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50 years of Ruger Auto Pistols - Page Two
By Dick Metcalf, Technical Editor, Shooting Times.

Page Two - Centerfire Pistols

In view of the fact that Ruger was founded as a manufacturer of autoloading handguns, it may perhaps seem strange that the company did not follow up on its rimfire line with a centerfire auto for more than 36 years. The reason is that Bill Ruger doesn’t produce any gun until or unless it can offer something state of the art, at a competitively advantageous price, with features or qualities no other similar gun can offer. Bill Ruger doesn’t make clones. So when the first Ruger centerfire auto pistol was introduced in 1987, the double-action P85 9mm with investment cast aluminum alloy frame, it was definitely innovative and a market trend-setter. At present, the Ruger P-Series pistol overall has become one of the largest selling DA autoloader designs in the world.

As was the situation with Ruger’s .22 pistol line, the P-Series centerfire pistols have also undergone continuing refinement, redevelopment, and evolution during the years since the introduction of the original version. Much more evolution, in fact, than the rimfire autos; so much more that the original model, the P85, evolved out of existence and is no longer made. Instead the 25 different individual P-Series centerfire model variations (in three chamberings) in current Ruger catalogs are separable into five “sub-families” based on chamberings, size, and material categories. All are ambidextrous in operating characteristics. Following is a brief summary:

The five individual members of the P89 group of pistols are all full-size, large-frame 9mm autos and are the direct developmental descendants of the original Model P85 and follow-up P85 MK II guns, both of which designations were discontinued upon the P89 introduction four years after the parent (the Ruger two-digit P-Series numbering system is tied to a year of each model’s development). The P89s are currently offered in a choice of blued or stainless steel, with manual-safety, decock-only, or DAO operating systems.

The P90 group consists of three full-size .45 ACP guns, including a blued manual-safety version and manual-safety or decock-only stainless models (the P90 is interesting in that its frame is the same dimension as the 9mm pistols, with a beefier slide to accommodate the larger .45-caliber cartridge).

The three 9mm pistols in the P93 group all feature a downscaled compact design including a blued decock-only model, a stainless decock-only model, and a stainless DAO model.

The P94 group fits midway in size between the full-size P89/90s and the P93s and includes four 9mm and four .40 Auto (.40 S&W) models. The P94 9mm guns are available in blued manual-safety configuration or choice of stainless manual-safety, decock-only, or DAO versions. The four P94 .40-caliber guns are available in the same configurations as the 9mm guns.

The P95 group currently consists of four polymer-frame 9mm pistols scaled the same as the compact P93 guns. Other members of the P-Series family are made with investment cast aluminum frames, same as the original P85. The P95 guns are offered in a choice of decock-only and DAO versions in blued finish or decock-only and DAO versions in stainless.

The new-for-1999 P97 guns consist of polymer-frame decocker and DAO pistols chambered for the venerable .45 ACP cartridge. Virtually the same size as the P95 guns—with the same 7 1/4-inch overall lengths and the same 27-ounce weights—the P97s have 4.2-inch barrels, wear stainless slides, and come with seven-round magazines. (Shooting samples of these just-announced guns were not available at the time of this writing, but watch for a detailed shooting review in an upcoming issue.)
All in all, quite a list.

The large and technical list of developmental changes, intermediate variations, and come-and-gone features in the P-Series autos is so extensive that it is not practical here to provide the same type of linear chronology of P-Series development as was done with the .22 pistol story, so instead I’ll just take a look at the most significant features of the current P-Series line and the ways in which some of the most important features reflect differences from the first P85 generation.

First, consider how the whole Ruger P-Series line ties together. In basic operation, all P-Series pistols utilize a basic Browning-derived tilt-block locking mechanism in which the barrel and slide are strongly locked and recoil together as a unit at the moment of firing. After about 0.031 inch of rearward motion, during which time the bullet leaves the barrel and the internal chamber/ bore pressure drops, the barrel is unlocked and comes to rest. The slide continues its travel to the rear, compressing the recoil spring that will throw it forward again to complete the cycle of reloading the chamber. After the last round in the magazine is fired, the slide locks open, signalling the need to reload with a fresh magazine.

