by Brian Sheetz - Tuesday, May 22, 2012
For the traditionalist rifle crank, the recent breed of economical, center-fire bolt-action rifles can at first be a bit off-putting. How is it possible to judge wood-to-metal fit if no wood is involved? What aspect of hand workmanship is left to critique if the finished product is merely the result of computer-controlled lathes and injection-molding machines? Finally, what is the raison d’etre of an inexpensive rifle?
The answers, of course, require reassessing whether performance and value count as much as appearance and prestige. Fine traditional guns will always have their place and their admirers; but this is America, where even the budget-minded go hunting and where it is still possible to own and enjoy multiple rifles. The practical justifications for the value-priced rifle, one retailing in the $300 to $500 price range, are myriad. It could be purchased as a knockabout and assigned to an ATV, pickup truck or hunting cabin. Or it could be acquired to try out a different chambering. It might also be the answer for a new shooter wading into an otherwise bewildering array of sporting rifle choices. Regardless, the inexpensive center-fire rifle is here to stay, and even the most died-in-the-wool traditionalists may be happy about that once they find out how well such rifles perform.
Sturm, Ruger & Co. has been providing rank-and-file shooters with value-priced firearms since the late Bill Ruger, Sr. founded the company with his partner, Alexander Sturm, in 1949. The pair’s first product, advertised and later evaluated in The American Rifleman that year, was the Standard Model .22 semi-automatic pistol—a gun made from turned bar stock and welded stampings that not only shot well but was priced far lower than competitive offerings. Although Sturm died shortly thereafter, the success of the fledgling firm’s first product all but assured it a bright future, and it soon turned its attention to what would become its second big hit: the Single-Six revolver. Ruger knew that machining that gun’s relatively complex frame would not allow him to keep its price at a reasonable level. The answer was found in investment casting, a process that would prove to be the company’s catalyst for success. The process allowed components to be produced to near net shape with a minimum of finish machining, saving time and costs. Eventually, Ruger reaped the rewards of its innovative approach to arms making. It even surpassed some of its competitors in the race for American shooters’ hard-earned dollars, and in so doing earned something far more valuable from its customers: devotion to the brand.
The company became a publicly traded entity in 1969, just one year after the introduction of the Model 77 center-fire bolt-action, and in the decades that followed it continued to develop new products based largely on Bill Ruger’s vision of what shooters wanted in their firearms. But after his death in 2002, the company was forced to take a more analytical approach to identifying market demands, developing its “voice of the customer” program, which considered input from gunwriters, distributors, retailers and consumers. An increasingly competitive marketplace also necessitated the emergence of new catalysts for success in the area of production, including: more extensive use of polymer—in frames for handguns and in stocks for rifles; increased use of computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machining and metal-injection-molded (MIM) components; and lean manufacturing practices. All those approaches and more, including the infusion of new design and management talent hired from competing gun companies and other industries, have contributed to several of Ruger’s biggest successes in recent years, including the LCP and SR9 pistols, the LCR revolver and the SR556 AR-style rifles.
When it came to the company’s latest offering, an entry into the economical, center-fire bolt-action rifle market, “There were several considerations that came to the surface and were non-negotiable,” according to Ruger Product Manager Mark Gurney as he recalled early conversations during the beginning of the gun’s development process. “It had to be accurate. It had to have a good trigger. It had to be capable of being run from the shoulder. It had to be rugged and reliable. And it had to be good-looking,” he said. Add to that, of course, that the new gun had to be economical and had to complement the company’s mainstay Model 77 Hawkeye line, which represented the latest revision of the now 44-year-old design.
That rather tall order was accomplished by building the new gun from a wholly different set of design parameters than had been used in the past. Gurney described it as, “Trying to make things so they go together the same way, the first time, every time.” For instance, unlike the Hawkeye’s receiver, which is made from an investment casting, the American’s receiver is turned from bar stock steel on CNC machining centers, making it even more economical to manufacture. At the time of this writing only long-action models were available, but a short-action was already listed in the 2012 catalog.
The 8 3/4-inch-long, 1 1/4-inch-wide receiver is somewhat hexagonal in cross section with the upper and lower surfaces radiused and the sides flat. Its top is drilled and tapped for included two-piece aluminum Weaver scope bases, and, according to Gurney, a one-piece Leupold base is also in the works. The two 1/2-inch-wide facets on the receiver’s sides feature cutouts for the 3 5⁄16-inch-long ejection port and for the bolt handle notch on the right and the 1/4 x 1 1/4-inch bolt release on the left rear. Two round gas-escape ports are located 15/16 inches from the front face of the receiver on its left and right sides. Using a design similar to that of the Savage Model 110, but through an assembly process that Gurney characterizes as “proprietary,” a locking collar secures the threaded barrel to the receiver’s ring, or front section. He explains that the barrel and the collar are fixtured while a headspace gauge is held in place by a closed bolt and the receiver screwed into position. That way proper headspace is ensured and no further machining is necessary to the bolt face or chamber. The Ruger’s locking collar is much more streamlined with the barrel and receiver contours than that used in the original Savage design and is smooth all the way around with no splines, notches or holes for hook spanners or other wrenches.
