Ruger Red Label Review


The decision by Ruger officials in 2011 to discontinue production of the company’s Red Label over-under was bad news for shotgunners. The good news is that it’s back. The even better news is that it’s priced $500 less than when it was discontinued. No, that’s not a misprint. Had you paid full retail for a Red Label a couple years ago, your bank account would have suffered a $1,899 debit. In this case your procrastination has paid off, and what Ruger officials describe as an improved version can now be purchased for $1,399.

If you are wondering, as I did, as to how Ruger was able to lower the price so dramatically, the company did it by making the Red Label less expensive to manufacture.

A big change is in how the receiver is made. The receiver of the earlier gun was cast in front and rear pieces, the latter mainly containing the upper and lower tangs. After they were welded together, the joint between them had to be blended and final-polished by hand. This was a very labor-intensive operation and added significantly to the overall production cost. By casting the receiver of the new gun in one piece, all that handwork has been eliminated.

Changes were also made to parts inside the action, but rather than bore you with a description of what that entailed, I will say that tighter manufacturing tolerances have reduced the time required in hand-fitting them.

A Red Label Birthday

It recently dawned on me that the Red Label is celebrating its 35th birthday. Although it was announced in 1977, production guns did not begin departing the factory in decent numbers until 1979. Its then price of $480 was certainly right. At the time the Remington Model 3200 was the only other quality over-under of American make, and it sold for $750. By the way, in today’s dollars, that $480 is equal to $1,922.

The Red Label was initially offered only in 20 gauge with 26- and 28-inch barrels. Fixed-choke options were Skeet and Skeet or Improved Cylinder and Modified. Ruger’s very first effort at building a shotgun served as proof that traditional styling could be achieved with the latest in manufacturing practices. Like English round-bottom doubles costing much more, the lower corners of its blued steel receiver were rounded rather than sharp as customarily seen on most O-U shotguns. That along with a receiver that was both narrow and shallow in profile made the Red Label extremely comfortable to carry in one hand. A gracefully shaped boss at the top of the receiver increased rigidity and gave it a distinctive look.

A 12-gauge version was announced at the same time as the 20 gauge, but it would not see actual production for several years. A stainless-steel receiver was introduced in 1989, and the blued receiver was eventually phased out.

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My first Red Label hunting experience was with a 12 gauge with 28-inch barrels, and while it was listed at 7.5 pounds, it tipped my postal scale at a couple of ounces shy of 8 pounds. I eventually got around to trying the 20-gauge version, also with 28-inch barrels, and it too exceeded its catalog weight by several ounces. Both guns had a muzzle-heavy feel, and while I shot them quite well, they were heavier than I thought over-under field guns in their bore sizes should be.

A 28-gauge version came along in 1995, and for the first time I fell in love with a Ruger shotgun. Often when manufacturers offer a gun in that gauge, they take the easy and less costly route by simply installing 28-gauge barrels on a 20-gauge receiver. The result is heavier and more portly than a 28-gauge gun should be.

But when designing the 28-gauge Red Label, Ruger engineers created a scaled-down 20-gauge action for the smaller shell. The receiver depth and width for the 20-gauge receiver was 2.210 and 1.695 inches respectively, the 28-gauge receiver measured 2.010 and 1.545 inches. The one I hunted with for a while had 28-inch barrels, and at a couple ounces over 6 pounds, it felt as light at the end of a long day in the field as at the beginning. Quick to shoulder, it snatched ringnecks and bobwhites from the air as if it had a mind of its own.

The New-Generation Red Label

I would like nothing better than to say the 2014 version of the Red Label is available in 28 gauge, but the first offerings will be in 12 gauge with the 20 gauge promised for later in the year. I could not coax anyone at Ruger into even talking about the 28-gauge gun, so your guess is as good as mine on whether it will eventually make a comeback. In my opinion, not bringing it back would be a huge mistake.

I would also like to say that the wood-to-metal fit of the 2014 version is better than on the old gun, but it is not. From a practical point of view, such a detail matters very little on a firearm intended for rough duty in the field. From a realistic point of view, however, it does matter to those who are willing to pay more for better aesthetics, and for them there are plenty of over-unders costing $2,000 and up from other manufacturers.

The American walnut is not exactly fancy, but the stocks of the few Red Labels I have seen had more contrasting figure than we are accustomed to seeing on affordable field guns. The finish is nicely done. The 18-line cut checkering is properly executed with no runovers or unfinished diamonds. Equally important, coverage is quite sufficient. Fit between stock and black recoil pad is good enough, but a softer pad would make shooting heavy field loads more comfortable. Length of pull is 14.25 inches. Drop at comb is 1.5 inches; drop at heel is 2.5 inches.

