A Guide to the Types of Sporting Rifle Actions

The four basic types of rifles: Bolt, Lever, Pump and Semi Auto

Rifle actions
They've all been around for a long time. The bolt, pump, and lever date from the 19th century. Rifle actions

This is a brief guide to the four basic sporting-rifle actions in use today. It will give you a basic idea of how they work, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. These types of rifles have been around for a long time.

How Long Have These Rifle Actions Been Around?

(Hint: It’s Been a While)

On the one hand, firearms design has advanced tremendously over the last decades, but it’s been a combination of incremental improvements. Rifle actions as we know them have been around, pretty much unchanged, for a long, long time.

The first bolt-action rifle dates back to 1824 and a designer named Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, and it was followed by an improved version, the Nadelgewehr (“Needle rifle”, so-called because of its needle-like firing pin) in 1841. The basic turnbolt design eventually reached perfection with the 98 Mauser, courtesy of Peter Paul Mauser.

The first slide, or pump, action firearm was patented in Great Britain by one Alexander Bain. In the United States, the first pump gun to achieve prominence was the Colt Lightning Carbine, which debuted in 1884. Pumps are still very much a part of the scene, but have achieved far more success in shotguns than they have in rifles.

The original magazine-fed lever-action design was the 1848 Volition Repeating Rifle, which was developed by Walter Hunt. Within a decade the mechanism had gone through a series of designers and manufacturers and by 1855 had morphed into Volcanic Repeating Arms Co., established by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. An investor in the company, Oliver Winchester, took over the manufacture of Volcanics, transformed them to rifles, and re-named them for the engineer who had done the re-design, B. Tyler Henry.

The idea of using recoil itself to operate a rifle action germinated in the mind of Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher in 1885. By the 20th century just about everyone was making recoil-operated firearms in all configurations. Gas operation took a little longer, and blossomed in 1937 with the M-1 Garand rifle.

Bolt Actions

Bolt Actions
The strongest of all actions.Bolt Actions

Strengths:

  • The strongest of all actions.
  • Able to accommodate long cartridges such as the .375 H&H.
  • Generally, the best triggers, although there are plenty of dogs out there.
  • The strongest extraction.
  • Mostly, extremely reliable.
  • Generally, the most accurate of all action types, although there is no shortage of dogs out there.

Weaknesses:

The slowest of all action types.

The Remington Model 700 is very possibly the most popular around. It got its start just after World War II, and gained favor by virtue of its extreme simplicity and excellent trigger.

It’s likely that Model 700 actions have served as the basis for more super-accurate rifles than any other. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps like it, too: Modified 700s have been the standard sniper rifles for both services for over 40 years

The Safety

RemBolt_1
The Model 700 safety blocks the trigger, but does not block the firing pin. RemBolt_1

The Model 700 safety blocks the trigger, but does not block the firing pin. In the rear position it’s on; pushed forward it’s off and the rifle is ready to fire.

The Magazine

RemBolt_6
The magazine in this Custom Shop 700 is stainless steel, and can be seen along side the bullet.RemBolt_6

Like most bolt-actions, the Model 700 feeds from a staggered-box magazine (so-called because the cartridges are offset when they’re stacked on top of one another).

The magazine in this Custom Shop 700 is stainless steel, and can be seen along side the bullet.

Push Feed

RemBolt_7
As each round pops up in front of the bolt, it is simply pushed into the chamber. RemBolt_7

The Model 700 is a so-called push-feed action.

As each round pops up in front of the bolt, it is simply pushed into the chamber. The push-feed system is maligned by the half-bright, the silly, and the ignorant who claim that it’s inferior to the controlled-feed system, ignoring the fact that there are millions of push-feed types of rifles out there that have proved perfectly reliable for more than 60 years.

