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The new Ruger carbine is a lightweight semiautomatic rifle that fires a whopping .44-magnum revolver cartridge

The short, lightweight lever-action carbine, which first gained wide acclaim as a cavalry shoulder arm during the Civil War and later as the all-purpose saddle gun for buffalo hunters, gun fighters and cow hands, has been one of the most popular sporting firearms of American big-game hunters for the past century. Rugged and portable, this versatile "little rifle" was, and still is, considered the ideal short-range gun for hunting deer in the brush country of Maine, Michigan, Texas and Oregon, mountain lion in the Southwest or black bear and wild boar in the dense thickets of the Great Smokies in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

So popular has the carbine been, that some 4 million were made in the past 60 years. Winchester alone has sold more than 2.5 million lever-action carbines. Two years ago Remington came out with a pump-action carbine and followed it last year with a gas-operated semiautomatic modeled after the World War II M-1 carbine. Both of Remington's carbines are cut-down versions of Remington rifles and were added to the company's line of sporting arms to meet the ever-increasing demand in this country for shorter, lighter big-game rifles.

Crowded market

The American shooter thus had a choice of good carbines in three actions and at least 10 calibers when William B. Ruger unveiled another gas-operated semiautomatic carbine a year ago. Ruger, a shy, reticent man of 45, had established Sturm, Ruger & Company (Southport, Conn.) as a noteworthy competitor in a bustling industry and earned a reputation as a gambler with a genius for designing sporting firearms and selling them. But it appeared doubtful that even Ruger could design a carbine new enough to sell in an already glutted market.

The Ruger carbine is new, however, in design and caliber, and it is selling. It combines the solidness and appealing lines of the old western saddle carbine—including a sturdy oil-finished walnut stock with a flat comb, a curved metal butt plate and a tubular magazine encased in a protective wooden forearm—with a modern gas-operated semiautomatic action. And it is the first shoulder arm chambered for the powerful .44-magnum cartridge, an excellent brush load for plowing through twigs, leaves and even high swamp grass.

While studying old western saddle guns a few years ago, Ruger discovered that in 1873 Winchester had introduced a carbine chambered for the .44-40 a Colt revolver cartridge of that era. The idea was intriguing and Ruger revived it by selecting the .44-magnum cartridge (the most potent revolver cartridge in the world) for his new carbine. Measuring slightly more than 1½ inches in length, this snub-nosed cartridge is heavier (240 grains) than most modern brush loads. It is a slow, short-range cartridge (muzzle velocity: 1,850 feet per second), accurate up to 150 yards but dropping considerably—8.4 inches—at 200 yards.

Light but accurate

The choice of a short cartridge enabled Ruger to use a short bolt and an 18½-inch barrel, thus saving weight without sacrificing accuracy. The carbine weighs less (5¾ pounds) and is considerably shorter (36¾ inches) than any other on the market. For a light gun firing such a big cartridge, the Ruger carbine has surprisingly little recoil.

This is primarily because of a complicated system of carefully balanced mechanisms, the most important of which is a powerful recoil spring that cushions the rear movement of the slide and bolt. Like all gas-operated firearms, the carbine has a port in the barrel that relieves some of the gas from the barrel after the bullet has left the muzzle, thus reducing back pressure and recoil even more.

Although distribution was delayed during the 1961 big-game season because of minor design revisions, the few hunters who obtained these guns had good success on whitetail in New England and Texas, boar in Florida and even leopard, hyena and wart hog in Africa. The Ruger carbine sells for a competitive $108 and comes equipped with front bead sight and single rear folding sight, a satisfactory arrangement for brush shooting. A low-power scope can be attached. Optional sling swivels are available, but hunters really don't need a sling to carry this handy, well-made gun.