October 07, 2020
The term “woods rifle” was used for hunting rifles of a certain time and place. Generally, east of the Mississippi, in the thick forested areas of the Midwest, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and other hotbeds of deer-hunting activity. The idea was to have a light, handy, quick-handling rifle, of plenty good-enough accuracy, and sufficient power to cleanly take a deer. So, a carbine-sized rifle, not much over three feet long, not much over six or seven pounds, and chambered in something like .30-30, .35 Remington, .32 Special. You had some anomalous situations, like Pennsylvania hunters who favored bigger cartridges. However, in the Keystone State, hunters could find themselves close by but separated by a sharp ridgeline. If you shot your deer and didn’t drop it right there, when it fled over the ridgeline it belonged to the next hunter over. Not so much a problem in the Midwest.
The classic there is the lever action rifle. A Winchester 94 in .30-30 or .32 WS, or a Marlin 336, in .30-30 or .35 Remington, filled tens of thousands of freezers in every state with venison every hunting season. Well, this is the 21st century, and only old curmudgeons, and retro hipsters hunt with lever guns any more. (Do retro hipsters hunt?) What’s a new shooter to do? That’s easy: turn to Ruger.
The desired combination is simple: you want a carbine-sized rifle that is not much longer than three feet overall. You want something not more than seven pounds, if you can swing it. And you want something with power in the .35 Remington/.30-30 class. Enter the Ruger Mini 30. OK, time to back up a bit. The Mini 30 is a variation of the Mini 14, a rifle largely designed by Jim Sullivan of the AR-15 and Armalite fame. The idea was to produce a rifle that looked like the then-current classic military small arm of the time, the M14, but chambered in the hot new .223 cartridge that was getting all the press. So, the Mini 14 was introduced in 1974, and the first question was “What happened to the promised .308?” (That was the XGI, which never made it to full production, despite being promised for delivery in the 1980s.) The second question was “When can we have this in 7.62x39?” That came in 1986, along with the movies Aliens, Platoon, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Heartbreak Ridge. (Yes, it was a good year.)
The Minis have the same design gas system regardless of caliber. Some call it a piston design, others a direct-gas, I simply referred to it, the first time I wrestled one apart, as a spigot system. The operation is simple: the gas port in the barrel bleeds gas off into the gas block and then through its piston. What Ruger calls a piston is simply the outlet for the gas, it does not move on its own. It pressurizes the interior tunnel of the slide assembly, aka the charging handle, and as a result, blows the charging handle off of the “piston” exactly like a mischievous kid blows the wrapper off of a straw. (Do we still have straws? Do they still have wrappers? Do kids even glance up from their phones to do that anymore? If not, I’ll have to come up with some other comparison.) The charging handle, with its cam slot engaging the bolts locking lug extension, lifts the bolt, then cycles it back, ejecting the empty by means of a fixed ejector blade, then forward to chamber a round, close and allow the next shot. Really, it is that simple. The trick is in the timing and the angles. In the engagement of the charging handle and the bolt, the Mini 14 is just like the M1 Garand, M14 and M1 Carbine.
The adoption, acceptance and marketing of the Mini 14 and Mini 30 were not entirely happy events. At the time, Bill Ruger was still the man in charge, and as an old-school New Englander, he was as far as I could tell a man of his time and place. Getting along with his social group was important, and as a result, for many years you could not buy factory-new Ruger magazines for the Minis larger than five or ten rounds. This created a demand for higher-capacity magazines that companies tried to fill, mostly with poor results.
When the Mini 30 came out, the teeth gnashing was epic. Everyone who had heard of it, and had anticipated it, had assumed that Ruger would make an American rifle that used the AK magazine. (Hey, this was the mid-1980s, after all. There was no such thing as “Plenty of AKs” yet.) When the Mini 30 didn’t, the complaining was almost too much. It only takes a quick look to realize that had Ruger done that the resulting fat-body receiver and stock would have made the Mini 30 look like a pregnant hippo. And even then, Ruger didn’t do ugly guns. (We’ll ignore for the moment the P85.) We were early in the era of 7.62x39 ammunition, and the options were sparse. I remember getting calls from customers who wanted to hunt with a Mini 30, but the DNR forbade the use of FMJ bullets. “Can I file the tips?” No. “Do you know a bullet I can substitute, pulling the existing ones?” No. Given the sudden increase in AKs, mostly Chinese, that flooded the market soon after, the ammunition companies stepped up and provided softpoints for hunting.
