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History and Overview of the Ruger Red Label Shotgun
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.
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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 ducks, 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 $1000 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.
My friend has a 20ga but I am unsure as to the year of production, but I am pretty sure its from the original run, It’s light and a fast pointer for the couple times I have shot it. I looked for one, and at the time could not afford it, and or they were all scammers that would ‘ship it to me’. I have always wanted one, and it would have been nice to have. Now I just look at my friends and wonder what if.
The CSMC is better. Please don’t get me wrong. I love the RRL, but as you stated it’s obese in the 12 AND 20 variants. The real shiner is the 28, especially if English stocked trimming even more weight. The action that flops open (it’s designed to) puts a lot of people off too. The wood to metal fit almost always leaves something to be desired when compared to the b guns and every good American SxS, or any product from CSMC. The wood often had the figuring of a sheet of cardboard. All that being said, it filled a niche that is sorely missed now.
Loved by Red Labels had 12,20&28. But the author is wrong as far as “a lifetime of enjoyment.” I like to use my shotguns and Ruger was very clear with me that they no longer make parts or promise they will repair any Red Labels. Very sad.
Interesting article about the Ruger Red Label.
From my perspective, a few additional points are in order.
First, Mr. Castillo states that the Red Label was offered as the “Gold Label.” Maybe so, but the only Ruger Gold Label I ever heard of was the company’s short-lived side-by-side 12-gauge.
Secondly, it’s important for people considering buying a Red Label on the used market to realize that Sturm,Ruger and Co. has quit offering repair service on these guns. Back in the good old days, Ruger would fix anything with their name on it, no matter how old it was. But the last I checked, they will no longer repair many guns that are no longer in production, including the Red Label, the tang-safety M77 rifle and others.
That’s no small matter for the Red Label. The guns have a reputation for developing issues that could well require expert service, including having the barrels back out of the monoblock and failing to fire on the second shot. The lack of factory support was a factor in my decision in recent years to get rid of my own 12-gauge Red Label.
From my experience, the Red Label 12 is an odd duck. It’s too heavy for upland hunting, and rather too flossy to want to knock it around hunting waterfowl. People who shoot a lot of rounds in competition say it won’t hold up to the huge volume of shells they shoot. All that points to a serious question: what is it good for? The lack of a good answer, at least in the mind of many shooters, may well explain why it’s no longer on the market.
— Ben Neary, Albuquerque, NM
My RRL is 12 ga., stainless. I have often wondered if it shoots where I point it. Lately though, I’ve been wondering if I point it where the bird is going to be. No, my Ruger Red Label is not for sale…for less than $2 Grand. Seriously, is a B gun for $2,000 really better? I’ll never know. But I do have a nice little Beretta Whitewing 20 ga. O/U. Which one will I carry for PA pheasant opener 10/23/2021?
To me, the classic profile of the Red Label says Made In America!
First off, thanks for reading the article. The Red clearly holds a special place in my life as it was my father’s. The RRL was one of the first high quality American made o/u shotguns. Too bad they are not made anymore.
I too believe the Gold Label was a side-by-side; as I checked dealers and gun shows for years before finally finding one and handling it.
I have two Red Labels: the common 28″ barrel standard 12 and a rare Target Gray stainless synthetic 12 with 30″ barrels. Neither are spry, and the 30″ is very front-heavy, but if one sometimes forgets to follow through the big Red Label is hard to stop once it gets swinging.
Mr. Estes…I believe you are right. It seems like RRLs in general are difficult to locate whether they be ou or sxs. People just give them up. And yes they’re heavy!
I enjoyed reading your article. I have an early production 20 with the blue receiver choked skeet/skeet and a 28 from 1990. Beautiful guns. Mostly used for busting clay birds now. Lived in Douglas County, KS for many years…really liked the KC area.
Thanks Robert for reading my article. The RRLs add a special gun indeed. There are some naysayers but overall the gun is a beautifully designed American shotgun. Curious if you ever used them for hunting?
