In the late 1960s, my dad and I had a friend, Dale Brashears, who had a friend who had a big prairie dog town quite far east of the major populations, thus not too far from our home near Kansas City. We had our deer rifles, but we didn’t have a proper varmint rifle. It was probably 1968 when we went to Simmons in Olathe, Kansas, and traded for a used Ruger No. 1 Standard model in .243 Win. Wood varies on any factory rifle, but this one had a gorgeous stock and was topped with a Leupold 3-9X scope. In those days of fixed 4X optics, a 3-9X was our idea of a real varmint scope.
We shot a lot of prairie dogs with that rifle, and, later, I used it for quite a bit of deer and pronghorn hunting. Accuracy was consistently exceptional, and although I’d worshipped the No. 1 from afar (since I saw it in G&A in October ’66, right?), that particular rifle started a lifelong love affair. I can’t tell you how many Ruger No. 1s I’ve owned, or how many test rifles I wish I had bought. In the latter group, the Ruger No. 3 was a simplified, plainer version manufactured from 1973 to 1986. I never owned one, but when I was the junior guy at G&A, circa 1980, I got to do a field test on a No. 3 in .22 Hornet and .375 Winchester. Of the many No. 1s that slipped through and past my hands, those No. 3s shot so well that they are the ones I most wish I’d kept!
For years my go-to varmint rifle was a heavy-barrel No. 1 in .22-250. I have no idea why I let it go, but that’s a fairly common refrain with me and my guns. Today my go-to varmint rifle is another No. 1. My current Varminter wears stainless and laminate, chambered for .204
Ruger, at least equally accurate and consistent. There was a Light Sporter (1-A) in .270 Winchester that I just loved; it was light and handy. I hunted with it a lot, but it was a bit subject to barrel heat (more about that later). Then there was a .405 Winchester. I had no idea what it was for, but it was too interesting so I bought it anyway. Then I had an epiphany. With that strong action and 400-grain .411-inch bullets it could be loaded up to .450/.400 Nitro Express ballistics. I gave it to my daughter, Brittany; she’s taken a lot of smaller game with standard .405 loads, and she’s taken Cape buffalo, water buffalo and such with hopped-up loads.
I suppose that gave me the idea. It was sort of at my instigation that Hornady revived the .450/.400-3-in., and the Ruger No. 1 Tropical was the first modern rifle chambered to this grand old cartridge. My wife, Donna, and I shot the first Cape buffaloes to fall to the new .450/.400. A few years back I worked with Ruger on a special run of No. 1s, a five-rifle series in “African calibers,” matte finish with upgraded iron sights, detachable mounts, and English walnut. I have all five and have hunted with them: 7×57, .300 H&H, .375 Ruger, .450/.400-3-inch and .450-3¼-inch Nitro Express. The .300 H&H is the single most accurate No. 1 I’ve ever owned. In that light rifle, the .450 is one of the hardest-kicking guns I’ve ever owned. Hindsight being 20-20, I intend to keep the No. 1 I have now … and I’m sure there will be more.
Chamberings & Variations Although the Ruger No. 1 action has changed but little, it has been offered in several styles and configurations, and in stainless and laminate as well as blued steel and walnut. The most common are: 1-A Light Sporter, light barrel, Henry forend, open sights; 1-B Standard rifle, medium barrel, semi-
beavertail forend, no open sights; 1-H Tropical, heavy barrel, Henry forend, open sights; 1-S Medium Sporter, medium barrel, Henry forend, open sights; 1-V Special Varminter, heavy barrel, semi-beavertail forend, target scope mounts; 1-RSI International, 20-inch barrel with Mannlicher stock, open sights.
