The Bolt Action

By Chuck Hawks

The rifle action of choice for most shooters today is the bolt action. I have read that there are more bolt action rifles in use today than any other kind. Many contemporary shooters do not realize that the bolt action is an ancient action type, invented in 1829 by Jean Von Dreyse. The bolt action was invented before there were repeating rifles or cartridges to fire in them; it was adapted to these innovations when they came along. The bolt thus became one of the first designs adapted to repeating rifles. In 1860 Peter Paul Mauser's first bolt action single shot appeared, and in the years to come, the Mauser name became synonymous with the development of the bolt action. In 1898 his definitive Model 98 appeared; the bolt action had reached full flower. Improvements since the '98 Mauser have been incremental, not fundamental.

Modern bolt action rifles are stronger and generally manufactured to closer tolerances than those designed in the late 19th century or the early 20th centuries. Improvements in metallurgy and design allow the use of higher pressure to achieve higher velocity. Since the Model 98 Mauser, bolt action rifles have cocked the striker when the bolt is opened, which makes it easier to chamber the next round and close the bolt. Modern actions feature faster lock times than the old actions, and single stage trigger mechanisms, rather than the old two stage military type. These last two improvements definitely make accurate shooting easier.

Great advances in the quality and consistency of rifle barrels allows rifles to shoot ever smaller groups, if the shooter does his or her part. Stocks have been improved, especially in the way they handle recoil, and to align the eye with a low mounted scope. More currently loaded calibers are available in factory made bolt action rifles than in rifles of any other action type. In addition, many wildcat calibers are routinely chambered by the small specialty makers, giving the shooter a very wide choice of cartridges.

Typical features of the modern bolt action include strength, ruggedness, fast lock time, a front locking bolt that minimizes case stretch, an excellent trigger mechanism, a staggered double row box magazine, and a camming action on opening (primary extraction) that helps extract tight or stuck cases. They are usually designed to divert any gas that escapes from the chamber due to a pierced primer or case failure away from the shooter. Another big advantage is that it is reasonably inexpensive to manufacture. This is at least partly because of its mechanical simplicity; a bolt action has the fewest parts of any action, which also tends to make it reliable. Also, its reputation for superior accuracy should not be disregarded. These virtues have made the bolt action the first choice of most experienced shooters for most purposes. It has become the action of choice of the knowledgeable shooter.

Most bolt action rifles have one piece stocks which, some experts believe, support the barrel and action better than two piece stocks, and contribute to superior accuracy. On the other hand, many bolt action rifles now use free floating barrels, which do not touch the stock at all. One thing is certain, all stocks for bolt action rifles must be designed to allow the bolt to clear the forward tip of the comb when it is pulled all the way back. This does place certain restrictions on stock design, particularly comb height.

The principle disadvantage with any conventional bolt action is slow repeat shots. Even though a bolt action can be operated from the shoulder, few shooters do so, and the bolt action's up, back, forward, and down operating stroke is not conducive to fast operation in any case. This complicated operating stroke requires completely removing the trigger finger hand from the stock. It definitely delays getting back on target, and inhibits rapid aiming for a follow-up shot. I'm not talking about missing fast here, I am talking about hitting fast. Anyone who doubts the difference between the speed of a bolt action and other popular actions need only try shooting a few trap doubles with a bolt action shotgun. Anyone with a reasonable amount of experience can powder both clay targets with solid center hits using a double, autoloader, or pump before he can even acquire the second target with a bolt action.

The fastest form of bolt action rifle is the straight pull action. The Canadian Ross rifle of pre-WW I fame was the first of the breed with which I am familiar. Such rifles have never been popular because they usually sacrifice too many of the bolt action's virtues (camming action on extraction, controlled feed, simplicity of design) for a fairly minor increase in speed of operation. The straight pull bolt action is still slower than a lever, pump, or autoloading rifle.

But straight pull designs are still occasionally seen. And they do provide faster follow-up shots than a turnbolt action. Two recent examples are the Blaser R 93 and the Browning Acera. The latter is basically a manually operated version of the BAR autoloader, with the BAR's multiple lug rotating bolt head. The Blaser action uses an expanding collar to lock the bolt, and is available in a wide variety of calibers from .22-250 to the .416 Remington Magnum. Faster is better, but not to the exclusion of all else.

The bolt action is probably the worst type of repeating action with which to face a dangerous, charging animal, but because its great strength allows it to be chambered for very powerful cartridges, and its economy of manufacture allows it to be sold at reasonable prices, it has largely displaced the traditional double rifle for such use. Today, despite the obvious advantages of the pump, lever action, and autoloader, the bolt action is the rifle most frequently chosen to hunt dangerous game. As alluded to above, this is at least partly because the rifle manufacturers offer few suitable calibers in anything except bolt action rifles. How about chambering the BLR for the .338 Mag., and the Safari Grade BAR for the .458 Mag.? (Are you listening, Browning?) Where is a 300 grain controlled expansion bullet at 2,200 fps. for the .444 Marlin?

The other obvious disadvantage of the bolt action is that it is bulky, with its bolt handle sticking out to the side of the action. It is more awkward to carry in the hand or in a scabbard than other contemporary actions.

Top flight bolt action rifles are made by numerous small manufacturers and gun shops all across North America, as well as overseas in the UK, the Czeck Republic, Australia, Austria, Japan, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Africa, and many other places. Some very fine bolt action rifles are produced by and for the major American arms companies. Rifles like the Browning A-Bolt II Medallion, Weatherby Mark V Deluxe, and Kimber 84M Super America are the equal of any factory made rifles in the world.

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Copyright 1999, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.