Ruger: Driven to Succeed Through Innovation
Ruger has evolved from a company staked on legacy designs to one pushing the industry forward.
Ruger has evolved from a company staked on legacy designs to one pushing the industry forward.
By Max Archer
Ruger has a legacy of offering heavy‐duty utility guns that many consider to be a bit overbuilt. Historical designs were among the brand's most prominent traits, but today that perception is drastically different.
Going back just 15 years, the most exciting products coming out of Ruger were the updated Ruger Mark III and the Red Label Shotgun. The Ruger products of today would seem almost alien to the Ruger lineup back then. Even the hardcore Ruger fans did not see Ruger as a firearms innovation company, but instead a company that produced a set of standard, highly durable and affordable firearms. In early 2000, Ruger was far from the company it has become today. It has been transformed.
Bill Ruger's vision for his firearm company focused on foundational pieces of the business, including historically inspired firearms designs and manufacturing capabilities like the Ruger Investment Casting business. These foundational pieces and continued investment have allowed the company to innovate quickly over the years.
There were also some interesting strategic decisions along the way, including manufacturing titanium golf club heads in a joint venture with Callaway in 1995, and passing on the original manufacturing contract to make the ArmaLite AR‐15. Allegedly Bill did not want to start making military firearms even though Ruger was ArmaLite's first choice. This was an interesting choice in the 1960s considering the Ruger AR‐556 accounted for approximately 29 percent of sales in 2016 and remains one of Ruger's top selling firearms.
Ruger never lacked leadership, but it did need a strategy update in 2000 to remain competitive with the growing conglomerates in the sporting industry. Where Ruger was offering remixed versions of oldie‐but‐goodie products, its competition was jumping into the sales explosion happening in the tactical market. Ruger was a hunting and sportsmen's brand until 2006 with individual competitors like Glock, S&W, Remington, Sig Sauer and the large conglomerates with dozens of brands all aggressively chipping away at Ruger's market share as the leader in firearms manufacturing.
Ruger's New Direction
In 2006, Ruger began its transformation to a company based on innovative new designs rather than legacy products. With the appointment of Mike Fifer as CEO and an almost completely new board of directors, the company was poised for significant change.
Just over a year later the cutting‐edge Ruger SR9 pistol was released. It was widely regarded as one of the most innovative products from the company in decades. Then the tiny polymer‐framed LCP was unveiled in 2008, again showing the industry that Ruger was no longer playing by the same old design rules. Most importantly, the company lifted the original design restrictions on defensive and tactical style firearms and was able to start using all those manufacturing capabilities to design firearms without limits, as evidenced in the 2009 release of the groundbreaking composite polymer‐metal hybrid LCR revolver. More product ideas began to flow fast that same year with the introduction of the Gunsite rifle, SR-556, SR22 and SR1911. Ruger also continued the tried and true product remix formula of legacy models including modification of the 10/22 format for the Charger Pistol and unique rimfire and centerfire Take-Down models. But they also expanded with the SRx, LCx, American and Mark IV line of pistols and the American, Gunsite, SR-556/762 and Precision Rifle models. Instead of only rewarmed product offerings, they gave customers completely new products to be excited about each and every year and in some cases, each quarter.
In the company's 2015 annual report, then‐CEO Mike Fifer reflected the new strategy and direction, "New product introductions are an important driver of demand, regardless of the political environment. In 2016, we launched three new major product platforms including the Ruger Precision Rifle, the Ruger American Pistol and the Silent-SR sound suppressor. In addition, we introduced more than 20 product line extensions and over 100 Distributor Exclusive models. New products generated sales of $115.4 million or approximately 21 percent of sales for 2015 and sales of $50.3 million or approximately 29 percent of sales in the first quarter of 2016."
New product development was a key part of the ongoing success, along with a new Voice of the Customer program that solicited input from potential purchasers to ensure the company created products consumers wanted. Ruger combined that with the knowledge and experience of its employees in the new product development process. The Ruger Investment Casting division began producing more machined parts, precision die casting, forgings and more use of metal injection molding, which can deliver completely finished precision parts in one manufacturing step.
