SA JAGTER/HUNTER | September-October 2021 | By PIERRE VAN DER WALT
THE GENIUS OF BILL RUGER
The name of Bill Ruger is well-known around the world. Named William Batterman Ruger, he was born on 21 June 1916 in Brooklyn, New York, to a father practising as an attorney and a housewife mother.
Both Ruger’s father and grandfather were landowners and very fond of hunting. It is through them, as well as the hunting opportunities the land offered him from an early age, that he acquired his love for firearms. I have never seen much on Ruger’s hunting, so his interest in firearms must have been mechanical rather than recreational.
His father’s death shortly after his 12th birthday coincided with him receiving his first firearm, a Remington Model 12 rimfire pump-action rifle. After his father’s passing, Ruger moved to Flatbush, New York, with his mother and her father. The rimfire he owned was often used in the basement of the house of his friend, William Lett. The two saw an advertisement for surplus .30-40 Krag rifles from the Spanish-American War and purchased one for US$15. They could not fire the Krag in the Flatbush basement, so they regularly took the train to a remote section of the Brooklyn Forest Park, where they camped and fired the rifle.
RUGER’S FIRST DESIGN
Ruger eventually came under the influence and guidance of the renowned firearms author, General Julian S. Hatcher, which explains why his first design was a machine gun. To complete the machine gun project, Ruger needed financing. At age 17, he approached the courts to release the inheritance bequeathed to him by an aunt, but which was held in trust. His application was successful and sufficient funds were released to allow the manufacture of a crude prototype machine gun.
As a result of his immoderation around firearms, Ruger did not have a particularly good academic record. His studies took a backseat to his interest in firearms, and he represented his school as part of its shooting team. He nevertheless succeeded in obtaining his high school diploma from Alexander Hamilton High School in January 1936. Ruger then enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill simply because the better-known universities were not prepared to accept him. He not only laid his hands on two deactivated machine guns from World War I but found a room at the university chemistry department, which he converted into a machine shop!
While studying, he found the time to marry a girl named Carolyn Thompson in 1938, while also designing another machine gun and modifying the standard Savage M-99 to fire semi-automatically. He drew the plans on a breadboard at his in-laws’ dining room table.
There are conflicting accounts of his life at this point. One version is that he terminated his studies after two years and focused on finding a job at one of the well-known firearm manufacturers. However, he was unsuccessful and returned to North Carolina. According to the other version, his second machine gun design became the T10/T23E1 experimental light machine gun, which so impressed the US Army Ordnance officials that Ruger was hired by Springfield Armory.
Whatever the correct version, three years after completing high school, Ruger was indeed employed at the Springfield Arsenal. Yet, he only remained there for about a year before resigning due to the meagre salary. In the meantime, he had designed another machine gun to obtain a government contract for replacing the Browning. Only Auto-Ordnance was prepared to grant him an opportunity to perfect his design. After three years of development, Ruger still had not succeeded in finalising the design and had to drop the project. That meant the end of his career at Auto-Ordnance. It was the year 1940, and World War II was raging in Europe. Even so, it would be another year before the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour would draw the USA into that conflict.
THE BEGINNING OF RUGER
After resigning from Auto-Ordnance, Ruger started his own enterprise, Ruger Corporation, manufacturing gramophone and firearm spares. This he did for the duration of World War II. He then expanded into the field of luxurious carpeting tools but failed and had to see the company being liquidated. By then, he must have been a very frustrated 29-year-old.
THE FIRST SPORTING ARM
In an attempt to survive, Ruger designed a semi-automatic pistol in .22 Long Rifle calibre. The pistol was cheap and reliable and visually reminiscent of the famous Luger P-08 Parabellum and the Japanese Nambu pistols. It functioned completely different, though. Ruger’s was a simple, dependable rimfire pistol that we know today as the Ruger Mark 1.
Enter a well-to-do young author, one Alexander McCormick Sturm (1923-1951). Sturm was a Yale graduate, an artist and a firearm collector. He agreed to advance $50 000 to see the project through and became Ruger’s partner during 1948. The firm was incorporated under the name Sturm, Ruger and Company Incorporated in Southport, Connecticut. Interestingly, these two partners celebrated their birthdays just two days apart: Ruger on 21 June and Sturm on 23 June. Ruger was responsible for the design and manufacture of the production tooling. Sturm handled the administration and also designed the firm’s logo – a red eagle with an “R” on its chest. In 1949, the firm placed its first advertisement in the American Rifleman. The Ruger pistol was offered at US$37,50 and immediately achieved overwhelming success. Only two years after the firm had started its operations, Alexander Sturm unexpectedly passed away from hepatitis in 1951. The deeply bereaved Ruger replaced the colour red in the firm’s logo with black right away, which is how it remained until approximately 1980. Today the logo is red once again.
