A humble, yet forward-looking .22 LR pistol, the Ruger Standard became the unexpected cornerstone of one of America's largest gunmakers.
Firearms history was made threescore and 10 years ago, when the first Ruger was introduced. An ad in August 1949 presented to the shooting public not only a new gun, but also a new manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Co.
The ad read, “The .22 Ruger Pistol represents the first overall improvement in automatic pistol design since the Browning patent of 1905. For simplicity, strength and handsomeness, it has no equal.”
It went on to describe the unique design. “A cylindrical bolt moving in a tubular receiver provides a strong, simple action with unmoving sights. It can be dismantled in five seconds.”
The image in the ad bore a striking resemblance to the German Luger. Not only were the names similar, the profile, angle of the grip, trigger guard, tapered barrel and the front sight said “Luger.” This was not a problem, because the Luger was one of the most famous pistols in the world. However, on the inside, the Ruger’s operating mechanism and blow-back action were nothing like the toggle-locked, recoil-operated Luger.
Immediate Customer Response
When Sturm, Ruger & Co. introduced the new .22 pistol, its retail price was $37.50. The only manufacturers of .22 semi-auto pistols in America at the time were Colt and High Standard; the Ruger’s price was about half that of the Colt Woodsman and less than the lowest-priced High Standard. Very soon, the first shipment of 100 pistols was on the way to gun stores. It was an immediate success and jump-started the new company on its way to becoming a major player in the gun business.
Bill Ruger was quoted as saying, “The Woodsman was the first influence on our .22 pistols and also the Luger. What I did was to conceive our .22 as a low-cost equivalent to the Woodsman, which is exactly what High Standard had done previously. But there was something about the High Standard that wasn’t as neat; they didn’t get it right. It looked too much like a product of the ’50s, with plastics and things. We really murdered High Standard with our guns.”1
Ruger’s partner in the founding of Sturm, Ruger & Co. was Alex Sturm, an artist and writer who was from a prominent Connecticut family. He provided the startup money for Ruger—a staggering $50,000 at a time when that was a lot of money. Sturm had a lot in common with Ruger. A collector of fine firearms, swords and heraldry, he designed the Germanic eagle medallion that became the official logo of the company.2
Sturm and Ruger became good friends, but their relationship was short-lived. Sturm became seriously ill with viral hepatitis and, within 10 days, died on November 16, 1951, at the age of 28. For the first two years of production, the left grip panel of the Ruger pistol featured the company logo with an inlay of a red eagle. After Sturm’s death, Bill Ruger changed the inlay to black to honor Sturm.
The Ruger Standard
The original model, which quickly became known as the Ruger Standard Model, was produced in several variants: the original standard and target models (1949–1952); the Black or Silver Eagle model; the “Hecho En Mexico” (made in Mexico) model; the Black or Silver Eagle Mark I Target; and the Stainless 1 of 5,000, with or without the California Freedom inscription (CAL. FREEDOM ’82). This last one was one of 26 donated by Ruger to the California Citizens Against the Gun Initiative in 1982. The Mark II Series was made from 1982 to 2005, and the Mark III from 2005 to 2016, at which time the current Mark IV models were launched.
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As is usually the case, most collector interest in Ruger firearms is with the earlier guns. The Hecho En Mexico model brings a premium in its value because of its rarity. In 1957, Ruger shipped 250 sets of parts to Armamex in Mexico. That company added the barrels and assembled 250 pistols—200 with 4½-inch barrels and 50 with 6½-inch barrels.3
Military-marked models also call for a premium. These pistols were made for the federal government as a training model for military personnel. A limited number with a “U.S.” marking are believed to have found their way into civilian hands (perhaps no more than 25). It should also be noted that an original “salt cod” box, in which the earliest Ruger Standard Models were shipped, is more valuable than the pistol itself!
The gun that started it all for Sturm, Ruger & Co. has been the most popular .22 semi-auto pistol for several generations of shooters. It’s still in production today, being made in several standard, target, competition, tactical and hunter models—and still at bargain prices, compared to many other brands.
Seventy years and still going strong.
The article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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