Another aspect of the Ruger’s construction that sets it apart from most other factory bolt-actions is its lack of a traditional recoil lug. Generally such a lug is either integral with the receiver’s front or is a separate piece sandwiched between the receiver and barrel. The Ruger instead has two notched, V-shaped, investment cast stainless-steel blocks molded integrally within the stock so as to be permanently imbedded. The blocks, which measure 3/8-inches thick by 1 1/4-inches wide by 15/16-inches high, not only to center the receiver in the stock longitudinally but interface with machined flats on the receiver’s bottom to arrest recoil. In addition, the Allen-head cap screws that secure the action pass through vertical holes in the V-blocks, allowing the blocks to function as pillars and precluding overtightening of the screws. The result—what Ruger refers to as the Power Bedding System—is so unique that the company has filed a patent application for it. It also eliminates the need for traditional bedding compounds and the labor required to apply them. The 22-inch hammer-forged barrel is completely free-floating. It measures 1.155 inches immediately ahead of the locking ring and 0.570 inches at the muzzle and is not drilled and tapped for iron sights.
The bolt is of the full-diameter body design with its main portion measuring 0.849 inches in diameter. It is turned down to 0.692 inches at its front to form a neck before stepping back up to an area measuring 0.782 inches in diameter and out of which the three equally spaced locking lugs measuring 0.46 inches in length and 0.311 inches in width are machined. Again, the design is nothing new—it can be seen on the T/C Icon, for instance—but for Ruger it marks a different direction and further reduces costs by allowing for a receiver that does not have to have raceways cut or cast into it. Instead, the bolt body has a 1/4-inch-wide longitudinal groove in which the bolt release rides, thereby acting as a combination guideway/anti-bind slot. A 1/4-inch gas-escape port in the bolt body is designed to direct escaping gases into the magazine in the event of a pierced primer. The locking lugs, spaced 120 degrees apart, allow for unlocking with a 70 degree lift of the bolt’s handle. The short lift is designed to allow low scope mounting and rapid running of the cock-on-opening bolt. It is aided by dual cocking cams at the bolt body’s rear that act on opposing lobes on the cocking piece. They reduce cocking force, further allowing the rifle to be cycled while firmly anchored in the shoulder pocket and without the shooter having to lower the rifle. A polymer shroud covers the MIM-produced cocking piece, which has a tail that extends 3/16 inches beyond the shroud when the striker is loaded to act as a cocking indicator.
The bolt face is deeply counterbored for the cartridge head and features a sliding-plate extractor, another MIM-produced part, in the face of the 8 o’clock lug and a plunger ejector at 2 o’clock. The bolt handle is blackened and is a separate piece that fits into a keyway in the 4140 steel bolt body, which is left in the white. It has a smooth knob and a bit more length than the standard Ruger bolt handle design, allowing it to stand off from the stock farther, making purchase and manipulation easier. When assembled, the striker assembly, bolt handle and bolt body interlock in such a way that while user disassembly is possible it is not recommended. The company has applied for a patent on its design as well.
The Ruger Marksman Adjustable Trigger is of the increasingly common lever-in-blade type pioneered in rifles by Savage and later seen on others, such as the Marlin XL-7. Unlike the former, however, the Ruger’s safety is a passive, pivoting central lever during the following several decades that blocks the main trigger itself rather than the sear. According to Gurney, the design, which dates to an 1883 breeching system patent, “ensures that the fire-control system remains in the ready-to-fire condition at all times.” The internal fire-control parts lie inside a modular housing that pins to two points on the receiver’s bottom rear. A tang at its rear abuts the receiver tail and mounts the sliding, two-position safety button. The bolt handle can be manipulated with the safety on for loading or unloading. A witness hole in the trigger housing allows visual inspection of trigger/sear engagement. Trigger pull weight is user-adjustable between 3 pounds and 5 pounds by turning an Allen-head cap screw on the housing’s front face, but only after removing the barreled action from the stock. Care must be taken when doing so to not depress the bolt release as that could allow its pivot pin and spring to fall free since the former is held in place by spring force and by the stock itself.