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Barrel length options are 26, 28, and 30 inches, all with 3-inch chambers. As is often the case for double-barrel shotguns, barrel walls are made slightly thicker at the muzzle to accommodate screw-in chokes. Doing so requires a slight increase in diameter of the front 3.5 inches of the barrels.

The chokes are made by Briley Manufacturing. My Brownells bore gauge indicates the two with Skeet markings should be marked Cylinder, but constrictions of the other three are dead on the money at 0.009 inch for the IC choke, 0.018 inch for Modified, and 0.035 inch for Full. Order a sixth choke from Briley with constriction in the 0.050- to 0.060-inch range and the Red Label would be capable of handling everything from close shots on ruffed grouse to a hung-up turkey gobbler at 60 yards.

The gun comes with a deluxe-grade Briley choke wrench rather than one of those cheap stampings often included with other guns. Ventilated rib width starts at 0.305 inch at the receiver and then steps up to a wider 0.325 inch where it remains all the way out to the muzzles. The rib has a 0.125-inch brass bead up front.

The barrels were lightened by reducing outside diameter while increasing bore diameter to 0.744 inch (0.730 inch is pretty much standard for American-built guns in 12 gauge).

The old 12-gauge Red Label with 26- and 28-inch barrels had removable side ribs, while the 32-inch barrel had none. The side rib is entirely eliminated from the new gun. That along with the lighter barrels shifts balance point slightly to the rear. Pointing quality is noticeably improved, making it a bit better for use on flushing birds, such as quail, pheasants, and grouse. More weight out front gives the old gun the edge on passing shots at ducks and doves, but most hunters will hardly notice the difference. The Red Label is less than perfect for all hunting applications, but it represents a much better compromise than some of its competition.

Oddly enough, reducing the weight of the barrels did not make overall weight lighter than the old Red Label. It obviously gained weight somewhere else because the 28-inch gun I have been shooting weighs an ounce less than 8 pounds on my postal scale. I am surprised that Ruger technicians did not take this opportunity to reduce overall heft.

Some Red Label features remain unchanged. That includes what I consider to be one of the better combination safety/barrel selector designs. Both right- and left-handed shooters find it convenient to use. Pivot the tail of the safety slide to the right prior to pushing it forward and the lower barrel will fire first. A second tug on the mechanically reset trigger fires the upper barrel. For firing the top barrel first, simply pivot the tail of the slide to the left and go from there. As most hunters prefer, the safety automatically returns to its engaged position when the barrels are broken open for reloading. A trap or skeet shooter who insists on a nonautomatic safety has the option of sending his Red Label and $30 to Ruger for the conversion.

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Some over-unders, even the expensive ones, are quite difficult to open and remain so until they have digested a few thousand rounds. This was true for the Red Label back when it was introduced, but sometime during the 1990s improvements described by Ruger as “easy opening” were made. Modifying the cam lugs of the ejectors along with the top lever strut and its spring gave the gun more of a broken-in feeling, yet breech lockup was as tight as ever. Today’s Red Label has inherited that easy-opening feature.

Built for Hard Use

Each time I hunt with the Ruger over-under I am reminded of how comfortable its low-profile receiver makes it in the one-hand carry. One of my favorite bird guns has long been a Winchester 101 in 20 gauge. As is typical of small-gauge guns, it is trimmer than most in 12 gauge and measures only 2.460 inches tall at the midpoint of its action. But at 2.450 inches, the 12-gauge Red Label is a bit shallower.

As shotguns used for hunting should, the Red Label shoots flat. At the 16-yard pattern board, all five of its chokes placed the center of each shot charge close enough to dead on my hold point. Both ejectors operated flawlessly, with spent cases landing within inches of each other and about 8 feet behind me. Trigger pull weights were quite smooth with a consistent 6-pound release on the first barrel and 6.5 pounds on the second. The combination safety/barrel selector worked without a single hitch. Just as important as everything else, when hunting Nebraska pheasants, I had to try really hard in order to make the gun miss.

As is typical of firearms made by Ruger, the Red Label is a no-nonsense shotgun built for hard use in the field. Its lower price along with the fact that it is made in America will certainly prompt shotgunners to welcome it back with open arms and money in hand.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>