RUGER NO. 1 - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


I have always had a penchant for single-shot rifles, especially when going after big and dangerous game. It’s not that I have a death wish. Far from it. It’s just that, for me, the single-shot hunting rifle magnifies everything we as shooters hold sacrosanct: sight picture, breath control, trigger pull, and making that first shot count—because one shot is all you’re going to get. Moreover, single-shot rifles are comfortable to carry and quick to shoulder, because they generally are better balanced (with their shorter actions) than repeaters. Too, by the very nature of their more simplistic internal mechanisms, single-shots rarely jam.

The author’s Ruger Tropical No. 1 rifle in .405 Winchester, before its gold engraving, but he has already embellished it with a Galco Braided Cobra Sling.

For all these reasons, I have spent a lifetime hunting with single-shots—both originals and replicas of the trapdoor Springfield, Winchester High-Wall, and 1874 Sharps—taking game in Africa and North America. However, there was one single-shot rifle I had never taken afield: the Ruger No. 1.

Introduced in September 1966, the No. 1 is an updated version of the Scottish Farquharson falling block hammerless design of 1872, and reflected the late Bill Ruger’s admiration for this gun, which he collected extensively. The No. 1 also reflected Ruger’s penchant for another Scottish gunmaker, Alexander Henry, well known for his highly accurate muzzleloading rifles of the 1860s. These rifles were often characterized by their unique wood or grooved ebony fore-ends. This “Alexander Henry fore-end,” which serves no purpose other than being decorative, was adapted as a design feature on the Ruger No. 1, adding to its already handsome countenance. In fact, in his book Ruger & His Guns, ( author and firearms historian R.L. Wilson rightfully calls the No. 1, “The ultimate evolution of the single-shot rifle.”

Why didn’t I have one? It wasn’t that I didn’t share Bill Ruger’s enthusiasm for the gun. But even with an original price tag of $280, my chance of acquiring this new gun at the time of its introduction was as distant as the moon. Besides, the No. 1 was initially chambered for relatively “modern” cartridges, and I was wedded to things like the .44-40, and the .45-70, stretching only as far forward into the nineteenth century as the .30-30. I must admit that in 1978 I took a serious look at acquiring a No. 1, when a limited number of Lyman Centennial models were produced in .45-70. However, I never quite got my wallet opened.

My priorities were refocused, however, when Ruger brought out its No 1-H Tropical, a thick barreled, muscular big-game rifle chambered in .375 H&H, .458 Winchester Magnum, and .416 Rigby—all potent, close-range bone crushers, and each with an historic African heritage. With its 24-inch barrel and weighing in at nine pounds (almost two pounds heavier than the standard sporter), here was a rifle that seemed to be just straining at the leash to pursue dangerous game. But though I considered the No. 1 Tropical the most enticing gun and chamberings in Ruger’s single-shot lineup, increased demands of writing and travel diverted my attention.

All that changed in 2004, when Ruger announced the Tropical No. 1 was coming out in .405 Winchester. I could no longer ignore this rifle. After all, this was Teddy’s cartridge! Originally developed, in 1904, for the Winchester Model 95, the potent round went on to prove itself on Roosevelt’s safari and well beyond. Although the Winchester 95 was cataloged until 1934, the .405 cartridge continued to be factory loaded until 1955, when, with a lack of rifles being made for it, the .405 was eventually discontinued. But the power of its 300-grain semi-jacketed round nose bullet, with a muzzle velocity of 2,200 fps and a muzzle energy of 3,325 ft-lbs, had become legendary.

I owned an original deluxe Winchester Model 95 in this caliber, and, as some of my magazine readers may recall, used a Browning Model 95 in .405 Winchester to drop a bison with a single shot a few years ago. Although not a tack-driver, the .405 Winchester, which is currently loaded by Hornady, is more than capable of taking any critter on the planet if the shot is placed right, and can definitely make one-shot kills on anything that roams the North American continent. Both my original and replica Model 95s produce 312-inch groups with open sights at 100 yards. I could only speculate what Ruger’s No. 1 Tropical would do. There was but one way to find out. And though, over the years, the Tropical’s price tag had risen to $966, my newly increased credit card limit made acquisition of this rifle possible.

The Ruger No. 1 is an updated version of the Scottish Farquharson falling block hammerless design of 1872.

