In the not-so-distant past, before I was old enough to drive and worry about truck payments, I toiled in the hot Georgia sun doing anything that would earn me a buck — for one reason. At summer’s end, my shooting buddy and I would pile into a pickup, head to the area’s best gun store and lay down every penny we had made on a new rifle or shotgun. I suspect that quite a few other kids in rural America did — and still do — the same thing.
Not for a second did I regret seeing my earnings forked over the counter because they were always spent on a quality firearm. If anything, I was following American tradition. Many a frontiersman watched a whole season of furs go to pay for a fine flintlock, and quite a few sharecroppers saved for years for a good bobwhite gun. I still have and use all the rifles, shotguns and handguns bought during those years. After all, we all expect our guns to last.
So, the most recent trend in rifles, a product of tough economic times, is to produce something cheap. Needless to say, I am not a big fan of that. Euphemisms such as “affordable” and “inexpensive” appear in the marketing literature when the adjectives “clunky” and “ugly” are more apt in many cases. Lousy triggers and minute-of-pie-plate accuracy seem to be the rule. Manufacturers sigh when someone mentions these shortcomings and ask, “Well, it’s an inexpensive rifle. What did you expect?”
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Ruger, to its credit, chose another route. The designers did not set out to build a cheap rifle. Instead, they set out to build a very nice rifle that happens to be inexpensive. The new Ruger American is also a departure from the stalwart Model 77. Gone is the investment-cast, controlled-round-feed action with twin, opposing locking lugs and a trigger group that could be politely described as average. The American is a svelte 61/2 pounds and has eye-pleasing lines. It functions and shoots as good as it looks.
Last February, the rifle was an idea with a price in mind. The bosses locked one manufacturing and three design engineers, all very talented and experienced rifle guys, in a conference room, shoving pizzas and beer under the door, until the first prototype was finished. In only 10 months after getting started, the American was rolling off production lines. The designers did not set out to build a cheap rifle. Instead, they designed it for affordability. There is a difference.
The receiver starts as a length of 4140 chrome-moly bar stock. After a few minutes in the mill, it rolls out with slick, angular lines. Ruger is pairing the new receiver with its tried-and-true cold-hammer-forged barrel. Cold-hammer forging is a way to turn out a great barrel quickly. Both are finished with a matte-black oxide finish, and there is no recoil lug sandwiched between.
Some Ruger diehards might be shocked to find a barrel nut attaching the two, but instead of some huge, knurled lug nut, the small part is barely noticeable. During assembly, a collet grabs the barrel nut and applies the proper torque without marring the part. The nut is a great way to set minimum headspace quickly and efficiently, increasing accuracy. It is a feature common to inexpensive rifles, though Ruger’s nut is by far the best looking.
A new bedding system replaces the recoil lug and is one of the American’s big innovations. Two sets of slots are machined into the underside of the receiver fore and aft of the ejection port are matching, cast stainless steel V-blocks set into the molded stock. Since they are molded into the stock, the V-blocks cannot move a micron. Two Allen-head screws secure the action to the blocks, capturing the stock in the process. The result is a steel-on-steel-on-steel system immune to crushing plastic or wood. The company refers to it as “Power Bedding,” and it’s one of two patented features on the rifle. One side of the V-block has a slight radius to account for manufacturing tolerances and guarantee that the action seats consistently each time the screws are torqued down.
A Sensible Push-Feed
Unless you hunt Cape buffalo or elephants on a regular basis, controlled-round feed is overkill in my book, complicating something that should be simple. It is also expensive to manufacture, cast receiver or not. So the American dumps this overwrought affectation for a full-bodied, one-piece, push-feed bolt of brushed steel. This eliminates the need to machine or broach raceways in the receiver and is very smooth when cycled. Listening closely to customer preferences, Ruger put three lugs on the bolt head and reduced bolt throw to 70 degrees. A fairly standard plunger-style ejector and sliding-blade extractor get cartridges in — and out of — the chamber.
One of the big disadvantages of a shorter bolt throw is the increased difficulty in cocking the rifle or “running” the bolt. Engineers were quick to notice this and borrowed a previously thought-of solution — dual cocking cams. This allows shooters to more easily cycle the bolt, even when the rifle is mounted. The smooth bolt handle, by the way, is machine turned, then bent to its final shape. It wears the same matte-black finish as the receiver, a nice contrast to the brushed bolt body.
