Ruger Gold Label Side-by-Side Shotgun
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
Sturm, Ruger & Co. has a history of boldly going where others fear to tread. Surely the introduction of a completely new, American made, side-by-side shotgun was a big step even for Ruger.
We first saw the Gold Label shotgun at, if I remember correctly, the 2002 SHOT Show, but it was not until 2006 that guns began trickling to distributors. That must be some sort of record, even for Ruger, for time elapsed between product announcement and availability. Guns and Shooting Online Technical Advisor Gordon Landers had to wait over 2 years before his Gold Label finally arrived! I mean, we're not talking a bespoke Purdy here; the Gold Label is supposed to be a production shotgun.
The Gold Label is available with either a straight hand stock or a pistol grip stock. Either option comes with a splinter forend. Both models are attractive, but the straight hand version is more in keeping with the theme of the Scottish round action game gun that provided the inspiration for the Gold Label. The "premium grade" walnut that Ruger is using at present is about grade "A" black walnut. The butt stock is attached by means of a sturdy through-bolt rather than tang screws. The stock and forend are graced with extremely well executed, machine cut, fine-line checkering.
Other basic particulars include a stainless steel, triggerplate, round body action and mono-block barrels with a solid, matte rib. A concave (English style) rib might be more in keeping with the look of the gun, especially on the straight hand model.
The barrels are assembled with such care that the joint between the mono-block and tubes is hard to see. These hand finished barrels appear at a glance to have been struck full length. Barrel finish is by traditional rust bluing, a rarity on a gun today.
The body of the Gold Label's investment cast receiver is so narrow that the 12 gauge barrels atop it look oversized. The action's fences and balls are huge to accommodate the barrels. This is essentially a 20 gauge frame fitted with 12 gauge barrels.
There are cuts cast into the action bars to further lighten the receiver. We would like to see Ruger remove all casting marks from the inside of the receiver rather than just polishing the most obvious areas as they do now. Rough castings are not indicative of a top quality gun. The actual mechanics of the action closely resembles that of the Ruger Red Label O/U shotgun.
The Gold Label comes with a single selective trigger, selective ejectors and 5 Briley interchangeable choke tubes (two skeet tubes and one each IC, Modified, and Full). Interchangeable choke tubes seldom pattern as well as bored chokes, but Briley tubes are the exception and they are used by many professional shooters.
The gold-plated trigger is of the mechanical type and the automatic tang safety also serves as the barrel selector. Back is "safe" and forward is "fire." To select a barrel, the safety must first be fully rearward. Note that there is an "R" and an "L" stamped into the tang near the back of the safety slider. Then shove the rear of the safety slider to one side or the other. Push it to the left, for example, and the "L" is covered. This means that you have selected the right barrel to fire first. To shoot the gun, the automatic safety must then be moved to its fully forward position.
None of us found this selector system to be particularly intuitive and the safety was quite stiff and at times difficult to work. Being automatic, it is necessary to operate the safety every time the gun is reloaded. It is one of those things to which the gun's owner will undoubtedly become accustomed over time, but with which shooters unfamiliar with the Gold Label will probably find fault. All of us would have preferred double triggers.
In overall configuration the Gold Label resembles a John Dickson or David McKay Brown double gun, but the short tangs and complete absence of standard engraving make it clear that the Ruger is not a Scottish best gun. It may, however, in time earn the sobriquet "American Best." That will be determined at some point in the future and it is one of the reasons that we are reviewing the Gold Label. By the end of this article both you, gentle reader, and we will have decided if the Gold Label has the potential to ultimately be ranked with the likes of Lefever, Parker, L.C. Smith, Ithaca, A.H. Fox, and the Winchester Model 21 as an American best gun.
Engraving is available from the Ruger Studio in various scroll patterns with and without gold inlays. In addition, the Ruger Studio can provide custom engraving to suit practically any taste. Wood upgrades in either American or Circassian walnut are also available. In these areas the Gold Label appears to be following in the tradition of the Winchester Custom Shop Model 21.
It is clearly Ruger's hope that the Gold Label will ultimately be accepted as a modern American best gun. The Ruger catalog refers to the Gold Label as a "fine shotgun," and states that:
"Here you have a bonafide American-crafted, perfectly balanced, superb-handling, lightweight side-by-side capable of putting a quiver in the stiffest of upper lips on the other side of the Atlantic and beyond. The first classic American production side-by-side to be introduced in 50 years, the Ruger Gold Label shoulders and swings with the fluidity you'd expect to find in a rare, handmade British double gun."
The good folks at Ruger have, indeed, made an effort to endow the gun with some of the characteristics typical of such guns. There are, for example, no pins or screws marring the external surface of the brushed stainless steel receiver, a very nice touch. Like a British best gun or a Model 21, the Gold Label has a clean breech face. The action is locked closed by a stout under bolt; there is no top fastener to interfere with loading. Unlike most American best guns, which were intended to fire heavy shot charges and were therefore generally heavier than their European counterparts, the Gold Label weighs only 6.5 pounds in 12 gauge.