Physically, the rifle was not disappointing. In fact, it inspired me to start thinking about certain metallic embellishments to go along with its finely grained, black walnut stock. But first to the range to see how the gun performed. Using Ruger’s folding leaf notched rear sight and gold bead ramped front post, I was able to punch out 312-inch groups - same as my Model 95 lever-actions. Of course, the inclusion of a pair of Ruger scope rings with the No. 1 and the integral scope mounts milled into the rear sight base told me no one was expected to shoot this rifle with open sights. That, of course, is a common mistake made by many of the best firearms manufacturers and, in my opinion, doesn’t do justice to the quality of the guns they produce. But no, the No. 1 deserved something better. Like express sights, in keeping with its “tropical” motif. And a more visible front sight. Plus, there was something else, something a little more, shall we say, cosmetic? Quite frankly, the No. 1 practically demanded to be engraved. Some of the photos in Wilson’s book and a brochure from the recently established Ruger Studio Of Art And Decoration bore this out. But, first, we had to get the mechanics in order.

Aside from Marble Arms, I know of only one other U.S. firm that makes quality, accurate, and affordable express sights, and that was New England Custom Gun, Ltd. “Classic” one, two, and three-leaf models are offered. I, of course, wanted the three-leaf model, which also features a fixed 50-yard “V” for snap shots at charging game. Given the relatively close-range trajectory of the .405 and the type of hunting I would be doing with it, I anticipated the three flip-up leafs would be filed in a deep “U” for more precise aiming, and would be graduated to 50, 100, and 200 yards. A visit to NECG’s website also fulfilled my front sight wishes: NECG offers a number of front sight replacements for the No. 1, including four white beads of varying dimensions, a red fiber optic bead, and a retro-looking brass “sourdough” Patridge blade.

A standard blued Ruger No. 1 Tropical rifle (bottom) compared with the author’s Baron-etched and gold-plated rifle (top).

I immediately discarded the fiber optic front sight possibility. Practical as it may be, it wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of the gun. On the other hand, while the sourdough blade looked old-timey, it didn’t provide the visibility I wanted. I opted for a 316-inch white bead (smaller dimensions are available for those with better eyes), set upon an NECG Masterpiece banded ramp and topped with NECG’s steel “window hood,” which provides natural illumination through the sides and locks onto the ramp via a hood lock button.

A call to NECG’s Mark Cromwell put my plan to create the “ultimate No. 1 single-shot” into action. I sent the gun off to Mark, along with two boxes of Hornady .405 ammo for regulating the sights. I had Mark shape the express sight base to mirror the scalloped lines of the Ruger base, because I liked the way it looked; the front sight base was scalloped to match. While I was at it, I had him adjust the trigger pull to three pounds and slightly reshape the tang safety in an attempt to prevent .405 cases from hanging up on it during ejection, a rather disconcerting characteristic I had encountered at the range. I also asked Mark if there was anything he could do to muffle the rather audible “click” of the safety.

“As for the safety,” he e-mailed back, “No. 1s are known for that ‘clank,’ as you throw the safety off. We have not worked on the safety other then to modify the lead end to not stop the ejected cases as it did before. I tried easing the safety off, as you might in a hunting situation, and by pushing down on the tail end of the safety and just behind the raised button you can ease it off without too much noise. (I say this and laugh, as what sounds quiet in a shop with phones, lights and machines making noise and what it may sound like in the middle of nowhere may be different).”

While NECG was putting the finishing touches on my No. 1, I contacted David Baron of Baron Technology, Inc., the firm that has gained international fame for lavishing gold and silver embellishments upon thousands of commemorative firearms, including Colts, Winchesters, and Rugers. As it happened, David was working with the Ruger Studio of Art and Decoration on a number of custom guns, some of which were No. 1s. He sent me a selection of receiver patterns, many of which were created by Paul Lantuch, Master Artist and former Chief Engraver for Ruger. Paul has a 30-year history of artistic gun embellishment and had engraved many guns for Bill Ruger’s collection. There could be no better tribute to my “ultimate No. 1” than to have it reflect Paul’s talent. However, because of budget considerations, I decided to have Baron Technology etch the receiver, rather than have Paul hand-engrave it.

