For the last seventy years the bolt action rifle has been the weapon of choice for most American hunters. The former king of American rifles was the lever action, so what changed? Two factors played major roles in the ascendancy of the bolt gun. The first factor was economic. In the post-WWII world, firearm companies simply could not get enough skilled machinists at prewar wages to produce low-cost weapons of intricate design. The bolt action is a very simple design that can be turned out in a form that is both accurate and pleasing to the eye with very little hand fitting. The second factor that brought about the great bolt gun boom was the telescopic sight. Bolt action rifles could handle higher pressure, flat shooting, cartridges, but what’s the point if you’re stuck with open sights? When companies like Weaver began producing scopes within the reach of the average sportsman long range shooting (over 200 yards) became commonplace. The bolt gun and the scope came of age together and have been together ever since.
So you want to buy a bolt gun? What should you take into consideration? A person can get a little dizzy looking over all the literature available today. The Frank de Hass book Bolt Action Rifle, considered the definitive work of its time, covers no less than sixty different models and that tome is thirty years old. It is easy to get frustrated, but selecting a rifle is much easier if you eliminate what cannot be predicted and focus on what can be discerned. Any buyer wants his rifle to give hair splitting accuracy, act like an extension of their arm and become an old hunting buddy. Although these attributes are often sought after, they’re hard to predict just looking at a rifle on the rack – that’s why it is best to focus on the elements we can predict. The rifle needs to be mechanically sound, smooth operating, durable, powerful enough for the game to be hunted and priced right. These attributes can be seen on the rack and verified in your hand, so we’ll use them as our guide.
Any student of bolt action rifles will notice that certain action designs are rated as being stronger than others. There was a time when this was an important issue, but that day is now gone. All modern commercially-produced bolt action rifles are more than adequate for handling the pressure of the cartridges they are chambered for. This is not to say that you cannot blow up a brand new bolt gun, but if you do the action design won’t be the culprit. If you’re in the market for a used rifle it is best to have a gunsmith look it over and advise you as to the rifle’s condition and strength.
CONTROLLED-FEED VS PUSH-FEED
With the exception of a few odd straight pull designs, all bolt action rifles operate the same way. The shooter lifts the bolt handle to disengage the locking lugs, pulls the bolt backwards to eject a spent cartridge, pushes the bolt forward to load a new round from the magazine and then lowers the bolt handle to re-engage the lugs. The best design for getting the cartridge from the magazine to the chamber and back out again has always been a source of much debate.
The first bolt action rifles were all controlled-feed. This means that when the bolt is drawn back a cartridge rises up out of the magazine and the round’s extractor groove or rim slips under the extractor as the bolt is pushed forward. The cartridge is “controlled” in that it is pinched between the extractor and the bolt face so it can’t get too far out of line with the chamber. With this system the extractor does not rotate during loading.
Push-feed bolt action rifles are, for the most part, a post-WWII development that helped to lower production costs. With a push-feed rifle the cartridge rides in front of the bolt face and is “pushed” up out of the magazine and into the chamber. The cartridge base remains held in the magazine until enough of the cartridge has entered the chamber to keep the cartridge from falling out or jamming. When the cartridge is fully chambered the extractor “hops” over the cartridge base into the extractor groove. With this system the extractor rotates during extraction.
Which design is better? Some people claim that push-feed rifles develop extraction problems with all the hopping and rotating that has to take place. It sounds logical, but the only rifle we’ve ever had extraction problems with was a very used, very old, controlled-feed design. Some folks claim that push-feed rifles are inherently more accurate because of their solid lug design. That always sounded logical too, but the most accurate factory sporter we’ve ever owned was controlled-feed. For the most part the market has answered the question. Most bolt guns produced today are push-feeds because of the lower costs associated with production. The controlled-feed design will never disappear entirely, but it is becoming more of a rarity.
STOCKS: WOOD, SYNTHETIC OR LAMINATE
Even fifteen years ago the answer to this question would have unequivocally been wood. Early synthetic stocks were prone to all sorts of weird warping and bedding problems and even the most hard core pragmatist would not accept plywood on his rifle. Things have changed. The synthetic and laminate stocks available today are not only stronger than wood, a lot of them are even approaching beauty. When we were younger, only walnut and maple could turn our fancy. However, after one of our beautiful wood stocks cracked during a hunting season, subsequently causing quite a bit of trouble, we changed our tune. In a hardworking hunting rifle you want everything to be dependable and a synthetic or laminate stock is one less thing to worry about. This is not to say that synthetic or laminate stocks cannot break, but in general when they do the owner really earned it.
