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Bolt Basics


Working a bolt correctly can save the day — and your hide.

Sustained fire with a bolt-action rifle can be almost as fast as what can be obtained with a semiautomatic rifle.

If that statement surpises you, you’re not alone. Several years back, I conducted a test with different rifle actions and shooters. I used a timer to record how long would be required to shoot three targets with one shot each with the different action types.

Bolt BasicsThe times averaged between six and 10 seconds. With bolt-action rifles, the length of the action seemed to have no bearing on speed, but bolt throw did. The Browning A-Bolt and newer X-Bolt consistently turned faster times than other bolt designs. We’re talking fractions of a second, but A-Bolts were fastest.

Operation of a bolt-action rifle is pretty straightforward: You pull the bolt handle up and to the rear, ejecting the spent case, and then push it forward and down to chamber the next cartridge. As simple as it may seem, the process is often performed incorrectly.

Removing the rifle from the shoulder during bolt operation drastically slows a shooter’s ability to deliver a fast follow-up shot. The same can be said for taking your eyes off the target. Both of these bad habits come from what I think is too much time spent on the bench conducting relaxed shooting.

Working the bolt with insufficient force often results in what is known as “short stroking” with less than positive ejection. Rifle actions based on the 98 Mauser design have fixed ejectors. The force and distance these actions eject an empty is directly related to the force with which they are cycled. Those hunters who think a bolt-action rifle cannot jam, especially one of the controlled-round-feed designs, are mistaken.

In one instance, a shooter managed to let his hand drag over the safety on a Remington 700 as he pulled the bolt to the rear. Remington 700 safeties are positioned on the stock just behind the bolt handle. When he closed the bolt, the rifle was on safe and would not fire.

This could very well be a situation that could be duplicated in a life-threatening circumstance. It also is one of the best arguments I’ve heard for tang-mounted safeties. That said, of all of the bolt actions I have worked with, Remington 700-style actions have produced the fewest problems.

Bolt BasicsAnother issue I discovered during these drills was the possibility of sear release during forcible bolt manipulation. In some cases when shooters slammed the bolt forward, the sear released the firing pin. This occurred most often with Winchester Model 70 actions and was the product of an improperly tuned trigger. This did not result in the rifle discharging, but it did require the bolt to be raised to cock the action before the rifle could be fired. The lesson? Don’t adjust your rifle’s trigger unless you know what you are doing.

With the exception of shooting a right-hand rifle left-handed, there are essentially two methods of bolt-action operation: the open palm method and the grip method. Each has advantages and drawbacks, but both offer the positive operation and the conservation of motion necessary to achieve reliable and fast operation when done correctly.

The open palm method might be the easiest to teach, and I think it works better than the grip method on actions with a lot of bolt throw like the old military actions. It doesn’t require the fine motor skills required by the grip method, and it allows more force to be exerted on the bolt handle during lifting. It is also works well when shooting from a bipod or solid rest.

Because the grip method allows the shooter to grasp the bolt handle, it provides two points of hold on the gun at all times. I think this makes it more reliable for the hunter who shoots from unconventional positions. The grip method requires less motion because of the natural transition from the trigger/grip to the bolt by the shooting hand and because the hand does not need to be rotated around the bolt in its most reward position.

Bolt BasicsWhat I found most remarkable was the performance of a woman during a field shooting exercise. Berit Aagaard, Finn Aagaard’s widow, (Finn was a former professional hunter in Kenya and a longtime field editor for the National Rifle Association) has always shot left-handed. She never had the money to purchase a left-handed bolt action and, in truth, never found a reason to. Berit ran through the three-target field exercise in just under 10 seconds while shooting a right-handed .270 Winchester left-handed!

Some people shoot right-handed rifles left-handed, and sometimes right-handed shooters may need to shoot from the other side. Regardless of the side you shot from or the bolt operation method you employ, remember that smoothness breeds speed, and bolt manipulation should be a continuous, forceful motion.