[Editor’s note: This piece was written by a friend of mine, who we’ll refer to as M-M, at my request.]
Full disclosure: This review was done on a Southport 180 series of the Ruger Mini-14. This was one of the first production runs of the Mini-14 and only about 1,000 were produced. Oddly, Ruger no longer services this series of the Mini-14. Whether this is from an economies of scale, a tooling issue, or from the inherent unreliability of the rifle remains to be seen. In saying all of this, there might be some things that are different on this rifle versus newer and improved versions, but most of this review is general enough to apply to all Mini-14 rifles.
The Mini-14 is a rifle that really embodies the dichotomy between nostalgia and practicality. Antiquated by modern standards, it still has an attractive allure. It’s reminiscent of other widely beloved rifles, such as the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, and the M14/M1A. This should come as no surprise, considering—minus a few differences—they all have essentially the same receiver scaled up or down depending on the caliber. The wooden stock and visceral G.I. design reminds you of a better time back when America was about apple pie, baseball, and killing communists.
I know what your response is going to be before I say this, but it genuinely feels good in the hands. “Fudd! Why don’t you talk about your 1911 while you’re at it?” Before you stop reading and discount everything I’m saying, allow me to slip off my Velcro New Balance shoes and change out of my jorts while I proceed further. I’m not a part of the it’s-just-as-good-and-has-always-worked-for-me-sitting-in-my-safe crowd. Ask anyone who knows me. My ego is not attached to weapons because they are ultimately just tools. I view them with ruthless objectivity and call out strengths and weaknesses where applicable. With that said, this rifle has a lot of great aspects with only a couple of negative drawbacks. Unfortunately, those drawbacks are significant.
Let’s start on a positive note by detailing the strengths first because they are very applicable to real-world use. A significant strength of the Mini-14 is in its ergonomics. It is quite obvious that a lot of time was spent on not only the stock but the chassis as a whole. It feels organic. The stock length feels close to a M16A1 stock, which is perfect for a fixed stock (barring body armor use) in my opinion. The length of pull and excellent cheek weld makes for a very point-able rifle and aiming down the sights feels very natural.
The rifle also feels very lightweight even though it actually isn’t compared to modern peers. A standard Mini-14 tips the scales at 6 pounds, 6 ounces versus a standard M4A1 which is 6 pounds, 9 ounces without accessories. The difference between the two seems like a lot more than 3 ounces and if I didn’t know any better, I would think the Mini-14 was a pound lighter just by feel alone. I think the reason for this is because the rifle is well-balanced and doesn’t suffer from being frontend heavy, a curse that plagues many other designs unfortunately. This weight distribution makes it carry well. While this may seem like a silly detail to cover, I can assure you that the way a rifle carries is crucial if you plan on doing anything with it other than shooting from a bench. I would argue balance matters significantly more than raw weight, within reasonable parameters anyway. If you’ve lived outside with a rifle for weeks or months on end and have spent a lot of time carrying one, then you know exactly what I’m saying.
While we’re on the topic of ergonomics, let’s talk about the action. The Mini-14 needs be charged from the right side just like its aforementioned siblings. As a right-handed shooter, I speak for most when I say I typically dislike rifle actions that need to be charged from the right side. It is incredibly inefficient. Yet many designs such as the prolific AK variants have their charging handles on the right side. This isn’t a deal breaker by itself but having to take the firing hand off of the controls or trying to figure out the best economy of motion with the support hand to charge the action is more of a pain in the ass than it needs to be. Fortunately for the Mini-14, this pain in the ass is largely mitigated by the ergonomics of the stock and tolerances that make for a buttery smooth action. As a right-handed shooter, cant it to the left slightly, reach over with your support hand, and effortlessly charge it. You can also go underhand like you would with an AK if you prefer that technique. Again, while this isn’t the most efficient way to charge a weapon, the action lends itself to at least making this process quicker. And frankly, something about it just feels awesome.
Speaking of feeling awesome, the trigger deserves an honorable mention. If you’ve been spoiled by modern single-stage or light triggers, then this one will have a learning curve. The trigger doesn’t exactly have a light pull, there is quite a bit of take-up, and the reset is average at best. However, the wall is extremely defined and the break is very crisp. While this trigger doesn’t check the metric boxes you’ll find in popular gun magazines or forums, the one thing I thoroughly appreciate about it is its predictability. You know exactly when it is going to break which makes prepping it much easier. While this doesn’t help in the speed department, it does help with precision, something where this rifle needs every advantage it can get (more on that later).
