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January 06, 2009

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Phil Bourjaily: Ruger Red Label

The father of one of my son’s friends called the other day to say he had a chance to pick up a used Ruger Red Label and should he buy it for his son? Since I had just come back from a wonderful quail hunt in Texas and still harbored warm, fuzzy feelings for the 20 gauge Red Label I borrowed down there, I said sure.
For whatever reason, no shotgun is loved and hated as much as the Red Label. It has a loyal cult following, and a cult of haters, too. Having owned and sold three, I’ve done time in both groups.

Red Label lovers point out:
It is made in the U.S.A.
It is solidly engineered.
It has a very low-profile receiver.

Red Label haters counter:
It weighs too much.
The wood-to-metal fit is of high-school shop class quality.
It flops open.

All of the above are true, with a couple of caveats. The 12 and 20 are overweight pigs, except for the Sporting models, which have lighter-contoured barrels. The 28 is built on a perfectly scaled-down frame and handles beautifully. I was deadly with mine, but got tired of looking at the gaps between the wood and metal and sold it. The action does flop open, but it’s designed that way. The Red Label locks up just as tightly as any other O/U.

Red Labels have been in production since 1977, there are lots around. You can find them at pretty reasonable prices on the used market. Chances are, some day I’ll own another one, although I may very well sell it after a while. So the question is, Red Label, love it or hate it?


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Phil I concurr. The 12 and 20 are pigs. A friend thinks the 20 is perfect since it soaks up the recoil of the highbrass shells he insists on shooting!

I love the 28's. I've seen some that were inletted with a hatchet and some near perfect. The 28 is a doll to handle but is pricy for what you get in detail work. Find a good used 28 and hold on to it!


The 28 I've handled, is a well built, beautiful little gun. It was picked up for $600.00 (like new) and feels like a wand in my hands.

Unfortunately, I've had problems with the last few Ruger products I've purchased new (minor except for one revolver that I had to have rebarreled) and with the recall of the SR9 and LCP's, I have to wonder who's driving the ship @ Ruger right now.


WA Mtnhunter

I looked on Gunbroker dot com and found a whole bunch of expensive Red labels that had zero bids on them.

Ruger has had their fair share of problems over the years, but the M77 and 10/22 I have have been great.


Having owned 3, I love the 20 and 28, wouldn't take a twelve if you gave it to me. However, all 3 have had major internal malfunctions, 1 had to be sent to the factory with a live round in the top barrel - The action was completely frozen shut. The local gunwrecker, er, gunsmith sent it back that way, so don't yell at me about gun safety. Once repaired, all funtioned flawleslly until I sold or traded them for guns I probably liked less.

Tony C.

I'd like to try a Red Label, if anyone hates one so much they want to send it to me.

I bought a Ruger M77 Compact in 7mm-08 this fall. It's lighter and shorter than any rifle I own and is just perfect for woods treestand hunting like we do so much of here in North Alabama.

I told my wife I was buying it for my 9 year old daughter Anna, but I'm the only one to have killed a deer with it so far. I was very pleased with the performance.

Anna did hunt with it once over the Christmas holidays.

Maybe we'll check on a Red Label 20-gauge next. Do they make short youth versions? That's probably the only way I'd get to sneak it past the old lady and Anna needs a duck gun.

Chad Love

I don't really have anything against the Red Label, but I don't particularly have anything for it, either. It's just sorta, you know...there, if that's your thing.
Shotgun taste is subjective, of course, and for me the RL's just always felt heavy and dead in my hands, pretty much the exact opposite of my Berettas.
I admit I was intrigued by the 28 when it came out, but the first time I saw that butt-ugly gap between the barrels I lost my yearning. Plus, my BL-4 20 weighs about the same as the RL 28 so I really see no advantage to it.

Now where I might see myself using a RL is buying a used 12 as a waterfowl gun. I had planned on doing that with a dead-mint Charles Daly Superior Grade Miroku I stole out of my local shop but I just didn't have the heart to do it. It was too pretty. I don't have the same feelings for a RL and if I ever pick one up a rattle can of camo paint is in its future.

Now if they'd ever actually start producing the Gold Label I may change my tune about Ruger shotguns, although I suspect a new American-made round-body sxs will be a tad over my non-existent budget.

Jim in Mo

Chad, I don't know why the gold label is so much more expensive. I've heard the barrels are thin and a good knock will dent them.

Skip Rood

I agree - it is too heavy in the 20 ga standard version - the 12 is a real clunker. Ruger isn't the only maker guilty of making a heavy under/over. Browning and many others have managed to build some pretty nice 12 ga guns that weigh-in around or over 8 pounds. The chap who observed that his pal insists on shooting high-based loads, hit on the reason why. Light-frame guns not only kick like hell, they start to get a tad loose after a while from all that heavy recoil.

Del in KS

About 12 years ago I bought a new one in 28 ga. When you broke it open it sounded like there was something loose in the action. After a few boxes of ammo the dang thing wouldn't fire the second barrel. Took that POS back to the gun shop and got my Beretta Silver pidgeon 28 ga. Now there's a nice gun for a few dolars more.

Del in KS

Oh, My POS was a Ruger red label

Del in KS

It was a 28 that soon developed the habit of not firing the second barrel. I took it back to the gunshop. Dave Parker said no problem Ruger will fix it right away. To heck with that they should have done it right in the first place, said I. We worked out a deal and I became the owner a Berretta Silver Pidgeon in 28 ga. and Dave got the Ruger POS back. That little S.P. is a crowd pleaser and only a few dollars more. Love the thing. Shot a mess of quail with it last week without losing a bird.

dale freeman

Tony C., I also have an M77"hawkeye" in 7MM-08 and love it.
It's the sweetest rifle I've ever owned and that includes nearing a hundred.


