Multiple reasons why bolt actions are the most popular rifle

‘Tis the season to dust off that hunting rifle and give it (and you) some exercise.
It might seem a bit early, but if the other gunsmiths are as busy as I have been in the last year (I’ll wager thy are), you had better plan ahead.
I have found most hunters have a favorite action style and the overwhelming majority choose the bolt action rifle.
Pre World War II (the Big One), the lever, pump and single-shot all had their time in the spotlight but ever since then it’s been all turn-bolt. This is a good thing, as the bolt rifle has a lot going for it; the only thing it sacrifices to the other repeaters is speed of the follow-up shots.
Of course, to all of us master hunters, that is of no consequence since we kill everything with the first shot… right?!
The bolt action rifle is by far the most consistently accurate. One factor is the one-piece stock design.
The stock can be bedded to the action and then the barrel free-floated, so there are no inconsistent pressure points on the barrel or action. This provides a solid foundation for all parts of the rifle, consistency is the key to accuracy.
The triggers on bolt rifles also tend to be of better quality and function. The ones that have a pull that doesn’t feel quite right can usually be worked over with good results. The rest usually can have their triggers replaced with superior aftermarket ones.
There are few repeating actions as strong as the bolt rifle as well.
When was the last time you saw a autoloader, pump or lever action .300 Ultra Magnum, .375 H&H Magnum or .458 Winchester Magnum?
One advantage of the slower operation of the bolt action is that it tends to make better shots out of hunters. When you don’t have a second shot available milliseconds after the first, that all-important first shot is usually aimed a bit more precisely.
That results in fewer shots fired, less lost game and cleaner kills – all good things.
Reliability is another factor in the favor of the turn-bolt. A bolt action that has been proven reliable generally stays that way with a minimal amount of care and cleaning.
Most shooters don’t realize it, but the bolt action also has a far superior extraction system.
If you grab your favorite bolt out of its resting place and slowly open the bolt, you will notice that as you open the action the bolt is forced back just a slight amount, probably one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch. This is the primary extraction cam of your rifle and it is there to break the cartridge free of the chamber if necessary.
This action is so positive that if a fired case actually sticks solidly in the chamber, it will overpower the extractor’s hook, or, if the extractor is too strong to give up, it will rip the rim off of the casing.
No bolt, semi-auto or non-bolt action single-shot has this advantage. By the same token, the bolt also cams shut and will tolerate slightly oversized ammo.
Bolt actions have also evolved into the cheapest of all actions to manufacture, save the break-action single shot.
A happy side benefit of this is that these cheaper offerings from the major manufacturers have most all stolen from the Savage 110 recipe book and tend to be some of the most accurate rifles offered, at any price.
They don’t make them like they used to… and now anyone can afford an accurate, reliable rifle.
Next in popularity is the lever action rifle.
This market has always been dominated by Marlin and Winchester – Winchester until about 20 years ago and Marlin ever since.
While on that subject, let’s clear something up right now.
Many shooters are up in arms about Remington buying up Marlin several years ago. I am a little disappointed about that myself, but only because I would like to see the firearms makers a little more diversified than three or four major players owning most of the major makers.
Back to my point, though. Remington moved all of the equipment out of the Marlin factory in the Northeast to the South to consolidate their companies into fewer areas.
The problem arose when the Remington employees tried to build functional rifles with antiquated machinery and no experience in lever action building.
The old Yankee gun builders had been building rifles with that old machinery for decades and knew how to adapt to the antique manufacturing.
The new employees thought the machines would just spit out useable parts out of the other end,. They didn’t. Without the experience to fit these parts, they were lost and produced many a lemon.
To Big Green’s credit, they invested in new machinery and tooling and evntually popped out fully functional Marlin lever action rifles.
No need to go looking for a pre-Remington model any longer – unless you’re a collector, of course.
In a new twist to this story, Ruger just bought Marlin during the Remington bankruptcy.
I hope and beleive that they will do better whenever they can find the time and man-power to get Marlin up and going again.
There have been numerous lever actions capable of handling higher-intensity cartridges, most notably the Savage Model 1895, 1899 and 99.
These are fast-handling rifles that came in numerous configurations during a century of production. Lever actions’ accuracy is usually quite good, especially with the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s-vintage rifles. The trigger’s pull is often quite useable as well, and not difficult to improve upon.
Winchester made the Model 88, which was basically a lever-operated bolt action. It has the bolt rifle’s one-piece stock and rotary locking lugs.
It is plenty strong but, unwisely, Winchester attached the stock to the rifle with a screw into the center of the barrel, which precludes free-floating it. They should have duplicated the bolt action method of screwing the stock to the rifle in the action area instead.
The trigger action leaves a little to be desired too and many gunsmiths won’t touch the trigger with a 10-foot pole because of its complexity.
Browning has long produced the BLR, even in some magnum calibers, which hints at its strength, and it is a slick-action rifle as well, due to the ring-and-pinion mechanism of the bolt throw. The long-action/magnum caliber versions have quite a long throw and may even reach back and hit the shooter in some instances.
The trigger takes some work in most cases and it has the traditional, inferior, two-piece stock, but is a very serviceable rifle.
I just hope you never have to return one to Browning for repair; it will cost you for having the “honor” of owning a Browning.
Since we’re tight on space today, I’ll pick up next time with a discussion of semi-automatic, pumps and single shots.
– Jeff Hutchins is a regular contributor to Lebanon Local. He owns and operates Rangemaster Gunworks in Lebanon.