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Obituaries

William Ruger, 86; Built No. 1 Gun Maker

July 11, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William B. Ruger, a flinty entrepreneur who turned a childhood fascination with guns into the nation's largest firearms manufacturing company, died Saturday at his home in Prescott, Ariz. His death at 86 came after a period of declining health.

Ruger was co-founder and chairman emeritus of Sturm, Ruger & Co. of Connecticut, a manufacturer admired by sportsmen and collectors since it began selling pistols in 1949.

Considered one of America's greatest gun designers along with Samuel Colt and John Browning, Ruger was involved in the development of every pistol, revolver, shotgun and rifle his company produced over the last half-century. It sells more than 260 models of guns.

Ruger also was known for his outspoken defense of the gun industry, targeted in recent years by municipalities and other plaintiffs seeking to make manufacturers including Sturm, Ruger liable for gun-related crime.

"I don't want to sound crass or oversimplify things when so many people are dying out there on the streets," he told the New York Times in 1994. "But the firearms business is not the place to put the blame. Gun making has been an honorable and important business in this country for a long, long time. It's a cliche, but it's still true: People kill people, not guns."

Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson and Remington were the four titans of the gun industry when Ruger and his partner, artist Alexander McCormick Sturm, launched their small company 53 years ago. Ruger took over after Sturm's death in 1951 and eventually outpaced all of his competitors.

"Ruger was a true firearms genius who mastered the disciplines of inventing, designing, engineering, manufacturing and marketing better than anyone since Samuel Colt," said R.L. Wilson, a firearms historian who wrote a 1996 biography of Ruger. "He was the only one in the history of firearms ... who mastered it all."

The gun-control movement was Ruger's greatest frustration, Wilson noted, because he felt it unfairly blamed "good, honest citizens who like guns."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 21, 1916, Ruger was 12 and recovering from scarlet fever when his grandfather gave him his first gun, a Remington .22 pump-action rifle. It captivated the schoolboy with a mechanical turn of mind. "It was the mechanism that intrigued me," he told an interviewer several years ago. "A beautiful, coordinated piece of machinery."

He was still in high school when he designed and built a gun in a neighborhood machine shop. Later, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he began designing a light machine gun that elicited enthusiasm from Army ordnance officials. After dropping out of college, he was hired at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, where many of the guns used in World War II would be developed.

In 1940 he went to work at Auto Ordnance Corp. at its Bridgeport, Conn., factory. Auto Ordnance made the legendary Thompson submachine gun favored by gangsters. He spent a few years there perfecting his machine gun designs before the need to earn more money to support his family spurred him to try other ventures.

Auto Ordnance had gone into the record player business by the mid-1940s, so Ruger launched a small firm to supply it with component parts. After two years he switched to making a deluxe line of carpentry tools, but he had to shut down because of unwieldy production costs.

Strapped for cash, he dug up one of his old blueprints for a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Sturm, a social acquaintance, provided $50,000 in start-up capital and Sturm, Ruger & Co. was born.

Sturm, a Yale-educated artist, handled advertising and marketing while Ruger designed the guns. His .22-caliber pistol, the sole product sold by the fledgling company in 1949, became a major success. It remains one of the world's most popular target pistols.

While his competitors relied on machine tooling of parts and hand assembly, Ruger in 1953 turned to casting guns out of molten steel. Less wasteful and capable of producing more detail, the process known as investment casting gave him an edge over industry leaders.

Over the years, he refused to rely on large government contracts, a strategy that led to Colt's bankruptcy filing in 1988. He appealed primarily to hunters and collectors, continually whetting their appetite for "new stuff" with innovations such as guns made of titanium and other exotic metals.

In the late 1980s, he insisted that wholesalers drop Smith & Wesson from their inventory if they wanted to sell his products. Forbes magazine reported in 1992 that about half of the nation's gun wholesalers complied, giving Rugers more cachet.

The company has sold more than 20 million guns, a number that commands the attention of gun-control advocates. Rugers have been used in a number of high-profile shootings, including a 1998 schoolyard massacre in Jonesboro, Ark., and a 1993 shooting that killed five on a Long Island commuter train.

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