From the beginning, the Mini 30 had the famous Ruger scope mounts cast into and then machined on top of the receiver. The rings were all you need to mount a suitable scope on top of the Mini 30, but that didn’t stop some of my customers from going overboard. I had hunters who had always hunted with a 3-9x40 scope, and they were damned if they weren’t going to continue that with the Mini 30. Explaining that 9X wasn’t needed for the distances they’d see in the woods, nor what you could use with an AK round didn’t faze them. Nor did the higher rings I’d have to use, to get clearance for the scope bell. They had always shot a rifle using a crappy cheek weld, and gotten their deer (more or less) regularly. The Mini 30 wasn’t going to be any different.
Realistically, a 1-4 or a 1.5-5 power scope with a one-inch tube would be plenty, and in keeping with the compact dimensions of the Mini 30. Going to a 30mm or even a 34mm tube would be excess. But, this is America, and you can do it if you wish. Ruger makes rings in one inch and 30mm (no 34mm, sorry) in blue and stainless, and for those who just have to have a particular scope mounted, Ruger offers offset rings, to shift the loop forward of the ring mounting base. And, you have the usual medium, high and x-high ring heights. I simply dove into the scope vault and found a scope both historical and appropriate for hunting use: a Leupold 1.5-5x20. I used the provided rings to bolt it on. Now, if you want to use something else, Ruger has cleverly drilled and tapped the clamp-on ring studs, and provided the screws and a Weaver base for you. With that installed, you can use whatever rings you’d like, provided they fit the Weaver base. Talk about both belt and suspenders. The scope bases are front and back of the receiver opening, with an adjustable aperture rear sight behind them, and a protected blade front sight pinned to the barrel at the muzzle.
The stock is wood, with a stamped steel liner fixed inside of the stock to provide extra strength. The charging handle has part of it covered by the synthetic heat shield on the barrel, and the stock has a rubber recoil pad on the back end. There’s a sling swivel in the stock belly, and another one in the gas block assembly, at the front of the stock.
OK, Mini 30 function. Load the magazines by pressing a round downwards between the feed lips. This is like any other double-stack, double-feed rifle. The safety is the tab on the front of the trigger guard. Press the safety back to put it on, and not fire. Hook the front lip of the magazine up inside the magazine well until it catches on its locking shoulder, and then pivot the rear of the magazine up until it locks in place. The Mini (14 or 30) magazine does not work on insertion or removal like an AR. It works like the M14/M1A or AK in this regard. (And the FAL, let’s not leave that one out.) Pull the charging handle all the way to the rear, and then let go. Do not ride it forward. You are now loaded. If you wish to unload, press the magazine catch at the rear of the magazine, and the magazine will pivot down. You may have to encourage it to pivot. Then retract the charging handle to extract the chambered round. You’re empty.
Shooting is simple. Insert your trigger finger into the trigger guard. Press the safety forward to select Fire. Then press the trigger as-needed. To go on Safe, remove your finger from the trigger guard reach forward and press the safety to the rear.
It is necessary to describe these steps because the world has changed. An old fart moment: When the Mini 14 showed up, back in 1974, none of these instructions would have been necessary. Anyone with any shooting knowledge back then would have been familiar with the M1 Garand and/or the M14 and the M1 Carbine. The safety on the Mini works exactly like that of the Garand and M14. The magazine works exactly like the M14. The Carbine magazine and safety are different, but the charging handle is the same. Today, were you to quiz the habitués of a gun shop on what rifle they were most familiar with, it would be seventeen ARs, three AKs, and the strange guy in the corner who keeps muttering “Bullpup, bullpup.” Were you to hand them a Garand, M14/M1A or other classic blaster, then they will have to stop and figure it out.
And we’ll have to do this again when it comes time to discuss disassembly.
One question that comes up is bore dimension. I went right to the source, Ruger, and contacted my inside guy there, and got this as a reply on the Mini 30: “We spec .310" – .311", aim for .3105" and stay close.” So, the bore on your Mini 30 is correct for all the chi-com and imported ammo that comes in and will still work just fine in case you happen to get a batch of U.S.-made ammo using .308" bullets. The standard on US .30 rifle bores is for the rifling to be .004" tall on each land. That means the bottom of the groove is meant to be .308" and the tops of the lands are at .300". So, on your Mini 30, the land tops will be .302" and the grooves .310 or so, and your .308" bullet will have plenty of “bite” in the rifling to get spun up. This won’t be a problem unless you have a stash of ancient 7.62x39 US made ammo, dating from back in the 1990s or so. The ammo companies have long-since made bullets specifically for the AK round, and with appropriate .310" – .311" diameters.
