The timing couldn’t have been better for William Ruger when he and Alexander Sturm became business partners in January 1949. Ruger had been making hand tools for the previous few years, but business wasn’t going well.
He was $40,000 in debt and just about ready to close up shop. Ruger showed Sturm a prototype of something new that he was working on, harking back to his previous life with the military and arms development. Sturm liked what he saw and agreed to bankroll the project with $50,000.
Immediately, the two men began laying the foundation for what would become one of the largest firearms companies in the United States.
The first Ruger “factory” was in a small, unassuming building affectionately dubbed the “Red Barn” across the street from a railroad depot in Southport, Connecticut. The company’s first offering was equally unassuming: a semi-automatic .22-caliber pistol designed for plinking.
The gun’s design was inspired by World War II handguns from the Axis powers, as it has a similar silhouette appearance of both the Japanese Nambu and the German Luger. The ergonomics of those guns were tweaked to create the Standard, which is lauded by shooters as well-balanced, easy to hold, and easy to shoot.
Initially, a total of eight barreled pistol receivers were made as test guns for the new design. Ruger Standard Serial Number 3 was the first gun to leave the factory. Serial numbers 1 and 2 were retained internally.
Soon after, Maj. Gen. Julian Hatcher, Technical Editor for American Rifleman magazine, received Serial No. 7 for testing. Warren Page, Shooting Editor for Field & Stream, got No. 8. Most important, though, was Serial No. 3. That pistol was purchased by assembly department foreman John L. “Jack” Boudreau, making it the first Ruger gun ever shipped, on September 15, 1949.
Sturm and Ruger let Boudreau take possession of the pistol despite the fact that the guns weren’t quite ready for primetime. Some of the internal frame springs and pins were handmade one-offs.
The serial numbers on the first eight guns were hand-stamped because the machine for that wasn’t up and running yet.
A final magazine design hadn’t been completed yet, so Boudreau’s Serial No. 3 pistol utilized a modified High Standard HD pistol magazine. Grip medallions, which feature the now-iconic Ruger logo, hadn’t arrived, so blank discs were inserted as placeholders.
Despite this, Bill and Alex knew that if anyone could whip the gun into shape, it would be Jack. Already an accomplished competitive shooter, Boudreau used that first pistol in a series of local matches and placed well in each, even winning medals in a couple of them.
Just a couple weeks later, on October 6, the first batch of production guns were officially shipped from the factory. By January 1, 1950, a total of 1,138 Ruger Standard pistols had been completed and shipped to waiting customers.
By February 1950, Sturm, Ruger & Company had a backorder of 5,000 units and a production capacity of 900 guns per month. By summer, the backlog had grown to 9,000 units and production capacity had only risen slightly to 1,000 guns per month. This is a testament to the little gun’s rugged design, ease of use, and affordability. Finally, there was a .22 pistol on the market that everyone could afford to own and everyone could learn how to shoot.
A backlog wasn’t a good thing if you were a consumer, but as a manufacturer, it was was a sign of good things to come. Within a year, the little startup company from Connecticut had gained traction and would continue to advance at a rapid pace.
There was, however, an unexpected blow just around the corner. Alexander Sturm contracted viral hepatitis and died unexpectedly in November 1951 at the young age of 28.
The company’s heraldic eagle logo that is today instantly recognizable was originally designed by Sturm. Paying homage to his fallen business partner, Bill Ruger changed the color of the eagle logo from red to black. It wasn’t until 1999 and the celebration of the Ruger Standard’s 50th anniversary that the logo would return to red.
Picking Up Steam
Not wanting to rest on any laurels or be seen as a one-trick-pony, Ruger decided to diversify the company’s offerings. Given the popularity of westerns and six-guns in the 1950s, Ruger introduced their first single action revolver in 1953.
With its success, the company continued to offer a wider variety of firearms. The Single-Six, Blackhawk, and Bearcat—all single-action revolvers—were introduced by the end of the decade
The company’s only flop came in 1969/70, but it wasn’t a gun. Bill Ruger collected high-end antique cars. In that vein, he designed the Ruger Tourer, a car based on the luxurious Bentley.
Bill soon found out that he read the market wrong—a rare occurrence. Only two were ever made, and the company’s focus turned back to guns.
Due to the brand’s success and popularity, Ruger became publicly-traded for the first time in 1969.
The 1970s saw the birth of the “-Six” revolver series, the “New Model” transfer bar revolver, the Old Army black powder revolver, the Mini-14 rifle, and the Red Label O/U shotgun. By 1979 – the company’s 30th anniversary – Ruger had seen tremendous success and growth.