Except for the polymer P95s and P97s, all P-Series frames are constructed from aircraft-quality investment cast aluminum alloy, hard coated for toughness and corrosion resistance. All barrels, whether for blued chrome-moly pistols or stainless-steel pistols, are cast from heat-treated 400-series stainless steel. The specific stainless alloy used in the P-Series pistols has been designated as “Terhune Anticorro” by Ruger, and that label is stamped on the side of the slides. (It is named for longtime manager of Ruger’s Prescott investment cast foundry Stan Terhune, and it is the only name other than Bill Ruger’s that has ever appeared on a standard-production Ruger firearm.) Many other small parts—such as hammers and triggers—in all P-Series pistols are also made of stainless steel. Standard barrel length is 4.5 inches. The two-piece, grooved black grip panels are made of General Electric Xenoy resin.

All P-Series pistols feature an oversize trigger guard to permit safe function with a gloved hand, and the front of the trigger guard bow is recurved to accommodate the support-hand forefinger for accurate shooting. The rear sight is dovetail drift adjustable for windage, with a locking screw; front and rear sights have white-dot inserts for high visibility. Finish typically consists of brush-polished side panels on the slide and a dull bead-blast texture on the rest of the gun.

On stainless pistols the slight difference in color between the gray-tone aluminum slide and the pewter-tone steel slide has a pleasing aesthetic effect, set off by the matte black Xenoy grip panels. The slides on each gun are marked with their respective model identifications, and all pistols bear Ruger’s “Instruction Manual Warning” on the right side of the frame.

Current-generation Ruger P-Series pistols include several improvements and refinements that distinguish them from the original versions of the gun. Externally, the most noticeable difference in operating features between a current P gun and the original P85 is the design of the slide stop. The slide stop on the original P85 was positioned below the bottom edge of the slide, and its wide, grooved thumb-engagement surface extended backward above approximately a third of the depth of left-side grip panel. The current slide stop sits notably higher on the gun with its thumb-engagement surface well above the top of the frame and angled inward over the frame’s beefy top shoulder, almost even with the bottom of the manual safety lever. And it extends about a quarter-inch less far back. The reasons for the design change were to streamline the gun’s profile and to reduce the amount of the slide stop’s outward protrusion, which was found to cause a bit of drag and resistance with some holster designs.

Barrel manufacturing design has also improved. Original P85 barrels were of two-piece construction with the barrel and the square breechblock pressed together and then welded. It was a time-consuming and expensive manufacturing process. Current barrels are cast one-piece with broached bores.

Also notably better than the original is current P-Series trigger pull quality due to internal changes in the sear/trigger engagements linkages and parts configuration. The sear pivot pin has been reduced in size from original models, and the trigger bar has been thickened and the hammer-spring seat pin has been enlarged. The new mechanism also involves a bearing and slave pin to hold the sear-blocker lever spring assembly together as a coherent unit. The overall result is a distinct smoothing of the trigger pull due to the bearing’s considerable reduction of friction in the sear assembly’s operation.

Safety function is always critical to all Ruger designs. A substantial improvement was introduced with the P89 group of guns that modified the position of the firing pin when locked in the “Safe” position. The change eliminated the possibility of any transfer of energy from the hammer to the firing pin during the decocking procedure, which ensures the safety of the pistol even in the rare event of a broken firing pin. This modification was undertaken after it was discovered that with the original P85 safety design a broken firing pin could possibly become positioned such that depressing the safety/decock lever might strike the broken end of the pin in such a way as to cause the gun to fire. The new design eliminates this possibility, and Ruger has widely advertised an offer to provide a free factory safety modification to the owner of any P85 pistol made between 1987 and 1990 who wants the same new feature incorporated into his gun. If you have a Ruger P85 from those years and have not done it already, I recommend you call Ruger at 800-424-1886 and make arrangements to return your gun, even though no injuries have resulted from an older broken firing pin.

