November 13, 2017
While the AR-15 gets all the glory these days, Ruger's popular Mini-14 and Mini-Thirty rifles appeal to many shooters looking for either a more traditional-looking gun or a "gray man" (Web-search it if you're not up to speed on survivalist jargon) type of firearm. Others like the Minis simply because they're fun.
For 2017 Ruger has expanded the Mini-Thirty line with the addition of the new Mini-Thirty Tactical Stainless Synthetic. Like every Mini-Thirty, it's chambered to 7.62x39 — one of the most historically significant cartridges of the 20th century. The 7.62x39 is a well-thought-out and practical design that gets the job done the old-fashioned way with a traditional 0.311-inch projectile of sufficient mass propelled at sedate velocities.
When push comes to shove, its performance is quite acceptable, especially when teamed with modern projectiles, and it's a natural fit for Ruger's Mini series. First introduced in 1973 in .223 as the Mini-14, the platform is reminiscent of the famous M1 rifle, M1 carbine and M14 rifle. It has the same classic profile and features Garand's distinctive locking mechanism. A gas-operated design, it utilizes a reliable short-stroke fixed piston.
Fifteen years after the Mini-14's introduction, Ruger chambered the Mini in 7.62x39 and the Mini-Thirty was born. The Soviet intermediate cartridge long synonymous with the Kalashnikov was well suited for Ruger's little rifle and increased its potential.
Ruger's Mini series was never noted for stellar accuracy, but this changed in 2005 when Ruger engineer Roy Melcher shut down Mini-14 and Mini-Thirty production. One of the original designers of the rifle, he literally retooled the entire production line and made important upgrades. His hard work led to a substantially improved and more accurate rifle.
There are a number of reasons to consider a Mini-Thirty rifle, with the most obvious being the demise of inexpensive AK rifles on the U.S. market. The days of cheap European-produced Kalashnikov rifles flooding the U.S. are over. Further, American-produced AKs have been hit or miss in quality, performance and function.
And, really, what does a commercial AK rifle really offer over a Mini-Thirty? Yes, a properly built AK is robust and reliable, and it feeds from bombproof magazines. On the flip side, the Mini-Thirty has some important advantages, including a better placed safety, easier to use iron sights, integral scope mounts and superior accuracy.
Another advantage to some is the Mini's profile. The Mini-Thirty has a traditional look quite distinct from either the AK or AR. With a short magazine locked into place, it has a "less threatening" appearance. That makes the Mini-Thirty more likely to go unnoticed, and in certain situations going unnoticed is best.
My test Mini-Thirty Tactical Stainless Synthetic arrived with two 10-round magazines, a set of matching stainless steel one-inch rings, cable lock and well-written instructions. As its name implies, this new offering features stainless steel construction and finish along with a black synthetic stock.
Plus, instead of the standard 18-inch barrel, it features a short 16.12-inch tube with a correct 0.3105-inch bore and a 1:10 twist. Fitted to the muzzle is Ruger's distinctive birdcage flash suppressor. The muzzle is cut with standard 5/8x24 threads, allowing the use of any popular muzzle device or suppressor mount.
The barreled action is dropped into a simple black synthetic stock. Length of pull is a comfortable 13 inches, and a rubber recoil pad keeps the butt from sliding around. I removed the stock and was pleased to note the fore-end has an internal metal heat shield for long strings of fire. A black synthetic handguard offers further protection from a hot barrel and the reciprocating operating rod.
Sights are a protected front blade and a protected rear aperture. The front sight is non-adjustable. The rear sight is fully adjustable for zeroing but features only one sight setting. I suggest a 200-yard zero. Basically, you set it and forget it.
Controls are easy to access and operate. The charging handle is mounted to the operating rod on the right side of the rifle and is large and easy to grab. The safety is of the Garand style and located at the front of the trigger guard. Snap it back for Safe and nudge it forward for Fire. It's ambidextrous and easy to use.
The magazine release is a paddle at the rear of the magazine well. Like the safety, the magazine release is well placed, ambidextrous and easy to operate. Magazines rock in just like with an M14 or AK. Unlike the AK, though, the Mini-Thirty features a last round bolt hold-open. A small button on the top left of the receiver allows the bolt to be locked back manually without a magazine in place.
The rifle's overall length is a handy 36.7 inches, and it weighs in at just 6.7 pounds. Narrow one-inch sling swivels are at six o'clock.
Seeing as the Mini-Thirty came with a matching set of one-inch rings, I rummaged about in my gun room for a suitable optic. I wanted something of the right scale and weight to properly match the Ruger's small dimensions and came up with a fixed-power 4x32mm Zeiss Conquest with Z-Plex reticle. A few optics manufacturers offer low-power scopes with BDC reticles calibrated specifically for the 7.62x39 reticle, and one of these would be a good choice as well.
For many years 7.62x39 ammunition consisted mostly of economical, imported, steel-case full-metal-jacket fodder. These traditional loads typically launched a 123-grain boattail at 2,330 fps from a 16-inch barrel. While penetration was good, terminal performance was lackluster.