I had to go back into the depths of the ammo bunker to come out with AK hunting ammo, as it has been quite some time since I was shooting anything but FMJ or steel-cased surplus.
The current comparison of the 7.62x39 is the .30-30. Now, there are problems here. First of all is that the .30-30 does not come loaded with a bullet lighter than 150 grains. Finding something heavier than 123 grains for the AK round is not at all easy. Looking at advertising specs won’t help much. The “book” velocity for the .30-30 is listed at 2,300+ fps, some creeping up to 2,400 fps. If you have a rifle with a 20" barrel, you’ll likely see most of that. A carbine with a 16" barrel? Nope. The 7.62x39 is listed as having 2350 fps, more or less, and you’ll get that. So, the fair comparison is between a 150 grain softpoint at 2,200 or even 2,250 fps, and a 123 grain softpoint at 2,350 fps. Whitetails are not classified as dangerous game, and not that hard to cleanly dispatch, so it sounds like a tie to me.
Accuracy? Back in the bad old days, Ruger had something of a reputation as a barrel maker with a hit-or-miss track record. I had lots of customers who were very happy with their Ruger (of any type) and some who just didn’t think the barrel was good enough. Most were simply shooters who couldn’t shoot, or scopes that were junk. By the mid-1990s, Ruger had one end of a huge building filled with nothing but gun-drills, rifling machines, lathes and reamers, all for their own barrels. Now, Ruger cold hammer forges all their barrels in-house, and forges them to the tight side of SAAMI specs. If you have a Mini 30 (or any other Ruger firearm) that doesn’t shoot up to snuff, then the barrel is probably the last place to be looking. For the Mini 30, it would be glib to say that all you need is “minute of whitetail” because there’s no such thing as too much accuracy. However, what you will find is that individual rifles can vary in what they like and don’t like. If your rifle doesn’t like a given load, then move on. Your rifle doesn’t care that it is “the perfect load for XYZ” it doesn’t like it, pick another.
I was not surprised that the Mini 30 sent shot well. I was surprised that it shot one load, the Federal Fusion, almost to an MOA level of accuracy. The Leupold maxing out at 5X is something of a limit, if you are looking to punch the smallest-possible groups, but it is an entirely appropriate hunting scope. As far as recoil is concerned, really? The Mini 30 is listed as seven pounds, bare, which seems heavy until you actually pick one up. It may be seven pounds, but all the weight is between your hands, and it seems a lot lighter. The stock doesn’t have a lot of drop, no more than needed, and there’s a rubber recoil pad on the back. I won’t say it recoils like a rimfire, but someone jumping up from a rimfire won’t find the recoil oppressive. The soft recoil and not-loud bark also makes it easy to wring as much accuracy out of the Min 30 as it has.
The 7.62x39 does not have a reputation as being a flashy cartridge. As in, not a lot of muzzle flash. Yet, in the first ten rounds shot while running the camera to get an action photo, I caught flash in the frame four times. Truly, timing is everything.
OK, unload your Mini. Check again. Leave the hammer cocked and push the safety to Safe. The idea here is to hinge the trigger guard down. It hinges on the front, and clips at the rear. You’ll need a grip like Godzilla to do it, so instead, use a cleaning rod (steel, not aluminum) or screwdriver. Hook it into the hole in the trigger guard and lever down. With that much leverage it will be a lot easier. Pull the trigger assembly down out of the stock. Hinge the barreled receiver up out of the stock. The handguard is held on by means of a spring clip over the barrel, just give it a tug or a bump and it clips off. Turn the action upside down and grab the recoil spring assembly. Pull it towards the muzzle, and when the end clears its retaining cup, lift and ease it relaxed. When you do this, the retaining cup and its holding pin will fall out, so find them and pick them up off the floor.
