50 Years With Ruger No. 1
This article was first published in Guns & Ammo October 2016.
Lyndon Johnson was president in October 1966. Already the Vietnam War wasn’t looking so good: On October 25, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated, “enemy … forces are larger; terrorists and sabotage have increased … we control little … of the population … the enemy almost completely controls the night.” At home, pitcher Sandy Koufax clinched the third World Series pennant in four years for the Dodgers. In our little world, shooters were still scandalized by Winchester’s sea change from pre-1964 to post-’64. Remington’s 7mm Remington Magnum and its Model 700, both still fresh offerings, were all over the pages of gun magazines. So was the then-new .22-250 Remington along with the .223 Remington, which became the upstart military cartridge, the 5.56 NATO. Much in the gun news were wild claims about its “tumbling” on impact, creating an effect far beyond its paper ballistics. There was another new company, and everybody wanted to know what Bill Ruger would come up with next.
In October 1966 (as today), animated covers were rare for Guns & Ammo, so it was a departure when that month’s cover featured gunwriter Roger Barlow loading a .243 cartridge into a nice-looking falling block single-shot rifle. This was, in fact, the world’s first look at the Ruger No. 1, 50 years ago. At that time, America’s darling lever action, though still popular, had given up much ground. The bolt-action rifle was king, the slide action rifle was fading into history, and although semiautomatic sporting rifles had a following, the incredible popularity of the AR platform lay far in the future. The Ruger No. 1 would carve out its own niche. It would be followed by other modern single-shot actions and reintroductions of classics, together creating sort of a sub-culture of single-shot fans. But in 1966, many people thought Bill Ruger was out of his mind to introduce a one-shot rifle.
Success & Lineage William B. Ruger was always extremely pleased with his Ruger No. 1, and any firearm in continuous production for 50 years must be judged an unqualified success. That said, the Ruger No. 1, although steady, has never been a huge seller for Sturm, Ruger & Company, with production numbers more limited than most Ruger models. There are two obvious reasons for this. First, in this age of repeating actions, not everyone is interested in a single shot. Second, the No. 1 has always been a “prestige model” for Ruger and more expensive to make and purchase than most Ruger firearms.
This was especially true in 1966. The No. 1 was a radical departure. At that time, Ruger was primarily a handgun manufacturer. The company was founded on the semiautomatic .22 pistol and grew quickly with revolvers such as the Bearcat, Blackhawk and Single-Six. In 1966, the Model 77 lay two years in the future. Ruger’s entire rifle line consisted of its .44 Carbine (1961) and the fairly new (1964) 10/22. The 10/22 would become the world’s most
popular .22 rifle, but by the end of 1966 less than 23,000 had been manufactured. Both existing Ruger rifles were good looking and sweet handling, but both were basic semiautos.
From the beginning, the Ruger No. 1 was quite different, and although the variations became endless, the basic rifle has changed little. The No. 1 is an extremely elegant and classic design from buttpad to muzzle and everything in between. I’ve said it often and have no qualms about repeating it: The Ruger No. 1 is, to me, the most beautiful production rifle ever made. This struck me as a teenage subscriber when I saw G&A’s October 1966 cover, and I’ve never changed my mind. The stock was designed by Lenard Brownell, a well-known custom gunmaker brought into the Ruger fold. The No. 1’s stock and the Model 77 stock that followed were pure Lenard Brownell, American Classic and classy.
As was the case so many times in his career, Bill Ruger was crazy like a fox with his No. 1, but it wasn’t that radical of a departure for him. He was a huge fan of fine vintage firearms. Over time he had in his personal collection a number of English double rifles, shotguns and classic single shots.
The golden age of the breechloading single-shot rifle was probably the 1870s into the 1890s. In those days, repeating actions that could house the most powerful cartridges for large game didn’t yet exist. The Winchester 1876 Centennial Model came close, and the John Browning-designed Winchester 1886 came closer. Still, they couldn’t accept the largest Sharps and Remington blackpowder cartridges or the British Black Powder Express rounds. Famous American single shots included John Browning’s Model 1885 Winchester, the Sharps and the Remington Rolling Block (all of which are now available). Most of America’s best-known single-shot actions were exposed hammer designs. Since the scope era began, exposed hammers presented some challenges, but across the pond, there were several hammerless falling block designs, extremely strong and readily adaptable to use with modern optics.
The Ruger No. 1 owes much of its external appearance — and a fair amount of internal operation — to the Farquharson action, invented and patented in Scotland by John Farquharson in 1872. Much lineage is also owed to his fellow Scotsman Alexander Henry. His last name is commemorated in the famous Martini-Henry hammerless falling block rifle. Henry invented the rifling used, but the majority of his falling block sporting rifles were exposed hammer designs. One important tilt of the hat to Henry, however, is that his Schnabel forends carried a distinctive forward-angled line behind the forend tip. Brownell incorporated this feature into the short forends of Ruger No. 1 Light Sporters and Tropical rifles. From the beginning, and to this day, Ruger terms this the “Alexander Henry forend,” always accompanied by a barrel band forward sling swivel.
