Your Best Bolt Action
September 23, 2010
Our Rifle Editor tells you what key features to consider when choosing the bolt gun that's right for you.
Three different locking lug setups are Weatherby's bolt with nine small locking lugs in three banks of three (L), Remington's Model 700 bolt with two opposing lugs (C), and Browning's A-Bolt with three locking lugs (R).
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One of the questions I am most frequently asked is: "Which bolt-action rifle is best?" The inquiry nearly always comes from someone intending to buy a hunting rifle, not a competition target rifle. My usual response is that, for the price, all the popular and current American-made actions are good. A shooter can simply pick one he likes and go with it without going wrong. That might sound like a cop-out, but it's true. At the same time, however, there is more to the story. While they all function well and reliably, they are far from all the same. They are designed differently, and it is these design features that may hold the key to finding the rifle that is right for you.
On the surface a bolt action appears to be basically simple. But when one examines all the different aspects of what it takes for a fully functioning system, the actions are not simple. Some of the designs and innovations that solve the same problems are what separate the makes. Most of these design features aren't of interest to the average shooter. What is important is how the rifle feels, handles, and functions in your hands. Again, the key is to look at firearms from the standpoint of what suits you best. To help you decide what's best for you, let's look at the key features of what I consider to be the top six popular bolt actions.
Locking Lug Design
For example, all the popular bolt actions feature locking lugs situated near the front of the bolt. Most have two opposing lugs (Remington Model 700, Ruger Model 77 Mark II, Savage Model 110 Series, Winchester Model 70), but the Browning A-Bolt has three and the Weatherby Mark V has three banks of three for a total of nine locking lugs. What this means to the shooter is that two opposing lugs make for a 90-degree bolt lift. Three lugs, or banks of three, make for a shorter 60-degree bolt lift. If you want a shorter arc in bolt lifting, go with the Browning A-Bolt or the Weatherby Mark V.
Since the camming distance is shorter with the shorter lift, some have suggested that something is sacrificed--that the bolt is probably more difficult to lift, the spring is weaker, perhaps, or that the striker falls a shorter distance. In reality, the mainspring is quite long and is compressed a relatively small percentage during bolt lift. What you will find is that the Weatherby and Browning actions both open with normal to light resistance. When it comes to sporting rifles, the user has little concern about how a manufacturer achieves the final product. What is important to the shooter is how the rifle feels during operation. Again, all the modern actions function well and reliably enough for sporting purposes.
Ejector types include the plunger ejector in a Remington Model 700 boltface (L) and the standing ejector in a Winchester Model 70 boltface (R).
The real answer is to go to a gun shop and try the bolt function of the different designs to see which one feels right to you. A shop owner might not want you working the bolts on new guns just for testing, but there should be no problem in working the bolts of used guns. For some, the short 60-degree lift just doesn't feel quite right. Others will appreciate the shorter and potentially quicker bolt throw.
There has been a lot of controversy about multiple lugs. It is said that not all of them can be made to bear evenly in a production gun. Today's machinery is pretty good, and it is in the interest of the manufacturer to make the strongest rifle possible in accordance with the design. The average shooter doesn't know whether all the lugs bear or not. If this is an issue for you, the answer is to purchase only an action, then have the lugs lapped by a good gunsmith before fitting and chambering a new barrel. (And if you desire that much precision, you would probably want to have a number of other aspects of the rifle altered as well.)
Production manufacturing of popular rifles is designed to keep costs down while offering a serviceable product, and again, for the price you pay, popular rifles offer a lot. As for my own hunting guns, I don't worry about lug bearing and action machining unless I re-barrel. Off-the-shelf rifles shoot okay for hunting purposes, and the actions are plenty strong. This is really the crux of the issue.
When you are testing different actions you'll notice that Browning, Remington, Ruger, Savage, and Winchester rifles have the same diameter bolt body (around .690 inch). The exception is the Weatherby with a bolt diameter of about .839 inch. In the Weatherby, each lug is small and is machined within the large bolt body whereas in the two-lug bolt rifles mentioned the lugs project outward from the bolt body. You will also notice that the Weatherby action is exceptionally smooth.
Safety Location & Operation
Insofar as the feel of the rifle, aside from bolt operation, the safety location and operation are perhaps the next most important features on any rifle.
Four different types of extractors include (L-R) circular spring in the boltface of a Remington Model 700, simulated claw in a Model 70 Winchester, a laterally sliding extractor from a Savage, and a pivoting hook from a Weatherby Mark V.
