The bolt action rifle, we take it for granted because it has seemingly always been with us. Some may see it as quaint and with the rise of the AR platform and its’ recent expanded use in hunting and distance shooting. However, bolt actions are light weight, ultra reliable, and supremely accurate, most would agree that they are still the best option for a hunting.
They are so common now, it is difficult to apprectiate the tremendous amount of technology, precision, and skill that had to be mastered to get us to the point we are at today. Accuracy and strength that would have been unheard of 50 years ago at any price is yours now for the cost of a few tanks of gas in your pickup. Unbelievable. We could discuss the relative attractiveness of the rifles of yesteryear against the new crop of polymer stocked accuwonders, but we cannot compare them on their scientific merits. The new rifles are easier to purchase, and more functionally capable.
The choices and the variations seem even more troublesome than with Modern Sporting Rifles (for more on those see AR 15 101). On one hand with the current crop of bolt actions it is hard to go wrong, and on the other the differences and the preferences are overwhelming.
Let’s see if we can help identify and assist in your decision.
There are three main stock material options. The most prevalent is of course polymer or synthetic, which is just a 21st century word for plastic. The polymers used today are a much better quality than that of my youth, and they have their merits. Most notably they do not crack, warp, twist, or require any real maintenance. The other advantages of polymer stocks are that they can be pretty much any color or pattern combination, and they can be molded to any shape. Which leads me to what I perceive as a negative of polymer stocks: they are typically not molded to be attractive, in my humble opninon. I have no idea why. The texture often reminds me of the stickers my grandmother put in her tub to prevent slipping. They are typically molded in an approximation of something from a sci-fi movie with strange angles, sharp corners, odd looking rubber insert grip panels and the like. Perhaps it is purposeful, in order to preserve the upscale feel of actual wood, who knows? I am likely more sensitive to this type of thing than those younger or less nostalgic than me.
The next stock material is natures own Wood, specifically, usually, Walnut: long beloved for its’ good looks, it is more expensive to produce and purchase than a polymer stock. A quality piece of walnut is getting harder to find and comes at a premium. One big injection molding machine can churn out several polymer stocks every few minutes with one operator. A wood stock takes several machining and finishing steps, and probably takes cycle times measured in hours (or days) vs seconds to produce. When completed the wood stock will always swell and shrink slightly according to weather factors such as temperature, humidity, and pressure, and will always be at risk of damage if dropped from a tree stand, rolled under a horse, etc. But they feel so good in the hand, and they look very nice to the eye.
The last material used in the formation of stocks is, I guess to be fair, a subtype of the second: Laminate. Laminated wood is “built up” using thinner pieces of wood, glue, heat, and pressure; then machined from a block of this built up wood/glue mixture. They are a bit heavier than solid wood, or polymer, but they do not have the drawbacks with weather nor quite the durability issues either. They do not rely on the perfect grain pattern of a naturally sourced stock, but can be layered to create a beautifully colored and patterned result. They feel like wood because they are wood. To me, they are the best choice.
Bottom Line: Polymer is less expensive, more durable, doesn’t ever change, doesn’t require any special care and is typically unattractive. Wood is more attractive, perhaps much more expensive, is subject to weather extremes changing your point of impact, and must be cared for. Laminate is attractive, very durable, & mostly immune to weather, at the expense of some weight and an increase of price over polymer.
Push Feed vs Controlled Round Feed
The origin of the controlled round feed action is the Mauser M98. Controlled Round Feed means is that there is a “claw” on the front (face) of the bolt which physically grabs the rim of the cartridge as it is stripped from the magazine and holds onto the cartridge as it is fed, and extracted, until the receiver mounted ejector knocks it loose and out of the gun. The advantage here is if the shooter is out of normal orientation (say rolled to their side) the “claw” on the bolt face still grabs the cartridge and it will still be loaded into the chamber correctly. Also if there is some sort of hesitation and back and forth movement of the bolt during operation (as a stressed, or inexperienced shooter might do) the bolt face holds on to the round and does not allow another round to be stripped from the magazine. It is a very “controlled” feeding of the round. It is viewed as somewhat more safe, and error proof, most especially when it comes to quarry that has claws, horns, and bad dispositions. Two nice currently mass produced examples of CRF rifles are the Ruger Hawkeye and the CZ 550. Pre-1964 and Post 1992 Winchester Model 70’s are CRF, Kimber, Dakota, as well as most any other rifle that has a Mauser style action. Liberty Tree carries both CZ and Ruger and an impressive and ever changing inventory of used rifles..
