October 2005

Ruger’s Gold Label Takes On British 12-Bore Game Guns

Can the American-made side-by-side compete with the best handmade British game guns? In our estimation, no. But if you donít know your stuff, you can get burned on foreign models.

12 bore shotguns

From top to bottom are the Ruger Gold Label, the Hollis, the Trulock & Harriss, and the Purdey. In our view, the Ruger held its own against the similarly priced Hollis and Trulock & Harriss, but not against the Purdey. Itís a tossup for the informed buyer between the Ruger and T&H, we thought. If youíve got lots of money to invest, a Purdey makes good sense, and it is a magnificent shotgun. But most buyers should avoid a gun like the Hollis that needed many small problems fixed.

The lure of the classic English game gun is strong in many an outdoorsman, particularly if he has ever handled a fine British shotgun. The desire to own one of these light and lively guns comes to many, and it is at this market Ruger has aimed its Gold Label side-by-side shotgun.

But wait! The Ruger is an American-made double, and we all know those are overweight clunkers, right? Right? Wrong! The Ruger Gold Label weighs in at a touch more than six and a half pounds, about what you can expect from a British 12-bore game gun. There’s a big and lively market for good used British shotguns. They can sometimes be bought for bargain prices, if you get lucky. You really must know what you’re doing if you take the route of trying to find a good used British game gun. You can, of course, buy a new one, but be prepared for massive sticker shock. Prices can easily exceed fifty grand, which takes them out of our present discussion. A good used Purdey — still being made today, and still the epitome of the British game gun after more than a century — may sometimes be found for around ten grand, but you’ll generally have to pay half-again that much, and it’ll probably be close to a century old. That does by no means imply that it’s worn out. Purdey earned its good name making guns that were expected to be fired thousands of rounds a week, week after week, often used in pairs against driven game. They had to stand up, and they did. An old Purdey that has been given reasonable care is generally still in perfect working order. One of our staff has a Purdey game gun that was made in 1908 and is just nicely broken in. But off-brand names on century-old British shotguns may or may not be worth anything. You really must know what you’re looking for, or have access to information from those who truly know the old guns.

Can the Ruger Gold Label compete with the best handmade British guns today, as Ruger claims? Clearly a new Ruger costs a great deal less than even a tiny down payment on a new best-quality British game gun. But what about used British guns? Can you find a decent Brit gun for about the same price as the $2000 Ruger? Yes! We acquired a new Ruger with the English-style straight grip and splinter forend, and also had the loan of two British guns that had a value of around the same amount, by Trulock & Harriss, and by I. Hollis & Sons, and gave them all a good look. We also had access to a Purdey, and because Ruger made the claim its gun was as good as the very best English guns, we thought it only fair to see how well the Ruger stood up to the Purdey. Here’s our report.

Ruger Gold Label 12 Gauge, $2000

“At last, there is an American made side-by-side that can compete with the finest European and British handcrafted double shotguns.” So claims Ruger about the Gold Label on the company’s website. The Ruger looked the part. It was attractive, light, had good workmanship, decent wood, and excellent balance. Its brushed-stainless receiver was tasteful and practical, and contrasted nicely with the blued, hammer-forged, 28-inch barrels. The wood had perfect 22-lpi borderless checkering. The barrels had screw-in, steel-shot-compatible chokes, and the chambers would handle 3-inch cases. But the whole idea of a 6.5-pound game gun is to make excellent patterns with 1 to 1.2 ounces of shot for upland birds. Duck loads of 1.5 ounces or more have no place in the light Ruger, so we question the reasoning behind the long chambers. The British game gun made its world-class reputation with 1-1/16 oz of shot from 2.5-inch cases.

Ruger cut many slots and holes in the Gold Label, and claimed a weigh of 6.3 pounds. Our test gun weighed 6.7 pounds. Ruger eliminated the back part of the lower barrel rib, which left a hole and gave the barrels an unfinished look. The ejectors were weak. The Purdey flung two weighty brass snap caps clear over our shoulder. The Ruger didn’t toss them as far as our elbow. Not much “authority” there, we thought, despite Ruger’s claim. But the ejectors were easily recocked.

Can the Gold Label “…compete with the finest European and British hand-crafted double shotguns,” as Ruger claims? The Ruger was about as lively as the Trulock & Harriss, and the Hollis, but nowhere near as alive as the Purdey, which felt like a magic wand. In our opinion, the Ruger can’t match the Purdey for looks, feel or performance, nor for investment value. But it sure beats even an old Purdey for price. We thought the Ruger would be a better deal for the average gunner than a used British shotgun at around the same price, though we know many gunners won’t be happy without the aura of a British gun. The Ruger was exceptionally well made, we thought. We loved the thin choke inserts and the thin muzzles of the gun. We also liked the absence of the text usually stamped into Ruger barrels. We liked the understated Ruger name on the bottom of the action, but could do without the plastic button inletted into the forend. The large trigger guard was welcome. The wood, its finish and checkering were excellent.

