Review: Ruger NRA-ILA Mini-14

posted on June 18, 2009

“I was at the N.R.A. show, standing by our booth along with some other people. We were quite busy, as always, and we had just then been getting well into the design of the Mini-14, and had even made some prototypes. It was not on the market, at that point. But the famous Ordnance Colonel Studler came along and shook hands ... and so I said, ‘It occurs to me, we’re doing something you might be interested to know about; a miniaturized M14 to take the .223 cartridge.’ I tell you the reaction on the Colonel’s face was electrifying. He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Just like the M1; but it’s scaled way down in proportion to the M14 as the .223 is to the .308 or .30-’06.’ He said, ‘Oh what have you done with it?’ I said, ‘Well, nothing at this point. We’re just finishing up the tooling’ and so on. He said, ‘You haven’t shown it to the government?’

“He seemed to be utterly stunned by this concept as though he wished he had done it—because if he had done it the Army would never have had to revolutionize their thinking. It was a great wrench for them to give up that M1 Garand principle to go to the futuristic M16. I have often said—and I know I am correct here—if we had brought the Mini-14 out five years earlier it would have become the standard Army rifle ... .” William B. Ruger, Sr., from Ruger & His Guns

Clearly, the late Bill Ruger’s conviction about the Mini-14’s military potential, espoused regarding its release in the mid-1970s, appears not only optimistic but downright naïve in the retrospective of nearly 50 years of U.S. service by the M16. But if Ruger’s optimism—and his elusive dream to build guns for the U.S. military—could sometimes cloud his thinking, it did nothing to stifle his tremendous success in the commercial firearm market. Though the Mini failed to catch on with the military, it soon found favor with law enforcement and, shortly thereafter, became one of the company’s biggest successes with everyday shooters. Ruger was not only an engineer and gun enthusiast with a knack for designing and making the kinds of guns the public couldn’t get enough of, he was also a smart businessman who pioneered the use of investment casting in large-scale firearm manufacture, helping to keep the prices of his guns within the reach of the average shooter.

In the case of the Mini-14, casting allowed Ruger to make its receiver and many of its smaller parts to final shape faster and without additional machining. That would not have been possible had he followed the manufacturing model established by the government and contractors who made the Mini’s progenitors: the M1 Garand and M14 service rifles.
That the Mini came along at a time when it had no significant competition—the civilian AR-15 had not yet gained widespread popularity—also helped ensure its success. Besides, for many shooters of that time, the Mini was made with the only materials worthy of a “good gun”: wood and steel. It was handy and lightweight like the M1 Carbine, yet with the power and flat trajectory of the .223 Rem. cartridge. And, while never known as a tackdriver, it was adequately accurate for the everyday roles of plinking and short-range varminting. Best of all, it was reasonably priced, retailing for $200 when it first appeared in Ruger’s 1976 catalog. Currently, there are seven model variations and three chamberings of Minis cataloged.

Miniaturizing A Legend
While the Mini-14’s basic design and operating system has much in common with the Garand and M14, it is actually even simpler. Like the M14, it disassembles into several major component groups by unhinging its stamped-steel triggerguard and withdrawing its modular trigger group downward from the receiver, freeing both from the stock.

The Mini’s barrel is threaded into the receiver—a seemingly unconventional method of attachment in modern military-style rifles. Its short-stroke gas system uses a fixed piston mounted to the bottom half of a split gas block clamped around the barrel with four Allen-head machine screws. When the operating slide is at rest and the bolt in battery, a cylindrical cavity in the front face of the slide’s forward section encloses the piston. During firing, powder gases pass through a port in the barrel before entering the piston and expanding into the cylinder, driving the operating slide rearward. Unburned powder particles vent along a steel liner in the stock’s fore-end. Partly because the Mini’s gas system is self-cleaning, it has a reputation for “running” reliably even with minimal maintenance.

As the operating slide moves rearward, it compresses a recoil spring riding on a guide rod that projects into a deep hole in the rear of the operating slide’s forward section. The slide moves about a half-inch before unlocking occurs, which allows the bullet to clear the barrel and pressures to drop. A kidney cut on the slide’s inboard side, near its projecting handle, engages a projection on the right locking lug of the bolt and cams the bolt to the unlocked position. The one-piece bolt has two horizontally opposed forward locking lugs. Viewed from the front, its Garand-style pivoting extractor occupies the 9 to 11 o’clock portion of the bolt face, and a slot at the 3 to 4 o’clock position allows a fixed, blade-type ejector to project past the bolt’s face, kicking out an empty case, after the bolt reaches the end of its rearward travel.

The Mini’s magazine, like that of the M14, hooks on a post inside the magazine well’s front and rocks upward at the rear until it latches with an audible “click.” A projection on the ejector serves as a bolt hold-open and is actuated by depressing a button on top of the receiver’s left side when no magazine is in the rifle. When a magazine is in place, a tab on its follower lifts up the hold-open automatically after the last shot has been fired.

Encore Performances
The Mini-14’s original design team was a talented mix of individuals including Jim Sullivan, who was the primary designer and is perhaps best known for his early work on the AR-15, Harry Seifried, who carried on Sullivan’s developmental work and Roy Melcher, who finally brought the Mini to market. Melcher, who was with Ruger from 1968 to 1987, came out of retirement in 2003 to rework the Mini and re-tool its production line. “I was surprised when I came back that original tooling was still being used,” he recalls.