The downside of this design is its’ expense to manufacture.
In a push feed action The bolt fact does not “grab” the rim of the cartridge as it is stripped from the magazine, the extractor is much less robust, and does not engage the cartridge at all until the bolt is locked. Then, upon unlocking the extractor pulls the cartridge rearward and a spring mounted nubbin inside the bolt face ejects the cartridge out of the rifle (in a more energetic fashion than a Mauser style ejector). Push feed actions allow cartridges to easily be single loaded from the top. The Push feed design allows multiple locking bolts. This has the potential to increase the strength of the action. Multiple locking lugs is also what allows the Weatherby action and others to reduce the bolt throw from the standard 90 degrees. The first popular rifle to come equipped with this style of round feeding and extraction/ejection was the Remington 700. The popularity of this platform cannot be understated. It is the dominant platform. Most rifles manufactured today: Remington, Savage, Mossberg, 1964-1992 Model 70 Winchesters, the Ruger American, Weatherby’s rifles, all of the more budget oriented choices, etc. are all push feed action. Military snipers have been using push feed action sniper rifles for decades. Many of the new crop of precision rifles are push feed. Push feeding is a good system.
The main real advantage of these actions however is lower cost of manufacture.
Disclosure: I have both, and like all my rifles. You can compare the Controlled Round Feed design with the Push Feed design at Liberty Tree Guns and see which you prefer.
Bottom line : CRF is the older, more expensive to manufacture, more precise, durable, design. Push Feed is much more common now, is cheaper to manufacture, and works extremely well. If you aren’t worried about your prey gutting you before you can fix a potential (rare) mis-feed it likely doesn’t matter. If you like rock solid designs with very little chance of mistake and don’t mind spending a little more, CRF is great.
Standard triggers, User Adjustable Triggers, and set triggers.
For many, many years when you bought a rifle it came with a trigger, and if you didn’t like how it operated or felt when it was shot, it was time for some gunsmithing. Then Savage developed the Accutrigger, a trigger designed to be user adjustable. It set the rifle market on its’ ear. Now most manufacturers have their version of the Accutrigger. Some examples of which are the Mossberg Lightning, Ruger Marksman, Remington X-mark Pro, Browning Feather Trigger, Winchester MOA, probably others. Some rifles come equipped with what is known as a “set” trigger. I once owned a CZ 550 with this system. Under normal operation the trigger functioned like a normal standard trigger with a pull weight somewhere around 5 or 6 pounds. But if you pushed the trigger forward until it clicked it “set” the trigger so that about 1.5 lbs of force is all that was necessary to fire the weapon. It is a nifty feature, but it does not seem very common.
Bottom Line: If you KNOW that you are going to replace the standard trigger in a rifle with a custom trigger, or if you are looking to buy an older rifle, a standard trigger is likely fine for 99% of us. If you like the idea of being able to easily adjust the pull weight to suit your needs, options abound. If you can find a rifle with a set trigger they are cool.
60 vs 90 degree bolt throw
The “throw” of the bolt is how far the bolt must be rotated in order to be locked or unlocked. The rotation of the bolt is what actually cocks and locks the bolt to the receiver in preparation for firing. After firing the rotation of the bolt unlocks the bolt and the rearward movement extracts and ejects the casing in preparation to chamber the next round. This has historically been accomplished with a 90 degree rotation of the bolt. The issue becomes one of the efficient movement of the shooter’s hand, and also in some cases the mounting of optics presents a clearance issue between the bell of the scope, the shooter’s hand, and bolt handle. To circumvent this some manufacturers lessen the amount of rotation needed to lock and cock and unlock the bolt to somewhere around 60 degrees. This is marketed as both allowing for scope clearance and ‘faster bolt throws’ But as they say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Because the work of compressing the striker spring and locking the bolt face to the action must still be done, only now it must be done with less range of motion, resulting in typically more force being required to get this work done, so manufacturers sometimes lengthen the bolt handle…which can if they are not careful cause scope clearance issues again.
The following rifles have shorter than 90 degree bolt throws, there may be more.
- Weatherby Mark V @ 55 deg
- Tikka T3 @ 75 deg
- Browning A-Bolt & X-bolt
- Sako 85
- Sauer 101, 202
- Steyr Scout & Prohunter
- Mauser M12
- Ruger American
- Remington 788
Once again, the courteous sales staff at Liberty Tree would be happy to let you try a few out to see what your preference is.