Complaints? We would have preferred double triggers. We found this stock too long and too straight, but felt recoil was low. Our right-handers wanted some cast-off. We didn’t care for the crooked look of the safety. Also, it was possible to open the gun slowly and fire the ejectors before the gun recocked. So if you fail to open the gun wide enough and drop in two more loads, you could be closing the gun uncocked. It won’t fire, and when you open it to find out why, out will fly the loaded rounds. This would probably not happen often, yet we found it. The little things count.

Trulock & Harriss 12 Gauge, about $2000

This gun was bought in England, but its buyer didn’t have a good chance to inspect it despite that. He acquired it for somewhat less than its value, having found a bargain. You may be able to find one too, but we can’t tell you where. However, you probably won’t have to go to England to find a good English shotgun for sale. Many older English guns are offered online and by various large and small gunshops here and abroad, so you’re going to have to do a lot of looking. The owner of the T&H looked long and hard, and finally found a gun he liked. Ultimately, he had to rely on the honesty of the seller as to its description, and he lucked out. The gun was sound, and a classic British game gun in all respects. But it does have some issues.

The T&H has significant cast-off, about 0.6 inch, which some shooters won’t like. It’s easy to learn how to shoot such a gun. Briefly, face the target squarely. Then mount the gun in front of you without twisting your shoulders, drop your head onto the stock, and you’ll be looking down the middle of the rib, the stock slanting off to the right to meet your shoulder. This technique is fast on game, perhaps more so than if you mounted a straight-stocked gun like the Ruger in the common “American” way, the gun slanted across the chest like a rifle.

Specifically, the T&H was a boxlock non-ejector game gun, 12-gauge, 30-inch barrels, chambered for 2.5-inch shells (there’s no problem getting them in the U.S.). It had a doll’s head extension, moderate engraving coverage, straight stock, double triggers, magnificent wood, excellent workmanship, a butt plate and splinter forend. We found a loose forend and a crack in the forend wood, both easily fixable by a qualified gunsmith. The bores were outstanding. The chokes were about “quarter” and “full.” The right barrel made even patterns of about 50 percent, about what we’d expect from Skeet or Improved Cylinder. The left barrel made beautiful Full patterns, with about 90-95 percent of the shot contained within a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Older British standards consider 70 percent patterns to be “Full.” This gun, in other words, lends itself perfectly to upland game hunting. The right barrel is used on rising birds, the left on those farther away. Hence the need for double triggers.

The barrels rang like a bell when suspended and flicked with a fingernail. The gun carried original London proof marks put on prior to 1904. Our research indicates it was made before 1898, when the company name changed. Yep, the gun’s over a century old. The top-tang safety was stiff, indicating the need for a general cleaning by a gunsmith experienced with English shotguns. It had a silver “SAFE” in a blue-enameled background, and bushed firing pins, the latter a distinct notch above common. The buttstock was probably refinished, but not the forend. The barrels had probably been reblued, not an issue for early British guns. The gun had been reproved for modern nitro loads.

The top rib was engraved with the name and address of the maker, “Trulock & Harriss, 9 Dawson St., Dublin.” On the range, we thought the gun kicked rather hard with one-ounce Eley Impax cartridges. However, the owner has had no trouble shooting the gun for extended sessions. The gun impacted quite low compared to what we were used to, much lower than the Ruger. This is something the owner needs to find out for himself, so he can adjust his aim accordingly. The owner had no trouble hitting, and after we found out where to aim, neither did we.

I. Hollis & Sons 12-bore, 2-3/4 inch, about $2000

This old boxlock gun was made in the first quarter of the 20th Century, as well as its owner — a collector of English doubles — could determine. The proof marks indicate manufacture after 1904. This gun had a Greener crossbolt, no ejectors, and was choked full and full. It was not a game gun, but what is called a “wildfowling” gun. It weighed 7 pounds 4 ounces, enough to easily handle the proof-stamped 1.25-ounce charge, which its owner used to very good effect some years back, when lead shot was legal for duck shooting. Despite its weight, the Hollis balanced very well, and felt much more alive than the lighter Ruger. It was responsive, though by no means a top-name gun.

Because its history is known for the preceding quarter century, we’ll share some of it with you. The Hollis was purchased in 1983 for about the cost of a new Browning side-by-side at that time. It has a replaced hammer spring, which has given no trouble. The trigger guard also was a replacement. The gun originally had an automatic safety, which is now non-auto.