Another aspect of the safety is what it blocks. You might want a safety that is functional even though the bolt handle is not blocked. Some shooters desire this feature so that rounds can be cycled through the action with the safety engaged. If you want this feature, be sure that the rifle offers it--for example, the Winchester Model 70, Ruger Model 77 Mark II, Savage 110 Series, or the right Remington Model 700. On the Remington 700, some rifles have it and some do not. On some Remington models, depressing the safety
lever straight down unlocks or locks the bolt. It is an added feature on the safety.
Extractors & Ejectors
While much as been made of extractors and ejectors, they all work well. If you're a controlled-round-feed aficionado, go with the Winchester Model 70 with controlled-round feed or the Ruger 77 Mark II. The rest of the six rifles mentioned have the push-feed feature. A controlled-round feed means the cartridge is grasped by the bolt (claw-type extractor) immediately when the bolt pushes it forward and the round exits the magazine box. In the push-feed design, the round is free to move about after it exits the magazine and before it enters the barrel.
As for ejectors, a plunger ejector places constant spring pressure on one side of the base of the cartridge. As the cartridge is withdrawn from the action, the mouth of the case drags on the barrel and receiver ring until it is flipped out the ejection port. It is ejected with the same force regardless how the bolt is withdrawn.
A standing ejector places no pressure on the cartridge. In fact, the ejector is not even in contact with the cartridge case until the bolt is pulled to the rear and the ejector extends past the boltface to flip the case out of the action. With a standing ejector, the speed and force of bolt operation control how the round is ejected. Pull the bolt back slowly and the empty case can easily be grabbed for handloading. Pull the bolt back quicker and the empty is flung a short distance. Pull the bolt back sharply with a lot of force and the empty is flung farther away. Some shooters desire this latter feature for the control it provides. If you want it, make certain the rifle you purchase has it. The Model 70 Winchester with controlled-round feed and the Ruger Model 77 Mark II have this (standing ejector) feature.
One other thing on ejectors: When it comes to very big cartridges with heavy bullets designed for African game, standing ejectors can be deformed by continually flinging the bolt open with a loaded round. The force of the round with the weight of the bullet constantly batters a standing ejector. Some shooters intending to go to Africa practice rapid bolt operation using dummy rounds that have bullets but no powder or primer. This practice can destroy a standing ejector. While the controlled-feed Model 70 Winchester is often a rifle of choice for African hunting, this same rifle is susceptible to extractor battering and deforming (bending in the middle). It is no problem during normal use because the cartridge is usually fired prior to ejection, and an empty round does not have the same battering effect.
Hopefully, this article will help you make a more informed choice. But remember: You aren't limited to just one!
A plunger ejector is just as prone to problems. I have had plunger ejectors become jammed inside the boltface under adverse conditions, but again, this is not a normal occurrence and seldom happens.
Many rifles have adjustable triggers, but not all do. Some factory triggers can be replaced by aftermarket triggers, but aftermarket triggers are not available for all models. If you want an adjustable trigger, be sure the rifle you purchase has it. I've included a chart to indicate the features of six of the most popular rifles discussed here.
The Weatherby Mark V has a bolt stop that operates in conjunction with the trigger lever. As with plunger ejectors, this bolt stop can become jammed inside the receiver under adverse conditions. The result is that the bolt is pulled clear out of the action when the action is opened. Or, open the Weatherby Mark V action and point the muzzle skyward. Press the trigger and the bolt falls out onto the floor if you don't catch it. On the other hand, it is very easy to remove a bolt from the Weatherby because squeezing the trigger releases the bolt from the action.
Removing a bolt from a Savage is not quite so easy. You have to depress a lever at the right side of the receiver bridge while at the same time press the trigger and then withdraw the bolt from the action. You can do it with two hands pretty well once you learn how, but when you're learning how you'll wish you had three hands.
The Savage rifle has threads extending forward of the receiver. There is no shoulder on the barrel to jam up against the receiver face. Instead, a large lock nut threads on the outside of the barrel to jam against the receiver face and secure the barrel.
This discussion is not intended to dissuade you from any particular action type. While the Weatherby has the trigger/bolt stop combination, it has a short 60-degree bolt lift and is also perhaps the smoothest action going. While the Savage has the bolt stop manipulation situation mentioned, it is also known to be one of the most consistently accurate rifles. The point is that each rifle has a variety of features. Some you might like and some you might not like. If you find a rifle that has all the features you like and none you don't like, you're easier to please than most shooters.
Special But Basic Features
As for some basic features that are special, the Ruger Model 77 Mark II has integral scope mount bases. Ruger even makes the rings for its rifles. Other rifles require aftermarket scope rings and bases. The Ruger rifle also has a forward action screw that enters the recoil lug at a 60-degree angle from the rear. These features are not found on the other five popular bolt guns mentioned.
