This winter, hunters across the northern United States are seeking their game, and a great percentage of them are carrying a rifle action that was first designed in the mid-19th Century, and more or less perfected before 1900.
It’s not just Elmer Fudd and his happy band of nimrods that cling to the bolt. Most target shooters, from rimfire competitors to 1000-yard benchrest precision paladins, fire their record groups from a bolt action. (Biathletes are a rare exception). Even the world’s militaries, most of them, find a use for bolt-action rifles, mostly as sniper systems.
The most brilliant engineers and designers the world can produce have repeatedly slain the ancient Mauser turnbolt, and laid its ghost: straight-pulls from Austria and Canada and Switzerland came and went, all the great powers tried (and most failed, except the USA and USSR) to introduce semi-auto rifles between 1918 and 1945. It was only the semiautomatic and select-fire flowering of the late 20th Century that did the action in, as a regular military arm. And yet, it keeps coming back as a sporting rifle and as a special-purpose military arm. That didn’t happen to the rolling block, the falling-block, or the lever.
Technology marches steadily on, yet the bolt action hangs in there, and even attempts to improve it are often shrugged off. If you reanimated zombie Paul Mauser and gave him a half hour to browse the rifle racks at Kittery Trading Post, he’d be screaming for the reanimation of his patent lawyers, too.
When Paul finalized the Gewehr 1898, the world was a different place: transport was by steam along rails, by the newfangled electric streetcars, and a few hobbyists like Benz and Ford and the Duryea brothers were tinkering with a sort of self-propelled buckboard thing. Most people were born, lived, and died on farms. Two mechanically inclined high school graduates in Dayton, Ohio, were corresponding with Octave Chanute and Samuel P. Langley, who in turn encouraged the young men; but all of them knew well enough to be circumspect about whom they told their ideas for flying machines. Oil from the ground was still replacing whale oil in lamps, and electricity was available in a few cities. The only way to change continents was by ship — steam, or sail; and the preferred way to cross continents was by the high technology of the day, steam-powered train. The other high tech, the telephone, was increasingly available, but you might have to share your line with the people in your street. For business communications, wired cable did the job, if you needed more immediacy than a letter by mail. A long laundry list of infections were still a death sentence, and a significant percentage of women still died in childbirth.
Of all those things, the one that persists is the bolt action. The bolt remains much more popular than its contemporary the lever action, or it’s near-contemporary the slide action. How come?
The answer is simple: it’s that good. The bolt has a number of traits that make it likely to persist for another century, absent a revolution in ammunition of the scope of the cartridge revolution itself.
- The bolt is simple. This simplicity works several ways: in manufacture, in maintenance, and in operation.
- The bolt is intuitive. There are no affirmative action drills to memorize. You can teach anyone to work a bolt in under a quarter of a minute. (You will take longer to teach safety and sights, of course, but the basic mechanism is natural, and has no tricks of gotchas for the novice).
- The bolt is direct. The shooter’s hand works directly on the locking mechanism of the firearm, and the locking mechanism — the bolt — works directly on the cartridge.
- The bolt is strong. It can, in fact, be designed and built for arbitrarily large sizes of cartridge. The highest-pressure sporting cartridges for dangerous game are at home in a bolt action, as are rounds optimized for one-mile sniping. You could make a bolt-action 155mm howitzer, if you wanted to (but it would be terribly inefficient at that scale, compared to the simple actions that artillery pieces do use). You can even argue that some of the interrupted-screw artillery breeches are really bolt actions, sort of. (We don’t argue that. We think it’s a silly argument. But you could!)
- The bolt is safe. Nothing is easier than clearing a bolt gun, and its safe condition is obvious to all with a sight line.
- The bolt is accurate. The simplicity and directness of the bolt lends itself to being manufactured at arbitrarily high levels of precision. Yes, many single-shot actions can also be made to high levels of precision, but…
- The bolt is versatile. Single shot or repeater, rimfire plinker or belted-magnum Cape Buffalo dropper, annual elk gun or sniper’s office, there’s a bolt for the job.
- The bolt is consistent. Whether it’s the Anschutz target rifle we shot in school days, a $250 surplus Mosin that will be under some lucky kid’s Christmas tree, the Gew 98 in the corner of the office (or its younger cousin 03A3 resting in the safe), or a McMillan-stocked Nightforce-glassed Surgeon-action .338 LM widowmaker, it operates the same way.
Like the poor, the bolts are always with us. If anything were ever to replace them, it would have to have all these virtues, or a great majority of them.
And finally, the bolt does answer the call of tradition, which looms large in the legend of the people of the gun. Even that Surgeon .338 connects you to Pegahmagabow, Hayha, Zaitsev, Hetzenauer, Hathcock and Kyle every time you cycle the bolt. They whisper to you in the snick of the metal: you just have to listen.