Lessons Learned on the Firing Line

The correct way to treat a newer rifle

This past weekend, I served as Range Safety Officer for a shoot at a club to which I belong, and saw a number of lessons reinforced with a vengeance.

This particular event consisted of five shots, offhand, at a running deer target. There were 50 or so shooters who went through the mill, and they used a rich and funky mixture of rifles. Most were relatively new American-made bolt actions. There were a couple of custom bolt-actions, a very old (I’d guess post–World War I) British sporter on a Mauser action, an old Model 94 Winchester, a Ruger No. 1, and a Swiss K31 straight-pull, which I had never seen before, and is worth a blog post, which shall be coming up shortly.

A few rifles worked flawlessly. The old Model 94 was a model of deportment. The K31 was perfect. The Ruger fed without a hitch, being a single shot, as did the old British sporter (its owner assured me that it would actually cycle upside-down, and I believe him).

However, of the newer guns, probably half had problems. Some would not load without a struggle. Some of them wouldn’t feed, mostly due to cartridges that were not loaded level in the magazine. Some would not eject. Notable among these was a pre-64 Winchester Model 70 varmint rifle with the controlled-feed system that’s supposed to work flawlessly. At least twice I saw this rifle haul a shell clear and then leave it stranded on the magazine follower like a beached flounder, or perhaps a scrod. I’ve seen lots of pre-64 Model 70s screw up in this department.

There were two causes for failure. One was that the rifles were incorrectly set up for whatever cartridge they used. Second, their shooters, who were obviously inexperienced, operated the bolts timidly, as though they feared they would break.

Friends, bolt-actions were made to be slammed back and forth with great vigah, as John Kennedy used to say. You won’t break them. If you’re shooting off a bench and trying to save the brass, fine, don’t yank the thing back and forth. But if it’s for real, slam it.

I noted that the owner of the old British rifle, who is extremely knowledgeable about guns, operated the Mauser action as though he hated it, and Peter Paul Mauser, and John Rigby, or whoever built it. And the old gun worked like a charm.

So, if you have a new rifle, check its feeding before you go hunting. The odds are good it won’t work, or will work some of the time. If it does work, pump the bolt for all you’re worth. Your rifle will not think less of you.