sights and a slightly longer barrel for sale in the lucrative competitive target shooting market under the new designation, the Mk. I Target. Tragically, Alexander Sturm would die in 1951 after a short battle with hepatitis, meaning he would never get to see the full extent of his company's success. The company's logo was a stylized red eagle done in a medieval heraldic style that Sturm had designed; it was changed to black to mark his passing. The company retains his name to this day in honor of his contribution to its founding.

Although Bill's claim to fame at this point was his semi-automatic pistol, he would spend most of the 1950s working in what was believed to be a niche market: single action (SA) revolvers. Single action guns require the hammer to be manually cocked before one can pull the trigger and fire off a round. If you've ever watched a Western film where someone is repeatedly shooting and cocking a handgun, that's an SA revolver (so-called because the trigger performs the single action of forcing the hammer down onto the firing pin, thus expelling the round). At that time, double action (DA) revolvers were the standard because pulling their triggers could perform the double action of cocking the hammer and releasing it without the shooter having to manually do so between each shot. Partially as a result of the popularity of cowboy movies in the 1950s, there was significant nostalgia in the civilian market for "old time" SA revolvers, but there were not very many to be found at the time. Indeed, the vast majority of commercially available SA revolvers were obscenely priced collectors' items or actual guns from the 1800s in obscure calibers. In 1953, Ruger designed and released the Single Six, whose name aptly describes it: a single action six-shooter based off of familiar Colt and Remington designs popular in Western period pieces. It was chambered in .22LR and, like the Standard before it, was a major success. The Single Six was followed by the Blackhawk in 1955, essentially a scaled-up version with an adjustable grip capable of firing the popular .357 Magnum caliber and the (at the time) new .44 Magnum round. The Blackhawk was significantly cheaper than comparable offerings from Smith & Wesson, which did much to establish Ruger's position as a serious contender in the American gun market. 1958 would see the release of the Bearcat, another version of the Single Six with a shorter barrel and the Blackhawk's adjustable grip. Other major variants would include the Vaquero (a Blackhawk designed to look like a traditional nickel-plated cowboy gun with ivory-colored grips) and the Old Army (a black powder derivative of the Blackhawk intended for the recreational muzzle loader market).

If the '50s were all about revolvers, then the '60s would be mainly dedicated to rifles. The next big success for Sturm, Ruger & Co. came in 1964 with the release of the 10/22. Up to that point, .22LR rifles were not taken particularly seriously by most American gun owners. They looked at them in the same way that most of us look at BB guns today: relatively harmless and meant almost exclusively for kids. You know those shooting gallery games you see at the fair? The vast majority of the guns used at those were .22s at the time. Their only "serious" application was as a tool for killing small mammals, whether they were pests or dinner. Since Ruger's biggest successes had been .22LR handguns, Bill decided to design a long gun meant for adults around the cartridge. The 10/22 -- so named because of its 10-round capacity and its chambering in .22LR -- was designed specifically with grown-up ergonomics in mind. A larger stock, longer barrel, and a somewhat complex magazine loading/ejection system clearly indicated its target audience. Today, the 10/22 is the best-selling .22LR rifle in the country and is available in a variety of configurations. There are so many aftermarket accessories for the 10/22 -- replacement stocks, larger capacity magazines, bipods, etc. -- that it almost doesn't make sense to get any other type of .22. Indeed, most people who get semi-automatic .22 rifles tend to start out with the 10/22.

Since Ruger's company had made its name selling affordable, utilitarian guns up to that point, Bill branched out into the high-end luxury market. His first large caliber rifle was aptly named the Ruger No. 1, originally chambered in the .308 Winchester cartridge and released in 1966. Bizarrely, it was a single-shot, falling block rifle that recalled the style and sensibilities of big game hunting rifles from the mid-1800s. Falling block guns are breech-loading, meaning you insert the round into the rear of the barrel and seal the chamber by pushing up a solid block of metal behind it. The trigger is pulled, the gun is fired, and the block is brought down -- hence the name "falling block" -- to eject the spent shell casing. Even by the 1940s, falling block guns were not particularly popular on the consumer market. Their main application was for use in heavy artillery with the 75mm caliber being a common example; for reference this is ten times the size of the .308 Winchester cartridge around which Ruger built the No. 1. Still, the high-end safari market is known for its eccentric and expensive tastes, and the No. 1 is still in production as of 2013, so it must do reasonably well. It has been released in at least 40 different calibers to suit every unusual taste.