The right barrel had a slight bulge, which the owner (a qualified gunsmith for English guns, but only his own) fixed. He also refinished and recheckered the wood, engraved the trigger guard (with a flying duck) and rust-blued the guard, floorplate, and barrels to new condition. He repaired small voids and chips in the stock here and there. He added touches of engraving to screw heads throughout the gun. He tightened the slightly loose forend. Along the way the skilled owner did a lot of things to this gun that enhanced its function and appearance without detracting from its value. The average owner would have had to pay for having those things done, and in most cases the expenditure would not have made sense, though rebluing and refinishing the wood were beneficial.

J. Purdey & Sons Sidelock Ejector, about $15,000

The Purdey had it all. It was perfectly made, built to last, entirely hand made, was very attractive, had lovely wood, perfectly timed ejectors, was self-opening, had fine engraving, Purdey’s own rib design with ivory bead, double triggers with the forward one hinged, was a London-made best sidelock, had modest cast off, made lovely and even patterns, handled like a dream, and even had its own oak-and-leather case. It had some history we know about, and some we don’t. The known history is that it had been repinned by master guncrafter Daniel Cullity, who told us the gun hadn’t needed it at all, but its previous owner had insisted. At that man’s request Cullity (who taught Doug Turnbull much of what he knows) also gave the gun a leather-covered recoil pad, which we appreciated.

The unknown history is easily told: Our Purdey, numbered “1” on its rib, is one of a pair, but the location of the second gun is unknown. The gently swamped barrels were 28 inches long and chambered for 2.5-inch shells. We patterned this Purdey and found the chokes to be quite open on the right, and approaching Modified on the left. Its current value reflects a substantial gain over its cost a few years ago, which is one of the biggest reasons for buying a Purdey, or other used, best-quality, top-name British shotgun. They are excellent investments. The owner takes it hunting every year, so he also gets supreme usefulness in the field for his money.

Gun Tests Recommends

Ruger Gold Label, $2000. Buy It. The Ruger Gold Label is not an English game gun, but has many of the right features. For us, it threw its charges quite high, which some shooters prefer. It had zero cast, a 1.5-inch drop at comb, and a 2-inch drop at heel. We think it’ll satisfy nearly anyone who wants a good, light, side-by-side 12 gauge for whatever reason. We consider the Ruger to be probably the finest U.S.-made shotgun ever produced, and it’s far and away the best U.S. double gun made today. Will a Ruger last 100 years and keep going? Time will tell.

Trulock & Harriss, about $2000. Buy It. We were impressed with the lively nature of the handsome T&H, its nice engraving, fine wood, and beautiful balance. It had 1.5 inches of drop at comb, 2.5 inches at the heel, and 0.6 inches of cast off. We thought we could live with its cast-off, and loved its versatility without the need for choke inserts. We thought it would be a decent investment for the shooter or collector, and we expect it to increase in value, something you probably won’t get from any new shotgun.

I. Hollis & Sons 12-bore, 2-3/4 inch, about $2000. Conditional Buy. The stock has no cast, and measured 1.5 inches of drop at the comb and 2.2 inches at the heel. It had steel heel and toe plates, with clean serrations cut into the wood between those. The 30-inch barrels had a file-cut, slightly raised rib. The modestly engraved action still shows some traces of case coloring. The gun was sound, its barrels were in perfection condition, and the gun had lots of life left. Its owner says this is the gun he uses when he wants to hunt seriously. We found the patterns to be amazing. They were indeed full and full, 100-percent patterns very evenly spread just above the point of aim from both barrels. We found no problems with this gun whatsoever, other than getting used to its tight chokes. Such a gun would be wonderful for pheasant or sage grouse hunting in the West, which is where its owner lives. We thought his gun was a dandy, but because it has had so many necessary small alterations over the years, it probably wouldn’t be ideal for the first-time buyer of English shotguns.

J. Purdey & Sons Sidelock Ejector, about $15,000. Our Pick. Purdeys are very expensive. The Ruger does not — cannot — compete, no matter that it’s a good gun. The Purdey is a great gun. This one had 0.25 inch of cast off, 1.4 inches of drop at comb and 2.1 inches of drop at heel. It weighed 6.5 pounds. If you can afford one, by all means buy it. But remember, you must have an excellent idea of what you want, where to find it, and what it’s worth before you buy any used British shotgun. A top-notch dealer is a good place to start. We recommend looking at as many guns as possible, and try to arrange to shoot the gun of your choice before you buy. If it suits you, we feel you’ll be a happy shooter for life.