Each of the five different groupings of P-Series guns includes operating safety variations: manual safety, decock-only, and DAO. The standard manual-safety model features a safety that can be pushed down (left-side only) to safely drop the hammer entirely. Once down, the manual-safety lever must be manually returned before the gun can fire. The decock-only models do not have a cocked-and-locked capability, and their spring-loaded decocking levers will automatically return to neutral after being pressed so that the gun can be fired by a long trigger pull. Decocking levers are today increasingly preferred by police departments and personal-defense handgun users, particularly those who are transitioning from revolvers to autoloaders, because there is no possibility of delay in bringing the gun into action when badly needed, as there would be if the user forgot that a manual safety was left in the “Safe” position. The DAO models have no manual safety or manual decocker at all and are fired solely by long-pull trigger action, with the hammer returning to rest after each shot. Unlike some other such guns, however, the Ruger DAO trigger action is independent of the slide, and it has repeat-strike trigger capability, which could be useful in the event of a misfire.

Sturm, Ruger & Co. has a thick catalog when it comes to rimfire and centerfire pistols, and, as I have observed before, nothing makes a handgunner happier than a thick catalog. Shooters are opinionated. They know what they like, and they really like a manufacturer who offers an extensive list of different variations for its products, allowing a customer to browse through and select his own near-personal combination of action type, caliber, barrel lengths, sight options, construction materials, finishes, grip styles, and so on. Such a manufacturer will endear himself to the customer’s heart.

Of course, from a manufacturer’s point of view this makes things difficult. It first requires great versatility in production capability and also requires a mental (and financial) willingness to tie up resources and inventory in varied products that each appeals only to a limited sector of the overall marketplace. Make a wrong guess and that manufacturer has boxes in the warehouse gathering expensive dust. Most firearms makers therefore fall into one of two categories: either a large mass-volume producer of uniform commodity products for the popular mainstream or a smaller builder of more specialized firearms for a niche-market audience.

Ruger is one of the few manufacturers who has the ability to satisfy both the mainstream and the niche markets at the same time. More than any other major firearms maker, Ruger’s extremely flexible manufacturing technology—ranging from hammer-forge barrel machines through computer-controlled investment casting to molded polymer—allows it to maintain large basic-item volume and offer more economical versions of existing products while at the same time quickly responding to the changing tastes and preferences of smaller customer-segment needs.

No wonder Ruger’s first 50 years has been such a success story.

Ruger Pistol Chronology
Model
Introduced
Discontinued
Standard Pistol
1949
1981
Mark I Pistol
1951
1981
Signature Series
Standard Model
Stainless
1982
1982
Mark II Standard
Pistol
1982
Mark II Target
Pistol
1982
Mark II
Government
Pistol
1986
9mm P85
1987
1991
P85 Decocker
1990
1990
9mm P85
Stainless
1990
1990
9mm P85
Decocker
Stainless
1990
1990
9mm P85 MKII
1991
1992
9mm P89 Decocker
1991
Government
Competition
Pistol Stainless
1992
P89DAO Stainless
1992
.45 ACP P90
Stainless
1992
Mark II 22/45 Pistol
1993
.40 S&W P91
Stainless
1992
1994
P93DAO Stainless
1994
9mm P93 Decocker
Stainless
1994
9mm, .30 Luger
P88X Stainless
1994
1995
9mm P94
1994
.40 S&W P94
1994
Mark II 22/45
Pistol Bull Barrel
1995
P95
1996
Mark II MK 4B
Bull Barrel
1996
.45 ACP P90 Blued
1998
9mm P93
Decocker Blued
1998
9mm, .40 S&W
P94 Blued
1998
.45 ACP P97
1999
Mark II Standard
50th Anniversary
Pistol (MK4-50)
1999
 

Page One - Beginnings, Rimfire Auto Pistols
Page Two - Centerfire Auto Pistols, Pistol Chronology (Intro/Discontinued dates)

This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine in April, 1999.

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