EXPANDING THE PRODUCT LINE
Ruger usurped the company management and achieved one of the greatest success stories in the history of American firearms manufacture. Not long after Sturm’s passing, the company began rolling out other designs. These days, Ruger offers about 800 variants of 40 product lines. Its first bolt-action rifle, the Ruger M-77, was introduced in 1968. It evolved into the M-77 Mark II and is presently offered as the Hawkeye, a very successful bolt-action design.
A very interesting aspect is Ruger’s switch to investment casting for many of its firearm designs. This constituted a complete break from the tradition of machining from bar stock and enabled the company to offer its firearms at extremely competitive prices and streamline manufacture to virtual perfection. This approach has contributed to the company’s success in no small way. The casting is performed at Ruger’s Newport plant in New Hampshire and its Earth City plant in Missouri. Firearm manufacture and assembly take place in the Prescott (Arizona) and Mayoden (North Carolina) facilities. In 2020, the sales totalled more than US$565 million and the gross profit was almost US$200 million! It exceeded the production of a million firearms per annum a few years ago, and it stood at over 1,9 million firearms per year in 2020! Sturm, Ruger & Company has been trading on the New York Stock Exchange since 1969.
Unlike other companies such as Remington, Savage and Winchester that routinely floundered every few years, Sturm, Ruger & Company has flourished. This is an amazing feat for a company that launched with a US$37,50 pistol after years of failure, decades after its competitors had been up. It also spends around US$8,2 million on research and development per year! Currently, the company employs around 1 800 people, 26% of whom have been with the company for over a decade!
It hasn’t been all moonshine and roses, though. The company has been cited as a defendant in many court cases. Anti-gunners and other parties have cited Ruger and numerous other firearm manufacturers in countless, frivolous product liability cases. Ruger has been vindicated in every instance, but it has cost the company millions to defend itself against these charges instituted against almost all firearm companies with a view to bankrupting them. It has also taken its toll on the company’s designs, and many complain about trigger pull and other limits incorporated to protect the company.
But let us return to the man who started it all. Unlike the friendly Roy Weatherby, Ruger was known to be short-tempered. He endured no nonsense, but behind that gruff exterior, he actually was a deeply caring person. Apart from implementing a very sympathetic company employee philosophy that included time-off pay, production incentives and profit-sharing (rare to our industry), he also contributed greatly to charities in all the communities where the company operated.
Ruger had a keen interest in antique firearms and served on the board of the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre in Cody, Wyoming for 15 years. He loved and collected 19th-century Western American art, as well as antique cars. This car collection totalled more than 30 and included Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Bugattis, and others. He also dabbled in car manufacture and commissioned the design and building of a classic car, the Ruger Special Sports Tourer, based on the 1929 Bentley 4,5 litre, his pride and joy. However, car manufacture was a sideshow that quickly ended. He also designed his own 28-metre yacht, the Titania.
Bill Ruger involved himself in every single firearm ever produced by Sturm, Ruger & Company right up to the time when ill health forced him to retire in October 2000 and hand over the reins to his son, also called Bill. Bill Ruger Jnr ran the company for six years and retired in 2006. The contribution of Ruger and his company to the US firearms industry was well recognised and rewarded and included the following:
1992: Shotgun of the Year
1993: Shooting Industry award (personal)
1993: Handgun of the Year
1997: Handgun of the Year
1999: Rifle of the Year
2001: Handgun of the Year
2002: Rifle of the Year
2002: Shotgun of the Year
2002: Manufacturer of the Year
Interestingly, Ruger entered market segments that other companies had abandoned due to beliefs that those segments were dead and buried. He introduced the Ruger Blackhawk single-shot revolver in 1955 and sold over 2 million of these in a “dead market”. In 1967, he introduced the Ruger Number 1 falling-block rifle, which sold like hotcakes, with 41 chamberings being made available over the years. In addition, he “miniaturised” the US M14 combat rifle and offered it as the Ruger Mini-14 in 1973.
Just two years after retirement, Bill Ruger died at his home in Prescott, Arizona, on 6 July 2002. He is forever gone, but the legacy he left behind is massive. Everybody will agree that he ranks right up there with Peter Paul Mauser and John Moses Browning as one of the greatest firearm designers of all time. He certainly was one of the most prolific designers and registered a plethora of patents that changed the face of our industry. I doubt that my generation always appreciates how privileged we are to have lived in the same era as men like Bill Ruger. He certainly had a significant impact on my life and the way I look at firearms.