I adore my Red Label 12. I am concerned that in posting with you "Golden Girls" that I should, as D. Petzal said, "be wary of also developing an interest in Judy Garland recordings and Broadway musicals."

"It's too heavy!"

“It opens too easy!"

My RL has had tens of thousands of shells run through it and I have never had any issue with it. Maybe I have good luck.

There is nothing more dreadful than breaking open your shotgun and having only one shell eject because the action could not fully open and the bottom shell hits the receiver. I must be one of the few who enjoys breaking my gun and having both spent shells jump out like a spring board diver.

If I was stranded on an island and could only have one of my firearms, it might likely be my RL 12.


In any gauge the Ruger RL’s I’ve seen are rough on the metal work and have been stocked with fence post material to weird dimensions. I have yet to see one that handled or had decent balance. That sloppy “American” produced shotgun is full of production shortcuts.

Compared to a Beretta or a Browning…..can’t even get to the plate from the batter box.

I remember when the 20-ga RL first came out and was a fad for 10-months in the early ‘80’s. The 11th month saw a slew of these 20-ga RL for sale…cheap. Reason: Lackluster handling qualities and if memory serves right there was big problems with the firing pins hitting the primer center.


Sorry, I'm a pump man myself, never liked doubles.


Add me to the list of 12ga hater's club. I fired five rounds at station one then switched back to my Browning. Missed four out of 25; all on station one!


I have had an RL 20 gauge with the straight English stock, and have never handled a faster, slicker gun (that includes almost everything that Beretta makes). Don't know whose 20's everyone else has been shooting, but I've been known to change my hunting plans just so I can use my Ruger.

WA Mtnhunter

To me, all those doubles and OU's fit for shooting heavy loads of steel shot for waterfowl are too heavy and clunky. My son acquired a vintage American Arms waterfowl edition OU 10 gauge with full choke barrels. That thing is death itself for high flyers. It too met a couple of rattle cans of Hunter's Speciaties camo spray paint! (as did my Smith & Wesson 1000 [Howa] Super 12 Waterfowler). No problems with hundreds of rounds through it already this year

Buy a Weatherby Orion and forget the hassles if you just have to have an OU 12 gauge!

I love my RL 12, when I'm using it for pheasant as it handles for me really well. I'm also used to walking long distances for coyote w/ my M1-A, so weight isn't that big of a deal for me. The only problem I have w/ the RA is that w/ the 3 inch or heavy recoil loads it almost always reset's itself to safe at the 1st shot. Is there aa home fix for this, or will I have to send it back in to Ruger? anyone know?

Clay Cooepr

I just got my new Johnny Stewart PM-4 Wireless Preymaster™ Caller and this weekend I’m going to give the critters hell! My Remington Model 11-87™ Sportsman® ShurShot™ Synthetic Turkey and Remington 700CDL 25-06 barrel is going to be smoking white hot!!

John Bowden

I bought my Red Label 20 ga. in 1986 or '87. It has 26 inch barrels bored skeet/skeet. This was before choke tubes, so the barrels are relatively thin and light. The receiver is blue not stainless. I shoot light loads for skeet/grouse/woodcock and 3 inch mag's for pheasants. It's a great gun. If it were any lighter, it would be hard to point smoothly. Mine doesn't flop open either. It isn't engraved or anything, but does have decent wood. Maybe the early guns are better than the ones being made now.


I own an RL 20, I bought it because out of all of the shotguns I shouldered, and I tried them all.. it fit me like a glove. That is teh thing that is most often overlooked when choosing a shotgun.. I shoot 3 -5 rounds of skeet every saturday year round.. I am in the RL lover group, but they dont seem to hold up as well as I thought. Mine had to go back for a cracked stock, and a separated rib, my buddy's rl 12 needs new rib welds as well. I guess we have to take the good with the bad on the RLs


I have a sporting clays 12 and 20, I shoot high 70's to mid 80%, blowing away my buddy and his Perazzi, the 20 sporting clays model is a joy on dove.


Before I bought my Citori I looked at a bunch of over-unders, including the Red Label. It seemed to handle ok, but it was heavier. But the big gaps between the wood and metal - ugh. My field grade Citori was about $100 more, shoots great, handles great, and looks great. For the folks who love their Red Labels, good for you. Some folks like Harleys and some like Hondas, too. Some folks like Schlitz beer and have ugly wives, too.

Skip Rood

I owned a Model 21 once. It was a 20 with ejectors, selective trigger and a sweet thing, indeed. It happened to be bored Impr-Modified and full and shot the tighest patterns of any gun I ever owned. It would turn quail or woodcock into a salt-shaker at 20 yards. The ejectors NEVER worked right and I had that gun back to a gunsmith several times. It was forever spitting out the unfired shell and leaving the fired shell in its chamber. I sold it for a lot less than I should have but one should never look back. I have had a 20 ga Browning Lightning for more than 30 years and have never , repeat NEVER, had a proeblem with it despite having shot literally thousands of rounds at the skeet range and at woodcock and grouse here in NH. It is still one of my regular "go-to-guns" when I head into the uplands with my Brit. I have a Ruger Model 77RL in 257 Roberts and it is sweeter than sweet, action is slick as can be and it eats every handload I happen to cook-up for it. Deer drop fast when whacked with it and I aghree with those who love their M77's - and that 7-08 is a dandy caliber.

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