Wolfe Publishing Group

    Walnut Hill

    Rifles and Ribbons

    Ruger’s Mini-14 is one of the great rifle success stories of the later twentieth-century. The sighting device is an Aimpoint Hunter.
    Ruger’s Mini-14 is one of the great rifle success stories of the later twentieth-century. The sighting device is an Aimpoint Hunter.
    Among the many good ideas Bill Ruger first turned into reality, and then into a long-lasting profit stream, the Mini-14 may well be the most underrated.

    Each of his other most celebrated creations – the semiauto .22 pistol, the Blackhawk revolver, the No. 1 single-shot, the 10/22 – has its own band of cult admirers. Each has collectors, too, organized or otherwise. But the Mini-14? If there is a collectors’ association, I’m unaware of it, although some variants seem to be deemed “collectible,” whatever exactly that means.

    The Mini-14 was introduced in 1973 – which, by coincidence, was the year Tony Orlando sang “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” touching a chord with America and sparking a mini-industry in ribbons and bumper stickers that is booming to this day. It was a good year for a lot of us.

    The Mini-14 has been in production, in various forms, ever since, and is undoubtedly one of the most successful rifles of the later twentieth-century. On the surface, someone might wonder at that. It’s not outstandingly accurate; in fact, most of the criticism directed against it is on the grounds of “lamentable” accuracy, which sometimes finds its detractors groping for hyperbole. Since its original chambering was the .223 Remington, a cartridge for which accuracy is usually a prerequisite, you’d think this would be damning. But you would be wrong.

    The other usual criticism is lack of power, since the .223 is not reckoned to be a deer cartridge by anyone except its most rabid admirers. This puts them at odds with, among others, state game departments, although that seems to be changing gradually. Still, when the .223 is used for bigger game like feral hogs, it’s usually assumed that multiple rounds will be sent downrange in the course of the action, rather than depending on one pinpoint shot.

    As for sheer firepower, no one can fault the Mini-14, since higher-capacity magazines are available, but this has been a double-edged sword. The rifle’s mechanism is essentially a scaled down M14, a military action of the 1950s, which itself was based on the World War II M1 Garand. The M14 was chambered for the 7.62x51 NATO (.308 Winchester). Both rifle and cartridge had a short initial service life – little more than a decade – being replaced in the 1960s by the AR-15 (M16) and its 5.56mm (.223 Remington) cartridge.

    The criticisms of the M14 paled by comparison with charges levelled at the AR-15 during its early years in Vietnam, and the AR’s problems took a long while to iron out. More than a few experts suggested the army should have stuck with the M14, which was bigger and heavier but, in the early years at least, more reliable. It should be noted that no one ever criticized the .308, which became one of the great cartridge successes for both military and civilian use.

    Both the M14 and AR-15 could be fired in either full or semiauto, and this was a factor in military decisions. In full auto with the powerful 7.62mm cartridge, I’m told the M14 was almost uncontrollable. That didn’t help.

    My purpose is not to say which was the better infantry rifle, only to argue that the M14 had some real virtues, one of which was its distinctly racy lines. It looked like a rifle, albeit a finely contoured one (for 1955, at least) while the AR looked like something from the Buck Rogers section of a toy store – and the AR had a plastic stock. Plastic! Can you imagine?

    At any rate, the M14 must have made a favorable impression on Bill Ruger, who collaborated with designer L.J. Sullivan to scale it down, house it in a walnut stock reminiscent of its parent rifle and chamber it in the new darling .223. It was introduced in 1973 and never once looked back.

    Since then, of course, it has appeared in any number of guises. It has had walnut stocks, composite stocks, folding stocks; it’s been offered in different chamberings, including the .30 Carbine and the Russian 7.62x39. There have been military models that even included a bayonet lug, and the rifle has been adopted by a wide range of military, police and paramilitary organizations around the world. As for the aftermarket accessories, it would take a catalog to list them all. The Mini-14 has a vast range of admirers.

    Unfortunately, and inevitably, its admirers have included some pretty reprehensible characters, some of whom have done some dreadful things. Probably the most infamous was Marc Lepine, the deranged Canadian who killed 14 women in the “Montreal Massacre” in 1989. This event led to a number of changes in many areas of the law, although, oddly enough, Canada banning the Mini-14 was not one of them.

    A complete ban was, of course, demanded by the anti-gun crowd and discussed at length, but in the end, Canadians were still allowed to own Mini-14s because the politicians found, to their considerable dismay, that the Mini-14 had become the favorite “ranch” rifle of farmers from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, replacing the long-time favorite Winchester 94, especially with the younger crowd.

    The Mini-14 achieved this for very practical reasons: It’s compact, handy and dependable; ammunition is light, easily obtained and effective for the usual around-the-farm uses; the rifle’s rugged and not too expensive. The advantage of being able to keep spare magazines in the glove compartment gives it a decided advantage over the old 94.

    Nowhere in Canada is it completely legal to carry a rifle exposed in a rack in the back window of a pickup – at least, nowhere I know of – but the Mini-14 fits down behind the seat (especially with a folding stock), and can be carried unloaded (as some jurisdictions demand) but can be loaded and made ready to go very quickly.

    (Footnote: The Ruger Mini-14 was included in the latest list of “prohibited” firearms in Canada, decreed by order-in-council last year.)

    In the end, the best words to describe the Mini-14 are “useful and usable.”

    One might compare this with another Ruger semiauto, the Model 44 carbine introduced in 1961 and finally laid to rest in 1985. It outwardly resembled the World War II .30 Carbine the way the Mini-14 resembles the M14, but where the Mini-14 managed to hit all the right notes, the Model 44 just missed them. It was not particularly usable, and no more useful than the Ruger Super Blackhawk – which does have its uses, but a myriad they are not. The carbine was slow to load, dismally inaccurate (at least mine was) and not very pleasant to shoot. Without a scope, it was a short-range rifle (75/100 yards, max) while with a scope it was awkward to carry – and the scope did not add much in the way of accuracy or range anyway. It looked neat, though, I will give it that. I sold mine, alas, before it became a collector’s item.

    If the 44 carbine was notable for one thing, it was a Ruger ad in the mid-1960s showing a guy in Africa with a dead gorilla slung up spread-eagled by its wrists with its head lolling to one side. It was memorable, and not for the right reasons. Bill Ruger took a Model 44 to Africa and sang its praises. Personally, I can think of few rifles that would be less useful in Africa, but that’s me.

    Back to the Mini-14, which I can honestly and cheerfully praise almost without restraint, much as I can both the 77/357 and 77/44, which are variations on the same theme: The bolt-action 77 shortened, given a rotary magazine and chambered for the two revolver cartridges. In terms of usefulness, they fall somewhere in the middle, but they’re neat, handy little guns. Neither will ever achieve the popularity of the Mini-14, though, which is a lot like Tony Orlando’s “Yellow Ribbon” – it just hit all the right notes.

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