The expansion into the new Mayodan, N.C., facility started with the purchase of a 220,000‐square‐foot former textile plant for $1.7 million, update costs of $5.5 million and more than $30 million in equipment. The expansion of new facilities, tooling and manufacturing capabilities dramatically improved the overall quality and precision of Ruger products across all models.
The American Rifle and Pistol line and the Precision Rifle set higher standards for quality and precision. These new firearms were a reflection of what Ruger had become. Using cutting edge technology, new rifle models were much more affordable, featured innovative engineering all while being feature rich and shockingly accurate. The Precision Rifle became regarded as one of the most accurate and well equipped out‐of‐the‐box competition rifles available anywhere. The comany became a design leader again in just a few short years.
Ruger has continued to invest in plant modernization, and expansion required new and varied approaches with ongoing investment in equipment, training and processes. With new facilities came updated processes including the application of the Toyota Production System, which strives to eliminate non‐value‐added activities in every process of the business.
Based on information in the 2015 annual report, Ruger's 2006 yearly sell‐through was approximately 480,000 units. Nine years later under Fifer's leadership, yearly sales exceeded half a billion dollars with a yearly sell‐through of approximately 370 percent more per year ‐ 1,793,800 units in 2015. Ruger still easily outpaces No. 2 Smith & Wesson and No. 3 Remington by a fair margin and produces over three times the volume of No. 4 Sig Sauer.
Over that same time, Ruger has beat the S&P 500 average growth by well over 100 percent. With the changes in product mix to include more defensive and tactical focused firearms, it has reaped the rewards of the surge in firearms sales over the last decade. The company then took those profits and aggressively invested in new equipment, facilities and key personnel to continue to drive a high level of product innovation and quality.
Fifer retired in 2017, but the innovation has continued under new CEO Chris Killoy. In 2019 Ruger again offered a peek into its marketing strategy as well as some maturing capabilities delivering complex design and manufacturing models.
Ruger AR‐556 Pistol
The AR‐556 has been noted as a competition‐killing AR‐format rifle. It delivered on the Ruger durability and quality promise with an MSRP of $799 and an actual street price of under $500.
This year Ruger offered that same format in an SB Tactical brace"equipped pistol format that will likely retail for under $600. Undoubtedly it will become one of the hottest selling AR‐format pistols available and a model hard for the competition to compete with. This format is quickly becoming the go‐to for home defense and backpacked outdoor firearms.
Despite all the political controversy over this "black gun" format, Ruger is going to market strong, even offering new custom patriotic Cerakote models.
Ruger Super GP100
This 8‐round full‐moon‐clip competition pistol combines some of the design elements from the LCR with the legacy Super Redhawk design. Other technical design elements are the match crowned and sleeved barrel, PVD coating to enhance loading and Ruger Custom Shop tuning.
Ruger clearly designed the Super GP100 to compete with the continuously backordered S&W R8 competition revolver. The Super GP100 is definitely in the high end of the range with an MSRP $1,549, but if Ruger can offer improved availability over the competition, it will be an extremely competitive offering.
Of all the new models for 2019, the Wrangler represents one of the most impressive demonstrations of what Ruger can now deliver in the low price range, with an MSRP of $249 and a street price of around $180. The gun basically replicates a Single Six with Vaquero‐style sights for about $400 less ‐ very impressive. Ruger created the Wrangler in response to customer requests for a less expensive option to the low‐quality inexpensive import revolvers flooding the market.
A cold‐hammer‐forged barrel and cylinder assure accuracy and durability. Some internals and grips were recycled Single Six parts. All this cut development costs, but Ruger went a lot further with a less expensive unfluted cylinder, utilizing die‐cast aluminum alloys for the ejector housing cylinder frame and loading gate.
The grip frame and trigger guard are die‐cast zinc alloy to add weight and feel with 50 percent less cost than steel. The checkered hammer and smooth‐faced bow trigger are both precision injection‐molded stainless steel components. The look of each of these metals is completely different, so Ruger elected to Cerakote the gun to deliver an appealing look. It is an extremely well made and accurate gun.
A lot of innovation went into producing a gun of this quality at a price point under $200. It makes me wonder what innovations Ruger is planning next if they can execute at this quality for this price.