June 23, 2022
By Joseph von Benedikt
Conceived as an affordable over-under for American sportsmen, the Ruger Red Label cost about the same as two blue-collar home mortgage payments in 1977 when it was first introduced. Built under the directive of Bill Ruger, it was a sleek, classic gun well suited for hunting upland game and busting clay birds.
Introduced in 20 gauge, early iterations were blued, with very nice walnut, fixed chokes, and 26-inch barrels. Two years later, in 1979, Ruger added 12-gauge guns, and eventually, barrels of 28 and 30 inches became available. Much later, in 1994, 28-gauge models were created.
Fixed chokes gave way to more modern, adaptable screw-in chokes in the mid-1980s. Eventually, guns with stainless-steel receivers were introduced, and they are considered by many to be the most aesthetic Red Labels.
Tang safeties serve double duty as barrel selectors. They were the so-called “automatic” type, but they could easily be converted to manual.
Stocks were constructed of walnut, usually with a bit of nice figure. Well-executed, machine-cut checkering was classic in design and complemented the stocks.
Eventually, many variations were made, including an all-stainless model with a synthetic stock, several different anniversary models, and others. Arguably, the nicest standard-catalog version was the Woodside, which featured upgraded walnut and wood side panels on each side of the action. Over a nearly 40-year run, some 150,000 Red Label shotguns were made.
Red Labels generated a small but cult-like following, who admired the all-USA-made ethos, the rugged durability classic to Ruger firearms, and the sleek lines of the action. Naysayers claimed Red Label guns kick hard due to poor stock design and that its weight and balance didn’t promote quick, responsive handling and natural pointing characteristics.
Eventually, the Red Label was discontinued in 2011. However, two years later, a redesigned 12-gauge-only version came back. It featured modifications alleged to reduce weight and improve handling, and it cost $500 less. Unfortunately, the new line didn’t survive, and just three years later, Red Label production ceased again, this time, I presume, permanently.
Ruger’s Red Label is a break-action, double-barrel, over/under shotgun. A top lever on the tang behind the action unlatches the breech and allows it to be opened. As the action opens, a pair of ejectors activate if the gun has been fired. If only one cartridge has been fired, only the applicable barrel’s ejector is activated, leaving the remaining fresh shotshell in its chamber.
A single trigger serves both barrels, and as mentioned, the safety serves as a selector. It’s worth noting that it does not require recoil from a first shot to set the sear for the second barrel.
In the case of the 1980-vintage 20-gauge gun shown here, the top barrel is choked MOD; the bottom barrel is IMP. CYL. The chambers are bored for 3-inch shotshells and are marked accordingly on the left side of the barrel breech, where the marks may only be seen with the gun open. On that note, this Red Label predates all the warning text that is rollmarked onto Ruger’s current rifles and handguns.
A steel ventilated rib runs the length of the top barrel, and it features fine cross-cut corrugation to reduce glare. A well-styled grip cap graces the grip, and Ruger’s classic red recoil pad is fitted to the buttstock. Interestingly, the previous owner must have preferred black because the entire recoil pad is painstakingly covered in a layer of black electrical tape.
An interesting story comes with this gun. A good friend of mine—a big-game guide by profession—was given it by an old gentleman he’d guided several times. His benefactor, who’d hunted a considerable amount of upland game with the Red Label, stated simply that he wanted the gun to go to someone who would appreciate it.
While we don’t know whether the gun was purchased new by the gentleman hunter, the gun itself weaves a tale, starting with that black tape on the red buttpad. Color coordination was clearly important, and while electrical tape to solve a perceived color conflict is in itself a bit hokey, the care with which it was applied, perfectly spaced and straight, indicates a trace of OCD nature that serves old guns so well.
More pertinent, perhaps, is the wear through the bluing at the lower front of the action, just at the balance point. This gun was carried for a lot of miles, yet there’s not a spec of rust, and the bores are sparkly clean.
Additionally, the action is well broken in. Press the latch open, and the gun breaks open slick and smooth, not with the stiffness so many underused double guns exhibit.
The gun resides in a faux leather aftermarket shotgun case that’s nice enough to provide a touch of distinction and to protect the gun without being pretentious or making it a mark for theft. Perhaps thanks to the case, aside from the honest wear from carrying the gun afield, it’s nearly flawless—few scars on the stock or metal.
I confess I’m not a fan of over-unders. I simply have never been drawn to the type. I prefer side-by-side double guns. Plus, I’ve never shot over-unders nearly as well as I do semiautos, pump actions, and side-by-sides. That said, I’ve always thought that if I were to own an over-under, I’d want it to be a Ruger Red Label.
My friend cheerfully loaned me his inherited Red Label, and I lost no time toting it out to my farm for a bit of shooting. Length of pull is 14.25 inches, an inch short of my ideal LOP but close enough to be comfortable. The single trigger broke cleanly at 4 pounds, 15 ounces.
The weight of the gun is 7 pounds, 3 ounces, but the feel isn’t clunky. In fact, were one to press the gun into service for waterfowl or to load it with robust 3-inch turkey shotshells, the weight would provide a welcome recoil-dampening effect. While it doesn’t leap to my shoulder like a fine English side-by-side, the Red Label mounts smoothly and cleanly, and it points naturally. The slightly robust weight assists in follow-through after the shot.
I’m still not an over-under aficionado, but my mild interest in the Red Label has deepened into a heathy respect for the design. Given the connection my friend has with his old client who gave him the gun, I’m not going to try and purchase this one from him, but I’m estimating it’s worth around $900. I’m tempted to shop for my own Red Label, and if a nice one in 28 gauge presented, I suspect it would come home with me pretty darn quickly.
Ruger Red Label 20-Gauge Specifications
- Manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Co., www.ruger.com
- Type: Break-action over-under shotgun
- Gauge: 20 gauge
- Cartridge Capacity: 2 rounds
- Barrels: 28 in.
- Overall Length: 45 in.
- Weight, Empty: 7.19 lbs.
- Stock: Walnut
- Length of Pull: 14.25 in.
- Finish: Blued barrel and action, oil-rubbed stock
- Sights: Brass front bead
- Trigger: 4.9-lb. pull (as tested)
- Safety: Tang mounted