September 23, 2010
Bill Ruger's rifles offer a surprisingly fertile field of collecting.
Ruger firearms, from the dashing No. 1 to the popular 10/22, are unique and often quite collectible.
When one thinks of collectible firearms, the mind invariably turns to the products of Colt, Winchester, Marlin and Smith & Wesson — you know, guns made by the old-line companies. Interestingly enough, though, the products of one of America's newest makers, Ruger (formerly Sturm, Ruger), has a loyal following among enthusiasts, and some of its wares rival the prices and scarcity of many of those seen in the more traditional collecting arenas.
To be sure, if you were to be honest, you'd have to admit that the hottest Ruger collectibles are probably handguns, but the rifles have their followers too, as we shall see.
Sturm, Ruger & Company was founded in 1949 by firearms legend and designer Bill Ruger and businessman Alex Sturm. Their first offering was a handy little .22 semiauto pistol that took off like wildfire and made these newcomers serious contenders in the gun world. This was followed up with a line of rimfire and centerfire single-action revolvers, timed perfectly to take advantage of the burgeoning demand created by the large number of popular television westerns of the 1950s and '60s.
The Mini-14 is reliable, handy and, in some cases, rare enough to be desirable as a collector piece.
But Bill was not content just to stick to one genre of firearms, and in 1960 the company came out its first long gun, the .44 Magnum Carbine.
Initially called the "Deerstalker" (the name was changed after a threatened lawsuit by Ithaca, which already had used the name), the rifle looked a lot like the M1 Carbine that many of Ruger's World War II veteran customers were familiar with.
It was a spiffy little knockabout semiauto chambered in, as its name implied, .44 Magnum. The rifle had a tubular magazine and was sleek, simple, powerful and eagerly accepted by the shooting public.
Over the years, the .44 Magnum Carbine has been purveyed in several variants (including my favorite, the Mannlicher-stocked International). The nice thing about this gun is that, for the most part, even the scarcer versions can be picked up in mint condition for under a grand. Early "Deerstalker"-marked guns bring a premium.
The .44 Magnum was such a hit that a look-alike .22-caliber variant was brought out in 1964. The 10/22 was a revolutionary little semiauto which employed a unique plastic rotary 10-round magazine (hence the name "10/22"). It was a real working gun — no frills, made of steel and anodized aluminum, with a simple one-piece stock. Sights were simple and the price was a reasonable $54.50.
Ruger's 10/22 was destined to become our most popular rimfire. Early versions can command 10 to 15 times their original cost.
Like other Ruger products, the 10/22 became an instant hit. The company realized that it had a serious product on its hands, and the gun ultimately became the most popular .22 rifle ever made.
Not content to stick with just one variant of the little rifle, over the years Ruger has come out with enough variants of the gun to make it a popular yet affordable collector's piece. It's still offered, but original versions of the rifle (which were made between 1966 and 1969) can bring upwards of $700 in minty condition.
There was also a 10/22 Compact that was available in very limited quantities, as well as an anniversary model that was sold in 2004, and fancy grades with checkered walnut stocks, target models, a Canadian Centennial that came out in 1967, and more recently .22 Magnum and .17 HMR incarnations.
The 10/22 has also become a hot item for competition customizers, and while a purist might turn up his nose at aftermarket models of the gun, some find them quite collectible as well — though I must admit, I personally lean toward the un-gussied standard factory issues.
It might be noted at this point, that in 1976 Ruger opted to mark all its guns with the centennial message, "Made In The 200th Year Of American Liberty."
Fewer rifles offer a finer canvas for engraving than Ruger's classically styled No. 1.
While the sentiment is laudatory, bear in mind, that all things being equal, guns so marked really don't bring a premium over pieces without the legend. Over the years this has been one of my most asked questions by fledgling collectors (many of whom were suckered into paying quite a bit extra for Centennial Rugers), and I have had to explain to them that for the most part, it's really not much of a collecting incentive.
Bill Ruger was an aficionado of classic big game rifles, so it came as no surprise that in 1967 he brought out a single-shot rifle (against the advice of many "experts" who thought there was no market for such a gun) that cosmetically resembled the British Farquharson.
