July 18, 2007
New tooling and tighter tolerances make for a sharper shooting Ruger Ranch Rifle.
My first experience with the Ruger Mini-14 was in the late 1970s shortly after the little .223's introduction. Ruger had sent my dad one to try out, and, as a teenage shooter, I was lucky enough to take it out in the desert and knock around with it for a while. We kept that rifle for years and both felt it to be an excellent all-around long gun worthy of knocking around in the brush with.
Neither of us was a bench shooter, so we didn't agonize over minutes of angle and such. We were more concerned about the reliability of the rifle and the fact that you could pop a coyote off-hand pretty much at will at a reasonable distance. The Mini-14 was not designed as a competition-style rifle anyhow. As long as you could hit a coffee can at 50 yards or so, it was a great rifle in my book.
As a result of my experiences with the Mini-14, I never paid much mind to talk of its shortcomings. I figured that those complaining about the Mini's lack of accuracy in comparison to other .223 autoloaders were all wet.
It wasn't until six years or so ago that I started paying attention to the true accuracy of semiautomatic rifles. I purchased an ArmaLite AR-10T and really began to understand the accuracy potential of self-loaders. It was then that I also understood that the Mini-14 wasn't quite on the level of some of its peers when it came to accuracy at 100 yards. With the ArmaLite and Black Hills Match ammunition, quarter-inch groups at 100 yards were the norm. I also have considerable experience with the Les Baer .223 rifles, which shoot quarter-inch groups at 100 yards as well. No doubt about it, that sort of precision becomes addicting.
Such accuracy hasn't been the norm for the Mini-14, but as I mentioned, the little Ranch Rifle wasn't designed for competition shooting. It was designed as a light, handy little carbine that functions every time you pull the trigger. Plus, a Mini-14 costs a fraction of the price of one of the ArmaLite or Les Baer rifles.
Wouldn't it be splendid, though, if you could achieve excellent accuracy and maintain the integrity of what the Mini was designed for? Ruger has stepped back and taken a stab at just that.
It's my understanding that previously manufactured Mini-14s, on the whole, average about three- to five-inch groups at 100 yards, or two inches at 50--not big news for accuracy bugs but good enough for plinkers.
There apparently were a number of potential causes for these rather loose groups. William B. Ruger and his engineers designed the Mini-14 to closely resemble a scaled-down version of the M-14 battle rifle, sans the full-auto switch, at least for the civilian version. (Ruger has produced fully automatic versions of the Mini-14 and sold a boatload of them to various governments around the world for both military and police applications. My dad, Skeeter Skelton, accompanied Ruger executives into South and Central America in the 1970s demonstrating the Mini-14 to government officials.)
The Mini-14's gas system was modified from the M-14 and works much more simply, making the smaller rifle quite suited to the smaller cartridge, i.e. .308 Winchester to .223. In all, the M-14 was obviously a combat rifle, and the Mini-14 was really designed as a sporting rifle.
Much concentration has been focused on the Mini's gas block, which is located at the forward side of the fore-end. Held together by four screws, the gas block has an upper and lower piece. When the slide block works forward, its face comes into contact with the gas block. At times, the face of the gas block may not be perfectly flat or symmetrical and causes imbalance in its contact with the slide block. Such a blemish causes inaccuracy.
Many gunsmiths have corrected the problem by removing the gas block, which can be deceivingly tricky, and carefully and evenly removing a small amount of metal from its face, thus creating a more even match with the slide block. The gas-block faces can also be honed to provide a more even match between the surfaces of the upper and lower pieces, causing a more homogeneous amount of pressure on the barrel.
Another possible flyer-causing culprit in the manufacture of the Mini-14 is the method used to fix the front sight to the rifle. The sight was previously machine-pressed into the barrel, a process that can actually bend the barrel slightly. Such problems were typically noticed by the factory prior to final shipment and fixed. The ones that weren't caught, however, might now be causing their owners accuracy headaches.
The distinguished popularity of the Mini-14 has continued to excel, and the bosses at Sturm, Ruger and Company have wished to honor its status by producing the highest-quality firearm possible at a reasonable price. Chatter about the accuracy issues of the Mini-14 has never gone unnoticed by the company, and the engineers have worked long and hard to alleviate the issues. It appears they may have reached that happy medium between accuracy, reliability, handiness and cost effectiveness in their new and improved Mini-14. Some are referring to the new rifle as the "580," referring to the three-digit-series number that appears ahead of the serial number.
The company recently shipped a Mini-14 580 series Ranch Rifle to put through the wringer at my southern New Mexico digs. The gun is a standard Ranch Rifle, Mini-14/5, blued finish with the hardwood stock. It is outfitted with what Ruger refers to as a simple, rugged Garand-style breechbolt locking system, with a fixed-piston gas system and self-cleaning, moving gas cylinder and an improved receiver with rounded contours.
The rifle features the new protected front sight and a ghost-ring aperture rear sight. The open sight configuration is designed to take a pounding and keep the shooter on target.