Triggers have always been the Achilles heel of inexpensive rifles — and expensive rifles, for that matter. The new Ruger Marksman adjustable trigger is, frankly, better than most, if not all, stock Model 77 Hawkeye triggers I have tried in the last 20 or so years. Crisp with little travel, the American’s trigger is also end-user adjustable with an adjustment range of 3 to 5 pounds. Turning a set screw at the front of the trigger body changes the pull weight. Most shooters will be familiar with the small safety blade that protrudes from the trigger’s face, just like a Glock or Marlin X7 or Savage AccuTrigger, though Ruger’s design locks the trigger, not the sear.
In a tip of the hat to the original Model 77 Mk 1 and customer preference, there is a two-position, top-tang safety just behind the bolt shroud. It is not part of the receiver tang but rather an extension of the trigger housing. The safety does not lock the action, so you can cycle the bolt to empty the chamber while the gun is on Safe. Another nice touch is the left-side bolt release, which lies flush with the receiver until the bolt is pulled all the way rearward.
The absolute No. 1 way to tell a cheap rifle from a nice rifle at a distance is the stock. The Marlin X7 was the first budget rifle to have a stock that would not embarrass you on the range in front of your friends. The American stock is a beauty queen, too, as beautiful as glass-filled polypropylene can be. Straight-combed with a palm-filling but elegant pistol grip and integral triggerguard, the stock wears enough stippled finish to stick but not look ugly. A finger shelf runs almost the entire length of the foreend. Add a recoil pad with just enough give and a red-inlay Ruger phoenix on the pistol-grip cap and you have yourself a damn nice piece of plastic.
While blind magazines are more aesthetically pleasing, detachable box magazines sell rifles. The American’s magazine is molded from the same material as the stock, flush with the underside radius and, thank God, does not rattle. A small but easy-to-grab spring-loaded latch snaps into place and holds the magazine close. The rotary design borrows a page from the 10/22 magazine and holds four rounds in standard calibers.
Gone, too, are the proprietary rings, and in their place are four drilled-and-tapped holes that accept No. 46 Weaver bases. Ruger is currently supplying the bases with each rifle.
Every spring, pin, nut and bolt is manufactured in the U.S., hence the rifle’s name.
So where are corners cut on this really nice, loaded-with-features rifle? In every single place possible, metal injection molded or plastic parts are utilized, but that is about it. Because the rifle was designed from day one to not use exotic materials or special tooling, no parts are hand fit, and because Ruger plans on making a lot of these rifles and buys parts and hammers out barrels by the truckload, it is less expensive to manufacture. The genius is streamlining production while improving performance. I see the Power Bedding, Marksman trigger and new receiver as improvements over a Model 77 and at half the price.
The finish on some of the parts you cannot see is less than perfect, and where the tang safety, receiver and stock all meet could use some tweaking. Past that, the American is a fine-looking rifle.
And yes, the rifles shoot like a dream. Company officials said every Ruger American is first proofed and then accuracy tested before leaving the factory, though that might change at some point. I have tested two (in .30-06), and both shot sub-MOA with a couple of different factory loads, and the overall accuracy average was every bit as good as other, more expensive rifles.
I have also hunted whitetail in Texas with the American and love the way the rifle handles. I prefer still hunting to stand hunting, and the American is made for a fellow who likes to hold a rifle in his hands. At a shade over seven pounds with scope, the American is light enough to carry all day but properly balanced. Careful blending of the magazine contours with the stock contours makes it comfortable to carry at the balance point, and there is not a sharp edge or large appendage to catch on clothing or brush. The rifle does not rattle, something other riflemakers cannot seem to get right. It cycles so smoothly you have to double-check that a round went into the chamber (it always did).
When I shouldered the American and lined up the scope on a mature 5×5 at Picosa Ranch, the American was perfect for the job at hand. As rifles go, the Ruger American is inexpensive, but it delivers where it matters. Then or now, I would not give a second thought to buying one with my hard-earned pay.
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