The Savage has an unusual barrel attachment feature. While the receiver is threaded in a normal manner, the barrel has threads extending forward of the receiver. There is no shoulder on the barrel that serves as a stop against the face of the receiver. Instead, the barrel is turned into the receiver until the chamber headspaces properly and then a nut is turned down on these exterior barrel threads against the washer-like recoil lug at the face of the receiver.
The main rear action screw of the Savage also enters the receiver under the bridge instead of back at the tang. And the Savage has what appears to be a secondary set of action locking lugs. In reality, they remain blocking the lug raceways when the primary lugs are locked and serve as gas baffles in the event of a ruptured cartridge case.
Another feature of the Savage is that the action lugs are a piece separate from the main part of the bolt body. The Browning A-Bolt has a similar setup in this regard. The A-Bolt also has a box magazine that can be detached from the floorplate when the latter is opened. Inside the magazine box is a unique scissors-type cartridge elevator that puts even pressure on both the front and rear of the cartridge as it rises out of the box. The A-Bolt also has an unusually shaped bolt knob. Some shooters love it and others hate it. Again, personal preference plays an important part in action selection.
These are just some of the different designs of the basic actions. All of the rifles mentioned are offered with a variety of differe
nt features. You can get a standard weight rifle, heavy barrel, ultra lightweight model, stainless steel or blued, synthetic stocks or wood in such different versions as Classic, Mountain, Coyote, Safari, etc. The purpose of this article is not to get into all the variations but to focus on the main features of the basic actions of six popular rifle models.
All the basic models have been around a long while and have withstood the test of time. They really are all good choices, and the accompanying chart summarizes some of the differences in each. Use the chart to see what each rifle offers. Then handle the rifles. (Note: Before handling any rifle, check to make certain that it is not loaded; that there is no ammunition in either the chamber or magazine.) With the owner's permission, shoulder the rifle, work the bolt, and operate the safety. In general, determine how the rifle feels and operates. Do this with as many different models as you're thinking about. Use your judgment about the way it looks. Because all the models mentioned are good choices, this should be a primary focus of which one you purchase.
|Ruger Model 77|
|Receiver Shape:||Round bottom,|
45-degree angled flats
|Tubular||Square (rounded top)||Tubular||Tubular with|
|Bolt Body Diameter:||.692 inch||.692 inch||.692 inch||.690 inch||.839 inch||.695 inch|
|Number of Locking Lugs:||3||2||2||2||9||2|
|Bolt Lift:||60 degrees||90 degrees||90 degrees||90 degrees||60 degrees||90 degrees|
|Extractor type:||Laterally sliding||circular spring in|
|Simulated claw||Laterally sliding||Pivoting||Simulated claw|
or laterally sliding
|Ejector Type:||Plunger||Plunger||Standing||Plunger||Plunger||Standing or plunger|
|Safety Position:||Tang||on trigger, right|
side of receiver
of bolt shroud
|Tang||Right side of|
|Right side of|
|Safety Type:||Sliding, fore and|
aft, two position
|Vertically arcing, fore and|
aft, two or three position
depending on rifle
|Laterally arcing, fore and|
aft, three positions
|Sliding, fore and aft|
fore and aft, two position
fore anf aft, three position
|Safety Locks:||Trigger sear,|
|Trigger, some lock|
|Trigger, sear bolt|
handle (latter is optional)
handle (latter is optional)
|Sear, bolt handle||Sear, bolt handle|
(latter is optional)
|Recoil Lug:||Detachable, washer type||Detachable, washer type||Integral (accepts|
angled action screw)
|Detachable washer type||Integral||Integral|
|Trigger:||Not adjustable||Adjustable||Not adjustable||Adjustable||Not adjustable||Adjustable|
|Bolt Stop Release:||Left side of|
|Inside trigger guard|
bow, front of trigger
left side of receiver
|Trigger and lever|
at right side of receiver
(detachable box magazine model)
|Trigger Guard Material:||Alloy||Alloy||Steel||Steel||Alloy||Alloy|
Scissor cartridge elevator,
magazine box detaches from
floorplate, angled and flattened
bolt handle knob
Integral scope mount bases forward action screw angled 60 degrees, Mauser-type bolt stop is cushioned, safety visibly interlocks with and blocks striker
Usual barrel attachment with nut around barrel just forward of receiver, secondary "lugs" act as gas baffles, unusual sear/bolt stop arrangment, bolt stop is released by manipulating trigger and bolt stop/sear lever at the same time
Trigger serves as double-duty as bolt stop
Push feed or controlled round feed optional