With its massive breechblock, the falling block action is extremely strong, and was among few blackpowder actions able to easily make the leap into the higher pressures of smokeless powder. The basic Farquharson-style action needed a bit of modernization, of course, but Ruger’s primary contributions included, mechanically, a greatly advanced and exceedingly reliable extraction-ejection system, far better than on any 19th century action, and a far better trigger. Hardly unimportant, and as part of Ruger’s credo, the rifle had to be manufactured affordably. Ruger was a pioneer in precision investment casting, which was the real secret to and enabler of the No. 1. Many of its key parts, including the receiver and its elegant lever, are finished from precise castings.
From R.L. Wilson’s “Ruger & His Guns” (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Bill Ruger had this to say about his beloved No. 1:
“Single shots are a marvelous type of rifle. You can’t shoot very fast, but you can shoot well, and they’re certainly handy and light and dandy. When all is said and done, they are among my real favorites in firearms. The Alexander Henry is, of course, very similar to the Sharps, but more refined. The Henry is the rifle that started a whole train of good British single-shots. The British made a lot of them, as well as the Americans, and there is, of course, the Scottish Farquharson.
When I started thinking about the No. 1 rifle the Farquharson was sort of a natural one to begin on. The big thing about these single-shot rifles is you just don’t have so much of the gun constituting the action, thus the compact action shortens the overall length. Anyone who likes rifles appreciates these qualities as well as that special atmosphere about a single-shot. It may not appeal to everybody, but it’s certainly very important to a lot of people.
Our rifle, of course, is more sophisticated than the Farquharson, and has a very potent ejector of our design. I wanted a hammerless action with a dropping block, but the available interior space of the Borchardt-type action did not permit the inclusion of the trigger and other features which we felt were required. I must say I am pleased that so many of the world’s truly great hunters have taken to the No. 1 rifle.”
The 50th Anniversary There is no dispute that William Batterman Ruger (June 21, 1916 to July 6, 2002) would have been 100 years old on June 21, 2016. There is, however, confusion over the 50th anniversary of the Ruger No. 1 rifle. The Ruger Collectors’ Association will be quick to point out that the Ruger No. 1, serial number 1, left the New Haven factory in early 1967, with serial numbers in that initial year running through 2230. They will thus point out, correctly, that the “official” 50th anniversary of the Ruger No. 1 is 2017, not our current year of 2016.
So, how was it that G&A managed to have a No. 1 on the cover in October 1966 and a photograph of another in its feature? Let’s back that off a bit. Even in our digitized age, print magazines still have lead times, so without any question that ’66 cover was shot no later than July ’66, more than six months before the actual release of the “first” Ruger No. 1.
The article that accompanied that cover is bylined “Staff Report.” It could have been written by Roger Barlow (who is shown on the cover), or it could have been written by my old boss, Thomas J. “Tom” Siatos, then-publisher of Guns & Ammo. I didn’t know Barlow, but I knew Siatos and it reads a lot like his work. Either way, the article provides a partial answer: “At the time this article was written only five prototype rifles had been constructed and actual production of the final design was still a month away.” A spec chart accompanying the article also states optimistically: “Deliveries to Dealers: Planned to begin in September 1966.”
That this didn’t happen is hardly unusual. Unexpected delays are part of almost any manufacturing process. In those days commonly, and sometimes today, manufacturers tend to jump the gun (note the pun) on announcing new products. It disappoints readers and leaves the magazine and its writers holding the bag. Historically, Ruger was legendary for this. Today? Not at all. By rigid corporate policy, leaks are stifled until products are ready to ship. Back then it was all too common, but a leak this far out was unusual — even then. G&A’s founder, Robert E. “Pete” Petersen and Siatos were very close to Ruger. Perhaps Barlow was as well. I’m just speculating, but in 1966 the upcoming No. 1 was not only a departure, but also a pet project of Bill Ruger’s. And, just possibly, a controversial project within his company. (It seems unlikely that only outsiders thought Bill Ruger had lost his mind.) So it’s only a tiny leap to assume that Ruger wanted his friends Petersen and Siatos (who had similar tastes in firearms) to have a look at his new project. Inevitably, the cover was shot, the story was run, and months passed before the first “real” No. 1 was produced.
As in October 1966, let it be known in history that the news of Ruger’s No. 1 was read about in Guns & Ammo first.
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July 6, 2017 at 12:38PM