By John Zent, American Rifleman
How’s this for oddball coincidence? For last year’s bear hunt in our 49th state, I took a rifle then in its 49th year of manufacture. If you can find any significance in that, please let me know. As far as I can see, it simply means that the Ruger Model 77 has reached a big, round milestone here in 2018—uncommon longevity for any consumer product, let alone a firearm.
It was my first time using the Ruger in Alaska, and I have to wonder why, since on eight trips spread over 25 years, there were guides in nearly every camp relying on M77s, including on a Dall sheep hunt just a few months back. That seems worthy of our attention, since the men and women who work in those camps tend to have more than average gun sense and must balance value with everyday performance under conditions far more trying than most of us face. While I’m not arguing that my limited observations apply to Alaskans as a whole, later in this article I will share evidence from a well-positioned source suggesting that this may indeed be the case.
Even so, sales to Alaskans aren’t what has kept Ruger in the M77 business for a half-century. This seminal bolt-action—in many incarnations—has proven itself around the globe, including wherever you hunt and shoot. Ruggedness and real value have always ranked high in our American character, and those two stubbornly appealing traits allowed an upstart rifle from an ambitious gunmaker to compete with a pair of national treasures.
How An Upstart Tackled The Icons
On the heels of its .44 Mag. (1959) and 10/22 (1964) semi-automatic carbines, plus the classy No. 1 single-shot (1966), Ruger was still fairly new to the long-gun business when it introduced the Model 77 in 1968. From what was a modest launch—an economical ($160) short-action offered in .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., 6 mm Rem. and .308 Win.—the subsequent half-century of production has progressed through three distinct generational periods. During the run it has been rendered in scores of model variations spanning rimfire, center-fire and muzzleloader platforms, and nearly 60 different chamberings ranging from .17 HM2 to .458 Lott. Perhaps the Model 77 never quite caught up in terms of lore and overall sales to the Winchester Model 70 and Remington Model 700, but its history suggests that Ruger strived to outdo the big boys in its sheer number and variety of innovative applications.
American Rifleman’s initial coverage from February 1969 hailed Ruger’s new entry “based on the Mauser turnbolt” and praised its “clean, simple” looks, “excellent handling,” lockup and assembly strength, and fast lock time. The reviewer explained how to access and adjust the single-stage trigger’s pull weight, but cautioned readers not to tamper with sear engagement and over-travel screws. He also noted that the receiver, bolt and other action parts were investment castings, and that the trigger guard/floorplate was “made of lightweight alloy,” ways in which the Ruger differed from the steel forgings offered in competing models. Like the Model 70, it sported a flat-bottomed receiver secured to the stock by three guard screws, but instead of all three exerting the customary vertical tension, Ruger angled its forward screw toward the muzzle. The resulting rearward pull effectively strengthened the receiver recoil lug’s interface with the stock shoulder. This innovation has remained an M77 hallmark throughout its entire 50-year run. Another brainstorm was the “rugged” integral scope mount machined into the receiver, whose value was wisely leveraged by including a set of rings with each rifle. This generation is typically identified as the “tang-safety M77,” referring to its sliding, two-position toggle.
In 1970, Ruger rolled out what it then called the “Model 77 Magnum,” an action a scant 3/8″ longer but which would reliably cycle standard-length cartridges. Accordingly, offerings such as .25-06 Rem., .270 Win., 7 mm Rem. Mag. and .30-’06 Sprg. were added to the roster, surely making the Ruger far more competitive in big-game circles. Eventually the base model would be known as the 77R, but hardly a year has gone by without design tweaks or major line extensions, a reflection on a corporate philosophy to aggressively pursue new materials, technology, styling and changing shooter preferences. The M77 has been an early adopter of numerous newly developed or resurrected factory chamberings, some proprietary to Ruger, some not. A partial list includes: .17 HMR, .17 HM2, .17 Hornet, .204 Ruger, 6 mm PPC, 6.5 mm Creedmoor, 6.8 mm SPC, .300 RCM, .338 Federal, .338 RCM, .35 Whelen, .375 Ruger, .416 Ruger, .450 Bushmaster and .458 Lott. At one time or other nostalgia buffs could find .22 Hornet, .220 Swift, .250 Savage, 6.5×55 mm Swedish, .284 Win., .350 Rem. Mag. and .416 Rigby. And where else could one get a bolt-action carbine scaled to shoot revolver cartridges such as .357 Mag. and .44 Mag.?
