AR-mania shows no signs of abatement. Tacticool is in full ascendancy. And yet bolt action rifles are still out there, somewhere. Their adherents are still enjoying a system designed by Johann Nikolaus von Dreys in the mid-1800’s. Hunters swear by ’em. Snipers love ’em. The hive mind at wikipedia.org explains the bolt action’s appeal this way . . .

Bolt action rifles close the chamber, but must be operated manually in single action. When a cartridge fires inside the chamber, the force from the charge is completely directed at propelling the bullet down the barrel (in an autoloader, part of the energy is used to cycle the action); however, some energy is transferred to the shooter through normal recoil. The bolt action’s locking lugs are normally at the front of the breech (some designs have additional “safety lugs” at the rear) and this contributes to potential accuracy compared to a design which locks the breech at the rear, such as a lever action.

Also, a bolt action’s only moving parts when firing are the pin and spring. Since it has fewer moving parts and a short lock time, it has less of a chance of being thrown off target and less of a chance to malfunction. Since the spent cartridge has to be manually removed instead of automatically ejected, it helps a sniper remain better hidden, since not only is the cartridge not flung into the air and to the ground, possibly giving away the sniper’s position, but the cartridge can be removed when most prudent, allowing the sniper to remain still until reloading is tactically feasible.

Bolt actions are also easier to operate from a prone position than other manually repeating mechanisms and work well with box magazines which are easier to fill and maintain than tubular magazines.

Is that all there is? Or is there something mystical or sensual about bolties?

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69 Responses to Question of the Day: What’s the Appeal of a Bolt-Action Rifle?

  1. First, bolt action rifles remain popular for the same reasons that manual transmissions remain popular. The operator enjoys a greater degree of control and a higher level of nostalgia. Second, the Mosin Nagant 91/30 does not have a little bit of a kick. A mule has a little bit of a kick. The 91/30 kicks like all the Rockettes in the world all rolled up into one. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t enjoy it quite as much.

    • Second, the Mosin Nagant 91/30 does not have a little bit of a kick. A mule has a little bit of a kick. The 91/30 kicks like all the Rockettes in the world all rolled up into one. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t enjoy it quite as much.

      *snicker* Wimp. *snicker*

      • Wimp? I’ll have you know, young lady, that I have fired a .223 with the butt pressed up against my b@lls. Could you do that? 🙂

        • It was my TI’s way of proving to me that the M16 had little recoil. I sang tenor in the Lackland AFB choir for a week after. But still, I was crazy enough to do it. That’s gotta count for something, even though I was 19.

        • I see “drill instructors” are baked from same dough, no matter from what country they are…

        • Apparently, that is a common technique used by military instructors. I saw that “demonstration” for the first time in 1981(?) when I was at JROTC summer camp, Fork Polk La. I think I was 13 or 14. It was a hoot shooting an M-16 for the first time. Saw it again at SROTC advanced camp in 1989.

    • Funny… as I read the blog post, I thought the exact same thing… about manual transmissions (I drive one). Not only is it “nostalgic,” it’s a deeper experience by being “one with the machine.” I get jazzed doing heel-toe, rev-matched downshifts and nailing it smoothly. I also enjoy the sound of the changing engine revs. Helps that I have a cat-free, turbo-back exhaust that helps make that sweet music.

      I don’t have a bolt action, yet. But, I understand the attraction and would like to get one in my growing collection.

  2. I don’t own a bolt action rifle yet…but the main reason I want one is I don’t see endless threads and blog posts about people complaining about how their bolt action rifle jammed.

  3. True about more oomph in a bolt action. I have an M1 and a Rem 700 in .30-06. I barely feel the M1, but a round from the same can in the 700 knocks me on my ass.

  4. Bolt actions are more positive and accurate than semi-auto. The main benefit of semi-auto is greater rate of fire, which is actually a disadvantage for the majority of shooters.

    Also, there are few mechanical devices that can match the tactile sensation of cycling the bolt on a well-made rifle. It’s totally sensual. If you appreciate machines, you get it. If you don’t, you won’t.

  5. Well, when the zombies are rising up, you need to conserve ammo and be accurate. Additionally, the brass bouncing out of a semi-auto will attrach their attention and they will eat your brains.

    • Btw, why Mosin Nagant? How much from Nagant has been taken to Mosin’s? I’ve real several articles, but they, at best, “blurry”. Same way some items bears Colt’s name, including those, he hasn’t invented?

      • Margaret bought one a couple of months ago, and we’ve shot it on the range. It essentially shoots a .30 calibre projectile, and is very heavy so it tends to soak up the recoil. The rest of your questions I have no way of answering, but the gun is just fun to shoot!

        • Thanks for reply, Becky. I, however, should make my sentence more clear, obvious and unequivocal, because all I meant was “why it is named Mosin Nagant”, not “why you choose to buy it”. From what I can read from here, these rifles are inexpensive, in plentiful number and went under curio and relic regulations.

        • Nope. 🙂 Regarding Google (and other sources), amount of “ideas” taken by Russian Commission and Mosin into their rifle was minimal. If we look into S&W Sigma story, changing something little doesn’t work with Glock. But worked somehow with 3-line rifle, Model 1891.