Bottom line: Handle the rifle before you buy, think about the scope you may want. Most folks “in the heat of the moment” probably won’t notice 30 degrees more hand movement, some MAY notice the increased effort a shorter bolt throw takes to cock and lock. It is really personal preference.
Hinged Floorplates, Blind or Detachable Box Magazine
With a Hinged Floorplate the shooter loads a rifle from the top by pulling the bolt back and pressing the cartridges into the internal magazine. But say you need to unload the rifle. Some shooters find it distasteful and a bit unsafe to have to chamber each round and extract and eject each one to unload the rifle. So Hinged Floor Plates were designed. By depressing a latch, the floorplate opens on the bottom of the rifle and the cartridges fall out. Then the spring is pressed back into the magazine well, the floorplate is latched and the rifle is ready for storage or transport. They have the added advantage of not being able to “lose” the magazine because it is all integrated into the rifle..
Blind Magazines do not have a hinged floorplate, this has three possible benefits the first is that the stock is one solid piece on the bottom which some may find more aesthetically pleasing and perhaps stronger. Secondly, it may shave a an ounce or two off of the weight of the rifle (the weight of the hinged plate), Lastly and the “real” reason is lessening manufacturing costs. This necessitates the arguably less safe practice of chambering each round in order to unload the weapon. Not to mention the difficulties encountered if something bad were to happen that prevented extracting a spent casing, or being unable to unlock the bolt, trapping live cartridges in a malfunctioning weapon.
The third option is a detachable box magazine. This has historically been the easiest method of loading and unloading a rifle, but has always been problematic from a design and manufacturing standpoint. Some feel that a detachable box magazine protruding below the stock mars the elegance of the rifle, some folks are concerned that they may lose the detachable magazine. We are blessed in the modern age that many manufacturers have engineered solutions to these problems and we now have several options in the market with detachable box magazines. Many fit flush and do not therefore change the appearance of the rifle. Huzzah! Examples of which include the Ruger American and Remington 783.
Bottom Line: All three designs work, everyone has their preference. Do you want the clean lines, possibly stronger stock, and ultimate cleanliness of a blind magazine, even though unloading it takes ten seconds longer and involves chambering every round? Would you prefer the ability to quickly unload your weapon from a magazine you can’t lose at a slightly increased cost perhaps, and at the expense of 2 ounces of metal? Or do you prefer quickly loadable and easily removed and the ability to have extras with the detachable box magazines at the risk of leaving one on the ground by the tree stand, and does it bother you if you can see it protruding out of the bottom of the stock? Choose according to your preferences.
Thin, Medium, or Heavy contour Barrels
In the past there were two kinds of shooters, those who shot because they hunted. We call those hunters. And those who shot because they like to shoot. We call those target shooters. Hunters might shoot 5 rounds to check their zero, and then shoot another 5 or less at game in a particular season. Benchrest, Target Shooters, and Varmint Shooters might shoot one hundred rounds in two hours. All that controlled explosion and flying lead creates heat. Applying heat to a steel object makes it pliable. Barrels that are pliable have changing points of impact. Shooters find this undesirable. A thin contour, sporter barrel is thin to save weight for a hunter carrying a daypack, knives, ammo, water, and more up a mountain. Therefore a cold bore shot in a sporter barrel will be a known quantity in a known rifle that has been sighted in from a cold bore. As the number of rounds fired downrange increase this point of impact in a sporter barrel will change until it cools back down. A heavy barrel like what is used on a varminter or benchrest rifle will not warm up as quickly and will not cool down as quickly, functioning as a heat sink, making many consistent strings of shots possible until it eventually does need to cool down so that the process can begin again, but most hunters will not appreciate the extra weight while carrying a rifle all day. A medium contour barrel is an attempt to split the difference between weight and ability to have decently intense range sessions. I find a medium contour works well in the pickup and ATV/horseback friendly hunting I have done throughout my life. For hunters who shoot only a box of cartridges all year, and that over the course of days, not minutes; or for those who hike and climb mountains on foot to reach their quarry a sporter barrel is probably a good choice. For benchrest shooters who carry their rifles mere yards a day, the heavy barrel is your best bet.