The company was already ticking off production milestones one by one in rapid succession. Over the next few decades, they produced:
- 1970: one millionth “Old Model” single-action revolver (17 years)
- 1978: one millionth 10/22 semi-automatic rifle (14 years)
- 1979: one millionth Standard semi-automatic pistol (30 years)
- 1979: one millionth “New Model” single-action revolver (6 years)
- 1982: one millionth Security-Six double-action revolver (10 years)
- 1987: one millionth Model 77 bolt-action rifle (19 years)
- 2007: five millionth 10/22 semi-automatic rifle (29 years)
- 2012: 1.3 million guns sold in just 228 days (1/1/12 to 8/15/12)
Some of the milestone guns received special treatment. The one millionth Ruger Standard was engraved and inlaid with gold by Master Engraver Ray Viramontez. It was then auctioned to the highest bidder in connection with the 1980 NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits, with proceeds going to the International Shooter Development Fund.
The pistol now resides in the NRA National Firearms Museum under a portrait of Bill Ruger in the gallery he endowed.
Paul Lantuch was the in-house Master Engraver for Ruger, so he worked on a few of the milestone guns, too. The one millionth Security-Six revolver was engraved and inlaid by Lantauch, then auctioned off at the 1985 SHOT Show, with proceeds benefiting the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Serial numbers 1,000,000 and 1,000,001 of the M77 bolt-action rifle were also engraved and inlaid by Lantuch. The factory retains serial number 1,000,000 and proudly displays it at their headquarters, while serial number 1,000,001 recently found a new home in a private collection.
When the company celebrated 50 years in 1999, it had already cemented its place in firearms history. Quite literally, tens of millions of gun owners had Ruger firearms in the field, in their safes, on the range, and in their trucks.
Into the 21st Century
In 2000, Ruger finally retired at the age of 84. His son took over as chairman and CEO of the company. Just two years later, Bill Ruger died in 2002, having spent 53 years involved in the operations of the company he helped found.
His son, Bill Ruger, Jr., passed in 2018 after 42 years of employment with his father’s company. Even though no one with the Ruger name has officially run the company in more than a decade (Jr. retired in 2006), the company remains a force to be reckoned with in the American firearms market. In fact, it is the only American firearms company that is publicly traded on its own and not as a part of a parent company.
In 2018, on the cusp of septuagenarian status, Ruger refused to show its age and gave us a taste of what was to come. The M77 bolt-action rifle celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the LCP semi-automatic pistol celebrated its 10th anniversary. (That design has been successful since day one; company lore says that the reps returned from the 2008 SHOT Show with orders for 70,000 LCP pistols!)
Late in 2018, the company announced the Ruger Custom Shop, which began producing competition-grade versions of the SR1911 pistol and the 10/22 rifle. They also shocked many by revealing that longtime Smith & Wesson shooting team captain Doug Koenig had signed on as the newest member of the Ruger team.
The new SR1911 from the custom shop was created with Koenig’s input and bears his name on the slide.
70 Years and Counting
Now that it’s 2019 and Ruger is officially 70, the company is ready to celebrate in a big way, with more firearms than ever before.
Their newest product catalog boasts more than 150 pages, filled with 40 different product lines available in more than 600 variations, including more than 30 new-for-2019 variations of their pistols, rifles, and revolvers.
Some of the new offerings include the Ruger Precision Rimfire rifle in .17 HMR and .22 WMR, the Hawkeye Long-Range Target rifle, the Ruger Precision Rifle in .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum, the AR-556 rifle in .450 Bushmaster, and more.
The Standard pistol lives on, today in a variant known as the Mk IV. Like the previous three versions, this new one maintains all of the classic appeal of the original Standard; it simply updates the platform for today’s market. Most importantly, the Mk IV solves the difficulty of takedown and reassembly—the only drawback to the gun throughout its production life.
That the Mk IV is selling incredibly well after all these years is a testament to the Ruger Standard’s popularity with shooters young and old, beginner and seasoned pro alike.
The Mark series has also spawned the 22/45 and the 22/45 Lite series of pistols which have become popular with competition shooters. The “45” comes from the fact that this gun is basically the same upper as the Mark series, but with a lower receiver that has a grip modeled after the grip size and angle on the M1911.
The idea was that it could be used as a cheap way to train U.S. troops who would be carrying the M1911A1 pistol. Turns out, the grip angle suits some shooters better than the more acute Luger-like angle of the Standard, and later the Mark series.
There’s even talk about the Custom Shop announcing more models to their high-end lineup.
The humble startup consisting of just a few guys now has 1,800+ employees. Still based in Connecticut, Ruger has five factories across the US. The original “Red Barn” still stands, and is today home to a real estate company. Alexander Sturm’s $50,000 investment sure paid off: Sturm, Ruger & Company is currently worth $940 million.
Anniversaries are a time to look back and reminisce. Given the company’s success, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Sturm and Mr. Ruger would have big smiles on their faces if they were here today to help celebrate.