Run the charging handle back until the retaining lip on its back-end lines up with the clearance notch. It will then pop out of the track, and you can lift it off of the bolt. The bolt is the hard part. To remove it, push it back, then lift the outside locking lug, tilt the bolt up and towards the outside, and weasel it past its retaining bar. Watch this process closely, because to get it back together you have to do the reverse, and if you don’t watch, you’ll spend a long time fiddling with it to get it back into the receiver.
The rest of the reassembly is easy compared to getting the bolt back in place.
Oh, and a note: you do not remove the gas system, nor disassemble it. No, really. The screws are torqued on, apparently, by an air gun, and are a real bear to remove. If you knarf one, Ruger won’t sell you a replacement (at least, not last I knew) and there are small parts in there you best not lose. Scrub it, lube it, inspect it, but do not take it apart.
Hunting and More
Yes, the Mini 30 is a great little hunting carbine. But it can be more. The scope on this one, a 1.5-5X, is also a great combo for short to medium defense. No one has complained (or at least, not much) about the performance of 7.62x39 in a military context. And if you want more than just FMJ, then good hunting ammo, or the Winchester defensive load, would serve well. And if you really want to be too cool for the rest, then lay hands on a Samson folding stock, right out of “The A Team” and put it on your Mini 30. Yes, there’s currently a massive waiting list for them, but when yours arrives you will be the envy of the gun club. And have something compact to have handy, should you need it.
Just in time for this test, Pulsar sent me their XM50 thermal optic.
The view through the XM50 is by means of a small video screen. The resolution of the screen is 320x240, which at first thought seems kind of coarse. Perhaps, but there are technical difficulties in any thermal viewer. First of all, longer wavelengths pose a problem with resolution. You just can’t get as sharp an image with longer wavelengths, as you can with shorter. You can see that with images from astronomy. Visible-light images are sharp. Those from radio astronomy are just big, fuzzy blobs. That’s as sharp as they can make it, with wavelengths that are thousands of times longer than those in the visible spectrum. While not as long as radio frequencies, Infra-red is longer than visible, so a starting problem. Then, the pixels in the detector have to be large enough to gather enough of a signal to generate an image. So you can only pack so many into a sensor without getting NASA-expensive. And finally, the energy differences between the hotter and cooler areas is so small that you need to use a lot of amplification to generate an image that isn’t a blob.
So, in the non-Department of Defense world, 320x240 is pretty darned good.
The XM50 uses a regular rifle scope with the expected adjustment knobs, and one that is different. The top knob, the one that is so tall, is a battery compartment. There are actually two batteries in the XM50, the removable one on top, and an internal one that is charged by means of the USB slot underneath the left-hand cap. You use the same, included, charger to charge both, but you can’t charge them at the same time, so plan ahead. A quick look at the owner’s manual indicated to me that we are fully into the 21st century. There is no figuring it out as you go, “because it is obvious” as one might with mechanical items.
Just turning it on requires that you (if you haven’t done some of these already) adjust the diopter ring (on the back end of the tube) to bring the icons in the screen into sharp focus, then turn the lens focus ring (on the front end of the tube) to bring your target distance into focus. Then you have to select the calibration mode, screen brightness, display contrast and digital zoom smoothness. Whew. It is important that you get these settings to the values that are best for you. When first looking through the XM50, I had the impression “this thermal stuff is not a big improvement.” Then I started adjusting the settings and wow did it make a difference. The diopter adjustment makes it possible to view and read the settings along the lower bar. Focus? I’ve peered through regular scopes that were cranked wildly out of diopter adjustment, and the shooter who owned it didn’t even notice. In the visual spectrum, and with good eyesight, our brain can correct for a lot of signal loss. But when it is a screen, and you are viewing what is in essence a translated image from infra-red to the visible, your brain doesn’t know what to make of it, if it is too far out of your adjustment. So, take the time to get the focus and diopter adjustments correct for your vision, your brain and eyes will appreciate it, and you can avoid headaches from un-adjusted viewing.
At a certain point you are on your own, because the quick start guide, despite being 40 pages, is printed in six languages, and that doesn’t leave much room for each.
OK, let’s run through a few of the settings you’ll want to know about, even if you end up using the default settings. First, Color Mode. This is where you select hot is white, or hot is black. Me, I prefer hot is white, which is the default. You can also go with hot is red, or a red monochrome (to keep your night vision less effected) rainbow, ultramarine, violet or sepia. And you thought your local coffee shop offered an array of options.
