Sunday, May 14, 2017

Survival Weapons -- The Ruger Mini-14

 A customized Mini-14 as shown in a scene from the 1980's television show, "The A-Team" (Source)
       The Mini-14 rifle is a gas operated, semi-automatic firearm fed from a detachable box magazine. Based on the Garand action used in the M-1 Garand rifle and bearing a resemblance to the M-14, the rifle was designed around the 5.56 mm cartridge. Although older models were marked as .223, both from the owner's manual and personal experience, the rifle was intended to be able to use military 5.56 rounds. Versions can be found that shoot the 7.62 x39 mm (the Mini-30), 6.8 SPC, and .300 Blackout.


       The Mini-14 has evolved over time from its first introduction in 1975, and there have been several models offered to the civilian, law enforcement (Mini-14/20 GB), and military markets (AC 556 and AC556K). Differences between the civilian models and those for law enforcement and/or the military were (depending on the model) the inclusion of a flash hider, a winged front sight, and a bayonet lug. The AC556 models were also select fire. Since my focus will be on the civilian versions, everything from this point will concern the civilian weapons.

       The original version of the Mini-14 sported a hard wood stock and handguard, with an exposed bolt hold-back mechanism (see photograph below). Similar to the Garand rifle, this also left a portion of the recoil assembly exposed on the right-hand side of the rifle. The simple butt plate was plastic (although steel ones are available). While most of the stocks appear to be made of a rather plain walnut, I've seen some factory stocks that were very nicely patterned, so there must have been as option as to the type of wood at some point.

An early model Mini-14 (Source)
      Because of issues with heat buildup, the wooden handguard was replaced with a fiber-glass version incorporating a steel heat shield and which was extended to cover the recoil rod. There were modifications made to the bolt hold-open, including provision of a button to allow the bolt to be manually held back, and the mechanism was covered with a removable plate. Also, in 1978, Ruger introduced a version made in stainless steel. (See photograph below).

Stainless steel version of the Mini-14 (Source)
       The civilian version of the Mini-14 sported a rather sturdy rear peep style sight, adjustable in one (1) MOA increments for both elevation and windage. The front sight was a sturdy (and thick) blade type sight. Although unprotected, the blade was so heavy and sturdy that I've never heard of anyone having one bent or knocked out of place. Although the barrel protruded approximately 1/2 inch past the front sight, it was not threaded to accept a muzzle device. Up until 2005, the Mini 14 used what would be described as a "pencil" type barrel configuration, which made it light weight, but, of course, resulted in heat issues when rapidly fired and probably a shifting point of impact as the barrel got hot.
       Although generally for the law enforcement and military market, Ruger, for a short period of time, offered a version with a pistol grip and folding stock. (See photograph below).

Folding stock version (Source

        In 1982, Ruger introduced a version of the Mini-14 that it called its "Ranch Rifle".  The primary change was provisioning the rifle with Ruger's dovetail scope mount to allow mounting a telescopic sight. To accommodate this change, the rear sight was replaced with a rather fragile peep sight that folded down, and some changes were made to the extractor/ejector so that casings would not strike the scope tube. (See photograph below).
Rear sight on 1980s and '90s Ranch Rifle (Source
       The next major change did not occur until 2005, when Ruger introduced a revamped version of the Mini-14 series to improve accuracy, as well as to accommodate restrictions in different states. The major change was the addition of a different barrel profile, featuring a heavy profile until just after the gas block, where it narrows back to the pencil profile. Ruger also put a finer, winged front sight and a "ghost-ring" style rear peep sight that allowed for finer elevation and windage adjustments. It is my understanding that there were also some minor changes to other parts, including the gas piston, the ejector, and the use of a recoil pad rather than the older style hard butt plate.

New model Mini-14 "Ranch" (Source)

      Ruger also produced different models. The Ranch, pictured above, has no provision for a muzzle device. It is available in a chrome-moly steel or stainless, and with an option of wood or synthetic stocks. The Tactical model has a threaded barrel and comes with a flash hider. It is available in a standard synthetic stock, or an ATI tactical stock that folds and has a pistol grip. Ruger also makes a target model that, among other things, includes an "harmonic dampener" to improve accuracy.


       The older Mini-14's from the 1980s and '90s have the following specifications:
  • Weight (unloaded): 6.6 lbs.
  • Overall length: 37.25 inches.
  • Barrel length: 18.5 inches.
The new model Mini-14 Ranch has the following specifications:
  • Weight (unloaded): 7 lbs.
  • Overall length: 38 inches.
  • Barrel length: 18.5 inches.
And the Tactical Model (standard stock) has the following specifications:
  • Weight (unloaded): 6.7 lbs.
  • Overall length: 36.75 inches.
  • Barrel length: 16.12 inches.
       Interestingly, the barrel twist rate varied at different times: from 1974 to sometime in 1986, the barrels used a 1:10 twist rate. Starting in 1986 and until 1997, the twist rate was 1:7. Starting sometime in 1997 and to the present, the twist rate has been 1:9.