Aside from durability, the only noticeable difference between stock materials is weight. There are some types of wood that are very light, but on average the synthetic stock will always come in lighter by about half a pound. Conversely, a laminate stock will almost always come in about half a pound heavier than its wood counterpart. Whereas synthetic might make recoil a little more noticeable laminate might make carrying a little harder.
If you run into a rifle with a wooden stock that you simply must buy, there’s no reason to worry. These days you can have your cake and eat it too. Take the stunning walnut off and replace it with an inexpensive aftermarket synthetic or laminate. You can spend twenty five years beating the ugly stock like it owes you money, but when it comes time to retire Old Faithful put the wood back on so you can show it to the grandkids and tell them what a great rifle it was. This will teach them a lesson about taking care of equipment and still allows you to be clumsy during your hunting career.
BLUING, STAINLESS STEEL AND COATINGS
The current firearm market offers more choice of materials, finishes and even colors than ever before. Most of these innovations are geared toward preventing corrosion. For more than a hundred years the solution to corrosion was bluing. Traditional steel rusts when exposed to water, which eventually leads to pitting which produces the old rifles seen in racks that look like somebody took a cheese grater to them. Bluing is, in essence, nothing more than nice-looking rust. It is an oxidation of the steel that appears evenly and, if properly maintained, gives the gun owner the opportunity to clean the weapon before real rust forms. Stainless steel is steel with enough nickel thrown in to keep it from easily rusting. Coatings are essentially just really hard, really good paint.
So what’s worth having and what isn’t? For starters, it should be said that bluing does work. For a long time the earth has been tread by people with blued guns in conditions far worse than anything the average hunter will ever encounter and their equipment came out looking just fine. The key with bluing is maintenance. Every now and then you have to wipe the gun down and eventually the blue will wear off. Fortunately guns can be reblued by a gunsmith. We have one that is coming up on its fourth blue job after about thirty five years in the field.
Stainless steel isn’t rustproof, per se. It can rust but it has to be left wet for a very long time and even then there isn’t much pitting that occurs. A stainless steel barrel has some additional benefits. Stainless steel is harder than standard steel so you can generally expect to get more rounds out of a stainless barrel. This doesn’t matter much when a hunting rifle is chambered for a standard cartridge because most hunters never fire enough rounds to wear out a normal barrel, but if you’re interested in a cartridge with a big body necked down to a relatively small caliber (the 7mm Rem Ultra Mag comes to mind) then you will want a stainless barrel. Cartridges like this result in a kind of sandblasting effect on the barrel steel right after the chamber, known as throat erosion. Having a barrel made out of harder steel will help mitigate the effects.
Coating first showed up on the new breed of half-polymer semi-automatic handguns. These days companies are putting them on rifles and they are pretty good stuff. As previously stated, coatings are essentially paint that is chemically bonded to the metal in most cases. So far we have not run across a coating offered by a major company that won’t hold up a lot longer than bluing. They don’t look as nice as bluing but beauty resides in the eye of the buyer. A coating, like bluing, does wear off on moving parts where there is metal-to-metal contact. This doesn’t matter much because many weapons that feature coatings are made of stainless steel with the coating applied to give them a more traditional look.
The realities of everyday life make a discussion of corrosion resistance mostly academic. Everybody worries about what will happen to their rifle in the field but hunting doesn’t kill firearms, storage does. We’ve run across a lot of firearms that have a tremendous amount of field wear, but if you want to truly ruin one all you have to do is store it incorrectly. Letting a dirty gun sit in a warm, humid environment creates the cheese-grater effect mentioned earlier. The best way to prevent corrosion is to remove the barreled action from the stock at the end of season and give everything a good cleaning, then reassemble. When not in use any kind of rifle should be stored in a warm, dry place like a fireproof gun safe. It is true that rust never sleeps but it is slow about its work. The key is not to give it time to work.
In the beginning most triggers exhibited a behavior known as creep. This meant that when you applied pressure to the trigger it moved a certain distance without really accomplishing anything before it bottomed out and the real trigger pull would begin. Additionally, pull weight, the amount of pressure that must be applied to the trigger to make the rifle fire, was by no means standard. It was largely decided by the amount of work some factory worker felt like putting into maintaining tolerances and deburring parts. If you wanted to change anything you needed a gunsmith in most cases.
Modern triggers found on bolt guns today are almost completely free of creep and, in many cases, can be adjusted for pull-weight by the user. Today’s adjustable triggers usually have a range from about 3lbs at the bottom to keep the owner from creating a dangerous “hair trigger” situation to ten pounds at the top – probably because somebody out there just likes exercising their trigger finger. So far all of the adjustable triggers we’ve worked with seemed to hold their adjustments over time and none of them ever gave us any trouble.