I developed a admiration for the Red Labels years ago, and started with a 12Ga with fixed chokes. I shot it a lot mostly chasing stock pheasants. When they came out with the gold inlayed series I bought the 12, 20, and the. 28 and used them on Trap fields! I have never noticed them to be heavy because when I’m hunting I’m excited to be out there with my dog and could probably carry them both back! I did however experience a mis-fire problem with the newer 12 Ga, had it fixed and no longer shoot it. I also added the Gold Label SxS 12 Ga to my collection and I’ve shot it alot on the Trap range! I’ve always admired the Rugers and my disappointments have been minimal, but I must confess I shoot a Browning on the Trap range now!
Mr Witter thank you for reading my article. I’m with you regarding the RRL not being as heavy as many people think. I’m just so see to carrying it and the excitement of a flush I forget about it. I’d love to get a 28 and make it my main gun.
Thanks for the article. I have the triplets – a 12 (in the fairly rare sporting clays model with longer barrels and space between them for cooling), a 20 and a 28. Love them all but the 28 is my favorite – not just a 20 frame with skinny barrels. For a while you could buy a set of tubes to convert the 28 to a .410. Wish I could find those. Only thing that would make me put them in the archive is inability to get repairs. Having that issue right now with the ejectors on the 28.
Matt thanks for taking the time to read my article and sharing a little about your RRLs. Wow! How lucky you are to have aooo many options with the RRL. It’s hard to find owners who will part with them so finding a good condition 20 or 28 is difficult.
Way back in 1991 when I was a broke college freshman I cleaned out my bank account and bought a Red Label 12 gauge with screw in chokes. I liked the look of the stainless receiver with the blued barrels. My dad had also given me a Ruger 10-22 several years earlier and I really liked that little rifle so I was sold on Ruger.
I mainly bought my Red Label for quail hunting and also for deer, since the Eastern Virginia county I live in only allowed buckshot for deer hunting back then. It is a heavy gun and as a 5’10” 135lb 18 year old I quickly found that I didn’t like carrying it. It was fine for sitting on a deer stand but it kicks like a mule with 3″ shells.
By the time I moved back home from college the quail that were everywhere back in the 70s when I used to follow my dad and our pointer around the farm with my Iver Johnson .410 were mostly gone. I think the Roundup and Paraquat that farmers started spraying all over everything after the 1985 farm bill mandated N0-Till and minimum till farming wiped them out by the mid 1990s.
The vent rib on my Red Label rattles which drove me crazy the few times I carried it afield quail hunting. I shoved some tooth picks up under it to shim it and broke them off and that solved the problem. I took it duck hunting once, mainly because it is the only gun I own with screw in chokes that can safely shoot steel (but didn’t see a single duck) and carried it to a couple of dove shoots and shot some clays with it once or twice. It still resides in my gun cabinet even though I haven’t fired it in at least 20 years, because it is one of the most beautiful shotguns I have ever seen. The wood on mine looks to be presentation grade. I doubt I will ever part with it (I have never sold a gun in my life) and I still have the original box.
No doubt someone will be taken in by its beauty and pay too much for it at my estate sale, but I suspect that its next owner probably won’t shoot it any more than I have in the past 30 years. If I had known what I know now I would have bought a 20 guage Red Label but when I was 18 I thought a 20 gauge was a “kid’s gun”. LOL
Great article about the Red Label. Maybe this hunting season I will get my old Red Label out and see if I like carrying it any better as a 5’10” 200lb 50 year old than I did as a skinny teen. I kinda doubt I will!
Rob…first off, thank you for taking the time to read my article and more importantly for sharing your story and connection to the RRL! I can agree with you that the RRL is a heavy gun, especially the 12. However, when my father bought it over 35 years ago it’s it was the only choice for him. I’ve used it pretty much exclusively since he’s passed it down to me about ten years ago at Christmas.
I’ve never had any issues with it, it’s a beautiful gun and keeping it clean, and oiled has never resulted in any problems for me. Knock on wood. I shoot all kinds of birds, to include doves and ducks. It’s carried in a variety of environments. At 52, I’m feeling its weight. But, this past weekend I shot a lot of birds with it as it just fits me naturally as an extension of myself.
I think you should take it out and shoot it. I’m sure you’ll find those memories returning as well as making new ones. Thank you again for the kind words and for replying. Edgar