The American’s polymer magazine holds four rounds and is completely flush-fitting with the stock’s rounded bottom contour, aiding comfortable carry of the rifle in the field at its balance point. The magazine’s release is at the center of its front edge and lies in a recess in the stock. Activation by either index finger allows the magazine to fall into the hand. While Ruger describes the magazine as having a rotary design, there is no spool as made famous by the Mannlicher rifle that Bill Ruger admired and carried over in several of his guns such as the 10/22 rimfire, instead a pivoting paddle-style follower simply sweeps the cartridges through an arc-like path into position under the feed lips. Loading is easy and is somewhat like the process used with single-column magazines in that the cartridge head is pressed downward on the follower under the front of the feed lips and then slid back into position. For an all-up capacity of five rounds, a cartridge can be inserted into the chamber from below through the magazine opening—something that is practically impossible to accomplish through the ejection port—and then fully chambered before inserting the full magazine.
A cadre of gunwriters had the opportunity to wring out the American at FTW Ranch in Barksdale, Texas, in February. More than a dozen rifles fresh off the Newport, N.H., production line were provided for the shoot and were topped with Zeiss Conquest scopes of various configurations. All of the rifles were chambered in .30-’06 Sprg. and Hornady supplied its M1 Garand ammunition, which features the 168-grain A-Max bullet. FTW owner Tim Fallon and head instructor and former U.S. Navy SEAL Doug Prichard taught a refresher on marksmanship fundamentals and skills such as wind reading, which they expertly assisted with on the facility’s various ranges. The Texas Hill Country’s rugged terrain and varying weather conditions provided plenty of realistic hunting scenarios. While shooting off bipods in the prone position, the American’s commendable trigger came into its own, aiding the rifle in exhibiting admirable accuracy on paper and metallic targets ranging from 100 to 1,000 yards—in some cases under imposed time restrictions that depended on running the rifle rapidly. During later accuracy testing with one rifle, under more controlled conditions, the American showed itself to be capable of sub-minute-of-angle accuracy, often producing three-shot clusters measuring less than 1/2 m.o.a. Fliers might have been caused by contact between the barrel and its channel in the stock, which is closer-fitting than necessary.
Although the rifles at FTW—topped with scopes that, in some cases, lacked parallax adjustment and target knobs—were pushed beyond their intended use, they exhibited remarkably consistent and trouble-free functioning overall. Gurney attributed the success to the company’s thorough system of new firearm development that includes the juried exchange of guns between employees at its Newport, N.H., and Prescott, Ariz., facilities. The event was designed to show that the American was more than up to the tasks that will be asked of it by the average hunter, and the new rifle came through with flying colors. In all, each rifle ran through approximately 200 rounds, without cleaning, an amount of shooting that was made all the more pleasant because of the surprisingly effective soft rubber recoil pad that caps the Ruger’s butt. The American is, after all, a relatively lightweight rifle: In long-action chamberings, it weighs 6 pounds, 4 ounces and in short-action guise it comes in at only 6 pounds, 2 ounces. That should make it appealing to anyone looking for an easy-carrying rifle for high mountain hunting pursuits.
With the American, Ruger has returned to its roots by making a gun with the most advanced yet least costly processes to provide shooters of all budgets with a reliable, capable product. According to its 2012 catalog, the new rifle retails at $449, or roughly half the cost of the latest iteration of its now classic and traditionally patterned Hawkeye. Gurney even suggested that an actual selling price “in the low $300s” is foreseeable.
In the end, it may be that the only question left to ask about the Ruger American Rifle is: What’s not to like?
Manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.; (603) 865-2442; www.ruger.com
Caliber: .243 Win., .308 Win., .270 Win., .30-’06 Sprg. (tested)
Action Type: bolt-action, repeating center-fire rifle
Receiver: machined 4140 steel; matte black finish
Barrel: 22" hammer-forged 4140 steel; matte black finish
Rifling: six-groove,1:10" RH twist
Magazine: polymer, four-round, rotary-feed detachable box
Sights: no iron sights provided; receiver drilled and tapped for included Weaver bases
Trigger: lever-in-blade style; user-adjustable from 3 to 5 lbs. (set at 4 lbs. during testing)
Safety: tang-mounted, two-position sliding button indicating engraved, red “F” and engraved “S”
Stock: black injection-molded polymer; length of pull, 133⁄4"; drop at heel, 13⁄16"; drop at comb, 15⁄16"
Overall Length: 42" (short action); 42½" (long action as tested)
Weight: 6 lbs., 2 ozs. (short action); 6 lbs., 4 ozs. (long action as tested)
Accessories: Weaver bases; owner’s manual; lock
Suggested Retail Price: $449
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