We’re not as picky about triggers as some people are. During the course of the year we typically rotate through about half a dozen rifles and it has gotten to the point where it is easier to train our trigger finger to deal with what comes up instead of trying to make all the triggers match. However, some folks only buy rifles with adjustable triggers or replace the original with an adjustable so they always have a similar trigger pull. In the end it is more a question of preference than anything else.
Almost all bolt action rifles use what is referred to as a box magazine. As the name implies it is shaped like a box with a spring to lift the rounds up. Until recently almost all box magazines in bolt action rifles were fixed, which means they were built into the gun and could not be removed. Many newer rifles offer detachable magazines which can be removed in the same manner as many semi-automatic rifle magazines.
The traditional purpose of detachable magazines is to allow for quick reloads in combat or competition. we’ve never needed this option hunting, but the detachable mag can serve other purposes. When you go hunting with a fixed magazine gun you will typically carry a pouch on your belt with ten spare rounds. When a rifle is equipped with a detachable magazine the pouch is replaced by a spare magazine in your pocket. The pouch costs about twenty-five dollars, which is about the cost of the average spare magazine. Some people will tell you that a detachable magazine is just one more thing to lose, but it’s just as easy to misplace your ammo pouch, so who’s to say?
To a first-time buyer picking a cartridge might seem impossibly confusing. With nomenclature that follows no rules and a myriad of conflicting statistics from a dozen different sources how can anybody make an informed choice? Let’s try to winnow down the options by taking a few basic facts into consideration.
Cartridge manufacturers love bragging about their products. At the same time companies are extremely cautious about the suggested use of their cartridges. If a company classes one of their cartridges as having enough punch for elk you can bet it does. No company wants their cartridges to get a reputation for wounding game so they do everything they can to keep that from happening. If they class a cartridge as only being good for smaller game like pronghorn or deer you as the consumer should follow that advice.
In the case of music, literature or art, popularity does not necessarily equal quality, but with cartridges it’s not a bad tool for gauging performance. You’d have to be a pretty stubborn guy to keep hunting year after year with a bad cartridge. The top four sellers for the last few decades are fairly consistently the 30-06 Springfield, .270 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum and the 7mm Remington Magnum. These cartridges are powerful enough for most any North American game. Like most popular cartridges they walk the line between offering good performance and avoiding truly punishing recoil. Due to their popularity ammo for them is usually more available and a bit cheaper for off-season practice. When you are getting started there is nothing wrong with sticking with the tried and true.
Most cartridge anxiety comes from worrying about how far you can shoot game with a given cartridge. The best cure for this is for the first time hunter to simply put a few restrictions on themselves. Set a maximum distance for the shots you will take and then learn to judge that distance in different environments. Practice shooting at this distance from different positions and make sure you can keep your shots on a paper plate. For the first season we recommend setting your limit at one hundred fifty yards or less. This will afford greater accuracy in your shooting and has the added benefit letting you clearly see if the game has been hit and how well it is hit. Setting your maximum range at 150 doesn’t mean you’ll have to pass on any given type of game. We’ve taken plenty of pronghorns inside of 150 yards and they are generally considered a long range proposition. Looking back, we can’t remember ever taking an elk past 150 yards. The first year out a hunter has enough to worry about while learning to track, stalk and field dress game all while not getting lost. Longer, more complicated shooting can wait for the years to come.
PURCHASING A RIFLE
When it comes to buying rifles the marketplace offers two options: new or used. New guns have a few things going for them. To begin with you know where a new gun has been and what has been done to it. If you’re the kind of person who likes to have the next new toy it is also the only option. With a new gun there is also the possibility that in 100 percent condition the value of the gun will go way up in years to come, making for a solid investment. Of course the only way to really guarantee your investment is to leave the rifle unfired in the box, and where’s the fun in that?
If the idea of a used rifle isn’t out of the question, there may have never been a better time to buy one. The rifles produced in the last twenty-five years will last longer and continue to shoot better than any rifles that have come before. Many of these guns are on the market in used form and can be had at very reasonable prices. Not to sound like a vulture, but tough economic times make them even more reasonable. Saving two hundred dollars on a rifle can pay for a scope or a nice-sized batch of ammunition. All new rifles eventually become used rifles — why not let somebody fork over the extra cash?
As a last bit of advice on choosing a rifle we’d like to pass along something my grandfather once told us. After spending several weeks vacillating between buying two different rifles, he had grown weary of listening to the debate. He finally hung his head and said to “just pick one! It’s a rifle, not a wife. If you don’t like it you can always sell it to somebody else.” If the rifle you buy doesn’t tickle your fancy there is somebody out there who wants to give it a try. So far we have not lost money on a single rifle and we’ve even made profit on a few. We got rid of them because they were not to our taste, but someone with different taste wasn’t hard to find.