By 1968, however, he was back to his roots, designing a new revolver. This time, Bill wanted to break into the very important -- and very competitive -- law enforcement market. For almost the entirety of the 20th century, police officers almost always carried revolvers as their duty weapons. The few who carried semi-autos generally used some variation of the ubiquitous Colt 1911 and typically did so because they were veterans of either World War II or the Korean War and were more comfortable with them than with the six shooters used by their fellow officers. The police market in the US was dominated by Colt and Smith & Wesson due to their tradition of producing high quality double action revolvers and Ruger was at a significant disadvantage since their only revolvers were single actions -- fun to play with, but outdated for service use. By 1971, Ruger had perfected the design of his first DA revolver, the Security Six. Variants such as the Service Six and the Speed Six would follow, and they would be chambered in common police calibers like .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and even 9x19mm, typically a semi-auto cartridge. While the Service Six line sold well (about 2 million units moved), it would not displace Colt or S&W from their place as the main providers of duty weapons.

William Ruger still had not given up hope on expanding beyond the civilian market, however. His next design would help propel his company into the modern age of firearms. A work in progress since 1967, Ruger completed and released the Mini-14 in 1972. As the name implies, the Mini-14 was essentially a scaled-down version of the M-14 battle rifle that first saw use in the Vietnam War. While the M-14 used the .308 Winchester cartridge, the Mini-14 was chambered in the .223 Remington round that was invented for the M-16 assault rifle, which also debuted in the same conflict. The Mini-14 was packaged with a 10-round detachable magazine but third party companies would produce higher capacity magazines for it. A select-fire variant (i.e., capable of both fully automatic and semi-automatic operation) called the AC-556 was made available for law enforcement and military customers. Like the 10/22, the Mini-14 has a huge selection of aftermarket accessories available and remains one of Ruger's most popular designs. While the standard Mini-14 has a traditional wooden stock like its namesake, variants with side-folding stocks and pistol grips were eventually released. The Mini-14 enjoyed a degree of popularity among its intended audience -- law enforcement and military -- and has been used at the local level at various police and correctional departments and by auxiliary military units around the world. A new version chambered in 7.62x39mm (the same caliber used in the AK-47 and SKS, among others) called the Mini-30 was released in 1987. The Mini-30 has the distinction of being the first American-made gun to be chambered in that caliber.

Most major firearms companies produce three types of guns: handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Bill Ruger had designed the first two and decided to complete the trifecta in 1977 with his 20 gauge Red Label. The Red Label was similar to the No. 1 in that its intended market seems to have been the high end gun buyer; while 20 gauge shotguns are reasonably popular, 12 gauges are and have been the standard for more than a century. The Red Label is an odd design, being double-barrelled, but in an over/under configuration. The appearance of the gun itself is reminiscent of old European hunting shotguns, which makes sense when you consider that the over/under style has always been more popular in Europe than in the United States. Indeed, the vast majority of American shotguns have been -- and still are -- single-barrelled and even then, American double-barrelled shotguns have almost exclusively been side-by-side rather than over/under. With a 26 inch barrel length, the Red Label is an awkwardly large shotgun. While this helps with accuracy in skeet shooting, it doesn't really have many other practical applications. It would be virtually impossible to maneuver it in a potential home defense situation. Unlike his previous designs, there was no latent demand for the Red Label about to boil over, and as a consequence, was coolly received by the shooting public. While the Ruger name certainly helped move some units, the Red Label did not achieve anything remotely similar to Bill's previous successes and is no longer in production.

While it seemed like Bill Ruger could have done nothing wrong in the first couple of decades of his company's existence, the 1980s would be a turbulent time for his guns. The Standard was redesigned in 1982 as the Mk. II and replaced its predecessors on the shelves. Its strong sales continued unabated during this period and the company actually picked up a contract to produce internally supressed (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "silenced") Mk. IIs for the U.S. Navy SEALs for underwater shooting. Controversially, the Mk. II was mentioned by name in the book Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, which is exactly what it sounds like: a book on how to carry out murders for hire. The book states "the recommended handgun is the fixed barrel Ruger Mark I or Mark II...because it is inexpensive and reliable (and) can be easily broken down in the field, which helps when disposing of it after use." While I cannot find any records of anyone using a Mk. II to carry out a contract killing, the negative exposure was not appreciated.