Extracting and Ejecting the Cartridge

RemBolt_BoltCloseUpCombined
As the bolt slides rearward, the spent case is kicked clear of the action by the ejector (lower photo), a spring-loaded plunger. RemBolt_BoltCloseUpCombined

Extraction and ejection in the 700 are handled by the extractor (upper photo), a small metal clip that snaps over the cartridge rim and pulls it clear of the chamber.

As the bolt slides rearward, the spent case is kicked clear of the action by the ejector (lower photo), a spring-loaded plunger. With this system, there are no cuts in the bolt head, so the cartridge head is completely enclosed by the bolt, making for a very strong action.

Floorplate and Bolt Releases

RemBolt_TriggerCombined
This release is one of the best.RemBolt_TriggerCombined

The floorplate release on the Model 700 is located in front of the trigger guard. Push it and the floorplate drops open, allowing the cartridges in the magazine to spill into your hand, or into the snow as the case may be.

This release is one of the best; some bolt actions will drop their ammo when the rifle fires, not when you want them to. The bolt release (lower photo) is a small tab just ahead of the trigger. Keep all the oil out of the thing and it works fine.

Controlled Feed

MontanaBolt_open-closed
The Montana Model 1999 is a hybrid of the two foremost the Winchester Model 70 and the Mauser Model 98.MontanaBolt_open-closed

The Montana Model 1999 is a hybrid of the two foremost controlled-feed actions the Winchester Model 70 and the Mauser Model 98.

It’s more complex than a push-feed action, and in theory not as strong, but if you want to get one to screw up, you’re really going to have to work at it.

Extractor and Ejector

MontanaBolt CloseUP Combined
The ejector runs through this cut in the bolt face (lower photo) and kicks the spent case clear of the action as the bolt is drawn back.MontanaBolt CloseUP Combined

Devotees of controlled feed get all teary-eyed because of the action’s massive rotary extractor (upper photo). It grips the case when it comes up out of the magazine and guides it into the chamber, and provides a serious grip when it comes time to extract the empty.

The ejector runs through this cut in the bolt face (lower photo) and kicks the spent case clear of the action as the bolt is drawn back.

The Safety

MontanaBolt_1
But all the same, you never trust a safety.MontanaBolt_1

Unlike the push-feed bolt-actions, Model 70-based actions employ safeties that lift the firing pin up off the sear, rendering the rifle, in theory, incapable of firing. But all the same, you never trust a safety.

The Bolt Release

MontanaBolt_2
This is the bolt release on the Montana.MontanaBolt_2

This is the bolt release on the Montana, which has a shroud to keep it from being accidentally pushed--a nice touch.

Working the Bolt

MontanaBolt_3
If you yank the bolt hard, the case will go flying.MontanaBolt_3

The ejector in a controlled-feed magazine is a fixed steel wedge that slides through the slot in the bolt head (shown earlier) and kicks the spent case clear.

If you yank the bolt hard, the case will go flying; pull the bolt slowly and the case will just sort of flop around in the action so you can scoop it up and reload it.

Floorplate Release

MontanaBolt_6
The Montana 99 floorplate release is a spring-loaded catch.MontanaBolt_6

The Montana 99 floorplate release is a spring-loaded catch--simple and inelegant, but effective. Push it in and the floorplate drops.

The Magazine

MontanaBolt_7
The Montana 99 feeds from a staggered box magazine.MontanaBolt_7

Like the Remington, the Montana 99 feeds from a staggered box magazine.

Feeding

MontanaBolt_8
A cartridge has just been forced up into the bolt's path.MontanaBolt_8

Here’s that old controlled-feed voodoo in action. A cartridge has just been forced up into the bolt’s path and has been caught by the extractor. Now there’s nowhere it can go except into the chamber where it should.

Lever Actions

Lever Actions
Very simple, very reliable.Lever Actions

Strengths:

  • Very simple, very reliable.
  • Some, such as the Marlin levers and the Savage 99, have decent triggers, or triggers that can be made decent.
  • With a little practice, very fast to operate.
  • The newer Marlins are very accurate.
  • Most lever-actions balance very well, are easy to carry, and quick to get on target.

