I remember growing up in the 90s when literally everything was different than it is today. AR-15s were generally seen as verboten among anyone and everyone except those who already on the fringes, the AK was nearly nonexistent, but the Norinco SKS was very much an acceptable weapon and usually seen as an even poorer man’s 30-30. Old reruns of the A Team were still on every now and again, with their trademark weapon, the AC-556, failing to hit anything other than dirt after the inevitable firefight. Yep, times were simpler. Not better.
That AC-556 always fascinated me as sort of a throwback to another time, and its parent weapon, the Ruger Mini 14, could be found in any Wal-Mart. And still can. With its wood stock and blued metal finish, it always looked far less menacing than any of its contemporaries. Having the alternate name of Ranch Rifle, its at home among a working battery you’ll find on any family farm. A rifle you could have on the gun rack in the back glass of the truck and nobody would bat an eye at…unless you stuck one of those junky flea market 30 rounders in it. A lot of people had them and still do in many rural areas, not to mention the ones still in the hands of police and corrections staff. But the original Mini left a lot to be desired- we shot the snot out of an early one (Pre-181, before the polymer heat shield upper) when I was a teen and immediately I knew why Hannibal Smith never hit squat. That might be a little dramatic, but about ten rounds in the point of impact would definitely start wandering from the point of aim. And since then I never considered it anything aside from a weapon for people who, for whatever reason, just don’t want an AR. Or maybe can’t have an AR.
The Mini 14 had an interesting development history. Weapons designer James Sullivan, who worked on scaling down the AR-10 to become the AR-15, began development of a scaled down M-14 along with Bill Ruger in the early 70s. It caught on with many Law Enforcement agencies, Ranchers, Farmers, and what would become the Survivalist Movement of the era due to its familiarity among most contemporary Veterans and coupled with the fact that it wasn’t the AR, which had a checkered reputation. One that’s been since rectified, but still, was fresh in the minds of the many. It didn’t hurt that the Mini 14 was quite a bit cheaper, either on top of having a familiar look to other rifles you’d find in a white oak gun cabinet. While they marketed it in limited numbers to military and police customers, it really took off with civilians, leading in part to Bill Ruger’s now infamous self imposed ban on high capacity magazines for it and support for a Federal ban on the magazines. While that move tarnished Ruger’s reputation among many, the weapon was still a favorite. After all, he sent a couple with Bob Brown to Rhodesia for a Soldier Of Fortune excursion…nobody’s all bad.
I always thought of it as an updated M1 Carbine- a light, fast handling weapon in an old school design. Its my understanding that around 2007 Ruger started putting heavier barrels and paying more attention to building a weapon capable of more than minute-of-man accuracy. They had long since started putting polymer heat shields over the barrel, but the gas system needed some attention and got it. In the years since its original introduction a lot has changed though. The AR-15 doesn’t have the stigma it used to, and being cheaper and simpler to accessorize, the Mini doesn’t have the market share it once did. But that said is it still relevant or is it just a throwback to a bygone era?
I’ll state up front that no, it’s not an AR. Its not in the same league in ergonomics as far as magazine drills go, but then again, the little carbine is just as simple to teach people to use as a Kalashnikov. The old Garand action works, and never did I ever hear of anyone complaining about the controls on the M-14 EBRs (Carrying one of those was a different story, the Sage EBR stock sucks) but if you’re coming from the AR-15, you’re probably not going to be a happy camper. Magazines are proprietary and nowhere near as plentiful (or reliable) in the aftermarket, and if anything breaks, good luck on spare parts. And while the accuracy out of the one I have in hand is perfectly adequate for a field weapon, its nothing to write home about.
All that said the little weapon has plenty of merits. No, it’s not an AR. For some shooters the AR-15 is intimidating, and it takes some training to master. The Mini has a pretty shallow learning curve. And while those magazines are a little slower to change, they’re still not really that slow…again, on par with the Kalash. The weapon itself is pretty simple to maintain. But the biggest advantage the Mini has is that its not an AR; still, after all these years, it doesn’t carry the signature high profile that an AR-15 does. While that AR is far more commonplace today, a Mini has that certain plausible deniability that you won’t get with its contemporaries. That might not matter to you, but you never know. It’s not intimidating, its just Papa’s plinking rifle, until it ain’t. And for that reason the Mini is still obtainable in many states that ban other weapons in its category. Its reliable. You can get it in stainless steel which is great for salt water environments. And its a heck of a lot of fun to shoot on those why-so-serious? range sessions.
So is the Mini 14 still relevant as a serious defensive carbine? I think it is. While easily outclassed by the AR-15 today, a bubba with a Mini, coupled with training (and the will to kill) shouldn’t be considered outgunned. The Mini would not be on my short list for combat use but then again that’s not why I own one, and for that matter there’s a huge lot of ARs out there I wouldn’t consider ever carrying either (Poverty Pony, anyone?). Its not a bad weapon by any means and if I had to use it in that combat role, mine has given me no reason to think I couldn’t press it into service. For some that just might be the only real option you’ve got. Jim Sullivan designed a simple, reliable carbine that works pretty well for what a good number of folks need- a light, sturdy working gun. Maybe not mil-spec or tacticool, but then again, maybe it doesn’t always have to be.