William B. Ruger: An American legend & his legacy
Wilson, R L
Bill Ruger chose his own path
as an inventor and
entrepreneur and has
built Sturm, Ruger & Co. into a firm held up as a model business
and one whose firearms are cherished by millions of sportsmen. Bill Ruger has left his mark on our nation, an indelible mark that will continue for generations to come.
DESPITE the enormous publicity given Ruger and his guns over the years, few really know William B. Ruger, the legend or the man. And fewer realize that the man not only lives up to his legend, but surpasses it. Sadly, in spite of the many fields of interest in which he is truly successfulguns, cars, art, entrepreneurial business and manufacturing-Ruger has not been accorded the recognition he deserves. Had his major accomplishments been in any domain other than guns, he would be a darling of the media, a recipient of honorary degrees, national and international design awards, and much, much more.
At his age and station in life, Ruger could easily retire: surrounding himself with his collections of paintings, sculpture, books, sport and vintage cars, firearms, and houses; relaxing with friends, family and his myriad admirers. At 81, his vision for his company-and for the future of the firearms industry on which he has left such an indelible mark during the past 49 years-continues to be penetrating and incisive.
In the twilight of a brilliant career, he is still the bold spokesman for his chosen field, taking on the press, testifying before congressional committees (having done this three times) and preaching the “gospel” of personal responsibility that is summed up in one of his favorite creeds: “To ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth ….”
Bill Ruger’s lifelong fascination with machines, technology and invention-and with firearms in particular-has taken him from an unsettled boyhood in Brooklyn to the highest echelons of American industry. Beginning as a largely self-educated teenager working alone to create a sophisticated .30-cal. machine gun, his versatility and brilliance built a transcontinental industrial empire employing nearly 2,000 workers at five locations, producing almost I million firearms per year. The ancient precision investment casting method, which Ruger developed into a space-age process, has placed his foundries in constant demand from manufacturers in fields as diverse as aerospace, automobiles, medicine and golf.
In the entire 600-year history of firearms, no one has achieved such absolute mastery of the art, craft, science, mechanics, business, tradition and romance of gunmaking as has William Batterman Ruger. Not Oliver F. Winchester, not Eliphalet Remington, not Horace Smith nor Daniel B. Wesson, not the Mauser brothers, not John M. Browning, and not even that benchmark against whom success in the gun business is traditionally measured, the pioneering entrepreneur (“America’s first tycoon”) Col. Samuel Colt.
The Ruger legend is all the more remarkable because it spans a period during which America’s industrial base has been shrinking; when pundits have relegated the country to a service economy; and when media and activist pressures against firearms and hunting have reached peak levels. Yet even as the market shares of other major gun firms have decreased, Ruger’s continues to increase-to the point where, in 1994, it approached 20 percent of the total number of firearms made in the United States. Further, only Ruger, of all the world’s manufacturers, designs, engineers and builds a complete line of rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers. There is a Ruger gun for virtually every sporting, personal-defense, military and police purpose. This unprecedented, unequalled and unsurpassed line is manufactured entirely in Ruger factories in America. And the whole phenomenon sprang literally out of nothing a scant 49 years ago.
As is this weren’t enough, Bill Ruger’s achievements transcend the domains of guns and machines and enter the realm of art. Like the automobiles of Ettore Bugatti or the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or the haute couture of Karl Lagerfeld, the guns of Ruger have their own style, their own magic: All are unmistakably, quintessentially, inexorably and completely identifiable as Rugers.
“We have manufactured over 16 million firearms since 1949, and in the course of doing that, I think we have acquired a real insight into the reasons why people buy guns and why guns appeal to people, aside from a purely utilitarian objective of self-defense or whatever,” said Ruger. “There’s a much deeper significance and appeal to firearms, and you have only to look back to the collections of arms and armor in the great museums of the world to realize that this is a vast category of human creativity. The manufacture of firearms has a strong historical interest and says a great deal about the nature of people’s psyches or mentalities.”
