The rise, fall, and rebirth of this classic American over-under shotgun
It was the same story each time we visited the Olathe Gun Shop in Kansas. As soon as he entered through the front door, my father would walk towards the over-under shotguns. There, neatly displayed upright, were a variety of stacked barrels. To the upland bird hunter shopping for a new shotgun, there were plenty to choose from. However, for my father there was only one that stood out: the Ruger Red Label. This time, his hands would carefully grab the shotgun’s forend to admire it one more time before taking it home. He had been saving for months. The time had come to purchase his first over-under.
It was the mid-90s and my father had a few options when it came to choosing his first “double”. After many years, he would tell me that the Ruger Red Label stood out against all the others. It was the lustrous metal receiver that had grabbed his attention. Its simple, yet sleek design set the 12-gauge apart from the others in my father’s eyes.
Overview of the “Red”
The “Red,” as the over-under shotgun came to be called, came with Ruger’s popular signature mark of a highly polished stainless-steel receiver. My father noted that the bright receiver complimented the pair of highly blued and forged twin barrels. Precisely affixed to the top barrel is a ventilated rib with a brass front bead to help with the “sight picture” and to keep the bird-barrel relationship straight on target and put more birds in your vest. Unfortunately, this was not always the case for my father!
The bluing carried over onto the top lever that broke open the over-under and exposed the shotgun’s serial number etched into the shiny metal. The safety and barrel selection were determined by means of a selector mounted below the tang. Upon opening the shotgun, the automatic safety was engaged. My father liked this feature and had no qualms with it, though many disliked it. The “Red” came with automatic ejectors that tossed out empty hulls with an aggressive “Thwump!” The other subtle detail my father spoke of was the lack of the shotgun’s specs typically etched along the barrels. The Red Label’s barrels are smooth like glass, and the information can only be found if the shotgun is opened to reveal the gauge and 3” chambers.
The twelve-bore came with four factory screw-in chokes (skeet, IC, mod, and full) to accommodate both lead and steel loads for a variety of upland and waterfowl birds in an array of landscapes and environments. My father’s preference was shooting the bottom barrel first, with Improved Cylinder, followed up with the top barrel fitted with a Modified choke. This selection was pretty much his standard for most type of upland hunting.
The gleaming oil-finished wooden butt stock and forend were made from high quality, American, homegrown walnut and sealed with a satin weather-resistant finish. Small details such as the checkering on the pistol grip and forend gave it a classy look. The Ruger Company had gone with the classic top checkering, giving the shotgun more visual appeal. It consists of grooves cut at a 60- to 90-degree angle, which create points at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines. These points resemble a diamond shape, which help with the grip. The forearm sported a multi-point scalloped design. Rounding out the shotgun is the rubber recoil pad that comes standard on the 12- and 20-gauge models (a plastic butt plate adorns the 28-gauge). “The Red” is truly appealing to the eye. Its beauty and price tag did not discourage my father into taking it into the marsh to shoot waterfowl, but he was meticulous about keeping it in pristine condition. To this day, for the amount of usage and conditions the shotgun has endured, it is in exceptionally good shape. Its nicks and light blemishes and scratches in the wood hold stories of past hunts and memories afield.
History of the Ruger Red Label shotgun
At the time my father purchased his Ruger, the Red Label already had built a reputation for being a solid American-made over-under shotgun, a rare feat. The Red Label’s popularity grew from the shotgun’s reliability, handling, and affordability. The Red Label’s price tag was the company’s biggest selling point, as the shotgun provided the average hunter the opportunity to own an over-under.
This market was controlled primarily by European manufacturers hundreds of years old, distinguished by their craftsmanship and high price tags. Through the years, the model did have its fair share of skeptics and criticism. Overall, the Red Label was a well-made shotgun.
The Ruger Red Label first came on to the upland hunting scene in 1977 when it was made available as a 20-gauge for $480. At the time, the Remington Model 3200 was the only American made over-under shotgun and it cost almost twice as much as Ruger’s new dainty little twenty. Two years later, in 1979, a 12-gauge version was released, and in 1984 a scaled-down version was built on a 28-gauge frame. European shotgun makers were beginning to feel a little pressure from some friendly competition from across the Atlantic Ocean. An American firearms company, Sturm, Ruger & Co., were starting to put out some quality shotguns using innovative machinery and manufacturing techniques.