Wide-ranging variants would come to include: the heavy-barreled M77V Varmint (1969); the big-bore M77 RSC (1976), with deluxe wood and steel bottom metal; the M77 International (1982) with full Mannlicher-type stock; and the just-6-lb. M77 RL (1983). The 77/22 rimfire (1984) exhibited a unique mid-bolt lockup, along with the line’s first three-position safety, and it fed from a detachable rotary magazine that would carry over into iterations like the 77/22 Hornet and pistol-caliber models.
Though early American Rifleman reporting prominently cited the Mauser lineage, it never really stated that the original M77 was incapable of its forerunner’s most desired feature—controlled-round feed. Though fitted with a full-length (4.647″) claw extractor, the bolt face was partially recessed and housed a plunger-type ejector. The beveled claw didn’t hook over the case rim until the cartridge push-fed into chamber tension. The resulting lack of controlled feeding was discussed by numerous gun writers over the years, but not in these pages until Field Editor Finn Aagaard and NRA Technical Editor Pete Dickey made note of it in the early 1990s.
Correcting Course—The Mark II
By that time, however, a serious makeover had occurred, and the resulting second-generation Ruger M77 Mark II sported a flat bolt face slotted at four o’clock to work with a blade-type ejector, and now the non-rotating, full-length claw did indeed give riflemen the coveted controlled feed that had been missing from mass-produced American-made bolt guns since Winchester dropped it in the mid-1960s.
It was at this point—my first trip to the north country—that I began seeing Ruger turnbolts at work in Alaska. A fellow hunter brought one for his combo grizzly/sheep hunt, and though I can’t recall with certainty, I’m guessing it was one of the new Mark IIs. That’s because the man was almost brand new to hunting, and his gear was noticeably fresh and high-end. So it stands to reason he was toting the “improved” design—in .338 Win. Mag., no less. When we trooped out to the camp’s shooting bench, it was impressive how well this beginner—who, at most, went 5’5″/140 lbs.—shot the powerful rifle. We were paired up for the first few days, and though plucky, he struggled climbing the steep mountains. Neither of us got a ram that week, but I heard later that he killed his bear, no doubt a happy justification for lugging the big Ruger.
In fact, dangerous game was partly responsible for the re-design. Not only did the Mark II function as a true Mauser 98 derivative, it adopted the Model 70-style side-swing, three-position safety that allows bolt operation with the safety engaged.
Though the base M77R’s lines were originally drafted by stockmaker Lenard Brownell, father of the “American classic” look, the Mark II was praised for the even sleeker proportions of its hand-checkered walnut stocks. Additional updates included a stainless steel bolt and re-shaped bottom metal. Gone, however, was the original’s adjustable trigger, and some commenters predictably called the replacement “lawyerized.”
Where the first-gen M77’s intro was quite conservative, the Mark II stormed the market with options. In short order one could get: left-handed stocks; carbine-length 18½” or 20″ barrels; lightweights weighing 6 lbs. or less; factory open sights; and target versions combining heavy-contour 28″ barrels, laminated stocks and the new, proprietary Target Grey metal finish. Coming later was Ruger’s first of repeated takes on the Cooper-concept Scout rifle: Dubbed the Mark II Frontier, it teamed a 16-1/2″ barrel with a cantilever base that facilitated forward scope mounting.
Also new, and reportedly a pet project of CEO Bill Ruger himself, was the Mark II Magnum (RSM), a robust safari model with all the trappings Mr. Ruger had once admired in swanky Griffin & Howes and other mid-20th century express rifles. Chambered in .375 H&H Mag., .416 Rigby or .458 Lott, the RSM dazzled in hand-checkered Circassian walnut accented with an ebony fore-end tip, and it weighed from 9 lbs., 8 ozs. to 10 lbs. Finn Aagaard called it “ … almost too big for the .375 H&H … perfect for the .416 Rigby and other large-cased rounds.” Perhaps its most impressive feature was the quarter rib machined integral to the barrel and fitted with two folding sight leaves, an addition that Ruger biographer Larry Wilson wrote pushed production time to seven hours.