Weaknesses:

  • With the exception of the Savage Model 99 and the Browning BLR, not strong enough to handle high-pressure ammo.
  • The cross-bolt safety on the newer Marlins is a pain in the ass for left-hand shooters.
  • Many lever-actions have rotten triggers, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is a .45/70 Marlin Model 1895 Guide Gun that’s been customized. With all Marlin’s you’ll be happier if you keep your index finger out of the lever when you cycle the action.

With just a little bad luck the lever can mash your finger against the bottom of the action, or your finger could hit the trigger and the rifle could go off.

Loading

MarlinLever_LOAD
The Marlin and Winchester lever guns load through a port in the side of the action. MarlinLever_LOAD

The Marlin and Winchester lever guns load through a port in the side of the action. The rounds feed into a tubular magazine underneath the barrel.

Until recently, this prohibited the use of spitzer bullets (bullets with pointed instead of flat noses) because the point of each bullet in the magazine would rest against the primer of the cartridge ahead of it, and all you had to do was add the jolt of recoil to get an accidental discharge. But since the development of Hornady LeverEvolution bullets, which have soft polycarbonate tips that won’t set off primers, those spitzers are now on the menu as well.

Feeding

MarlinLever_chamberCLOSE
As you pull the lever up, the bolt rides forward and picks up the cartridge.MarlinLever_chamberCLOSE

Top photo: When you drop the lever down, a spring-loaded plunger in the magazine forces a cartridge rearward into the bottom of the action. As you pull the lever up, the bolt rides forward and picks up the cartridge, carrying it into the chamber. As you can see in the lower photo, the extractor has snapped onto the case rim, making this a controlled-feed gun.

External Hammer

MarlinLever_hammer
The way to carry the rifle on safe is to put the hammer on half-cock.MarlinLever_hammer

On older Marlins and Winchester Model 94s, the way to carry the rifle on safe is to put the hammer on half-cock, shown here, and when it’s time to shoot, pull it back to full cock.

This is not advisable for the fumble-fingered, and is why the newer Marlins have a cross-bolt safety that blocks the hammer from striking the firing pin.

Extraction

MarlinLever_extraction
When the lever is lowered after firing, the extractor yanks the fired case clear of the chamber.MarlinLever_extraction

When the lever is lowered after firing, the extractor yanks the fired case clear of the chamber.

Cycle Completed

MarlinLever_OpenCombined
The bolt pushes the hammer to full cock at the end of its travel.MarlinLever_OpenCombined

As the lever continues downward and the bolt moves backward, the ejector (upper photo), the unattractive piece of metal visible in the breech, kicks the case clear of the action. The bolt pushes the hammer to full cock at the end of its travel (lower photo).

Pump Actions

Pump Actions
A greatly underrated system that used to be far more popular than it is now. Pump Actions

Strengths:

  • A greatly underrated system that used to be far more popular than it is now. Has the same virtues as the lever--simplicity, reliability and, in the hands of a skilled shooter, even more speed.
  • Often quite accurate.
  • As strong as a bolt-action since it locks up the same way.

Weaknesses:

  • The fore-ends tend to rattle around, which distresses some hunters.
  • Usually, frightful triggers, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

If you feel the need for speed and want reliability and low maintenance as well, here’s your gun. Right now, Remington and Krieghoff make the only pump-action centerfires, but the Krieghoff Semprio is a very expensive and sophisticated rifle that belongs in a category of its own.

The Magazine

RemPump_Mag
The Remington Model 7600 feeds from a detachable steel box magazine.RemPump_Mag

The Remington Model 7600 feeds from a detachable steel box magazine, which makes loading and unloading fast and easy, and is beloved of road hunters.

The Safety

RemPump_1
The 7600 safety is a cross-bolt that blocks the trigger only.RemPump_1

The 7600 safety is a cross-bolt that blocks the trigger only and is designed for right-handed shooters.