The manufacture of firearms has historically and traditionally occupied a pivotal, pioneering role in American industry. Under the leadership of Ruger, gunmaking has been revitalized and has, in some ways, reassumed a dominant place in contemporary industry and technology. This is particularly true in the area of precision investment casting. Sturm, Ruger & Co. occupies a singular position at the forefront of that far-reaching technology.
Certainly Sturm, Ruger & Co. has been a pivotal institution with far-reaching impact on the shooting sports. As a designer, gunmaker, manufacturer, marketer and technical innovator, Ruger has led the firearms field toward the 21 st century. The string of Sturm, Ruger & Co. successes has influenced and inspired the work of other gun designers and manufacturers. There are more companies manufacturing firearms, ammunition and accessories at this time than in any other decade in the 20th century. Gunmakers, sportsmen, target shooters, collectors and their representative groups are offering the public an unprecedented array of educational programs aimed at improving the shooting sports and stressing firearms safety, while at the same time educating all who will listen to, read about, and observe the exciting and glamorous world of quality firearms.
Ruger’s predominant role in all of this, not only on a national but an international scale, is revealed in many ways. The company’s “redbook”-Firearms Ownership in America: Our Responsibility for the Future-is generally accepted as one of the finest publications on this subject to date and is available to anyone on request, free of charge. In catalogues, manuals, public service messages and advertising in periodicals the company has stressed safety and responsibility more strongly than other makers.
Even as a boy, Ruger showed a keen interest in firearms, and he devoted much of his spare time in his teen years to learning about guns. One day he saw a copy of American Rifleman in the school library. “I was thrilled to realize that there was a whole magazine on the subject of firearms and shooting.” He soon joined NRA and “Every month [he’d] be there knocking on the door [of his friend and neighbor Bill Lett] to see if the Rifleman had come in yet.” It was at this time Ruger acquired his first rifles and began his passion for not only the mechanics of guns but for their sense of history and artistic qualities.
“My interest in firearms is as a shooter and a collector, and I became a collector during my teenage years when guns were not expensive. I saw them as an immensely interesting category of mechanisms, which appealed to a young person with that type of aptitude and interest, and so I became an arms historian in a limited way. That, combined with an interest in making things, is what led me to becoming an engineer working on the design and manufacture of firearms. This company is just a natural growth of all that because by 1949, after my work during World War II, I was equipped with the experience and the insights needed to successfully start a company of this sort. But all through this company’s original conception, even in its current philosophy, runs that thread of the arms collector and insight into what the market asks of the firearms it’s interested in. To the degree that we’ve been able to respond, or have been successful in giving our guns the attributes people like, we ourselves succeeded in business and become stronger as the years have gone by.”
Again, in Ruger’s own words: “The collecting of utilitarian or mechanical things like cars and guns is different from collecting art because collecting cars and guns essentially involves observing technical evolution. The history of firearms parallels the history of industrial development and the rise of precision manufacturing throughout Europe and America in the 18th century. Even in the earliest part of firearms history, the mechanisms then in use required precision fabrication. These guns were handmade and required extreme skill in the use of the primitive tools then available.
“The beginning of the machine tool industry was made possible by the demand for accurate machine tools for the firearms industry throughout New England. These same tools were subsequently used for all kinds of manufacturing. The mechanical engineering, the inventiveness and ingenuity of the early gunmaker and designer can be seen in the hundreds, if not thousands, of gun mechanisms which intrigue collectors today.
“My interest in collecting guns and cars has been primarily to discover the best that’s been made in the past. When they’re great, I find myself in love with them and wanting to own them.”
Ruger has been outspoken in defense of firearms manufacture, private gun ownership and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He has confronted the pundits and has-perhaps most important-advocated safe and responsible practices with his customers, in his advertising, in his product literature, in his packaging, and in special publications created by Sturm, Ruger. All, he points out, has been done without any governmental requirements that he do so.