In the 1980s, both law enforcement agencies and the various armed forces were looking for new weapons. Not just new guns, but actually new types of guns. The winds of change were blowing and this time the gusts came from Austria. All over the world, militaries and police departments were still essentially using the same handguns they had had during the Second World War. It was time for an upgrade, and in 1982 a previously obscure manufacturer of curtain rods (of all things) named Gaston Glock designed and submitted the Glock 17 pistol to the Austrian Army as a potential replacement for its aging Walther P1 pistols. At the time, the Glock was a truly alien concept: comprised of a durable polymer plastic frame with a steel slide, it had no external safety, no external hammer, no de-cocker, and absolutely no aesthetically-pleasing sensibilities whatsoever. It was, however, light, accurate, low-maintenance, easy to use, high-capacity (17 rounds as opposed to the 6 that you get with most revolvers or the 8 in most 1911s) and with only 36 actual parts, very reliable. The Glock got rave reviews from die-hard 1911 and revolver fans alike and slowly started making its way from Europe to North America, where the company established a factory in 1985.

With so many agencies starting to get rid of their now-obsolete revolvers, Bill Ruger began designing the Ruger P Series of semi-automatic pistols. This would be his first attempt to design a semi-automatic pistol since the 1940s. While the Glock was (and is) a fairly sound weapon, many American shooters balked at the prospect of a "plastic gun." Ruger took this to heart and looked at the advantages of the Glock -- its carrying capacity, accuracy, "modern" look, and utilitarian reliability -- and built a gun to suit his tastes around it. From a design standpoint, the P85 takes a lot of cues from some of John Browning's guns, which is always a good idea. It had an external safety, an external hammer, and a decocker, all of which the Glock lacked. It was almost made entirely out of metal, which might have assuaged the anti-plastic crowd, but made it very heavy. However, production delays caused the P85 to stay off the shelves until 1987, two years after its planned release. Within a year, it had to be recalled owing to safety issues, and was re-released.

By this time, unfortunately, Bill had missed the boat, as law enforcement agencies across the US began adopting the Glock en masse and the various branches of the U.S. military adopted the Beretta 92F with the designation M9 as a replacement for the 1911. Guns from the P Series have been sporadically adopted in a few locales, but failed to really set its intended audience ablaze with interest. The P series has undergone revisions and redesigns every couple of years since then, and the market for high capacity semi-automatics chambered in 9mm (sometimes derisively called "Wonder 9s") has been more receptive to comparable offerings from Glock, Beretta, CZ-USA, Smith & Wesson, and SIG Sauer. While the P Series is not a commercial failure, it exists in an over-crowded market and offers little beyond name recognition.

One incident that prompted the massive upgrade in firepower for law enforcement was a deadly gun battle between FBI agents and two criminals in Miami, FL, in 1986. While the FBI agents were armed primarily with their .38 and .357 service revolvers, one of the shooters was armed with a Mini-14. Two agents lost their lives in the course of the shoot-out as well as both suspects. It was forensically determined that the Mini-14 had been used to inflict the fatal wounds on both of the deceased agents. Bill Ruger hated negative press and it didn't get much more negative than seeing his gun prominently displayed as a tool of cop-killers. Another deadly incident would lead Ruger to adopt a stance not particularly popular in the world of firearms enthusiasts.

In 1989, a mentally disturbed man took a Chinese-made semi-automatic copy of an AK-47 to a playground and shot and killed five schoolchildren before committing suicide with a handgun. There was an immediate outcry against such guns and the U.S. Treasury Department banned the importation of several foreign made semi-automatic rifles. Convinced that all semi-automatic firearms were about to be banned, Bill Ruger took it upon himself to propose a compromise solution. Since Sturm, Ruger & Co. was one of the major voting members of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute -- the regulatory body in the United States that oversees the development of different types of ammunition and enforces safety standards across the industry -- he used his influence to persuade SAAMI to officially support an outright ban on ammunition magazines greater than 10 rounds for rifles and greater than 15 rounds for pistols. He personally wrote and sent a letter to every sitting member of the United States Congress in the same year calling for the same thing. He would later sit down for an interview with Tom Brokaw and say things like "no honest man needs more than ten rounds in any gun" and "I never meant for simple civilians to have my 20 or 30 round magazines or my folding stock."

