“The Best Portfolio They’d Ever Seen” –Bill’s 1942 semi conversion

Here’s a firearm you might not have seen, unless you’ve been to the National Firearms Museum in Virginia. It looks very familiar, at least to deer hunters of a certain vintage, but a little… well, different.

ruger savage 99 prototype left

Let’s begin by going back to the 1890s when the concept first was tried. One of the first semi-auto firearms made by John M. Browning was a semi conversion of a lever-action rifle. It proved the concept of gas-operated firearms and led directly to the Browning-designed Colt Model 1895 “potato digger.” Nearly fifty years later, the above rifle was created by a young man named Bill, using an updated version of the same concept. Here’s the other side.

ruger savage 99 prototype right

And here’s a close-up of the action and operating rod.

ruger savage 99 prototype charging handle

In 1942, Bill did the same basic thing JMB had sone — convert a lever to semi — with a Savage 99 lever gun in the deerslaying .250-3000 round. But he did it using a gas piston and operating rod similar, conceptually, to the M1 Garand. He used this as a calling card when he went to Springfield Armory and applied for a job. They called his converted Savage “the best portfolio they’d ever seen.” It’s in the National Firearms Museum now.

ruger savage 99 prototype top view

And yeah, they hired him. After the war Bill went out on his own.

You might have heard of Bill… Bill Ruger.

Ruger went on to bring new manufacturing processes and technologies into gun design; someone would probably have begun using investment castings if he hadn’t, but we probably wouldn’t have seen anything like the laminated parts of the Ruger Mark I pistol (because who has ever copied that idea?

His legacy in the gun culture is muddled, because he also became an anti-gunner, or at least an appeaser thereof. But his whole complex career began with this one carefully-finished rifle.

springfield_entranceIf you were to show up today, on the site that was once the downtown section of the Springfield Armory, with a rifle of your own invention, you’d probably be thrown in jail for years by the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. The actual Springfield Armory Museum has not one, but something like five, “Victim Disarmament Zone” and “Criminal Support Zone” stickers on it!

But in 1942, it was still an armory, still a place where guns and the manufacturing of them were designed and built. And the country had not yet lost its ever-lovin’ mind over firearms.

5 thoughts on ““The Best Portfolio They’d Ever Seen” –Bill’s 1942 semi conversion

  1. archy

    Pity Mr. Ruger didn’t move down under to New Zealand/Australia, and do a gas pig conversion of the SMLE rifle, instead of the Charlton job they came up with. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlton_Automatic_Rifle

    The idea was a *just in case* design in the event that deliveries of the British and Canadian built versions of the Bren were cut off, either by German occupation or strategic bombing of the British factories, or by Japanese interdiction of surface shipping. Per Wikipedia, the wartime USMC rumours that the *Australian BAR* was made by the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company were true, though the Bren substitute designs were never needed.

    Oh yeah; don’t overlook the Reider conversions from South Africa.:
    Though the original SMLE barrels were prone to overheating after about three magazines worth of full-auto fire, the low cost of around £2 apiece offered the possibility of converting a whole lot of SMLEs in a hurry, despite the 12-pound or so weight. And, of course, Bill Ruger’s genius might have come up with a quick-change barrel for the Enfields.

  2. Pathfinder

    Appeaser? He was part of the 1994 AWB. All to save the mini-14.
    One of the reasons I wont own a Ruger firearm.

  3. Brad

    I always thought the .250 Savage had good potential for military service. Pity that potential was never exploited.

    1. Brad

      Sturm-Ruger today is such a different beast then when Bill Ruger still lived.

      I have sometimes wondered if some of the interesting firearms introduced by SR towards the end of Ruger’s life were wish fulfillment for the dying founder. Firearms like the Model 96 lever actions or the Model 99/44 Deerfield Carbine, which weren’t made for very long.

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