        As noted above, the Mini-14 uses a detachable box magazine. The standard magazine shipped with the rifle is a 5 round magazine that, when inserted, is flush with the bottom of the stock. However, Ruger offers 10, 20 and 30 round magazines. However, it is important to note that for a significant period of time Ruger did not sell the higher capacity magazines to the public. In 1989, Bill Ruger publicly announced his support of bans on the larger capacity magazines, and stopped selling anything larger than 5-rounds to the general public. Then, in 1994, the Assault Weapons Ban took affect. Thus, until after AWB sunset in 2004, the only new manufactured magazines were those offered from third party sources, which varied considerably in quality, even from the same manufacturer.


       The Mini-14 is cocked by pulling back on the cocking handle (located on the right hand side of the weapon) to the rear and released to load the first round from the magazine. As a semi-automatic weapon, it will then fire one shot per pull of the trigger, until the ammunition is expended. It has a bolt hold open which will lock the bolt back. There is also a button that can be depressed to manually lock the bolt open.

       The magazine well does not extend below the stock. Rather, similar to the AK rifles, the magazine is rocked into place and locked. The magazine release is a small paddle centrally located directly behind the magazine which is pressed forward to unlock the magazine.

       The safety is also centrally located, like that on the M-1 Garand and M-14, at the front of the trigger guard. When the safety is on, it is pulled back into the trigger guard. To switch off, the tip of the finger is inserted behind the safety and pushed forward, thus placing the finger in a position to immediately operate the trigger.

Comments and General Discussion

       In the late 1970s and through the '80s, the Mini-14 was the darling of the prepper community. The primary reason was its price, which, at the time, was about 2/3 that of an AR style rifle. Because it was based on the Garand action, it was reliable--in fact, many considered it more reliable than the civilian ARs of the time. Although the action is open to elements (something that comes to fore in the infamous mud-tests you see on YouTube), it does, on the other hand, have the advantage of being easier to clear than a fully enclosed action such as on the AR.

        At the time it was introduced, its manual of arms would have been familiar to veterans of World War 2, the Korean War, and those that were trained on the M-14. Mel Tappan wrote about it:
At a distance, this little rifle greatly resembles the popular G.I. .30 Carbine, but the similarity is one of appearance only -- the Ruger is a potent fighting weapon. Its action is a finely machined, diminutive version of the rugged Garand, and it field strips quickly and easily without tools into eight basic subassemblies, all of which are large enough not to be easily lost. Only 37 1/4" overall and weighing less than 6 1/2 pounds, the Mini-14 is made of the best alloys -- including heat treated chrome molybdenum -- and it employs music wire coil springs throughout for maximum reliability and long life. [Note: the stainless steel version uses stainless steel parts throughout, other than a few miscellaneous screws] 
Survival Guns, p. 125.

       However, there were other advantages to it other than its price. It is a compact, light weight and handy weapon. That is, it swings well and is well balanced in its basic configuration. Although not the best sights for precision shooting, the sights (at least in the basic model) were sturdy and easily picked up. Many people like the wood stocks and more conventional look of the Mini-14 versus the "black rifle." And, at least in the 1980s and early '90s, there were available accessories roughly comparable to those available for the AR.

       The manual of arms is also stupid-simple. The cocking handle is obvious. The safety and magazine release are intuitive and simple to use, and, because they are centrally located, ambidextrous. The primary complaint I have about it is one that is true to many other military rifles, which is that the trigger guard is too small to accommodate a gloved finger. To the best of my knowledge, there are no winter trigger units available. Obviously, if you are in a warm climate where gloves are unnecessary, the small trigger guard is an asset as it is less likely for a stray branch to get caught in the trigger. But I would rather take that risk and have a larger trigger guard than to potentially and unintentionally discharge the weapon while trying to get a gloved finger into place.

       The weapon has, I believe, an undeserved reputation for poor accuracy. The older models were as accurate as the AR-15s that were available in the 1970s and '80s, which also sported thin barrels. And, at least prior to Ruger's move from Connecticut, I believe it was better made than many of the civilian ARs. (It is my belief that Ruger's quality control suffered following Ruger moving its manufacturing to Arizona in the mid-1980s). I distinctly remember Bushmaster ARs from the late 1980s and early 1990s having serious quality control issues, including uppers that would not properly mate with lowers. I've seen videos and articles with direct side-by-side comparisons of accuracy, and the new model Mini-14s appear to be just as accurate as stock ARs.