Ruger's Roy Melcher, one of the original designers of the Mini-14, says that the new Mini is "a mature product that has been reborn." The company actually shut down production of the Mini-14 for a redesign period sometime back. The rifle's tolerances were tightened from both the manufacturing and casting side. In many areas it was retooled for more modern production and to hold those tolerances.
According to Roy, in building the receiver the old manufacturing process required the movement of the part from one machine to another and from one holding fixture to another for each machining operation. That resulted in the part being made within acceptable dimensional tolerances but with produced tolerance accumulations that were close to the edge of suitability.
With the new tooling and new CNC processes, multiple fixtures are mounted to a machine pallet. Each fixture holds a part with such aptitude that multiple machining operations can be performed without removing the part from the fixture, thus greatly reducing tolerance accumulations and providing more consistency in the parts. The speed in the manufacturing process is also greatly increased. This basic procedure has been followed for all the major component parts in the Mini-14, with the end result being tighter tolerances and more uniformity part to part and finished-gun to gun.
My test rifle didn't appear to be different than any other Mini-14 I'd ever handled, at least on the outside. I figured the obvious trial would be at the range. I gathered up a good variety of factory ammunition for the job and put aside several afternoons to see just what I could squeeze out of the new Mini. To assist in checking the accuracy of the rifle, I mounted a small Leupold two-power scope. The Leupold had previously been fitted to a Ruger scout rifle and had proven to be an excellent little scope.
The year 2006 has proven to be one of the wettest years in several decades in southern New Mexico, and my desert shooting range has been a muddy mess. My normal 100-yard shooting post was one thick, mosquito-infested mud bog during the days I shot the Mini-14. To hit dry ground, I was forced to move my benchrest outfit to a spot 115 yards from the target.
I fired a number of rounds of Black Hills 55-grain softpoint ammunition to get a feel for the rifle. I had tested the Mini's trigger pull at a smooth 5 3/4 pounds using an RCBS scale--not too bad for a factory trigger job, but I needed to shoot a box of ammunition through the rifle to get a feel for the trigger.
After zeroing the scope, I set up a target and began shooting five-shot groups off a sandbag rest. My first few strings weren't anything to get excited about, but they gradually got better. The best group fired that afternoon was using the Black Hills 68-grain FMJ, which shot a decent 2 1/4-inch group.
I took the Mini home and swabbed the bore with J-B bore cleaner. While scrubbing the barrel, I lamented not taking more time to break in the bore. Shooting a few rounds, then scrubbing the bore with J-B for at least 50 rounds or so might have been the right thing to do to properly break in the barrel and quickly improve accuracy.
My next session with the Mini-14 improved. I shot several groups that were just over two inches, still at 115 yards. Using the Hornady 75-grain BTHP stuff, I shot what I considered a great group. Though it must be counted as a 1 7/8-inch group, four shots could be covered with a quarter, the fifth just an inch away. This string drove home the fact that the out-of-the-box Ruger really had gone through some serious changes. It's quite likely that that fifth shot was due to me worrying more about the mosquito on my neck than squeezing off the shot. Regardless, the group was notable.
My test gun's barrel is fitted with a 1:9-inch twist. Some of the loads I fired through the rifle fooled me a bit. The loads I figured would really perform sometimes didn't, and some of the loads I figured would bomb shot pretty well. Regardless, the tweaking of the manufacturing process at the Ruger factory has clearly made a significant difference in the accuracy of this rifle.
|115-YARD BENCHREST RESULTS |
|Hornady 75-gr. BTHP (four shot sub-minute of angle, one flyer||1 7/8 |
|Hornady 53-gr. HP W/C||3 1/4 |
|Black Hills 52-gr. Match Hollow Point||2 1/8 |
|Black Hills 55-gr. Soft Point||3 7/8 |
|Black Hills 68-gr. Heavy Match HP||2 1/8 |
|Black Hills 60-gr. V-Max||2 1/4 |
|Winchester 51-gr. Ballistic Silvertip||3 1/2 |
|Winchester 55-gr. FMJ||4 |
|Winchester 62-gr. FMJ||1 7/8 |
After the benchrest sessions, I took the Mini out to the desert mountains near my home and attempted to call in a coyote or two, without any luck. My disappointment in the lack of cooperation from the local coyotes was alleviated somewhat after plinking with the Mini-14 at distant targets on the side of one of our rugged mountains. Popping various targets at long distances offhand was a cinch. The only criticism whatsoever I had while having fun with the Mini-14 in the desert was the five-round magazine, which empties way too quickly. A 10-round mag would be much more appropriate, if not a 20 rounder. I fired more than 200 rounds through the Mini and experienced only one malfunction--a stovepipe. Though I'd swabbed the barrel with J-B, I never cleaned the action.
If you're looking for a handy, lightweight sporting rifle chambered in .223, I would look no further than the new 580-series Mini-14. The little Ruger is rock solid, reliable and accurate. I'm convinced that with more shooting, my test Mini-14 may yet "shoot in" even better. I'm impressed enough with the new and improved Mini-14 that I'm planning to cut a check for it to Ruger and add it to my gunsafe. If so, I'll try to provide a post 500-round report regarding its accuracy.
Ruger has proven that "new and improved" sometimes really is.