Bolt action’s popularity unparalleled since its creation

The bolt action rifle has reined supreme ever since the Doughboys came back from “The War To End All Wars” – that would be World War I.

From the very beginning, there was a desire, a need, for a less-expensive option to the main-line offerings.

Right after WWI there actually wasn’t much offered in factory-built bolt-action hunting rifles. Companies like R.F. Sedgley and Pachmayr were busy converting the new darling of hunters, the 1903 Springfield, from a martial arm into some of the finest sporting rifles ever made. Of course, across the pond Mauser was busy building their sporters from scratch on the greatest turnbolt rifle of all time, the Mauser Model of 1898.

Remington had taken a page out of Mauser’s book. Big Green had been making the 1917 Enfield for the U.S. government for WWI service and, starting in 1921, simply built it from the ground up as a sporter – the Model 30 and its variants. This was a fine rifle, if not a little bulky by today’s standards and especially compared to what replaced it: the svelte Model 721 and 722.

The Yankee custom rifles and German sporters were definitely NOT cheap and money didn’t grow on trees back then, so a solution had to be found by those hunters and shooters who had discovered the several advantages of the bolt action during their military service. These rifles’ popularity grew exponentially as the superiority of the bolt action was proven to other shooters and hunters by these devotees, and who then became converts themselves.

The eventual revolution has come around so far that to see someone in the woods with another type of action is a peculiarity today.

Winchester, for all intents and purposes, held onto its dominance in the lever-action arena until finally relenting to reality by entering the fray with the Model 54 in 1925.

Savage beat both of the “big guys” by a bit when they brought out the Model 20 in … 1920 (hence the model number). This was a really “cute” short-action Mauser-style action that was only available in 250 and 300 Savage calibers.

This is still one of the VERY few, true, short-action Mauser style actions. Making it even more collectible is the fact that it was not extremely popular, due to the limits of its short action not being able to handle the 30-06 Springfield and .270 Winchester chamberings that dominated the market.

Due to the lack of budget-priced bolt guns, the solution seemed to be to convert all of the surplus military rifles available for mere dollars a piece into sporting guns. Most were not done up to a very high standard but were usually serviceable and definitely low-cost.

The vast majority were built in the home garage and I have seen some absolutely horrible examples, many even dangerous. In my business you have to be very careful about approaching the subject of the lineage of these “kitchen table customs.” You might be looking the culprit directly in the face or maybe even worse, the “builder” was Dad or Grandpa!

Eventually, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the factories started to see the market for lesser-priced models. The legendary Savage 110 came out in 1958, but at first it wasn’t really a lesser rifle. The wood was well-finished walnut, the bluing was polished and it was even controlled round feed, albeit a unique version, not like the Mauser style at all.

These rifles are frequently confused with Weatherbys when sitting on the dealer’s rack.

Sears, Wards and the other mail-order and chain stores offered cheaper models made by High-Standard, Mossberg etc. The J.C. Higgins Model 50 was built by High-Standard on an FN Mauser action and was a real STEAL! The Mossberg 800 series are phenomenal shooters in the accuracy department but are getting hard to find replacement parts for. Unfortunately, the Mossbergs had some corners cut that are not conducive to the longevity of the design.

Eventually, all of them will be killed off by their Achilles’ heels.

The big guys eventually came around. Savage offered less “fancy” versions of their 110 very quickly and pretty much dominated the cheap rifle market for decades. They brought out the even cheaper model 325/340 series as well, but as its only serious big game caliber was the 30-30 Winchester and mounting a scope on it was awkward at best; it wasn’t really a contender.

Remington had evolved the 721/722 into the  more expensive model 700 BDL and offered the lesser priced ADL model sans floor plate. Then they offered the same rifle with a birch stock and lesser quality finishing as the Model 78 or Sportsman’s 78.

The Ilion, N.Y. manufacturer also offered a lesser version of their quirky 600/660 series of rifles, which was itself based on the even quirkier XP-100 single shot handgun, known as the 600 Mohawk. Of course, the 788 was also offered and was Remington’s first serious budget bolt gun. It was a complete redesign intended explicitly as a cheap rifle.

It turned out to be a real jewel as far as accuracy goes, albeit with a not-so-great trigger.

Many people still believe it was discontinued as it was too much competition for the vaunted 700.

In recent years that myth has been proven untrue, but just like the Mossbergs aforementioned, the theme of the cheap rifle outshooting the expensive one will be seen throughout the progression of the inexpensive rifle.

