Part 5: Ruger
By John Taffin
That wonderful year of 1949 I was in the 5th grade and Harry Truman was in the White House, gas was 17¢ a gallon and a new car cost about $1,400. The first Volkswagen Beetle was sold in the United States. Frankie Laine recorded Mule Train and the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. Ford, Chevy and Pontiac came out with streamlined designs to replace the upside down bathtub look of the 1940’s. And a 1-inch advertisement in the American Rifleman would be the beginning of a firearms dynasty.
In 1949 Bill Ruger and his partner Alexander Sturm along with a capital of $50,000 and a red barn to work from began offering a semi-automatic .22 for $37.50. With the small ad in the American Rifleman, Ruger soon had orders for 1,000 pistols. From the very beginning Ruger was on sound financial footing with no checks cashed from buyers until their individual Ruger .22 was ready for delivery. Sturm, Ruger has never borrowed money for expansion. Money they could have used to pay interest on debt was instead plowed back into the company for more machinery and more models.
Those first semi-automatics, the Standard Model Rugers, are known as “Red Eagles” as they had the Ruger Red Eagle symbol in the grip panel. When Bill Ruger’s partner died unexpectedly two years later, the Red Eagle became a Black Eagle and remained so until very recently. Since both Bill Ruger and Alexander Sturm have passed on, the Red Eagle has been resurrected.
The Standard Model .22 began shipping in October of 1949 and was joined by a longer barrel version with adjustable sights known as the Mark I Target Pistol in January 1951. The first Mark I .22’s also had the handpainted Red Eagle on the grip panel. Serious bull’s-eye shooters soon found they could do as well with a relatively inexpensive Ruger as they could with the target pistols of the day and early advertising featured noted pistolero Jimmy Clark winning matches using a stock Ruger .22.
Bill Ruger knew if he built a quality .22 semi-automatic pistol, the crowds would come. Four years later he combined the natural love 1950’s shooters had for both .22’s and Western movies and single-handedly resurrected the single-action sixgun. Ruger was savvy enough to bring out a sixgun operating and feeling like a Colt Single-Action Army, but rather than chambering an expensive-to-shoot centerfire cartridge, he scaled down everything but the grip frame to .22 size.
The grip frame was virtually identical to the Colt Single Action but the new Single-Six’s lockwork was redesigned to use all coil springs eliminating the breakage-prone flat springs, of the Colt. Otherwise, the Single-Six was a traditional single action with a flat loading gate opened to insert cartridges and an ejector rod for shuckin’ empties. The action was so strong Ruger hooked up the Single-Six to a machine to continuously cock and dry fire the revolver in a display at the NRA Show. And the machine finally broke before the gun. Bill Ruger now had a second winner on his hands.
My first sixgun was a .22 Single-Six purchased with my own money as a teenager in those wonderful bygone days when guns were truly accessible. In my area you only had to be 16 to purchase any firearm, and kids and guns were very rarely ever a problem. Those early days shooting my wonderful little single-action .22 with the accompanying smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 after each shooting session stirred deep inborn emotions and sent me on the path to a lifelong enjoyment of single-action sixguns.
Some Ruger Reference books (above) are very readily available, and others will require diligent searches.
These very valuable reference books by Jerry Kuhnhausen (below) guide you not only through the mysteries
of disassembly and reassembly but fine-tuning the actions as well.
In 1955 Ruger enlarged the .22 Single-Six to Colt Single-Action size, added a heavy top strap, a fully adjustable rear sight matched with a ramp front sight on a base and the result was the .357 Flat-Top Blackhawk with the same virtually unbreakable action as the Single-Six. The following year the .357 was slightly enlarged to become the .44 Magnum Blackhawk and then in 1959 a Dragoon-style grip frame was added to the .44 Magnum to create the Super Blackhawk.