The churn for new variants also produced the most recognizable and prolific of the Mark II generation—the All-Weather Stainless (AWS). In production from 1990 until 2006, this series deserves prime attention in the context of Alaska. Both tough and cheap (originally $531 MSRP), it clicked with guides, resident hunters and Lower-48 visitors alike. I daresay you know it: bright metalwork flashing from a molded black Zytel stock. The sides of the butt were recessed, flattened and embossed with the Ruger eagle. Fluted, rubbery stock panels fore and aft were attached with shiny screws and could be had in black or, more rarely, a contrasting pine-green color. Several AWS spinoffs emerged, including rimfires in .22 Long Rifle and .22 WMR. The rifle wasn’t pretty, but seemed intuitively suited to the extreme jobs for which it was destined. If ever there was a stock that could see double-duty as a canoe paddle, pry bar or bludgeon, this was it; no one would worry about scratching or denting it. If it chipped or cracked, guys would do a rough fix with Bondo or wrap it in duct tape and get back out there.
In my company, one fellow used his (unloaded, of course) along with a big Ka-Bar-like knife to dredge a shallow trench between our pup tents after a rainy, futile day searching for sheep in the Wrangells. Many miles from camp, Noatak River grizzly guide Paul Lenmark levered a snowmobile track back in place with his AWS stock. When we were glassing, Paul would simply plant his rifle grip-deep and muzzle up in the hard-packed snow, where it stood ready for duty. Who knows exactly how many of the kitschy AWS rifles ended up in Alaska, but one indication comes from Jim West, whose Wild West Guns is both the state’s biggest gun store and a popular television series. West told me about winning a bid for hundreds of guns confiscated from criminals by the Alaska Troopers, a large percentage of which were Ruger AWSs. Selling them via online auction, he said the used rifles routinely brought about twice their original asking price. “They may be ugly,” said West, “but people up here love ’em.” If ever there was a dedicated pairing, it’s that rifle in that place, and I’d venture that .338 Win. Mag. was Alaska’s preferred cartridge—loaded for bear with the line’s most powerful chambering.
The Hawkeye Upgrade
In an echo of the early ’90s, Ruger caught riflemen by surprise with its 2007 announcement that the Mark IIs would give way to yet another successor generation, the M77 Hawkeye. The maker called it a “refinement,” initially offered in two versions. The HM77R paired matte-blue alloy steel with a walnut stock even trimmer than the Mark II’s. There was also a Hawkeye AWS, matte stainless housed in a now-conventionally shaped black synthetic stock. Standard equipment included a single-piece bolt and steel floorplate, a feature previously supplied only on deluxe variants. Practical improvement came from the company’s new, widely appreciated LC6 trigger.
It was clear Ruger was aiming for an image upgrade with the Hawkeyes. Though upscale variants were on the docket throughout most of the M77’s long run, they were counterbalanced by affordable models retailing for around $500, like the 77R and AWS. In keeping with one of Bill Ruger’s founding principles, the M77, first and foremost, had been an everyman’s rifle.
But that kind of economy was fading with the coming of the Hawkeye, and whether anyone knew it at that juncture, it was an omen of bolt-action evolution to come. It wouldn’t surprise me if the ever-astute Mike Fifer, then Sturm, Ruger CEO, understood that emerging “smart manufacturing” would soon allow the profitable production of a new wave of cut-rate bolt rifles epitomized by the Ruger American Rifle. If so, then no doubt Fifer also knew that a costlier build like the M77 would have to make it as an upper-tier product.
Hence today’s growing Hawkeye family, with 10 variants presently cataloged, most of which sell north of $1,000. True to company practice, the base model is augmented by compact and varmint numbers, and there are a handful of specialists. The Hawkeye African showcases proprietary .375 and .416 Ruger rounds developed by Hornady, while the FTW Hunter was designed as the ultimate North American big-game rig in conjunction with the highly regarded FTW Ranch/Sportsman’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship school. New for 2018 is the Long-Range Target in .300 Win. Mag., one of few dedicated M77 match rifles. Its 26″ heavy-contour barrel is paired with a laminate stock wearing a textured paint job, a two-way adjustable comb and is shaped to engage various kinds of rests. Accurizing touches include 5R rifling and tight bore-and-groove and headspace tolerances. Several other Hawkeyes also sport laminated-wood stocks, including the FTW, Predator, Guide Gun (see sidebar) and most of the high-capacity Scout Rifle options. While walnut remains a common Hawkeye treatment, synthetic stocks are rare among the current lot.
