Sturm, Ruger takes Smith & Wesson to court over its iconic .22-caliber rifle

Keith Cox displays a Ruger 10-22 rifle at 619 DW Guns & Ammo in Merrimack.

CONCORD — A jury could decide this spring whether a rival company illegally made and sold a lookalike of the iconic, New Hampshire-made Ruger 10-22 rifle, after lawyers for Sturm, Ruger & Co. withdrew a request that a judge block sales of a similar rifle.

Last week, lawyers for Ruger withdrew their request for a preliminary injunction against Smith & Wesson and sister company, Thompson Center Arms, over the Thompson T/CR22. In doing so, they basically nullified a three-day hearing held late last month at which lawyers battled over whether a judge should block the sale of the Thompson product, which was introduced earlier this year. A trial is now scheduled to begin May 5.

A law professor said the move by Ruger is odd, likely reflecting how confident the lawyers are about their effort.

“If I were the defendant in this case, I would be pretty pleased at this point,” said Ryan Vacca, a professor of intellectual property law at UNH Law School. Lawyers for both sides did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Vacca said a May trial date is surprisingly early. At this stage in a trademark infringement case, lawyers face months of exchanging information, depositions and analysis. Then there would likely be a summary judgment hearing and ruling before trial. All that takes a lot of time and runs up fees for clients, he said.

“I would be shocked if it went to trial,” Vacca said. Such cases are usually settled when manufacturers agree to differentiate their products through labeling or design changes.

“Ultimately, these trade dress trademark cases are about consumer confusion,” Vacca said.

During a hearing in late November, lawyers for Ruger accused Thompson Center of replicating key parts of the 10-22 in the T/CR22 rifle.

A quick ruling by Judge Joseph Laplante could have affected sales in December, one of the heaviest months for gun sales in the country. The hearing frustrated Laplante, who interrupted lawyers with hypotheticals and made critical comments about evidentiary issues. At one point, the veteran judge said his confusion level was through the roof.

During the hearing, Ruger officials said they had sold more than 8 million 10-22s, a 10-shot, semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle. It was designed by company founder William Ruger, launched in 1964 and manufactured in Newport.

They said portions of the T/CR22, especially the receiver, duplicated the 10-22. The receiver is the housing for internal components such as the hammer, bolt firing pin and trigger.

“They added a couple of functions that I’ll give them credit for, but to me it’s still a 10-22, just their version of it,” testified Mark Gurney, Ruger’s director of product management.

Thompson has denied any efforts to copy the rifle.

“Ultimately, this case is about competition — namely, Ruger’s effort to stamp out lawful competition to grant itself a monopoly over the functional design of a .22 caliber long rifle,” Manchester lawyer Christopher Cole wrote in court documents.

A week after the hearing ended, Concord lawyer James Laboe filed a one-sentence notice that Ruger was withdrawing its request for a preliminary injunction.

Both Ruger and Thompson have ties to New Hampshire.

Ruger has a factory in Newport. Thompson/Center was founded in Rochester, but Smith & Wesson purchased the company in 2006 and moved its operations to Massachusetts five years later.

Friday, January 17, 2020