Introduced in 1978 Ruger‘s Red Label has, in the past 31 years, become a classic over-under in its own right. Not to mention being the only American-made production O/U around. What was interesting, was that it was originally introduced in 20-gauge, which sort of turned the “we’ll start with a 12 and work down” conventional marketing wisdom on its head.
I’ve shot Red Labels before, but had never had the opportunity to hunt with one, so when I was invited by Ruger’s Ken Jorgensen to go on a North Dakota pheasant hunt, I jumped at the chance. I’d never hunted North Dakota, having always ignorantly assumed that all the “real” pheasant hunting was in South Dakota. Ken, being a native North Dakotan, was eager to disabuse me of that notion which, as things turned out, he certainly did. Over the course of three days, we hunted west of Bismarck in some of the prettiest prairies, ranchlands and coulees I’d ever seen, first southwest of Killdeer, then near Regent and, finally, south of Bismarck.
What I quickly learned was that this type of prairie hunting bore very little resemblence to the type of geometrically delineated “cornfield push”—with blockers at the end of the line—that I was used to. There was close shooting in some of the tree lines and coulees, but there was also a lot of long range stuff that you had to try for when birds started squirting out of the inevitable gaps between the guns that opened up in the huge chunks of wide-open real estate we were working in.
To be honest, most of my hunting has been with pumps or autos. But I began to appreciated the simple virtues of an over-under on this hunt—namely being able to break the gun and drape it over your shoulder while traversing gullies, fencelines and creek bottoms, undertakings often complicated by waist-high grass. Because the shooting ranges were so variable, the choke selection feature paid off. No, the Red Label O/U’s single selective mechanical trigger and tang-safety mounted barrel selector aren’t as quick to operate as simply reaching for the front (or rear) trigger as you would on an English game gun. But when you’re approaching a good concealment spot for a rooster or three and the dog’s getting birdy, you’ll always have plenty of time to flip that selector to the IC-tubed barrel. And should you wish to use the tighter barrel (M or even F), speed is even less of consideration.
I’ve done a bit of hunting with a 20-gauge gun, but I must confess that this was the only occasion when I really was grateful for the option of being able to use 3-inch shells. The ammo we were using included 2.75-inch Federal Game-Shok Heavy Field Loads as well as the 3-inch Federal Wing-Shok—both featuring No. 6 shot. Granted, the short stuff was fine for most opportunities, but there were a couple of times when the 3-inchers paid off on a wild-flushing, tough old rooster.
Since the Red Label was introduced, the menu of variants has increased considerably. You can now have one in 12, 20 or 28 gauge, with 26 or 28-inch barrels, or with a straight-grip and Prince of Wales-style pistol grip. The one I used was right for me. It had 28-inch barrels and the pistol grip. I love the look of a straight grip, but unfortunately, I have a tendency to shoot high with them, a problem that would only have become exacerbated by the Red Label’s lack of a mid-bead. The pistol grip combined with the stepped rib however, allowed me to keep my head down despite the heavy clothing I was wearing in the field.
After I got home from my North Dakota hunt, I took the Red Label out to a sporting clays range. In the best of all possible worlds, of course, I wouldn’t have picked that “bass-ackwards” order of things, it’s just the way it worked out. I left the choke setup the same way (IC, M) I’d had it while hunting, the only difference being that I used Federal Gold Medal Target loads with No. 8 shot. The gun’s 7 1/2 pound weight seemed just right for liveliness, while featuring enough ballast to effectively dampen my tendency to get ahead of the target. My 26-year-old son, being slightly taller and longer-limbed, fit the gun slightly better than I did, and his score at the end of the day (compared to mine) seemed to bear that out. Or it could’ve been simply that he was having a better day.
The Red Label’s distinctive stainless receiver is unadorned (although you can pony up a couple of hundred bucks more for some engraving). And there are no exposed pins or screws. The stock on my specimen had nice figure to it and wood-to-metal fit was well executed. It also features selective ejectors; only empties get kicked out, loaded shells pop up just enough for easy manual extraction.After 200 rounds in the field and on the range, it lost most of its “new gun stiffness,” meaning it opened and closed without much effort, although the tang safety and barrel selector were still a bit stubborn.
Depsite its lack of adornment, it’s definitely not an economy gun. But it’s austerely attractive, solid and sweet-swinging. And you’ll play hell wearing it out.