Of course, Melcher knew the Mini was based on sound design principles—after all, he had seen some law enforcement Minis come back for service after they had fired as many as 100,000 rounds, and they still functioned. But he also knew that updated manufacturing techniques could only make the Mini better. “Instead of moving parts around, we applied the concepts of cells and lean manufacturing,” Melcher said.

Such manufacturing models are intended to minimize waste and maximize efficiency by arranging factories into sections with teams who make products with greater flexibility and speed than in traditional mass-production. But the drastic changes didn’t come without a price. They forced the closure of the Mini-14 line for an extended period between 2004 and 2006. “The results were worth the effort,” said Melcher. “The receiver fixturing was completely redone with more reliable locating points and tighter tolerances throughout.”

The new guns also capitalize on the success of the original 1982 Ranch Rifle version of the Mini, which was so popular it convinced Ruger to carry its main improvement—integral scope mounts for proprietary Ruger rings—across the entire line and adopt the name as the primary designation for all later Mini-14 and 7.62x39 mm Mini Thirty rifles. The latest rifles benefit from: the tighter manufacturing tolerances, evidenced by a receiver with rounded exterior contours; a slightly heavier barrel contour; a fully adjustable, wing-protected rear aperture sight assembly adapted from Ruger’s PC9 pistol-caliber carbine and a wing-protected front sight assembly.

According to Melcher, guns chambered in .223 Remington retain the modified chamber Ruger has used since the beginning, which has a generous leade designed to accept a variety of bullet weights and styles. Rifling twist rates for .223 Rem.-chambered guns stand at 1:9", having evolved from 1:12" and, later, 1:10" on earlier Minis.

Such improvements have been constant during the Mini’s 33-year lifespan. In 1978 it was made available in a proprietary stainless steel alloy. In 1982, the original Ranch Rifle debuted with a fold-down rear sight, redesigned ejector and integral scope mounts for ease of use with optical sights. The Mini Thirty hit the market in 1986, and in 2007 Ruger introduced a Mini chambered for the new 6.8 mm Rem. SPC cartridge.

The latest Mini-14 variation is a special limited-edition NRA-ILA Mini-14 Ranch Rifle designed to support NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action in the fight for all Americans’ Second Amendment rights on.
The new NRA-ILA Mini-14 benefits from all the latest design enhancements, but is even more compact owing to its 161⁄8" barrel, which makes it the shortest semi-automatic Mini to ever leave the Ruger factory. Barrels on standard Mini-14s measure 18½". The compact size makes the NRA-ILA Mini-14 quite handy and suitable for convenient stowage and quick retrieval from vehicle-mounted racks and scabbards.

In addition, the new gun ships with two factory Ruger 20-round magazines. That will come as a pleasant surprise to legions of Mini-14 fans in view of the company’s long-held policy of selling its 20- and now discontinued 30-round magazines only through law enforcement channels. According to Ruger Shooting Sports & Media Relations Coordinator Ken Jorgensen, Ruger plans to make factory 20-round magazines available to the general public if sales of the NRA-ILA Mini-14 demonstrate the public’s demand and production capacity becomes available.

In another departure from the norm, the NRA-ILA Mini-14 is set in a black Hogue OverMolded stock. The stock has a rigid fiberglass-reinforced skeleton covered with a textured, rubberized exterior for secure, quiet handling in wet weather and brushy environs, and its grip cap sports a gold-tone metal NRA logo.

Finally, the NRA-ILA Mini-14 features the serial number prefix “NRA.” Explaining the special designation earlier this year, then Ruger President Stephen L. Sanetti said, “We are extremely pleased to be partnering with the NRA on this special-project Mini-14 to support the Institute for Legislative Action. It is very important that we, as an industry and as individuals, support the efforts of ILA as they work to protect our Second Amendment rights.” He added, “A portion of the sales from each rifle will go to the NRA-ILA to support their ongoing efforts. This project is also made possible through the support of Hogue Stocks, one of our key vendors, and through our distributors.”

Unqualified Success
Bill Ruger was rightly proud of the Mini-14. History may have passed it by in regard to his original intentions, but the shooting public has validated the Mini’s worth by the resounding approval of nearly a million votes of confidence spanning 33 years. It has achieved near-iconic status at shooting ranges, in hunting woods and on ranches everywhere, and, according to Jorgensen, is as popular as ever. “We could sell more if we could make more,” he said.

With its compact overall length, durable exterior and generous ammunition capacity, the Ruger NRA-ILA Mini-14 Ranch Rifle may become the most popular Mini ever while at the same time helping to secure the Second Amendment freedoms of a whole new generation of shooters.

That would be no small accomplishment—even for the mighty Mini 14.

Manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.
Model: NRA-ILA Mini-14
Caliber: .223 Rem.
Action Type: gas-operated, center-fire semi-automatic rifle
Receiver: investment cast 4140 chrome-moly steel
Barrel: matte finish chrome-moly steel; 16 1⁄8"
Rifling: six-groove, 1:9", RH twist
Magazine: 20-round steel detachable box
Sights: windage- and elevation-adjustable wing-protected rearaperture; wing-protected front blade; integral Ruger-style bases
Trigger: 6 lbs., 14 ozs. pull
Stock: black synthetic/rubber Hogue OverMolded; length of pull, 13 1/2"; drop at comb, 7/8"; drop at heel, 1 1/2"
Overall Length: 35 3⁄8"
Weight: 6 lbs., 12 ozs.
Accessories: extra 20-round magazine, Ruger scope rings, instruction manual, cable lock
Suggested Retail Price: $1,035



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