The big difference with the No. 1 is it has been factory chambered to, I believe, more different cartridges than any other factory rifle: more than 60 (not including one-off custom shop
jobs). The Ruger action is pretty much a one size fits all. To my knowledge, it has never been factory chambered to a centerfire .17, so in caliber ascension it starts with .204 Ruger; in power it starts with .218 Bee. In terms of pressure, it has no limitation with any sporting cartridge but there is an upper end to the size the action can handle. I have seen custom jobs resulting in a .470 Nitro Express No. 1, but most Nitro Express cartridges above .450 (and including the .450 No. 2 and .500/.450) are based on the .500 Nitro Express rim and base diameter. This is too big for the action, so serious custom work is needed to ensure proper operation. Thus, the most powerful cartridge ever chambered to the No. 1 is probably the .458 Lott, while the “largest cartridge” is the old straight-cased .450-3 ¼-inch Nitro Express. (Yeah, I talked them into that one, too.) This case pretty much maxes out the action, but if you’re a real glutton for punishment, the action has the strength and that big case has the capacity, you can go a lot farther than the traditional 480-grain bullet at 2,150 feet per second (fps)!
Performance The Ruger No. 1 can be exceedingly accurate, but it has a not-altogether-unwarranted reputation for being a bit finicky. To some extent this is caused by the mid-point forend screw securing the forend to the ejection spring housing. When colleague and former G&A gunwriter Jon Sundra started out, he did most of his hunting with the Ruger No. 1. It takes custom work, but he learned that accuracy could be, if not improved, made more consistent by getting rid of the forend screw and modifying the rifle so the forend was secured at the action.
This is not simple work, and I’ve never gone that route. My spin is that there is rarely a problem with heavier barrels. I’ve never seen accuracy problems, or even finickiness, with Special Varminters or Tropical rifles, both with heavy barrels. Most Standard Rifles and Medium Sporters I’ve encountered have also shot well. My .300 H&H, for instance, is a Medium Sporter configuration, and it’s capable of quarter-inch groups (but no factory rifle from anyone can do that consistently). I have no experience with the full-stocked International, but most of the challenges I have encountered have been with Light Sporters: Light barrel and forend screw, probably complicated by that incredibly gorgeous barrel band and forward sling swivel. In most cases it hasn’t been a genuine accuracy problem, but more a matter of having to work really hard to find a load the rifle likes. It took forever to find a load that my 7×57 likes, but once found it’s very repeatable. As with any light barrel, rapid heating and impacts “climbing” can also be an issue.
As with any factory rifle, some will be more accurate than others, but one thing I’ve found consistent: Bill Ruger’s extraction/ejection system works! In thousands of rounds and dozens of rifles, I’ve never seen a Ruger No. 1 fail to extract and eject, each and every time. Interestingly, it works just as well with rimless cases as well as rimmed. And, like most Ruger products, what a godsend to have integral scope bases on the quarter rib. I’ve never seen a problem there, either!
Capabilities & Limitations Aside from sheer looks and short overall length, part of the charm to the Ruger No. 1 is the one-shot ethic. With practice you can get pretty quick about dropping another cartridge into the chamber. The No. 1 can certainly be loaded more quickly (and with less movement) than any break-open or exposed-hammer single-shot design, but not as quickly as any repeater. So the single shot is part of the charm, and also the primary limitation. I have done quite a lot of dangerous game hunting with Ruger No. 1s, and I have no reservations about it. But I am generally not hunting dangerous game alone, and I think it’s a bad idea to do so.
Otherwise the No. 1 is suited for just about any hunting, with a qualifying statement. By its nature the No. 1 is either fully loaded or fully unloaded; while the tang safety is very positive, there are no half-measures. In my view, this makes it a good choice for supervised beginners — just like a single-barrel shotgun. It remains unloaded until the mentor says, “load up.” This fact, however, serves as a limitation under some circumstances. For instance, on a horseback hunt, its flat profile is wonderful in a saddle scabbard, but clearly it must be unloaded, so a cartridge is one more thing to fumble with if you have to jump off a horse for a quick shot.
There’s one thing more about the single-shot rifle concept that, although purely psychological, actually has tremendous impact: You know that, in all likelihood, you’re only going to get one shot. That makes you extra careful, which is definitely a good thing.