In 1999 the Ruger Red Label was offered for a limited time and production as the Gold Label for its 50th Anniversary celebration. The models under the Gold Label included 24kt engraved “Gold Birds” in the following gauges: 28 (Grouse), 20 (Pheasant), and 12 (Duck). Additional models offered later with CNC cut engravings included the following gauges: 28 (Woodcock), 20 (Grouse), 12 (Pheasant) and 12 “All-Weather” (Duck).
The Red Label over-under shotgun was produced for over thirty years, from 1978-2011, and again in 2013-2014 for a limited run. During that time, approximately 150,000 shotguns were produced. Three decades is a pretty darn good run if you ask me. The Red Label is still a highly sought-after shotgun by hunters and collectors alike. My father was immensely proud of the Red Label, as it was unique among over-unders, as it was almost an anomaly when other bird hunters carried more distinguished and well-known doubles.
Available models and specs of the Ruger Red Label
The Ruger Red Label was offered in the following specs:
Gauges: 28, 20, and 12
Stock: English straight or pistol grip stock
Barrel Length: 26, 28, and 30 inches
Weight: 6 – 7 lbs 8 oz.
Criticism of the Ruger Red Label and its ultimate demise
No shotgun is ever without imperfections and the Red Label was no different. The biggest complaint my father heard was the over-under’s weight, specifically the twelve. At just over seven pounds, my father’s 12-gauge Red Label is heavy for an over-under, and its heft was and is a sore subject amongst owners and shooters. The big-bore 12 took the brunt of the criticism. Hauling around that much weight over large expanses can quickly have adverse effects, causing owners to re-evaluate the Red Label. I never recall my father complaining about the weight of the shotgun; it handled beautifully in the field. It swung easily and was quick to shoulder and bring down ringnecks and bobs as the shotgun sounded off its presence in the Kansas uplands.
Ruger built the 28- and 20-gauge on size-appropriate frames and with that came a manageable six pounds of wood and metal.
However, the demise of the Ruger Red Label really came down to the price. At its inception, this was probably the most economical over-under at the time. But with rising labor costs, the shotgun’s hand-fitted stock and action, its two regulated barrels, and a plethora of parts, the Red Label price tag steadily began to climb. The shotgun simply became too expensive to produce. By 2011, the cost of a Red Label came in over $2000! The over-under that once could be purchased at under $500 was soon out of reach for the common birdhunter. Though the price was high for my father, it did not discourage him to save pennies and eventually buy his beloved “Red.”
Ruger finally closed its production line in 2011. As sales plummeted it was no longer the “affordable” over-under it was touted as.
Rebirth of the Ruger Red Label
Like the phoenix, the Red Label was reborn from the ashes in 2013. The engineers at Ruger redesigned the shotgun and developed new ways to make the over-under less expensive. The popular model was lighter, had reduced recoil, and featured refined inner workings. The improvements increased the Red Label’s performance and handling.
The price tag came in $1399.00, well below the almost two grand that the shotgun previously demanded.
However, in 2015, the Red Label was discontinued. The company once again cited revenue issues for halting the production of the shotgun.
My father chose the Ruger Red Label because it appealed to him aesthetically and it handled well for him. I remember hearing my father talk about how beautiful the over-under is. Its distinctive looks are what sets it apart from other over-unders. For years, my father would not even let me hold “The Red.” It wasn’t until he passed it onto me that I truly appreciated this shotgun’s virtues, when he gave it to me on Christmas Eve in 2014. Since then, “The Red” has accompanied me throughout the Midwest, chasing ringnecks, coveys of bobs, and flighty chickens. Its weight went unnoticed as I toted it across the sage sea for Wyoming sage grouse or busted through Missouri brambles and thorns for scores of migrating woodcock.
Are there better over-under shotguns out there? Of course. But if you’re talking about better American-made over-unders, specifically, they simply don’t exist. However, finding an affordable Ruger Red Label nowadays is tough. A used Red Label in any gauge will set a hunter back at least $1700 or more, depending on condition and gauge. But if you’re looking for a unique over-under and can handle the price that comes with owning one, the Ruger Red Label will impress you and offer a lifetime of enjoyment.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.