Bill Ruger of Brooklyn

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:05

    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."