        • I read some of them, plus some “paper”, and that’s why I ask – how much from Nagant is there? 🙂

  6. I own mainly military style firearms, but lately I’ve been thinking about buying a Model 70 Super Grade in 30-06 or .300 WinMag. The ‘Extreme Weather’ variant in 7mm Remington also crossed my mind.

    I’m not to worried about rifles like this being banned, so I haven’t been in a big hurry to buy one.

  7. I like my bolt-actions. I have one from every major power in WW 2, except the Springfield 1903a3. To say that the Mosin has a bit of kick is like saying that Niagara Falls is moist, but it is a lot of fun (and cheap) to shoot. I like shooting them all (except the Arisaka because it was a last-ditch weapon and most likely unsafe,) just as I like shooting my semis and levers. It’s just a different type of shooting.

    • If you are going to have one, you really need to find an Arisaka you can shoot. Butter smooth, accurate, with an action strong enough to be rechambered for Howitzer round. Nice sporters can be had for a little over $100 (of course you’ll spend that on your first 60 rounds of 7.7 jap ammo…).

      • I’m looking… I just have to get the extra $. We are spending a metric buttload on vacation. That’s a scientific term. I used it when I got my chemistry degree.

  8. Simple to operate, easy to maintain, wide selection of calibers to choose from. What’s not to like?

  9. Three words: reliability, maintainability and safety.

    Owner of a Savage Mark II 22lr and two Remington 700s in 270 and 308

  10. I have a Mossberg ATR 100 in 30.06 that is a joy to shoot. I also have two Lee Enfield Mk 4 No 1s. One is a basic Mil Surp rifle and the other was professionally sporterized and the price was too good to pass up two months ago. The bolt operation on the Enfields is a joy. The rifles are accurate and once you get used to the bolt you can go through the 10 round mag pretty quick.

    I can find or reload the 30.06 is a wide range of bullet styles and weights. I also like the .303 British round.

  11. Five main reasons:
    1. Accuracy. Yeah, it is possible to get semi-automatic rifles that are as accurate as bolt guns (i.e., sub-MOA), but you will be paying 2x to 3x for the privilege.
    2. Time to clean. Most of my bolt guns clean up pretty quickly- 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how picky I want to get. A gas impingement AR-15 takes a minimum of 2 hours (functional clean), 4-6 hours to get it looking 99%, and I recall spending up to 12 hours in the military getting them ready for “white glove” inspections – and that was before the days of rails and optics. Granted, that was before the days you could buy specicialized tools, patches, and solvents, but even so, bolt guns seems to be a lot less work to clean.
    3. Reliability. I’ve never had a bolt gun “jam” on me.
    4. I enjoy working the action of a really smooth bolt action.
    5. Cost. I tend to go slower with my bolt guns, thereby putting less rounds downrange ( to some extent, that accounts to why they are easier to clean as well).

  12. When automotive writers want to describe a really precise manual transmission, they will generally resort to the bolt-action rifle trope. And get it horribly wrong, of course.

  13. I have almost exclusively went with bolt rifles in many calibers for hunting purposes. Some have been sub MOA out of the box and others have needed some work done to them. Using good mounts coupled with good scopes along with an array of minor improvements (lighter/crisper trigger, bedded action, free-floated barrels, target crowns cut to a length that puts the barrel is in harmony with the load, hand-loading for better accuracy) has created for me a collection of rifles that help me get it done.
    As always it takes more than the rifle (insert any gun) to get performance. The user has to be willing to invest the time and money with dedication and a decent basic knowledge of the craft in order to be proficient. When it all comes together it’s very rewarding and well worth the investment.
    In short bolt rifles are the polar opposite of spray and pray IMO.
    I realise that semi-auto’s can be very accurate and have even owned a couple. Call me crazy but I’m happier with very few well placed shots than a pile of brass and a shredded target.

  14. I am torn between a Mossberg MVP bolt action 5.56 that takes AR 15 mags or a S&W m&p 15 sport “assault rifle”. So many choices – so little money.

  15. The thing I like most about a bolt action is the four snaps; bolt handle up (snap), bolt back (snap), bolt forward (snap), handle down (snap). Magoo was right. It’s a sensual experience. The first rifle I ever fired was a .22 semi. It was nice, but after a while it was a yawn. The second was a lever-action .30-30. That was very nice. Maybe even very very nice. The third was a .30-06 bolt action, and that was love.

    • The “four snaps” you refer to are referenced in a hokey, possibly apocryphal scene in “The Longest Day”

    • IMHO, the “BEST” bolt action is simply pulled straight back and then pushed straight forward. Shoot a Blaser some time and you will understand why. 🙂

  16. Accuracy, precision, and large/oddball calibers. Light weight and portability can also be a factor.

    For me anything less than .308 can be handled by an AR variant, and there are now some >.308 semi’s out there. If the semi holds 20 rounds and is 1 moa, then I don’t have a use for a bolt action.