Another strength the rifle has is the ease of adjustability for the sights. Both the elevation and windage are adjusted by the rear sight. It has detents similar to a M16 front sight post where they need to be depressed so the sight can be adjusted freely. The big difference is these sight adjustments and detents are so easy you can actually adjust them with the tip of a bullet, unlike being able to only in theory with the M16. I discovered mine seemed to adjust in ½ MOA increments versus ¼ so zeroing went by a lot faster. I’m sure the designers and engineers were well aware of the mechanical accuracy potential of this rifle and wisely chose convenience over precision adjustments that would simply be unnecessary.
This brings us to the main drawback of the rifle and it is the dealbreaker for me. It is highly inaccurate and imprecise. Rarely do I say that about firearms. Generally, I always blame the user instead of the weapon because most of them have more accuracy potential from the factory than 99% of people who shoot them. Sadly, the Mini-14 is the exception to this.
To dispel any objections about the rifle sucking because of my perceived lack of skill, I would like to point out that I have routinely grouped ¼ MOA groups with a varmint style rifle and can reliably shoot 1-1.5 MOA with rack grade service rifles. It’s not uncommon for my shot groups at 50 yards to be the size of a thumbnail shooting an AR with iron sights. While I’m certainly not the best shooter that I know, I can say with confidence that I’m not the issue here. I think Helen Keller could probably max out the accuracy potential of the Mini-14. It was averaging 3” groups or so at 50 yards and if you really tried you could get about 5” groups at 100. This was further reinforced at 200 yards where there was about a 50% hit probability on a 2/3 sized IPSC target. That hit probability for a shooter is actually pretty great considering there is a 10” diameter of deviation on a target that’s less than 12” wide.
The other pain point for the rifle is the fact you cannot interfere with the magazine while firing. What does this mean exactly? If the magazine moves while firing the weapon, there is a possibility it could cause a failure to feed. The magazine can move slightly back and forth inside the well. If it has moved enough the bolt will struggle to pick up another round from the top of the magazine when it reciprocates forward. Why is this a big deal? I discovered this issue while leisurely shooting off of a bag. Like many, I prefer to brace the rifle into myself and also against whatever I am shooting from to mitigate recoil and movement. The magazine was pushed up against the bag and the rifle fed half of the next round. If it cannot function reliably under the easiest of conditions, how will it fair in real-world field use? Many use their magazines as a monopod when going prone, as it provides a stable platform. Unconventional shooting positions have the magazine braced against barricades sometimes. That cannot be done with this rifle. And while this isn’t ideal, under exhaustion many opt to grip the magazine with their support hand while scanning or firing, since you can’t C-Clamp like Chris Costa all day. This would present an issue for the rifle as well.
The last major drawback of the Mini-14 is the sight system. This might seem confusing since it just received praised above, but the convenience was praised not the effectiveness. While the sights are very easy to adjust, the front sight post is so wide that it obscures most targets. If you can picture a standard 5 diamond target, it covers the smaller diamonds (3” x 3”) completely at 50 yards. It also completely covers silhouette targets at 200 yards.
This seems like an easy solution to fix, right? Not exactly. The front sight is fixed with a roll pin. This isn’t impossible to change, but it’s obviously annoying. At this point, many would want an optic anyway but not so fast. The dimensions of the optic have to be just right for the rifle to reliably feed. Since the mounting bracket rests directly on top of the exposed bolt, an optic with a wide footprint could cause a failure to eject. Something common like an Eotech would not work for example. To provide the necessary clearance, many mounts tend to sit too high, making for a less than stellar cheek weld when using scopes.
However, let’s say you’ve found the perfect optic and mount solution that is ergonomic and enables the rifle to function reliably. There is still one more issue. You cannot clear bad malfunctions if they happen. The mount screws directly into the top or the side of the receiver, covering the bolt and magazine well. Even if you developed a quick disconnect mounting solution, you cannot ignore the fact that you will need to toss off your optic and lose zero just to fix a malfunction.
Unfortunately, these drawbacks make the Mini-14 a no-go for something you can depend your life on like a duty or home defense rifle. Judging by their lack of popularity in the market, most have come to the same conclusion and choose the more accurate and modular AR-15 for a .223/5.56 rifle. This really saddens me because I want to love the Mini-14. It feels great, it looks great, and it’s fun to shoot. The accuracy and magazine problems are a deadline issue to me for now, though.
Currently, there are aftermarket upgrades that enhance the accuracy of the platform. Will it ever have the accuracy potential of the AR-15? Absolutely not. However, if reasonable upgrades could manage to squeeze out a more manageable 2-3 MOA and somehow fix the magazine issue, then I would seriously consider this platform.
M-M has been an avid firearms enthusiast for over 20 years, to include taking multiple training classes in all manor of topics, ranging from CQB to TCCC. He is currently an 11B in the National Guard.
Cover picture was snagged from The Truth About Guns.