“I’m a manufacturer because I grew up with a fascination for firearms, as well as other mechanical types of things-cars and so on,” said Ruger. “In the case of firearms, I became aware that there were also legal issues involved. The right to own firearms, while it was guaranteed in the Constitution was often challenged or there were attempts to modify it. This always bothered me, even as a child. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to try to make a simple mechanical object into a form of contraband, or how that could serve a social purpose. I’ve always thought about this question and have heard these arguments pro and con. I’m really a student of this and will say that the whole discussion is academic. In essence, the Bill of Rights should not be challenged. If we do not under the existing phraseology of the Constitution have a genuine right to own and carry firearms, then I say no other part of the Constitution is worth a damn either. If you destroy the Second Amendment, you have destroyed a major thread of the whole Constitution. It should not be weakened by modifications all the time or by trying to make it say what a few people want it to say. The document says what it says. `The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ If you can’t live with that, then you shouldn’t be trying to be an American citizen.
“A constant problem the industry has is that you can’t compromise with gun prohibitionists,” continued Ruger. “Everytime you concede an inch, it’s a wasted concession. That is my view. These people are not interested in rational discourse on how society can best control violent criminals. They simply hate guns, and a complete elimination of these inanimate objects is their actual goal. That is a really shocking and divisive end, in my opinion.
“I think what is often lost sight of today is that the Constitution is there to protect the citizen from the government. It is the bulwark that sustains the liberties we are so used to having and that sometimes we are not even aware of. If it were not for the Constitution, there would be no fixed points as to our social ranking; our relationship with one another, our relationship to the government, the amount of private interest we give up in the interest of cooperating with each other. We talk about a zoning law-it’s giving up the right to absolutely anything with your property, but it means that the man across the street can’t do something that’s going to make his place ugly to you. So, everything is conditioned to a degree and certainly we have given up a lot of freedom to the Constitution, and it in turn limits the government as to what it can do to us and we need that. Governments are instinctively, automatically and inevitably tyrannical. There is no question about it,” he said.
“Another thing that ought to be said is about the Bill of Rights and its whole purpose at the time it was written. All those founding fathers who prepared these amendments to the Constitution or additions to it specified ways in which they reassured the 13 Colonies that they were not bartering away fundamental liberties. In other words, the Bill of Rights enlarged on the original concept of the Constitution and made it much more concrete. This gave the document that force which it still has today, and people who talk about doodling with this thing or making it say what they want it to say are the very ones we should regard as dangerous and wrong to listen to. That some don’t understand what they are doing only makes matters worse. These people can’t leave well enough alone, and they can’t enjoy a great beautiful thing without trying to spoil or tinker with it.”
In reflecting back on his life and his legacy, Ruger said: “The reality in my life is now. I can’t go on forever. When I was younger, I never felt that way, and I even find myself evaluating ideas in terms of whether or not I’ll be around to see if they bear fruit.
“But I see some issues today that need correct decisions, and we need to try to make them. Although I won’t be around to see the results of some actions taken today, I still hope for the continuation of the American way of life. We as a nation have corrected some of our injustices, and we have expanded our concepts of democracy, but at a price. It would be marvelous to know that these changes did not end up spoiling the traditional liberties and tolerance for diverse individualism that mark us as Americans.”
The author of more than 30 books, R.L. Wilson is also the author of Ruger & His Guns: A History of the Man, the Company and Their Firearms, the definitive book on America’s largest firearms manufacturer, Sturm, Ruger & Co. and its founder, William B. Ruger. The 11″ x 8 1/2″ format, 358-page book is lavishly illustrated with
more than 185 color and 100 black-and-white illustrations. The author is graciously donating a portion of the proceeds from books ordered from below to support The NRA Foundation’s worthy educational goals. To order a copy of Ruger & His Guns, send checks or money orders to: R.L. Wilson, Ruger & His Guns (Dept. AR), P.O. Box 430 Hadlyme, CT 06439. The grice is $65 plus $3 shipping, and copies that benefit The NRA Foundation may be autographed by the author upon request.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Jun 1998
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