Aptly named the No. 1, in true Ruger fashion, the rifle defied the prognostications of the critics and gave single-shots a whole new lease on life. The platform was versatile enough to allow for a number of chamberings (Ruger still keeps coming out with more), making this one of the most collectible of Ruger rifles.
The No. 1 enthusiast can have a real challenge trying to come up with the many variants (Standard, Light Sporter, Tropical, International, Medium Sporter, Varmint, etc.) in all of the different chamberings. To date I have counted more than 25 different calibers the gun's been offered in.
One of the advantages of the rifle is that it makes an excellent platform for engraving, and some of the most beautiful Rugers ever have been put together on the No. 1 action. In fact, I
so fell in love with the rifle (and the .405 chambering, when it was first offered) that I commissioned the Ruger Studio of Art and Decoration to embellish a rifle in period English style by covering the entire receiver with tight scroll engraving and then having it case-hardened. I also ordered a few discreet gold inlays.
The result is a real-show-stopper. Currently this is probably the most beautiful gun in my collection, and one of which I am most proud. I'm sure that any Ruger that has been specially decorated by the company artisans will be bringing a premium in years to come.
Sleek and unstoppable, the 10/22 is reminiscent of classic battle rifles.
To date, the studio has produced some incredible masterpieces selling for many thousands of dollars. To my mind it offers some of the finest work of its type in America.
As an aside, in 1999 Ruger brought out 1,500 Medium Sporter 50th Anniversary models chambered in .45-70. The guns had Bill Ruger's signature on the bottom of the receiver and fancy Circassian walnut stocks. These are among the more expensive of the issue No. 1s, running around $2,000 in unused condition.
As well as the No. 1, Bill invented another single shot: the No. 3 Carbine, which was handier and lighter than its predecessor. First appearing in 1973, the mechanism was different than that of the No. 1 but was still able to accommodate a wide selection of chamberings from .22 Hornet all the way up to some pretty hefty centerfire loads, including .45-70 and .375 Win. It was not offered in that many variants, so amassing a complete array of No. 3s is not quite as difficult as with some of the firm's other long guns.
Of course the next logical step was to come out with a centerfire bolt-action magazine rifle, and in 1968 the Model 77 made its appearance. Basically a Model 98 Mauser variant, many feel the Model 77 has become, in terms of collectibility, the Pre-64 Model 70 of recent years.
The basic rifle is a handsome piece of fairly classical styling, though ultimately it has been sold in more variants than any of the other Ruger long guns. Available in everything from Standard to African grade and in long and short actions, different barrel weights and so forth, the Model 77 is very popular with many Ruger collectors (plus I can attest it's a heck of a shooter). I have seen some spectacular displays of Ruger Model 77s at some of the higher-end gun shows, and they never fail to attract an appreciative audience.
Nicely blued and well-fitted to the stock, early 10/22 barrels were cleanly rollmarked.
In 1973 Ruger came out with one of its more controversial arms, the Mini 14. Looking much like an un-Sanforized M14 service rifle, this elegant little half-stock was initially chambered in .223 Remington and later offered in 7.62x39 (as the Mini-Thirty) as well. The Mini-14 Ranch Rifle, a new version sporting some cosmetic differences, came out in 1982, and both Stainless and Target variants of that gun were ultimately cataloged.
To be honest, I haven't noticed the collector movement in the Minis to the same degree that I've seen in other Ruger models. Most prices reflect their values as shooters rather than artifacts.
As well as the above mentioned arms, Ruger has also come out with a few other interesting rifles over the years, including the Model 96 Carbine lever action in .17 HMR (introduced in 2002) .22 LR, .22 Magnum and .44 Magnum. It's not one of the higher profile Rugers, and as it is a fairly recent addition to the line (1996) it has yet to establish much of a collecting rack record.
As noted in the 29th edition Blue Book of Gun Values, when collecting Rugers it is important to be aware that they are divided into three periods, differentiated by when the guns' frames were produced: 1949-63, 1963-73 and 1973 to date. Early models are usually the most elusive, sought-after and pricey.
One of the nice things about collecting Rugers is that you can amass a pretty nice accumulation of lovely guns without having to mortgage the farm. For those interested in pursuing the hobby further, I recommend you check out the Ruger Collectors' Association. As well as being extremely helpful to new collectors, the organization produces a quarterly journal.