Ruger brought out a high-quality rifle at a lesser price in 1968: the 77 series. (“Seven” seemed to be the number for bolt-action rifle model numbers). Their timing was perfect, as the Winchester Model 70 had been cheapened and was not of the quality of the Ruger. The Remington was priced quite a bit higher and did not have the features of the Ruger either.

The timing of Sturm Ruger to introduce this rifle put them squarely into contention with the more established makers and proved that an economical rifle could still be well made, attractive and possess nice features.

I remember in my youth the Ruger was considered a budget gun, but not at all inferior. Remington and Winchester were forced to go back to higher-quality stocks with cut checkering and nice finishes, but simply couldn’t match Bill Ruger’s price point.

A company called Raptor Arms Co., Inc. kind of got the ball rolling on the current crop of budget bolts. In 1997 they offered the Raptor Sporting rifle with some nice, even revolutionary, features for right around $225-$300. Alas, the company only lasted for a couple of years as their products were not very well fit and finished, even for a budget rifle.

More recently, in 2001, Remington introduced the Model 710. This is a very poor design. The bolt stop’s edge wears off and eventually cams itself out of engagement and lets the operator pull the bolt right out of the rear of the action tube. The magazine release is pinned right into the plastic stock and the recess that retains it breaks.

The cost to have this repaired by Remington (your only option) exceeds the value of the rifle. Most parts are not available either, even to gunsmiths. I have also seen the bolt handle come off of its mounting stud. It was later renamed the 770, but I have seen no improvement to the design; it’s just uglier, to my eyes.

Remington seems to view these two rifles as disposable. Wisely, they introduced the Model 783. I have seen no issues with this rifle as they did what most other manufacturers have done and just “Remingtonized” the Savage 110.

The only thing I hold against it is the flat bolt knob that feels awkward to most people.

My favorite of the budget buys is the Marlin X7 series, introduced in 2008. They are a blatant knock-off of the Savage 110 but do it with some style. The bolt shroud at the rear is much more sculptured and attractive than the big screw on the Savage. The stock design is a little more ergonomic and attractive as well.

Everyone I’ve ever been around was a SHOOTER as well.

Mossberg did the same as Marlin, but a year earlier, with the 4×4 and three years earlier with the ATR (All Terrain Rifle). I think Mossberg wants to give the rifle a “tough” theme, given their nomenclature. The Mossbergs work and shoot well, but are a little “rough’ in finish.

Ruger’s offerings have just gotten more and more expensive over the years, to the point that other companies were undercutting THEM! Their solution was to bring out the rifle, in 2012, that seems to dominate the market now: the American.

It has the Savage’s Accu-Trigger style trigger (so does about everyone else) and like the Marlin and Mossberg even interchangeable barrels WITH Savage. Ruger gave the rest of the rifle its own twist, however, including literally the magazine – it is rotary.

The only downside is that these magazines are kind of on the spendy side, especially for a budget rifle. As per the theme: the American will consistently out shoot it’s more expensive stable mate, and heir to the 77’s throne; the Hawkeye.

Savage even cannibalized itself by offering the Edge and then the Axis around 2010. Somewhat like Ruger, the 110 series of rifles just kept getting pricier. In Savage’s case, however, the fit, finish and features had been improving as well. Undercut by all of the copies of their now expired patents, they jumped down into the marketplace, eventually improving these rifles’ one fault – their triggers – by giving them the Accu-Trigger as well.

A few other companies have introduced budget contenders.Smith & Wesson and, now, Thompson/Center come to mind. The S&W failed in the market and the T/C is too new to tell but it sure has a lot of competition.

Winchester recently brought out a budget model but it doesn’t seem to be faring too well in popularity. It did have success years ago with the cheaper Model 670/70. They took the way of their biggest Competition and produced a model which was basically and “ADL” version of it’s Model 70 with a cheaper finish and stock wood like the Sportsmen’s 78.

Later they copied the 78 even closer with the Ranger.

The tactic with all of these manufacturers seems to be “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”

The upside to all of this for us hunters and shooters is that we can go down to the local gun shop or chain store and buy a rifle with a free-floated barrel, pillar-bedded stock, owner-adjustable trigger and sometimes even a scope mounted for a few hundred dollars. No gunsmithing is required to optimize the rifle’s performance.

It may not be a good thing for us gunsmiths but it sure is for everyone else; hunters, shooters and manufacturers. They are kind of like the GLOCK of rifles –  they leave little for us gun wrenches to improve.

 – Jeff Hutchins is a regular contributor to Lebanon Local. He owns and operates Rangemaster Gunworks in Lebanon.