Bill Ruger of Brooklyn

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In 1928,
when Bill Ruger and his boyhood friend, William Lett, were around 13 years old
and living in Flatbush, they saw an ad in the back of Popular Mechanics for
.30-caliber Krag rifles, surplus from the Spanish-American War. Ruger suggested
that Lett get one, for $15. Thinking the new rifle was too loud to shoot in
Lett’s basement where they shot their .22s, they put the Krag in a canvas
bag, hopped on the elevated Fulton St. train and rode out to what was probably
then a remote section of Brooklyn, Forest Park, just at the borough line.


There they
made a campfire and shot at a target. "We had an unforgettable afternoon
learning what a full-power .30-caliber rifle was like… [We were] two of the
happiest kids you’ve ever seen," Ruger says in R.L. Wilson’s
extensive book, Ruger & His Guns.


By the standards
applied to today’s 13-year-olds, this is dangerous and possibly antisocial
behavior; merely drawing a picture of a gun on a piece of paper in some schools
is enough to get you expelled. William Batterman Ruger, however, was one of
the top shots on his high school rifle team.


When the
Brooklyn-born Ruger died on July 6 at age 86, he had established one of the
largest firearms companies in America, the Sturm, Ruger & Company, that
in 2001 earned $174 million in net profits and has been traded on the New York
Stock Exchange since 1969. The company, which began in Southport, CT, has sold
more than 20 million shotguns, rifles, handguns and machine guns since its inception
in 1949. It built its rep with one of the finest semi-automatic pistols of the
20th century, Ruger’s self-designed, sleek Mark I Standard .22, the first
major advance in semi-automatics since John Browning introduced his .45 pistol
design in 1911. The Mark I fulfilled all of Ruger’s concepts about a firearm:
that it be esthetically pleasing (the German Luger and Japanese Nambu inspired
him); that it be well constructed yet easily produced; and that it be a competitive
product (it was cheaper than the Colt .22 and better made than the High Standard).


The young
Bill Ruger lived with his mother and maternal grandfather, and used to rollerskate
his way to the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Public Library to indulge his interests
in engineering, firearms and fine cars. He spent a good deal of his high school
years studying firearms mechanisms, and got his hands on two deactivated WWI
machine guns to dissect and study.


The tall,
bespectacled Ruger entered UNC at Chapel Hill at 20, and soon set up a makeshift
machine shop in the chemistry department where he worked on designs for a light
machine gun. Late in his sophomore year in 1938 he married Carolyn Thompson,
a dark-haired lovely from Greensboro, and dropped out of college to pursue a
gun-design career. For a time he lived with his in-laws, redesigning his machine
gun on a breadboard set up in the dining room. From 1940 to 1945 he developed
this design for the Auto-Ordnance Company, in Bridgeport, but failed to get
the U.S. Army to buy a prototype.


He left
Auto-Ordnance to go into business for himself, establishing the Ruger Corporation,
makers of hand-tool and firearms parts. This business failed in 1949, but by
then Ruger had the basic design for the Mark I worked out. He just needed a
backer.


Ruger fortuitously
met the eccentric Alexander Sturm, a Yale grad, artist, published writer and
gun collector living in Westport. Sturm was willing to finance Ruger’s
Mark I design for $50,000 (about $350,000 today). They joined forces and names,
and the Mark I was a hit. A reviewer in American Rifleman said, "We
like this new gun a lot and at the very moderate price of $37.50 it represents
real value."


In 1951
Sturm died from hepatitis at age 28, and Ruger took over the business (the red
eagle emblem Sturm designed was forever turned black when embossed on the company’s
guns). Soon there was a roll-out of firearm designs from Sturm, Ruger &
Co. the likes of which have not been matched in this country for variety and
ingenuity, including the standout Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum revolver
in 1959 (updated in 1973), and the Model 77 hunting rifle in 1968. A dabbling
in car manufacture brought the Ruger Special Sports Tourer, based on the 1929
Bentley, but this endeavor ended in 1973, and only two Tourers remain in existence.


Ruger opened
additional plants in New Hampshire and Arizona by the 1980s. As an adult he
became increasingly attracted to the American West and less connected to a Brooklyn
that had greatly and rapidly changed. He did, however, dine at "21"
whenever he was in town.


Over the
past three years, many firearms companies nationwide were taken to court in
one city after another, with cities and private individuals arguing that firearms-makers
were negligent in their distribution of their handguns (handguns reached criminals
too easily) and were liable for design flaws (not enough advanced safety features).
The first trial, Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, which sparked roughly 30 other
national lawsuits, reached a verdict in a New York federal court in Brooklyn
in 1999.


Hamilton
v. Accu-Tek
involved Sturm, Ruger and 24 other gunmakers and various distributors.
A nearly deadlocked jury found nine gunmakers liable and negligent, and six
liable; and it ordered three gunmakers to pay restitution to a single shooting
victim. Sturm, Ruger escaped without any trouble but its legal fees. But Hamilton
v. Accu-Tek
set a serious precedent, and Sturm, Ruger was named in other
lawsuits across the country. The company spent "close to a million dollars
just in court costs" according to Vice President and general council Stephen
Sanetti.


"Bill
came to me about Hamilton v. Accu-Tek and declared, ‘This lawsuit
violates all notions of personal responsibility,’" Sanetti says, not
to mention the fact that Ruger was put on trial in his home borough. "He
felt his company was being held accountable for the criminal acts of people
he abhorred."


Ruger lived
long enough to be vindicated, when the New York Supreme Court in April 2001
overturned the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek decision. Many other anti-gun cases
have been dismissed or overturned by judges.


A highly
opinionated and sometimes irascible man, Ruger had little interest in what he
saw as an American red herring–zealous gun control. "The people who
are demanding more laws to control guns should instead be demanding more laws
to control thugs," he once said. He lauded the right of millions of Americans
who live in semi-developed or rural areas to defend themselves, a concept lost
on (sub)urbanites trained to dial 911. More to the point, he declared, "The
[Constitution] says what it says. ‘The right to bear arms shall not be
infringed.’ If you can’t live with that, then you shouldn’t be
trying to be an American citizen."


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