These Texas rock piles, small mountains in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, are treacherous and slippery, particularly when following another vehicle. The Jeep in front nearly slid off the road, and Wieshuhn slammed on the brakes.
My new Ruger American Rifle, outfitted with a Harris bipod, strap-on cheekpad and Zeiss 3x9 Conquest scope, broke through the bungee cord holding it upright in the gun rack, and came slamming down between me and Weishuhn, hitting the top of the dash with the barrel hard enough to ding the sheet metal.
Mouthing a curse, I stood the rifle back in its stand and tied it in place, while trying to maintain my equilibrium in a tilted vehicle.
I glanced back at the rear passengers on the elevated safari seat who were bracing themselves against the Jeep's padded roll bar.
Mark Gurney, Ruger engineer, and project manager on the new Ruger American Rifle, shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"It's OK," he deadpanned, looking at the disgust on my face.
"Even so," I said, "before I get into another shooting contest with this crowd, I want to check it again."
The next range was located a couple hundred feet up on the top of another shale pile. It overlooked three intersecting canyons with target gongs placed on the sides of the canyons out to 1,000 yards. But because it is a distance and down-angle range, there is a 100-yard test range next to it.
I have seen blows like that knock a scope/rifle out of alignment up to 18 inches from point-of-aim. But in testament to the strength of the Weaver mounts (included with the package when you buy the rifle), or the quality of the Zeiss Conquest scope, the rifle only fired 1.5 inches high and 1-inch to the right - still in acceptable hunting accuracy.
I brought it back to its baseline zero of dead point of aim at 100 yards, and fired two shots for group. They landed on the center of the 3-inch round orange target within ½-inch of each other. I was ready.
Ruger had flown a group of 12 gun writers into this country about 80 miles northwest of San Antonio to introduce this innovative new bolt gun, and let us try it out while experiencing SAAM - Sportsman's All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship school. (http://www.ftwoutfitters.com/)
SAAM is the brainchild of FTW Ranch owner Tim Fallon, who is also one of the world-class riflery instructors with the school. His cohort, compatriot and chief instructor is Doug "Dog" Prichard, a 26-year Navy warrant officer, with 25 years in SEAL, most as a sniper-instructor.
The FTW Ranch encompasses 12,000 acres and specializes in exotic game, whitetails, specialized accuracy training, safari and dangerous game training, and rocks. Lord, the rocks. This is a rockhound's paradise.
Ruger had arranged for us to experience a shortened version of the SAAM course - which prepares hunters to make clean, ethical kills at ranges most of them would have considered impossible.
Of course, the rifle we used would be the hottest new bolt gun on the market, the Ruger American Rifle. We were there to "wring it out," and over the next three days, we would shoot these innovative firearms at some incredibly long ranges. I will tell you the rifles and scopes performed immeasurably well.
Designed by Ruger to enter the market at a lower-end price point, the rifles have a number of innovative manufacturing designs that lower cost while enhancing accuracy potential. They are also 100-percent American made.
It has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $449.
"We fully expect," Gurney said, "retailers will be selling this rifle for $349. And really aggressive retailers will likely be hitting around the $300 mark."
The rifle has a 22-inch chrome-moly hammer-forged barrel. This is screwed into a receiver that holds a bolt milled from one solid piece of steel.
The bolt contains three locking lugs and two cocking cams. This demands only 6 pounds of pressure on the bolt handle to raise it, cocking the gun with a slicker-than-glass action.
The trigger is newly designed by Ruger - they call it their "Ruger Marksman Adjustable Trigger." Any comments that it looks for all the world like the popular Savage Accu-Trigger are quickly stopped by Gurney.
"It's not an Accu-Trigger," he said. "We designed this as a double safety mechanism, and made the trigger easily adjustable by the owner from 3 to 5 pounds."
The trigger safety completely blocks the trigger until it is compressed deeply enough to start engaging the actual trigger.
More innovation is in the rotary box magazine that holds four rounds of .30-06, .308, .270 or .243 in this initial design. (More calibers are planned in later production runs.)
The magazine snaps firmly into the well beneath the chamber, and is loaded in the conventional way by compressing the follower on the spring, and sliding the rounds under the magazine lips.
We were loading and shooting the extremely accurate Hornady 168 grain A-Max (Match) bullets in .30-06 - and the rifles seemed to love the round, giving exceptional accuracy right out of the boxes. The first day every rifle shot under an inch at 100 yards.
Gurney saw us loading the magazines in the conventional way, and showed us a trick.
"Press the round right down through the magazine lips," he said.
We tried it, and the molded plastic gives just enough to let the rounds slip through, and holds them firmly in the magazine.
"Yeah," he said, to the unspoken question. "Doing it that way will reduce the life of the magazine. You'll go down from 5,000 rounds to 3,000 rounds."
The black, injection-molded stock holds the barrel in a completely free-floated condition. The first thing I did when I was issued "my" rifle was slide a dollar bill between the forearm and the barrel - all the way to where the barrel is screwed into the receiver.
Of particular interest is the dual bedding block system. Ruger calls it "Power Bedding." Most rifles are bedded with some sort of recoil lug off the bottom of the front of the receiver, which transmits the recoil "impulse" to the stock.
Ruger has taken this a step further by incorporating two bedding blocks, and having them molded into the stock when it is formed. Thus you have an absolute perfect fit between bedding block and stock, and the receiver is bolted down into a block front and rear - this ensures the receiver remains perfectly straight with recoil.
The rifle weighs a feathery 6.25 pounds before adding a scope. That's light. And if something isn't done to tame the recoil, it will pay you back for your demand for a light, inexpensive, easily-handled and accurate rifle.
Most recoil pads are hollowed out from the outside in. Ruger hollowed theirs from the inside out - making a more absorbent pad that soaks up the sharp recoil from a .30-06 168-grain projectile very effectively.
We preceded to shoot these rifles on various ranges at various elevations under the tutelage of Tim Fallon and "Dog" Prichard.
I rang gongs at ranges out to 690 yards with consistency, and was extremely impressed with the ease of handling and accuracy of this new rifle.
In the final contest, we fired a 20-station course out to 535 yards, adjusting the Zeiss scopes accordingly for distance.
I missed three shots out of 20 for a combined score of 86 out of 100, the highest in our group. I can attribute the misses to poor judgment on windage, or trigger pull, but I absolutely cannot fault the rifle.
Col. Townshend Whelen, famed rifle shooter and developer of the .35 Whelen cartridge, was remembered for saying, "Only accurate rifles are interesting."
The new Ruger American Rifle is amazingly accurate, very interesting, and it has become a integral part of my own personal hunting arsenal.