I ended up selecting two classic rococo patterns that, although they looked like they dated from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were actually created by Paul, in 1981. On the left side of the receiver would be, appropriately enough, Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, holding her bow and hunting horn, a dog at her side in pursuit of a stag racing through vineyards. On the right side was another scene from the legend, depicting a pair of nymphs, a highly stylized, devilish-looking buffalo skull, and two hunting dogs, which symbolize fidelity. “These are very limited patterns,” Paul said of my choices. “They are not often seen.”

When my No. 1 was completed by NECG but not yet blued, I sent it to Baron Technology for the etching. I gave Dave a budget, stating that I wanted some gold on the gun to accent the etchings. What I finally got back exceeded my expectations and reaffirmed why Baron is the leader in their field. The receiver and even the lever had been etched and then plated in 24-carat gold. Moreover, the breechblock and lever release were polished and jeweled. “It’s just something I think is needed on all presentation grade No. 1s,” David said matter-of-factly.

Needless to say, my “ultimate No. 1” was the focal point at Angeles Shooting Range in Los Angeles, when I took it out to see how it shot. The deeply cut U-notch express sights and reduced trigger pull produced 112-inch groups at 100 yards. Both Hornady spire point and round-nose bullets printed the same. But the real test came a month later on a wild boar hunt in Paso Robles.

The gently rolling, oak studded hills and valleys of central California’s Camp Five is a virtual Mecca for wild boar, as well as deer, turkey, and upland birds. Camp Five’s accommodations range from a ”Primitive Vista” cabin with indoor plumbing but no electricity, to an “Upper Lodge,” a 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch house with sweeping vistas, TV, Jacuzzi tub, and outdoor barbeque. Naturally, this is where I stayed.

I was met by head honcho Doug Roth, accompanied by his trusty “pig dog,” Moose, a diminutive Jack Russell terrier who enjoyed local celebrity status due to his ability to track down and hold the biggest of boars—well, once they were shot.

“Ah, the man with the Golden Gun,” Doug exclaimed as he eyed my Ruger. Moose just circled around and stared.

Before going afield, I made a quick stop at Camp Five’s shooting range to reaffirm the Ruger’s sights. At 100 yards, I printed 212 to 3-inch groups, wider than I had gotten from a benchrest at Angeles Shooting Range. I can only attribute this phenomenon to “shooter malfunction.” Still, it was more than adequate for pigs.

The next two days were spent traversing the rugged countryside looking for descendants of porkers the Spaniards had brought to California more than 500 years ago. We saw plenty of pigs, but they were all in the 50 to 70-pound class, way too small to even consider taking with the .405. After all, I did want to have some meat left to take home.

It was in the long, golden glow of late afternoon of the second day that Moose and I both spotted a huge grayish mass partially hidden by tall grass. Earlier, I had missed an opportunity at a rust-colored boar, because I was carrying the No. 1 with the action open and empty. This time I was carrying the No. 1 fully charged, muzzle up, safety on, finger off the trigger, and two additional round-nosed .405s between my first and third fingers. Without notice, a 200-pound boar burst through a grove of oaks. I snapped the rifle to my shoulder, the 50-yard express sight instantly finding its mark on an angling shot as the boar crashed into the brush. The bullet hit from the rear and punched through his entire body, rolling him down a steep hill. He was lost in the brush, but Moose the Wonder Dog was hot on his trail. We soon heard barking, telling us where he was.

“I hope that boar’s dead,” I said, as Doug and I raced downhill towards the commotion.

“Don’t worry,” said Doug. “If he’s not, he’s gonna have 18 pounds of whup-ass on him!”

We spotted the boar 30 yards away, just in his final death throes, with Moose bobbing and weaving around it like a miniature prizefighter. I couldn’t get a clear finishing shot for fear of hitting the dog. At our approach, Moose broke off his “attack,” giving me an opening. I fired into the shoulder of the pig. The impact of the bullet tumbled the huge boar all the way down the steep hill, the massive body coming to rest in a cloud of dust on the dirt road below.

The Ruger had proven itself, and it has gone on to inspire others. One well-respected gun writer friend of mine, on seeing my .405, ordered a similar engraved No. 1. I’m sure there will be others. But it won’t be as easy to get the caliber you want as it once was, because now Ruger is making only one caliber a year for the No. 1. As for my No. 1, it is now ready for bigger things. I’m thinking of elk this fall, and perhaps Africa next year. The No. 1 is certainly capable of all this and more. Although there may be fancier guns, as far as I’m concerned, mine is the “Ultimate Single Shot.”