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Past & Present: Ruger No. 1 Rifle Review

Past & Present: Ruger No. 1 Rifle Review

Several Ruger firearms are the result of Bill Ruger Sr.'s ideas on how designs that originated with other inventors could be improved. It is no secret that he intended his Blackhawk single-action revolver to be a stronger and more durable version of Colt's Army revolver, and it has proven to be exactly that. Then there's the Ruger Hawkeye single-shot pistol with its swing-out breechblock in .256 Winchester Magnum that is much like the Rollin White single-shot pistol of 1858 and bears some resemblance to Colt's Camp Perry of 1926 to 1941. Ruger's stylish No. 1 single-shot rifle, which is the subject of this report, is another example.

The No. 1 is not a copy of the English-built Farquharson, but the two rifles share levels of grace and beauty seen in few other firearms. During an early-1960s interview for a local newpaper, Ruger opined that a fair-sized group of American hunters would always relish the idea of practicing the art of stalking game and ending the hunt with a single, carefully placed shot at a reasonable distance. During a hunting trip in the Yukon with Jack O'Connor, Robert Chatfield-Taylor, and stockmaker Lenard Brownell, Ruger brought up his plan to design and build a single-shot rifle. His goal was to utilize investment casting along with other modern manufacturing technologies in bringing back to life the elegance of the Victorian era at an affordable price.

During that Yukon hunt, Brownell accepted an invitation from Ruger to work for Sturm, Ruger & Co., where he would be in charge of manufacturing the new rifle. One of the country's top stockmakers at the time, Brownell was also responsible for designing the stock and forearm. He relocated his family to New Hampshire in 1965, and on September 15, 1966, the very first Ruger No. 1 departed the factory. Serial numbered 935, it had a 26-inch barrel in .308 Winchester and a semibeavertail forearm.

But before the first No. 1 could be built, it had to be designed, and that responsibility rested on the shoulders of engineers Larry Larson and Harry Sefried. One of the more challenging directives to come from Mr. Ruger was to make the action more compact than some of the single-shot actions of under-lever, falling-block design of the past. The No. 1 action is sometimes described as hammerless, but it has a rather massive hammer within its receiver. The receivers of some of the earlier European single shots had to be made large in order to make room for an internal hammer and its spring. Larson and Sefried avoided that by positioning the hammer low and centrally in the receiver and by moving the hammerspring to an integral steel hanger projecting forward from the front of the receiver. A steel strut connects the spring with the toe of the hammer. The hanger also serves as an anchor point for the ejector spring and forearm.

Ruger called his new rifle the "Victorian" during its design stages, but later introduced it to the shooting world as the "Number One." From the beginning receivers were marked "No. 1," and many years later that would become its official name. Production began at a snail's pace, with only three variations offered in 1967. One was the S22L Lightweight with 22-inch barrel in .222 Remington, .22-250, .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .30-06, and .308 Winchester. The S26M with 26-inch, medium-heavy barrel was available in those same chamberings, and the S24H with its heavy, 24-inch barrel was offered only in .458 Winchester Magnum. The price of a rifle was $280 back then, and the barreled action was available for $200.

By 1971 the original model designations had been changed to the now-familiar Nos. 1-A, 1-B, 1-S, 1-V, and 1-H. Prices were reduced to $265 for the rifle and $140 for a barreled action. Other magnum chamberings, such as .264 Winchester, 7mm Remington, and .375 H&H, were added.

Every No. 1 fan has favorites, and I am no exception. For hunting I have always preferred the Alexander Henry-style forearms of the 1-A, 1-H, and 1-S. To my eyes those versions are the most handsome of all No. 1s. The wider and longer forearms of the 1-B and 1-V are more stable when resting on a sandbag, making them better for varmint shooting. And since the front sling-swivel stud is mounted on the forearm rather than out on the barrel, those two models can be used with a Harris bipod.

I bought my first No. 1 in 1967 and first used it on a hunt in Wyoming for mule deer and pronghorn antelope during that year. That first No. 1 has a nonprefix, four-digit serial number; an Alexander Henry forearm; and a 22-inch barrel in .30-06. The front sight ramp on early rifles was slotted for a hood, but according to Joe Clayton's book Ruger No. 1, only three hoods were made and none was shipped. My rifle has the slot but no hood. The bottom of the breechblock of my rifle has a number matching the serial number on the receiver, indicating it was hand-fitted, as all early rifles were. Other variations exist, but I'll close the subject with scope rings. Those that came with my early rifle are split vertically, whereas those made after late 1967 are split horizontally.