Magazine Release

RemPump_2
Push it and the magazine drops out.RemPump_2

The magazine release is located on the right side of the receiver. Push it and the magazine drops out.

Side Release

RemPump_3
The slide release is on the left side of the receiver. RemPump_3

The slide release is on the left side of the receiver. When depressed, it frees the slide allowing you to cycle the action. It pays not to mix it up with the magazine release.

Semi-Autos

Semi-Autos
Very fast repeat shots, even if you don't practice with it.Semi-Autos

Strengths:

  • Very fast repeat shots, even if you don’t practice with it.
  • As strong as bolt actions, since they use the same kind of lockup.
  • Mostly decent accuracy. In the case of the best ARs, they are as accurate as the best bolts.
  • Mostly horrible triggers, but with ARs, there are some excellent aftermarket triggers that will solve that problem.

Weaknesses:

  • If you don’t keep them clean they’ll jam on you, and it’s your fault, not the gun’s.

The Browning ShortTrac is designed for short magnums and other compact cartridges such as the .308. Despite all its machinery, it is light and well balanced, due to extensive use of weight-saving materials and streamlined styling.

The Magazine

BrowningSemi_4
The ShortTrac's magazine drops down.BrowningSemi_4

The ShortTrac’s magazine drops down and can be loaded while clamped in the floorplate, or it can be detached.

The Safety

BrowningSemi_1
The safety blocks the trigger only.BrowningSemi_1

The safety is a standard cross-bolt that blocks the trigger only.

Bolt Release

BrowningSemi_2
The bolt release on the ShortTrac is large, easy to use, and in a convenient location. BrowningSemi_2

The bolt release on the ShortTrac is large, easy to use, and in a convenient location. On the last shot, the bolt remains open. When you want to reload, you drop the magazine, fill it with cartridges, pop it back into place, and push down on the bolt release, which lets the bolt run forward. You are now cocked, locked, and ready to go.

Magazine Release

BrowningSemi_3
The magazine release is ergonomically correct as well. BrowningSemi_3

The magazine release is ergonomically correct as well. Squeeze it in and the magazine drops down, still controlled by the floorplate.

The Bolt

BrowningSemi_6
The ejector and extractor are visible in the bolt face.BrowningSemi_6

The ShortTrac’s bolt locks via seven small lugs, giving considerable bearing surface while lessening the amount the bolt has to turn to unlock. The ejector and extractor are visible in the bolt face.

Feeding System

BrowningSemi_5
The feed system for the ShortTrac is the same for any push-feed action. BrowningSemi_5

The feed system for the ShortTrac is the same for any push-feed action. As the cartridge pops up to the top of the magazine, the bolt pushes it forward into the chamber and the extractor snaps on the cartridge rim as the round is seated.

The Gas System

BrowningSemi_10
Lots of machinery, huh? BrowningSemi_10

Lots of machinery, huh? The ShortTrac’s fore-end removes by unscrewing the front sling swivel and reveals the gas system, shown here in all its glory.

Gas Bleed

BrowningSemi_7
This does not affect velocity at all, since the bullet has already nearly developed its full speed.BrowningSemi_7

When the ShortTrac is fired, gas is bled from a hole in the barrel (located just ahead of the pencil point) into the rectangular steel box. This does not affect velocity at all, since the bullet has already nearly developed its full speed.

Short-Stroke Piston System

BrowningSemi_8
This mechanism is called the short-stroke piston system.BrowningSemi_8

The gas from the powder pushes the operating rod (the long thin one) which smacks into an inertia block (the cylindrical-looking part just ahead of my hand) to which are attached two action bars, one on either side (the pencil is resting on one). The block moves rearward, carrying the bars with it, and they shove the bolt open. This mechanism is called the short-stroke piston system; it’s been around for a long time and is very reliable.