In 1977, a BMW 320i cost $7,990. The average home was $49,000 and a gallon of gas was 65 cents. The Apple IIe personal computer made its debut for $1,398, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. unveiled its Red Label over-under shotgun at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits for $480.
Much has changed since then.
From 1977 to 2011, the Red Label was the American-made over-under. Some loved it for its mechanical robustness and stock dimensions—reminiscent of Golden Age American classics—while others bought it to avoid being caught afield shooting a Japanese or Italian gun. There are also those who didn’t like the Red Label for the same reasons, citing clunkiness, a stock design more befitting of riflemen and poor wood-to-metal finish. Whatever your opinion, the gun performed the way Bill Ruger designed it; the way all Rugers did. The company’s first and by far most popular shotgun was the epitome of Ruger’s style, a style that’s famous for function over form. That style is finally changing, as evidenced by the company’s cutting-edge polymer LC-series pistols, its American rifle and now, the rebirth of the Red Label.
For the majority of its 75 years Ruger engineered robust steel guns designed to last indefinitely. Its manufacturing technique of casting the Red Label’s receiver from two pieces and welding them together won awards for innovation at that time. Perhaps its trigger didn’t inspire poetry, and maybe its lines more closely favored John Deere than a 1977 Olivia Newton John, but that was fine with Ruger, because he realized that many Americans have little use for a leathery two-seater with no trunk. For more than three decades, the Red Label held steadfastly to its working-man’s shotgun niche.
Problem is, customers who prefer pragmatism to aestheticism tend to also be money-conscious. With the early 21st century’s rising labor costs, the shotgun’s hand-fitted stock and action, two painstakingly regulated barrels and more parts than any piece in its catalog, the Red Label simply became too expensive to produce in its Newport, N.H., facility and remain competitive in the foreign-dominated market. The icon’s tomb slid shut as its price rose steadily in the face of a flagging economy. By 2011 a Red Label cost a bird-hunting man more than $2,000. What spare cash folks had for guns went to semi-automatic rifles and handguns—not to yesteryear’s bird gun—and so the all-American over-under with the flaming red Ruger logo was relegated to the large heap of guns that history forgot. More on the logo later.
Ironically, the same tactical sales boom that buried the Red Label has resurrected it, because 2011, ’12 and ’13 brought windfall years to Ruger after it reinvented itself. “Our earnings nearly doubled from the first quarter of 2011, driven by the 49 percent growth in sales and our ongoing focus on continuous improvement in our operations,” wrote Ruger CEO Mike Fifer in a 2012 first quarter report. In fact, 2011-12 was so prosperous that Ruger became the first commercial gun company to build and ship more than 1 million guns in one year during its “Million Gun Challenge” that resulted in $1,253,700 donated to NRA. Surplus funds enabled Fifer to hire new engineers and marketers—and buy machinery—so the company could refocus on deficient areas in its product line. He hired Dwight Potter (of Browning’s edgy Cynergy project) whose mission was to not redesign the Red Label but to re-engineer it.
“Engineers looked at every single part of the gun, and if there was a better way to make its manufacture more efficient they redesigned that part or came up with another way to do it,” said Ruger Hunting Product Manager Craig Cushman. (Cushman was recently hired away from Smith & Wesson.)
So in 2013, Ruger officially re-launched the Red Label 12 gauge, with some manufacturing changes that allowed it to be made, once again, affordably and in Newport. It’s also gained subtle changes that Ruger says lend it more liveliness, all while still offering features that American hunters tend to like. Unlike the original release of the Red Label that broke tradition by introducing the 20 gauge first, the new model made its debut in 12 gauge,likely due to that platform’s broader appeal. Cushman says that while there is no definite date, the 20 gauge will happen—a claim I know to be true since I’ve shot it. But before we talk about the future, let’s review what’s currently available. After all, theory is great, but in reality how many parts can an engineer redesign to make the gun less expensive to produce without cheapening it?
What follows is a rundown of what Ruger did differently with the new Red Label, how it did it, and whether it accomplished its design goals.
In essence, the 12-ga. Red Label is a 7-lb., 8-oz., boxlock over-under with a steel receiver,
3″ chambers, single-selective trigger, automatic safety, screw-in choke tubes and a semi-pistol grip stock of American walnut. The fore-end is attached via a Deeley & Edge-style latch and is very trim, which I believe wingshooters benefit from because it allows the face, hands and eye the closest possible contact with the bore line.
The brushed-finish receiver is cast from stainless steel then machined in a CNC center. What results is a monolithic gun part that is not only produced much faster than with more traditional methods, but is so accurate from receiver to receiver that no handfitting is required to ensure precise lockup to the monobloc. This is the key to cost savings.
The CNC process shaves the comma-shaped trunnions and cut-outs in the breechface, through which a bifurcated, wedge-shaped locking bolt protrudes to bite bolting lugs that extend rearward from both sides of the monobloc when the action is closed. A top lever trip plunger in the breechface is depressed by the monobloc as it closes, allowing the stainless steel top lever and the locking bolt to enter their locked positions. A maximum receiver height of 2.41″ is 0.19″ taller than the old model. (The 20 gauge, while made exactly the same way, is built on a scaled-down frame measuring 2.24″ high.) That measurement includes the beginning of the barrel rib that is machined directly into the receiver for maximum sight plane radius and an aesthetically pleasing appearance when it mates to the barrel rib upon closing the action.
The receiver’s side walls flare to 0.27″ thick at the top for strength and decoration while tapering to 0.15″ for their remainder. Like the old receiver, it owns a surgical-clean look with no exposed pins, screws or clutter. One of the best ways to tell the old model from the new at a profile glance is at the rear edge of the receiver, where metal meets wood. With the barrels pointing to the right, the new model’s sidewall metal is angled slightly like a backslash on your keyboard (\), giving it a racier appearance than the squared receiver of old. The receiver’s belly features the guns’ engraved name, place of origin and the iconic Ruger logo.
The inside belly of the receiver features a machined recess that cradles a recoil lug on the monobloc that reduces stress on the trunnions when closed and grants the action rock-solid lockup. Four parallel holes (two on each side of the recess) provide the pathways through which twin square cocking rods pass. They anchor on the pivoting fore-end sears and use the gun’s opening leverage to pass through the bottom of the breechface and cock the hammers.
The receiver’s tang measures 33⁄8″ and arcs downward 0.7″ before terminating at the pistol grip’s wrist where it measures 413⁄16″ in diameter. The 1.0″ rectangle safety latch sports a stepped pyramid shape to facilitate its manipulation even with gloved hands. It consumes the last portion of the tang. Slid forward to fire, it is returned to the safe position either manually or automatically via an internal connector as the release lever is actuated. In my experience, bird hunters prefer automatic safeties while target shooters loathe them. Evidently Ruger thinks similarly. The tail-end of the safety pivots left and right to select either barrel for the first trigger pull. I found the selector slightly too easy to inadvertently switch during normal hunting activities.