You won’t want to mess around with the language settings (this is, after all, something to be offered internationally, where lawful and affordable) but you do want to set the day and date, and time. Why? Because you can record the image, which I’ll cover later. There are also units of measure, where you pick yards or meters. There is a Wi-Fi option, and you can use a password and once set up the scope allows you to stream the image. That’s right, once you have established a Bluetooth connection, you can stream the image to some other device, for someone else to see what you’re seeing, and to record there as well as in the Pulsar itself.
The reticle has a rangefinder in it, a set of bars that indicated the height of various targets, and a range readout. This is the Stadiametric Rangefinder. Pulsar has built in a Smart Reticle, which means that when you change magnification, the spacing of the bars also changes, so you still have the same relation of bars to target height as you had before.
Electronics require batteries (since an extension cord to a hunting blind would be absurd, right?) so charging batteries is a big deal. The XM50 can be charged through the USB port in the right-side turret, to top off the internal battery, but the battery in the tall top knob has its own charging bay. The internal battery is listed as an APS3, while the external batteries are listed as APS2, which appears to be a proprietary battery from Pulsar. The lowest price I could find for a replacement was $80, so you want to make sure you do not lose or damage the batteries that come with the XM50. Each battery is listed as giving the XM50 five hours of run time. I found that it lasted a bit longer than that, and since the internal battery is also good for some time, you have a night’s worth of thermal viewing on a charge. The charging station plugs into the wall by means of a micro USB adapter, like every other digital device you own. Not the same USB plug, perhaps as your phone, etc., but the same system. The charging bay has the expected led indicator lights, to let you know how the charging is going. When you get four green leds, you’re good to go.
I can see some of you in the back, worried about the DNR. “Hunting after nightfall is illegal.” Except when it isn’t hunting. Now, check your regs, but if you are shooting wild hogs, in most locales they don’t care how many you shoot, so long as you do it safely. The XM50 sees heat, so anything walking around in the dark is going to be visible through the XM50.
Now, you are asking just how it is that you can zero a thermal scope, when you don’t; have something hot to shoot at? Let me introduce you to the realm of physics. Keep in mind that a thermal imager such as the XM50 (all, in fact) do not read absolute temperatures (unless they are calibrated to do so) they respond to, and display relative temperatures. So, to have an aiming point, you simply place a plain sheet of cardboard on your target holder or frame. You then put a white or black overlay on it in direct sunlight. The overlay (I used gaffer’s tape and an Avery label) will get hotter or cooler than the cardboard, exposed to the sun, and you can see the difference. The black gaffer’s tape absorbs, and is hotter. The Avery while label reflects, and is cooler. Viola, an inexpensive thermal target.
I used that to zero and shoot with the XM50 for groups. One aspect of electronic sights that is always a concern, at least among those of us old enough to remember when electronics were fragile: recoil. How well does it stand up to recoil? Pulsar assures us that it can withstand the recoil of .375 H&H, 9.3x64 and 12-gauge, which I find to be both specific and reassuring.
As much as I wanted to put the XM50 on top of the Mini 30, did I have any 30mm rings to fit? Alas, no. so I had to use a test AR lying around, and the Pulsar-supplied scope mount which worked really well. But if you are looking for night-time varmint control, or hog whacking, the Pulsar XM50, on top of the Mini 30, is a really good way to go.
Ruger Mini 30 Specs
- Type: Hammer-fired semi-automatic
- Caliber: 7.62x39
- Capacity: 5 to 20 rounds
- Barrel: 18.5"
- Overall Length: 37.5"
- Weight: 7 lb
- Finish: Stainless steel or alloy steel
- Stock: Wood or synthetic
- Sights: Fixed front, adjustable rear
- Trigger: 4.5 lb
- MSRP: $ 1,069
- Contact: Ruger.com
Pulsar Pulsar XM50 Thermal Optic Specs
- Type: Thermal riflescope
- Caliber Limits: None apparent
- Tube Diameter: 30mm
- Resolution: 320 X 240
- Battery: Internal, plus 18650 type extra
- Zoom: 4X digital (5.5X – 22X)
- Waterproof: to 3 ft for 30 minutes
- Length: 15.75"
- Weight 31.8 oz
- MSRP: $ 4,180
- Contact: Pulsar-NV.com
Ruger Mini 30 Chronograph and Accuracy Data