Rugers have not been around anywhere near as long as Colts and Smith & Wessons, however, there is no lack of good books about Bill Ruger and his guns. In fact, Ruger & His Guns, A History of the Man, the Company and Their Firearms (1996) by R. L. Wilson does exactly as the title proclaims. This is a large book furnishing much background history and information, old family and company photographs, detailed listings of each model, including life-size pictures of many of the sixguns produced by Ruger. I for one would like to see a new up-to-date edition including models from the past 20 years.
Friend John Dougan is a well-known Ruger collector and author of several books on Rugers. One of the oldest, Ruger Single Action Revolvers 1953-1973 Collectors Edition came through the Ruger Collectors Association. This little 64-page paperback is profusely illustrated with single-action sixguns from the time period noted with many of them in full color. This book has special meaning for me as I spent a lot of time with it in years when I could afford books but not sixguns. In 1981 John published Know Your Ruger Single Action Revolvers 1953–63. Profusely illustrated, this paperback is three times the size of the one previously mentioned and basically covers all the single actions through the Flat-Top production which ended in 1963. Of special interest is the reprinting of nearly 50 pages of full-size ads of various Rugers as they appeared in the gun magazines of the time.
Col. Colt was noted for presenting especially engraved single actions to dignitaries, politicians and royalty where he thought they would do him the most good. John Dougan has documented the 4-year period from 1954–1958 when Ruger carried on a single-action revolver engraving project. Compliments of Col. Ruger; A Study Of Factory Engraved Single Action Revolvers (1991) covers these very rare single actions and then tops it off with the Skeeter Skelton Specials serial numbered SSS001 and SSS002 which were special presentation guns for Skeeter and specially designed by Bill Ruger. Unfortunately Skeeter died before the guns were finished and they were subsequently presented to Sally Skelton and Skeeter’s son Bart.
Dougan’s latest Ruger book is Ruger Pistols & Revolvers, The Vintage Years 1949-1973 (2008). These were the classic years! All the single actions produced in this timeframe, Single-Sixes, Blackhawks, Super Blackhawks were what is now known as “Three Screws” since all were converted to the New Model Action in 1973. The New Models are certainly safer in the hands of those who do not understand the originals, however, there’s just something special to most sixgunners’ hearts with the old-style sixguns. This was also the time of the Standard Model and Mark I .22 semi-automatic pistols before they were “improved” into the Mark II and Mark III versions. Dougan also includes serial number charts of each model showing which year they were produced. Bill Ruger was a personal friend of many of the gun writers of the time, and several photographs are included with his friends as well as family. I go to this book quite often seeking information. Like most shooters I like to know when my particular sixgun was produced.
John Dougan’s latest book on the early Rugers is a well received volume on both the
pistols and single-action revolvers.
John Dougan and Jim Hoobler have combined to produce the only book to date on the original replica single actions in Great Western Arms Company Revolvers & Derringers Manufactured From 1954 to 1964 (2012). The Great Westerns were totally American-made single actions and instrumental in Colt once again producing their Single-Action Army.
Jerry Kuhnhausen has been mentioned in each of these treatises on the gun books and he has not slighted Rugers in any way. The Ruger Single Action Revolvers: A Shop Manual, Volumes 1 & 2 (2003) closely follows the lines of his manual on Colt Single Actions with hundreds of easy-to-understand line drawings covering all aspects of Ruger Single-Action parts and operation. I took my original Single-Six apart in 1956 and finally wound up taking all the parts in a box to the gunsmith to have it put back together. I have stated emphatically before I am not a gunsmith, however, I now can disassemble both Old Model and New Model Ruger Single Actions and actually get them back together with no parts left over! This book can help anyone else do the same thing as well as some elementary gunsmithing. Another very valuable reference book.
Friend Jerry Lee is the author of Standard Catalog of Ruger Firearms (2014). This work covers all of the basic Ruger handguns and long guns along with current values and also contains both new and old articles on various Rugers. Finally we have the Gun Digest Book of Ruger Revolvers: The Definitive History (2013) by Max Prasac. Max is a handgun hunter and he approaches the single actions and double actions from a hunter’s perspective. Also a very valuable chapter on custom gunsmiths is provided. Profusely illustrated and very enjoyable reading.