    For sub moa, then its all bolt actions

  17. I prefer bolt actions because it slows down my rate of fire, reducing the cost for a day at the range.

  18. For us here in Australia bolt actions are the number one longarm in the country due to our draconian gun laws so bolt guns are our only real choice for truly accurate firearms. That said I love the bolt action and I never feel inadequate with it hunting. There must be a reason why Long Range and Bench Rest shooters are predominately single shot bolt action, that’s not because they are boring but nothing else gets close to that sort of accuracy.
    There is no doubt about bolt actions being the most accurate action type available today.

  19. For exactly the same reason people drive manual transmissions, buy revolvers and even buy muzzleloaders (2% of sales according to TTAG’s last report)…

    Insanity.

  20. I personally prefer revolvers over my autoloaders. I simply shoot them better and more accurately. Reliable and works for me.

    Full sized revolvers work best for ME.
    My G20 is the autoloader I’m most accurate with. G23 is 2nd. Then my Para P14. Then about any single stack 1911. My lightweight revolvers are the most difficult to shoot.

  21. Hunting with a bolt action means you’re deliberately *not* taking every technological advantage over your prey. It shows (hopefully) that you have mastered yourself and your weapon and that you intend to take your animal humanely with a single shot.

    They are also much more reliable than self-loading rifles. I have never once had a bolt action fail me. I’ve had scopes fail and ammunition fail and pump actions jam and revolvers lock up. And boy oh boy have I had my share of automatics fail. But not a bolt action.

    • Semiautomatics are useless for deer hunting. If you miss the deer is off at the sound of the shot. I have never emptied my magazine in a day. If you need to use all three rounds then you might as well go home for the day.

  22. Why bolt-action:

    1. Accurate for the money. A $1000 bolt-action rifle is as accurate as a $3000 semi-auto. A $3000 bolt-action is more accurate than any semi-auto.

    2. One-shot is plenty in hunting. To be a humane shooter, you should be good enough that not only are you confident that you will hit your target, but that you will hit exactly where you want it (head, heart, lungs).

    3. Lighter.

    4. More reliable.

    5. More rugged.

    6. More caliber selection, particularly in high-powered magnum rounds. Good luck finding a semi-auto in .460 Weatherby Magnum.

    • One-shot is plenty in hunting. To be a humane shooter, you should be good enough that not only are you confident that you will hit your target, but that you will hit exactly where you want it (head, heart, lungs).

      +1.
      The best deer hunter I know uses a black powder muzzle loader.
      Some of the semi-auto shotgun crowd I’m familiar with have spray-and-pray tendencies when they “see” a deer. They’d probably be comfortable hunting with a 40mm fragmentation grenade launcher.

  23. When I first commented on the article, I couldn’t listen to the video; only saw part of it. Some thoughts:

    1) He ruined the Mosin with that camo paint job.

    2) Don’t waste ammo shooting a zombie in the neck, or any other part of the body. Aim at the head.

    3) The Mosin doesn’t kick that hard.

    • Rebecca, there are so many millions of 91/30s around that doing a tasteful camo job on one is no loss. The owner also floated the barrel and did a fine trigger job. All in all, it’s a really nice gun and was not all Bubba-ed up. That particular rifle didn’t kick more than, say, a .30-06, so the original steel buttplate hadn’t been removed. But I have one in my safe that bruises the hell out of my shoulder after just a few stripper clips, and that’s with a rubber buttpad. That Mosin kicks like a 12 gauge shooting heavy loads. If I could get my hands on that Newton guy, I’d sure as hell make him repeal that third law of motion or I’d use his head for zombie practice.

  24. It helps that a Mosin can be had for less than $90. East-bloc surplus ammo is also affordable while other calibers are soaring.

    I think it’s a simple matter of economics. Those who can afford $2000 black rifles will continue to hoard, those who can’t… well, they need to have some fun too!

      • I while ago, the K-31s were $100 at Big 5. I bought one and was completely amazed at the workmanship and the mechanics of the Bolt. I’m guessing that the same rifle would cost $2000 or more to manufacture today. I wenet back and bought 4 more of them, and even gave away one to a friend as a B-day present. I have shot sub-moa with one of these rifles (about a .9 inch group at 100 yards, using the iron sights and Swiss Military ammo) – and truthfully, – my eyes are getting older and shooting irons is tougher than it used to be. I suspect I could have done even better with a scoped K-31 rifle. In short, I’m a huge K-31 fan, and believe them to be highly under- appreciated.

  25. How many affordable semi-autos are there in .300 Win Mag, or 6.5X55 or .458 or .505 Gibbs?

    My .308 Rem 700 can easily put five rounds into less than one inch at 100 yards.

    • It depends on what you mean by affordable. A bolt gun is not affordable to me because I can’t afford to be fiddling with a bolt when the bangers are roaming in my house. To me a bolt gun is no more useful than a zip gun.
      I am not a hunter. I shoot targets under 200 yards and keep a rifle for self defense in the house.

  26. Bolt actions are still out there somewhere, out selling AR’s on the new and secondary market every day. Go to any gunshow, and I bet you’ll see more people walking around with bolt guns and empty wallets than AR’s and other black rifles.

    Might have somthing to do with 180+ years of popularity vs. 20.

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