Bottom Line: if you shoot one or two shots in a day, and never more than a rate of say 10 in 30 minutes get a sporter barrel; they are lighter & cheaper. If you like to shoot at the range, and hunt, but don’t walk 5 miles to your shooting position get a medium contour. If you set up off your tailgate to shoot prairie dogs and bring your lunch, or sit at the shooting bench for an afternoon with your spotting scope and logbook, get a heavy barrel. It really has more to do with the pace of your firing than it does with intrinsic accuracy.
What length barrel?
Ballistic science and cartridge technology has progressed much in just the past 20 years. In the coonskin cap days metallurgy was poor, powder was weak and inconsistent, bullets were not consistent or concentric, and you poured your own powder in the field. You needed all the help you could get to stabilize that bullet and feed your family or fight off those accursed redcoats. The barrel length on an old school kentucky rifle might have been over 4 feet long! They didn’t quite have twist rate figured out, bedding an action to the barrel properly was not understood. To them, a longer barrel was a more accurate barrel, and for what they were working against, they were right. Even in the 1960’s longer barrels were perceived to be for longer range weapons. Barrel length was seen to directly correlate to accuracy at long range. What we now know is that to a certain point barrel length allows more complete combustion which translates into increased velocity, but only to a point. After a certain sweet spot is reached, and this varies load to load, a longer barrel has no additional positive effect on velocity. The other side of the teeter totter here, is that the longer the barrel is, the more vibrations and harmonics affect it, causing what is known as barrel whip. Barrel whip is counter productive to accuracy, especially at extreme ranges. So the balance must be struck between velocity and a straight and true flight path. Most biologicals cannot tell the difference between a few hundred fps velocity. As long there is sufficient velocity to keep up good flight characteristics and deliver the payload with still sufficient energy the animal on the receiving end won’t know the difference. But the only shots that count are the ones that hit. What does this mean? Well it is even more complicated than I care (or am able) to get into, but for most rifle rounds somewhere between 20-24 inches is the sweet spot. Less than 18” in a high powered round is not a great idea, you risk having incomplete powder burn. But anything longer than 24 inches with the modern powder and bullets is probably excessive. In very general terms in a common hunting caliber the difference between say a 20” and 24” barrel is about 100fps. Not a big deal. What you gain by shortening the barrel is a lighter and easier handling rifle. Anecdotal evidence is prevalent that says that shorter barrels are much more consistent shooting. This is why we are beginning to see more rifles offered in 20 and 22” inch lengths that in the past were 24 and 26” in length.
Bottom line: There is a balancing act at work between velocity and consistency when it comes to barrel length. Modern rifles and propellants make excellent use of slightly shorter barrels than the ones grandad used. It is simply the evolution of the rifle. If you find a modern rifle in a caliber that you like and it sports a 22 inch barrel, it is probably sufficient for even long range shots.
Fluted or Jeweling
Jeweled Bolt – “Jeweling” is the artistic adding of swirl marks to an other wise polished surface. It is done for almost entirely aesthetic reasons, and it is very pretty. Some folks say it aids in holding lubrication. Most believe it is for appearance. There is nothing wrong with a pretty firearm.
Fluting is the cutting of several spiral grooves into the bolt. This is done for the stated reason of helping sweep debris away from the bolt guides and aiding lubrication. It is also mostly an aesthetic touch. One that I admit to appreciating. The fluting of a barrel is cutting several longitudinal, or spiral, shallow grooves into the majority of the length of a barrel. This is done with the stated purpose of maintaining barrel rigidity but allowing the shaving of a few ounces of weight. Mostly, it looks pretty cool, and I like it..
Bottom Line: These two things might help the function of your rifle some small unobservable amount, they certainly differentiate certain rifles in the marketplace, and they are nice to look at. A fluted barrel looks cool. You can tell your friends how it makes the rifle lighter while allowing the barrel to maintain stiffness, oh and it looks cool. If you appreciate that sort of thing then look for those features.
There you have it, most of the esoteric information needed to understand the spec sheet of a bolt action and assist in making a purchase decision; or start an argument… whichever.
Full disclosure: Prior to the horrible sailing incident on Kellogg Lake, I owned bolt actions from several manufacturers, push feed, controlled round feed, set trigger, adjustable triggers and regular triggers, wood and laminate stocked, blind, hinged floor, and detachable box magazines. I liked them all. I miss them all. Sad. So Sad. Don’t take your guns boating my friends.
As always Eli, Keith, Bill, Vanessa and the rest of the fine folks at Liberty Tree would love to help you out. They stock quality options at several price points, and generally have the best and most varied selection in the area
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