No. 1-S, Circa 1987 (Rechambered from 7mm Rem. Mag. to 7mm STW)
No. 1 S26M, Circa 1967 (.222 Rem.; later renamed No. 1-B)
A massive breechblock sliding up and down in its mortise in the receiver makes the No. 1 action extremely strong and durable. The end of the cocked hammer can be seen here protruding below the bottom of the breechblock.
The absence of a magazine makes the No. 1 ideal for cartridges of various lengths, including the .308 Winchester and .300 H&H Magnum shown here.
With a No. 1 slung over a shoulder, the barrel does not extend above one's head, making it ideal for carrying in thick, brushy country.
This faded photo from 1967 shows the first Ruger No. 1 owned by the author and the first game he took with it.

For a period of about six years I used that No. 1 for a great deal of my big-game hunting. It accounted for four elk, one moose, five pronghorn antelopes, and an assortment of mule deer and whitetails. I used only two loads: the Nosler 180-grain Partition at 2,800 fps for the big stuff and the Speer 150-grain spitzer at 3,000 fps for everything else. Not a single animal was wounded and lost, and not once did I find myself in need of greater firepower.

The safety of the No. 1 consists of a two-position slide on the upper receiver tang. The safeties of some rifles block only the trigger, but the safety of the No. 1 blocks both the hammer and the sear from movement. Through the years I have used quite a few different No. 1s and have never experienced a single problem with the operation of its safety.

Same goes for the ejection of fired cases. When the hammer is in its cocked position, it can be seen through a small window at the front of the under-lever. Operating the safety is a quick way to tell by feel whether or not the hammer is cocked. If the safety cannot be moved rearward to its disengaged position, the hammer is not cocked.

No. 1 Advantages

The Ruger No. 1 offers many advantages to the hunter. For starters, the thinness of its action makes it as comfortable in one-hand carry as the classic Winchester Model 94. The absence of a bolt handle protruding from its side makes it one of the best rifles available for carrying in a saddle scabbard while hunting from horseback. When it is slung over a shoulder, its barrel is not long enough to extend above the top of one's head, making it ideal for carrying through thick, brushy country.

And while I am on the subject of barrels, making one longer is an easy way to gain velocity, and a long barrel on the No. 1 does not result in a long overall length. Due to its extremely short action, a No. 1 with a 26-inch barrel actually has the same length overall as a long-action Remington Model 700 with a 22-inch barrel. Moving to the other extreme for those who prefer compact rifles, a No. 1-A with a 22-inch barrel is only about a half-inch longer than a Remington Model Seven with an 18.5-inch barrel. Its ambidextrous design makes the No. 1 friendly to both right- and left-handed shooters.

Magazine length in other types of rifles can prevent seating a bullet to an overall cartridge length that puts it close to the rifling, which is sometimes required for best accuracy. The No. 1 has no magazine, so there is no restriction on cartridge length.

In the unlikely event of a blown primer or ruptured case during firing, the massive breechblock deflects propellant gas away from the shooter. Any firearm is only as safe as the person using it, but no other type of firearm is as safe to use as a single shot. It is either completely loaded or totally unloaded, with no place (such as a magazine) for a forgotten cartridge to lurk.

Last but certainly not least, I can think of no other action of any type being produced today that is stronger than the No. 1 action. If it and other types of actions were tested to destruction, it would likely still be in one piece long after the others are blown to bits.

On the negative side, accuracy can vary considerably. My early-production .30-06 is one of the most accurate rifles I have owned in its caliber and is quite capable of shooting inside an inch with several loads. An early No. 1 in .222 Remington I also have is the least accurate rifle of the caliber I have ever shot. I keep it only because the .222 was dropped in 1971, making it one of the rarest of No. 1 chamberings in early guns. Until I traded one of them away, I had two No. 1-Bs in .220 Swift. One averaged close to a half-inch; the other seldom shot a group smaller than 2 inches.

My No. 1-H in .45-70 left the factory during the 1970s as a barreled action and was later stocked by Bob Cassidy. I have to be having a really bad day for it to shoot a group larger than an inch. My 1-B in 6.5 Remington Magnum is also a tackdriver. Same goes for a 1-S that was rechambered from 7mm Remington Magnum to 7mm STW by Montana gunsmith Dennis Olson. My 1-A in 7x57mm Mauser is accurate enough for big-game hunting, but its group size is nothing to brag about.

Until preparing this report I did not realize No. 1 factory options had dwindled to an alarming few. According to the Ruger website, five are slated for production during 2013 and limited to only one chambering each. They are the Light Sporter (1-A) with 22-inch barrel in .222 Remington, Varminter (1-V) with 26-inch barrel in 6.5-284 Norma, Medium Sporter (1-S) with 22-inch barrel in .45-70, Tropical (1-H) with 24-inch barrel in .375 H&H, and International (1-RSI) with full-length forearm and 20-inch barrel in 7x57mm Mauser. For the foreseeable future, available models, configurations, and chamberings will continue to be limited each year.

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