April 24, 2020
By David M. Fortier
Often it pays to fly under the radar. While a decked out AR-15 can be a highly flexible tool, in certain situations it might be more obtrusive than desired. Sometimes it’s better to have a slightly lower profile, while still maintaining an edge. One traditional looking rifle series popular with many who desire a “gray man” guise is Ruger’s Mini-14 and Mini-Thirty. These are light and handy semi-automatic rifles which mimic the profile of a mundane hunting gun. Due to this they are not quite so alarming when viewed by the uneducated masses. The main difference between the two is simply the cartridges they chamber. The Mini-14 is in .223 Rem while the Mini-Thirty chambers the popular 7.62x39mm.
Ruger recently expanded their Mini-Thirty line with the addition of their new 5868 Mini-Thirty Tactical Stainless Synthetic model. As its name implies, this new offering features stainless steel construction and finish along with a black synthetic stock. Plus, instead of the standard 18 inch barrel it features a short 16.12 inch tube. This sports a threaded muzzle and Ruger’s distinctive flash suppressor. The combination of stainless steel and synthetic stock make for low maintenance, which many prefer in a rifle which may see hard use and abuse.
The Model 5868 Mini-Thirty is built on Ruger’s classic semi-automatic action with a short-stroke gas-piston. Into the receiver is fitted a 16.12 inch long stainless steel hammer forged barrel. This features a correct 0.3105-inch bore with 1-10 inch twist rifling. Fitted to the muzzle is Ruger’s distinctive birdcage flash suppressor. The muzzle is cut with standard 5/8x24 threads allowing use of any popular muzzle device or suppressor mount.
The barreled action is dropped into a simple black synthetic stock. Length of pull is a comfortable 13 inches and a rubber recoil pad keeps the butt from sliding around. With the stock off I was pleased to note the fore-end has an internal metal heat shield for long strings of fire. A black synthetic handguard protects from both a hot barrel and a reciprocating operating rod. Sights consist of a protected front blade and a protected rear aperture. The front sight is non-adjustable. The rear sight is fully adjustable for zeroing, but only features one sight setting. I suggest a 200 yard zero. Basically you set it and forget it.
Controls are easy to access and operate. The charging handle is mounted to the operating rod on the right side of the rifle. It is large, easy to grab and reciprocates when firing. The safety is of the Garand style and located at the front of the trigger guard. Snap it back to place on Safe and nudge it forward to place on Fire. It’s both easy to use and ambidextrous. The magazine release is a paddle at the rear of the magazine well. Like the safety the magazine release is well placed, ambidextrous and easy to operate. Magazines rock in just like with an M14 or AK. Unlike the AK though, the Mini-Thirty features a last round bolt hold-open. A small button on the top left of the receiver allows the bolt to be locked back manually without a magazine in place. Narrow one-inch sling swivels are at 6 O’clock. The rifle’s overall length is a handy 36.7 inches and it weighs in at just 6.7 pounds.
The Mini-Thirty ships with a matching set of one-inch rings, so I topped it with a small Carl Zeiss scope from their Conquest line. An older model, it is a fixed power 4x32mm with a Z-Plex reticle. A 4x32mm scope seemed well suited to the intended role of this rifle. It maintained a wide field of view while having enough magnification to locate and identify targets. Plus it aided the “deer rifle” disguise.
There are a number of excellent domestic 7.62x39mm loads topped with modern expanding bullets well suited for hunting and self-protection. Leading edge bullet designs dramatically improve the terminal performance compared to the ancient Soviet M43 or Yugoslav M67 ball rounds. While not blessed with velocity, the 7.62x39mm does have bullet diameter and weight on its side. When you add in a modern projectile design you end up with a bullet that expands reliably and penetrates deep. Performance on medium size game such as whitetail out to 200 yards is quite acceptable. The right loads will also barrier blind performance for self-protection.
I selected two domestic and one imported 7.62x39mm loads for use in testing. These consisted of Hornady’s 123 grain SST, Winchester’s 120 grain PDX1 Defender and Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 125 grain Soft Point. Of the three both the Hornady and Wolf loads feature steel cartridge cases. The Winchester PDX1 load features nickel plated brass cases. All three of these loads are excellent performers with reliable expansion and deep penetration. Any of these loads would be an excellent choice for hunting medium size game or for self-protection. Of the three the Wolf Soft Point load is by far the most economical.
After zeroing the Carl Zeiss scope I got to work checking the Mini-Thirty’s 100 yard accuracy from a bench at 100 yards. This was done using a rest in conjunction with a rear bag. Test conditions were cold and windy, but you play the hand you are dealt. Velocity readings were recorded using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph.