This series of events is extremely controversial. While the viewpoint Bill Ruger espoused was received very poorly among the gun-owning public, it was used as ammunition (if you'll pardon the pun) by those in favor of tighter regulations against what would later come to be called "assault weapons." Beyond all of that, however, the real mystery is Ruger's actual motivation for taking this stance. Did he actually strongly believe in prohibiting civilian ownership of certain types of weapons? If so, why did he design a gun based on one of the most iconic weapons in the history of the U.S. military? Perhaps the events of 1989 changed his mind. In that case, why did he not withdraw the Mini-14 and the Mini-30 from the market at that time? Evidence seems to indicate a more prosaic explanation.

If you'll notice, the SAAMI statement strangely wanted to limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds for rifles and 15 rounds for pistols. Why not 10 for both? The answer is easy: the Ruger P Series pistols came with 15-round magazines and all other Ruger products that shipped with detachable magazines had capacities of 10 rounds or less. Indeed, most of the SAAMI members at that time had similar product lines. In fact, the only major firearm company that sold a handgun with a magazine capacity greater than 15 rounds was Glock, which was coincidentally not part of SAAMI. Perhaps not coincidentally, many members of SAAMI had seen their companies' sales eaten away at as a result of Glock's entry into the American market. While it sounds incredibly conspiratorial to suggest that this was simply an American organization's way of getting back at a foreign upstart, it is inconceivable to suggest that these gun manufacturers were not motivated in part by commercial considerations. It made them seem "responsive" to public concerns, which would have provided some much-needed positive press. Of course, the fact that almost nobody sitting on the board of SAAMI would have been adversely affected by the recommendation didn't hurt matters much.

Ironically, 1989 would not see any major federal legislation blocking the sale or manufacture of semi-automatic firearms in the U.S. It would not be until 1994 when a new President and a new Congress would introduce sweeping changes to firearm regulation. With Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, a massive crime reduction bill was signed into law that featured a ban on the category of "assault weapons." Unlike the term "assault rifle," "assault weapon" is a legal definition rather than a technical one. Among other things, it banned folding stocks for rifles and shotguns, detachable magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, threaded barrels (i.e. those capable of accepting attachments such as suppressors or flash hiders), and pistol grips (not counting actual pistols, obviously). Some gun enthustiasts hold Bill Ruger personally responsible for this law because of his comments in the '80s. While I do not think it's necessarily his fault that this law went into effect, he was the originator of the magic "10-round" number and he had personally expressed disdain for most of the other features prohibited under the Assault Weapons Ban. Of course, his product line was not very badly damaged by the AWB (with the exception of having to reduce magazine capacities for a few of his guns), so I leave it to the reader to decide what his motivations might have been and in the role he played in shaping the legislation that would ultimately become the AWB.

As he grew older, Ruger had less direct involvement in the design of his company's guns. His last design was 1996's Ruger Police Carbine. The Police Carbine was essentially a scaled-up version of the 10/22 made to accomodate the magazines from his 9mm and .40 S&W P Series of pistols. It was really designed to promote the P95 (the newly-released model of the P Series pistols) to police officers so they could use two guns without having to change calibers or even magazines. By the late '90s, however, most police departments that had long guns used Remington 870 shotguns, AR-15- style rifles, and Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns/carbines, the latter two being capable of fully automatic fire. The Police Carbine, like its pistol companion piece, failed to catch on in its intended market and an AWB-compliant model was later made available to civilians. It is no longer in production due to low demand.

In 2000, Ruger stepped away from day-to-day management of Sturm, Ruger & Co., leaving it in the hands of his son, William Junior. He died in 2002 at the age of 86. Bill Ruger's role in American gun culture in the 20th century cannot be overstated. While his designs were very often based on pre-existing firearms, he had a knack for improving them and making them relevant to contemporary consumers. He dabbled in basically every aspect of gun design, which demonstrates the all-encompassing nature of his engineering skill. He was gifted with the ability to either predict or to simply create customer demand for his products, an admirable and rare trait. His innovative use of investment casting helped his company branch out from just making guns and provided a consistently high quality but affordable product line. While his statements regarding gun control -- and the sincerity that motivated them -- are, more than a decade after his death, still the subject of intense controversy, most people on both sides of the debate have almost certainly either used or owned a gun designed by him at some point in their lives. It is a testament to the man's ubiquity and influence that Sturm, Ruger & Co. is now the fourth largest gunmaker in the United States. The prevalence of his designs in the gun market will not decrease any time soon and I imagine he'll still be talked about a century from now.

Wilson, R.L. Ruger and His Guns. 2008
Johnston, Gary Paul and Thomas B. Nelson. The World's Assault Rifles. 2010

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