       The reputation for poorer accuracy, I believe, arose from a combination of factors. First was the release of ARs using heavy barrels that substantially improved that weapon's accuracy, and which, of course, diminished the opinions regarding the Mini-14 in comparison. Second, as I have mentioned above, was the sights. Until the new models were released in 2005, the front sight was a thick blade, while the rear sight was not able to be adjusted as finely as it should have been. Third, I suspect that the change in the barrel twist rates to 1:7 from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s probably did not help as most people would have been shooting 50 or 55 grain bullets, rather than the heavier bullets for which the faster twist rates were intended. These issues seem to have been resolved, with the heavier profile barrel, improved sights, and a change in twist rate to 1:9. However, it is never going to equal an AR set up with a free float, match grade barrel.

       I also believe the Mini-14 was handicapped by Bill Ruger's decision to not sell the higher capacity magazines to the public. Many of the third-party magazines were inferior in quality. Much of the problem had to do with the fit of the magazines--they simply do not drop free like the magazines from an AR, but have to be pulled loose. The factory Ruger magazines, on the other hand, fit well and will fall free once unlocked. Even though Ruger is once again selling the higher capacity magazines, the prices are high--around $35 to $40 apiece for 20 or 30 round magazines at the time of this writing. When good quality AR magazines can be had for less than $12 apiece, it is no selling point to have a weapon using magazines that cost more than twice as much.

       And, of course, the Mini-14 is less appealing now as a survival weapon because its cost, relative to the AR rifles and carbines, is much higher. MSRP on new Mini-14s are in the $800 to $1,000 range, meaning that a bare bones AR can be had for about 2/3 of the price of a Mini-14.

       Another factor to consider, at least as a prepper, is the durability of the weapon and availability of spare parts. I never experienced a breakage on the Mini-14 I had, but I've heard of people having issues with broken firing pins, extractors, rear sights falling off, and even bolts on the gas block shearing off with heavy use. It is odd to me because the weapon had such a stellar reputation for durability in the 1980s. The only thing I can think of is poorer quality control after Ruger moved its manufacturing from Connecticut to Arizona, minor changes in the design, or perhaps the problems just weren't apparent because people just didn't shoot as many rounds through their weapons in the 1980s. But this brings me to a serious negative, in my mind, which is that Ruger is stingy about selling parts for the weapon. While you can build an AR or AK in your home, if you wanted, Ruger requires you to send a Mini-14 back to the factory for any significant repairs.

       Finally, the Mini-14 lacks the wide range of aftermarket accessories available for the AR or AK pattern rifles. This is not to say there aren't options for customizing the Mini-14. For instance, Tech sights offers better rear iron sights for the older Mini-14s.  There are options for replacing the front handguard with one sporting a rail for optical sights, and the new model Mini-14s as well as the older Ranch models are designed for mounting a telescopic sight. Replacement front sights are available for the older models. And there are a wide range of replacement stocks available. But the available options are a small fraction of that available for the AR or AK systems. And I have yet to see a good quality system with side or bottom rails. MLOK or K-Mod systems are, to the best of my knowledge, completely unavailable for the Mini-14.

       So, where does the Mini-14 fit into the prepping world today? Obviously, for the reasons mentioned above, it cannot compete head-to-head against the AR in customization or for spare parts and home gun smithing. Having said that, I think it is a more intuitive weapon to use than the AR. If you handed a Mini-14 to someone without any training on how to use a rifle, they would be able to figure it out a lot faster than the AR. It also has a place in those locales that restrict "black rifles," but otherwise allow semi-auto rifles for sporting purposes. Some people will like the fact that the iron sights are low over the bore-axis compared to the AR or AK rifles. Some people will like the traditional look of the rifle--especially when using a wood stock--either because they just like the steel and wood combination, or because it doesn't appear to be a "scary" rifle to the uninformed. Some people just prefer the handling characteristics of the traditional rifle stock over one sporting a separate pistol grip. For snap shooting, it is hard to beat the traditional rifle stock. And if weight is important, it is hard to get an AR that weighs less than a Mini-14--at least for a comparable price.

       I think that for someone operating in a marine environment, especially near or on the ocean, the stainless version of the rifle would be ideal because of corrosion resistance. As with most Ruger stainless steel products, it is not just the major parts (barrel and receiver) that are stainless steel, but also the trigger, hammer, springs, and most screws. Combined with a synthetic stock, it would give you a weapon that will handle the moisture and salt air better than an AR with its standard steel internals.      

       In the end, though, while the Mini-14 is a viable defensive rifle, it is not the best option at its price level. Its downsides are expensive factory magazines (although there are third-party magazines available for reasonable prices), a small trigger guard, and that it is not quite as easily customized as the AR or AK. The older models, in particular, are not amenable to taking an optical sight or attaching a flash light. However, just as it rose to popularity because of its pricing was competitive with the AR in the 1980s, its relatively high price now compared to AR rifles puts it at a disadvantage. I really like the Mini-14, but other than the marine environment, as I discussed above, or for someone needing a weapon that works for a "lefty," it is hard to justify getting a Mini-14 over a similarly priced AR.

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  1. A detailed and thorough discussion about a rifle I've always been interested in. Thanks.

    1. Thank you. Glad it was of interest.