The gun is light and it is not supplied with a recoil pad, so you will probably want to avoid shooting heavy loads. Such loads are generally unnecessary for hunting upland game and the Gold Label is clearly and specifically an upland gun despite its 3" (76mm) chambers. Stick with standard velocity, low brass, 2-3/4" shells containing no more than 1-1/8 ounces of shot; 1 ounce loads would be even better. There isn't much that you can't do in upland hunting with one ounce of shot if you send it to the right place. That is the load that British game guns, on which the Gold Label is modeled, are intended to shoot.
Following are the catalog specifications of our straight hand Ruger Gold Label.
Guns and Shooting Online staff members Gordon Landers, Bob Fleck, Jim Fleck, Rocky Hays, and I all rendezvoused at the Cottage Grove - Eugene Sportsman's Club (our local trap club) to shoot the Gold Label on a sunny May afternoon. Its smooth lines and good feel favorably impressed everyone. It balances well, shoulders swiftly, and points naturally.
Aesthetically the gun doesn't leave much to be desired. I felt that the smooth, satin stainless steel receiver looked a bit featureless without any engraving or the case colors so commonly seen on fine double guns. If I were purchasing a Gold Label for my personal battery, I would want one of the engraved models with upgraded wood. Rocky Hays, our resident engraver and gunmaker, suggested that, given the Gold Label's silver receiver and slick lines, the stock would look better with a glossier finish.
Out on the trap field, most of the guys shot the Gold Label reasonable well. Jim and I shot particularly well with it, and we tried to talk Gordon out of his gun right there on the spot. But then, alone among the hardy Guns and Shooting Online crew, we used a slip-on recoil pad to ameliorate the kick of the 6-1/2 pound, 12 gauge gun. If this were my gun, I'd definitely have a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad fitted.
As with most upland field guns, I held the Gold Label to see a little of the rib and barrels under my line of sight, which is the way it naturally fit me, put the target at the end of the barrels and broke it. Assuming that I remembered to lead and didn't stop my swing, of course.
Unfortunately, we did have some problems while shooting the Gold Label. On numerous occasions the hammer dropped with an audible click, but the shell did not go off. The firing pin would leave a tiny mark on the shell's primer and that was all. Once the single trigger fired the wrong barrel (the barrel for which it was not set.)
Also, the ejectors seemed to have a weak and variable stroke, particularly when compared to the Grulla 216RL (reviewed on the Product Review Page) that we also had with us. Sometimes the fired hull would barely clear the Gold Label's breech. A split or swollen shell might very well stick in the chamber. This is because the Gold Label's ejectors are entirely spring powered. There are no ejector hammers as with Southgate pattern ejectors. Perhaps Ruger needs to switch to stouter springs, or perhaps they need to polish the ejector parts and the frame cuts in which they ride. It is obvious that Ruger did the bare minimum of polishing on the inside of this action.
After a lot of wild theories and head shaking we concluded that the mis-fires (the most serious of our complaints) may have been due to the shooter not forcing the barrels quite all the way open when reloading the gun. Apparently the last 1/4" of barrel rotation finishes cocking the action. So the mis-firing may have been a case of operator error. The other problems remain unsolved.
In our defense, the gun was brand new, had never been shot before and the action was very tight. It was stiff to open and stiff to close. Almost as tight as the Grulla 216RB, also being fired for the first time and a certified Spanish best gun. The Grulla Owner's Manual states specifically that the gun is built to such close tolerances that it will require firing 100 to 200 shells before it begins to work more easily. We decided that the same was probably true of the Gold Label.
Since the Gold Label was discontinued after only a year or so of production, it will never have the chance to reach "best gun" status. The high tech nature of the Gold Label's manufacture and the lack of engraving will cause some traditionalists to reject the Gold Label out of hand. On the other hand, there was that glorious pin-less receiver, timeless balance, fast handling and sleek appearance.
We all agreed that the Ruger Gold Label was potentially a nice shotgun, although unlikely to put David McKay Brown on the skids. It looked good, felt good and handled well. It was the result of high-tech manufacturing techniques, but no less gun for that. After all, Holland & Holland uses the latest computer controlled machinery for most of their basic metal fashioning. Only after the machines' work is finished does final hand fitting and tuning take place on a modern H&H shotgun.
It is exactly that hand fitting and tuning that the Gold Label desperately needed. Although externally the Gold Label looked good, it was as if Ruger sent these guns out before the internals were completely finished. Without question, Ruger should have removed all signs of investment casting from the inside of the receiver and mirror polished the internal action parts, as befits a fine shotgun. That would also have smoothed the operation of the gun. The weak ejectors should have been addressed, possibly redesigned, before the guns were offered to the public. It should also have been easier to fully open the gun if misfires were to be avoided in the field. Ruger seems to have had an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to building the Gold Label and that simply doesn't cut it when the gun is compared to previous American best quality guns (Winchester 21, Lefever, etc.).
Copyright 2007, 2012 by ChuckHawks.com. All rights reserved.