As we review a meaningful half-century, it’s also fair to wonder about the M77’s future. At the same time rank-and-file hunters are embracing bargain bolt-actions, a renaissance in precision riflery—for match shooting, long-range hunting and military/LE service—has pumped up sales of bolt guns starting at roughly $1,500. However, the lion’s share are built on Remington 700-pattern actions, leaving proven players like the Ruger, Winchester Model 70 and other Mauser offspring mostly on the sidelines. How much does actual performance account for this trend, how much can be attributed to the influence of military issue, and how much can simply be chalked up to the thrift and ease of fabricating round-bodied receivers? Of course, the 700-type action is capable of stellar accuracy, but so are flat-bottomed receivers. Perhaps the matter will be addressed in part by the new Long-Range Target, but however it works out, Mr. Ruger’s bolt-action stands among his most enduring creations.
Hawkeye Guide Gun
The latest Model 77 purpose-built for harsh climes and heavy game is the Guide Gun, a Hawkeye treatment optimized for ruggedness. It replaced the Hawkeye Alaskan in 2013, essentially swapping the former’s Hogue OverMolded synthetic stock for a beefy laminate that bumps up the weight by a couple ounces. It has a cushy rubber buttpad, all the better for tempering the kick from chamberings ranging from .30-’06 Sprg. to .416 Ruger. Half-inch spacers (three included) can be user-inserted to increase the length of pull from 12.75“ to 14.25“.
The Green Mountain stock blends green, black and brown layers for a stylized camouflage effect to go with the combined feel of wood and stability of synthetic. Like others, Ruger is now relying mostly on laminated stocks for its high-end extreme-duty rifles, and typical of laminates, the checkering on our sample Guide Gun was not fancy but actually provided a superior grip.
The Guide Gun’s stainless-steel metalwork features a 20“ hammer-forged, magnum-contour barrel that likewise is accessorized. It ships with Ruger’s proprietary Radial Port muzzle brake installed, which can be easily be swapped for a matched weight or thread protector, both supplied as accessories. Also included is a set of 1“ Ruger rings. A barrel-mounted rear express sight pairs a shallow-V blade with an interchangeable white bead at the muzzle. Also present is a barrel-band sling attachment to team with the stock’s twin studs.
The exterior bears Ruger’s durable, medium-gray Hawkeye Matte, a coating that’s a couple shades lighter than the firm’s earlier Target Grey finish. Its hinged floorplate is secured from accidental dumping by a release latch embedded within the trigger guard, and it comes engraved with the Ruger logo. It’s an attractive touch that also appears on the nearby grip cap.
The biggest plus of the Hawkeye generation is its LC6 trigger, and our loaner’s fully met expectations, breaking consistently at 3 lbs., 8 ozs., with negligible creep. For a hunting rifle, especially one intended for dangerous game, it strikes an able balance between responsiveness and the spine needed for high-stress action. We felt it enhanced our efforts at the range, where our .375 Ruger test rifle averaged 1.3“ groups with Hornady Superformance 270-gr. Spire-Point.
Fittingly, I took the Ruger to Alaska for a coastal brown bear hunt, where the unavoidable exposure to salt water can cause overnight corrosion. Despite some hard knocks and a couple of drenchings, only the sling-attachment studs showed any rust, and while the stock took punishment from barnacle-encrusted boulders, it came home with only minor dings.
Scoped and fully loaded, the Guide Gun weighed nearly 9 lbs., 12 ozs., and so it was just as well that the hunting was confined to grassy shorelines where bears feed in early spring. Despite its weight, the rifle balanced and shouldered smoothly, and, of course, the bulk helped considerably to temper the recoil. The Guide Gun traces its rugged nature back to the Mark II All-Weather Stainless of the 1990s, and like it, is right at home in Alaska and wherever the elements conspire against lesser rifles. Sitting a couple rungs up the pricing ladder, the Guide Gun will never match its forerunner’s folk-hero status. But thanks to the latest stock-making and metal-finishing technologies, along with multiple customizing features and a fine trigger, it’s actually a better rifle for owners seeking long-term returns on their investment.