Today, though, there are a number of excellent domestic 7.62x39mm loads topped with modern expanding bullets. Leading-edge bullet designs dramatically improve the terminal performance over that of the ancient Soviet M43 and Yugoslav M67 ball rounds.
While not blessed with velocity, the 7.62x39 does have bullet diameter and weight on its side. When a modern projectile design is added, you end up with a bullet that expands reliably and penetrates deeply. Performance on medium-size game such as whitetails out to 200 yards is quite acceptable, and obviously, the cartridge's long military history testifies to its capability as a defensive round.
I selected three 7.62x39 loads — two domestic and one imported — for testing: the Hornady 123-grain SST, Winchester 120-grain PDX1 Defender and Wolf Performance 125-grain softpoint.
The Hornady and Wolf loads feature steel cartridge cases. The Winchester PDX1 load uses nickel-plated brass cases. All three loads are excellent performers and would be exceptional choices for hunting medium-size game or self-protection.
After zeroing the Zeiss, I got to work checking the Mini-Thirty's 100-yard accuracy from the bench. Rounds loaded fairly easily into the blued steel magazines, which seemed fairly robust in nature and featured anti-tilt followers. They locked securely in place with an upward push and rock.
Running the charging handle fed cartridges smoothly into the chamber. The safety snapped on and off with that distinctive Garand sound. The trigger is wide and smooth and feels good to the finger. A two-stage design, the trigger features a bit of creep and then breaks cleanly.
I fired four five-shot groups with each load at 100 yards. The 7.62x39 certainly has many virtues, but stellar accuracy is not one of them. Even so, the Mini-Thirty acquitted itself quite well. Results are shown in the accompanying table. For a rack-grade semiautomatic rifle in 7.62x39, I think the Mini-Thirty did just fine.
Shooting from a bench is pretty boring, so I broke out a couple of Ruger 20-round magazines and had some fun. I did note with some interest that the 20-round blued steel magazine is noticeably different than the 10-rounder. The 20 is wider and has more curve to it, and it has a different anti-tilt follower. Overall, I think it's a better design than the 10-rounder.
I began by shooting offhand and kneeling at three ShootSteel.com silhouettes 100 yards away. From kneeling I dropped to prone and engaged the six plates on my dueling tree as fast as possible. I did this a few times and then moved to 200 yards. Firing at this distance, the Ruger had no problem dropping them into the center of a LaRue.
I next moved to 300 yards and took up a sitting position. Again, the Mini-Thirty proceeded to pound steel. The 4X Zeiss made aiming at this distance easy, and it was just a matter of providing enough holdover.
Overall, I thought the Mini-Thirty acquitted itself quite well in practical accuracy and certainly with regard to function. While I had initial reservations about the magazines (and do think high-quality mags are on the expensive side), they gave no problems, and the rifle ran without issue throughout testing. Ruger advises against using steel case ammunition, but the days of cheap Chinese surplus with corrosive primers are long over. I had zero issues running steel case ammunition in this rifle. Feeding, extraction and ejection were flawless, as was primer ignition.
The rifle's action was a little rough out of the box, but a few hundred rounds and a bit of gun grease cured that. While the magazines locked into place easy enough, it took a bit of a tug to get them out. Again, nothing a bit of practice wouldn't smooth up.
Stripping the rifle is fairly straightforward; there is not much to it. Routine maintenance is quite a bit simpler than with an AR.
Is the Mini-Thirty perfect? No. I think every rifle needs three things: an optic, sling and white light. I really don't like the one-inch sling mounts and wish they were 1.25 inches. Plus, it would be nice if they were mounted at nine o'clock rather than at six o'clock. I also wish there was an easy way to mount a white light onto it straight out of the box.
Ruger recently introduced a Mini-14 in .300 BLK. I like the .300 BLK cartridge, but to be honest, anything the .300 BLK can do the 7.62x39 can do better. The 7.62x39 has additional case capacity and a noticeable velocity advantage. If you want to shoot subsonic, the 7.62x39 can do that, too. Engel Ballistic Research, Inc. offers 220-grain subsonic loads as do others. Also, imported steel case 7.62x39mm ammunition is dramatically less expensive than .300 BLK.
Despite my nitpicking, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Ruger Mini-Thirty Tactical. In a world awash in cheap ARs, the Ruger was a breath of fresh air. It really is a fun rifle to shoot. Recoil is mild, and it hits where you aim. Don't forget: Despite Ruger's advice against using it, imported steel case ammunition is economical, allowing relatively inexpensive practice and fun.
You can easily outfit the Mini-Thirty with an aftermarket side-folding stock, dramatically reducing the overall length. The aftermarket is full of Mini-14/Thirty products, so choose wisely.
So if you're in the market for a really versatile performer that doesn't look like everybody else's black gun, check out the Mini-Thirty. Suggested retail is $1,169, but I'm thinking the street price will be in the mid $900s.