The Mini-Thirty came with two ten-round magazines which came in handy shooting from the bench. Rounds loaded fairly easily into the blued steel magazines. These seemed fairly robust in nature and featured anti-tilt followers. While not AK robust, neither is anything else. They locked securely in place with an upward push and rock. Running the charging handle fed cartridges smoothly into the chamber. The safety snapped on and off with that distinctive Garand sound. The trigger is wide and smooth and feels good to the finger. A two-stage design, the trigger features a bit of creep and then breaks cleanly. I had zero issues with it.
Accuracy off the bench proved quite acceptable for a field gun. I fired four five-shot groups with each load at 100 yards. The 7.62x39mm cartridge certainly has many virtues, but stellar accuracy is not one of them. Even so the Mini-Thirty acquitted itself quite well. Best accuracy was obtained using Hornady’s 123 grain SST load which averaged 2.2 inches at 2,265 fps. Winchester’s 120 grain PDX1 load averaged 2.7 inches at 2,320 fps. Top velocity went to Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 125 grain SP load which averaged 3 inches at 2,380 fps. So, for a rack grade semi-automatic rifle in 7.62x39 the Mini-Thirty did just fine.
Next I moved from the bench and switched to factory Ruger 20-round magazines. I did note with some interest that the 20-round blued steel magazine is noticeably different in design compared to the ten-rounder. The 20 is both wider and has more curve to it. Plus, it utilizes a different anti-tilt follower as well. Overall I think it’s a better design than the ten-rounder.
Handling wise the Ruger Min-Thirty is a fairly short and nimble carbine. It carries well, is quick to the shoulder and fast on target. Recoil is fairly mild and shot to recovery is good. The safety is easy to reach and manipulate and the magazine release is ambidextrous but slower than a push button, such as on an AR. The charging handle, being on the right side of the rifle is bit slower. You have to reach around the rifle, similar to an AK. The design is actually better suited to a left-handed shooter. However, with a bit of practice you can be fairly fast with it.
Practical accuracy from field positions is good. Making snap-shots at 100 yards is no problem. 200 yards is just as easy with a magnified optic. Shooting prone at 300 yards I had no issues repeatedly hitting a man-sized target. At this distance 5-shots fired from the prone position dropped into 7 to 9 inches depending upon the load. However, you need to know your bullet drop. Holding on the head of a silhouette dropped them into the chest. Moving past 300 yards bullet drop and wind drift becomes an issue. Simply know your rifle.
Overall I found the performance of Ruger’s Mini-Thirty 5868 Tactical to be quite good. Initially I had my reservations on the magazines, but they gave no problems and the rifle ran without issue throughout testing. Ruger advises against using steel case ammunition, but I had zero issues running it in this rifle. Feeding, extraction and ejection were flawless as was primer ignition.
Out of the box I found the action to be just a little rough. A few hundred rounds and a bit of gun grease would cure that though. While magazines locked into place easy enough, they took a bit of a tug to get them out. Again, nothing a bit of practice wouldn’t smooth up. Stripping the rifle is fairly straight-forward, there is not much to it. Routine maintenance is quite a bit simpler than with an AR.
Is the Mini-Thirty perfect out of the box? No. I really don’t like the one-inch sling mounts and wish they were 1.25 inch. Plus it would be nice if they were mounted at 9 rather than 6 O’clock. I also wish there was an easy way to mount a white light onto it straight out of the box. I think every rifle needs three things, an optic, sling and white light. Plus high quality factory magazines are a bit on the expensive side.
Also, don’t expect a Mini-Thirty to take the abuse a Kalashnikov will. The Mini-Thirty was not designed for 3rd World peasants and farmers who use the magazines to drive nails. It will require proper maintenance and looking after the magazines. If a magazine starts to give you problems, replace it. Maintain it properly, keep it fairly clean and free of debris, do not abuse the magazines and it should serve you well.
Despite my nitpicking I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Ruger’s Mini-Thirty Tactical. It proved reliable and fairly accurate on the range and handled well. It carries easily and it’s short length makes it fairly maneuverable. Recoil is mild and it hits where you aim. Don’t forget, imported steel case ammunition is very economical allowing relatively inexpensive practice and fun. If storage is an issue, you can easily outfit the Mini-Thirty with an aftermarket side-folding stock. This dramatically reduces the overall length. While the aftermarket is full of Mini-14/Thirty products, choose wisely. Keep in mind, there are a lot of shoddy aftermarket pieces out there. Stay away from them and keep it simple. If the Mini-Thirty appeals to you the Street Price of this model is $929.
Ruger Mini-Thirty 5868 Tactical Specs
- Action: Short Stroke Gas with rotating bolt
- Caliber: 7.62x39mm
- Barrel: 16.12 inches Stainless with 1-10 inch twist
- Overall Length: 36.7 inches
- Trigger: Two-Stage with 6-pound pull
- Feed: 5, 10 and 20 round detachable box magazine
- Stock: Synthetic with 13 LOP
- Weight: 6.7 pounds w/out optic
- Finish: Stainless steel
- Expected Street Price: $929
- Manufacturer: Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc., 336-949-5200, www.ruger.com